Mads Haahr on Ico and Ant Attack

[Talks] (04.28.09, 3:44 pm)

Visiting scholar Mads Haahr gave a talk on Monday entitled “Saving the Dead Girl: Emotion and Gender in Ant Attack and Ico.” This was a very useful talk, based on a paper that I believe is going to be published (but has not been yet). In the talk, Haahr explained some reasoning behind the emotional appeal of Ico (as well as Ant Attack), compared this to mainstream games, and anchored the emotional dimension within Jungian psychology. Here I will try to give a review of some of the salient points of the talk, and then try to articulate a question that I asked but was not able to express clearly at the time.

The opening part of the talk looks at the relationship between games and narrative. I think though, that here, narrative is not an end of itself, but is rather a means to produce an emotional response. While there is a dilemma regarding the relationship between narrative and interactivity, there is less of a problem between emotional communication and interactivity. After all, we rarely see problems with emotional communication in sculpture, architecture, or art installations. Many of these are explicitly designed to be (if not interacted with) engaged with and navigated, requiring an active particpant, as a player of a game might engage with the game world.

Mainstream games traditionally appeal to adolescent males, the narrative scope of these games is generally quite narrow (permeations of the monomyth), and the emotional spectrum of these is also extremely narrow as well. Beyond this, they tend to present very clear outlooks on the relationship between the player and the moral scope of the world, that is, well defined and delineated extremes of good and evil. The combined mythologies of thes is that “evil exists, and can be shot.”

However, if games can indeed communicate emotionally, they must broaden their spectrum. Haahr asked the question of “Where is the game equivalent of Casablanca?” In order to examine how games might produce a more rich spectrum of emotional responses, Haahr turns to the examples of Ico and Ant Attack, and the robust toolkit of Jungian psychology. Players of Ico generally reported a great variety of emotional experiences. Among the emotional experiences were such unusual (for games, anyway) responses such as sadness, despair, solitude, and loss. Haahr’s analysis of the game cuts across the game in dimensions of story, aesthetics, and gameplay.

It is also notable interjecting here that the analysis resembles the dimensions of mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics. In Haahr’s lecture, aesthetics is meant to be the spatial design, colors, sounds, and so on. There deserves to be some exploration of how these dimensions might interweave and relate to each other, but that is beyond the scope here.

It is worth at this point giving a quick summary of the two games in question. Ico was published around 2001, and while being technically innovative and being very well received by critics and reviewers, was relatively unsuccessful commercially. It is about a young boy, Ico, with horns who is taken from his village and imprisoned in a remote castle, he manages to break free and explores the castle, finding a girl, Yorda, and they (ultimately) manage to escape together. The story itself is simple in its fairy tale nature, and is extremely minimal.

Ant Attack, by contrast, was published in 1983 for the XZ Spectrum and Commodore 64. It has a much more explicit story, though the story is given as a background and does not come to affect play that much. The player can choose whether to be “boy” or “girl” and must navigate the city of Antescher to find the other character and escape. Despite the ostensible differences, the games have several similar characteristics.

Both games have players exploring a huge labyrinthine and ancient environment. Both have two main characters about whom little is known, other than the fact that they are magical. There are only two characters and a number of nearly identical nostile NPCs, and otherwise no (or very few) supporting characters. Both require escape and companionship, where the player finds the companion inside the labyrinth and must escape with the companion in tow.

Visually, both games make use of a limited color palette. In Ico, most of the castle is in a grayscale, with neutral tones and soft lighting. Green is used in a few areas to evoke optimisim, while the areas in the despondent portions of the game contain dark blue-grays. The color red is used only in Ico’s shirt and in Yorda’s eyes at the end. While Ico clashes with the castle, Yorda’s colors also are in monochrome, making her seem of the castle. In Ant Attack, a grayscale palette is used for the characters and the environment. The menu contains bright colors, and is in dramatic contrast to the actual gameplay. In both, the use of gray evokes loneliness and emptiness.

Both games make use of ambient sounds, but do not use music. Ant Attack notably does not use music even though music was very popular in contemporary games.

In terms of gameplay, both games are about escape. The player’s activity involves spatial exploration, but it is a forced exploration. There is no treasure in either. In Ico, the player explores the whole castle through a single play through, while in Ant Attack, the play is repeated. Both involve a forced familiarity with the environment. Unlike many other games, the games include an element of dependency. Going it alone is not an option. Many mainstream games involve self-preservation rather than protection of another. In Ico, the characters of Ico and Yorda are complimentary, and the play involves puzzles that emphasize the difference in the characters’ abilities. While the two work together, theirs is “an awkward, clumsy union.” In Ant Attack, the gender is irrelevant, and the characters are completely symmetric. The only division is between rescuer and rescued. In both games, the companion is discovered within the space.

