As the practice of sound design becomes ever more refined as a key factor in the immersive aspects of gameplay, it is essential to develop a conceptual vocabulary of the ways that sound is implemented as a cultural facet. In particular, it is important to recognize the power relations at stake within the implementation of the human voice as an interactive narrative trope. And, while I’ve already discussed the ways in which the voice of GLaDOS in Portal invites players to reflect on how they internalize a set of mediated perspectives about how their body ought to be, it is equally important to consider the other ways that a narrator’s voice invites players to reconsider the intersection of agency and surveillance.
This post compares the use of narration in Bastion and The Stanley Parable in an effort to understand how the voice is used as what Karen Collins would refer to as an “interactive non-diagetic sound,” or, in other words, a sound that is triggered by player actions, but not experienced by the character in the game. Specifically, I argue that the voice in these examples is an essential point in the feedback loop between player and game. And, as part of the cybernetics of gameplay, it produces a dispositif of surveillance, akin to Bentham’s panopticon, which lets the player know their actions are constantly being monitored, calculated, and considered by the game’s algorithms. But, while the original panopticon produced the effect of surveillance through the clever use of light, these games use sound to effect surveillance.
Bastion, was developed by the small indie game company Supergiant Games, but was distributed and released by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, first through Microsoft’s distribution service, XBOX Live Arcade, but has since been released more broadly after receiving much critical acclaim. In Bastion, players take the role of a young boy, referred to only as “The Kid,” and adventure around gradually rebuilding a world that has fallen apart since a cataclysmic sundering referred to only as “the Calamity.” Although the world of Bastion is beautiful and visually stimulating, it is the game’s sound design that has earned it much critical acclaim. The game is narrated by a character named “Rucks,” who speaks in a deep weathered voice, with somewhat of a western twang. And, even though The Kid eventually encounters and is able to interact with Rucks within the game, Rucks still relays dialogue in the third-person.
When The Kid and Rucks meet, Rucks evinces with trademark grit, “Sure enough, he finds another. He finds me.” And, while that is a scripted plot point within the game, at other points Rucks’ narration modulates to best reflect the player’s actions. A player who begins the game slowly, exploring nooks and crannies, might hear “The kid walks slowly down the path, checking everything,” while a player who runs straight ahead could hear, “The kid barrels forward, not looking once behind him.” These quotes force the player to recognize that the game is watching, and actively staging narrative commentary about their in-game decisions. This commentary unfolds in aural space, through narration, discrete from the old text (and controller) triggers of “look” and “examine” which used to prompt text-box commentary about the environment of the game. In short, Bastion’s sound design succeeds because it is balanced in such a precise way: players are being constantly engaged with a narration which confirms that they are, in fact, properly interacting within the game world and story.
The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, works deliberately to turn the paradigm of narration on its head. Where Rucks, in Bastion, frequently alluded to how many secrets he was yet to reveal about himself and the game-world, his character ultimately plays a supportive role, helping The Kid to understand the chaotic environment of the game. The narrator in The Stanley Parable, however, plays the antagonist in many ways, attempting to foreshadow and predetermine the actions of the player, or “Stanley.” On the game’s website, a short sentence contextualizes the endeavor, “The Stanley Parable is a Half Life 2 mod about video games.” The game itself is a mod of the “Source engine,” which runs both Half-Life 2, and Portal, was developed by the very small development team of Davey Wreden and William Pugh, and released for free. It is meta-fiction that stages a critique of the context of narrative within interactive games and fiction. Specifically, the game questions the idea of narrative itself by showcasing the ways that players are able to undermine the scripted plots and spaces of a videogame by exploring and experimenting with exploits and bugs in the game’s code and narrative.
Although the narrator in The Stanley Parable will prescribe several decisions to the player over the course of the game, the player is given the agency to contest the story as told by the narrator, and, therefore, to experiment with the plot. As the player reaches a set of two open doors on the way to the employee lounge the narrator reads, “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.” If the player chooses to travel through the door on the right instead, the narrator will attempt to steer the player back to the main plot tree by saying, “This was not the correct way to the employee lounge, and Stanley knew it perfectly well.” And, then as an open door is revealed, “So he turned left at the first open door, and walked back in the right direction.” If the player continues to ignore the narrator’s advice, he comes to somewhat of a dead end and the narrator reads, “Stanley was so bad at following directions, it’s incredible that he wasn’t fired years ago. Maybe this was why everyone left. No one wanted to be around someone as bad at listening as him.” The player is given several other opportunities to make decisions and lead the story to completion in achieving one of seven endings; each based the decisions the player has made when interacting with the narrator’s dialogue.
The Stanley Parable allows players the agency to see the limitations of linear storytelling where Bastion does not. Where some paths in The Stanley Parable will lead the player into direct conflict with the narrator, other paths do not. There is never a point where the narrator ceases to comment on the player’s actions and activities. Because the sonic feedback of surveillance remains a constant in both games the player remains engaged, in both cases, with the logic of the game-system. In other words, no matter how many times the player defies the narrator in The Stanley Parable, it never seems like the game is breaking. The game world remains constant because the motif of surveillance holds; players know the game still works because the narrator continues to stage commentary – even if it is commentary about the player’s failure to keep to the plot.
