More Aspects of the Trickster

I’ve recently written about how stealth games allow us to play with the trickster. Looking over my notes for the piece, I realised there’s some miscellany thoughts that I’d have liked to include, but that somehow didn’t seem to fit. So this article will discuss some of these loosely related points and also include a few games (The Thief series, Metal Gear Solid 3, Gunpoint) that in some ways manage to be even more successfully ‘trickstery’ than the ones I looked at in the main article. I heavily recommend you read Playing with the Trickster first, or this probably isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense.

Humour & Naivety

In the conclusion of my essay, I criticised modern stealth games for not fully embracing the ‘trickster spirit’. I focused mostly on the way games like Mankind Divided, MGSV, Dishonored or Hitman use their plots to justify or contain the player’s transgressive creativity in terms of, for example, revenge. Of course, this also affects the protagonists: Adam Jensen, Corvo and Snake are all very serious, stoic figures (traumatised, haunted, wronged) that never seem to enjoy or even recognise the self-indulgent mischief most players will gleefully pursue. I admit that part of the disruptive fun of these games is exactly that: using a grizzled mercenary legend to order your doggie companion to fulton-abduct soldiers admittedly never gets old.

Still, there’s a sense of cognitive dissonance in actions like these. There have been stealth games that come much closer to getting it right. The most obvious example would be the Thief series (with the exception of the 2014 reboot). Garrett is a trickster hero who doesn’t take things too seriously, even if they would seem to warrant seriousness. He always displays a cheeky sense of humour and enjoyment for his work. And this work is transgressive – breaking into buildings, stealing, and, yes, potentially even killing guards – but the Thief titles allow or encourage far less violence than more modern games. Garrett may like to hide in the darkest black, but the ethical spectrum of his actions is overall of a far brighter grey than, say, Corvo’s, who can easily be twisted into a bloodthirsty sociopath. As a result, Garrett’s hijinks are more ambiguous, and, as Lewis Hyde pointed out, the trickster thrives on ambiguity. Garrett’s actions may be ethically highly questionable, but it’s hard to fault such a charming rascal. This is an essential attribute of the trickster: Hyde writes that, after Apollo confronts Hermes for the theft of his cattle, he has a hard time staying mad at the ‘innocent’ baby trickster. His shamelessness is endearing, disarming.

The Metal Gear Solid series has one excellent trickster figure too, namely Snake from MGS3. In the series’ other titles, Snake/Big Boss is usually presented as a weary, battle-hardened veteran dragged down by past violence. The young Snake from MGS3, however, is an inexperienced newbie on his first ‘outing’. True: He has learned from the best and is destined to become a legend, and yet, at the beginning of the game, he’s completely and utterly clueless about how the world really works. In the end, he’ll have become ‘Bis Boss’, disillusioned and bitter, but up to that point, there’s always been a boyish spark in him: just remember the way he immaturely competes with Ocelot, or looks at the Boss with adoring puppy eyes. Which means that MGS3 may be one of the very few stealth games that lets us embody Hyde’s ‘naïve trickster’. No matter how experienced the player may be, the game’s plot will always reveal that Snake has been duped again and again by an embarrassingly large array of characters. He’s the trickster that hasn’t yet learned how to recognise a trap and falls into them without even realising he’s been caught in a web of lies.

I think it’d be remiss not to mention Tom Francis’ amazing Gunpoint, whose protagonist, the freelance spy Richard Conway, gets duped at the beginning of the game and spends most of his time struggling to get out of the mess he himself (accidentally) created. There’s a lot of irony and humour in its missions, like the ones in which you are basically tasked to investigate crimes you yourself committed in earlier missions, unbeknownst to your current client. Gunpoint deserves credit for being a stealth game which unreservedly embraces the humour and gleeful silliness that is inherent in the trickster figure. Like many stealth games, Gunpoint does culminate in revenge-taking, but it never takes itself too seriously and therefore doesn’t fall into the same trap as, say, Dishonored.

Hunger

Hyde writes that it is often the trickster’s stomach (and sometimes genitalia) that drives him towards his dubious (mis)adventures. In my article, I read hunger metaphorically as anything that motivates or entices the player (as opposed to the avatar). After all, the stealth heroes I looked at are lofty, larger-than-life figures that are above such petty concerns as food. The trickster as described by Hyde, however, is more down-to-earth and ‘humble’ (not in the sense of humility, but of station).

