Dominic Arsenault is a professor in the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. Specializing in narration and game writing, he is also interested in theories of literary, film and video game genres; graphics and visual representation in video games and animation films; economic aspects and innovation in the video game industry; and video game and heavy metal music. His publications are available on Academia.edu and his musical experimentations on Soundcloud.
David Boffa’s recent FPS essay on Shovel Knight inspired in me enough questions and thoughts that I decided to write a follow-up essay. In part, this is a love letter to a game I dig deeply (pun intended) and don’t mind discussing endlessly. But this is also an opportunity to address a number of issues about the game, or occasions perhaps, that David touched on. Here’s what I got from his essay (oversimplifying, of course, for the sake of discussion):
- Shovel Knight often breaks the fourth wall by making comical or ironic commentary meant for the player (self-awareness being a hallmark of postmodern art works) by exhibiting self-awareness to its own character as a fiction (metafiction), or by illustrating or pointing to its own conditions of creation and development history (self-reflexivity).
- Shovel Knight can be seen (or read) as a game about gaming, because it makes references to other well-known games; learned players (or perhaps I should say “well-played” gamers) recognize signs that point to other games.
- These signs point to older games (commonly referred to as “retro”) and games that have been consecrated as part of the traditional history of video games (they have been popular enough back in the day, have influenced creators, and have been discussed by critics and other members of gaming communities); hence, Shovel Knight can be said to be a game about gaming history.
Likewise, I want to make a coextensive argument in three points.
I. REFLEXIVITY ISN’T ALWAYS METAFICTIONAL
First, I will use Jean-Marc Limoges’ work on reflexivity and mise en abyme – a figure whereby a work’s structure is self-replicated within itself, i.e., a play in a play, or a film in a film – which he constructed from his predecessor Jacques Gerstenkorn (Gerstenkorn, 1987). I will use his summary table and adapt it briefly to video games, placing the examples of reflexivity in Shovel Knight laid out by David Boffa in his essay (2015). In so doing, we must recognize a kind of difference that Gerstenkorn and Limoges traced in film, between the cinematographic and the filmic. Similarly, we would do well to distinguish between the ludic (referring to playing and games in general, abstract principles and terms), and the gamic (the individual games themselves). From their work, I argue that reflexivity can, broadly, occur in four types in video games:
“phenomenon whose smallest common denominator is for a game to reflect back on itself”
Raising awareness or showing “the” dispositif itself
Raising awareness or showing “a” dispositif
Reflects “a” game within the game
Reflects “the” game itself within the game
Table adapted from Limoges, 2007.
Many of the examples Boffa gave of metafiction in Shovel Knight are cases of self-reflexivity that are not presented and perceived directly as an intrusion of the game’s authorial figure within the gaming experience, but are integrated within the fictional reality of the game, and hence “coated”, so to speak, in metafiction. There certainly are many metafictional statements made in Shovel Knight. But the underlying logic of reflexivity does not only express itself through metafiction, and metafiction may not be the most productive framework through which we can understand them.
I see a lot of intertextuality in Shovel Knight. Genette’s wider concept of transtextuality (Genette, 1992) might help here as well; transtextuality includes all occurrences, overt or covert, of a text coming in relation with another text. Such relationships come in many types; of those, I will focus on two for this essay: intertextuality, which refers to the direct presence of a text within another by way of citation, and hypertextuality, which concerns relationships where a text follows in time and is inspired or otherwise replies to another, previous text (which is the hypotext).
Thus, when Grandma Swamp exclaims “THANATO REFUTATUM!”, it’s hard not to hear Harry Potter serving as the hypotext to which this present (hyper)text turns to in order to make its humorous pop-culture reference. This transtextual process is used in complement with the self-reflexive process (“The number of times you’ve fallen in battle is [x]”). But transtextuality is the common thread linking together the ludic reflexivity found in metafictional statements and the gamic reflexivity found in references made to other games.
