In Middlemarch and Los Santos?

I’m drawn to art of unreasonable maximalism: that wants to represent or at least gesture to everything, if ultimately for how it fails to do so. I had some thoughts about odd parallels between the representational strategies and problems of such world-depicting novels (Middlemarch) and open world video games (Grand Theft Auto [5]). Games are the medium currently large but unserious enough to be permitted to proclaim this ambition.

I’m taking a DANM class this fall with Susana Ruiz called Game Design, Documentary Storytelling, and Social Activism. We’ve been discussing questions about the ways interactive media may express social realism, talk about real issues in the real world. We generally consider connections between games and film/television (in no small part because they work in the same, audio-visual, sensory mode). However, the way open world games think about space, the individual’s simultaneous insignificance and perception of centrality to the city and history, the representation of social “structures” and “logics” over specific facts, their coded fictionalization, and the context in which games are produced and discussed – ever reacting against charges of being an unserious form – remind me most closely of ambitious 19th and 20th century realist novels about communities, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Zola’s Germinal, Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, perhaps even War and Peace, Vanity Fair, and many novels by authors like Balzac and Thomas Hardy which I haven’t read. What’s interesting to me about this is the way certain problems recur in unexpected places & permutations, and how these distant repetitions clarify those problems. We often talk about Grand Theft Auto in terms that come out of tech demos (look at that draw distance! What fine specularity!) and moral concern (look at how easily the game lets you murder sex workers) but they also reflect or enact some pretty fascinating conversations about how we talk about our fragmented and mutually contradictory perspectives of the world. Middlemarch and Grand Theft Auto 5, canonical, massive, also strike me as interesting cases as they are taken often as central examples, to some extent constituting or defining the aspirations of their profoundly different mediums. Works that are so ubiquitous may offer a way of looking at the way ideas of a genre itself consolidate.

It was suggested that I write further on this, and I want to lay out some of these parallels between the the realist novel of place and the representational ambitions of recent “open world” video games. A disclaimer is that these are first & rambling thoughts towards an essay or article, not that article, so I’ll need to go back to the actual books and games, and the criticism I reference, before taking this argument any further. I am very much not an expert on The Novel in English Literature: nonetheless the question of World, Worldbuilding, is richly presented and discussed in games but often more peripheral to discussion of classic realist (as opposed to science fiction) novels – and I am claiming that the simulation of world is quite fundamental to this kind of sprawling novel depicting community, and that there is some interesting common question about perspective, objectivity, and ideology.

Realism and the Film Metaphor

The film metaphor is central to the origins of narrative 3D games, in how they were discussed and marketed, talked about by critics, and even in who developed and distributed them. Many games claim they just want to be a movie. A classic example of the consolidation of this metaphor is the 1999 first-person shooter Medal of Honor, developed by DreamWorks Interactive and written by Steven Spielberg himself, and its 2002 sequel Allied Assault. Watching the opening sequence, you see close parallels to the iconic Omaha Beach landing in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan: wading to shore as an insignificant private as other soldiers drop unremarked dead on the beach in a cacophony of noise and strings, except in chunky early 3d, rendering the viscera as simple red stains, and leaving the water a flat texture.

(opening landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, still from Director’s Guild of America website)

(still from ViruZ A.G.’s YouTube recording of the opening of the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault)

Alexander Galloway tackles a lot of these questions about the representationality of video games: a standard mode for shooter games is the extended first-person shot, rare in film before games – suggesting an embodied perspective but hiding the body. I’d argue this ideal continues to be at the heart of most 3d action games – with the most recent iterations of the blockbuster first-person shooter franchises, both Call of Duty WWII and Battlefield V trying to draw solemnity, self-serious pathos and grit by returning to this WWII that remains a cultural fixation, if one increasingly understood only in reference to media tropes. The way this “cinematic realism” manifests in games remains highly bizarre – the announcement of new NVIDIA graphics cards spent some ten minutes demonstrating how with ray-tracing the irises of character models in Battlefield V reflect the orange bloom of explosions off screen, as though we play games to stare at avatars’ eyeballs! Scenes are mo-capped from professional actors, wearing skinsuits covered in dots in studios around LA: many pixels have been blackened describing how Sony’s new face capture system finally managed to capture the micro-motions of lips in a (queer) kiss in a trailer for The Last of Us 2.

