Nihilism, Video Games, and the Art of Aesthetical Immersion: Or Why “Life is Strange” Was an Amazing Game

Later this year, my contribution to an anthology on pedagogy dealing with narrative and persona immersion in religion should be published. Drawing on St. Augustine, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Walter Ong, I was arguing that the special relationship between religion, orality, and the synthetic relationship between the monomyth to the human psyche, will ensure the pedagogical vitality of religion in the 21st century. The argument was that narrative immersion and participation is the aim of orality and should be the aim of lecturing, especially as it relates to the literary study of religion and religious stories and texts.

Gianni Vattimo is the gentle nihilist. Vattimo argues that nihilism is not the militant deconstructive force of fire that is often associated with nihilism. In this sense, Vattimo agrees with Leo Strauss who, in his famous lecture/essay “On German Nihilism” (1941) argued that the “nihilism” of the romantics which was vulgarized in Nazist militarism was not about “flash and bang” but deep moralism—the “nihilism” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in the German context, was a reaction against the emptiness of modern liberal life and a yearning for something real, something serious, something of substance. Vattimo goes beyond Strauss in arguing that true nihilism, the gentle nihilism that he propounds, is aesthetic in character. The age of nihilism which will lead to benevolent peace, according to Vattimo, results in a worldwide museum of aesthetic experiences. Thus, the world is like a museum of multiple rooms with their particular and distinctive aesthetic styles offering to people their appeal and we choose to indulge in the aesthetic of our choosing but protecting the particular aesthetics of parochial regionalism. Thus, Gothic-Catholicism is the privileged aesthetic of the West just as shan shui is the privileged aesthetic of Mandarin China, etc.

I am not here to discuss the merits of Vattimo’s outlook as much as I wish to explore the reality of why Vattimo proposes the worldview that he does and how aesthetical immersion, especially in video games, has become the new gravitas of meaning and experience in the hollowed out digital age we live in. Gilles Deleuze articulated an important artistic point before he died. Deleuze argued that the act of creativity, especially as manifested in art, was an act of metaphysical rebellion and defiance (following in the footsteps of Albert Camus) and was the last refuge of the affirmation of life in an age of emptiness, or, more appropriately, in a world without meaning and where the only meaning we make for ourselves is through the creative act of art.

It is unsurprising, given the connectivity in continental philosophy, that an aesthetical character from Nietzsche to Camus to Deleuze to Vattimo exists, and that the latter three saw, or see, art as the last citadel of humanism and life more generally. Art is the first instantiation of human desire and the psyche, the creative act of potentiality actualized. It feeds, and fills, a yearning deep in the soul of man and becomes the first realization of stories.

*

In our contemporary world, which shuns the notion of narrative structure and form, the book has faded precisely because of the multifaceted assault on the story from postmodern deconstructionism, literary deconstructionism, digitization and technologization, and the general emptiness of man finding his place in the mythological arc of stories; whether divine or political. As such, the loss of narrative immersion, along with the push to greater digitization, has led to the video game replacing the written word as the new medium of aesthetical experience and immersion because video games—while containing stories and having the ability to resurrect narrative structure and form—are principally centered in aesthetical immersion and the creativity of aesthetical immersion and experience which is all that a depreciated and nihilistic society has left. Stripped bare, naked, and exiled, aesthetical sensation and experience is all that the near dead corpse of modern man has left to awaken him to the stars and begin his pilgrim journey to that city of God.

Jordanes Last Judgement

Jacob Jordaens, “The Last Judgement.” It is noteworthy to remember that the “naked” will experience God in dread and terror, while the “clothed” will experience God in beatitude and felicity.

The video game market caters, as I see it, to two crowds: the hoi polloi and the aristocrat of the soul. The first crowd is the mass man of mass society and enjoys the cheap thrills of consumeristic and corporatized video games. The emphasis of these games is aesthetic overkill; emphasis on graphics and gameplay and nothing more. Stories are unimportant. Characters forgettable. Campaigns equally forgettable if not nonexistence. These games are often released to the world broken and needing quick fixes. Multiplayer is the main selling point for these games which feeds the depersonalized and false networked world of artificial man and artificial society.

The second crowd, those aristocrats of the soul, of story and orality, of personality and personal relationships, is the crowd which independent games gear themselves toward. While lacking the graphical precision of fully operating mass games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, or Need for Speed, these independent games charm us with their aesthetical quirks, characters, and story arcs. Don’t Starve is a charming game that anyone who is a fan of gothic punk (or steam punk) and Tim Burton can fall for in the realm of sandbox survivalism.

This is not to say that large corporations cannot produce memorable story-driven and character-driven games. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series with Nathan Drake proves the reality that a mass story-driven and character-based game with a storyline can succeed and succeed spectacularly. I admit to coming to the Uncharted series a bit latter than die-hard fans who purchased the first copy when it was released, but I am appreciative for having joined the unforgettable ride that was that adventures of Nathan Drake, Sully, Elena Fisher, and Chloe Frazer.

