Form and Content

August 4th, 2008

Chris Dahlen at Save the Robot blogged yesterday about Jonathan Blow’s recent lecture at the Games:EDU conference. There are other places to get the full content of the lecture (GameSetWatch or Jonathan Blow himself), but basically, Jon is talking about the frequent dissonance in games between story and gameplay. Often, the story will suggest one thing, but the actual rules of play will express a conflicting idea.

Bioshock, one of last year’s commercial and critical smash hits, offers a perfect example. There’s a kind of character called a “little sister” that you meet repeatedly. Each time, you’re offered an explicit choice between freeing her and “harvesting” her for a resource that powers you up and makes the game easier. The audio-visual presentation tugs on your sympathies by vividly depicting the little sister’s vulnerability: she cowers, and covers her face with pale little hands. But it turns out that if you free the little sister, you still can power up from alternative sources. So the choice between power and compassion is not supported by the game system.

Is it a nihilistic message that no matter how you treat defenseless children, your life will proceed unchanged as long as you can banish your guilt? Or material reassurance to those tempted towards violence that they can have everything they want without harming anyone? Bioshock leaves the impression of a fumbled idea, that the story and game system were seen to serve distinct, non-overlapping functions. There was this “moral choice” thing introduced through the graphics and audio, but to ensure that all players had a smooth and not-frustrating experience, the sharp implications of the choice, that should have been born out in the gameplay, were shaved down to nothing.

Surely there’s expressive potential in purposeful contradiction – one element of a work saying one thing while another element says something different – but I think Jon is right that sensitivity to this kind of technique in games remains generally underdeveloped, and conflicts of this sort are usually haphazard.

Anyway, there’s been plenty of discussion about this elsewhere. The reason I’m posting is that Chris opened the article with part of an episode of A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible. It was a very appropriate choice, but Chris didn’t comment on why. So I thought I would butt in and explain!

(Click for full size.)

Back when I was doing A Lesson Is Learned…, I’d often try to reflect the core idea of Dale’s script in the layout of the comic itself. I believe this is one of the more successful attempts. The story here is about a sleepless little girl, Caroline’s doppelganger, being comforted by her father. Her anxiety is that she is not loved as much as the disappeared original Caroline – another little girl her parents had before her. She fears her doppelganger status makes her forever a shadow of the real girl. Worse, she believes Caroline is still living in the house, watching her from the window across the courtyard.

The layout of the comic reflects the doppelganger theme, first, by being divided in two. The panels on the left side of the comic are in the shape of a house, with peaked roof and a window – a motif repeated and confirmed in explicit depiction on the right side. Each side has the same peaked roof over a window with someone looking out, towards us. But the differences are as important as the similarities. The left side is warm with inner illumination. The house is a set of panels revealing an intimate moment between father and daughter. The thoughts and feelings of these characters are shared with us. In contrast, the right side shows a chilly facade. We do not know what lies behind that wall, whether Caroline truly lives in the darkness of that window, looking back at us. In fact, it’s deliberately ambiguous whether we are looking out from the doppelganger’s window, sharing her view, or looking back at her from the other side, inhabiting the perspective of the supposed Caroline. The left side reveals as much as possible, while the right side lets on nothing, forcing the reader to remain with the mystery for nearly half a page – a panel that overwhelms and haunts the first half, outlasting the brief and incomplete comfort with the expansiveness of a watchful night.

(I talked about this in a lecture last year.)

Content expressed through form – the overall form of the comic, its layout – was an explicit goal of this design, making it an appropriate compliment to the ideas in Jon’s lecture.

2 Responses to “Form and Content”

  1. bp Says:

    i love alil and would love to read further discussions of it (though I’m sure you prefer to focus on more current work!)

  2. Pickman Says:

    I have nothing to say about technique (except that I noticed and appreciated the ambiguity of the last panel), I just want to give Caroline’s Doppleganger a hug. 🙁

    After all, we’re all dopplegangers – imperfect copies cast in the mould of our own flesh from a platonic ideal written in four letters on chains of acid, warped and cracked in the kiln of our own time and place.

    Don’t cry, little xerox, you’re as real I am.

    (The captcha word was ‘selfless’, but it timed out while I wrote this. Now it is: unique)

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