Visible Puppeteers

Breaking the immersion is a popular criticism in games these days. Perhaps not with those exact words, but anything that pulls a player out of the world within the game for any reason, be it a bug or an imperfect animation or an unexplained mechanic or even the inclusion of collectibles the gaming community tends to put on a frown and shake their collective heads.


Mid-Boss telling more than I want to know

Much like how this protagonist does to his midboss

In the film and theater world, particularly pertaining to Japanese film and theater, the words representational and presentational get thrown around a lot. To be representational is to be intending to hide the fact that a film, play, game, or other form of narrative media is a fabrication. Conversely, the presentational is that which makes a point to show or simply does not try to hide the fabricated nature of storytelling. Something like Inception is the epitome of representational–absurd sums of money and effort were put into making it seem as real as physically possible, even when the movie steps out of the boundaries of reality. Double Suicide, though much less well known this side of the planet, is the ultimate example of the presentational, as black-clad puppeteers lurk in every scene, pages from the script decorate the sets, and the director talks with the writer about the ending.

Here in the West we are raised on the representational. Narrative is expected to hide all hints that it is somehow made, and if any of the inner workings of the craft are revealed, or if anything even suggests that what is happening on-screen or on-stage is somehow not real it breaks the illusion or takes us out of the experience. It is never a good thing when our nice familiar representations are somehow revealed as creations. Sometimes it is with good reason–a bug is not the kind of thing I want to see, nor do I want to trip over glitches or look at awkward animations, textures, or models, but these are all unintentional tells. Every so often, a game wants its players to know it is a game, and makes a point to show it, and in these cases I have heard far less criticism, but worse I have heard almost no discussion, either. With so much talk of games and art, it is curious that such a popular topic in film, gaming’s close cousin, has not trickled it’s way into the newer art form, especially considering the towering and long-present influence Japan has on the game world.

Traditionally, Japan loves the presentational. Even looking so far back as the end of the tenth or the beginning of the eleventh century to the world’s first novel, narrative has no qualms going meta and having the narrator come out to speak directly to the audience and have the main character talk about tales and their purpose. Double Suicide, which I mentioned earlier is a fantastically famous film on the islands, and animé, which is often argued by film folk to be inherently presentational due to its drawn nature (this is disputed because many viewers claim to be able to suspend their disbelief further when watching something animated than performed), is so prevalent it has spread its influence across oceans. Needless to say, presentationalism is not difficult to find in Japan’s games, as well.

The graphic artists Pokemon red/blue

He drew you!

Now, were you to ask a film person, he or she would almost certainly tell you that all games are inherently presentational, as they are animated and played with a controller or keyboard, making it impossible to detach one’s self from reality outside the game. I say this claim is poppycock. Seeing as they have no choice, being animated does not, by default, make games presentational, nor does holding a controller. It is like claiming that film is inherently presentational because the screen has a limited size, and the framerate is below the full speed of the human eye. I have never been able to sit and watch movies nonstop for hours upon hours at a time, but I can sure as hell sit and play a game for a long, undisclosed period. Even with a controller in hand I can forget the world around me should I so desire. I will also be excluding bugs, glitches, and imperfections from presentational traits, as they are not choices the artists make to better a game. I will also, to an extent, be excluding health bars and heads-up displays. Some may think that is cheating, exemtping something so blatantly representative of games that it could make all games presentational, but just as theater needs a stage and props, and film needs all of the parts that make it up, games need indicators or the players would be unable to play. However, such indicators can easily make a game more or less presentational or representational, as some things will stand out on screen more than others. That said, though I believe games can be representational, and many are at least intended to be, I do not believe many are truly, 100% so.

What then, makes a game presentational or representational? One easy answer on the presentational side of things is to take the Disgaea route and disregard things like the fourth wall and name a character midboss. Disgaea is a game that exists to remind players that it is a game. Being a satire, it has no qualms coming right out making fun of common stereotypes and making popular culture references. Even the leveling system and stat cap are presentational. In a way, all leveling systems are presentational, as hard-coded levels and stats with concrete numbers are traits unique to games. Disgaea’s is particularly blatant as there is almost no upper limit in the game. The level cap is 9999, and even when you hit that you can reincarnate a character to start them over with a percentage of their stats upon reincarnation. The highest number a stat can be is so high it only stops upon hitting maximum value of whatever data type stats are saved as (some enormous value divisible by 8). The animation is another thing the Disgaea series has pushing it towards the presentational side of things. Though being animated does not be default make games a presentational medium, to this day the Disgaea games remain sprited. No matter how engaging a sprited game may be, it is impossible to reject sprites as an indicator of a game’s game-ness, especially nowadays when graphics move closer and closer to photo-realism. Any game with sprited animation automatically becomes presentational because no matter how engaging or believable a film or game may be, sprites, if charming, are pixelated and jagged. In the game world, spriting is as presentational as a game can get.

