Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture by Trevor Strunk • Prometheus Books • 2021 • 216 pages • $26.95
I once told a couple of older writers over dinner that just as one could imagine a friendship cemented in the early twentieth century souring around a disagreement over a book, it would be more likely today for such a scenario to happen because of a video game. Although I was speaking hyperbolically, what I tried to convey to my older interlocutors was that the type of passionate activity we think of when we picture the heyday of little magazines, literary feuds, and the sort, can be found in the contemporary culture surrounding video games. As someone who has worked as a literary and video game critic, I’ll simply say that if you write a contrarian book review you might be met with reproof in the comments section or on social media. But if you speak ill of a popular game, its fans may lobby your editor to have you fired.
What is it about virtual worlds that make them lighting rods for partisan engagement? The reason, I believe, has much to do with the fact that video games, by virtue of their interactivity and long ties to internet culture, encourage an active and vocal player base. Players are used to exercising some measure of control over the events in a game. This sense of agency makes gaming personal, and the echo chamber of social media and online communities such as Reddit amplify convictions. Such conditions can spur feelings of entitlement—I’ve known several people who worked in and around the video game industry who were blindsided by the degree of vitriol directed their way when they or their organization ran afoul of players’ sentiments—but they can also drive socially positive actions like player-led charities or advocacy organizations.
In Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay between Consoles and Culture, Trevor Strunk examines the feedback loop between video game creators and their audiences. In the introduction of the book, Strunk asserts that “gaming as a medium of cultural expression was shaped specifically by the reaction of its fans, more so than perhaps any other medium in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” To substantiate his claim Strunk considers the ways that different, celebrated video game series have changed over time in response to players’ expectations and shifts in the culture at large.
Strunk positions his critique along a political and aesthetic axis. He is keen to show how games can embody progressive and reactionary ideals, and how their aesthetics can tuck in or push people out of their comfort zones. Strunk, who specializes in contemporary American literature, is a lecturer in the English department at DeSales University, and the host of the podcast No Cartridge Audio. Early in the book he states that “Video games are now and have always been on the cultural defensive.” To ward off the specter of the skeptical reader, Strunk reminds us that since the time of Plato, people have griped about the seductive charms of artificial recreations of reality. And that the early history of the novel is haunted by misgivings over whether the form contributes to mental laxity. (Fun fact: the first university-level course in American literature was given at Princeton in 1872. At the time, many academics believed English an inferior subject to classical literature.)
In a bid to establish games as a subject worthy of high-minded critique, Strunk writes, “If we are to imagine alternative political worlds from a progressive and, yes, leftist perspective, the simultaneity of reception, critique, and revision that is taking place in gaming today provides the best place to think beyond the seemingly impossible firm limits of our political and cultural present.” It’s a grand statement that I don’t think Story Mode lives up to. Sure, the dialectical back and forth between game developers and their audiences can spur or curb creativity—games are often tweaked, updated, and re-imagined based on player input. I doubt, however, that anyone will come away from this book with fresh thoughts on pushing the political needle forward after learning, for example, how Epic Games broadened its conception of what Fortnite could be based on the behavior of its player base.
Strunk is on firmer footing analyzing games. The most politically resonant chapters in Story Mode are those in which he traces the evolution of the survivor horror genre and first-person shooters. Focusing particularly on Resident Evil, he shows how the first three games in franchise channeled a sense of loneliness that spoke to a prevailing sentiment in 1990s culture that he links to the “neoliberal boom”: a time when “it was far easier to earn money as a corporation while also distancing people from the social communities through which we share responsibility for our fellow human beings.”
