LOVE: JAPAN AND VIDEO GAMES
This section addresses the historical conversations around love, affection, and attachment in Japan, its current state in contemporary times and how have these debates permeated the videoludic medium, in particular the video game Shadow of the Colossus. This historical approach aims to help a better comprehension of Shadow’s engagement to the wide conversation on love and affection in Japanese culture. Thus, this section argues that Japanese understandings of love have fluctuated throughout time, remaining a central interest that shifted in relation to social transformations. The section ends with an outline of the main methods to study love in Shadow through design theory.
Love in Japan: Cultural Fluctuations
“Love” is a difficult term to define in Japan for its elusive semiotic and semantic conditions, and how these have shifted throughout history. It has been argued that it is a modern term, one that needs to be understood together, and only together, with sex and lust (Ryang 2006). It has also maintained a varying relation to power and the state, being used, manipulated, and directed to the interest of the different rulers and forms of governance in the country (Morris 1964). It is also hard to know when exactly the concept and ideal of love started, and how was it comprehended back then. In the beginning of Japanese history, we find abundant rituals which involved sex, fertility, and affective relations (Uyeda 1991). Some of these rituals find inspiration in the cosmogenesis of Japan as stated in the mythological book within the Kojiki that establishes the creation of the world, the gods, and every form of life. In those mythical times we find the first tale about love and grief as Izanami, the goddess who created the world with her husband Izanagi, passes away. Izanagi, incapable of dealing with the pain journeys to the netherworld to resurrect her, for he cannot live without her. He fails, breaks the rules of the afterlife, and brings death and pollution to the world (Rubio and Tani 2013).
The myth of Izanami’s death has been approached and studied by many different disciplines, from history (Rubio and Tani 2013), to history of religions (Kamstra 1967; Uyeda 1991), to psychoanalysis (Berne 1975), and to gender studies (Lai 1992). But on top of that, the myth is also the first written source for the EBT, the theme on transgressing life and death boundaries, and the foundation structure for future engagements. The myth of Izanami’s death, and therefore the EBT theme, is a meditation on life and death, on their separations and connections, and on the moral consequences of isolation, loneliness, grieving, and mourning. But the transgression is always triggered by a deep, intense feeling of attachment brought up by affection and, in most cases, an emotion we can define as love. Thus, from the beginning love is presented in Japanese literature as a perilous emotion if uncontrolled and driven by attachment and obsession. As this section presents, this complex relation between love and danger appears throughout the EBT conversation and Japanese history.
Love as emotion is therefore not alien to Ancient and Classical Japan. On the contrary, early literary works in Japan were mostly occupied by stories of courtship, romance, and affection, many of those, well-documented testimonies on the life and habits of nobles (Morris 1964). One such example is Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) written around the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a female courtesan that worked and lived in Heian (Classic period and capital) Japan (Napier 1996). The Tale of Genji narrates and discusses the life, customs, ceremonies and, overall the society and culture of the ruling class. It is interesting to note the central role that love, sex, romance, and courtship has in the novel, as well as the problems and conflicts love as a form of power can originate (Hughes 2000, 65). In it, as in the Kojiki, love is a force of obsession and suffering, a complex emotion that awakens the most negative behavior in humans.
The Tale of Genji also deals with the EBT as a consequence of love through regret, grievance, and resentment. As the first novel in Japan, it has influenced literature as well as the use of the theme of love, loss, and mourning in Japanese narrative. One example of such is the 1957 book Yume no ukehashi (Bridge of Dreams) (1963) by Tanizaki Junichiro. In it, Tanizaki addresses the decadence and demise both materially and metaphysically of a Japanese family as the father decides to bring home a woman identical to his deceased wife. The disturbed psyche of the father goes so far as to ask his son to call the newly arrived woman his biological mother and to reproduce the same acts and behaviors he had with his mother, including breastfeeding from her. We find here a clear example of Bronfens argument that “the double enacts that if what has been lost return, nothing is ever lost” (1992, 52). From that very moment the family starts to manifest symptoms of illness and pollution. Socially cast out by the community, they finally die (as the case of the parents) or journey in an endless exile (in the case of the protagonist and his younger brother).
The short novel uses recurrent references to The Tale of Genji. One explicit reference is the novel’s title, Bridge of Dreams, as it is the same as the title of the last chapter of the Heian narrative. But the reference goes beyond that as Genji too “restlessly seeks to replace his dead mother in a series of new lovers” (Napier 1996, 43). Thereby, Tanizaki’s Bridge of Dreams not only presents the first most explicit example of EBT in postwar literature in Japan, but also makes a clear reference to traditional ancient Japanese texts. As in the foundational work, love is a source of conflict, decadence, and boldness. This repeating trope stresses the unsureness and mistrust within Japanese discourses on love, its origins, and consequences.
