As we piece together the power of genre in understanding games, the number of games that rely on the generic conventions of magical realism is sort of absurd. I thought, perhaps, that a breakdown of what the conventions of magical realism are might be useful in understanding the cultural meaning-making that happens in the narrative portion of games. The ludological meaning-making is another story, of course, and one that I will try to avoid here, although I’m not intentionally at least trying to dive into the ludonarrative harmony/dissonance debate.
Let’s start with realism
When I think of realism, I think specifically of two of the novelists who first steered away from the science fiction and fantasy that I loved as as nerdy teenager, Dickens and Zola. Each saw their novels as affective attempts to portray social contexts that they saw as so destructive of ordinary people’s lives that they needed change. Their interventions were mostly novelistic – neither was a political figure, but both authors successfully recreated social horrors in ways that spurred others to action.
Realism becomes frustrating in its limitations. Some social justice movement can be made by creating texts that evoke such strong reactions from readers that they are inspired to action, but for authors who can create entire worlds perhaps the sort of glacial movement that Dr. King (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”) envisions is not fast enough.
Realism has its limits
Realism thus has limits, even in a medium as intensively immersive as video games. Even games that allow a player to completely roam the sandbox that the game world immerses them in still is confined by its code and algorithms and developer imagination.
These worlds also are limited by the emotional involvement that the medium can evoke from players. While games undeniably elicit responses that reek of total engagement, until they hook directly into player’s cerebral cortexes they can only go so far in eliciting the type of bodily emotional responses that lived experience engage us in. I agree that games have gone (much) farther than any other medium in enabling us to attempt to see the world through another set of eyes, but at this moment they cannot go the next step and immerse us physically.
This step will come.
Magically re-imagining the real
The supernatural is often juxtaposed as the opposite of the natural, and with a bit of logistical wizardry we can quickly equate the natural with the real, and the supernatural with magic. Both equations hint at an element of control – authors portray the real with increasingly less confidence, while the magicians among us conjure the supernatural out of perfectly normal materiel.
In the genre of magical realism this juxtaposition is accomplished narratively. The narrator does not privilege the natural over the supernatural, or vice versa – it simply describes the scene and assumes that the natural and supernatural coexist as equivalent forces in the world. A realistic portrayal would attempt to explain the supernatural, and a fantastic one would probably emphasize the power of the magic to melt natural, realistic boundaries in some sort of homage to the power of the human mind, but in the genre of magical realism the convention is for the narrator to simply describe and let the reader decide what where the boundaries exist.
The first example that comes to my mind occurs in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Remedios the Beauty, completely unaware of the power of her beauty to drive men insane, simply floats into heaven halfway through the novel, an event that is described as if it happens all the time. The narrator does not attempt to explain the mechanics of the process, or to comment on how perhaps we as readers should not believe it; instead, it simply happens. Seemingly solid natural boundaries of life and death do not exist.
If only it was really this simple…
These neat distinctions are not this obvious or clear, of course, leading me to my next concern – the cultural anxieties that magical realism reveals, and the cultural work that it does.
At some point I will get back to games…