Sunday, July 14, 2013

Symbolism: A Guide

"Dude, this guy is augmented. That's transhumanism. He has too much fun with transhumanism, and then he burns and falls to his death--this is my metaphor; this is perfect." 
Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, Art Director, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

We are alive, and then after a variable period of time, we die. What happens after that is a matter of debate.

As an atheist, I believe that when we die, that is it - we just stop being alive. There's no scoring, no reward or penalty, no post-game analysis. We are, and then we aren't.

So let me talk about symbolism for a bit, with the time that I have on this Earth.

Symbolism frustrates me because it tends to get used as a cheap, easy way to achieve credibility. It is part of a systemic approach to "story value", wherein linking enough concepts together gets you a rolling combo and lets you rake in that sweet, sweet Social Justification. It's part of a cohesive desire to escape the outcast nature of video games and anime by proving that, just like books and movies, they are capable of doing "the art things" and thus time spent on them is not time wasted.

Symbolism is easy. If you lower your standards to Evangelion levels, symbolism is absolutely trivial. A character martyrs themselves - just like Jesus did! A character shares a name with a person from the bible. A cross appears, in some format. In ANY format. Someone quotes Shakespeare. Someone else quotes Buddha. He talks about his bibles, talks about John 3:16...AUSTIN 3:16 says I just whipped his ass! It's basic.

wow its almost like this magic evil town is magic and evil and not regular and normal
Games are often compared to "Skinner Boxes", which is to say "operant conditioning chambers". You press a button, you get a reward, and the reward makes you feel good. It's the primary mechanic in MMOs - the long-awaited "ding" doesn't mean anything outside of the game, but it still feels good to get it. There's no meaning to it, no purpose, but it triggered a positive response in your brain despite the fact that it's fundamentally "not a thing" at all.

Symbolism is operant conditioning. Metaphors are operant conditioning. "Value", as a concept, is operant conditioning. They don't mean anything. They don't make you a "better" person, or a more-informed person, or a more empathetic person. They just trigger feelings of "I'm better now". They rely on the existing structures of literary analysis to provide feelings of worth associated with these very basic and easy-to-construct concepts.

People play games like Bioshock or Spec Ops The Line, and maybe they enjoy the ride - that's fine. Maybe they enjoyed the emotional ups-and-downs, that's fine. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but "emotional evocation" is both subjective and, itself, pretty easily accomplished, so it's not a thing I'd comment on. But then people play games like Bioshock or Spec Ops and they say, yeah, that game was really Meaningful. That game really Made Me Think.

Did it? Did it really? Please, tell me what it made you think about. Tell me if you actually breached your comfort zone and thought about uncomfortable topics. Tell me if your viewpoint was actually altered by the presentation of these fantastic, unrealistic scenarios and the way people behaved in them. If you say "no", then you were really just spinning your wheels - it didn't change anything, it just made you feel like you were learning something. But if you say "yes", well, you're not off the hook there, either, because now we have to go back and EXAMINE the things you think you've learned.

who would've thought the killer was a mere 13 year old
I'm going to link to a much longer, much better article than this concerning Ender's Game. Specifically, the article talks about how Orson Scott Card orchestrated events in his fictional universe in order to justify his own real-world viewpoint: the viewpoint that morality is based entirely on intentions and not on actions. Card's world, as depicted in Ender's Game, consists of problems that the protagonist must be forced into, and then those problems must be solved with violence. The former aspect exists so that the character can be "good" and "justified" when they do violent things.

People read Ender's Game, and many enjoyed it. Some thought it was a nice tale in its own right - an enjoyable journey, perhaps, but not a philosophically viable one. What about the people who didn't think that? What about the people who thought that yes, you could learn something about how to live your life from Ender's Game? What about the people who did think that genocide was justified and sympathized with Ender for it? What about the people who truly believed, after reading Ender's Game, that you did have to "beat people until they weren't capable of beating back"?

I'm not going to pretend that people wouldn't come to these conclusions on their own. Moral absolutists have always existed, and one book isn't going to make or break that reality. But fiction can be persuasive because it presents a highly emotional case - a case that exists in a courtroom where the author is representing every single part of the trial. The author is free to malign their opposition, to make the jury sympathetic to their side, to make the judge rule in their favor. How can you learn from that? How can you take lessons about how to behave from an individual who is no more "qualified" in this matter than you are, and who has orchestrated an entire scenario to make you think they ARE?

So to sum up, symbolism serves two roles.

The first role is empty emotional evocation - useless, but harmless. It makes people think they've learned something when they haven't, but at least it's not actively making them worse.

The second role is to convince an individual of real-world lessons - a process that is inherently biased. A process that can be used to convince people of things that they will then carry into the real world, because they have faith that the real world resembles the fictional scenario they just witnessed.

Fiction is fake. Fiction is made up. You can put anything you want in fiction because it's not real. You're not required to have any rules for fiction because it's not real. You're not required to have consistency or applicability for fiction because it's not real. You can "blow people's minds" easily because it's not real. You can "totally fuck with someone's perception of reality" because it's not real.

The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.



