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No Mastery Without Mystery - Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime

Started by droqen, November 06, 2022, 04:26:37 AM

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I'm very much enjoying 'No Mastery Without Mystery', but I started this thread because of this section in particular which I'll quote in full, unedited:

QuoteIn his critique of "metaphysical" systems that make a claim to essential knowledge of things, Kant argues that, with respect to such theories, "the proud name of ontology[the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being], which presumes to offer synthetic a priori[in a way based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation] cognitions of things in general [..] must give way to the more modest title of a transcendental analytic"(2004[1781], 1247/B304) [i do not know what these numbers mean]. In other words: systems of thought which claim to provide an account of things-in-the-world as they are in themselves, independently of their appearance against the horizon of our experience, in fact do no such thing: they are 'merely' proposing what Kant terms a "transcendental analytic". We cannot have unmediated access to things-in-themselves: what we have are our sensory intuitions of objects, acted upon by the faculty of the understanding. This means that for any understanding of the world-- even those which claim to transcend the domain of appearances-- the ground of knowledge is always the appearance, or phenomenon: the object as perceived. Such projects, Kant suggests, make the mistake of confusing the phenomenon with the noumenon: the ideal object that exists independently of its being perceived. Though the latter may be posited, it is only the phenomenon which is available to the perceiving subject as an object-of-thought.

This shit rules, I guess it's time to start reading Kant


Earlier Vella discusses how 'proceduralism' fails to capture something necessary for the ludic sublime:

QuoteThe primary objection to the proceduralist perspective[..] In presenting the logically-constructed cosmos as the objective game system in itself, proceduralist approaches short-circuit the gap between the objective game in itself [the noumenon, which as stated is not available to the perceiving subject], as a computational materiality existing independently of the player's experience of it, and the game-as-cosmos that is the result of the player's analytical attempt [a mere attempt!] at imposing rule-based, conceptual coherence upon her experience of the game.

QuoteThe player, then, remains aware of an essential, and unbridgeable, gap, between her experience of the game, her understanding of the game as system, and her awareness of an underlying implied game object: as I shall argue, it is in this gap that we can locate the operations of the ludic sublime.


Quote[..]the process of ludic engagement can be framed as a drive towards mastery — defined, more specifically, as the capacity to frame a complete understanding of the game system[..]

My favourite work (of my own) to revisit emerses me out of the work itself and into-- most often-- my own memories of a real thing. In some respect there is therefore a "complete understanding" of the art to be achieved: the sort pursued by Pierre Menard. But that level of appreciation is separate from the self-serving 'mastery' acquired through the course of playing a videogame. When I wrote seek what they tried to seek I have to wonder at the dual roles at play in a video game or in any game.

As a player am I seeking what the artist sought, or what my fellow players sought?

Can they ever be the same?

Are they always the same?

What constitutes a "complete understanding" of a work of art? In the case of a painting is it the complete contents of its paints and their positioning on the canvas, or is it where the artist purchased those paints and how they applied the paints to the canvas, or is it what the artist had in mind and why they applied the paints to the canvas, or is it the history of who owned the painting across the months or years or centuries?

What constitutes a "complete understanding" of a video game?


QuoteThe drive towards mastery, of course, can only operate as long as the game object offers some form of resistance — some element of mystery that resists incorporation into the cosmic map.

There exists some element of mystery, of resistance to mapping. I have thought of this resistance as unnecessary in the past, but I think what it is missing is some genuine memory -- as with any art form, all choices can be arbitrary. I must look for the ways in which introducing resistance feels wholesome rather than contrived, so that I can look back on my choices warmly, and without regret.


I have arrived at sections The act of playing and The limitations of perception and the ludic sublime.

Quote[The aesthetic mechanisms of games/videogames] differs radically from the aesthetic mechanisms set in motion by artworks in other media. In gazing upon a painting, no matter how drastically the viewer's conceptions might shift [..] in reading a novel, allowing for the operations of Iser's "moving viewpoint," [the viewer/reader] can still be reasonably certain, upon finishing a novel, that she has received a phenomenal intuition of the work as a whole.

[..] the player is aware of playing the same game object, but never exhaustively, and thus, they cannot claim complete knowledge about an ideal game object, only that such knowledge may in principle exist.

This grants the game object a sense of fundamental unknowability[.]

This cuts to the heart of what I dislike about games that are not systemic: they fail at this task, they flatten themselves, they are incapable of producing this sense of fundamental unknowability...

Yet, MANY other things also attack this sense.

QuoteAs Aarseth writes: ...the player cannot access a general play session (unlike watching a movie or reading a novel) but only particular ones [...]

Although it is possible to make this claim, the phenomenal phenomenality, that is, the player's understanding that their understanding is frail and human, is easily damaged by the tools that are made increasingly available: cheat engines and hacks, internet walkthroughs and playthroughs, et cetera.

The player "cannot access a general play session" but may find themselves with easy enough access to a variety of play sessions presented as general in enough ways that they feel as though they do have such access, or close enough to dismiss the phenomenological nature of experience.

And as a game developer who is aware of being aware of the patterns that drive development, I often feel as though it is both possible and likely to arrive at a final understanding, a final interpretation, a final omniscience, regarding such complicated machines.

The ludic sublime is noticeably illusion.

QuoteThe drive towards mastery, of course, can only operate as long as the game object offers some form of resistance [..] The player is driven onwards by the expectation of the perfectly-ordered, rule-bound cosmos that proceduralism locates in games, but, faced with the impossibility of obtaining [it,] is constantly drawn to confront [the ludic sublime].

