Does Game Size Matter? Comparing Vivian Sobchack’s theory of the QuickTime Memory Box and the experience of Tomb Raider on the Game Boy – Tim Drylie

Focusing on the Game Boy format, Tim Drylie outlines why it is a fallacy to assume that an ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ path for computer game development leads to a more ‘real’ game experience via a connection with more powerful and larger digital technologies. It is not always a greater expansion in size (of processing speed and capability, or a more ‘natural’ reality experience) that matters; it is what you do with ‘it’ that counts. Drawing upon Vivian Sobchack’s comparison of the miniature ‘memory box’ to the QuickTime ‘movie’, a poetic and philosophical interrogation of the Game Boy Tomb Raider game follows.


I still cannot bring myself to play my Nintendo Game Boy on public transport.  I know it is a silly fear, but, being an ‘adult’, there are limits to how willing I am to confess to my ‘childish’ computer game interests.  I do not fanatically desire to recreate childhood memories when I happily played Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers on the school bus to and from home.  I do, however, sense an uncanny gap between my public ‘adult’ anxiety and a more private ‘childish’ enjoyment of a more modest and miniature computer game format.  I can of course get ‘real’ and angst-free by purchasing and staying home with the Sony PlayStation 2, but that denies that the Game Boy has something different and valuable to offer. [1]   I do not advocate that you rush out and buy the latest Game Boy Advance; nor suggest that the Game Boy is somehow, in reverse, superior to the more powerful machines.  However, I do plan to outline why it is a fallacy to assume that an ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ path for computer game development leads to a more ‘real’ game experience via a necessary connection with more powerful and larger digital technologies. [2]   I may encounter an uncanny sense of inner ‘lack’ when I admit that I value the Game Boy format, but I am also satisfied in the knowledge that it is not always a greater expansion in size (of processing speed and capability, or a more ‘natural’ reality experience) that matters; it is what you do with ‘it’ that counts.

Vivian Sobchack sees the miniature form of the QuickTime ‘movie’ as a poetic and philosophical interrogation into “the nature of memory and temporality, the values of scale, and what we mean by animation”. [3]   In this article, I argue that Vivian Sobchack’s analysis of the Quick Time ‘movie’ as a ‘memory box’ functions well as a theoretical model for understanding the creativity and difference that the Game boy commissions to its advantage as a miniature game form. The particular dynamics of framing, condensation and compression, the mnemonic aesthetic enacted through ritual and rhythm and the temporal and existential conundrum of intermittent motion are applied to the Game Boy version of the ever popular PC game (and motion picture disaster) Tomb Raider.  Sobchack’s approach affirms the aesthetic value of QuickTime as a ‘memory box’ and, by extension, the creativity and difference of the Game Boy, but she also sells the miniature form short by labeling its difference and herself as ‘retrograde’ and ‘nostalgic’. She cannot get past the QuickTime ‘movie’ as a form that generates an essentially nostalgic and inward moving narrative that lacks an outward vision towards the future.  However, in my analysis of the Game Boy as a miniature form, I propose that her theory of the ‘memory box’ does have affirmative qualities that reach beyond a backward nostalgic past and towards a possible future.  Using Gilles Deleuze’s cinema theories in conjunction with Sobchack, I argue that the Game Boy has a relatively positive and important role to play in marking creativity and difference as valuable concepts for a technology and reality obsessed computer games market.  

QuickTime Movies and the Significance of the Memory Box

It is easy to dismiss the Game Boy as a redundant and limited piece of technology that belongs to the archives of computer game history and I usually spend very little energy analysing the theoretical and philosophical parameters of my Game Boy playing. It takes some effort to appreciate that, in its difference to game formats that pursue a perceptual reality similar to the cinema and ‘real’ life, the Game Boy creatively treats its modest technological capacity as an active working parameter rather than a diminishing and constraining lack or limitation.  I agree with Sobchack when she argues, using Susan Stewart’s line, that “[a] reduction in dimensions does not always produce a corresponding reduction in significance”. [4]    Instead of a reduction in significance, Sobchack proposes that miniature forms, such as the QuickTime ‘movie’, intensify and accrue phenomenological and aesthetic value as an effect of their necessary limitations on data storage, digital memory and image compression. [5]   Limitation becomes a positive value because the fragmentary status of the QuickTime ‘movie’ points to a disjunctive ‘gap’ in memory between a desire for a re-collected order and an actual re-membered ephemeral and relative disordering of experience. [6] This disjunctive gap highlights a poetic tension between the comforting hierarchical logic of the advanced cultural interfaces of the computer database and narrative cinema, and the contingent, associative and jumbled logic of human memory. [7]