II. GAME DESIGN IS ALWAYS INTERTEXTUAL
When we discuss the gameplay borrowings of Shovel Knight, we are facing a problem: Shovel Knight’s movements, the structure of levels, power-ups, etc., are not fictional, which rules them out from the realm of metafiction; neither are they self-reflexive as well, as they don’t reflect back on themselves. They might, however, reflect other games through their mechanics. In Boffa’s assessment, then, Shovel Knight can be mainly understood (or “read”) as a game deeply about heterogamic reflexivity – and he is not alone in this, with most reviews of the game pointing out a handful of usual common ancestors: Mega Man, Castlevania, DuckTales, Zelda II, and occasionally Faxanadu. Thinking of the game in terms of reflexivity, with the table laid out above, raises an even larger set of questions: what is the nature of Shovel Knight’s relationships with these other games? Is it homage, pastiche, allusion, remake, inspiration, clone, and/or copycat?
The short answer is that it depends on what feature or aspect of the game we are talking about. The longer answer, which I plan to provide in a future paper, requires an extensive discussion on the logics of imitation, reiteration and innovation that drive game design and the games industry (issues I have touched on in my doctoral dissertation on genre in the video game (in French), and in a previous paper. In short, game design, like all other design endeavours, works by modifying and experimenting with previously-designed solutions to problems that are still around. Incremental steps always build on some ancestry, in line with a certain trajectory. Design is, by nature, intertextual (or, more precisely, hypertextual; but in any case, it is always transtextual). But, answering the question of the exact nature of the relationship the game establishes with its hypotexts also depends, as Boffa stated, on individual players’ repertoire (their accumulated baggage of gameplay experience and literacy).
To illustrate this, let me discuss three specific aspects of Shovel Knight: its soundtrack, its map screen, and the Shovel Drop move.
The soundtrack itself is clearly linked with that of well-known and celebrated NES-era games. First, because it recreates the technical constraints of the 2A03 + VRC6 – that is, the original sound chip in the NES, augmented by Konami’s custom chip which expands the hardware possibilities with extra channels and voices, as made popular with Akumajō Densetsu (Japanese Castlevania III). Second, because of the basic biographical information easily found on the Shovel Knight composers Jake Kaufman (a.k.a. virt in the chiptune scene) and Manami Matsumae (composer on the original Mega Man) and their reliance on typical compositional techniques of chiptune and NES music. The soundtrack can be said to pay homage to the famous soundtracks of NES games, but it does not feature remakes or citations. Contrast this with virt’s track “Not Mega” from the Retro City Rampage (2011) soundtrack, however: “Not Mega” is clearly (namely through its title) a pastiche of the introductory music to Mega Man 2 (1988).
Shovel Knight’s soundtrack may sound like something that would have come out of an NES game, but it doesn’t sound specifically like any particular game.
Concerning the world map, players might think of the feature in general terms – “you move around a world map between levels” – or in specific terms – “that’s the world map from SMB3!”. Careful examination suffers no ambiguity: Shovel Knight’s map is intertextually linked to Super Mario Bros. 3. through a number of features that are unique to SMB3’s world map in how it is presented, manipulated, and behaves. Unlike the music, the map is not a general allusion to any unspecified NES game that uses a world map; it is a hypermap to Super Mario Bros. 3’s hypomap. Why? There are a few reasons:
- The levels are square nodes;
- The nodes are connected by straight lines and interspersed dots;
- Completed levels have their picture/number replaced by a character stamp;
- The player’s character is facing the screen and has a basic 2-frame animation cycle;
- Events/characters can wander around the map;
- Movement on the world map is a very fast translation accompanied with a bleep;
- The scale of both maps is very similar.
- For large SMB3 maps, the screen scrolls when you reach their edge, with similar speeds.
For these specific reasons, Shovel Knight isn’t alluding to other NES games with maps, like DuckTales, Strider, Castlevania III, The Adventures of Lolo III, StarTropics or The Battle of Olympus.
So far, I’ve talked about graphics and sounds. Both of these are considered part of the assets of a video game and are easy to circumscribe. But, what about the use of particular game mechanics? How do these fit in the transtextual phenomenon? Here, the question of the Shovel Drop merits a quick look.
