The unreal and the real

Ursula K. Le Guin is dead. I’m not totally okay with this.

Le Guin is usually glossed as a “big ideas” writer, with a focus on concepts and worldbuilding rather than memorable characters or dramatic scenes, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s misleading in an important way. What continues to impress me about her work is her unflinching focus on the texture of life. She develops ideas by making people live through them, and she explores principles by creating physical locations and functioning institutions that embody them (or don’t). I’ve actually been going through some of her short stories recently and a lot of them aren’t even about anything. They’re just particular but unremarkable people living in particular but unremarkable circumstances and getting along with it, one way or another. Even “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which is an explicit philosophical treatise, is told exclusively by describing a real society and then the actions of the people who live in it, in response to the way it is. She’s able to make stories like these not only compelling on a technical level (one of the downsides to her writing is the way that its effortless grace makes it painfully clear that you are never going to be good enough at anything to matter) but meaningful not despite but because of their complete lack of anything that would normally register as “meaning.”

Maybe this sounds like faint praise, like I’m just outlining the basic qualities that make someone a competent writer, but it’s not. It’s the most important thing. The only thing any of us actually has, ever, is the experience of lived reality (there’s nothing less “lived” about hearing about other people’s experiences or reading philosophical treatises). Fiction whose only purpose is to supplant this reality with a different one is properly called “escapist,” but so is fiction whose only purpose is to congeal reality into a nondescript mush of Ideas and Statements. In both cases you are ignoring the only thing that there actually is. Le Guin’s great achievement was the creation of worlds unlike our own that show us what our world is really like – unreality that makes the world more real. This is more than merely compelling or thought-provoking writing. It’s one of the secret keys to the truth.

This is also an important point about genre fiction in general. If Le Guin’s work counts as “genre fiction,” which it does, then the term doesn’t mean anything, which it doesn’t. Genre is not a property of a work but an after-the-fact critical appellation; it’s potential use is only as a tool, not a definition. Genre work often falls into the traps of getting lost in minutia or reverting to Big Moral Statements, but literary fiction has exactly the same problem: it’s often nothing but status-signalling lifestyle details coupled with half-baked pretension. The categorization isn’t the thing that matters; in fact, focusing on categorization is precisely a way of avoiding what actually matters, of pretending to do criticism when you’re really just doing bookkeeping. Nor is there anything wrong with the categorization itself; there certainly are comment elements and things that you can use to accurately (assuming you’re being honest about the endeavor and not just parroting received value statements) classify a story as “literary fiction” or “magic realism” or what have you. But if you’re doing this to say that literary fiction is “real” and genre fiction is “just for fun,” then you’re factually wrong, and Le Guin proves it.

Her feminism, for example, is significant not because of any particular big ideas or provocative analyses, but because she actually portrays the lived experiences of women, both in terms of their inner lives and the ways they navigate the social structures they exist in. This particular version of the double bind is that focusing only on “oppression” turns women into a homogeneous class of “oppressed people” who do nothing but reflect the pressures of their oppression, i.e. it makes women not people in exactly the way that patriarchy says they’re not. Whereas insisting on “agency” and “strong female characters” implicitly denies that oppression is a real thing: if overcoming oppression makes women superhuman, then oppression is actually a good thing, because it improves women. (Overgeneralization was the great failing of second-wave feminism, which was then overcorrected for in the third wave, and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that mistake.) These are the problems you run into when you try to talk about things abstractly, but the truth is pretty obvious: people are all kinds of fucked up in all different ways, and that includes social structures, which are made of people, but there are nevertheless recognizable patterns that recur in certain areas, and the combination of these things is what creates real-world behavior.

Le Guin transcends the dilemma by mastering both worlds: she puts believable people in understandable societies and lets us watch what happens. A simple example of how this works is the story “Semley’s Necklace,” where a fallen noble goes to ultimately self-destructive lengths to retrieve a priceless family heirloom. We understand this decision both in terms of who this person is and the pressures of the structure they inhabit (also, we understand who she is both as a product of and a reaction to the social structure she inhabits), and not in terms of handwaving ideological abstraction, a.k.a. magic. (I haven’t read a lot of her fantasy, but she understood that if magic were real, it would be rule-bound in the same way that everything else is; what she says about this is that, in fantasy writing, “you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely.”)

This aspect of her work is why The Dispossessed is such an important book. The problem that all varieties of revolutionary politics share is that, because they are talking about a world that has never existed, they are necessarily completely abstract. The common complaint that they “only work on paper” is simply a failure of imagination; after all, actually-existing capitalism is precisely a system which sounds good in theory and is destroying the world in practice. The Dispossessed creates a believable anarchist society, and it does so by portraying the way that people actually live in such a society. The point isn’t that the book makes any particular political argument; the point is that reading it grants you the ability to imagine the world other than as it is, in practical terms.

