Meghan Blythe Adams is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Her main areas of interest in game studies are player death, difficulty settings, and the submissive elements of play.
American game developer thatgamecompany is known for producing innovative games intended to provide players with moving, thought-provoking play experiences. In their most recent release, Journey, the player-character is a robed figure crossing a series of gorgeous landscapes toward a light emanating from a far mountain. Journey’s narrative simplicity, striking visuals, and innovative game-play have made it critical and commercial success, receiving many awards and becoming fastest-selling game ever in the Playstation Store (“Journey Breaks PSN Sales Records”).
One of the game’s key innovations is its approach to how Journey interpellates players and how players interpellate one another into the game by interacting. In this commentary, I will apply Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” and Judith Butler’s critiques of his model in The Psychic Life of Power to Journey’s strategies of interpellation through non-linguistic communication. I’ll offer a proposal that these strategies attempt to make in-game interpellation a mutual recognition of communal guilt and vulnerability rather than an act of Althusserian oppression. Additionally, I’d like to raise some questions and possibilities regarding interpellation’s role in games more generally.
While games use varying strategies to hail the player as subject to the rules of the game-world, Journey’s strategies of interpellation innovate. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Althusser uses the famous example of the policeman hailing the citizen as one of the constant “rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects” (172-3). Althusser’s policeman produces the citizen as a subject to state power and embodies the coercive power that the state holds over him. Games also interpellate players and produce them as subjects within the game; in-game tutorials often present a combination of player and game world characterization, narrative context, plot impetus, and game rules. Tutorials interpellate players into their respective game-worlds, identifying as the player as a subject subordinate to the game’s rules and narrative so they can functionally operate ‘in’ game-space and the game-world. Althusser writes that “the individual is interpellated as a free subject in order that he shall freely accept his subjection” (182). If we apply this to a game-world, we can say players must be interpellated as playing subjects in order to operate within the game, specifically accepting their roles as subject to the game’s authority – its rules and narrative conventions – in order to play.
In Journey, however, strategies of interpellation operate unusually: the player is thrown into the game with little context or instruction and rather than being presented with overt, linguistic instruction like a tutorial, is largely hailed by the game using visual and musical cues instead. As the game progresses, the history of the game’s world is revealed through pictograms, accompanied by an increasing number of larger, ghostly figures that resemble the player-character. Through these simple but visually striking images, it becomes increasingly clear that the post-apocalyptic ruins of the game-world are the result of wars waged by the player-character’s own civilization and that Journey interpellates its players through the representation of a cycle of reincarnation and guilty self-recognition. Instances of recognition characterized by regret and shared guilt appear throughout in the game, particularly through repeated run-throughs, such as when subsequent revisitations of early levels allow the player to recognize what looked like generic ruins in the desert to be the skeletons of war-machines both a) produced by the player’s own civilization and b) active and potentially injurious to the player in later levels.
Similarly, stones that frequently mark the sand are later suggested to be grave-markers. I would argue that because these recognitions hinge on repeated play-throughs, literalizing the game’s suggestion of reincarnation, it further asserts player-identity as part of a community, one potentially made up of different reincarnations of the player herself, rediscovering and working through their shared guilt. One potential way of reading the game’s methods of interpellation is that Journey turns Althusser’s call of oppressive state power into the recognition of both intimately personal and communally shared regret. An alternate interpretation is that this recognition of guilt still has an element of Athusserian coercion, embodied in the white figures that appear during revelations of Journey’s history. Athusser’s policeman embodies the threat of violent state power over the vulnerable individual whatever the status of their guilt or innocence, while the power of Journey’s figures depends much more on the player’s self-accusation through the confrontation of history. These ghostly guides give the player enough information to self-accuse rather than shout at them in the street like Althusser’s policeman, but we can still read traces of coercive power even as the game seems to set up alternate methods of interpellation.
Hailing and Singing
Perhaps part of why Journey appears to function less coercively at a surface level is because it avoids use of written or spoken language. In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler’s response to Althusser’s claims about interpellation focuses on language as a definitive, oppressive tool. Games frequently use linguistic cues, like the written and auditory instructions that structure game tutorials. Journey ‘s interpellative strategies, however, operate largely non-verbally. Because Journey presents a highly suggestive visual history without definitive language – pictograms without captions – one possible reading is that the game allows players to self-interpellate and potentially self-accuse, rather than be directly accused by another.
Journey’s online player-to-player interaction is also non-verbal, which structures how players hail one another. Instead of being able to use written or spoken language, players in Journey can only ‘sing’ to each other in a tone accompanied by a glyph that represents them. The glyph is as close to a name as the player-character has, making the inter-player ‘song’ a kind of inverse interpellation: the first player hails the second by offering up the symbol of its own identity, turning Althusser’s policeman’s naming of the other into an introduction of the self – a vulnerable invitation to community, presenting the self to the other to engage with or ignore as they please.
