Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Endgame spoilers for Bloodborne ahead.
There is a discussion of verbs about halfway through Errol Morris’s new Netflix show, Wormwood. Comprised of six episodes that slowly delve into the CIA, the American military, and the joint experiments that each performed around LSD in the postwar period, Wormwood sets itself up as a show about a conspiracy. Eric Olsen, our key point of view character, is the son of a man who died in an unfortunate accident related to the experiments, and he’s the one who brings up the verbs.
Jumped. Fell. Dropped. These are the three verbs, and they all mean different things, but they all describe things that happened to Eric’s father Frank Olsen. To some degree, Wormwood is a documentary series that is dedicated to parsing out the real differences between those. If Frank Olsen jumped from a window to his death, that means something. If he fell, that’s something else. And if he was dropped? The play of language in a historical document or a report that details a death opens up ambiguity. Three accounts, each with a different verb, tell different stories.
Players of games are familiar with the hard lines that exist between verbs. Games require decision points: You hit a button to jump; you missed a platform and you fell; you were dropped from a great height, probably for a reason beyond your control. The world of video games revolves around verbs, even if those verbs as simple as “choose.”
More often than not, verbs in games are intentional, and they generate clarity. You wanted to do something, or something was done to you, but in either case you were able to parse the shape of the action on screen. Pressing X swings the sword. Hitting the right trigger dodges. And in those discrete actions and button presses, you received some kind of clarity.
This extends back to the earliest parser-based games. If you “go north” in Adventure, you’ve built out the world a little. You’ve divided the great wad of experience into a little piece, and you could map it if you wanted, all with the selection of a specific verb that generated a certain response from that world.
In 2017, I wrote about the third season of Twin Peaks and how it functions like a kind of game. “To build a mystery,” I wrote, “you need a set of rules.” From adventure games to first person explorers like Observer, the operations of mysterious game worlds entirely hinge on whether we feel like we can solve them. There has to be the hint of a stable system that structures them. We need to have the sense that there is a fundamental structuring principle to the entire operation; players want to be able to place trust in the system.
That’s all feeling and hinting and hope, though. All games are made of duct tape and glue with the seams covered artfully with paint. They’re not concerned with actually being perfect clockwork apparatuses; it only matters that they seem to be that way. Digging through fan theory pages for Twin Peaks or Westworld to see people digging through shot sequences and visual allusions for the skeleton key that makes it all perfectly logical and crystalline.
Read the timelines and crossover explanations of the Metal Gear, Kingdom Hearts, or Dark Souls games to find people creating an rigid, iron monolith for these works to perfectly cohere to. There is no room for ambiguity. The only interpretation possible is the one that “solves” it all.
Games, and media objects that evoke games, trigger a deep desire for solvency in some people. But while I was watching Wormwood and listening to Eric Olsen discuss the ambiguity of verbs in the real world that seem so clear in the context of games, I began to wonder if it would be worth embracing the ambiguity of verbs in games.
In a recent stream of Bloodborne that I commentated, I had to explain what happened toward the end of that game. For some context: The plot of the game directs you toward a figure named Mergo. We’re told that Mergo is some sort of Lovecraftian eldritch being, a monstrous figure, and that our general goal is to seek it out and kill it. All through the area leading up to Mergo, we hear the cries of a baby, and upon “encountering” Mergo we learn that it is a formless, ephemeral child. We fight and kill Mergo’s nurse; after doing so, we receive a message that says Nightmare Slain. Mergo’s cries cut off. We’ve slain it, but what did we do?
Depending on who you ask, this question is solved or its a complete mystery. Defeated? Slain? Have we won or lost, and what are the stakes for either of those things? Pointing to a game by Hidetaka Miyazaki is perhaps a cheap shot when we’re talking about ambiguity, but this plot point in Bloodborne does the same work that Wormwood does. It settles into comfort with not knowing, with having to move forward, and then with making your own answers.
Toward the end of Wormwood, the director Morris makes the choice to show us all of the possibilities of what could have happened to Frank Olsen in the hotel room. The point, he’s suggesting, is that we can’t know. The effort of trying to know, of treating the fundamentally ambiguous as something to be solved, is at best a waste of time. At worst, it can be an effort of filing off edges to confirm an already-held belief.
In actual life, the arrow line between cause and effect is blurred. It’s often hard to trace, and Wormwood is dedicated to exploring that relationship. Most games are the opposite, generating the clearest line in order to communicate what effect a valorous player had on the world. But what if we sat with the indeterminacy more often? Could games grab hold of the ambiguity of the verb? What new experiences could be afforded this way?
You can follow Cameron on Twitter.