In talking about documentary, “indexicality” becomes a centrally discussed problem: the force & argument of documentary film is closely tied to its claim that there exist exact mappings between on-screen things, and things in the world. This becomes complicated by the regular usage of acted reenactments presented as original footage, post-processing, the hiding of the camera & frame, etc. Ian Bogost among others popularized the term “newsgames” and “procedural rhetoric” to describe a cluster of projects to make discrete games about events in history or in the news: sometimes claiming to be objective representations, and other times taking an explicitly editorial position – these include controversial game engine simulations of the Kennedy assassination and the Twin Towers collapsing, or newsgames like the mobile game Bury Me My Love, a fictionalization by a journalist based on the experiences of a woman escaping Syria and trying to travel to Europe. On the other hand, classic games with political or representational aspirations like Papers, Please! or This War of Mine operate more allegorically, representing social situations or systems rather than particular events – there is much else to be written about allegory in games and literature.

(JFK Reloaded promo on Gamespot website)

(This War of Mine screenshot, from official website)

So this nexus of questions about film, perspective, visual representations of space and bodies remain rightfully at the center of discussions of what “realistic” games are up to, and aspiring to be. But there are also other conceptions of realism and reality, of how realism is a problem for art and how to approach it, like in the “naturalistic” novel as I’m suggesting here.

Open Worlds, GTA5’s Los Santos

Open world games, ranging from Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza 0, Watch Dogs, and Sleeping Dogs; to Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Just Cause; to the Elder Scrolls and Fallout; to The Witcher 3, Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, to many other simulated spaces, have become one of the most ubiquitous, technically ambitious, and commercially significant game genres. We’re in the season of endless hype around the release of several new ones – Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. This list is exhausting! A new city of several km2 fabricated and ready for entry every couple months!

These games are about offering a sense of free movement in vast digital environments featuring fewer invisible walls than other genres: usually, there is a scripted story arc, but the player chooses when to advance the plot and when instead to play digital darts. The map is usually packed with optional side quests, scripted interactions and background characters, activities, and easter eggs. The simulation of place, traversed in first or third person perspective, is fundamental. I will restrict this discussion the first sublist: open worlds with a commitment to simulating real places or fictionalized versions of real places. Grand Theft Auto 5 occurs in Los Santos, a close fictionalization of Los Angeles and its surroundings. You drive around, shoot people, buy bigger guns, invite your NPC friends to see complete included shorts, go paragliding, browse the in-game internet, see if you can steal a tank, get kicked out of the house by your digital aunt.

(a Rockstar Games released screenshot archived on

A key storytelling device of GTA V is to have you play from the perspective of three distinct main characters, with different criminal backstories, parts of the city lived in, bank accounts, and special powers. This is a key strategy of the realist novel of place, Middlemarch’s strategy too. The first couple hundred pages center on “the ardent young gentlewoman yearning for a more significant existence” Dorothea Brooke, before realizing that what it has to say requires also cycling through other centers of perspective, reorienting events and spaces. In GTA V, an NPC will let each of the three main characters smoke digital weed, which for two becomes a paranoid presumably hallucinated shootout sequence, and for the third just makes the screen blur slightly. One of the basic devices people talk about in novels is free indirect style – utterances that are syntactically in the third person, but in fact take a character’s subjective perspective – the subject of both literary studies and linguistic analysis. A close analog of this device seems a part of this kind of game also then.