Haahr’s analysis looks specifically at Jungian archetypes and how these fit and can be used to analyze the games. Jung’s archetypes were meant to form a “psychological morphology,” so just as human physical morphology includes two arms and two legs, the psychological morphology includes a persona, ego, self, shadow self, and anima/animus. This is meant to be a foundation where any given individual can be expected to have these parts in their whole psychological being. Psychological development occurs through a process of “individuation,” where the self is realized through the agency of the ego. The ego is stable and clear, and in dream analysis is equated to a clear, known structure, such as a house. The shadow self is a collection of the parts of one’s being that is not associated with the conscious self. This exists within the subconscious, which is unknown. In dream analysis, the subconscious is manifested as a wandering labyrinth, which is unknown and expansive. The deep subconscious is often manifested as the ocean. The anima and animus represent the qualities of the self that are percieved as lacking. A central element to Jungian psychology is projection, the process by which elements of the subconscious (such as the anima and shadow self) are projected onto others. The shadow is projected onto others whom one dislikes, who posess characteristics that one has but dislikes, while the anima is generally projected onto the object of romantic desire.

In both of Ico and Ant Attack, the space can be seen as representing the unconscious. In Ico, the character of Ico himself is clearly an ego, who is explicit and well defined, while Yorda is “fascinatingly vague,” like Jung’s anima. The shadow archetypes are more or less explicitly manifested as the shadow demons. It bears noting that, like Ico, the shadows too have horns, and are implied to be the spirits of other children with horns (and that had Ico not esacped he would become one as well). Yorda belongs in the castle as the anima belongs in the unconscious, this is why she is of the castle. In the rescue sequence at the end, Yorda escapes from the castle, and is brought from the unconscious realm to the conscious, and this is manifested by the appearance of color in her. The sinking of the castle into the ocean can be seen to represent the unconscious domain of the castle merging with the deeper collective unconcious, much like the fading of a dream upon waking. The process by which subconscious elements are brought into the conscious is individuation, but this is not meant to be a single occurrence, but a repeated process, as part of one’s growth, and a phenomenon that occurs within Ant Attack. These games work not only because of the use of explicit emotional invocation, but because of their play on psychological identity.

At the end of the talk there was time for some questions. One point that I raised was that while most mainstream games are about self-preservation, many games involve a quest to save an other (as in Mario), but in these cases the other is an idealized figure, who plays a nearly insignificant part as a character within the game. This is an absent other, rather than a present other, as is the case with the psychological anima.

A question that I wanted to ask was about the matter of authorship. Early on, Haahr asked the question of the equivalent of Casablanca (which is a question in a long vein of criticism), but there is an interesting discrepancy between the analysis of games and the analysis of film and other media. Generally, in analysis of film or other forms of art, a great deal of attention is paid to the idea of intention and meaning. While auteur theory is problematic on many levels, film criticism is frequently tied up with the idea that the director is the primary author and creative agent behind a film. Analysis of the plot or scenes in Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or The Shining tend may invoke dimensions of psychology, but this analysis tends to be motivated toward deciphering and discovering the meaning and intention of the artist. I do not mean to endorse this as the proper form of film criticism or suggest that it should be applied to games, but it does raise an important issue. Jungian psychology may be invoked in analysis, but there is also a question of how it can be used by the authors of a game.

It is all well and good to analyze games and discover their emotional appeal, but it is also disconcerting that few contemporary games can communicate emotions so effectively as these two titles. It is also troubling that, despite its clear artistic merit, that Ico was so commercially unsuccessful. On one hand, this is hardly surprising, as the “artistic” examples of popular media tend to be less commercial (if Ernest Adams wants to find his Merchant Ivory, he should look here), but game publishers tend to primarily be interested in stability of sales. A final distressing element is the fact that despite its emotional strength and psychological depth, that Ico is still a young-adult monomythic fairy tale. I am not interested in telling more serious types of stories (game designers should not be caught up in thinking about linear stories), but I do think that games should be able to produce the same types of emotional effects that those stories do. We need to leverage psychological analysis to be able to do better psychological design.

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