In fact, the novel even has an explicit hero-character, Odo, the original leader of the anarchist revolution, who is revered and referenced as a source of wisdom and insight, but even in this case, her work is portrayed through people’s use of it in their own lives. That is, we see them reference and quote her as part of real-world in-the-moment arguments – we see how even explicit idolization unavoidably manifests itself as just another part of practical reality. Indeed, there’s even a separate story about Odo that portrays her as a confused old woman, puttering about and embarrassing herself and not accomplishing much of anything. Even when she creates explicit heroes, Le Guin insists on making them people. She denies everyone, including the reader, the ability to in any way “get out of” ordinary life.

And, of course, including herself. I don’t really know how she pulled this off, but she managed to become a famous writer without becoming a Famous Writer. She’s revered, sure, but not in the sense that people “praise but don’t read” her; she’s revered because people read the hell out of her. (On second thought, genre fiction might be more than categorization – it might be a mask. Maybe you have to embrace trivialization in order to avoid the greater danger of idolization.) Part of this can be ascribed to simple intellectual modesty. The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet whose inhabitants have only one gender that performs both human reproductive functions as needed, uses masculine pronouns to refer to them. At the time, Le Guin judged this to be the least bad of the available choices – as explained in the novel, “he” is, while not actually neutral, more neutral than “she” or any other alternative. But she didn’t insist on this choice as a matter of dogma; quite the opposite, she knowingly walked into one branch of a trap. For a later republication of “Winter’s King,” a short story set in the same world, she switched gears and used feminine pronouns, while preserving gendered titles, so the story features “Kings” and “Princes” who are referred to as “she.” This isn’t necessarily the “right” choice, either, but it gives the story a different subconscious color that reveals different aspects of it. So she ultimately did better than making the right choice; making both choices gave us both things to think about. And it also prevents her from being anyone’s hero on the subject. She was nowhere near dumb enough to think it was possible to be “neutral,” or to “just ask questions,” but the stands she took were impossible to piggyback off of, so the only available action was to take your own stand in response.

So the problem I’m having is that we really need this right now, because we’re falling into both holes. We’re suffocating in a flood of daily minutia that doesn’t connect to anything and vanishes as soon as it’s done stealing our oxygen, and we’re also falling back on vague generalizations and unexamined principles without instantiating them in real-world actions. We’re creating as many heroes and villains as we possibly can in attempt to understand the world, yet in every case we use them as an escape from understanding, as a simplistic substitute for reality. We need to make the connection the Le Guin was capable of; without her key, we’re locked in this room.

And yet, it is precisely here that she bequeaths us her final gift. Because she was never a hero, we always had to get along without her anyway. Nothing has changed. There’s really nothing to even complain about; we haven’t missed out on anything. She gave everything she had to the world, and she left what she didn’t have up to us. So now that we finally have to accept that we aren’t getting anything more from her, we have no remaining choice but to do what we should have been doing all along: we have to take what we’ve got and figure out what we’re going to do with it. We have always been on our own, and now, at the end, she forces us to confront that fact anew.

Still, on this particular subject it’s only polite to let her have the last word, so here’s a not entirely random passage from the story I happen to be reading at the moment:

Our daily life in the auntring was repetitive. On the ship, later, I learned that people who live in artificially complicated situations call such a life “simple.” I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.


This article makes the claim that a certain type of combat-free environment-based platformer constitutes a “new subgenre” of games. This is wrong for every possible reason, and we’re going to go through all of them.

First, the claim to novelty is straightforwardly false. There are lots of games that are focused on navigating an environment and avoiding dangers rather than fighting (even Mario games are mostly like this), and indirect storytelling is actually an overused and obnoxious fad right now. Bizarrely, the author lists a bunch of counterexamples only to dismiss them for basically no reason, despite the fact that they really are counterexamples. Abe’s Oddysee is precisely a game in which you have no combat abilities and have to negotiate threats through guile and evasion, and in which the story is told through environmental setpieces. Furthermore, the presence of combat or text or narration doesn’t change the general type of thing that a game is. Combat in games is just a metaphor, after all. Pressing A at the right time might represent either attacking an enemy or jumping away from a threat, but it’s still the same action. The point of analysis is not to pick as many nits as you possibly can; it’s to figure out what’s going on underneath the individual points of interest.