Sobchack values and celebrates the expression of this poetic tension between the two logics of memory because, as she sees it, “for all the cultural interface of cinema allows, it also causes a certain ‘blindness’ to both the phenomenological and material difference between QuickTime ‘movies’ and cinematic movies. [8]   Naming the digital object of QuickTime a ‘movie’, measures QuickTime against the aesthetic values of the cinema and, because of its fragmentary nature, the medium is categorised, accordingly, as a poor and primitive relation. [9] The word movie (as in QuickTime ‘movie’) erroneously asserts “the primacy of cinema in the face of its transformation into ‘something else’ by another medium”. [10] Sobchack sees QuickTime as a ‘something else’ other than cinema because she wants to refute the myth of ‘total cinema’ that she associates with the cinematic medium.  Referring to Andre Bazin’s cinema theories, she describes the way the inventors of cinema mistakenly imagined the cinema as “a total and complete representation of reality; they saw in a thrice the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color and relief”. [11]   However, Sobchack sees no logical reason why the ‘mythic teleology’ of the cinema should constrain QuickTime’s capacity as ‘another medium’, nor should it “influence the trajectory of its development and practice” in a similar way. [12]   

For these reasons, Sobchack renames the QuickTime ‘movie’ a ‘memory box’.  For Sobchack, the ‘memory box’ evokes an image of a diverse range of containers “from reliquaries to children’s ‘treasure’ boxes to shoe boxes filled with photographs or souvenirs” that combines the two logics of re-collecting and re-membering. [13]    In contrast to the classification of Quick Time as a  ‘movie’, Sobchack illustrates a number of important differences that the QuickTime ‘memory box’ brings to bear through its poetic ambivalence and ambiguity. Through a multi-layering and juxtaposition of two kinds of logic, re-collection versus re-membering, or hierarchical order versus contingent vagary, Sobchack argues that the ‘memory box’ activates a tension for the viewer that encourages a generative growth in the memory process. [14] She breaks  down this multi-layered process into a number of definable categories: the tension of the frame within a frame; transcendence through the intensities of condensation and compression; the enactment of a mnemonic aesthetic through repetition and rhythm; and the temporal and existential conundrum of intermittent motion.

Fragments of a Whole Fragment: Tomb Raider in Miniature

The first parallel between Sobchack’s theory and the Game Boy is the tension that develops between what Sobchack has called the frame that contains and the framing that is the container.  She refers to the phenomenon of the QuickTime ‘memory box’ as an intensified poetic condensation and compression of a larger framing whole that extends beyond and beneath its containing frame. [15]   In Tomb Raider, two examples of this tension are evident: the problem of perceptual dimension and the objectivity of point of view.  In the first case, this tension occurs because the Game Boy does not have the capacity to function fully in three dimensions.  As Tomb Raider is unable to represent a ‘natural’ three-dimensional world, the designers chose to make this perceived limitation a creative moment of abstract design.  Rather than becoming framed as a ‘real’ world adventure, Tomb Raider accepts its two dimensional scale, but heightens its appeal by stylishly embellishing the static landscape backdrop with bold forms, contrasting colours and artistically articulated lines, shapes and patterns.

The second issue of the objectivity of point of view is evident in Tomb Raider because, in order to achieve a greater level of depth and focus in the design and for better game play, the designers chose a dynamic framing technique that shifts the background tableau as Lara, the game character avatar, negotiates the game space.  The main advantage of this style of framing is that it contains the game action within a very narrow focus upon the immediate point of interest.  At any one moment, the framing point of view represents only a dynamically shifting fragment of the total surrounding terrain.  The philosophical point of interest here is that the frame does not attempt to contain a whole set of relative objects within a subjective field of vision.  Instead, the framing techniques used in Tomb Raider acknowledge that, within any closed frame of reference, there is always an opening that links the frame to other dimensions and possibilities for expression. [16]

The next parallel between Sobchack’s ‘memory box’ and the Game Boy is in relation to her idea that spatial condensation and compression in the ‘memory box’ intensifies its value and constitutes an interiority that transcends “quotidian spatial and temporal relations” (Sobchack 1999:12).  In Tomb Raider this idea is given weight in a condensed and compressed form through the fundamental human narrative that is represented in the action of the game.  I am referring to the grand old narrative of ‘man’ versus nature that is the cornerstone of the ‘civil’ in western civil-isation.  Interestingly, in Tomb Raider, ‘man’ has uncannily become ‘woman’ [17] , but the principle is generally the same: the power of humanity to overcome the threat of a chaotic wilderness.  Tomb Raider presents to the player the typical image of a human subject acting and reacting to the perception of affecting forces in an encompassing ‘real’ world. [18]   This is Tomb Raider at its most basic level of human perception, and is characterised and represented in the game as Lara walking, running, jumping, swinging, and swimming her way through a labyrinthine and cavernous wilderness filled with unknown dangers.

