I Am The Lizard King

A while back, I stated that certain games have a rich quality of immersion, such to the point that while playing MGS or Ico one could almost peel away the narrative itself and find the experiences wholly composed of feelings of survival and self-sacrifice. Frank didn’t entirely buy it, citing the self-conscious way that Kojima’s games make reference to themselves as pieces of media, or the way Ueda’s puzzles always call back to earlier puzzles in Zelda-type games. Because of their post-modern presentation or acceptance of precedent influences, his concensus was that games (or at least those ones) can’t quite strip themselves of their veneer of player/avatar divide, that there will always be some kind of a conceptual divide, and that the kind of immersion I was talking about was something of a “fiction.”

Sir, in the words Yosemite Sam, them’s fightn’ words.

Now, I’m not here necessarily to defend what I was talking about before, but I think there’s something I didn’t quite raise which I’d like to now. I’m not saying that well designed games make you believe  you’re the character you’re playing as– such an idea is either patently absurd or morally questionable at best. What I’m saying is that well designed games, at certain peak moments, are built to make the player experience or at least simulate the experience of feeling the same feelings their character is going through– When Snake is afraid, the player should be afraid. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this sort of thing happens in games– in fact, I think it’s something that everyone acknowledges as an occurance that’s quite common, but I believe we may call it something else.

Think of this– we’re not the only species on the planet that plays. Animals play-fight amongst each other. Dogs and cats play with objects we give them. There is a universality of play, and even games with rudimentary rules (whichever buck wins the fight gets the doe) that isn’t exclusive to humanity’s powers of higher reasoning. The reason why certain moments hit us like this is because games have something primeval about them, something primitive that reaches beyond our well-earned intellect, deep beyond even what we traditionally think of as our emotions. Quite literally– and don’t believe for one second that I’ve got the science to back this up– games aren’t really stimulating all the frontal parts of our brains, the areas that work through math equations, decode Joyce for us or write love songs for that pretty young thing with the short hair from the elevator that reminds you of Wynonna Ryder from the early 90’s. Instead, games engage directly with the back ends of our gray matter, the cold-blooded, reptilian parts of our brains, the ones without enough range to understand anything other than life and death, and thus registers everything as either naked, bloodlust agression or myopic, bloodcurdling fear.

In short, games communicate most directly with the parts of our brain too primitive to know that we’re playing a game at all.

Those are the parts of us that are immune to self-consciousness, the parts of us that don’t understand or appreciate irony, post-modern humor or even the broadest of knowing winks. Have you ever had a dream about something dangerous and reach a moment where, rationally, you knew were dreaming, but felt scared anyway? That’s the lizard in us, the fight-or-flight mode that kicks in when we have no more armor of intellect or emotion with which to shield our abstract animal selves. When the monkey on our backs is dead and all that’s left for the poor ape-self is for Charles Darrow to compose a eulogy for its alleged soul, all that we’ve got left in us are those neural pathways and connections we still maintain back from the days of the dinosaurs. We haven’t lost them, though we’d like to think we’ve evolved enough to lose them entirely and become one of those big-brained races out of Star Trek, or something. No matter what we do there’s always some tiny orphan of instinct trapped deep within ourselves, running about a clumsily constructed cage we call a consciousness, which knows only two polar extremes of life: agression and fear– fight or flight.

Games, I believe, tap into this reptilian area of our minds, the zones that can’t calm themselves with self-consciousness because they aren’t self-aware themselves. True, such feelings only last moments, minutes or merely even seconds, but they’re enough to color the rest of our brains and feed the more advanced sectors of our gray matter with pure exhiliration. If I knew more about how the brain works, how fear-centers opperate and which parts pump out adrenaline, endorphins and the like, I might say that games can become an effective way of testing our own chemical composition, balance out our weights in some medicinal, thereputic way. All I know is that games, or at least the well designed ones, are capable of absolute immersion, however brief, because they trick our brains into believing for split-seconds that it’s all a matter of life and death. Blink and you’ll miss it, deny it and it only goes to show you’re going through the first stage of grief at your own demise, after all.

Therefore, when we play MGS, we might not be Snake per se, but at key moments  in the design, we certainly become some kind of reptile…