While Being a Mini-Game Integrated

The differentiating factor here is the removal of the graphics — however, this is not a complete separation. As (Boym, 2001, p. xiii) points out, nostalgia rests on “a sentiment of loss and displacement” — nostalgic longing for return thus implies insurmountable distance. In this respect, nostalgia’s creation of a “double exposure” (Boym, 2001, p. xiv) is structurally similar to parody’s “textual doubling” (Hutcheon, 1985, p. 53). As mentioned earlier, the game retains the graphic adventure’s interface, along with its more limited command-options — the player’s ability to test the text-parser’s limits (and explore the environment) is thus reduced; and the protagonists (Sam and Max) are visible and move within the black featureless space. This intersection — with one game-mode occupying, overlapping, or invading another — enables a parodic “double-voicedness” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 195), and suggests an interesting turn: the nostalgic-parodic glance back supplies the means to comment on the parodying text itself, with parody working both ways. Though the player is constrained by limited command-options, other possibilities are opened up. For example, in much the same manner as the indescribable “grue” with no visual counterpart, the abstract becomes a “thing” in this world — one can use a lake of Nauseating Cuteness, pick up a Respect for Living Things (indescribable, insofar as it boasts the standard description for things that are unremarkable — that is, no further description is/can be attached to it: “you see nothing special about it”), and encounter a villainous Shambling Corporate Presence. It is therefore implied that there are certain limitations which circumscribe its graphical successors, but which the text-adventure can cheerfully disregard[15]. Nostalgia is thus doubly-embedded in the game, allowing it to turn around and comment parodically on the current wave of adventures, which includes Telltale’s own Sam and Max.

Another intriguing parodic-nostalgic “guest-appearance” of the genre occurs in a non-adventure game. In the most medium-referential sequence (“http://deckers.die”) in Saints Row: The Third (Volition, 2011), a game which foregrounds comical excess above all else, the cyberworld of Matt Miller (Decker Boss) includes a nostalgic journey through selected moments from gaming history. There is a Tank!(Atari Inc., 1974) sequence, and a short text-adventure. The latter requires picking up a light-source, features an encounter with a unicorn as a fantasy element, and entails a number of possible ridiculous ways to die (all involving an unforeseeable-yet-inevitable “loose flagstone”, in a parody of a chance encounter). As in Sam and Max: “Reality 2.0”, the engagement between game-modes introduces a note of playful conflict, as the player character’s voice-over frequently expresses frustration (“is there a lower difficulty?”), grumbling at the check on the abilities usually available to him/her (and by extension, reflecting the player’s expectations for the game, which must be adjusted for this part). In what may be a nod to Zork, directions and options are sometimes indicated, then denied — for example, “go through hole” is blocked by the parser: “you’re not big enough”. The player character exclaims in frustration, “Then why mention the damn hole!”.

This text adventure — while being a mini-game integrated into the level — also serves as a potentially looped diversion from the main game, offering the option of replay rather than loading up an earlier save in the case of failure, or moving onto the next stage after successful completion. This is unusual within the context of the game, where completion of one stage usually leads into the next; variants on particular mini-games are available at different locations, but these variants are not integrated as potential diversions/interruptions within the main quest-line. The selected attribute of the adventure highlighted here is therefore its replayability, as a property which rests primarily in the player’s engagement with the humor and willingness to attempt a variety of possible responses within the limited branching of the mini-game — even those that are “wrong”, “pointless”, or dead ends. Nostalgic appeal, also highlighted, is implicit in the very act of replay.

Don’t Shit Your Pants! (Decade Studios, 2009) offers another example where nostalgia and parody converge, centring on an action rarely considered plot-worthy. The pattern for an adventure game puzzle identified by Fernández-Vara (2009, p. 140) which involves a trivial action magnified into a puzzle, often involving more than one step, is here distilled to the point of reductio ad absurdum. As in Saints Row the Third’s text adventure, this game likewise encourages attempts to find out all available actions through replay (including some ridiculously disproportionate solutions to the very mundane situation of needing to defecate, such as typing in “die”). Achievements are awarded for discovering alternate endings, or diversions from the goal, within this limited scenario where the one ostensible aim is that contained in the title.

The examples considered here have entailed some interruption of action, identification, expectation, or continuity. The possible impact of such moments on “immersion” is therefore worth a closer look.

Lebling et al. remark that Zork “tries to be real” (Lebling et al, 1979, p. 52), with its own surrounding geography, internal consistency, and the illusion of an “omniscient” gameworld (Lebling, 2014). Lebling notes that this was an attempt to “make it a non-mechanical experience”; yet, the player’s interaction occurs as the player learns how to play the game (Lebling, 2014) and acquires familiarity with the possibilities allowed by the game. The “non-mechanical experience” provided is therefore to an extent the product of an illusion achieved through “manipulation”, as Lebling himself acknowledges.

The association of immersion with a sealed-off and cohesively enclosing world suggests a “totality” of experience (Grau, 2003, p. 13). In suggesting a seamless, unified, and cohesive “total” and “immediate” experience, “immersion” as used here owes a debt to the Wagnerian notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of media into an all-encompassing “total” or “integrated” work of art (Wagner, 1849), which concealed the mechanisms producing the illusion — a mechanical aspect such illusion nonetheless relied on (Ballard, 2014, pp. 133-5).

The notion that such games are predominantly immersive in the sense of comprising a coherent “totality” could be countered by the aforementioned magnifying and sometimes fragmenting focus on the trivial, which distracts from the sense of overarching continuity. Fernández-Vara (2009, p. 140) compares this to Brechtian techniques for “undermin[ing]” immersion, in its ability to break with the assumed automatism of such actions in “everyday” life. It is also countered by the meta-mediality displayed by the games considered here (including Zork), and their tendency to draw attention to the fact that they are manifestly different from the “real world”, yet not disconnected enough to form a self-enclosed “world apart” — for example, the culminating “Turn off your computer and go to sleep!” in SMI, and the stream of “constructive” suggestions directly addressed to the player after the end-credits have rolled in MI2 (“like […] run for president, […] or milk a cow […] or confuse the person next to you”), which maintain the game’s comic tone at the threshold of play. Comical inconsistencies within the world also persist, and include anachronistic and seemingly displaced elements within the MI games, such as the grog vending-machine. These are somewhat recuperated within the wider MI-mythos with the framing narrative in MI2. The closure there, however, does not completely seal the narrative, and has the feel of a “false ending”; Ron Gilbert allegedly retains the key (the “Secret”) to fully decoding the ending. The “secret” itself, which would provide closure, remains elusive — the impossible and founding puzzle, both promised and withheld, and a topic for endless speculation and object of pursuit even “outside” the games. Gilbert himself stokes up (and puts spokes in) the debate, by regularly teasing the fans — as with the “pi[e]-in-the-sky” reference in Grumpy Gamer (14 March 2008), where an endlessly-deferring pi is offered in place of the “secret”.

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