Giorgio Chiappa is a PhD student, writer and teacher based in Berlin, where he is working on a dissertation in theatre history. Some of his work on videogames, literature and other nice things can be found here.
Vienna, the Austrian capital that once sat at the centre of a multinational empire, is not exactly famed for being restrained in how it commemorates its own past. In line with its imperial history, a certain penchant towards the bombastic and the solemn is favoured, thereby neglecting the more mundane and quotidian sides of its own historical memory. In 1996, anthropologist Erika Bourguignon denounced the many omissions of the city’s official memory culture in favour of facile grand narratives and “massive quantities of Habsburg kitch” (Bourguignon 1996, p. 380). Yet, where official memory culture strikes a grandiose tone, fictional reconstructions of history might provide some sobriety, allowing its audiences to experience the past with a complexity more akin to lived reality. Any form of historiography, big or small, entails a selection and a more-or-less intended manipulation of sources, narratives and theories; memory culture sanctioned by state actors, in particular, responds to the necessity of buttressing or questioning a national self-image fashioned in centuries of the country’s discourse about its own legacies. Much like bureaucracy, it is primarily in dialogue with itself than with citizens or visitors, even when it insists on history being a public good. Smaller actors practicing memory culture might have agendas of their own, but they can afford to address their audience more directly, disregarding official guidelines and concentrating on narratives that are primarily about individuals and communities rather than the state at large.
Case in point: a couple of years ago, Vienna received a heartfelt indie tribute in The Lion’s Song (Mi’pu’mi Games, 2016/7), a series of four self-contained point and click stories weaved into an overarching narrative. Set against the backdrop of early 20th century Austria, every episode, except the last, follows a different fictitious character, each equipped with a given artistic or scientific talent: Wilma (a musician), Franz (a painter) and Emma (a mathematician). The player shapes each character’s creative and intellectual journey through their choices, making or breaking their fate in the cultured circles of Viennese high society.
As an artifact, The Lion’s Song warrants attention for how it negotiates different layers of historical and cultural memory to provide us with an instance of what “good history through gaming” (Kee et al., 2009) might entail. It renounces pomp and spectacle both in gaming and historical terms, establishing its own formal language to visualize the past and make it playable. This essay is devoted to analysing the underpinnings of this ludic iteration of Viennese memory culture. I first describe how The Lion’s Song conducts its operation of videogame memory culture by looking back at point and click classics from the early 1990s. Then, I tackle the game’s approach toward the topography and the history of the city. I finally bring these two dimensions together to demonstrate my main underlying assertions which are that:
1) games dealing with real-world history have a unique viewpoint that derives from their focus on (fictional) micro-historical perspectives, enacted by the player;
2) this enactment does not happen in a void: it comes with formal, aesthetic, and mechanical implications (gameplay, graphics, verbs, genre conventions, etc.) that are also historically charged and instrumental in presenting the real-life past portrayed in the game. Instead of simply appealing to the nostalgic sympathies of a certain subset of players, The Lion’s Song strategically uses its point and click veneer to indicate a remove of sorts from the events being portrayed, fostering both familiarity and reflection and indicating a possible path forward for game titles dealing with real-world history.
The Lion’s Song offers a varied panorama of Vienna in an otherwise inaccessible moment of its past—its coffee houses, salons, and open-air markets pre-touristification, as well as the private spaces of the kind of people who might have frequented those places. But what struck me immediately when I first played the game was its presentation.
The Lion’s Song is strongly redolent of classic point and click adventure games from the 1990s— especially the LucasArts games that were particularly popular at the beginning of that decade, such as Monkey Island (1990) or Full Throttle (1995). The nostalgic kick of its pixel art style is enhanced by a sepia-tone veneer covering everything, as if we were observing the gameworld through an early 20th century photo album. And just like in the point and click adventures of the olden days, the absence of human voices is compensated for by using colour and text effects to distinguish characters and indicate tone and delivery. The Lion’s Song looks back at early 1990s games to take us to Vienna before the world wars. A nostalgic throwback to a genre of games many players have experienced first-hand and remember fondly is used to convey a fictionalized rendering of a real-life past most of them will discover here for the first time. These two forms of memory culture (videogame history and Viennese history) end up working in mutual interest, hooking in the player and delivering a non-patronising history lesson at the same time.
Despite its nostalgic presentation, The Lion’s Song plays substantially like a contemporary “choose your own adventure” episodic title à la those developed by Telltale Games. Like The Wolf Among Us (Telltale Games, 2013-2014) or Life is Strange (Dontnod, 2015), The Lion’s Song is not centred on logic problems or puzzle solving as main gameplay features. It barely has an inventory system at all. The verbs at one’s disposal entail talking, perusing, moving and making key story choices. Puzzles occasionally mimic the field of inquiry of the character you are currently playing as, but they are purely vestigial—you can succeed by simply clicking your way through most of them.