For Marc Andrejevic, author of iSpy (2007)—who has written extensively about the abundance of surveillance techniques implemented in digital spaces–the danger of surveillance lies in the production of an asymmetrical power relationship between media producer and media consumer. And, while this is certainly best argued about instances of dataveillance–how companies like Amazon, for example, track customer clicks on and off their website via web cookies in order to better produce exploitable (and in some cases saleable) consumer profiles–it is important to also consider the ways that the implementation of sound also functions as a technique of control.
At its most positive, the sonic panopticism of Bastion and The Stanley Parable offer players a sense of comfort in knowing that the game is operating properly, and not glitching out. Further, players are invited into a more immersive game, which leverages both visual and audio interactivity to lull players into an environment of almost trancelike feedback and play. Clearly, this is the promise of good sound design; it gently alerts players to the presence of a tightly designed and well-implemented game, and produces affects of brand loyalty and trust within a game’s player contingent.
But, while there are clearly aesthetic and market benefits to the implementation of narration in both games, one cannot help but wonder, in the context of post-feminism and self-surveillance, what implications there are in the implementation of the male voice as surveil-er in both games. Just as it was curious in Portal 2 how GLaDOS acted as a critical female voice constantly judging the player’s body image and intelligence, it is curious how much authority is given to the voice of Rucks in Bastion. And while several good critiques have already been written about how the game features only one (somewhat silent, and certainly helpless) female character, and how the game’s villain is portrayed, concretely, as the racially exotic other, it is sadly fitting that the most comforting and well-acclaimed aspects of the game come from the interactivity produced by the voice of its distinctively white male narrator.
The sound design in The Stanley Parable, of course, is more cutting in the ways it stages a commentary about how the voice of the narrator (this time distinctively British), exacts a form of social coercion through techniques of surveillance, and how these techniques serve, namely, to hamper player agency. But, even its own narrative of resistance fails to compel; in fact, it is the uneasy ending of compliance and conformity that is, perhaps, the happiest. This, ironically, reveals one of the key cultural problems of our era: the reciprocal aspects of surveillance and interactivity. If affective resonances of trust, knowledge, and comfort come bundled with the male voice, is it in the vested economic interests of sound design communities to leverage these to make profit? Even though both games have earned critical praise, it is only Bastion that has won awards for sound design. In other words, are we caught in our own feedback loop of comfort, industry, and design?
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University. His dissertation explores the fanzines and politics of underground wargame communities in Cold War America. You can learn more about his work at aarontrammell.com.
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Orality and Cybernetics in Battleship— Aaron Trammell
His moment has come. After having scoured each vector of a ten by ten grid, the young tactician makes his move. “G-4,” he announces, possessing some intelligence of a large ship in the south-west quadrant of enemy territory. There is a moment of tension, as his dad sizes up the situation. “It’s a hit,” Dad admits, smiling, as he resignedly lifts a token from his board. The women in the family beam proudly from the kitchen. For a brief moment the social hierarchy is undermined as the house patriarch on the front of the Battleship box concedes victory to his progeny.
Sound has been integrated in different ways into the production of simulated warfare after World-War II. Simulated warfare involves, namely, the cybernetics of paper machines (as board games have been coined by Matthew Kirschenbaum), and the gradual effacement of oral mediation therein. As technologies of interactivity improve, the need for oral communication amongst the games participant’s decreases. The following is a case study of four Battleship commercials that aims to chronicle a set of shifting cultural tendencies parallel to the integration of sound-effects within the material game-form.
As Ong (1982) has noted, writing is powerful because it mediates the vastness of imagination. Once spoken words become grounded in text and inscribed on paper, they become, “locked in our visual fields forever” (p. 11). This is not as totalizing as it sounds, for as words are recirculated in oral cultures, the trace of writing yields slowly to the performative nature of ritual, oral culture. The rules of tabletop games, such as Battleship, although first established in the manual included with the game, are passed through oral ritual more often than not (Fine, 2002; Bowman, 2010). The oral maintenance of game rules is a practice which lends itself, critically, to the cultural attitudes of the group which maintains them. As is evident in the box art above, the game of Battleship is a gendered space where the rules have likely been explained (and maintained) by the household patriarch, then shared with his enthusiastic son.
