VGHVI Symposium, 10/4: Modes of Subversion 1: Frustration of Purpose and the “Final Girl”

Our playversation about DragonAge 2 confirmed me in my thought about where we should head next in our symposia. For the next few months, I propose that we consider specific possible ways that rulesets can subvert the identification through legibility (this was an element we added two weeks ago, in the crossover between DragonAge 2 and Super Hexagon) that creates immersion. The first mode I want to consider is frustration of purpose–that is, when a ruleset doesn’t let you do what you want to do, or does something to your game-state that you don’t want done.

Obviously, when formulated that way, this kind of frustration is actually constitutive of exactly the legibility we’ve been talking about: immersive identification is a matter of the player identifying him or herself with his or her performance-choices in the series of interesting choices the frustration creates. Our question will be whether rulesets can manipulate their frustrations as perhaps for instance DragonAge 2 does with Anders’ actions precisely to subvert that same identification, and, if so, how to describe the difference between frustrations of purpose that solidify and frustrations of purpose that subvert.

To that end, here’s my proposal for a starting point: Wikipedia’s article on the “Final Girl.” This may prove to be a dead-end, but pay special attention to the last bit, about Buffy. My notion is that the shifting of identification involved in the Final Girl trope needs a great deal of nuance as it applies to the initial parts of the horror film, where frustration is part of the audience’s engagement. The subversion effected by Buffy might in that case be the kind of thing we’re looking for, as it creates a new legibility in the trangressing of the old trope, just as, perhaps, Anders’ actions do in DragonAge 2.

About rogertravisjr

Classicist, game critic, game educator.
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2 Responses to VGHVI Symposium, 10/4: Modes of Subversion 1: Frustration of Purpose and the “Final Girl”

  1. Dan Cox says:

    Wikipedia notes, at the very bottom, that “Final girl” links to Feminist film theory. After reading the first paragraph of that article, that’s where I went too. I got as far as “viewer begin by sharing the perspective of the killer” and said, out loud, “Mulvey”.

    It might be old hat to some, but if we are going to think about confusion brought on by “méconnaissance”, we should probably mention “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” ( by Laura Mulvey. (As an aside, horror movies are so full of phallic images it’s pretty laughable at times once you realize it. I mean, all that stabbing and thrusting? It’s a bit much.)

    That said, the edge between solidification and subversion could be quite narrow in places. Subtlety is not something most games do well. In BioShock, we realize our role too late to make anything of it. All of our “choices” didn’t matter at all. Yet, in something like the Half-Life 2 episodes, some of the most terrifying analysis I have ever read puts it rather bluntly: as Gordon Freeman, we kill without questioning it at all. In both, we have become homunculus — weapons directed by another’s whims.

    Looping back to Mulvey for a moment, one of the more noted frustrations we mentioned in Episode 14 — soon to be released! — was, well, relationship frustration. We, as players, have grown so comfortable with having that total god-like control of our dolls that when they act different than we expect, we are surprised. The fact that we cannot stop Anders, or arrange the relationships we want, is probably that subversion you mentioned. However, it’s more a subversion of tropes than identity.

    The only example I can think of for actually subverting our identification within the game is something like Braid. We can re-organize events and motivations /after/ a session is over, but it’s rare that it happens /in/ a game. As I have written about before, it’s that information control problem. Knowing the story twist is coming lessens it’s effect.

  2. It is indeed old hat for me (so old I didn’t even think to mention it), but you may be right that starting there, especially with Kaja Silverman’s addition in *The Acoustic Mirror*, of nuance to Mulvey’s theory, makes a lot of sense.

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