Second, it’s a category error. These things aren’t genre boundaries; they’re aesthetic effects. You can use them in any type of game. RPGs, for example, are most often overwrought power fantasies glued together with piles of text, but even here there’s nothing really complicated about inserting these types of effects. Final Fantasy II opens with you getting your ass kicked by a bunch of imperial soldiers who are a billion times stronger than you. After that, your first mission is to infiltrate an occupied town in order to make contact with an informant. The same imperial soldiers are patrolling the town, and encountering any of them is basically instant death. This both portrays the nature of the situation you’re in through properties of the environment and establishes your characters as being radically underpowered compared to their adversaries. Mother 3 has a chapter where you play as an enslaved monkey (literally; that’s not a joke or anything), who is similarly extremely weak compared to the enemies in the area. When you get into a battle, you have to rely on your slaver to do most of the work for you, which deepens the relationship dynamic that defines this part of the game. Also, the first town in the game starts out as an anarchist utopia. The thing that would normally be an item shop is actually just a communal storehouse where you can take whatever you need. Later, the town becomes commercialized, and the same building becomes an actual store where you have to pay for things with currency. This portrays the development of the town’s social situation through the state of the game environment. Of course, none of these are exactly the same thing as what’s being talked about in the article, but, like, no shit. Nothing’s exactly the same thing as anything. Again, the whole point of analysis is to draw connections between things which aren’t identical but which have similarities that can provide aid in understanding them. Categorizing everything into a precise set of neat little boxes might make you feel smart, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anyone.

Third, it’s irrelevant. What actually changes depending on whether the answer to the question “is this a new genre” is “yes” or “no”? Nothing. The games themselves stay the same regardless of how you categorize them. Identifying what the game is doing is useful for understanding it, but what you’ve done that, slapping a label onto an arbitrary collection of “similar” games doesn’t get you anything new. You’ve already explained the part that matters.

Fourth, it’s a misunderstanding of what the concept of “genre” actually is. Genre is not a property of a work; it’s an organizational category, and you can organize things however you want. Super Metroid, for example, is a shooter, and it’s also a platformer, and it’s an open-world exploration game, and it has an upgrade system, and it uses non-explicit storytelling (except for the intro text). All of these things are properties of the game, but none of them, individually or in combination, require you to affix any particular label to it. Depending on what you’re talking about, you can refer to any or all of these effects. In fact, what actually happened, historically, is that a rough approximation of this particular combination of traits ended up acquiring the label “Metroidvania,” which, in addition to being the absolute stupidest name anyone has ever come up with for anything, just goes to show that genre categorization is completely arbitrary and you can make up a new one basically whenever you want. So, actually, the article isn’t “wrong” in the usual sense, but rather simply useless. You’re always free to pick any three similar-ish games and call them a genre, which is exactly why doing that doesn’t do anything. But the fact that genre don’t real doesn’t mean that it has no utility as a critical concept. There’s no point in using individual effects to establish a genre, but you can use genre to understand what a game is doing through it’s individual effects. People understand the type of thing that a platformer or a fighting game or a rhythm game is, they know what you’re talking about as soon as you bring up the term, so these understandings can provide starting points that ground further analysis. This is why trying to establish a “new genre” is pointless: genre is only useful to the extent that people already understand it. Of course, new genre concepts do have to be established and named at some point, but this happens as a reflection of widespread understanding. “Metroidvania” become a known term once people started to gain an intuitive understanding of what type of game that was; indeed, the term itself reflects the fact that two seemingly dissimilar games “felt” the same to a lot of people. But for games that are obviously the same type of thing in the first place, there’s no point in pointing that out. You’re not telling anyone anything they don’t already know.

Fifth, the assumption that these traits are necessarily good things is unjustified. The author equivocates between the argument that this particular set of effects constitutes a genre and the argument that they’re a good thing, and in doing so avoids actually making the second argument, which is the one that matters. While video games do have a violence problem, it doesn’t follow that any game where you don’t kill things is solving that problem. The violence problem is deeper than just “killing things is bad”; it’s a problem because, to the extent that games are about interacting with an environment, violence-based interaction is a) necessarily adversarial: the environment can only hurt you, and you can’t interact with it productively, and b) reductively physical: the environment consists only of objects to be manipulated or destroyed, and contains no subjects to engage. A game where you can’t fight but you have to run through an area avoiding obstacles maintains both of these problems. The world is still just an enemy and not a place that you can actually exist in. Furthermore, setpiece-based storytelling also has the same problem: it portrays the world as just an object. Of course, this doesn’t mean these techniques are necessarily bad, either. Physical and adversarial actions are parts of the real world, and they’re worth portraying. Even explicit violence isn’t necessarily bad; you can make a game with violent acts that are actually meaningful. The real problem, rather, is the assumption that games have to do one type of thing: that you have to have combat, because otherwise it’s “not a game” – or that you have to have explicit non-violence, because otherwise it’s “not art.” The truth is that getting good requires being able to do different things as appropriate. In the previously mentioned Mother 3 example, you see the town transform as it becomes commercialized, but you can also talk to the residents in order to hear how they’re dealing with it and how they feel about it. Using both types of effects allows the game to communicate the situation more effectively. Picking out any individual effect, even something like non-violence that seems inherently laudable, and labeling it as a “good thing” is a reductive method of analysis that retards artistic development.

