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Neoliberalism Dupes You Twice: Suffering Agency in the Telltale Games By Coco Clements

As most of you may be aware, we live in a troubled time. The twenty-first century has barely seen its first decade but Man already suffers the yoke of world-wide violence, economic crises, and a fierce digitization which some of our grand-parents still try to brand the greatest insult to individuality since Karl Marx. We live in an era in which all your money vaporizes into taught degrees which then leave you completely equipped to not get a job. Not to mention the cost of housing or houses!

It seems the only realm where Generation Y still has the advantage on the elder generation in terms of skill, experience, and opportunity, is the ever-developing World of the Game. Our ability to freely make our own choices and create our own futures is not lost; in fact, a recent development in Virtual Reality offers the opportunities working life has never been able to offer us before. The interactive point-and-click game, especially those created by the remarkably modern and interestingly agile Telltale Games productions. For those among you unfamiliar with the different styles or genres within the gaming industry, the birth of the point-and-click game stretches even beyond the Lucasarts Monkey Island legacy.[1] However, in our new liberal or neoliberal society, the freedom these games offer may not be all that beneficial to our human condition.

The particular style adventure game that is the point-and-click game was invented in the 1970s, with text-based Colossal Cave Adventure as one of the first of what Jerz dubs ‘Interactive Fiction.’[2] It heralded an age of interactive games, which evolved into what we now refer to as the ‘point-and-click.’ The point of these games, unsurprisingly, was to ‘click.’ Using your PC mouse, the gamer explores the game’s world, and is meant to talk to characters within it to motivate one’s actions, as well as find and collect different objects to achieve these often yet unknown goals. As you play, the purpose of both the objects and the information you have gathered becomes apparent, and the player is then dependent upon him/herself to complete the narrative of the story. Unlike most action or adventure games, the game’s characters are not tied to a particular narrative, and you can move relatively freely through the world around you. The gameplay often centres around puzzles you can solve in nearly any possible order. Not only is the player now able to affect the virtual world in a singularly direct manner, the inability to find answers to quests or questions can leave even the brightest minds stuck in loops of endlessly revisiting spaces and striking up pointless conversations with the various responsive and oft times precariously sarcastic characters with which these games are graced.

Fairly recently, Telltale Games, a company that has since firmly claimed its spot among the producers of point-and-click adventures, has revolutionized the genre by popularizing the episodic adventure game through using known franchises as their inspiration. TV-series such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and AMC’S The Walking Dead, the Back to the Future and Jurassic Park film-series, DC’s Batman and Fables comics, Gearbox’ Borderlands game franchise and even the Minecraft game all received a Telltale conversion since the company’s inception in 2004.[3]

This trans-media translation entails that instead of being a passive spectator to a film or TV-show, Telltale gives you the opportunity to quite literally change the narrative, or in case of Borderlands, have the narrative without the shooting. Although slightly more restricted than the usual point-and-click, these games move the player along a predestined path through a narrative, but what narrative you will follow and where the path leads is inherently defined by your choices. To illustrate this conception properly, the example I would like to offer is one of Telltale’s most critically acclaimed inventions with the best soundtrack in the history of gaming, Tales of the Borderlands:

Set in the same world and presented as canon, this episodic adventure tells the story of Rhys, a charming yet helplessly unlucky Hyperion paper-pusher with high ambitions, and Fiona, a highly-skilled and witty con artist from Pandora with similarly high hopes for her future. As they are forced to work together, the player gets experience two sides to the story by playing both characters, sometimes even simultaneously.[4] Telltale promotes its gameplay by saying that there always is “more than one side to a story,” but in their games, it’s not only the telling of the narrative is different. Unlike a shooter or an normal adventure game, the player can be confronted with a choice of yet unknown impact on the story at any point within the game. This choice often depends upon a particular answer or a variety of responses within a dialogue, or a particular choice of action. This can range from insulting someone instead of playing it cool, siding with an enemy instead of a friend, or even a choice between life and death.

fiona
It is not Fiona, but the player who must make a hard decision.

Most of the choices you make are seemingly harmless, but can and often will have grave consequences within the story frame. No matter whether you have completed an episode, the choices you have made within that episode will have consequences throughout the whole series.

This style of gameplay may be nerve-wrecking and inventive, but it is also a representation of the world we live in today. As modernism and postmodernism before represented different zeitgeists, so is our age signified as a Neoliberalist one. This is a term that has been coined to summarize a political movement that is closely connected to the economic ideals of our current society. A friend of mine recently explained it simply by saying that ‘Neoliberalism is the American Dream,’ and in the sense that it stands for personal responsibility in individual yet singularly economic success, she was most definitely right. Born out of Locke’s classical liberalism and twentieth-century capitalism, which states that all humans are not solely free individuals but are so within the economic system, neoliberalism takes that liberty a step further. As David Harvey explains in his handbook A Brief History to Neoliberalism, free market and privatization are considered not solely of economic or political value, but as basic human rights.[5] Regional, national, but especially global policies are not meant to benefit the whole of society but should always enable individuals to fully realize themselves within the world. Since all value is now only considered within the economic framework, humans themselves then also become valued according to their monetary value. Skills or talents you may have or can develop only function as an investment in your value on the market. A free market is consequently the only way monetized people can be free.