Later, in 1983, the theme was mentioned in Murakami Haruki’s short story “Tony Takitani” and in the film adaptation of that story (2004). As Tony loses his wife in an accident, he decides to hire a woman physically resembling her, just to ask her to wear his wife’s clothes and stay at home. Both finally understand how wrong what they were about to do is and refrain from such behavior. As in Tanizaki’s story, we find multiple themes such as the relations between life and death, loss, isolation and intersecting them, love and attachment. In Tanizaki’s story love is an overarching theme shared with the motif of incest while Murakami’s includes a wide number of debates and motives that connect his work to the frenetic 1980s in Japan—the consumerist frenzy and the emptiness of existence in late modern Japan. Murakami is, however, the first author to represent love as a force of redemption from loneliness and solitude, a way to solve Japan’s issues with isolation and pain. But love can also turn into a destructive influence that leads humans to the most atrocious acts. In conclusion, these texts show the enduring interest in the theme of love and its negative manifestations, a trend that will continue, affected and shaped by the shocks of the lost decade (1990).
Love in a Vanishing World
The transformation of Japanese categories as agreed ideals and concepts that organise and give meaning to the life of communities and individuals included unsureness on individual agency, collective responsibility and, increasingly, love and affection (Ryang 2006, Ogihara 2017). This social and cultural trend can be traced to the end of the Imperial project with the defeat in World War II, but it increased during the 1990s. There are three main events that shook the country, diminishing the Japanese existential security and optimism in the future. By the mid-1990s the country was in a deep state of disarray. The economic crisis shattered the frenetic optimism on the Japanese system, the pride of the nation, and the security of the nuclear family (McCormack 2005). The frenzy of the 1980s turned everything into a disposable good—into a commodity that mattered only as it produced immediate satisfaction and pleasure. This general feeling permeated the country’s literature linking consumerism to love and loneliness, and a general sense of malaise that would implode in the following decade. A major example is Murakami’s “Toni Takitani.” In this story Murakami foresaw the grim consequences of a society emphasizing materialistic values over human connections (Thornbury 2011). These concerns about the viability of Japanese capitalism increased after the Kobe earthquake and the subsequent inoperant response by the government. In 1995, a 7.2 on the Richter scale earthquake devastated the city of Kobe causing 6,200 deaths. Almost a third of the city was destroyed leaving thousands of families homeless (lida 2000). The situation was aggravated by the slow and inept response of both municipal and central governments (Kingston 2010, 29).
The response and aid came from the non-governmental sector of society, more than a million students turned up from all over the country while the yakuza (the Japanese organized crime syndicates) opened the first kitchens for the survivors (Kingston 2010, 29). This reinforced the sense of community as non-profit organizations helped to coordinate the volunteers, playing a crucial role supporting desolated communities. But the earthquake had an unexpected consequence, fostering an attack by the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyd in Tokyo, fueled perhaps by their guru’s schizophrenic paranoia (lida 2000,440).
Aum Shinrikyd was a major religious cult established in 1984 obsessed with apocalyptic narratives. After the Kobe Earthquake the group’s “science minister” suggested the seismic activity had been caused by U.S. experiments (lida 2005, 440). Shoko Asahara then called to take up arms in a war directed against the Japanese government and the United States. Some members of Aum Shinrikyd under direct orders of its messianic and supreme leader committed a series of indiscriminate attacks in Tokyo’s underground train using sarin gas, killing and injuring more than five thousand people (lida 2000, 426; Kingston 2010, 29). The news spread across the country deeply harming the myth of Japan’s internal security. The mission of Aum was to purify the spiritual decay spread around the world inaugurating a new era lead by “psychically-gifted” individuals (lida 2005,239).
An anxious feeling about the failure of the government to secure the safety of the people spread around the country. The Japanese citizenry could not understand the ineffectiveness of its government, the police, and the institutions that guaranteed the internal security of the country. This unsureness and disbelief led many to accuse the government of dereliction of duty (Kingston 2010, 30) making it the target of many angry, scared, anxious, and frustrated citizens. But the situation got even worse with the “Young A” murders, the most violent manifestation of loneliness, lack of affection, attachment, and isolation that evidenced the frictions of the Japanese system (Arai 2000).
The “Young A” of Kobe was a case in which a 14-year-old boy from an ordinary family was arrested for committing a series of attempted murders and two successful murders (lida 2000). The boy carefully planned the murders in advance and committed them cruelly and calmly (lida 2005, 234). A decapitated victim’s head was mutilated and left in front of the school gate with a note declaring the beginning of a “game” with the “foolish police” as “a revenge against the school system” that has transformed him into a “transparent being” (ibid, 234). Eventually the boy turned himself in to the authorities. During the investigation, he explained his motivation as a “sacred experiment” testing “the fragility of humanity” (lida 2005, 234). The event shocked Japan not only for the ordinary origins of the boy but also for his uncanny motivations and his defeat of the police as a synecdoche of the “adult world” (ibid, 235).
