October 5, 2012 by rcthames
Boundaries of the Diegesis
Galloway opens his (2006) book, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture by laying out “four moments of gamic action” in the quadrants formed by two axes: “machine and operator, diegetic and nondiegetic” (p. 8). Although he admits that the boundary separating diegetic from nondiegetic in a videogame can be murky, his analysis in that chapter (and, for the most part, the book) generally maintains focus towards one or another of these quadrants. The concern of my argument here, however, is with the boundary, and what can happen when it breaks down. Many modern games have begun to merge traditionally nondiegetic elements (e.g. health, mission trackers, save points, etc.) into the diegesis, the story world of the game. One way to look at such a move might be as a mere gimmick—an attempt to cover up the “gameness” of a videogame with the trappings of story. Another possibility is that the developers believe, as Galloway puts it, “the process of good game continuity is to fuse these acts together as seamlessly as possible” (p. 8). I will not presume to argue that those lines of reasoning are not behind this practice in many games. What I will argue is that there is another use for merging the nondiegetic into the diegesis. The recently released Borderlands 2 (as well as, to a lesser extent, its predecessor) merges nondiegetic elements into the diegesis in a manner that does not foreground the diegesis, but rather begins to dissolve the boundary between the two entirely into something else.
In brief, Borderlands 2 is a first-person-shooter/role-playing game hybrid (FPS RPG) in a futuristic setting that sees the player character (PC) as a treasure hunter on an alien planet controlled by a brutal corporation and swarming with roving bandit gangs and other dangerous creatures. This type of setting lends itself quite well to what Borderlands 2 is doing, but I will return to that point in a moment. First, some specifics about how the game incorporates nondiegetic elements into its diegesis are in order. In the first scripted event after the opening cutscene, Claptrap (a friendly NPC) gives you an ECHO Communicator he has salvaged, which “comes with a class-twelve heads-up display, complete with a mini-map.” The normally nondiegetic elements of a game’s HUD (health meter, minimap, ammo, etc.) begin to load as a computer program might, providing all such information a diegetic source. Later in the game when new items are added to the HUD, the same thing happens, as a loading bar with “Initializing” appears when you get your first objective indicator or receive your first shield. The ECHO communicator also provides a diegetic explanation for how Claptrap, Handsome Jack, and numerous other friends and enemies constantly communicate with your character and keep track of his/her activities.
Similarly, a diegetic explanation is provided for character management, with inventory, map, skills, rank, and quest menus projected as holographic display with your character shown looking at it, sometimes even commenting on changes. Even character death and revival, a generally nondiegetic necessity of play, is given diegetic embodiment here. The Hyperion corporation has “New-U” respawning systems spread around that, after taking a fee, rematerialize the character bit by bit at the last passed New-U, thanking you for your patronage delivering messages such as “Please die again.”
All of the above examples bring the “informatic layer” Galloway speaks to under his “nondiegetic operator acts” (p. 14) into Borderlands 2’s diegesis. As I argued previously, this does not result in making the game as a whole more story-like, folding gameplay elements beneath the diegetic world. On the contrary, the result seems to be a story-world that is consciously game-like. No longer kept separate, the “informatic” suffuses every moment of play. The setting of the game feeds right into this—as a treasure hunter with a computer unit to analyze the world around him/her the endless comparing of item abilities can easily become diegetic; as someone earning a reputation in a land swarming with enemies the endless killing, looting, and ranking easily becomes diegetic. When traditionally nondiegetic gameplay elements are integrated with the diegesis, the boundary begins to collapse and we must re-evaluate what constitutes the diegesis.
Diegesis is traditionally thought of as the world of the story, what informs us of the possibilities of plot. For instance, the diegesis of a film like Heat is very much the modern world, with added conventions of crime movies. So, while I may expect some unrealistic action scenes, I don’t expect the plot to involve Al Pacino’s character using magic to bring down the bank robbers, any more than I would expect dragons to appear in Red Dead Redemption’s old West diegesis. In a videogame like Borderlands 2 the fictive world I inhabit is less about possibilities of plot and more about patterns of action. Diegesis becomes conceived less as a story-world and more as an action-world. My patterns of action—strategize, kill, loot, compare, endlessly upgrading as I work my way towards my ultimate goal—are the world of the game. Certainly, there have always been some of these patterns, what Galloway calls “configurative actions” (p. 14), driving RPGs, but I would argue contra-Galloway that something like Final Fantasy X still maintains a focus on the diegesis as story-world. By integrating nondiegetic elements and breaking down the barriers of the diegesis, Borderlands 2 makes these patterns of action more conscious and ubiquitous.
What can be learned from this, I will argue, is that games that straddle the border between diegetic and nondiegetic, merging the two, may be as good if not better examples of the kinds of “informatic” social allegories Galloway is getting at (p. 16-17). Borderlands 2 is very much about work and information management (as Scooter says at one point copying his Catch-a-Ride slogan, “Catch-a-Job!”). At the same time, the foregrounding of gamic elements in the diegesis also opens them up for more self-conscious parody and critique, something Borderlands 2 is also quite good at. I will not say this is something all games should do, that this situation is the ideal. Yet it is one potential tool. It is something games can do.
Galloway, A. (2006). Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.