German game scholars Tobias Unterhuber and Marcel Shellong have recently written about a so-called “decision turn” and specifically of a “Telltale-like” continuum (Unterhuber and Schellong, 2016, p. 19). By this they mean not just the way narrative decisions are presented as the defining gameplay fixture of certain games, but also the usage of seriality to structure plot, since an episodic arrangement easily conveys to the player the idea that her decisions will have repercussions from one instalment to the next, tying up the whole “series” in a succession of butterfly effects (p. 18–19). Such games also attempt to reinforce how momentous our decisions are by confronting us at the end of each episode with statistics on how popular certain narrative branches were amongst other players (p. 20). The biggest payoff at the end of an episode can stem from having the statistics cast us in the small minority of people who made difficult and controversial choices; our uniqueness and originality as players is safely confirmed through statistical means.
The Lion’s Song is remarkably lucid and austere in comparison to such titles. In presentation, the mise en scene of Telltale-like games mimics Hollywood cinema and prestige TV, but appears more subdued in The Lion’s Song, as it renounces elaborate cutscenes, QTEs, and voice acting. The emotional payoff of our decisions is transmitted by purely visual, “silent” means, and most of the drama suffered by the protagonists has to do with their interiority rather than with the fight against a major evildoer or a virulently hostile reality. The game might be dramatic, but it is never “epic”. It elicits intimacy in remembrance, its quaint pixelated look drawing in players who will recognize that look as timeless; and you will never need a walkthrough.
While analysing the obsession for “vintage” sounds and technologies in the music world, Simon Reynolds draws conclusions that could also be applied to the game industry and titles like The Lion’s Song. In his book Retromania, he writes:
Old stuff either directly permeates the present, or lurks just beneath the surface of the current (…) We’ve become so used to this convenient access that it is a struggle to recall that life wasn’t always like this; that relatively recently, one lived most of the time in a cultural present tense, with the past confined to specific zones, trapped in particular objects or locations. (Reynolds, 2011, p. 57)
Even a younger medium like videogames has easily yielded to this technological brand of nostalgia. For example, emulators, once illegal and digital, now marketable and analogue (e.g. Nintendo’s SNES Classic Mini); artificial ruins of the videogame world. But this glut of re-editions, remasters, and ports of older game titles also implies that we have become increasingly aware of how archaic these games feel to us today. When new titles are produced with a graphical presentation or gameplay that harkens back to past genres and titles, they ideally do so with this contemporary “common sense” already embedded in them from the start. Nostalgia without the pain.
A certain degree of “emulation” may also happen when videogames intervene in the contested field of real-life memory culture (for example, see the case of Ubisoft vowing to reconstruct a faithful replica of Notre Dame in Assassin Creed after the Parisian cathedral was damaged by a fire in 2019). Echoing recent historiographical scholarship (such as Maria Kobielska’s writings on Polish cultural memory or Weronika Grzebalska’s scholarship on Poland’s neglected “herstories”) Piotr Sterzcewski, in his essay about games centred around the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, notes how the officially sanctioned forms of urban memory culture tend to construct a well-defined and easily recognizable “aesthetic” around topical events and places. By ‘aesthetic,’ Sterczewski is referring to an entire “system of hallmarks consisting of color coding, typography, and even a set of distinctive logos” (2016), and he goes on to reason how such a pre-existing official aesthetic can influence video games created around that particular event or historical place. Just as conjuring the spectre of point and click adventures works in The Lion’s Song’s favour (it lures the player in, tantalizing them with immediately recognisable visual cues to a genre that they might be nostalgic for), making use of widely known tenets of local memory culture can easily place the game in the realm of the known and the “cosy”. This cements the game’s success. In this particular case, though, there’s much more at stake than just twee nostalgia. Commonly held convictions about one’s country’s (or city’s) past are themselves the effect of years and years of wilful manipulation, playfully reinforced by games that approach memory culture uncritically.
In 2009, a group of historians and game scholars tried to map possible interrelations between videogames and memory culture in a paper for The Canadian Historical Review called “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming”. One of the strategies they envisage consists of adapting the historiographical school of micro-history to the context of games:
[Games] differ from the traditional narrative in that they often explore the event from a variety of perspectives. (…) Bringing a small community or group of historical actors under study invariably reveals a network of relationships. The digital universe is in its nature a web of links, supporting the presentation of networked social relationships in a way that print technology cannot. (Kee et al., 2009, 318-319)
What the authors seem to have in mind here is an idea of “good history through gaming” as a playful and complex visualization and narratization of the actors and instances of a given historical and local timeframe; where printed history reduces the complexity of local communities and individuals to the flatness of the page, videogames allow these networks to appear dynamically on the screen. The aesthetics of this visualization thus carry great importance. Offering her own reading of a passage by Reinhart Koselleck, German historian Aleida Assmann speaks of the “discolouring“ and “fading” effect that afflicts historical memory twice—physically in terms of its document deteriorating over time, and metaphorically because, with the death of its bearers, the memory of history is turned over to the clinical hands of the academic (Assmann, 2009, p. 14). With its sepia tones, The Lion’s Song seems to represent this “discolouring” in a very tangible manner; yet this graphical presentation also interlaces with the way the past is evoked in videogame culture, with pixel art as a fuzzy signifier of mellow nostalgia and yet an example of an aesthetic that, having never been fully discontinued, has become seemingly ageless.
