A Little, Playful Clap
My favorite short story of John Updike’s is the one titled “Gesturing.”
It is one of the final stories of the interconnected series entitled “The Maples Stories” which were all collected by Alfred A. Knopf under the Everyman’s Pocket Classics.
The married couple find themselves separated in the Northeast, with Richard heading to Boston. Joan has taken up with a lover (so has Richard, actually), and the children seem to be largely out of the loop, too young to fully comprehend the gravity of the changes. Neither can the parents it seems, as the two are candid about living arrangements. As Richard moves into his new apartment, with floor tiles “like a Vermeer” overlooking a blue skyscraper in constant disrepair, he finds himself comparing the attitudes of his lover, Ruth, to Joan, including their differences in how they smoke cigarettes. The story comes full circle, culminating into Richard and Joan having a meal together, almost like a date. “Isn’t it amazing,” Joan says “How a bottle of wine isn’t enough for two people anymore?” The situation is the dinner, but the story is each other, how the both of them drifted apart and, like the reader wrapped up in their lives, they did not realize the marriage was over until the bottom of the page. “The time had gone by,” Updike writes, “where it would have been convenient to love each other.”
It is a masterclass of a story. I listened to it read by Updike and I would listen again and again to his intonation, his ability to meld character and setting in what appeared to be an effortless milieu. “What a transparent wealth of previous lives overlay a city’s present joy!” The writing in the short story point to many readings, but one is exactly that of the title. We gesture so often with our partner that eventually we become something in them that cannot be undone. Though Joan and Richard attempt a “new” life, their encounters and eventual dinner prove one thing to them. “The motion was eager, shy, exquisite, diffident, trusting: he saw all its meanings and knew that she would never stop gesturing within him, never…” The both wonderful and terrible truth is that people create meaning in our bodies. Mirror neurons signal back and forth between each other, and in between the two there is truth. Truth is a consensus.
“Gesturing” in Games
It’s very difficult to find this feeling or idea in games. In the realms of genre, for the most part the protagonist is “you” the avatar. You make the meaning, and you carry that meaning wherever you go. Most prominently in games like Bioshock, the game purposefully hides that meaning from you with unclever tricks like amnesia. In others, like Outer Wilds, you discover the story of both failed and successful experiments, and once you discover it, only you can pull the star system out from its loop. Though games like Spec Ops: The Line attempt to gleam some level of self awareness from being a member of violent military personnel, the truth can only reach so far: to some extent, the civilians you accidentally bombed were just pixels.
Ironically, it seems as though the best way to discuss characterization is to dispense with individuality entirely. I have been very excited to get into Sylvia Townshend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, which takes place across decades of a 14th century convent and seems to have no protagonist. What Warner hoped to do was to create a Marxist experience in a novel, attempt to create a community and see what the logistical, moral, and romantic tribulations were like, without the burden of individual protagonists, and the cliche of the mustache-twirling villain. She wanted to steep herself in the gestures between people across time.
Can this exist in games? These types of bird’s eye management simulations are ripe for experiments in socialization between people, but there are a rare few that rise to the top that are worth mentioning. The foundational game, Dwarf Fortress, is discussed with reverent and hushed tones. As we wait for its arrival on Steam, with an updated graphical user interface that makes it much more user-friendly (compared to the ASCII graphics of its inception), I cannot speak to its strengths, but only to its success.
Instead, a game I have spent time with is Rimworld, a game that I believe does the same job for the science fiction genre, rather than the fantasy one.
This is taken directly from the Steam page:
RimWorld is a story generator. It’s designed to co-author tragic, twisted, and triumphant stories about imprisoned pirates, desperate colonists, starvation and survival. It works by controlling the “random” events that the world throws at you.
You are the conductor of colonists stranded on a world. And as you navigate back and forth on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you attempt to get the colonists to a place of satisfaction and prosperity. You have them chop down trees, grow food, build houses, research technology, and so on. Eventually, dominance of the environment allows a chance to escape the planet entirely. This is the end goal, as many of the Joseph Campbell stories go: you head out, you return, and you learn something.