Strunk persuasively argues that Resident Evil 4 (2005) and Resident Evil 5 (2009)’reflected the increasingly militarized, post-9/11 world by shifting the games’ modus operandi from one based on scarce resources (i.e., limited health and ammo) to one where resources are plentiful and enemies are everywhere, and where, in the case of controversial latter game, the protagonists are few and white, and the adversaries are many and Black. Strunk contends that the more recent Resident Evil 7 (2017) is in line with our present moment. The horror in that game—which speaks to class anxieties about falling behind—emanates from a familial setting where a patriarch unlooses calamity around him. For Strunk, this domestic terror lends itself as metaphor for the reexamination of social hierarchies that has taken place since the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Strunk notes that while the Resident Evil games are the product of Japanese developers, “the shift in mindset from the isolated fear of being alone to the overwhelming fear of being crowded is not American specifically. This is something that has occurred globally, particularly when the classes, races, and people for whom history has neglected peak back. It is no surprise that at a moment when we are forced to face the ugly materiality of the past in our homes, states, countries, and world, we begin to fear the presence of people instead of their absence.”
Turning his attention to first-person shooters, Strunk observes that what began as an incendiary genre morphed into something amenable to jingoistic tastes, only to grow increasingly innocuous over time. After briefly summarizing the controversy that shadowed Doom (1993) following the 1999 Columbine shooting (the perpetrators were huge fans of the game, a detail that the media and fretful adults latched onto) the author recounts how the gaming industry moved away from the over-the-top violence characteristic of id Software’s classic to the less gory shooting galleries of the Halo series, and the less-attention grabbing violence of militaristic shooters like Call of Duty. In the era of the War on Terror, Strunk finds that depictions of state-sponsored violence were largely ignored by moral guardians like the attorney Jack Thompson, who clamored into the national spotlight by calling on lawmakers to rein in video game violence.
One of Story Mode’s better insights is that people drawn to multiplayer shooters generally couldn’t care less about a game’s political subtext. Take for example, Rainbow Six: Siege, which features operatives who specialize in torture. Strunk remarks that little fuss is made by its audience about what this means as a cultural statement. Rather, all most players care about is whether such features enhance one’s prospects for winning. “As these games become professional with prize pools and teams that play them at the national level, the politics of the character choices are distilled into questions of efficiency . . . Questions of morality are hardly entertained, let alone acted upon, which may ultimately disappoint Ubisoft [the maker of Rainbow Six] which cannot fully cash in at their weak attempts at representative politics in their shooters.” Strunk ends the chapter optimistically by observing that since the first-person shooter genre is such a well-known quantity it’s a ripe target for subversion. Indeed, Superhot (2016), one of my favorite shooters in recent memory, skewers the enthusiasm of online communities by featuring an in-game chatroom full of gushing commentators. It also teases the player with messages about the futility of playing a repetitive shooter. (Scott Alexander, a writer on the game, told me that he was inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.)
The middle chapters of Story Mode discuss the types of pressures faced by innovative game makers who grow chained to their creations. Strunk is eloquent on the Souls series and muddy on the games directed by Hideo Kojima (who receives a name check in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge). It makes sense. The Souls series is known for sending critics into tizzies, and the Metal Gear games that made Kojima famous have notoriously baroque narratives.
I am wholly sympathetic to Strunk’s assessment that the Souls games were born in a glory of experimentation that has since hardened into a formula welcomed by its fanbase. Demon’s Souls (2009), the game that inaugurated what would come to be known as the Souls series, upended expectations about what a role-playing game could be: It was cruel, opaque, mischievous—and poetic. But what was once a challenge to the status quo is now such a familiar set of forms that there is a “Souls-like” sub-genre. (Puts one in mind of how seminal movies like Psycho and Halloween spawned vacuous franchises that tried, unsuccessfully, to siphon off the vitality of their progenitors.).
In his chapter on Kojima, Strunk argues that the Metal Gear series grew less poignant over time after Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001). Essentially, Strunk reads the early games as a critique of the great man theory. As such, he applauds Kojima’s decision to replace the series’ protagonist, Snake, an elite covert operative, with another character for most of Metal Gear Solid 2. For Strunk, this gambit—which incensed some players—was a powerful demonstration of a game challenging its audience by suggesting that there are no singular heroes and everyone is replaceable. By contrast, Strunk argues, the later games in the series are exercises in fan service that returned to people the hero they missed.