Across many reviews, and indeed, from developer David D’Angelo himself, the move has been compared with the down thrust from Zelda II: “”We wanted to make an NES-style game. What we went to was Zelda 2, where we really like the downthrust. We wanted to build a game off of a downthrust” (Ohannessian, 2014). In this particular relationship, the Shovel Drop can be seen as homage, or an allusion, a wink or a nod perhaps, to Zelda II. But the differences with Zelda II are plain to see when comparing gameplay. Instead of directly mimicking the downthrust, the Shovel Drop is a kinetic, rhythmic, and gravitational “citation” of Duck Tales’ pogo jump; the angle, direction and mid-air control of the jumping mechanic, the rebound that the Shovel Drop causes, and the verticality of gameplay that accompanies the use of that offensive move, are all very much those of Duck Tales, and not at all those of Zelda II, where the downward thrust has more limited applications and does not manage to create a vertically-oriented game play. In this way, Shovel Knight’s Shovel Drop is a citation of DuckTales’ pogo jump, with the important difference that Shovel Knight can’t bounce off the ground, unlike Scrooge McDuck (see endnote). The idea of the citation as a distinct kind of link – of it being the hallmark of intertextuality – is an idea that has promise for examining the fine distinctions between ripping off, reusing, cloning, iterating, and improving game mechanics in game design.
There is another game that cited Zelda II’s down thrust – indeed, a game that cited the entirety of Zelda II’s physics. That game is Battle of Olympus, a relatively little-known game that imitated Zelda II’s jumping and walking system, and the player’s attacking motion, ducking motion, and jumping motion. The difference between Battle of Olympus and Shovel Knight is that the former entirely lifted a substantial portion of its design from another single game, while the latter may have directly cited a couple features of existing games, but it has also alluded or paid homage to general concepts and ideas. The other difference is that Battle of Olympus was released in 1988, a year after Zelda II. Which leads me to my last, and very short point…
III. HISTORICITY = INTERTEXTUALITY< TIME
Is Shovel Knight a game about video game history? It certainly mixes together a number of features taken from a number of games found in the past, but all games do so to an extent; that is the nature of design. The reason we may attribute this historical positioning is because there is ample historical distance between hyper and hypotext(s) – the temporal distance between them is perceived as greater than the intertextual relationships; it is a difference in proportions, not in kind.
What I’d like to point out is that Shovel Knight is also deeply ahistorical, in that it is a very modern game by design standards. Many of its features simply wouldn’t have appeared in a game released in 1992 or 1993, because game design wasn’t there yet : unlimited lives and abundant checkpoints; diminishing penalties on money when dying repeatedly; making a gamble by breaking checkpoints in exchange for extra cash; multiple concurrent subsystems for collecting and exchanging resources; the dream sequences; substantial narrative developments and complexity in a platformer (especially with the interweaving of the Plague of Shadows DLC); etc. In this respect, Shovel Knight verges closer to uchronia than to video game history itself; like utopia, which is a non-space, uchronia replaces the topos with the chronos (space with time), hence making uchronia a non-time, a time that never was (and never will be).
Uchronia is neither past nor future; likewise, Shovel Knight does not treat video game history so much as it presents (it makes present) an alternate history, or a non-historical reality, one where video games would have stagnated in the NES platform for years or decades which, aided by ever-growing expansion chips and design refinements, might have yielded something like Shovel Knight. Or perhaps it points to a time where, game design having evolved according to certain paradigms, it returns to this curious and elusive mixture of past aesthetics and structure and present ideals and design mechanisms, reflecting back our nostalgia as much as our history, idealized through present-day considerations, like a dream from a 10-year old child from 1992 frozen in time and finally unleashed in 2014.
There are many interviews out there on the web with D’Angelo, where he claims that Shovel Knight’s main inspiration is Zelda II rather than DuckTales. I of course can’t claim to know what the developers thought better than themselves, but two points should be noted: 1) many of these interviews date from before the game was actually finished (one of them that I found was integrated in a preview of the game where Shovel Knight was apparently bouncing off the ground, DuckTales-style); 2) that it is predominantly used in combat (like in Zelda II) does not preclude it from instilling a vertically-oriented gameplay anyway.
Arsenault, D., 2011. Des typologies mécaniques à l’expérience esthétique: Fonctions et mutations du genre dans le jeu video. Ph.D. thesis (B. Perron, sup.), Université de Montréal. Available online: < http://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/handle/1866/5873> (accessed November 10th, 2015).
Arsenault, D., 2009. “Video Game Genre, Evolution and Innovation”. Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, n° 3 (2), p. 149-176. Available online: <http://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol3no2-3/126> (accessed November 10th, 2015).