There is an ideological element at play here as well. The box art for Battleship is unmistakably American. From Milton Bradley’s strong red-and-blue branding to the white trim of the son’s shirt, dad’s sweater and the soap suds in the kitchen. After all, the company owed its success to America and the war effort. A 1940s bailout saw Milton Bradley producing landing gear for fighter planes and gunstock for soldiers alongside portable game kits for soldiers seeking diversions in their down-time. The production of board games in post-World War II America owes as much to the military-industrial complex, as the production of video games does today (Dyer-Witherford and dePeuter, 2009). The relationship between the military production and simulation has been well documented by Crogan (2011), who has argued that the production of game interfaces, from the start, has been the by-product of a military desire to map real space onto the virtual in the design of ballistics. To this point, the bombastic introduction to a late-1960s commercial for Battleship (see video below) should come as no surprise. The sonic blast of a real-world battleship is calculated to lure consumers into believing that the game is an authentic simulation of maritime warfare.
The players in this commercial are actively engaged in a discussion amongst themselves. They laugh, and joke as they engage one-another in a tactical crossfire. In some cuts, the players seem particularly engrossed in the games strategy. Even though the commercial showcases two players actively engaged in oral communication, it is important to note that the players are both white males, and that the winner callously gloats as his opponent tumbles into the water. Milton Bradley’s connection to the American military is distinct here, and it plays out as a set of social relationships between the players. Reminiscent of Cold-War politics, the games action plays out as a series of tactical exchanges. Consumers are urged to practice at winning in their living-rooms, or on the go. The portable elements of Battleship are played down in an advertisement about 15 years later. Here, Battleship is situated as a centerpiece of family life.
Also integrating stock footage of real-world military battleships the narrative in this mid 1980s commercial begins with a squabble over domestic space. The actors are (at first) two boys (10 and younger), playing Battleship in the bedroom. After winning, the older boy banishes his younger brother, presumably forever, from his bedroom. Although this act could easily be imagined as selfish, in the context of the 1985 nuclear family, competition is fostered and encouraged. In a second skit, the older boy emerges again victorious at Battleship, his opponent (and father) slouches, consoled by the mother while the grandfather eagerly congratulates the young victor. Electronic Battleship is introduced here as a product as well, and the players are depicted commanding the electronic elements of the game. Feedback is given to the players sonically, as programmed game moves result in dynamic military explosions. There is still a residue of oral communication here, notably the father lamenting, “You sunk my battleship,” as the older boy lets out a strong cheer. Even though the embarrassed father is a commercial trope designed to stimulate the consumer imagination of aspiring child tacticians, it also functions as an in-joke for caring parents looking to instantiate intellectual (mathematical) competition as a centerpiece of domestic life in the age of Reagan’s Star Wars economics and family values.
Ten years later, the commercial narrative has more to do with overt warfare than family life. The competing children are spliced alongside clips of competing Navy officers performing various technical tasks on a real Battleship. As the background music takes on a tense, and somewhat militaristic tone, a command to “Man your battle stations,” is echoed as the two boys careen into their chairs. No longer is the narrative established as a civil exchange between two military masterminds, Electronic Talking Battleship uses sound to enhance the player experience of the simulation. When a hit is scored, a quick shot of the player pumping their fist and shouting is quickly replaced by stock footage of a battleship-explosion. Even wavy radio-lines are used to enhance the over-the-top comic feel of the product’s sound. A number of shots showcase the players programming their battle-stations. The commercial explicitly connects the discourse of soldier-controlled military technology, to player controlled information technology. Good players are able to program on their toes, the only conversation between players is a series of taunts and cheers. At one point, a player refers to the rules. Electronic Talking Battleship is evidence of the increasing capital of information technologies, and deterioration of orality in electronic games in the mid-1990s.
A final, 1997, commercial for Electronic Talking Battleship disposes entirely of the oral element of gameplay. The commercial begins with a child in what seems like an office conference room. After he presses a green button, a virtual matrix appears before him, and two navy officers materialize across the table from him. The viewer is to assume that one is an officer, and the other his superior. The narrative has the Navy officers desperately trying strategies against a hooting and smiling child. The Navy officers are a metaphor for the game’s computer, which can, at this point, serve as a virtual Battleship opponent. The affective work of companionship, which was once performed by one’s friends and family is now, in at least this commercial, replaced by a machine interface. The oral communication, which once governed the rule-set in a social space, has been outsourced to a machine which governs the rules, precisely, in cybernetic space
As computers begin to take a more active role in our culture, a by-product is the exchange of oral ritual for cybernetic participation. This odd shift can be read as having both positive and negative potential. One positive aspect is the estrangement of the social hierarchies which have been a necessary for the ritual infrastructure of oral communication dating back to Homeric times. While the children in the commercials (and on the original box) seem increasingly autonomous, they also begin to dialogue less with themselves, and more with the game. This, unfortunately, is the negative potential of this cybernetic shift.
Where the early advertisements of the game depicted a product which provided a potential escape from a war-ravaged world, later advertisements seek to situate the consumer in the center of the action. A common thread amongst these social, and technical shifts is the instantiation of an electronic voice and interface as keeper of the rules. And, with this shift, the military discursivity of the game-form and its accompanying electronics is inscribed, and made to seem innocent in our imagination and understanding of childhood games and play.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.