Do you know what you are? Perhaps more importantly, do you know who you are?
By asking yourself these questions, you’ve taken the first steps towards becoming the smartest guy in the room. Well, maybe not smartest, but perhaps the most enlightened, as these questions are the basis of the philosophical concept of identity, or the relation of an object to itself. It’s a question that spans a great breadth of quandaries and rather intense posturing once you understand its underlying meaning.
Plutarch wondered if a ship remained the same ship if it was restored and had all of its wooden parts replaced.
Consider, for instance, the Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’ paradox. Originally posed by Greek philosopher Plutarch in Life of Theseus, an entry into his Parallel Lives series of biographies of real and mythical historical figures, who wondered if a ship remained the same ship if it was restored and had all of its wooden parts replaced. It may still be called the same name and might even look the part, but its sails will never catch the wind the same way, its hull will crash against the waves differently from before, and its mast will never stand against a storm like it used to. So is the self of the ship still there?
And though an effective example, this topic is not limited to just wooden ships from Ancient Greece. Passing through the hands of the likes of Socrates, Plato, and John Locke, this divisive debate has yielded variations on the same theme with patched socks, worn knives, and interchangeable parts to a carriage and remains an unresolved matter. Consider, then, Asura’s Wrath , a third-person action game from CyberConnect2 and Capcom. It’s a fairly straightforward piece about a demigod who, prior to being framed for killing the emperor, was in charge of managing the Department of Wrath at the Shinkoku Trastrium capitol house, but it forces the player to ask one simple and yet deeply profound question: When does a game stop being a game?
Asura’s Wrath is structured much like any other videogame in that you control a character through increasingly difficult combat scenarios and story-progressing cutscenes on the way to the end of a (mostly) monomythic journey. From this alone you can discern two discrete and obvious parts to a videogame: the parts you play and the parts you don’t. It’s hard to tell you a story while you’re focusing on sticking absurdly large swords into equally absurd and large enemies, so games traditionally take downtime to tell you a narrative and give you a break from hacking, slashing, or some combination of the two.
The inquisitive mind then might ask which part of the game came first. More astutely, you might inquire as to which half acts in service of the other. Sometimes a game’s mechanics exist simply for the story and sometimes it’s the other way around. In Asura’s Wrath‘s case, it is definitely the former with rudimentary hand-to-six-arms combat and less-than-desirable Space Harrier shooting sections existing simply to bring you absolutely bonkers cutscenes and a delectably incomprehensible storyline. A rough estimate would say that for every five minutes of controllable action, there are about 25 minutes of quick time event-laden cinematics.
Some would say that this balance is not ideal. Some would say this does not make it fun. Some would say this does not make it a game.
This is a criticism leveled against most games of this ilk (where story trumps gameplay), but these are the identities of such games. Asura’s Wrath was created purposefully and shaped deliberately and does what it does for a very specific reason. It exists as it does now because of each individual component coming together as a gestalt of Japanese insanity and anime non sequiturs.
The solution, so to say, is most patently obvious: Flip the balance. Imagine instead that every scene with a quick time event is gutted and replaced with a controllable action sequence. Instead of hammering on the X button to push back on the Moon-sized thumb of a Jupiter-sized god with your galaxy-sized rage, you used your fighting combos to repeatedly beat away said thumb until an arbitrary timer or health bar ran out. Does this by default make for a better game or qualify it more as a game? Perhaps more importantly, does this even result in the same game?
Each distinct piece that forms the entirety of Asura’s Wrath is what makes it Asura’s Wrath. The old sails may catch the winds in strange ways or pour out of the sides a bit too often, but that is a part of what identifies this particular ship. There may be an imbalance with how much playing and how much watching is involved with Asura’s Wrath, but that is what identifies this particular game. It is a part of this game’s identity.
The qualities of success and failure are not part of an object’s identity but rather its relation to the rest of its reality.
Which flows into a continuation of Plutarch’s original question: Does the ship need to remain a ship? Could it not serve just as well as a monument to its conquests sans restorations? If so, would this mean there is a way it could change without altering any of its corporeal pieces?
Perdurance theory would suggest yes. Instead of an object existing purely as a conglomerate of spatial elements, perdurantism suggests that it is also comprised of a temporal component. Every moment in time that you can currently perceive (and, as a matter of fact, those that you can’t) is actually a three-dimensional slice of a four-dimensional object, so changes from each 3D slice don’t matter to the identity of the overall object since it is still the same 4D object.
For instance, the You of right now is different from the You of five minutes ago. You didn’t know what perdurantism was then, but you do know what it is now. You are five minutes older, five minutes wiser, and five minutes further into this article than before and yet you are still the same person.
Bam. Temporal differences.
This, however, is what makes Asura’s Wrath and videogames in general unique. Paintings can fade, people can change, and rivers can erode, but videogames are a completely digital medium. Code and art are represented wholly by ones and zeros and, barring patches and updates, duplicates are quite literally bit for bit the same as the original (theoretically speaking; drives and tapes do still wear down). The finished product across all four-dimensional chunks is the same, which leads to the question how can it change without any spatial permutation altering its fundamental essence as Asura’s Wrath?
Simple: It doesn’t. The temporal components that are changing in this case occur within the player and not the game. If that same ship is found centuries later in the same state as when it was built, it ceases to be a seafaring vessel and instead becomes a historical relic. Nothing intrinsic to the boat has actually changed and yet it has become something else entirely. The player’s time with Asura’s Wrath may eventually mold him through temporal changes into someone that stops condemning the game for lacking conventional gameplay and instead appreciates it for that very same reason.
Or hates it even more. Regardless, changes!
So then maybe sometimes a game doesn’t necessarily need to be a game to succeed. The qualities of success and failure are not part of an object’s identity but rather its relation to the rest of its reality. In the case of Asura’s Wrath, the player will eventually determine if games for them succeed entirely on the merit of functioning as a dogmatic practitioner of videogame staples or it will suffice to have your brain dipped into a vat of Four Loko and rubbed dry with a towel made of 75% absurdism and 25% alpaca hair. Changing the identity of other objects to fit with your perception is not how things work. You change yourself through temporal shifts of identity to refine how you enjoy or hate (or whatever) the things around you. You know, like Asura’s Wrath.
Tim Poon is a writer out of Dallas, TX, where he plays dodgeball and tries to convince New Yorkers that he does NOT ride a horse to work. One-way tickets aboard the Friendship Express are available at @mockenoff or his blog.