But of all the recent video games I’ve immersed myself in, the most unforgettable was Life is Strange. While a sequel/prequel has since been released, Life is Strange was such an immersive and unforgettable experience that after a weekend race through the five episodes I walked into work on Monday and told a colleague of mine – after asking me about my weekend – that I just finished “playing the greatest TV series ever.” (This was back in early 2016.) My remark was somewhat tongue and cheek and I later explained to him what I meant. However, anyone who has played Life is Strange, or similar story-based and character-based games whose campaigns don’t last more than 24 hours when all said and done, will understand the artistic connectivity between the aesthetical and narrative immersion of good television programming like Breaking Bad with the aesthetical and narrative immersion of the video game experience.

Life is Strange came to me on a whim. My Steam profile informed me that this is a game I should check out during its Winter Sale because I have a penchant for indie-type video games on my profile. I do like a good story after all. Puzzle games too, I find endearing. So Life is Strange foot the bill and on sale, I decided to purchase it. I didn’t regret it.

Part of the art of the story is to synthesize persona and narrative immersion—or at least that’s my argument for that book. While the domain of persona and narrative immersion was traditionally in book form, it has since shifted to the world of video games for the reasons hitherto explained. Plus, in our fast-paced world the video game is contradictorily a place of speed and sloth; a place where the time constraints of reading Tolkien can be replaced by a weekend marathon through Uncharted, Halo, or Life is Strange. And the persona and narrative immersion of Life is Strange worked perfectly as I sank into in persona Max and fused myself with her as the game unfolded. Now it wasn’t “Max” playing the game but me through the person of Max. I felt moved by the characters and encounters. I felt bad for some of my actions even though I thought other characters “deserved it.” Needless to say, I played the game again and decided to do things differently than the first time and was equally shocked by the Sublime at what unfolded differently because of my actions the second time instead of the first.

But the video game world benefits, unlike the literary world, from this stripping of man naked and exposing him to the Nothingness of the Abyss. As a result, the ability to dive into literature is hard for many people who lack the understanding of form and structure, grammar and syntax, beginning, middle, and end, climax and resolution, fixed forms which we are told by the denizens of intellectuality that fluidity and chaos are all there is and such attempts at narrative structure and form are tantamount to impositions of White racism over the literary genre. Stripped bare and beaten down into the mud, all that man has left in this age of cheap thrills, consumerism, and lack of substance, is the yearning desire for an aesthetical experience, and aesthetical encounter, as it were, with the Sublime and Beautiful. Video games, because of the more direct participatory reality entailed in video gaming, allows for the deep immersion and aesthetical experience for naked man better than books do. The universal reality of Life is Strange is that it had a deep and immersive aesthetical experience to it.

Playing through Life is Strange made me re-encounter many of the great literary and narrative tropes and forms that I had grown familiar with in my literary studies and exegesis. From main antagonist to tertiary antagonist, to tragedy and romance, to shock and awe, to form and symbolism. One of the most remarkable, sublime and beautiful, encounters was with Kate Marsh—the good Christian girl stuck in a nightmare that she couldn’t wake up from up. (SPOILERS AHEAD:) When we meet Kate in class, she is down in the dumps despite a quick backstory revealing Max and Kate meeting for coffee in time’s past. Her once uppity and charming smile has been broken into a dour depression that leads to culmination in the second episode where she prepares to kill herself by jumping off the roof. As Max you have the ability to save her, but not through your special power but by how well you engaged with her in the preceding encounters in the game and how much interest you took in her stupor. I managed to save her, as I hope all would be able to, but the artistic symbolism that was included in Max’s diary/notebook began to reveal itself after spending some time with, and in, the game.

*

Edmund Burke argued in his Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, that the sublime “produc[es] the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The feeling of danger, pain, and the terrible overwhelm the individual into a state of impassioned frenzied. “Obscurity” and “gloomy pomp” define the sublime—and obscurity and gloomy pomp certainly rule over Arcadia Bay. The beautiful, by contrast, is the “mixed passion which we call love,” it is something pleasant and inviting, it is an enchantment over the mind which creates a spirit of revealed closeness and intimacy. The beautiful is the “green turf[ed]” mountain instead of the “dark and gloomy” one. Burke believed that humans feed off both the sublime and beautiful, but that general society ought to aim at the delicacy of the beautiful instead of the terror and grandiosity of the sublime which overburdens us.

