Enlightenment Level Up

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Sony PlayStation 2 & The Night Journey

[I showed this 10-minute walk-thru of The Night Journey while I presented this talk at MLA 2014.]

The Night Journey (2007) is an experimental video game created by Bill Viola in collaboration with “serious” game designer Tracy Fullerton and her team at the USC Game Innovation Lab. A renown video artist, Viola’s aesthetic is characterized by slowness and a distinctive texturing of multivalent layers. As he shoots, he lingers over a subject, so to watch some of these pieces is also to watch an interpretation of time. Fullerton and her team have produced a number of highly regarded independent games including Cloud, Flower and flOw.

Translating Bill Viola’s aesthetic into a playable 3D space required Fullerton and her team to invent what she calls an “expressive geography”: a conversion of game space from a familiar one that optimizes a player’s speed and accuracy of movement through a “realistic” setting to one that adjusts responsively to the player’s movement, action and reflection. As you’ll see in the 10-minute “walk thru” I’m showing in the background as I talk, the landscape changes to reflect the gamer’s mindset as parsed by the game’s mechanics; as she moves slowly through stages of “enlightenment” the “poetic” landscape — that’s Bill Viola’s word — juxtaposes the gamer’s perceived mindset against natural cycles of decay.

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Fullerton’s team manufactured the “expressive geography” in a post-production process they invented to layer video-like effects such as burn, blur, glare and interlacing on top of the 3D modeling.

An aesthetic designed to render as a playable space “the natural raw material of the human psyche,” as Bill Viola put it, will attract participants who do not consider themselves gamers. The creation of experimental and “serious” games by Fullerton, Ian Bogost, Katie Salen, Mary Flanagan, MoleIndustria, among others, is motivated in part to demonstrate that games are not inherently, in Fullerton’s words, “vapid and violent.” Like any mass culture entertainment product, games typically reward actions we might find trivial or even reprehensible. “The very evolution of the game form is imperiled by its limited cultural status, the expectations of its core community, and the exclusionary practices of its chief creatives,” declares Fullerton. The Night Journey was experiment to discover whether there is a “game mechanic for enlightenment.”

Fullerton’s spare rule set enables a subtle procedural rhetoric. The rules prohibit a fast epiphany. Even though The Night Journey‘s spiritual aspirant quests for enlightenment, Fullerton expressly rejects the “quest” game narrative in which the gamer scrambles to unlock levels and find treasure. The Night Journey enforces a slow traversal. The more you stop moving and reflect, the more you stave off darkness and earn capacity to speed up. One begins the game moving at the pace of actual pedestrians. Conventions of game worlds — such as having to dart around obstructions — don’t work here. A satisfying game reward comes early when one walk *right into* the Big Tree in the center of the canyon at the beginning of the game. That reward demonstrates what’s possible when one break with conventions of gameplay.

“Translation” means literally “to carry across.” The Night Journey is materially a multivalent translation in porting video aesthetic in to playable 3D gamespace, and its stylistic multivalence ports the aesthetic of sculptural screen art installation into the navigational possibilities afforded by the Sony PlayStation 2 game controller.

“Installation artworks are participatory sculptural environments in which the viewer’s spatial and temporal experience with the exhibition space and the various objects within it forms part of the work itself,” observes Kate Mondloch in her book Screen: Viewing Media Installation Art. “These pieces are meant to be experienced as activated spaces rather than as discrete objects: they are designed to ‘unfold’ during the spectator’s experience in time rather than to be known visually at once. Installations made with media screens are especially evocative in that as environmental, experiential sculptures, they stage temporal and spatialized encounters between viewing subjects and technological objects, between bodies and screens” (18).

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Certainly the same is true in The Night Journey‘s mandala-shaped gamespace, where a durational aesthetic slows the gamer’s movement. I’m particularly struck by Mondloch’s idea of “temporal and spatialized encounters between viewing subjects and technological objects.” In typical gameplay, a controller is meant to disappear from one’s consciousness. But in a slow game like The Night Journey, gamers whose kinesthetic habits have been shaped by vibrating controllers have an opportunity to view from a distance the medial role of the PS2 as a HID — human interface device. It is from Fullerton a deliberate and physically intimate critical intervention.