A common feeling about GTA V, my feeling, is to love the city, but hate “the story” of the game: its parody strikes me as mostly toothless, punching down, if with inevitable moments of cleverness, the characters relentless misogyny too tired to be deconstruction, a key scene seeming to endorse torture. On the other hand, it simultaneously offers the remarkable experience of merging onto a highway, tuning the in-game radio through talk-shows, hip-hop, country, mariachi, classic-rock, as impossibly detailed walk-ups give way to towers, then suburbs, then scrub and trailer parks; the sheer number of minor characters demanding different engagements with the simulated city, ranging from hunting deer, to manipulating the simulated stock market, to stalking & photographing celebrities. You can “play” Grand Theft Auto 5 by following the view of a deer for 48 hours through the city as scripted crimes happen nearby and passersby recite their dialogue lines. What I think about when walking my avatar through Los Santos is that someone took the time to model the municipal waste logo on a dumpster, designed a system to make traffic accidents happen even when I didn’t cause them, performed the swears pedestrians offer when you knock over a power pole.

The main story, following the player through carefully shot & animated cutscenes is the part drawing from film or television: it includes credit sequences over establishing shots making the claim to a film / TV mode as explicitly as possible. On the other hand the scripted interaction and systematic possibilities of the world, and the perspectival shifts questioning the player’s relationship with the world, are what remind me of the other aspect of certain novels. There is a contradiction between what the open world tells you and how it operates, a ludonarrative dissonance one might say: you may endlessly disturb and save the simulated city, but in some basic way it returns to its original state everytime you leave and come back to the block.

Another such recent open world is Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 in a near future San Francisco / Silicon Valley with every streetlight “hackable.” One of its fascinating features lets you hack any individual on the street: each will list their name, occupation (“Poet”;”Programmer”), age, special fact (“avid hunter”; “asexual”), and income (“$22,000”;”$220,000”). Sometimes you get to read a text message or listen in on a phone call they are having. It quickly becomes apparent they are mostly randomly pulling from a set of possible combinations, but nonetheless it is unusual in a game to have this gesture that the models in the background experience the city as a different drama, the gesture towards background characters maintaining intricate and different personal geographies.

(From “8 Ways to Be a Jerk in Watch Dogs 2”

We have the line in Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

It remains a tourist’s Silicon Valley: there’s a (very iffy) depiction of gangs battling it out across from the office parks, a focus on The People Resisting The Man, but minimal representation of the dynamics of segregation, gentrification, displacement, housing crisis and homelessness, that are so central to the region; there were a few widely appreciated explicit discussions of race by the African-American main character, but they go nowhere in the game which still kills the other black character without much care or mourning; you can walk past a bit of a Chinatown, buildings look a bit different in different corners of the map, but the NPCs still essentially pull randomly from the same old names, occupations, and traits; there’s scant suggestion of the Central & Salinas Valleys just past the mountains, with their massive agriculture industry, migrant workers, and precarity, contrasting with, adjacent to, co-constituting the endless office parks. GTA5’s caricatures actually suggest Californian contradiction much better! In any case, the problem seems quite alive in the open world genre.

More on Perspective, Middlemarch

Early novelists had to offer apologia for writing in an allegedly unserious form. This seems very familiar to anyone who wants to talk about video games now. George Eliot wrote a famous essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” in which she describes the unrealistic tropes of sensational romance and intrigue that filled so many popular novels of her era, and articulates her commitment to naturalism – “The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as “dependents”; they think five hundred a-year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and “baronial halls” are their primary truths; and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister.” Her project in contrast intends some anthropological seriousness, to understand and model the actual social, economic, etc. forces in the fictionalized worlds. Certainly the games are generally in trope land, but whenever they visibly offer greater naturalism they seem to get a lot of critical praise for doing so, “growing up.”

I want to stop and think for a moment about what I’m trying to do here, or what this exercise is. The story that different media – novels, film, games – follow similar trajectories of invention, consolidation, experimentation, and becoming cliche is alluring but untrue. Maybe there’s a small plea for a certain kind of literacy – for an open world game made by people who have read Middlemarch (which, no doubt, many or most game writers already have), or more significantly games made for people who have already read classic novels, would be an exciting game – unlikely but not impossible to imagine. I’m not sure whether the problem is about the maturity of the medium exactly (Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grownup people”; a documentary game designer who visited our class made a similar claim about waiting for “games made for adults.”) It’s more that big-budget games have all this fascinating stuff, critique even, in the background – they do this even more than big-budget films since the 2 hour duration of blockbusters don’t give much space to examine all the background work, unless you really stop and look around: games on the other hand pack their worlds with newspapers, paintings, audio logs, that are less edited, more open to reading. It often feels like you can find a sidequest, a bit of dialogue, some peripheral writing, that not only does something different from the main plot, but something that contradicts or critiques it.

