A Certain Rapture: A Glimpse into the World of First-Person Walker Games

Written by Frederik van Dam

On Tuesday 7 June, the student association of the Arts and Culture Studies programme hosted a symposium on the relationship between art and pleasure. Invited to share a few thoughts, I thought I’d escape the confines of my home territory – literary studies – and talk about an art form that continues to exert a particular fascination, the art of videogames. I thought that it might be worthwhile to rehearse my ideas on this electronic art form, but I must confess that I am not an expert in the field of videogames studies (or ‘ludology’ more broadly). My only hope is to show that an investigation into videogames from the point of view of cultural theory forms a profitable line of enquiry. To give these musings some coherence, I will focus on the genre of the so-called ‘first-person walker’, a genre that differs from the popular ‘first-person shooter’ (think Far Cry and Call of Duty) insofar as interactions are minimized, movement speed is slowed down, and interface elements are removed.

Before moving to this particular genre, we might want to begin by reflecting on the relationship between games and pleasure. For many people, games are a guilty pleasure: apparently easy to enjoy and, after a hard night’s playing, even easier to regret. We may have misgivings about the time that is wasted playing games, but one might argue that time is also wasted – albeit in a different way – when reading novels, watching films, or being engaged in conversation with friends: in all these occupations, we are imaginatively immersing ourselves in an imaginative world. Still, even talking about games seems to cause a sense of shame that these other imaginative pastimes do not.

To understand the causes of this sense of pleasure mingled with shame, one might turn to Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Jenseits des Lustprinzips 1920). In this text, Freud tackles various negative drives by which the ‘normal’ working of our mental lives is disrupted. One of these drives is the compulsion to repeat, which is characteristic of traumatic neurosis. In his examination of this compulsion, Freud describes a game played by his grandson Ernest. As the following image from Anne Simon and Corinne Maier’s Freud: An Illustrated Biography (2013) nicely shows, Ernest would throw objects out of his cot and then reel them back in. Left to his own devices, because his father had gone to the front and his mother had other duties to attend to, this game occupied him for hours on end. Freud posits that Ernest’s compulsion to repeat is a good example of displacement: the object’s disappearance reenacts his mother’s disappearance. In other words, the young boy plays the game because it allows him to imagine his mother’s departure and eventual return, thus giving him the pleasurable experience of representation and imitation. Probing into the origins of this sense of pleasure, Freud offers two interrelated explanations that complicate what may seem an innocent hypothesis. On the one hand, Freud reflects that the game allows the boy to assert a level of control that he does not have in reality, thus transforming him from victim to master of the situation. On the other hand, Freud speculates that the child may be trying to articulate a vengeful, aggressive response that he must repress in ordinary life, that of actively rejecting his mother. Freud’s theory, then, offers us at least one reason why we play videogames: to immerse ourselves in substitute worlds from which we are normally excluded and where, possibly, we can act our aggressive, destructive instincts.

One could refer to many popular videogame genres, from action-adventure series such as the Grand Theft Auto or strategy games such as the Total War franchise, to see how these instincts are given a free rein. Although the slow pace of first-person walkers suggests that walkers do not – or at least not as obviously – have such an appeal, they do feature the pleasure of mimesis. The Stanley Parable (2013), for instance, features an office worker whose world is suddenly transformed. As the game begins, a voice-over describes how, suddenly, everybody seems to have left:

This is the story of a man named Stanley. Stanley worked for a company in a big building where he was Employee #427. Employee #427’s job was simple: he sat at his desk in Room 427 and he pushed buttons on a keyboard. Orders came to him through a monitor on his desk telling him what buttons to push, how long to push them, and in what order. This is what Employee #427 did every day of every month of every year, and although others may have considered it soul rending, Stanley relished every moment that the orders came in, as though he had been made exactly for this job. And Stanley was happy. And then one day, something very peculiar happened. Something that would forever change Stanley; something he would never quite forget. He had been at his desk for nearly an hour when he had realized not one single order had arrived on the monitor for him to follow. No one had shown up to give him instructions, call a meeting, or even say ‘hi’. Never in all his years at the company had this happened, this complete isolation. Something was very clearly wrong. Shocked, frozen solid, Stanley found himself unable to move for the longest time. But as he came to his wits and regained his senses, he got up from his desk and stepped out of his office.