Sony claims that the PlayStation2 is “the best selling game console in history, selling over 150 million units.” Whether or not history bears out Sony’s claim, 150 million is a lot of units. The physical postures and attitudes born of those engagements have shaped legion gamers. The console’s own procedural rhetoric becomes an object of interrogation as the PS2 controller is deployed strategically The Night Journey as interlocutor between gamer and machine.

The Night Journey strips the PS2 controller of vibration. Fullerton’s intervention jams gamers’ kinesthetic habits. This is a big deal because Sony invented the “DualShock” controller and vibration is one of the most information-rich conduits of feedback when one is gaming. The controller houses two motors within the handles. The left is larger and more powerful than the one on the right to allow for varying levels of vibration. Vibration is in this sense stereoscopic. Different nuances of vibration can free up the gamer’s vision and hearing, resources she can put to use anticipating next steps in the game. Vibration thus makes the feedback loops between machine, software and human even faster.

Fullerton’s decision to strip the PS2 controller of vibration in The Night Journey game space serves her high-level procedural goals to slow down and even to disorient the gamer. Typically, maps and vibration are two important features when the procedural goal is to motivate movement from one point to another and stage dramatic moments of game play.

In the first installation of The Night Journey, at SIGGRAPH 2007, Fullerton set up the game in front of a TV and gamers sat on comfy chairs. The living room setting invited gamers to pick up the PS2 and orient themselves as they would before a typical game. Fullerton told me that she watched as gamers leaned in toward the screen and used the controller to accelerate their movement through the world. But that expectation is what Fullerton has designed to The Night Journey to frustrate. Movement through the world is very slow. Only as the gamer stops motion and pauses to reflect does she earn the capacity to move more quickly. The gamer who sticks around and engages the game mechanics to trigger enlightenment experiences eventually becomes endowed with the capacity to hover then fly above the landscape. One of the game’s procedural claims is that enlightenment is a physical practice as much as it is a mental or spiritual discipline, as ancient postures of yoga, meditation and labyrinth walking disclose. That’s why its adaptation of the PS2 into a device radically unlike the one used in the Sony console is such an important piece of the game experience. Its critical intervention is procedural and embodied.

I’ve found that, playing The Night Journey for long stretches of time, lack of vibration renders the playspace lonely. It disorients me. I didn’t know until I played this game how much I rely on vibration: how gaming is a conversation facilitated by the humble HID.

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Disorientation in the space serves a high-level aesthetic goal, so I expected it. But the loneliness surprised me. No vibration means I lack the computer’s confirmation of my existence in the gameworld. I didn’t understand until I played this game how much of my gaming experience is a dialog between me, software and machine, because in the games I play, I’m often moving so fast that there’s no time to feel anything other than the adrenalin of rushing.

There are other outputs that approximate one’s presence in the game, such as a haunting soundtrack that gently prompts one to reflect by rising to a crescendo, and sound effects such as feet crunching dry leaves or snow and limbs splashing water to locate one’s point-of-view in the game. Because there’s no map, these sonic cues are critical to establishing position, since the “goal” of each quadrant is to reach and enter and reflect inside the hermitage. But the lack of the controller’s gentle shake makes me feel I am in “consumption” mode; despite the gorgeous and performative sonic elements, which provide continuity, without vibration I feel like I’m simply absorbing the experience through vision and sound rather than truly traversing it.

In terms of the storyworld itself, a PS2 shorn of vibration suggests a culturally inscribed notion of the spiritual aspirant as a solipsistic hermit. Rather than “communing” with nature — a dialogic process that would be procedurally indicated by nature signaling back to me via vibration — one wanders through the space but leaves no trace at all. This is hardly how one imagines Rumi or Buddha engaging with nature as they whirled, or meditated beneath a tree.

What I would call a “poetics of frustration” operates differently in The Night Journey than in, say, some works of electronic literature where the point of the piece is to confront the reader with her own thwarted desire to make progress through the text, such as Judd Morrisey’s The Jew’s Daughter or Talan Memmott’s Lexia to Perplexia. In this case, The Night Journey‘s poetics of frustration is materialized in the quiet and still PS2.

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