Gaming Lit, Winning Crit?

Reviewed by Gregory Betts

JETT: The Far Shore is a grim videogame for PlayStation and PC depicting the collapse of a planet, its people “haunted by oblivion” (according to the PlayStation copytext), and their desperate search to find a suitable new home. If the lore is sci-fi cliché, the gameplay presents a uniquely contemporary Canadian ambivalence about the whole discovery and colonization experience. The past is desolate, the future uncertain, and the present marked by both the wonder of an alien world and the ambivalence of a biosphere that humans will inevitably disrupt and harm. Though PlayStation downplays the creators in its marketing, focussing instead on the “cinematic action adventure” gameplay and user experience, the critical and fan-based reception of the game confirms that it is widely understood as the work of video game auteurs, Superbrothers (aka Craig Adams) and Pine Scented Software (aka Patrick McCallister). The game’s nonviolence and ambivalence are thus read as markers of the artistic vision of the duo, part of an elaborate environmentalist or anticolonial-or-something allegory overlaid onto a five-part eight-ten hour game.


Instead of the ecological or colonial insights of the game, Adam Hammond’s book The Far Shore: Indie Games, Superbrothers, and the Making of JETT responds to the game’s auteurship and ambiguous allegory. His theory is that the game performs a kind of narrative methodology characteristic of modernist novels by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. To make this claim, Hammond borrows liberally from Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and German literary critic Erich Auerbach and their shared interest in the dialogic, multi-voiced modality of modernist novels. Dialogic models, at the most basic level, take note of the representation of competing personalities and the co-existence of alternative ideologies. Difference is set in dialogue in the narrative. Works by modernist masters like Woolf, James Joyce, and etcetera, become inevitably less conclusive, more resistant to closure, and take comfort in their multi-layered ambiguity. Hammond wants to position the auteurs of JETT as heirs to this modernist tradition, linked through an “indie” do-it-yourself aesthetic he traces from modernism through the historical avant-garde, punk music, riot grrrl music+zine culture, to independently produced video games. He also spends multiple pages linking John Milton’s Paradise Lost into that trajectory.


In order to complete this idiosyncratic lineage, Hammond borrows a theory by Walter Benjamin that all allegories are destined to become increasingly ambiguous as the cultural and historical links become more obscure through time. His point is that JETT’s structural ambivalence—the story attends to characters who don’t want to leave exploring a planet that doesn’t want them to arrive—creates a modernist ambiguity. Furthermore, the sensory experience of actually playing the game overwhelms any possible allegorical superstructure to the narrative. Couple this anachronistic modernism with the auteurship of the game’s conception (they were on their own for three of the nine years of the game’s development), and the book plausibly fits the theory, however strained it sometimes seems.


More than any other element, though, Hammond’s book is determined to discover and arrive at a theory to fit the game. If there is any tension to this “blender” (184) of a book (in his terms), it is in the quest, the author’s struggles to develop a theory about it that provides a better reading of the ultimate impact of the game than the dozens of online critics (whose opinions of JETT were mixed, middling). Take note that this book was published days after the release of the game, rushed because the game and the intended book-length response had been delayed by years. Hammond had enough time to present his theory to the principal game creators and is “happy” to conclude his book with their quiet acknowledgement of its plausibility.


His anxiety about his own theory, and his need for approval by the auteurs, reveals that the book isn’t really about the theory, nor, ultimately, the development of the game. Indeed, the theory appears suddenly as a deus ex machina in the final section, a happy inheritance luckily bestowed by the critics Hammond was “totally obsessed with in my early twenties” (209). It is a moment of Dickensian relief and reward, rather than reflection or rhetorical accumulation. The first section is all about the author’s appropriateness for this quest to develop a theory, followed by sections that detail the episodic obstacles to arriving at one. The Far Shore is thus a heroic and gamified rendering of literary scholarship, falling prey to a tendency he identifies and critiques in other critics: “Interpretation itself becomes a game. Getting it right means recovering the creator’s vision, which means you win” (193).


But what does winning mean for literary scholarship, for literature? Hammond starts an interrogation of the “perverse” goal of literary criticism and the pedagogy (including his own) that creates it: “Your job as an English undergrad is to make a brilliant argument, whether you think it true or not” (19). Like the game he tracks, then, Hammond’s book, in presenting both a heroic ‘theory of’ and the reason why a ‘theory of’ is not actually a winning model for literary scholarship, has its own structural ambivalence that is never resolved.

This review “Gaming Lit, Winning Crit?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 8 Jul. 2022. Web.

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