You Are Now Entering Godmode

What can the art of machinima teach us about playing a game outside its own rules?
technology
Total Refusal, How To Disappear, 2020, 21 mins, color, sound.Photo courtesy of the artist
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To die in a video game is to be reborn. In many games, death is marked by a restart or a respawn. It creates a simulation of reality in which death is not an endpoint but a slight nuisance or category of measure, i.e. how many times have you died? In nearly all cases, the avatar is never truly gone, and therefore, experiences death superficially. As video games have evolved as an artistic medium, gamers have found ways to further manipulate this immortality, or, more pointedly, initiate godmode.

In video games, godmode can refer to a setting, cheat command, or mod that renders the player invincible. We can also think of godmode more broadly, as a state of being, a strategy, or a conceptual mode of operation. Since the early days of the first-person shooter, sects of gamers have operated outside of the conventions of the game, altering the intended story, characters, or landscape, embodying a sort of higher power, wielding this conceptual godmode through strategies like modding, speed running, and making machinima. Machinima is the practice of using video games and game engines as raw material for the creation of cinema. Making machinima is inherently an act of disruption. It embraces the concept of godmode by playing the game outside of its own rules, oftentimes using the medium to express metacommentary.

I come to machinima not as an industry professional, historian, streamer, or YouTuber, but as one voice in a now decades-long lineage of artists. In 2015 I began modding Skyrim, a popular open-world fantasy action role-playing game, using the vast resource Nexus Mods. Modding is short for “modification,” and usually refers to code or software installed on top of the original game, altering its contents. Nexus Mods is a large marketplace for purchasing and downloading mods for many different games, made mostly by individual community members and small studios. Using the kissing mod “Immersive Lover’s Comfort” by flexcreator, I created my ongoing series Intimacy Mod (2018 - present): “performances” in which the characters kiss uninterrupted while flying through space. Their twisting, impossible embraces supersede any in-game logic. They are rendered impervious to death as they tumble through the air together.

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Kara Güt, Intimacy Mod II (variations on a theme) (2020)

In Free Fall (2011) by Palle Torsson, avatars fall through a modded version of Half-Life 2 in which all floor geometry has been removed. The avatars collide with walls and each other yet remain unscathed, plummeting into the abyss. Using avatars as immortal stuntmen, machinima artists take advantage of the pliancy of death in digital space, at times bending game-reality, shirking laws put in place by game developers.

Hotel (2014) by Benjamin Nuel imagines the lives of avatars—“terrorists” and “policemen,” as they’re identified onscreen—who escape from a video game and take refuge at a mysterious hotel. Although the avatars are exact clones of one another, Nuel creates distinct characters by writing relationships between the clones, giving them hopes, dreams, fears, and even interests such as cooking and volleyball. While one policeman clone peers out the window of the hotel and watches a strange hole appear in the sky, a terrorist nonchalantly discusses his dinner preparations. “Make me that thing you make,” says the policeman. “My pasta melt?” The terrorist responds. Without their original gamespace to define them, they no longer conform to their programmed roles and must now contend with their own futility. When the hotel and its surroundings begin to crumble and crack open into an empty void, the avatars fight to survive. With the threat of perma-death (made apparent when those who fall through the cracks fail to respawn), the avatars take on a human-like existentialism. In the final sequence of the film, a pair of avatars sit stranded on a small pile of dirt, floating through the void. They make small talk about returning home “to the farm” or traveling the world, attempting to distract each other from the imminent tragedy.

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Benjamin Nuel, Hotel (episode 4 to 10) (2012)
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The path to our current machinima landscape began in the early ’90s, coinciding with the dawn of in-game recording capabilities. Diary of a Camper (1996), considered by many to be one of the first machinima films, depended on the use of a free camera and scripted dialogue to differentiate itself from the traditional first-person POV “demos” of the time. Recorded by UnknownSoldier within the game Quake, Diary of a Camper uses an omniscient viewpoint to tell the story of a team of players faced with a camper—someone who waits in a power-up zone to attack other players. The camper is able to kill off two of the players before getting killed himself. As an inside joke among Quake gamers, the team then identifies the camper as none other than John Romero, the game’s developer. “Figures,” one player’s reply appears as text above the screen.

Upon Quake’s release, the game immediately brought players together through improved multiplayer and chat options; groups of players called ‘clans’ used the game’s recording abilities to analyze the game and share gameplay. As new media writer Henry Lowood describes, “Like hacker gangs dissecting the intricacies of computer networks, these Quake Clans shared techniques of high-performance gaming, both play and programming. Multi-player was not just linking up to frag [kill] opponents online; it also described chat, discussion, and sharing of exploits among This connectivity opened the door for what became known as “Quake Movies.”