In Tomb Raider, therefore, the narrative is condensed and compressed to its basic components and is then transcended in an unusual way. The difference the Game Boy introduces to this scenario, in its condensed and compressed form, is that Lara is only ever threatened by the carelessness of the player that controls her.  The unknown dangers, such as snakes, scorpions, and machine-gun wielding mercenaries are so simple to kill, and the life-giving health packs so numerous, that killing off Lara becomes an error of human judgment rather than the consequence of an outside or alien threat, or a lack of resources. If there is an intensification of value in the ‘memory box’, as Sobchack suggests, then it occurs in Tomb Raider on the Game Boy as a reflective interiorisation of the values that link the fundamental threat to human identity and existential agency to the contingent and subtractive nature of human perception. [19]

Sobchack argues that the mnemonic practice activated by the ‘memory box’ is based on the repetition and rhythm of a variety of forms and modes that concentrate an effort to preserve an ephemeral memory without fixing its fragmentary nature into a hierarchical order. [20]   These forms and modes are literalised through the use of “‘looping’, duplication, and cyclical recurrence or repeated uses of images, objects, and sounds; rhythmic and repetitious patterning of images, objects, sounds and music”. [21] Thus, the point of this repetition and rhythm is to create a ritualistic, mantric and mechanical spell that binds and encourages the viewer to an active re-membering through a juxtaposition of re-collected and serialised re-presentations. [22]

The most literal example of this binding spell that helps to “tie the ephemeral down” and “preserve what escapes preservation” [23] in Tomb Raider is the constant repetition of the platforms and structures that Lara is required to navigate in order to progress to the next level.  As the unknown dangers in Tomb Raider pose a negligible threat to Lara (as I argued in the last paragraph), the main focus and purpose of the game becomes the ritualistic navigation of a repetitive terrain.  Sobchack notes that the mnemonic repetition in miniature forms often combines with the necessities of mechanical serialisation, which helps to keep both processes in mind.  Thus, Lara’s repetitive leaping and landing, which requires rhythmic precision, is reminiscent and inseparable from the limited processing and memory functions of the Game Boy’s computer chip technology.  In the miniature form of the Game Boy, this relationship becomes more pronounced and, philosophically, it reflects a desire to mechanically re-collect and repeat the ephemeral processes of re-membered memory.  The binding spell cast in Tomb Raider fixes the player in a paradoxical state of re-collection, as the levels unfold with a familiar resemblance of the past, and also ephemeral re-membering, as each different and unfamiliar moment progressively threatens to undo identity in the present.

Along with this mnemonic aesthetic, Sobchack describes a second active component of the QuickTime ‘memory box’ as the disjunction of intermittent motion.  In particular, Sobchack describes time in the miniature as ‘thickening’ and ‘imploding’ as it collapses under its own weight, “diffusing the present into an ahistorical and ‘infinitely deep’ state of reverie”. [24] The effect of this aberrant temporality disrupts and diffuses the smooth flow of human related motion.  This diffusion of the present effects human temporality by breaking movements into intermittent fragments which highlights the difficulty involved in actually becoming “really human or ‘real’ cinema”. [25]   The fragmentary and intermittent motion of the human figure in QuickTime reflects an existential dilemma we have in our own lives of becoming ‘really’ human: memory boxes make us aware of the “‘longue duree’: an ‘almost immobile history’ written not in human events, but cosmic temporality of geologic or climatic transformation”. [26]

In Tomb Raider the game title itself makes reference to a place of the dead, where life has become immobile and extinct.  Indeed, on the Game Boy the static tableaus that Lara negotiates are marked by the symbols of death and decay: skeletons litter the floor, ancient pillars stand broken and eroding, archaic temples and statues memorialise a civilisation now past.  While these figures acknowledge a cosmic or geologic temporality and materiality beyond a quotidian understanding, they are also given greater dimension in the miniature form.  This intermittent motion is exemplified by the contrast of extremities that exists between Lara’s superhuman agility and ability and the static and motionless world that she inhabits.   I am reminded of my own ‘real’ gravity and burdensome weight that restricts me from flying to the heights of Lara’s physicality, and also of the force of time that governs and dissolves all life and animated movement.  As a fragment of a whole fragment, human temporality in Tomb Raider presents the signs of the laborious struggle to become and maintain a ‘real’ identity in time.