I took a great class from Ellen Rooney at Brown, “Austen & Eliot” where we, you know, read and discussed novels by Jane Austen and George Eliot. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Lifeset in a fictional but highly plausible central English town around 1830, offers partial perspectives, constant realizations of partiality, the suggestion of narrative coherence as an act of the mind, not world, despite an incredibly intricate depiction of acts and characters in such a world: considerations of agricultural improvements and the controversy of medicine, many finely balanced polysyllables rhapsodizing landscape and art, farmers speaking in dialect, subtle intersubjective euphorias and disaffection, close consideration of the necessary pounds and how to acquire them, moralizing and horse racing, hypocritical but human maneuverings of village clergymen, and gentlewomen looking for something urgent & meaningful to do while generally – but not always – lacking language for their dispossession. The book is deeply invested in social and geographic “simulation.” I will make a claim that I do not really defend: fiction like Eliot’s develops a technology of representation of the world through the ways people interact with systems and relations, that is also the model for realist open world video games representations.

“A meeting was to be held in the Town-Hall on a sanitary question which had risen into pressing importance by the occurrence of a cholera case in the town. Since the Act of Parliament, which had been hurriedly passed, authorizing assessments for sanitary measures, there had been a Board for the superintendence of such measures appointed in Middlemarch, and much cleansing and preparation had been concurred in by Whigs and Tories. The question now was, whether a piece of ground outside the town should be secured as a burial-ground by means of assessment or by private subscription. The meeting was to be open, and almost everybody of importance in the town was expected to be there. ”

We read Middlemarch alongside Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)” with the suggestion that it was performing a similar theorization: this is worth drawing out. Althusser’s (who murdered his wife during a psychotic break and though i use his name to refer to ideas, should not be celebrated) essay inverts the traditional Marxist formulation in which ideology is a superstructure entirely on top of material relations, to have ideology be the thing that actually constitutes the subjects and objects that relations operate between (this is the kind of exciting, odd, somewhat-orthogonal-to-other-realities, thing one gets to say in The Humanities?). The point of ideology is not simply to give a perspective of the world but to be the lens through which the world is seen. In this sense, representational art simulates ideology, shows a process whereby some things become real, focalized, significant, and others don’t. In a game, this becomes literalized in the choice of what parts of a city to simulate.

“Those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, ‘I am ideological’. It is necessary to be outside ideology, i.e. in scientific knowledge, to be able to say: I am in ideology (a quite exceptional case) or (the general case): I was in ideology. As is well known, the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself (unless one is really a Spinozist or a Marxist, which, in this matter, is to be exactly the same thing). Which amounts to saying that ideology has no outside (for itself), but at the same time that it is nothing but outside (for science and reality).”

One of the class’s arguments was that Middlemarch offers a parallel theorization of how ideology or “egoism” constitutes the world before it is seen:

“An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, for example.”

I was thinking about how this image becomes literalized by playing a character in a simulated world, switching characters.


We come to that part of the compare & contrast that acknowledges the two things are basically different, lined up only by a trick of perspective & light. GTA not serious, not thoughtful, poorly researched, “sophomoric drivel.” Dorothea’s idealistic marriage to Mr. Causubon, who turns out to be entirely stoic and controlling animate punctuation, has little to do with GTA’s marriage counseling scene, featuring affairs with implausible yoga instructors and complaints that Michael commits too many murders. Many of the games have multiplayer modes, raising entirely different questions. The novels I reference are provincial, the games in landmark-strewn metropoloes. The books are written by one person, possibly with an editor, over a substantial portion of their life; the games are made by 200 to 1000+ people, with a release cycle longer than 3-4 years probably meaning bankruptcy.