Stanley is caught in a position of abject captivity. Like Sisyphus, he seems to be caught in a cycle of never-ending repetitions, pushing buttons all day long without any kind of creativity or originality, making his actions resemble what Freud would call a neurosis. But just as Ernest’s act of throwing stuff out of his cot is an (ultimately futile) assertion of power, so Stanley is given the opportunity to challenge the orders that he is given. As Stanley begins his journey, the voice of the nameless ‘Narrator’ is his only companion, and it is in the negotiations with the Narrator that the game’s pleasure resides: the Narrator describes what Stanley is supposed to do, but the player can decide to disobey these commands and to do the opposite – or even nothing at all. When the player is faced with a choice between two doors, for instance, and the Narrator says that Stanley “entered the door on his left,” the player is free to take the right door, thus upsetting the Narrator. This dynamic illustrates Espen J. Aarseth’s foundational insight that players enjoy the “pleasure of influence,” in contrast to readers, whose pleasure is that of a voyeur: “Safe, but impotent.” As the game unravels, the story’s development is determined by the way in which the player responds to the Narrator’s instructions. Depending on these choices, the game features at least 19 endings. It is not too difficult to interpret the game’s dynamic from a psychoanalytical point of view: don’t we all want to disobey our fathers? But even though the player can make the Narrator’s blood boil, in the final analysis the Narrator is all-powerful: the player’s disobedience will make him feel the Narrator’s wrath. In order to reach the so-called Art Ending, for instance, the player must press a button to save a carton-board child from being burnt for 4 hours; midway through this game, “in a moment of rapture,” the Narrator introduces a second button, with which the player must simultaneously save a puppy from being lowered into a bucket filled with piranhas. And this kind of game, the Narrator ironically claims, is what videogames may mean as a true art form. Clearly, one might say that the pleasure to engage in this kind of interaction is masochistic.

Not all first-person walkers lend themselves to this kind of Freudian perspective, however. In Infra (2016), for instance, you play as Markku ‘Mark’ Siltanen, a structural analyst and engineer, who is tasked with mapping and fixing the faulty infrastructure of the fictional city of Stalburg. To fully grasp Infra’s originality as a walker, it is instructive to compare it with Half-Life (1998), a first-person shooter which revolutionized the genre, and to which Infra alludes in numerous ways (not least in utilizing the ‘Source’ engine that was developed for its successor, Half-Life 2, which is also used in The Stanley Parable; both games originated as so-called mods). In Half-Life, you are put in the shoes of Gordon Freeman, a physicist employed at the Black Mesa facility. As the first chapter proceeds, you engage in small talk, ruin your colleagues’ lunch, and don the Hazardous Environment Suit (also referred to as the Mark IV suit, whose name the eponymous hero of Infra also alludes to). But when Freeman pushes a new and promising mineral sample into the Anti-Mass Spectrometer’s plasma stream, a resonance cascade occurs, and various aliens are allowed to invade planet earth. Accompanied by many energetic techno tracks, Gordon battles (and occasionally thinks) his way through armies of aliens and human soldiers, travels to another dimension, and ends up floating through space in a railway carriage. Mark Siltanen’s adventure is not as spectacular. Like Half-Life and like The Stanley Parable, the game begins in an office, where Mark must retrieve his gear and car-keys. As Mark travels to the Hammer Valley Dam, the game ironically teases the player as Mark stops and exits the car, playing the last snatches of some fast-paced techno before replacing these with the sounds of a purling river and rustling leaves. Although there are moments of excitement in the game, as when a tunnel system collapse and Mark must escape, Infra does not rely on thrills. Mark’s main task is to inspect infrastructural damage with his camera, collect spare batteries, fix faulty machines – and, along the way, uncover the conspiracy that led to the dilapidated condition of the industrial environment (from which, as in The Stanley Parable, humans are strangely absent; although we see some co-workers in the first chapter, the main other voice that we hear is that of Mark’s boss, with whom he occasionally telephones). Clearly, this game creates pleasure in a different way: the job of a physicist handling extraterrestrial material is more exciting than that of an engineer charged with the task of surveying faulty bridges, mills, and powerplants. In short, while the pleasure of mimesis is there, the possibility of ‘taking revenge’, and of pretending to be more powerful than you really are, is minimized. Where, then, does the pleasure of Infra reside?