In other words, if these are the preconditions for experiencing the ludic sublime ((1) the drive towards total comprehension, (2) the impossibility of obtaining it), then a player who has short-circuited this relationship (as an effective player is driven to do) by allowing these two things to meet in the middle (by (1) allowing for a slightly less than perfect comprehension, and (2) utilizing all available tools to obtain it) can no longer experience the ludic sublime.


QuoteThis sense of a totality that cannot be perceived, that can, in fact, hardly even be conceived in its entirety, finds an echo in the category of aesthetic judgment that Kant identifies as the sublime.

But I suppose I can still target that affect in others even if I find it difficult or impossible to experience myself.


thinking about this tweet of mine and some other responses and quotes.

Quote from: @droqeni want to experience a game like i experience a painting, all at once. gameplay doesn't have to exist in four dimensions. trapped behind walls, behind time, behind gates, behind locked doors. gameplay could be free


the magic door opens on its own. like magic. it's an automatic door. when you approach a door in a game it should open for you. now that would really be magic.

if a door doesn't open automatically, if it's not magic, then it doesn't belong in your game.


also i *do* still feel like i'm missing something when i play Rooftop Cop but it's not because i was lacking in skills or dedication or reading comprehension. it's because i can't interpret the fucking gameplay. but it certainly is all there. it's all there. i can play it all.


i don't want a story, i don't want puzzles, i don't want achievements, i don't want rewards, i don't want resources, i don't want content, i don't want difficulty options, i don't want systems, i don't want gameplay

just give me a big important machine and permission to break it

i can sense the possibility of the ludic sublime in here; i want a system that (paradoxically?) gives me the sense of incomprehensibility while also giving me all of the tools to comprehend it -- let us say, attempt to comprehend it -- comfortably. i want a level of access to the ludic sublime that is not frustrated by what to me appear to be useless and noisy and annoying doors.

"i want to experience a game like i experience a painting, all at once" while feeling simultaneously that there are deeper depths both accessible and also not yet accessed.

it is a self-contradictory desire.


or perhaps what i am describing is in fact not  the ludic sublime! Vella writes that the ludic sublime comes in some sense from a necessarily incomplete understanding of a game system. i do not want an incomplete understanding of a game system! i want something adjacent to the ludic sublime, something not based in this frustrating and contrived incompleteness. this is a more comfortable idea to hold onto - more comfortable because it is not self-contradictory.


Quote[..] it is time to move from a theorization of a ludic sublime aesthetic to an examination of its poetics.

the next section is Dark Souls: the ludic sublime foregrounded


- Indistinct boundaries (e.g. collectibles that seem forever out of reach, visiting areas presumed to be perhaps only background decoration)

- Unclear causes and/or effects (e.g. what is the purpose of "reverse hollowing"? it is not immediately clear)

- Undefined entities (similar to above: seemingly useless items)

- Ergodic irony (other players' spectres show paths not taken, suggesting a limited subjectivity of experience)


QuoteIt is certainly possible to argue that the feeling of the sublime is transient, and will subside as soon as the player achieves a reasonably stable cosmic understanding of the game — [.. However,] I have argued the 'black box' nature of the computer's upholding of the game system precludes the player from direct knowledge of the game system. [..] at no point can the player assert with complete certainty that the phenomenal cosmos she has arrived at is a perfect reflection of the game system. Even after extended play has resulted in mastery of the game, there remains at least an opening for the possibility of surprise and further revelation

[..] the player's cosmic understanding of the game[..] can never be finally closed, and must, by the very formal nature of digital game play, retain the status of a hypothesis.

How frustrating.


The thing about a videogame is it is fundamentally finite. When it comes to the true cosmos which surrounds us, the ludic sublime is a genuine experience. In the case of a work such as Dark Souls, I find myself no longer desiring more examples of constructed spaces that could be understood but whose structure intentionally frustrates not comprehension but the simple act of information-gathering.

The ludic sublime was not born with Dark Souls but it was the game that perfected it, which gave me this once-in-a-lifetime experience, which I may never seek for games to tease out in me again.

Being one human in an infinitely incomprehensible cosmos is the Dark Souls of the ludic sublime.


Okay... that was a total joke conclusion. I've been thinking about it more and I have a much more important conclusion.

After reading The Dispossessed I felt a deep longing for a world that did not exist-- and resolved that feeling by more consciously adopting a certain desire to ignore obstacles, to be willing to push them aside, to see my aspirations as more important than the systems restraining me from reaching them.

Perhaps it is overconfidence, a lack of humility, which enables this line of thinking. Regardless of how healthy it might or might not be to feel this way, but here is my hot take (which I expect to think about and filter and write more on later):

The ludic sublime as described belongs to aesthetics of loving obstacles, in some ways a defeatist attitude:
I want X; I want to want X, but never reach it; I want to want X, but for Y to get in my way;
Y is beautiful.

It is a trap, a love for the idea that nothing is possible, in some ways the 'hydra' from my unreleased and unfinished 'hydra in our home' poem... I lived in a messy house for a long time and it felt impossible to clean it up... As described, the 'ludic sublime' is an aesthetic appreciation for this feeling of impossibility. I have been surgically removing in pieces my ability to sit and appreciate obstacles for how they frustrate my purposes. I want to surmount them, leave them far behind, and I can't be pining for them in my rear view mirror.

I'd like to be free, instead.


The title, "No Mastery Without Mystery," claims the only mastery which is legitimate is the mastery you can never feel you've achieved.

How stuplime. (I am going to read Ugly Feelings next.)