  1. In defense of Bioshock, it really did make me think about how something like ADAM - a highly addictive substance that plays to every hidden fantasy of self-aggrandizement - would be devastation for a society like Rapture. A society so intensely atomized by individual competition and the sabotage of any collective activity or sentiment that smacked of "parasitism" from the top leadership that when collective action in the face of a social blight was needed, they were were no longer capable of actually doing it.

    1. yeah but no that's ridiculous

      if the criticism of a libertarian society comes down to "well what if they went literally insane" then it is not an applicable criticism

      also of note: ken levine is sympathetic to objectivism and wanted to explore what happens "when it goes wrong", which is ridiculous. objectivism STARTS wrong, it does not GO wrong

    2. Who cares what Ken Levine thinks? A work can be thought-provoking in ways its author/creator did not intend, and Bioshock is interesting in that regard because it shows how such a society creates the inability to collectively respond to a challenge that threatens to bring it down.

      The point about ADAM is not that it literally drives Rapture insane, it's that it represents a powerful, disruptive change that Rapture is incapable of handling because it further exacerbates its weaknesses and requires action that Rapture is no longer capable of doing. In a healthy society, ADAM would become a great change for good - in fact, the first time Tannenbaum finds out about it, it's after someone's hand had been healed by it due to an accidental bite. But in Rapture's unhealthy society, it led to reckless, self-destructive behavior and opportunism that brought it down.

      There's a long tradition of fiction using exaggerated examples of stuff happening in order to better highlight problems in real society. Most zombie fiction, for example.

    3. Sorry, that was harsh. I take into account what Levine thinks, but argue that if he is in fact sympathetic to Objectivism, then the game he created actually shows why it would be a bad idea from the beginning. Rapture wasn't an objectivist society that went wrong - it was wrong from the beginning and then was destroyed when ADAM brought out its problems in full force.

      In any case, both it and Bioshock Infinite made me think, albeit about different things (the latter is a personal story masquerading as a political one).

    4. Except that Bioshock doesn't even represents a treat to Objectivism, for all its supposed criticism:
      BioShock: An Objectivist on the Objectivism

  2. I don't think what's being criticized is "symbolism" as an abstract concept, but rather the plague of curiously modern, half-understood uses of "symbolism" as a writing crutch. Symbolism as used in art is a kind of 'hyperlinking' mechanism, in which one work can draw from or comment upon another work, so that the meaning of the first is 'part of' the meaning of the second, whether to build something else or to reject it or comment on it in some other way.

    The problem is that bad writers—the kind who too often are in charge of writing video games, for example—don't know how to manage symbols, and often assume the mere existence of symbols is sufficient to justify their presence, and that a plethora of symbols is a kind of depth in itself. A Christ figure is a savior due to a sacrifice, but in these kinds of stories, what exactly is the Christ figure sacrificing? What is the Christ figure saving? Why?

    Which is why Bioshock's symbolism is not compelling like the symbolism in, say, a Fellini film or a Borges story. Fellini evoked religious symbols to make statements about the things they were symbolizing or juxtaposed with, whereas Bioshock used Objectivism because... uh, it's, like, philosophy, man, or something. To painfully extend my 'hyperlinking' metaphor, Bioshock is a long essay with hyperlinks every other word, all of which lead to pages unrelated to the essay... if they lead to anywhere at all.

    P.S. There is a whole field devoted to the study of signs and symbols—semiotics—and a particular semiotic work, Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, deals with the issue of symbols that don't actually symbolize anything—which is basically the precise issue at hand.

  3. Do you mean your criticism of symbolism to point at ALL fiction or just video games and/or anime?

    No offense, but the way I see it, you contradict yourself with your post. You entreat people to examine what they think they've learned, yet you balk at symbolism, the entire point of which lies therein.

    Symbolism, like any kind of analysis, serves as a way to ask ourselves why we like some stories and dislike others. We don't have to agree with what we find or consciously notice it. Nevertheless, every piece of media we'll ever see—that which we like, hate, or forget—influences us. Everything we encounter changes the way we look at things in some way—maybe small, maybe big, but certainly not zero. Analyzing the works we see, then, makes us cognizant of these influences, so we have more control over what we think of them and we don't find ourselves swayed by the current of the subtle rhetoric within.

    I don't mean to say that we should analyze every polygon and every musical note of a video game. I've yet to play a video game with a compelling enough story to make even a thousandth of that effort worthwhile. But investing 50 hours or more into anything will inevitably have some effect on the investor. The more one strives to consciously notice that effect, the better.

    1. I always thought that his argument fall short and too narrow minded, seeing symbolism as device that an author think should invoke mind blowing moment or "I'm learning something" experience. It is not an actual criticism on symbolism itself nor author intention or agency on using symbolism. This is much more like his "criticism" to random joe reaction on their experience having some symbolism in their narrative gratification.

      I really miss the old J.Shea, where he actually write some well thought criticism on some matter, not just criticism-coated-rant over the internet reactions. Like Character Design: Style and Substance which I think should be read by every lead artist and character designer out there. Or like Demon's Souls Analysis, which proves it why is it one of the greatest dark fantasy of all time.

      That man is dead, and I don't know what killed him except twitter.

  4. "If you lower your standards to Evangelion levels..."

    You sound like one of the plebs that can't see beyond the random religious imagery to grasp the real deal relating to Japanese societal problems and mental illness.