The murder, however, was not lacking a “true cause” but one so uncanny, complex, and sophisticated that it still attracts attention from Japanese literature. Part of the bewilderment of Japanese society with the case was due to the murderer’s confession letter. In it he wrote his motivations in verse, showing a high level of sophistication that emphasized his intelligence and cunning. Some have read in it a sharp sense of doubt about life as a self-evident fact and death as less evident (Osawa 1997, 226). That doubtful second category is what attracted the boy, troubling and fascinating him into a state of extreme anxiety (lida 2005,236). In this logic lida has argued that the “Young A” shows the manifestation of a mind split between a need to experience reality, to make the world tangible and solid, and a consciousness obsessed with the enigma of human existence and the fear of nothingness, of emptiness, and meaninglessness. From that tension, the Young A’s need to experience the materiality of death led him to commit horrible crimes to alleviate his existential void, his anxious feeling of non-existence.
Overall, the “Young A” case manifested the deep problems affecting the pillars that have maintained the image of Japan as a peaceful crimeless society. This also raised questions about the family system, the relations between parents and their children, the school-system, and even more abstract concepts. Among these, perhaps the questioning of finite and infinite categories, the stretching and questioning of boundaries and the aim to answer them is what bears most relevance for this study. Socially, the “Young A” case led Japan into an uneasy feeling of deep uncertainty. The general state of the country was that nothing was solid, stable, and sure anymore. Then, in that socio-cultural landscape, different media discourses started to question every topic, challenging the most essential values, concepts, and boundaries.
It is in that context that Shadow challenges one of the most basic and pure emotions, interrogating its possibly obscure, dangerous, or fluid dimensions: love. In this regard, Oliver Pérez Latorre has argued that Shadow, as well as its prequel Ico, are both stories of love, suffering, and pain (2012). Pérez-Latorre stresses the depiction of love as a problematic force. He argues that the game can be read literally (a story of the suffering for a lost love), a less literal reading (a story about a difficult love, the suffering from keeping it alive, scarifying yourself to save it), and one much general reading (love as a monotonous relationship, the hardships of the different sacrifices of every relationship). Thus, Ueda’s meditations on love in Shadow is an exploration on pain, loneliness, and loss that, in turn, it is revealed as a pure obsession. The quest is a heroic act for saving Wander’s lover but it is also darkened by the rightness of the consequences of his mission.
Pérez-Latorre’s argument, however interesting, does not gives much relevance to the ethics of Shadow and the experience it proposes. If, indeed the game is about love, it does not revolve around the relationship between Wander and Mono, ambiguous and obscure for the lack of information. Love is the central force of the game, nevertheless, it is taken as a synecdoche for something bigger: isolation, individualism, and, more specifically, male possession over the female body, soul, life, and death. That is where Miguel Sicart’s work on the ethics of computer games and his approach to Shadow offers some helpful insight into the game’s moral dilemmas and challenges. One of Sicart’s concepts while discussing the game is “closed ethic” design, that he defines as:
an ethical experience in which the player cannot implement her values beyond the constraints of the game. The game is designed to create a set of possible actions with different moral weights [...] without the possibility of contributing her values to the game itself. (2009, 214)
This is a useful concept as we can build from it the mechanics and narrative elements of the game that restrain the players’ ethical experience and interpretation of it. In this chapter I look into the closed design on love, what it is, how the game constructs this experience and engagement on this emotion, and what it says about it in the wider polyphonic conversation within its context. To do so, there is a second term coined by Sicart that guides my approach, that is “subtracting ethics”:
the process of creating a game that has ethical choices made by an ethical agent at the core of its fictional universe by means of gameplay mechanics. Subtracting ethics creates a moral experience, but leaves the ethical reasoning to the player, thus respecting their presence as moral agents in the networked ethical system of computer games. (215-6)
This is key to the understanding of how Shadow is experienced, how its mechanics work, and the narrative features that are subtracted from these relations. Shadow is not a game that forces a story upon the player, it does, as well as with the ethics it challenges, suggest them to the player as s/he plays the game. There are no clear messages, everything is obscured, ambiguous, and challenged from the mechanics to its aesthetics and story. It is a complex game, one that plays with the player, challenges her/his expectations, and proposes a world of unsureness, fluidity, and insecurities (a perfect reflection of twenty-first century Japan). But if the game is so complex, how to approach it? How can we study it? In the next section, I propose an interdisciplinary eclectic theoretical-methodological apparatus for the study of love and transgression in the ethical system of Shadow.
