What happens to your body when you play games? Or, more specifically, how do you think of your body when you enter a game space, when you begin to identify with not your own self, your “meat,” but rather with your “on screen” self – whether it be a first person perspective, a third person avatar, or even a simple cursor? I suspect my answer will be similar to many of yours: I tend to forget my body when I’m playing a game. Or, perhaps more accurately, ideally I will forget my body when playing a game.
If I remember myself, if I am aware of my physical self while playing a game, it means something is wrong. Maybe I have to pee, and that nagging awareness lingers while I try to forget it. Maybe I’m hungry. Maybe (and this has happened more often than I’d care to admit), I’ve been sitting too long and my ass has fallen asleep, or I’m just otherwise uncomfortable in my seat. When playing a game, it seems as though the ideal body is a forgotten one – one which functions as an interface with the game space, and nothing more.
Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man suggests that “[a]ny invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.” In other words, whenever one extends one’s body through a medium, one numbs the part of themselves that that medium replaces; the central nervous system struggles to keep up with new information, selectively focusing on what is required to operate this new, prosthetic self rather than the old, physical self. What he describes is the cyborg transformation of the body into something specific, and applied. Becoming a tool.
This becoming a tool is the focus of Incredipede, a recently released puzzle game by Colin and Sarah Northway, aka Team Incredipede. In the game, players manipulate Quozzle, a small, circular organism who consists of an eye, a body just large enough to contain that eye, and a series of portruding limbs. The player pulls these limbs out of Quozzle, attaching muscles to her joints (the game fiction describes Quozzle specifically as female) and using these newly formed body parts to power her through the games environments. The game revolves around the adaptation of this strange body to its environment, planning extensions in order to navigate obstacles towards a goal, ultimately resembling a more evolutionarily advanced version of Bennett Foddy’s QWOP.
Quozzle is the ultimate body-as-tool, capable of becoming any number of possible configurations of being. Her design is curiously biological, with bones sticking out of the end of joints and exposed muscles drawing on her spindly limbs – an alien “Incredible Visible Man.” When the player clicks on Quozzle to “pull out” a limb, she flinches in discomfort, possibly even pain, but then returns to a placid expression of indifference. As such, Quozzle is an ambiguous body, reminding players of her biological materiality, but also a pure tool, an anaesthetized object who trundles along towards the finish line without much in the way pain, pleasure, or any other affect at all.
This dichotomy is reinforced even at the level of the aesthetic design: one could speculate that if this game were made in any of the major 3D engines (Unreal, for instance), then Quozzle’s green skin would glisten like a frog’s, and the muscles would look less like bellows and more like fibrous tissue. Instead, the game is rendered in Flash, in the style of a woodcut. Consequently, the skin on display is grotesque but contained, made less viscerally unacceptable by appealing to a nostalgic medium whose flat colour disguises the biology on display. This is no accident – on Incredipede’s website, Colin Northway describes what drew him to artist Thomas Shahan’s work:
I encountered Thomas’ work while looking up a spider I’d found in the Philippines. He’s an avid photographer whose stunning close-ups of jumping spiders have appeared in National Geographic. But it was his woodblock prints that caught my eye: rich, wild dreamscapes filled with monsters and exotic lifeforms – this was the world of Incredipede as I’d imagined it!
What this description implies is a conscious design choice – that the game is meant to exemplify the alien nature of the biological in the game space. The “incredipede” is at the point where the uncanny organicism of a jumping spider meets the (an)aesthetic world of a pastoral dreamscape.
This is, in some ways, a change of pace for the genre. Think of the number of games you have played where a character is defined by its grotesque body, and it will almost always be the enemy – biological nightmares of glistening flesh, distended limbs, vague (and sometimes not so vague) metamorphoses of sexual organs distilled into something monstrous and then dissected with guns, chainsaws and swords. Off the top of my head, I think of Gears of War, Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, Resident Evil (aka “Biohazard”), Dead Space, System Shock, Bioshock… In virtually every one of these games, players take on a role of pure instrumentality, an avatar who moves through space flawlessly and perform the demands of the game without difficulty. In fact, “dying” in these games is when the body is exposed as organic, erupting in a shower of blood – otherwise it is the force revenging itself on the other bodies in the game. The techno-hero manifestation of pure will versus the army of naked, slavering mutants, defined by their grotesque materiality.
Why is this the default scenario for (at least action) games? Noting these examples, it appears as if McLuhan didn’t push the issue of “auto-amputation” far enough – not only do game players numb themselves to the realities of their living bodies in the game space, it seems that they actively wish to do harm to its representations. Certain developers are trying to change this, by thinking of how to incorporate the body of the player into their designs. Anna Anthropy reflects the reality of meatspace in Chicanery, as does the Copenhagen Games Collective’s B.U.T.T.O.N. (Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally Okay Now). Johann Sebastian Joust uses electronic media to contribute to and change playground games, letting the Playstation Move controller act as an infallible referee. Even the humble Wiimote can be considered an attempt to draw the body of the player into the game, except that in most cases that simply means your arm gets tired before hacking the last of the zombified bodies to bits, reinforcing the failure of the body against the ideal of the game. Despite these efforts, in most games the presence of the body is simply an obstacle to perfect play.
As for Colin and Sarah Northway, what they have managed to do is create a game that highlights the ways that games generally remediate the experience of the body, forcing us to adapt ourselves to the demands of the virtual space. Quozzle is both alien and eerily familiar, aesthetic and anesthetized, adaptable to the will of the player and the situations of the game. Consequently, she implies our own bodies in the act of playing, of submitting ourselves to the demands of the game system we have willingly entered. And, paradoxically, what may be most redeeming about Quozzle is how awkward she becomes, teetering on extensions like a newborn faun. The loose physics of the game underscore the fact that none of us will ever fully become what a game asks of us, will never quite forget our bodies and become perfect players. This awkward machinery is the point, the source of its fun rather than simply its failure condition. Incredipede highlights not only the need for, but also the joy of movement, celebrating even the most basic act of walking an achievement – and not as a way for us to pat ourselves on the back, reveling in easy victories, but rather as an injunction not to forget where we really are, what we can do, and what we give up in playing the game. It removes us from our bodies, but lets us marvel at them from a new perspective.
In other words, Incredipede is an example of the rare game that actually asks you to stop playing it, to get up and go outside. As I write this, staring at my computer screen and thinking of how to end this article, it’s a lovely fall day in Vancouver. I think I’m going to take the game up on its offer. Who knows – maybe I’ll run into the Northways on a ramble. I understand they move around a lot.
Further Reading: Gotcha! Pokemon and The Control of Abject Bodies (Medium Difficulty)