To come close to an answer, it is helpful to look at the theory of gaming developed by Walter Benjamin, who builds on Freud’s ideas but also subverts them. According to Michael Powers, Benjamin suggests that “the child enjoys each repetition in a singular manner, each time as uniquely and differently from the last.” In his Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin describes how this childlike gaze, constantly on the lookout for differences and similarities, finds correspondences between the world described by stories and the material layout of signs on the page: “The rapture with which you received a new book, scarcely venturing a fleeting glance between its pages, was that of the guest invited for a few weeks to a mansion and hardly daring to dart a glance of admiration at the long suites of ceremonial rooms through which he must pass to reach his quarters.” In the transition from childhood to adulthood, this kind of attention to the differences within repetitions is turned into numb habituation. The promise of play, then, lies in the way in which it offers these moments of childlike creativity to reappear. Infra allows the player to find such moments: the game’s slow pace and the minimalism of its interface shift the player’s attention from the game to the audiovisual environment. The result is similar to the joy of knowledge encountered in real-life urban exploration, a practice that is symbiotic with videogames, as Luke Bennett points out: “There is a search for the ‘big picture’, in a sense of understanding how the physical world, and in particular its vital but rarely noticed infrastructure, works.”

While these analyses are in no way meant to be conclusive, I do hope that they illustrate how first-person walkers create particular kinds of pleasure that differ from the addictive thrill that is often associated with videogames. The experimental ways in which The Stanley Parable and Infra modify and play with the conventions of the genre of the first-person shooter make players adopt a more reflexive attitude, towards the form of the game as well as towards the real-life world which these games imitate. The desire to ‘beat’ an opponent is replaced with a more open-ended desire to explore what the world has to offer. I would like to close by suggesting at least one more way in which these games create a certain kind of rapture: given that they both use a an engine and thus a kind of aesthetic that dates back to a period in my life when I still had time to play games, they are also suffused with nostalgia, the pleasure of lingering on the dreams of another place and another time.

With thanks to KNUS for the invitation to participate in the colloquium and to László Munteán for sharing his insights about the pleasures of urban exploration.

Benjamin, Walter. “Berlin Chronicle.” Selected Writings, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, translated by Rodney Livingstone and others, vol. 2, part 2, Belknap Press, 1999, pp. 595–637.

Bennett, Luke. “Bunkerology: A Case Study in the Theory and Practice of Urban Exploration.” EPD: Society and Space, volume 29, 2011, pp. 421–434

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, Hogarth Press, 1953–74. 24 vols.

Half-Life. Sierra Studios, 1998.

Infra. Loiste Interactive, 2016.

Muscat, Alexander. “Ambiguous Worlds: Understanding the Design of First-Person Walker Games.” 2018, RMIT University, PhD dissertation.

Powers, Michael. “The Smallest Remainder: Benjamin and Freud on Play.” MLN, vol. 133, nr. 3, April 2018, pp. 720–742.

The Stanley Parable. Galactic Cafe, 2013.

Dennis Kersten’s summer reads

By Dennis Kersten


This Summer, I hope to finish
reading Adam Sisman’s biography of novelist and former British intelligence
officer John le Carré. I always read at least one big book: they slow you down,
which is the point of a holiday. I’m looking forward to reading Kate Tempest’s debut
novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses.
I was already impressed with her Mercury Prize nominated rap album Everybody Down; the novel is said to be
its companion piece. She is also compared to Virginia Woolf. I have heard that
one before, but that won’t stop me. Next on my list, and staying with biography
and pop music, is A Man Called
, Holly George-Warren’s life of Alex Chilton, who fronted the
influential 1970s power pop band Big Star. Last, I will read the new Dutch
translation of Robert Walser’s Jakob von

Touching the surface

By Vincent Meelberg

Touch might be the most important sense we
human beings have. Touch puts us in direct, constant contact with the outside
world. And perhaps that might be the reason why this sense is so problematic.
Touch implies intimacy and closeness, and these are phenomena that the
(Western) world finds increasingly difficult to cope with. On the one hand, we
are no longer sure when it is appropriate to touch someone. On
the other hand, however, the temptation to touch is always present. This is one
of the reasons why New York City Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Chair of the Task
Force on Women’s Issues Aravella Simotas
recently announced the passage of
 to assure that a sentence of up to one year of
imprisonment may be imposed for a person “who makes inappropriate physical contact with
another person while traveling on a mode of public transportation.” Apparently people are so eager to touch others, even without consent, that they need a law to hold them back.