With source code open for manipulation, Quake and its sequel Quake II became the perfect tools to tell new stories. The three-part series Eschaton (1997) by Hugh Hancock was the first machinima to feature entirely custom-created character models. The series transformed Quake’s dungeon landscape into a contemporary city on the brink of collapse. In an opening scene of Eschaton: Darkening Twilight, a man sits alone in a nearly vacant apartment bedroom, bathed in the pink glow of the apocalyptic night sky. For the first time, Hancock and his studio Strange Company were able to seamlessly turn a dungeon crawler into a suite of cyber noir films. Coining the term “machinima,” Hancock founded machinima.com, an invaluable, pre-YouTube-era repository for the genre.

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United Ranger Films, Diary of a Camper (1996)

With the rise in popularity of Quake movies came concern from Quake’s developers about the potential for cheating in competitive versions. Players and modders alike closely studied and manipulated the source code, and that knowledge was shared with the wider community, for better or worse. As a result, developer id Software decided to protect Quake III’s network code. Paul Marino of “Ill Clan” and cofounder of the Academy of Machinima Arts and Sciences describes that “the community was forced into survival mode—either reinvent itself or succumb to the harsh realities that the allure of Quake movie production would slowly fade

With the future of Quake movies uncertain, creators expanded into other gaming platforms, using Hancock’s term, machinima, to include works that utilize any game or real-time animation engine. Whereas in machinima’s infancy, omniscient free camera and a scripted dialogue were the components necessary to deem Diary of a Camper “the first,” these parameters were no longer binding. The genre of machinima expanded to webseries, talk shows, music videos, and feature-length films, among other forms. As production value increased, machinima became more mainstream, and by the mid 2000s titles like “Red vs. Blue,” a popular Halo machinima, enjoyed commercial success. As digital artists continued to use game engines as a medium, two concurrent histories of machinima began to form. As writer Matt Turner describes, “the first includes the sort of films made by game-players themselves….Parallel to this, artists have adopted the method, making films within video game environments that, as a rule, take a more critical position—offering reflections on the medium and its mechanics; how games work; and what they can show, or fail

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Simultaneous to the creation of Diary of a Camper, artist Miltos Manetas was also developing what would be considered some of the first machinimas. His Videos after Video Games series began in 1996 with the video Miracle, which used the flight simulator game F-18 Hornet. Unlike Quake movies, his machinima pieces were non-narrative, but still utilized the characters and assets of the game to create a scene outside of its original intention. One early film, Super Mario Sleeping (with butterflies) (1997) within the game Super Mario 64, simply shows the resting protagonist surrounded by the fluttering insects, a consequence of staying idle for too long. By manipulating the camera around the scene, making diegetic swooping noises as it moves, Manetas brings our attention to the camera’s operator, the artist.

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Miltos Manetas, SuperMario Sleeping (Butterflies) (1997)

The three main approaches to machinima—“inside-out,” “outside-in,” and “abstract”—are defined by the intention of the author, their frame of reference, and their audience. “Inside-out” refers to machinima that intentionally incorporates elements of the game into its narrative. Many early Quake movies, such as Diary of a Camper, took this approach, appealing to a gaming audience with insider references, jokes, and commentary. “Outside-in” refers to machinima that does not reference the game it uses as its engine. The story and characters of “outside-in” films are created solely by the machinima artist, and sometimes reference real-world events or reimagine classic tales. “Abstract” machinima, as with Videos After Videogames, uses the game as a formal, conceptual, social, or political investigation. It is concerned with the video game as a canvas for critical inquiry rather than a container for narrative.

The popularity and open world structure of Grand Theft Auto led to a legacy of machinima creation, such as Myfanwy Ashmore’s Grand Theft Love Song (2010), which uses the game as a “choreographic vehicle.” By rotating the joysticks of the controller, the artist lets the game dictate the movements of the character, creating a strange, relational dance between player, character, and game. Brent Watanabe’s San Andreas DeerCam (2016), both a mod and a live recording of a deer running aimlessly through the Grand Theft Auto V map, combines modding and gameplay to create non-narrative contemplations of artificial intelligence. The deer’s AI interacts with the game’s existing AI, creating constant disruptions which result in the deer teleporting onto highways, getting chased by the police, and starting fights with locals. These abstract interventions transform ultra-popular, high-production games like Grand Theft Auto into a malleable, dissectable medium.

