In discussions of epistemology, time is crucial: the transformation of beliefs into facts is contingent on the passing of time. For digital games, time is similarly vital, as an often central element of mechanics and semiotics. An observation found in the different models of time in digital games (Juul, 2005; Nitsche, 2007; Zagal & Mateas, 2007; Tychens & Hitchens, 2009) is that it is a discrete resource is mapped rather loosely to time as experienced by the player in the real world. While in most cases, this operationalization of time is obscured and naturalized, many games foreground time or make it a manipulable element, from Day of the Tentacle (Lucasarts, 1993) to Quantum Break (Remedy Entertainment/Microsoft, 2016). Both time-travel narratives and time-manipulation gameplay are often constructed as puzzles or riddles (Wittenberg, 2012; Jones & Omrod, 2015), which means that narrative and/or play facilitate the necessary epistemological process of arriving at the one correct solution. Some digital games explore alternative, obscure or decidedly anti-mimetic models of time, e.g. the recent SUPERHOT (Superhot Team, 2016). An older example that engages even more directly with the epistemology of time is Metal Gear Acid 2 (Kojima Productions, 2006). Although (or maybe because) it is neither a time-travel narrative in the strict sense nor explicitly about time-manipulation on the level of mechanics, MGA2 connects questions of time, memory, and identity in a unique way. MGA2 is the second Metal Gear-game for the Playstation Portable. Mechanically, MGA2 is a turn-based single-player, tactical 3D game with a strategic trading card component. The tactical mode adapts many mechanics from the Metal Gear Solid games. Sneaking past, distracting, and overpowering guards works analogously to the real-time stealth game, albeit in a completely discrete fashion, i.e. on a rectangular grid and in turns. Movement and actions are controlled by cards, of which the game offers 565 in the style of a collectible trading card game. The cards are themed after characters and equipment of the previous games, from the then-current Snake Eater (Konami, 2005) back all the way to the original Metal Gear (Konami, 1987). As players advance through the game’s campaign, they unlock additional booster packages as immediate rewards and can use the points earned by completing main- and side-missions in an in-game card shop. The element that makes MGA2 epistemologically challenging is its treatment of time. Every used card incurs a ‘cost’ that is added up and determines the turn-order. The avatar or NPC whose cost counter reaches 0 first begins the next turn. Yet cost is not a completely abstract resource or neutral currency, it is also used as a measure of time: a hand grenade will detonate 8 cost after use. There are also other time-equivalents, as cards can last for a certain number of turns, or combine both measures (e.g. reducing cost of movement to 1 for 5 turns). The epistemological challenge arises from the ‘cost reducer’ cards that subtract a number of points from the avatar’s current cost. Played strategically, these keep the cost at or close to 0, allowing the player several turns in a row. The epistemological challenge does not pertain to the play perspective, where cost is a resource that can be strategically manipulated. However, if one stops to consider the relationship between cost, turns, and time, questions about the persistence of time arise: If cost is roughly equivalent to time, what does it mean to ‘reduce cost’? Is the avatar simply acting unusually fast when using such a card? Or is time actually manipulated? The total cost used to solve a mission is one of the factors that determine the score for that level. When calculating points, the game subtracts the cost saver cards, thus suggesting that this ‘net cost’ is the time that has elapsed. Yet the avatar and the player have used and experienced a ‘gross cost’ that is considerably higher. The situation is made more complex in that the player controls not one, but two avatars throughout the majority of the campaign, each of which plays cost reducer cards individually, not only for him- or herself, but for the other, as well. The perceived ‘gross cost’ is, therefore, not identical for the two avatars. Expressed in terms of epistemology of time, MGA2 uses the otherwise irreconcilable presentist and relational concepts of time (Currie 2007, 142). It is presentist insofar as the player’s turn is a moment of planning of future actions and evaluation of past events, and relational because only the turn-order is absolute, and there can never be any coincidence between two events, only a strict order. In other words, MGA2’s rules make it both affirm and deny the idea of the present. While unusual treatment of time is certainly to be found in other games as well, MGA2 appears special because all other game elements resonate with the topic of epistemologic challenges and undecidability. The game’s narrative deals with a protagonist who is called Snake and who resembles the ‘legendary hero’ of the other Metal Gear games. Yet the narrative is set in an alternate universe (or timeline) which makes it impossible to tell if it is ‘the same’ character – which is, of course, only consequential in a franchise that deals prominently with cloning and transsubstantiation. In addition, MGA2’s avatar suffers from amnesia, which mirrors the player’s insecurity about his identity on another level. Even the cards refer to the previous games in an obscure fashion: there are several different “Solid Snake” cards, one for each game, which have completely different functions. In its handling of time, MGA2 challenges our real-world epistemology as well as our player repertoire (Juul 2005, p. 5). It does so in a way that is coherent with the topics of the series and the ways in which it deviates from them, thus offering up a meditation on its own particular and general ludic possibilities of knowing.
|Publication status||Published - 2016|