Telltale itself may mainly concern itself with commerce outside of the game world, but the characters, especially in Tales from the Borderlands, are very much occupied by this neoliberal, capitalist value of items. The Vault Key that they are searching for is worth millions, and the treasures within the vault perhaps even more. The conflict between each of the players in this vault-hunting business is then completely based upon capitalist competition, and the goal for each of protagonists is to rise in the ranks. Rhys hopes to dethrone his arch-nemesis Vasquez by taking his job from him, while Fiona and Sasha seek to sell the Key or find the Vault to be able to leave Pandora for good and find a better life somewhere else. Their main goal is self-betterment and their means to do so, is money. One could argue that besides the capitalist motivations of these characters and the people on both Helios (the space station of the Hyperion company) and Pandora (the home planet for the Borderlands series), the whole of the Borderlands universe is in fact a neoliberal state, driven only by individual needs and monetary value. Yet, this is perhaps a topic for another day.

I would like to consider Tales, as well as Telltale games altogether, as inherently neoliberal in the sense that they offer its players “possession of individual interests and [their] ability to rank and decide between them,” which is at the centre of neoliberal thinking.[6] This quote is taken from Jane Elliot’s article on her conception of “Suffering Agency, “which she supposes is an inherent part of the neoliberal condition and is similarly instrumental to this type of game-play.

Suffering agency then entails that the neoliberal subject is confronted by a relatively simple choice, which has detrimental consequences. Telltale’s gameplay is notably inherently based upon this ability within the player to make that decision. Elliot’s argument is that suffering agency is the inevitable consequence of the neoliberal freedom, as this choice that must be made is always based upon two conflicting personal interests. Namely, if you are free to choose for your own personal gain, what happens when you have two opposing interests? Even if the choice seems impossible, it is a choice that has to made since neoliberalism dictates that agency is a person’s only way of self-realization. In the Telltale Games, this is embodied by both the fact that all choices proposed by the narrative must be completed, as well as the addition of a time-limit to most dialogue or action-based choices. Even when you decide to stay quiet in a particular dialogue (which is often an option), any answer even silence is in itself consequential as well, since the response often includes the ominous reminder that the characters, and the narrative, but especially the game itself will save any and all of your actions;

jack

And Handsome Jack is not ready to make you forget it, either.

To do nothing means to be nothing, especially since suffering agency often entails a choice between life and death.[7] In a free market, the only way you will be able to survive, is to participate. In our world, survival within the economy can indeed become life-threatening, since to live one must spend money, money must be earned, to earn money you must live – and so the cycle continues. Elliot bases her theory upon this neoliberal conception of agency, which entails the inescapable need for action, no matter how horrific this action might be. As an example of such agency, she uses the appropriately named film Sophie’s Choice (1982), a famous instance of an impossible choice that must be made by the protagonist, to choose which of her children will be spared. Not to choose means none of the children will survive, but the choice itself is too horrendous to be made. Interestingly, Telltale created an equivalent to this choice in its Game of Thrones adaptation.

The Telltale Game of Thrones game is placed within the Westeros we are familiar with from the TV-show and the books. House Forrester, a Northern family from G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, are at the centre of the game’s narrative and their predicaments are relatively similar to the fate of the Starks in the Game of Thrones universe. In the game, you switch between five of the six children of the Forrester family as you play through the different narratives: eldest son Rodrick and eldest daughter Mira, her twin Ethan and the exiled son Asher. Each of the characters is placed within one of the major locations from the show especially, such as King’s Landing and several cities in Essos, as well as the Forrester seat, Ironrath. The family is split apart by in an notably capitalist rivalry with a neighbouring family, the Whitehills. Namely, their dispute is over the woods around Ironrath and the export of the wood that both families depend upon for their income. The suffering agency the players then are confronted with is inherently connected to the neoliberal need for agency, in particular to oppose one’s capital competition. If they do not, the Forresters will be eradicated.