I found this chapter tedious to read. Although I sympathize with anyone given the unenviable task of trying to summarize the plots in these games, Strunk commits a range of unforced errors. Characters are poorly introduced so that on one page you read a description of someone then a page later you read their name without any contextual callback. Moreover, a slew of the chapter’s sentences could have used more polish, e.g.: “And so when we meet Snake again at the beginning of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty—the-long awaited sequel to Metal Gear Solid—that came out on the next generation of gaming consoles, PlayStation 2, it shouldn’t be surprising that he reconnects with Otacon to run a strange little NGO/environmental terrorism concern that destroys metal gear units around the world.” At the risk of stating the obvious, talking about “a long-awaited sequel” on a “next-generation” system, is odd considering that series would go on for many years on other consoles.
The last two chapters of Story Mode are respectively devoted to how game makers have offered different visions of a post-apocalyptic society, and how developers on the Final Fantasy games came to challenge the series’ prerogatives while pleasing its fans. Comparing Bethesda’s Fallout games to those of At lus’s Shin Megami Tensei, Strunk finds that the latter, Japanese series offers a less comforting take on the end of the world: ”Individuality, heroic narratives, and the agency of the main character are the primary things that we see in the Fallout series that are absent in Shin Megami Tensei. And although the player is given a number of obvious paths in the Fallout games, particularly in Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, the Shin Megami Tensei games are uninterested in providing an easy branching path; its choices lead to frustrating, depressing, or even distressing scenarios for the player.” In Strunk’s view, the Fallout games reaffirm the idea of American exceptionalism while the Shin Megami Tensei series gesture to the fragility of all human bonds.
Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay between Consoles and Culture is an interesting work that speaks to the semiotic complexity that can be found in video games. Although I took issue with some of Strunk’s observations—alas, for me to nitpick at his assessment of Kojima’s Death Stranding (2019) would pull us too far into the weeds—I admired the level of scrutiny he brought to the topic at hand. Still, his book could have used another editorial pass and more attentive fact-checking. (Rockstar Games did not publish Spec Ops: The Line (2012); 2K Games, who operate under Rockstar’s parent corporation Take-Two Interactive, released it). The poor reception that greeted John Romero’s Daikatana did not adversely affect id Software, since it was developed by Ion Storm. Furthermore, it’s strange to say that the Final Fantasy VII remake (2020) “sold against all odds,” released as it was during the “epicenter of the pandemic,” after fans had been clamoring for it for years and when overall game sales and online player activity was up during lockdown.
For better or worse, this book demands an active reader. (It’s kind of like a video game in that way.) I’d hoped to find more salient connections in its second half between video games and politics given that the industry has long reflected political trends, in some ways less obvious than others. In the 1980s, there were the so-called Atari Democrats, young pols, charmed by free markets, who found inspiration in what was bubbling up from Silicon Valley. Today, we see how the thirst for consolidation and the failure to stem monopolistic impulses has resulted in a diminishing number of games released by major developers and the acquisition and/or shuttering of any number of independent studios, which tracks with general trends in Big Tech. It’s bracing to look at the number of games released by Activision, Electronic Arts, and other well-known developers, in the first decade of the century, and in the last. The same drive for massive hits that narrowed Hollywood’s horizons has occurred in the mainstream video game market which is awash with remakes (even remakes of remakes) and sequels.
Sure, one can bring up an obviously political game such as 1979 Revolution—which is about a photographer swept up in the events of the Iranian Revolution—and say, there is an example of an explicitly political game. Ditto, one might consider how the Taiwanese video game developer Red Candle Games had to modify “Devotion,” a psychological horror game, after a satirical reference to Xi Jinping incited an internet mob that cudgeled its user scores, and note how politics can weigh on developers’ choices. Nonetheless, at this juncture in history, there is still a gulf between pushing a trigger or trolling online, and walking to a polling station. (That said, I wouldn’t be astonished if, one day, a young turk who ascended through the bureaucratic ranks of one of the societies in something like EVE Online capitalized on their interpersonal skills and took their A-game offline.)