Finding a perfect example of a pure representational game is not as easy as pointing out a purely presentational one, though. Red Dead Redemption is a good example, as is something like Demon’s Souls or even the campaign mode of, say,Call of Duty. The last here is broken by its other modes, as mass multiplayer modes are another game giveaway, plus the game has some form of leveling system. Demon’s Souls has the same problem with a leveling and stat system, and while Read Dead is almost there, there is one thing all three of these games share that make it tricky to argue that they are perfectly representational: menus. Games have menus. Pause menus, item menus, stat pages, sphere grids, challenge menus, action menus, even plot and lore menus can be found in almost any game, and that is excluding title menus, options menus, and data-related menus such as saving and loading. I will also bring back the topic of health bars and HUDs, for though I said I will be excluding them to an extent, there are some health bars and indicators that cannot be so easily ignored, like say the ones in many Zelda games–hearts and images of weapons and items are not exactly subtle, and though they are specifically designed to stick out so the player will notice them, they push the Zelda games more towards the presentational side of things.

a fish and some hearts

talk about self-reference

If I had to make a list of games that I believed were examples of extreme representationalism, I would say such a thing is nigh impossible. As it stands, games, though they can be mostly representational, like Red Dead Redemption to bring back a previous example, few are far enough to the right to represent representational games as a whole. If I had to pick just one, though, I would say Shadow of the Colossus. As a game, it practically ignores the player–there is no tutorial, and it only tells you what buttons do as you need them, as opposed to throwing all of the controls and tricks at you at once in the beginning of the game. It has a health bar and display at the bottom of the screen, but not only is it minimal, it is subtle and blends well with the environment and even vanishes when unused for a while, usually when riding around on the horse. This game alone is also the reason I included menus as pointers to presentationalism, as it only has three: the title menu, the save menu, and the options menu. The start screen is map that fills in as you explore and nothing else–there is not even a pause menu. While the game does not look perfectly real, it looks good, which as far as I am concerned is more important for games, and on top of that nothing looks or feels out of place. The music is integrated and changes as the situation does as well, making it blend well with the action and not drawing unnecessary attention to itself. It is a game that does not act like a game, and as such is by far the most representational game I have played.

While games as a whole are certainly more presentational than not, I do not believe that they have to be. As more and more art-like games come into being, I feel like representationalism will be better represented in the game world. Film and theater as they are in their current state are built with representationalism in mind (in the West, at least), as thus when something truly presentational comes out it gets a lot of attention. Perhaps for games the opposite will take place, and when more truly representational games hit shelves, they will garner the attention of more important people than a lowly web writer.


  1. Cristina D'Ancona

    Interesting choices. Some other things to consider might be portal and Bioshock. To expand on a point you made- I have to say that actions taken when the only thing you see that is manipulated are the hands of the character as in FPS games, those hands become your hands. The reason it is so cruel to kill the companion cube, why it is so terrifying to crack a splicers skull open, are that the “puppet” of the character that would be a game sprite is actually your physical body connected to the game by hands. This is even more apparent when you are in front of a computer, so close to the screen.

    Ok, well at least for a scaredy cat like me. Even Arkham Asylum, or any other horror game for that matter, make me feel more connected just by the nature of how the developers want you to be scared and feel emotionally connected via, OMG this thing is going to kill me. So even though they are usually riddled with intense music and sometimes cartoonish graphics, a horror game or FPS has some nice representational elements.

  2. Just real quick, and not to be rude at all, Genji isn’t the first novel. Wikipedia is not really a reliable resource on this. Here’s an academic link to a bunch of articles on ancient novels predating Genji and even the advent of written Japanese.

    This is not to be snarky or dismissive; this was an interesting post and I’m glad I read it, and I’ll be sure to read more about this from you. But some of those ancient novels–Trimalchio in particular–are really great and worth knowing.

    • Stefan Samurai Terry

      To defend my academic honor as a Japanese culture student, my personal knowledge of The Genji comes from a semester-long study of the book. Wikipedia just makes a convenient source for those unfamiliar with the subject. The Tale of Genji is the first piece of writing to be considered a novel because it uses a consistent cast of characters, has an episodic chapter structure and has a primitive overarching narrative arc, among other things. Nowadays the term novel tends to be used more broadly to describe any piece of narrative writing longer than 40000 words bla bla bla.
      tldr: I’ve personally studied The Genji and to get technical it is the first piece of writing to have been considered a novel, whether it is the oldest depends on how you define novel.
      I’m afraid I don’t know Trimalchio, but I’m a Japanese-oriented student, not a Roman one.

      • Stefan Samurai Terry

        as an added note, thank you for the comment. It’s always good see folk are reading.

      • I’ve heard it called the first “Modern” novel, but give some of those Roman-era ones a read, they’re pretty novel-esque. I only say this so you can make your own distinction; maybe you’ll disagree!

        Also, boku mou benkyou shita koto aru kara, tomodachi ni mite kure!