My key point, however, is that players can only ‘hail’ the other by presenting themselves, rather than placing a demand. Judith Butler writes in response to Althusser that “Subjection exploits the desire for existence, where existence is always conferred from elsewhere; it marks a primary vulnerability to the Other in order to be” (17). In Journey, the song of self-identification is also the key tool of player agency: by singing, players activate objects in the game. In order to act in the game-world, the player must offer themselves up to not only other players, but to the game itself.
We can take some potential guidance regarding the mechanics of player interaction in Journey from the game’s online promotional material, which says, “Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with other’s”. We should note the use of the possessive, which is not a typo: the game is expressly a life lived in connections not just with other people but with other whole lives. In Journey, the presence of other players is not merely incidental nor are they stand-ins for NPCs that exist solely for the player’s benefit. Instead, other players take an essential part in the mutual offering of self and self-recognition. Players can sit together to watch their bleak history unfold in the game, connected by culpability but divided by their inability to communicate.
Limitations and Communication
Even if a player does not have online access and plays Journey ‘alone’, the game still reinforces a sense of being recognized. The game’s closing cinematics suggest the game as a cycle of reincarnation, symbolized by a comet across the sky, eventually falling in the desert where the game begins. A key part of this ending cinematic is that it shows other figures that resemble the player-character watching the path of the comet: even a player without internet access sees other robed figures watch ‘her’ comet fly across the sky as she saw other comets earlier in the play-through. This complex array of mutual recognition and self-recognition is central to Journey’s ability to be a game about interpellation and its difficulties. The game attempts to radically re-envision online multiplayer interaction within this post-apocalyptic landscape: given the strident limitations on player communication, the usual pitfalls of online interaction are mostly side-stepped within the game itself. After each play-through of Journey is concluded, players can contact each other. Within the scope of the game, however, interpellation is modeled against the dyadic model of language backed by coercive power. One way of reading this model is that such a meeting can only take place in a post-apocalyptic landscape: it is only when the social order has long passed that alternative practices of recognition can take place. In this sense, Journey offers an opportunity for players to try out different ways of being and recognizing and guaranteeing the being of others.
Part of the difficulty of articulating strategies of interpellation in Journey relates back to my initial point: games interpellate players as subject to game rules. While Journey appears to offer a less coercive alternate mode of interpellation between players, that alternative only exists because of strict rules imposed by the game’s design. What appears to be the absence of coercive power – embodied by a defunct society, remembered but not recreated by the player – is really an obfuscation of the power of the game. While Journey may appear to exist ‘after’ authority, like the vast majority of games, it is still an exercise in subjection, in turn raising the possibility that a player’s ability to recognize the other in a less coercive way depends on their lack of free verbal communication. Consider the following question: what’s better than a strict moderator on a forum? A forum in which the means of communication are structured so that they eliminate the need for a moderator altogether, thus still serving the same ultimate aim any more obviously coercive power would have but not activating a participant’s sense of being coerced. This raises a key question: how do games balance tensions between the illusion of player choice and freedom within what, by the designed nature of video games, must be a tightly controlled play experience? Can we build a better invisible wall? Journey appears to have done so.
However, in Journey’s case, its narrative conventions and game rules still gesture toward alternative models of presenting and recognizing identity. If games must at their base have a coercive or forced element in order to function, a possibility I’d like to entertain for the purposes of this discussion, Journey’s game design attempts to mitigate players’ senses of being coerced and in turn able to coerce others. As a result, playing Journey is a practice that asks us as players to critically reconsider and re-experience our daily interactions with others in and out of games. This attempt raises some really fascinating questions and I’ll list just a few: are games by their very nature coercive? Does this coercion impact the ethics of gaming and game design? What other models of in-game interpellation currently exist or could exist? If players, like the Althusserian individual, are always-already interpellated, how can we better account for the breadth of that interpellation, including marketing and gaming identity?
All of these questions deserve critical undertaking and Journey’s depiction of the revelatory power of the video game to reframe interpersonal interaction is a good subject with which to begin answering them. Journey presents non-linguistic strategies of interpellation that at different levels, both resist and/or reiterate the oppression of the Althusserian model. By doing so, Journey demonstrates the potential of games to allow players to participate in alternate strategies of interaction and critically contrast them with the acts of interpellation they are subjected to and subject others to in their real lives. The centrality of the self-recognition of guilt in Journey points to the high stakes of interpellative practices in this game, in all games, and in our daily lives.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy. Trans.
Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001. 127-193. Print.
Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.
Chen, Jenova. “Journey Breaks PSN Sales Records.” PlayStation.Blog. WordPress, 29 March 2013. Web. 1 June 2013.
Journey. Los Angeles, California: thatgamecompany, 2012.Video game.