Sixth, the whole thing is a transparent ploy to smuggle in an unexamined assumption about what games are “supposed” to be like. Genre categorization is not an evaluation of quality, but the author is using genre as a means to argue that the games in question are good. Something being a platformer doesn’t make it a good or bad thing. Even if you really like platformers, there exist both good and bad games that meet the genre criteria. So you can establish a new genre, if you really want to, but you can’t establish a “good genre,” because there’s no such thing. Historically, though, there’s been a rather strong tendency in game criticism to assume that the “correct” way to do games is to put everything “in the gameplay.” (Anytime you see a derivative of the word “ludic” you’re almost certainly walking into this minefield.) This viewpoint is no more justified than the idea that movies should be strictly focused on cinematography or that lyrics aren’t a valid component of songwriting. In terms of storytelling, there are a lot of people operating under that assumption that the goal is to make storytelling in games as “interactive” as possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing work in this area, but when you assume that this is the only thing that can be done, you basically box yourself into a corner. The usual way the complaint is phrased is that a cutscene or anything else that the player doesn’t “choose” is “non-interactive” and therefore “takes you out of the action” because it’s not “gameplay.” This is an unquestioned assumption that being “in the action” is always a good thing. Actually, it’s not even an accurate description; walking through a setpiece is not being “in the action,” it’s just an unclear cutscene where you have to hold right while you’re watching it. Selecting an option from a menu in order to trigger one of two endings is also not meaningfully interactive; it’s just lazy writing. And that’s exactly how you can tell that there’s no real line here: you can have empty interaction, where the player is pressing a button but is not actually engaged in what they’re doing in a meaningful way, or you can have something nominally non-interactive like a cutscene where the player is actually paying attention and thinking about what’s going on. What makes one choice better than another isn’t how it’s coded or how you can categorize it or what it “counts as,” but what it does. So if you insist that games are only one narrow type of thing, you will end up with games that barely do anything. One of the examples in the article is a game that portrays a Soviet-style dystopia using things like staged propaganda shots. The author is really impressed by this for some reason, even though it’s basically the least impressive thing possible. The Decaying Soviet Dystopia is a cliche; as soon as I say that you already know exactly what I’m talking about. The thing about portraying cliches is that it’s easy; you barely have to do anything other than invoking the name (that’s pretty much the definition of a cliche). So the fact that a game uses a certain technique to do literally the easiest possible thing is actually an indication that that technique is nearly useless, and the fact that this appears impressive to someone is an indication that what’s actually going on here is fetishization.

Seventh, this is all really beside the point, because this is ultimately just another by-the-numbers entry is the musty old “art” debate that yet clings to game criticism like a damp fog. The post is tagged “games as art,” which doesn’t seem to make any sense. How is categorization at all relevant to artistic merit? There are a billion different types of nails, but categorizing a new “subgenre” of nail doesn’t make nails art. Recall, though, what’s actually going on here: we’re talking about a particular set of effects that are assumed to be good things and are furthermore considered the things that games are supposed to be like, and this is what’s being called “art.” So the implicit claim here is that if you do games “right,” so that they’re “interactive” enough, then they’ll be “good enough” to “count” as art. The concept of art is being used as a standard of quality. Hence, the focus is on taking the unique aspect of games – interactivity (although not really, we’ll talk about this later) – and making it as “good” as possible, so that it reaches the level of qualifying as art. But this whole conceptualization is completely erroneous, as evidenced simply by the fact that there exists bad art. Indeed, that is exactly the situation that games are really in right now: the fact that most games are thoughtless kill-em-ups or obtuse number-crunchers or, yes, pretentious pseudo-interactive badly-written short stories doesn’t mean that they aren’t expressing things. It means they’re expressing things badly. Games are bad art, and arguing the “art” part only serves to emphasize the “bad” part. And of course there’s no point in arguing it in the first place, because you can’t convince people that games are giving them significant experiences. They’re either feeling it or they’re not. In fact, that’s the silver lining here: the reason people are talking about these things is that they feel intuitively that games are capable of real expression. The insistence that “games are art” is how people convince themselves that what’s they’re feeling is real and valid. But the need to use that label is born out of defensiveness, and it doesn’t actually help to make anything any better. That’s why the only way to do this is the other way around: to make games that are good enough that nobody feels the need to discuss them “as though” they were art. That is: assume games are art. So what? There’s no point in answering the first question if you can’t answer the second one. There probably was a time when it needed to be pointed out that, yes, games are a form of art, but just pointing that out is all that really needs to be done, because if you can’t move forward from there in order to start making claims that actually matter, there was no point in making that point in the first place. What we need right now is more matter with less art.

Eighth, give me a fucking break. This is what passes for criticism these days?