[Disclaimer: heavy spoiler warning for this paragraph]

The forced action this capitalist competition evokes comes to a particularly Ellioterian conclusion, when at the end of the second-to-last-episode the player has to choose between two Selves. The character of Asher finally returns home to Westeros to meet his brother Rodrick, both of whom are play-able characters you’ve come to know intimately over the last few episodes. Their party is ambushed by Griff Whitehill’s forces, the eldest son of the family you have been inescapably pissing off throughout the game. In a twist that would make G.R.R. Martin proud, the player is forced to sacrifice one of the two characters he or she has been playing after a short battle sequence, in a very literal translation of the two opposing personal interests that Elliot supposes make up suffering agency. The opposing interests become opposing interests of self-preservation, which Elliot argues is the ultimate form of suffering agency. It is not solely a horrific choice you will have to live with, but it is the choice you cannot live without, since your existence depends upon it. Interestingly, Telltale offers you a choice between two human lives, Rodrick and Asher, who embody your existence within the game. They have acted according to your agency, and suffer the consequences of those actions. You, as an interactive participant within the Telltale game-play are not only responsible for these horrific events, you must sacrifice (part of) ‘yourself’ in the process and at the same time carry the burden of living (or gaming on) with the choices that you have made. The whole thing seems vaguely reminiscent of Schrodinger’s Cat, even though in this case there is a direct confirmation of both your death and your life existing simultaneously. You must continue with the character you have not sacrificed, and must therefore ‘game-on’ with the reminder of the Self you left behind.

got

This particular choice, as well as the other choices in the Game of Thrones game, in Tales of the Borderlands, and in the other Telltale instalments are horrifically significant within the narrative of the game, and seem to perfectly align with the neoliberal condition. Namely, the neoliberalist system is similarly based upon what Elliot calls “a complex system of incentives and dissentives,” which, like a game, “requires that the players […] encounter and select between options with perceptibly different and meaningful consequences.”[8] She explains that especially because the choices are so unjust or unacceptable from a moral point of view, these choices are not “illusory or without import.” However, what cannot be denied for Telltale is that it will and can indeed only offer us, what blogger John Caulfield calls, ‘the illusion of choice.’[9]

It seems impossible to shape the game completely to one’s will, often limited by the amount of money, time, and effort that would have to go into that to create a game that would have to imitate string-theory, giving birth to new story-lines with every single choice you make. However, unlike our own reality, most of the choices that can be made within a game do not seem to have too much influence on what happens with the narrative as a whole. People can suffer or even die as consequence of your choices but the narrative itself continues onward without much delay. The players in all of the games end up in the same place in every scenario, despite of all the slight differences that arose within the game. In Tales, you may end up at the final fight with a team assembled of different people depending upon who you did or did not offend for example, but you will still defeat the Vault Monster in the finale. Fiona may be dressed in a different outfit, Rhys and Sasha may not end up together, but both your protagonists will end up in that vault and in a cliff-hanger for the second season. As Giorgio Agamben states, it seems strange to speak of “free will and consent” when an impossible choice must necessarily be made, and it can be ruled out completely if that choice does not eventually change anything.[10]

However, in Game of Thrones, your actions seem to have more of an impact, as the collection of choices you have made over the series place you within one of four categories: Nobility, Fierce Passion, Cunning Strategy, and Unwavering Conviction. Although the player is still not free to completely change his or her own personal story and success, or to rephrase it in neoliberal terms, to utilize the ‘free market’ all humans have a right to cash in on one’s personal monetary value, this division does allow the play to choose which predestined path he or she wants to walk. Nevertheless, the paths remain pre-paved.

Surprisingly, this seeming hiccup in the theory actually emphasizes the gameplay’s neoliberalist connotations. The player, even in a game-style of Telltale, is unable to escape his or her suffering agency, up to the point that even the player’s life-cycle within the game must be chosen. No matter whether the path is paved or the existence of free will denied, what you are left with in the end is only and always a choice. As the Telltale Games show us, even non-action or silence is proof of human agency. As Elliot point out, neoliberal agency will always result in individual suffering and personal sacrifice because it is a conflict of individualized, personal interests. In Telltale’s conception, this is the choice between two Selves. That these horrific and inescapable choices are revealed to have limited impact or significance in the grand scheme of things, only goes to show you that neoliberalism, whether you have free will or no, will cheat you anyway.

Works Cited:

[1] Are you indeed unaware of this particular jewel, I highly recommend you acquire it to binge the whole series after reading this article.

[2] Jerz, Dennis G. “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original “Adventure” in Code and in Kentucky”. Digitalhumanities.org. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 1.2 (2007). Web. <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq
/vol/001/2/000009/000009.html#howell1990

[3] “Telltale Company Info: Our Company” Telltalegames.com. Telltale Games, 2016. <https://www.telltalegames.com/company/>

[4] “Tales of the Borderlands: About” telltalegames.com. Telltale Games, 2016. <https://www.telltalegames.com/talesfromtheborderlands/about

[5] Harvey, David. A Brief History to Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 11. Print.

[6] Elliot, Jane. “Suffering Agency; Imagining Neoliberal Personhood in North America and Britain.” PDF. p. 84

[7] Elliot. pg.84

[8] Elliot. pp. 87

[9] John Caulfield’s comment on Mantle, Zac. “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions – Game of Thrones,
Iron from Ice.” Geeklyinc.com. Geekly Inc. 3 April 2015. Web.  <http://geeklyinc.com/decisions-decisions-decisions-game-of-thrones-iron-from-ice/>

[10] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. California: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print. p.90.