But in this world that has had beauty stripped and destroyed, we return to the aesthetic of the sublime instead of enchanted beauty. And there were plenty of moments in Life is Strange that bordered on, if not directly plunged me, into the sublime. The cult of the dark, of the obscure, of the sudden, and the masochistic sublime, were integral to the game as much as the gentle softness and endearing intimacy of backstory revelations and personal decision-making was too. As such, I oscillated between the sublime and the beautiful, bound by the mediating unfolding of the game’s story and character progression which swung suddenly, and violently, from rosy sunshine and green pastures to darkened forests and a teenage girl’s grave, to a darkened dungeon with friends, or other characters, from the game pending on how one proceeded with their actions.

The sublime and beautiful dichotomy was also perfectly, if perhaps unconsciously, embodied in the two lead characters: Max and Chloe. Chloe, with her pomp and shock, scandalous obscurity and roughness, was the quintessential personification of the sublime. You cannot, as Burke argued, help but just bow in admiration of Chloe. Moreover, Chloe’s persona and story was one that induced pain. And pain, as Burke argued, is one of the defining emotions caused by the sublime. Max, by contrast, was the embodiment of the beautiful. The beautiful, Burke reminds us, is small, smooth, and delicate. Max was small, smooth, and delicate; her innocence, submissiveness, and fragility called the player to an attraction to her which Burke called love. I bowed in awe of Chloe. Max, however, I loved.

lis5-fp__huge

Shock and awe, terror and dread, mixed with scenes of heavenly serenity, Life is Strange perfectly captured what Burke described as the sublime and the beautiful.

Growing older, as I have with other favorite video games and anime shows of mine like Uncharted, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Cowboy Bebop, and with a growing interest in aesthetics which have dominated the last two years of my philosophical and theological education and career, I have realized what Deleuze meant when he said the creative act of art is the last citadel of the affirmation of life and rebellion in the cold and dark world wrought by modernity. Without the prospects of even genetical generation anymore as the West spirals into its terminal decline, the aesthetical heart that Nietzsche understood was all that was left in man in this age of nihilism is waiting to be awakened by art to say Yes! to existence instead of cuddling up into a small corner with a warm bed and three state-provided meals as the culmination of evolutionary “progress.”

If Strauss is right that nihilism—or at least a strand of it—is the moralistic impulse for substance and depth instead of cheapness and shallowness, then it is unsurprising why Life is Strange left such an impact on those who played it. I was perfect prey for Life is Strange’s aesthetical immersion which provided, or revealed, a substance, a sublimity and beauty, that has been thoroughly eviscerated from the world we live in. In the cheap and empty world that is America, Europe, and the broader West, I was desiring something magical, mystical, and captivating. I had my fixes with games like Fallout and Uncharted, and films like How to Train Your Dragon and Toy Story (my most beloved Pixar series ever since a child). And then Life is Strange entered into my soul. We are all aristocrats of the soul after all.

Music, which is such an important element to aesthetical experience, has the power to make something good into great, and great into memorable, and memorable into unforgettable. The use of music can be selective or widespread, but its proper usage reinforces what the intentionality of the scene or story is trying to communicate with a heavy gravitas on the psyche that allows it to enter a double immersion. I have several film soundtracks on my iTunes precisely for this reason, as do I game soundtracks too. How to Train Your Dragon perfectly captured the spirit of character and narrative with music. Life is Strange followed suit by perfectly interweaving songs to the storyline and, perhaps esoterically, selected songs with titles relevant to the game like Mogwai’s “Kids will be Skeletons.”

This is not to demean Life is Strange, which I have selected on my Steam profile as “My Favorite Game.” But I have come to conclude that the sublimity and beauty of Life is Strange comes at a time when substance and meaning is wanting and waning. Even religion, once the four-walled citadel of such a life, is depreciated with its cult of humanitarianism as the highest expression of the religious life. Starved for the bread from heaven, that is, the substance, story, and relationality that is supposed to be offered by dogmatic Christianity instead of politically correct Christianity, Life is Strange, like manna in the wilderness—that empty and barren land we find ourselves—became the nourishment of the soul even if for a weekend. Starved and malnourished, we look everywhere for substance and Life is Strange produced that scandalous and endearing substance in a way perfectly adapted to our present reality and discontents. That Fichtean and Schellingian rage for something more was temporarily provided by Max, Chloe, and Arcadia Bay.

If we lived in a world where substance, relationality, and stories were not so depreciated, Life is Strange may have passed by as just another story and puzzle video game. If we lived in a rich and enchanted world it remains an open question how Life is Strange would have turned out. I, however, doubt it would have had the same impact as it did precisely because in a world with neither the sublime nor the beautiful. So in our empty present, Life is Strange became the conduit for a return to the sublime and beautiful. It served as a deep aesthetical immersion in a world where all that we have left is aesthetical experiences. I cried playing the game, and beside the death of my grandparents and listening to Latin responsorial chants for the first time, I can’t recall any other time I’ve cried in the last three years. Even if a game, the aesthetical immersion of Life is Strange rekindled a sense of being human in an age of inhumanity. It is poetically fitting that Max is a photography student too.

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