When it comes to evoking certain tropes and images related to the city, some compliance with the staples of classic Viennese memory culture is still identifiable in The Lion’s Song—despite the admirable critical efforts undertaken by its developers. The player explores what is eminently a Modernist topography of the Austrian capital: the places of cultural and scientific production like the Kaffeehaus, where intellectuals meet; ateliers and literary salons; the lecture halls of the university; and the open-air markets with their good measure of popular figures and Viennese dialect. Illustrious figures such as Wittgenstein, Klimt, and patron Berta Zuckerkandl are present in conversation or are alluded to within the gameworld.
The city, navigated through with each protagonist, is strictly the Vienna of their trade, reflecting a specific lived experience of the city. The fact that these places sometimes overlap and return from episode to episode confirms and makes playable what literary scholar Franz Kuna once wrote about Modernism in pre-war Vienna:
To the outside world, the social and intellectual life of the city presented an impression of unity, an amalgam of collective fictions about what it was to be typically Viennese. Behind these façades were wide differences. The Viennese have a great capacity for enjoying, in Kant’s phrase, the ‘manifold of experience’ as long as the familiar background, the gemütlich, is undisturbed. (Kuna 1976, p. 123)
Yet, this topos of “cultural cosiness” is also broken and fragmented by the inner processes of its protagonists. In general, the architecture of the game is divided between public and private spaces, with private spaces generally being the place where the player helps their avatars come up with ideas and put their art or theories together.
Once a given episode is completed, the player can access a “gallery” for it in which she strolls using the avatar of that episode’s protagonist. Each showroom contains mementos from the users’ playthrough displayed as exhibits. In the scene are also characters with whom the player can interact to explore things that were left unsaid during the game. Here, memory becomes something midway between a museum and a limbo. The gallery seems to exist outside of time; its empty spots stand-ins for the choices we did not take and memories we did not create. And, as we are implicitly encouraged to replay certain scenes and take other paths, memory itself turns into a collect-a-thon. The memory that will emerge from completing an episode showroom will be contradictory to any single playthrough that we have played to the end, since it will contain objects and dialogue options resulting from different choices’ paths. This scrambled memory is more akin to the player’s own memory as a visualization of possible biographies and potential outcomes—a contradictory subconscious of the potential.
The gallery in The Lion’s Song attempts to establish what Kee et al. (2009) define as a “web of links”; the city of Vienna becomes a collective subject as we criss-cross through it in the shoes of different characters, explore the same places with different goals, and encounter faint traces of the other protagonists and their work from episode to episode. As it often happens in case of lucid history writing, the game does not conveniently focus on the heroic fates of individuals, nor does it portray historical forces as nearly divine agents that completely dominate the life of its protagonists. Its being “good history through gaming” lies rather in its knack for dialectics—the Viennese creatives in the game are caught between their artistic and personal journey on the one hand, and the spectre of change and war looming in the background on the other. They are not completely powerless, but they are not demiurgic agents whose outstanding powers make or break the fate of nations either. As players, we are free to let their stars and their fate align or not, as it often happens in reality with people being part of certain artistic or cultural scenes—happenstance and circumstance (brought about, in this case, by our in-game actions or their unforeseen consequences) dictating how certain actors will magnetically gravitate towards or away from each other.
In terms of urban memory culture, the game is a collection of micro-histories without a thesis and with no huge claim to defend or debunk. In terms of gaming memory culture, it shows us how a thin veil of nostalgia for the history of the medium can be significant in terms of history-based storytelling through games. This game-historical melancholy, far from being frivolous, fits adequately with the age it represents. Vienna, before the fall of the Habsburg empire, was indeed a starkly melancholic age, seen in retrospect through a perspective of remembrance and remove that the game clearly engenders through its aesthetic. If games like Assassin Creed opt for a hyperrealist, pixel-perfect rendition of past eras, titles like The Lion’s Song emulate the idea of a past we never got to know by presenting it in the guise of a slightly obsolete, yet updated game genre: as if to transmit the idea of a mediated, subdued access to the micro-histories of the past.
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