Boffa, D. (2015, November 11). Shovel Knight and Self-Reflexivity: The Retrogame as Metafiction and as History. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/shovel-knight-and-self-reflexivity/
Genette, G., 1992. The Architext: an introduction. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Gerstenkorn, J., 1987. “À travers le miroir (notes introductives)”, Vertigo, n° 1, Paris.
Hopkins, C. J., 2015. Chiptune music: An exploration of compositional techniques as found in Sunsoft games for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom from 1988-1992. Ph. D. thesis (S. Briody, sup.), Five towns college. Available online: < http://gradworks.umi.com/37/12/3712434.html> (accessed November 10th, 2015).
Limoges, J.-M., 2007. “Mise en abyme et réflexivité dans le cinéma contemporain : Pour une distinction de termes trop souvent confondus”. De l’autre côté du miroir : Transformations, déplacements, adaptations. University of Toronto, 2007. Available online: <http://french.chass.utoronto.ca/SESDEF/miroir/limoges.pdf> (accessed November 10th, 2015)
Ohannessian, K., 02/05/2014. “As I Play, Dying: My Afternoon With Shovel Knight and 1001 Spikes”. Kill Screen. Available online: http://killscreendaily.com/articles/i-play-dying-my-afternoon-shovel-knight-and-1001-spikes/ (accessed November 10th, 2015).
Parish, J., 11/06/2015. “Legend of Love: The Making of The Battle of Olympus”, USgamer. Available online: <http://www.usgamer.net/articles/legend-of-love-the-making-of-the-battle-of-olympus > (accessed November 10th, 2015).
David Boffa is a Visiting Assistant Professor of art history at Beloit College in Wisconsin. His interests include artistic status and identity in the Italian Renaissance, critical approaches to video games, and the Open Access movement in academia.
Having Dominic Arsenault provide a response to my Shovel Knight essay as well as his own essay on the topic is a boon not just for fans of this game but for anyone interested in video game criticism and scholarship at large. I’ve been familiar with Dominic’s work for a few years now, and I was thrilled to hear that he would be reading my own work. His response and subsequent essay pushes the boundary of great game criticism and scholarship by challenging us to consider a game like Shovel Knight—and our responses to it—in new ways. Among his excellent points, Arsenault provides us with a clear and thorough assessment of the ways reflexivity can be at work in games; furthermore, he breaks down individual elements of the game to illustrate the specific ways Shovel Knight links itself to earlier games (e.g., “homage” via the chiptune soundtrack or “citation” through the DuckTales pogo jump). The way Arsenault sharpens our means of talking about reflexivity and intertextuality has implications far beyond Shovel Knight or retrogames in particular, and I hope that other game critics and scholars make further use of his work (I also look forward to his forthcoming article on this topic).
While I don’t have the space to address all of Arsenault’s points here, I would like to briefly touch on two: the concept of uchronia and the issue of intent. First, I love the notion that Shovel Knight represents a “non-historical reality” in which video games continued to stagnate/develop on the NES platform for decades (if only!). As Arsenault notes, Shovel Knight is only possible thanks to developments in the decades since the NES, and it is very much a product of our time, rather than the 1980s. I think in this respect, the game still can and does function as history, since all history creates something that is inherently anachronistic. Any historical narrative (whatever the form) curates the available evidence to make something that is only possible at a temporal remove. Shovel Knight, like other histories, says more about our time and gaming in the 2010s than it does about the period to which it refers and from which it draws inspiration. As Arsenault notes, this is directly a function of the passage of time and a result of the historical distance being perceived as greater than the intertextual relationships.
Regarding the issue of “intent,” Arsenault concludes by mentioning that the creators of Shovel Knight are on record as claiming that Zelda II was an influence for the shovel drop rather than DuckTales. He then offers two compelling counters to that narrative, to which I would add a third: meaning is created as much in the hands of the player/audience as it is by the creator. This is not to negate the issue of authorial intent, but rather to remember it can be just as valuable to trust the tale, so to speak, rather than the teller.
Finally, I should thank both Dominic for taking the time to respond to my essay and FPS for fostering this sort of discussion. The gaming world needs a site of lively discussion accessible to a broad spectrum of readers, and thanks to FPS we have one.