Conclusions: Unhinging the Paradox of Time

If it is true that a naval battle may take place tomorrow, how are we to avoid one of the true following consequences: either the impossible proceeds from the possible (since, if the battle takes place, it is no longer possible that it may not take place), or the past is not necessarily true (since the battle could not have taken place) [27] .

The parable that Deleuze relates above is the paradox of ‘contingent futures’ and it highlights the difficulty in ever establishing a direct link between truth and the passage of time.  In this case, truth is constantly displaced by the force of time that forks into a labyrinth of possible directions and disrupts the fixed and re-collected space that truth needs to take root. [28] This proposal is similar in nature to the ephemeral and fragmentary process of re-membering invoked by Sobchack’s ‘memory box’. However, contrary to her argument, I do not see this re-membering as a nostalgic longing for the lost whole of past experience.  As Deleuze illustrates above, there is no truth that remains a complete whole as the force of time constantly moves to unhinge it.  All past memories and present perceptions are essentially fragments of an infinite whole that makes the past indiscernible to the present that passes.  Thus, to counter Sobchack’s final statement that the ‘gap’ is closing for QuickTime as it enlarges and quickens I would argue that another gap will always open and already is open somewhere else. [29]

The theoretical parameters of the ‘memory box’ function well as a model for the Game Boy when analysing and evaluating the particular philosophical and poetic dimensions of Tomb Raider as a miniature form.  Furthermore, Deleuze’s theories of cinema, with a particular reference to the concept of contingent futures, illustrate that Sobchack is not retrograde, nor that her theory of ‘memory boxes’ necessarily carries the negative implications of an inwardly spiralling nostalgia.  Instead of mourning the loss of the ‘memory box’ as a “unique historical experience and rare digital object” I believe Sobchack’s approach inspires a possibility for different and creative future directions in the computer game industry, and an opportunity to accept and celebrate the fragments that become human perception. [30]   I would be kidding myself, however, if I believed that size does not, and will not, matter to a future that is currently driven by a cynical nostalgia for an unrestricted and ‘free’ market and by the greed of an unfettered corporate expansionism.

Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles, H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (trans.), Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994

Deleuze, Gilles, H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta (trans.), Cinema 2: The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994

Jenkins H., Lowenstein D., “’Opening Remarks’ Computer and Video Games Coming of Age”, http://web.mit.edu/cms/games/opening.html., accessed 2nd August, 2000

Sobchack V., “Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime”, Millennium Film Journal, Fall, 1999, pp.4-23

Notes

[1] The official Nintendo website, http://www.nintendo.com/systems/gb/gb_overview.jsp, states that “The Game Boy is the world’s best-selling video game system, with over 100 million units shipped.” Accessed 8th October. 2001
[2] Doug Lowenstein has said that one of the main challenges for the computer game industry is to manage the continued upward pressure that new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and 3D graphics, place on development budgets. Top games can now cost $5 million to $10 million dollars and take 24 months to develop. “Opening Remarks: Computer and Video Games Coming of Age”, http://web.mit.edu/cms/games/opening.html, accessed 2nd August 2001
[3] "Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime", Millennium Film Journal, Fall, 1999,  p.3
[4] ibid. p.11
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid. p.6
[7] ibid.
[8] ibid. p.5
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid.p.4
[11] ibid. p.4
[12] ibid. p.5
[13] ibid. p.5
[14] ibid. p.10
[15] ibid. p.12
[16] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1991, pp.56-59.  I am referring to the concept Deleuze develops as the ‘plane of immanence’, which is where all closed sets become open because of their relationship to this infinite plane of all universal matter.
[17] I do not wish to conflate the important difference that exists between a male and female avatar in this instance.  However, it is beyond the scope of this article to follow up the complexities of engaging with Tomb Raider from a position of gender. 
[18] ibid. pp.61-66
[19] ibid. pp.62-66 Deleuze uses Henri Bergson’s theory of perception to develop an understanding of human perception as an essentially subtractive process of simple elimination.  The fundamental idea here is that perception subtracts from the field of vision only the elements that excite or affect an interest or capacity in the subject.
[20] "Nostalgia for a Digital Object", pp.14-15
[21] ibid. p.14
[22] ibid. p.16
[23] ibid. p.15
[24] ibid. p.16
[25] ibid. p.17
[26] ibid.
[27] Gilles Delueze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994, p.130
[28] ibid. p.131

[29] Sobchack, "Nostalgia for a Digital Object", p.18
[30]ibid. p.18

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