Yet, as many studies have shown, physical contact between human beings – provided it is mutually agreed upon – is vital. Physical contact and reassurance will make
people more secure and better able to form relationships. David J. Linden, a neuroscience professor at
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of Touch: The
Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind
adds during an interview in The Atlantic: “More
than anything else, what touch conveys is ‘I’m an ally, I’m not a threat.
Touch puts the recipient in a trusting mental state, and anything you can do to
encourage the student to trust the teacher is going to make learning
better.“ And let’s face it: it is often simply very enjoyable to be
touched and to touch someone else.


Interestingly, the way we interact with
non-human entities is increasingly through direct touch as well. Until a few
years ago the way we interacted with phones and computers was by pushing
buttons. And while pushing implies touching too, this interaction remained very
indirect. One never really had the sensation of literally touching the
information that was being manipulated by the touching of buttons. All this
changed with the introduction of the iPhone. One of the reasons this device became such a huge
success was its user interface. Instead of trying to hit the correct tiny
physical buttons in order to write an email, for instance, suddenly the user
could type directly on the screen and had the possibility to literally touch
the Internet via multi-touch. It indeed was a magical experience, as Steve Jobs
liked to stress over and over again.


Nowadays, most phones use multi-touch, and
tablets such as the iPad could not have existed without this technology. So,
what does the fact that we have no problem touching the surface of our devices,
but are very reluctant to touch another person, say about Western society? Have
we arrived at a stage where we are more comfortable
being intimate with our phones than with human beings? When we take into
account that we use these devices to communicate with other people and that
direct personal contact is gradually being superseded by these mediated forms
of communication, the pessimistic conclusion might be that direct interpersonal
relations are indeed becoming increasingly rare, and therefore touching someone
may become the exception rather than the rule.


I think I need a hug…

The future of Plaster Archeology (Nijmegen)

By Laszlo Muntean


Plaster archeology is
a perversion. But a truly scientific one at that. It entails the deep mapping
of architectural facades, that is, observing buildings’ walls for information
that passersby normally wouldn’t notice. An inscription of someone’s
initials, a graffiti that’s barely visible, a fading advertisement of a cosmetic
product that no longer exists.

The plaster
archeologist spends a lot of time walking and staring at walls. The plaster
archeologist prefers walls that are layered, walls with plaster peeling off and
laying bare colors, or texts even that have been plastered over. The plaster
archeologist stops and observes where people normally keep walking, looking
ahead. Consequently, the plaster archeologist runs the risk of being perceived
as a weirdo.

Plaster archeology
also entails the noble quality of self restraint. For instance, decades of
neglect allow a chunk of the outer layer of plaster to fall off from a façade.
Part of the name of a store that used to be there in the late 19th
century is revealed. The plaster archeologist would instantly feel the urgency
to reveal the full name by removing more plaster. But this is to be avoided.
The plaster archeologist may not damage façades. Instead, the plaster
archeologist goes to the archives and goes through vintage photo collections to
decode what remains hidden behind plaster. And if there is no image, it’s all
well and good.

The city of Budapest,
where I grew up, is the ideal place to become a weirdo—and a plaster
archeologist. The bulk of the building stock of the city was built from mid to
late-19th century, when plaster abounded as a means of covering
buildings. Bullet holes from the war and the lack of means to renovate have
supplied me with ample material for years.

What about Nijmegen?
What about a city where walls are covered with brick and plaster is so rare?
Well, up until now I thought it would be a problem for the plaster
archeologist. But it is not so. The city bares the marks of World War II not
only in the absence of its old architecture in the city center but also in the
presence of scars on buildings’ walls, though one might not notice them at
first sight. The side façade of 4 Prins Hendrikstraat is a case in point. Signs
of a massive impact close to the roof, perhaps housing a machine gun position.
Already walled in, but the scars bear witness. Brick is no impediment to
plaster archeology. Quite the contrary, it may open no horizons to dig.