Studying Love, Death, and Transgression in Video Games
When studying the representation of love in Shadow, one of the main issues to discuss is the active involvement and necessary performance of the player. In opposition to other media forms, Shadow demands the player transgress the boundaries of life and death if they want to play and experiences the kind of love the game constructs. There, the necessity (or opportunity) to commit a transgression raises questions about the responsibility of the player, but also raises emotions such as guilt and trauma from loss and separation (Suttner 2015). This section presents and proposes a set of methods and approaches for studying Shadow—its engagement in the interrogations of love and its contribution to the vide-oludic medium.
First, this section approaches Shadow from game design theory which focuses on the game as an object to be experienced (Sicart 2009). Design theory focuses on the creation of successful ludic experiences with the use of different arts and technologies, it considers how game designers think about their practice, what techniques they use in the process of creating rules and game worlds (ibid, 37-38). In that endeavor, game designers try to predict and map the way their product will be experienced. In this discussion I will draw on a variety of different sources, from the gameplay and artbook ICO Studio released in Japan discussing the creative process and the way they expect Shadow to be experienced, to different interviews and comments from Ueda.
Thus, to study the design of Shadow, I refer to what James Ash (2012) defines as “affective design,” a term related to the production and construction of computer games. This concept comes from Stiegler’s (2010) “retentional economy,” which studies the transmission of human knowledge through the relationship between affect and attention of human memory. This, when applied to computer games, helps us to understand the techniques designers use to captivate and manipulate attention. The aim of this focus is, therefore, to understand how designers modulate affect to ensure a successful gameplay experience—one that is not only fun to play but also meaningful to interact with. Ash proposes three concepts to understand how affective design works to transmit “the potential for affect through a range of technical systems and environments” (Ash 2012, 3).
Developing on that, attention is relevant for the construction of computer games as it focuses on how they are designed to be experienced. This comes from the understanding that games are consumed based on the manipulation of players’ passions and enthusiasms—on the capture and management of their emotions through sensory design (Thrift 2006, 286). Computer games, as with any product, are designed to appeal to the enses in different ways (Berlant 2008; Featherstone 2010). They are, as Shaviros (2010) argues, machines for generating affect, to extract value from the affective relation created between player and game. Attention, therefore, becomes a central point for the design of computer games, and consequently, to comprehend how a computer game is designed and how it works, we need to study how attention is captured and modulated to generate particular forms of affect (Ash 2012, 5).
These concepts for studying attention and the construction of emotional reactions and experiences in the game guide the analysis of Shadow, structured following the methodology designed by Wolf (2007) that focuses on graphics, interface, algorithm, and interactivity, and Schmierbach’s (2009) content analysis approach. Wolf’s book defines “graphics” as the changeable visual display on screen, the “interface” as the boundary between player and game (including the screen, speakers, controller), the “algorithm” as the program that controls the game, and “interactivity” as what the player does in the game and the game’s response to the player (Wolf 2007, 24). Schmierbach’s content analysis approach argues that one challenge in analyzing computer games is their length, which makes it necessary to structure and cut the gameplay into different stages to be studied later. This necessity comes as an essential prerequisite to the study of many products where gameplay might last for days. Shadow, however, provides a clear and differentiated episodic pattern and organization. The game is composed of sixteen encounters with the colossi plus a final battle where the player’s avatar is turned into a colossus. Each of these encounters is organized in two stages: the finding of and killing of the enemy. These well-differentiated stages aid the fragmentation of the game as this internal organization guides the analysis of Shadow. This decision is, however, not based solely on the structure of the game but on its construction and manipulation of the gameplay experience. That is, the feeling of progression is marked by the different cutscenes and the increase in power that allows Wander to succeed in his encounters with the colossi. This sequential development constructs an impression of moving forward while it punctuates the episodic nature of the quest, since the end of every encounter implies a restart from the shrine and a reproduction of the pattern: find-kill-repeat.
Last, considering the central role the interrogation of love has in Shadow and the way the game approaches it, I consider it relevant to engage Shadow as an ethical system. I thus focus on Shadow’s exploration on the capacities of the medium to create ethical experiences and meditations on our ontology, existence, and the consumption of computer games. The whole ludic experience of Shadow is structured around a core ethical conflict based on its protagonist’s (Wander) non-acceptance of the death of his love and his rebellion against the rules of the community, the authority, and the cosmos. Wander is aware of the possible disastrous consequences of his actions, but he does not care. Shadow’s experience is therefore based on the player’s involvement in the conflict, to distance her/him from the negative consequences of toxic and possessive love while, at the same time, it maintains the interest of completing the transgression. The following section explores the experiencing of love and its challenges through Shadow’s ludic and narrative organization.