Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

That Liminal Feeling

January 18, 2010

By virtue of the magic circle, all games can be said to exist within a liminal space.  But liminality is a mental state, you have to have the buy-in of the player to get them into the space.  It requires that choice to transgress out of their normal space and into the new one.  Otherwise they are standing on the the border and never truly in both places.

I suspect different games will do this with varying efficacy. While we may take on a liminiality when playing any game, some games are much more successful at it.  Appointment-gaming games don’t feel strong in this area, although the person who obsesses about their FarmVille crops even when not in the game may feel differently than I do.   I think these days the games that make me feel most in a space are the RockBand style games.  I don’t just play the game, but become a rock star for a moment, being the idolized musician I never managed on the trombone.

The fans cheer, the music continues on, and I have the physical feeling of an instrument or microphone in my hands.  The game gives me positive feedback, asserting it’s new boundaries on me, and encouraging my desire to enter its special world.  There’s a bit of flow involved, too, that gets me into a now/here-type space that makes it easier to enter the liminal one.  {In fact, I think that sort of now/here feeling is a strong part of what I like about liminal spaces.}

Assassin’s Creed 2 actually got me to thinking about this, and the act of transgression.  I’m not the sort of person who can climb walls, and I’m certainly no brawler, thief or assassin.  So being Ezio was definitely a step into the other, but one which I’d done many times.  But then I realized that climbing was a bit more fun in more crowded areas, and then I realized it was because the crowd of people were responding to me.  Calling me out for breaking their social norms — the ones in line with the real world of the player.

Thus the game encouraged my transgression, and made the transition into the meditative climbing all the better.  Which is good, because, really, the climbing/parkour sections of the game are the parts that are the most fun.  When Ezio is being the bad boy that he is (a not the bad boy that every game character like him is — in other words, not when he’s fighting, but definitely when he’s stealthily killing or climbing or seducing), that’s when he’s the most fun.

Frankly, it’s the best use of the “See how many people we can put on the screen” the next-gen consoles were supposed to offer.

In terms of other games, I find that I get drawn more completely in games where I have more direct agency and feedback.  Dragon Age doesn’t do it, as to successfully mange my party, I have to pull back and micromanage. Oblivion still manages it, somehow, even after all these years it’s one of my favorite console RPGs.  I picked up it’s predecessor, Morrowind, during the Christmas Steam sale, and am thinking of revisiting that (but that’s another post).

I get the feeling, though, that I’m still just scratching the surface of this idea, and hope to think about it more as I work on games and other media throughout the year.

(Tomorrow I’m going to start talking about some other games issue that have arisen, but the idea of liminality and transgression are always in the back of my mind, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it)