I do wonder how the scale of labor changes the meaning of multiplicity. There’s surely something interesting to be said about Rockstar North, in Edinburgh & Leeds’, fascination with reproducing LA and other American cities, and Ubisoft Montreal’s (+ Toronto, Bucharest, Paris, Kiev, Newcastle Upon Tyne) simulation of San Francisco, not to mention the enormous 3d-modeling, programming, art, animation, etc. labor for these games by people working in in Kuala Lampur, Chengdu, Bangalore, etc. The problem of assembling contradictory perception into an aesthetic unity is central not just to the content of the work but to the manner of its production. Ubisoft games now all open with a screen with a message like “this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations and gender identities.”

In Middlemarch, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called “Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch,” and had it printed and published by Gripp & Co., Middlemarch, every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, “where the ancients were studied,” and might have been a clergyman if he had chosen.

In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.”

In a puff piece in Vulture lionizing the GTA writers / Rockstar cofounders the Houser brothers (who come off as pretty obnoxious, not least for some ridiculous comments about 100 hour work weeks when there’s substantial talk of unionization and the unsustainable working conditions in the game industry) Dan Houser offers some intriguing, odd, comments, about the fact that he reads books:

“Dan says for research he consumed “hundreds” of books and films, “but nothing contemporary. I don’t want to be accused of stealing ideas.” He mentions Dickens, Henry James, Keats, Émile Zola, and “Arthur Conan Doyle, who just has great sections about America, you know, like a brilliant thing about union disputes in Pennsylvania and a brilliant thing about Mormons in Utah. But there’s no greater character in the history of literature than [David Copperfield’s] Uriah Heep,” he says.”

There’s a bit of evidence here for a real aspiration here by game designers to learn techniques from 19th Century novels – I thought of Zola before seeing Hauser cited him! On the other hand, I challenge anyone to play GTA V and think of Henry James as a reasonable reference point: Houser’s list reads like an AP English Lit syllabus rather than a coherent collection of taste or influence. Certainly Dickens is a closer reference than Eliot, for the way GTA and other open worlds characterize through caricature: James Wood, in his quite influential article “Human, All Too Inhuman” (with its rather annoying traditionalism and preoccupation with the category of ‘the Great Writer’) writes, “Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence … One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human. Dickens’s world seems to be populated by vital simplicities … Indeed, to be fair to contemporary novelists, Dickens shows that a large part of characterization is merely the management of caricature.”

This actually gives me a way of refining my argument: it is not that the Open World designers have learned a brilliant way to represent worlds; it is that the Open World embodies the aspiration of the realist community novel, taken to cliche. One of the Fundamental Human Problems in Eliot’s novel, and in her short fiction like “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” is how a person is a flat caricature in presentation, in public, to others, and fully human to themselves. Open Worlds too are strikingly able to offer the illusion of a world organized around a player’s perception, while also constantly contradicting it.

“Let me be persuaded that my neighbour Jenkins considers me a blockhead, and I shall never shine in conversation with him any more. Let me discover that the lovely Phoebe thinks my squint intolerable, and I shall never be able to fix her blandly with my disengaged eye again. Thank heaven, then, that a little illusion is left to us, to enable us to be useful and agreeable — that we don’t know exactly what our friends think of us — that the world is not made of looking-glass, to show us just the figure we are making, and just what is going on behind our backs! By the help of dear friendly illusion, we are able to dream that we are charming and our faces wear a becoming air of self-possession; we are able to dream that other men admire our talents — and our benignity is undisturbed; we are able to dream that we are doing much good — and we do a little.”

Other Directions, Questions

People say the world “worlding” sometimes. This seems relevant but I don’t know anything about Heidegger

Not film but television seems to often be invested in the simulation of the logic of a place, even using fictionalized towns (e.g. Pawnee).

How do technical affordances establish the player and character’s perspective of game worlds? This includes graphics technology (objects are instantiated only when you look at them) procedural generation of NPCs, simulation of systems like traffic, weather, and systems to enable permanent alteration of the city. Could be considered alongside analysis of literary devices in novels simulating place.

Middlemarch is very much about industrialization, economic and social change, etc. I do think this parallel is also there, if we talk about “Third Industrial Revolutions” or whatever, Watch Dogs 2 trying to talk about digitization and the fringes of the software industry and so on.


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