But it will not be easy. Just as the world offers strange terrors in the form of wild animals, frigid winters, climatic events, and unfriendly humans, the game also forces you to contend with history itself.
As your colonists work to build housing, grow food, and make textiles, they socialize. They form bonds, while also forming in-group bias. They find themselves hating the Karens of the colony for either good or ill reason. Maybe the Karen is a jailbird and a psychopath, violently reacting in an asocial way to the most mundane of jokes. Or maybe Karen is simply inquisitive in the wrong ways, poking and prodding in ways that the other colonists find annoying.
If you have heard of Nicholas Christakis’s book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, it is that made manifest.
Many games are comfortable with the concept of space. As visual experiences, we have seen the development of two-dimensional platformers to three-dimensional shooters pass relatively smoothly across decades. And as we are spatial creatures, our visual field is readily accepting of the Euclidean work. While players may have been upset about the fact that No Man’s Sky featured unmoving planets, with suns that revolved around them, we still seem satisfied with other games that take this for granted.
Time is another matter altogether. In order to grow and learn from other people, speech and language take place across such time, and as the colonists gather together and form bonds, (or otherwise), they cannot help but make stories. In my colony, the one thing keeping Veeb from being happy is the fact that she has a body. She yearns for a cybernetic implant, or a prosthetic limb, something that I know eventually Darcy, as my resident expert in anatomy, will likely provide. Estelle is my jailbird, totally asocial and unwilling to participate in recreational activities with the rest of the group. But she loves to make clothes and she loves to stargaze, and her maneuvering around the colonists is in itself a part of the story. Few could have predicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that once Hester Prynne was exiled for her affair, it would not damage her psychologically, but in fact allow her to flourish. Her and her daughter, Pearl, are able eventually return, though marked. It is Dimmsdale, the one who is forced to keep the transgression in secret, who dies of poor health.
So it is true in Rimworld that each person can become an unlikely hero, given the circumstances. One never knows how loyalty is made, nor in how the smallest occurrence can cause a psychotic break. It is only in hindsight, when one sees the anger from some characters towards others, or in the lack of understanding of knowledge and skills, that the truth arises.
Time makes fools out of all Rimworld players. Even at the onset, when one has spent only a season in the game interacting with the colonists provided, one is forced to admit that the complexity of time makes novices out of all of us. There is too much going on, and knowing who loves who and who has been rebuffed is an education all its own.
How was I supposed to know that one of my characters would have a psychotic break after getting hit on? Realizing she was the only seventeen year old female for miles, Kyle wandered the jungle and picked at bushes and vines, debating whether she wanted to return to “civilization” which consisted of a 28 year old louse of a man, and a man in his 50s, an old cutter of trees. She eventually returned, feeling euphoric. It hardly seemed to matter, as moments later a rabid woman would come from the outskirts and stab my fifty year old tree cutter. He would bleed out, while Kyle attempted to put out the fires the invading woman set to the rice crops, while the 28 year old louse could only look on as he lost the will to live.
There is no Story
In “Gesturing,” Richard is only able to see how they “gave each other their young bodies” after they separated. Seeing his life from this new perspective, this affair, and coming back to a meal with Joan, he understands that stories are retrospective propositions, as we cannot see that we live out the stories in the present, unknown even to ourselves.
So it is with Rimworld. Stories are latent in each hour of playing, and it is only when disaster or euphoria strike do we realize the arc of the steps that led to the fateful event. In that regard, Rimworld is a masterpiece. It is able to take the typical assumptions of video game stories and flip them on their head, using characters nonetheless. We perform gestures that may turn out to have no effect at all. Or the thing we said decades ago comes back, in the most ugly way, to make comment on the conflict between our partners we cannot escape.
Not only is Rimworld a technical marvel, it is also easy to run on a computer. And for these reasons, I would highly recommend the game. It is almost literary in its ability to tell a story by accident.
What a transparent wealth of previous lives overlay a colony’s present joy!