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Brent Watanabe, San Andreas Deer Cam: offline footage (2016)
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Machinima artists use particular games to underscore biases and oversights, to call attention to how games can reflect the prejudices of contemporary life. Peggy Ahwesh’s She Puppet (2001) contains a compilation of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft dying repeatedly in various situations, illustrating the game’s proclivity for showing the player her death animations, her final gasps. Rather than following the intended mission, Lara is seen exploring the confines of the game, coming to terms with her own identity. A voiceover, Lara’s implied inner monologue, quotes The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The Female Man by Joanna Russ, and the jazz mystic Sun Ra. The quotations discuss the alien, the clone, and the orphan, all archetypes inhabited by the avatar of Croft, whose popularity in the gaming community was predicated on her characterization as the objectified and idealized female action hero. Similarly, in Georgie Roxby-Smith’s Fall Girl (2013), a female avatar repeatedly falls to her death down a mountainside within Skyrim, experiencing a “death-loop” of torment. Wearing nothing but the default Skyrim undergarments, the avatar ragdolls through the air to her imminent demise. We are never shown the origin of each fall, and are left to wonder what has occurred just before the actions on camera. Both Fall Girl and She Puppet highlight the function of female video game protagonists as tropes of sexy violence and sexy death.

In Sondra Perry’s It’s in the Game (2016), Perry interviews her twin brother Sandy, one of many NCAA basketball players whose likenesses have been copied by EA Games without consent. Though the game developer initially denied any resemblance that the digital avatars held to the real players, Sandy can easily identify himself and his teammates. A particular scene shows a picture-in-picture shot of Sandy next to a screen within the game NCAA Basketball. We are in character selection mode, and Sandy cycles through the list of names and their corresponding avatars at the center of the screen. With each new avatar, Sandy identifies the avatar’s real-life counterpart along with personal anecdotes: “One of my favorite players is Julien Allen. 6’ 4” from Connecticut. He was an all around great player. He wore number 24 because Kobe Bryant was his favorite player.”

Since college basketball players are “compensated” via scholarships, the NCAA argued that players were not entitled to any compensation from EA Games for the unauthorized use of their likenesses. By cutting in footage of a museum visit along with the NCAA Basketball scenes, Sondra Perry makes a comparison between EA’s conduct and the colonial ways in which museums profit from looted artifacts and artwork.

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Peggy Ahwesh, She Puppet (2001)

As a mode of performance, machinima gives the artist a particular kind of agency. With that agency comes the ability to stand in contrast to the game’s intended rules of play through compelling acts of refusal. Using what is considered one of the most controversial game levels ever created, Claire Evans’s Modern Warfare (2010) subverts the violent intentions of the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The level simulates a mass shooting event in which you, the player, must participate. In the face of this directive, Evans does not participate but instead systematically destroys every computer screen, which she describes as “dead mirrors.” The performance is an absurd attempt to annihilate the technology from within, but no amount of destruction will help the player escape from its all-encompassing grasp; this act, rather, emphasizes the limitations of the player within this medium.

How to Disappear (2021) by artist collective Total Refusal considers the act of desertion within the game Battlefield. In the opening scene, a WWI-era soldier clutches a rifle in knee-high grass under a large swath of clear blue sky.  As shots ring out ahead, the soldier turns and runs in the opposite direction, sprinting through grass, then mud, then dirt. The color is drained from the scene. A disembodied voice calls out instructions to turn around but the avatar does not. The avatar is then executed by an invisible bullet, discharged by the game itself. By exhibiting the constraints placed on the player—the rules that dictate how one must “correctly” enact war—How to Disappear highlights the game-like conventions of war as well as Battlefield’s prescription of the perfect soldier. The narrator explains that “through endless repetitions of movements, soldiers are to become machines. War is inscribed into the flesh of their bodies. The soldier’s body in a video game—the avatar—always obeys… it essentially is a digital machine which is programmed to fulfill two functions: to kill and be killed.” By running from active battle or hiding in the sparse brush, the avatar overturns the expectations of the game, demonstrating digital desertion and a form of digital protest.

When we enter video game space, we bring along with us all the wonderful and complicated messiness of our human existence. The belief that digital space is a clean slate remains an escapist myth. Digital storytelling is one way to debunk this myth. Machinima serves as both a window and a mirror, a critical view both outward and inward. Digital artists, content creators, gamers, and fans continue to push the medium, reconsidering what it means to change the game. ♦

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