Save/Reload: Videogames and the Ethics of the Eternal Return
Liam Mitchell, Assistant Professor, Trent University
Date: 5 March 2015, 7:00pm
Videogames tend to be power fantasies: they give the player the chance to learn and master an algorithm, exerting more and more perfect control. As power fantasies, videogames symptomatize a societal inclination towards control, calculability, and digitality, and a fear of their constitutive opposites. Many videogames, then, index a problematically limited ethical and political disposition towards others. Acclaimed indie game Bastion initially seems to fit this mould: for the majority of the game, the player learns its systems and masters its controls, travelling Caelondia and collecting items that are supposed to set the post-apocalyptic world aright. At the end, too, the player seems to have the power of choice: they may “Restore” or “Evacuate,” returning to a pre-apocalyptic moment or accepting the end of the world and moving on. Through a gentle but ineluctable feature of the game’s design, however, Bastion imposes Evacuation on the player. It thereby advances an argument about the nature of life in control-obsessed society and a claim about the ethical and political disposition that might be equal to this technological epoch, and it does so through the ludic medium of the game: Bastion invites the player to experience a choice on Nietzsche’s eternal return. While the decision to will that any moment happen again and again would seem at first to be the decision to Restore, the game’s very structure argues that the save/reload mechanic at the heart of videogames exemplifies the failure to meet the challenge of the eternal return. Repeating the same means avoiding the movement of time. Evacuation, on the other hand, embraces an uncertain and finite future.