Targeting games would seem the least likely to need the support of a framing storyline, and yet they almost always have one. A gamer might watch the introductory cut scenes, or idly scan the back story printed on the insert inside the box, but no more than once. Yet these storylines have a purpose that they fulfill simply by existing, even when they are ignored. Storylines release the gamer from entrapment in the net. They draw a line between a character and its enemy. They polarize a net into antagonistic fronts — even if these fronts are not spatially separate. Indeed, there may be dark labyrinthine twists that fold one front around and against the other, as in games such as Deus Ex. Storylines have a particular role in framing the action of targeting, it relieves one of responsibility toward that from which one cuts away a self. Storylines frame the possibility of separating self from other, so that the other may legitimately become a target. The defeat of the other reopens the instability between self-other that is characteristic of a network, hence the need for the story to regenerate the separation all over again.
The storyline is the gamer’s alibi. While the gamer is immersed in a world of pure digital relations, flipping the switch between self and other, playing out the possibilities of a consistent and stable time that can be defeated, the storyline insists that there is some other point to it all. One is fighting the bad guys. Many games tend toward fanciful sci fi storylines, like Rez or Deus Ex, or perverse ones, where one plays the bad guy rather than the good one, such as State of Emergency or Grand Theft Auto, precisely because storyline is merely an alibi. You are elsewhere. You are not in the topographic space where storyline cuts a moral line between self and other, us and them, good and evil. You are in an amoral space where lines merge and converge everywhere, ceaselessly transforming from one shape to another, without a break. storyline is the bad faith of the game. Read it as if it were like a novel or a movie and it seems ridiculous. Storylines cannot be read as morals. Games are not morality tales. But their backstories can be read as allegories. The storyline provides a key to the relation between the effective enclosure of signs within the game as a system of values and the ineffective enclosure of signs within gamespace, caught between values and meanings.
The backstory to gamespace in general is not of paradise lost, but of a paradise that refuses to arrive. It is an Apple with fatal bugs in its operating system that never delivers the seamless interface of human and machine. The smooth and inevitable rise of the ‘network society’ stalls on persistent glitches. More and more advanced forms of network intelligence arise to solve these problems, which reappear regardless. In Rez this intelligence is called Eden. However — the story goes — “Eden became confused when the flow of information being sent to it began to greatly increase in speed and volume. Eden started to question the meaning of existence and the consequences of its actions. Finding itself surrounded by paradoxes, and realizing the power of autonomy which it possessed, Eden began to shut itself down.” Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to travel into Eden’s network and reawaken the system, overcoming its fire walls and destroying viruses that populate it.
The backstory for Rez in particular concerns the relation between topology and gamespace. The dense network of lines that make up topology put every thing in transit and make all signs of things transitive. Everything is in motion toward something else; every sign is passing over to another. Topology gives rise to the always failing, always incomplete attempt to make a game of it, in which transit along any line has a goal and a limit. The storyline of Rez is an allegory of this forlorn hope that the shot in transit might have reason to hit its target. The game of Rez is an allegorithm in which the play of opening and closing the aperture of the self finds its logic.
In Rez the enemy is the network itself. Or rather, the enemy is the monstrous possibility of the network separating itself from the gamer. Separation is the gamer’s prerogative. In Rez the gamer’s mission is to the save the network from itself, from its difference from the gamer, from its self-inflicted death. The gamer risks autonomy in targeting in order to restore it at the moment of victory, empowered and enhanced. But the goal, strangely enough, is to bring the network back from the brink of autonomy, to restore its seamless, selfless continuity — a continuity which presumably includes the gamer. The paradox of targeting is that by closure the gamer opens towards the net. In Rez, the storyline sustains the alibi that it is the net itself which closes to the gamer, and hence makes itself a target, eliciting its own opening.