Some stealth games do a pretty good job of showing the trickster’s ‘earthy’ needs and desires. Again, Snake from MGS3 is an interesting example. After all, the game is called Snake Eater, and Snake does indeed have to forage for food to survive. True, this is not a major concern as there’s always enough food somewhere in the jungle, but hunting wild animals, shooting fruits from trees and stealing rations from military bases does add more nuance if we try to understand Snake as a trickster figure. Snake may be on his way of becoming a superhuman hero, but as he’s lurking in the jungle, he’s also an animal among other animals, crawling on the ground like his code-namesake, being driven by predatory hunger like the Coyote of North American trickster myths. Even your enemies are dependent on food. If Snake blows up a base’s food supplies, the guards will become weak from hunger and can be lured into traps by dropping (poisoned) food on the ground. This tactic is a pretty obscure detail that most players may easily miss, but it’s nevertheless a nice illustration of Hyde’s intricate web between the trickster, appetite, and traps.

It’s also worth noting that MGS3-Snake is the only stealth hero I can think of that seems to have a libido, which manifests itself in his interactions with the scantily clad triple agent Eva. Eva is also an incarnation of an archetype, one that shares at least a few similarities with the trickster figure: the femme fatale. Using her body, she manipulates the men around her and, in the end, dupes clueless Snake. In this way, MGS3 introduces another type of trickster-associated hunger and trap.

Garrett, too, is a more down-to-earth figure. He isn’t hungry, exactly, and he is a kind of (reluctant) hero, but at the same time, the game makes it clear that Garrett steals to be able to pay his rent; an everyday need that should be familiar to most people. Garrett isn’t just an intruder in the City, he is also very much an insider, living in this cityscape like a parasite in a host, feeding off it. By contrast, Dishonored’s Dunwall is – for Corvo at least – less a body to be inhabited in a symbiotic relationship, and more like a battlefield for his revenge-crusade.

Filth

This is another aspect described by Hyde that ties the trickster to the earth, or rather, the dirt. The trickster is a figure that has one foot in the heavens, and another in excrement. Social systems, so Hyde, define themselves through exclusion, and the excluded is the actual (or more often metaphorical) filth or garbage of this system. Shameless as he is, the trickster wallows in dirt, slips through the barriers that are supposed to keep it out, and therefore brings what had been excluded back into a previously ‘pristine’ order.

There are some faint traces of this in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, especially in the Utulek Complex, aka Golem City, which serves as a ghetto for the augmented. There’s plenty of literal filth in that place; Utulek is a neglected, horrific concentration camp. On a more metaphorical level, of course, the augmented themselves are the excluded ‘garbage’ of this society, a fact that is evocatively illustrated by a shop full of discarded puppets that the player enters immediately before travelling to Utulek. By questioning the status quo and the lies spread against the augmented, as well as penetrating the barriers around Utulek, Jensen and the player act very much like Hyde’s trickster, questioning an order’s exclusions.

Dishonored makes use of depictions of filth and decay throughout the whole game, mostly literal, but also metaphorical. There’s torrents of filth: grime, smoke, corpses, swarms of rats, sewers, whale cadavers and guts… Dunwall is an utterly abject place. On its most obvious metaphorical level, this filth is a stand-in for the betrayal and oppression of the usurper, for the wrongness of the new status quo. There are more subtle and interesting readings though. In the level that houses Lady Boyle’s mansion, there’s a very literal barrier between the mirth and luxury of the mansion, and the decay and misery of the rest of the city. As in Mankind Divided, the people living outside of this oasis, the excluded and ‘uninvited’, become human garbage in the eyes of the rich and glamorous. And as in Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, the intrusion of Corvo is also the symbolic intrusion of death and pestilence into an order that previously thrived on their exclusion.

Similarly, after Corvo is betrayed by the loyalists, he is thrown in the river like garbage. On his way back, he swims through a flooded, abandoned part of the city, crawls through sewers, and climbs out of a mass grave filled to the brim with plague victims. Through his struggle, Corvo becomes intimately associated with abjection and abandonment. His way back into the light isn’t just an escape from filth; he carries it back with himself to those who desperately wanted to be rid of it, and destroys them by forcing them to face what they excluded.

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