Playing with the Trickster
This article was originally published on Kill Screen, October 2016. Since the site is no longer online, I'm re-publishing the article here. I also wrote a follow-up piece, which you can find here.
“They are the lords of in-between. A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier’s tent, the shaman’s hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town.” - Lewis Hyde
Adam Jensen is a serious man. He has no time to spare; a helicopter is waiting for him as we speak. So what does he think he’s doing, breaking into a bank in Prague, causing all sorts of mischief and mayhem, for no other reason than his own personal amusement?
Or, rather, my amusement. Infiltrating and unravelling the many security layers of that building, becoming the ghost in the puzzle-box machine, may be the most enjoyable experience I had while playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. And yet, this diversion also had a disruptive quality. I turned Adam Jensen against himself, and his bleak world of oppression and conspiracies. For a few hours, the body of that brooding cyber-soldier was hacked and usurped by a mischievous trickster spirit that delighted in turning this dystopian cyberpunk world into his personal playground.
Robbing the bank blind is not a turning against the game’s design, however; after all, its creators provide you with both the means and the opportunity to perform this act of transgression. But the motive is provided by the player alone, and this is where a kind of unwitting subversion takes hold. This motive to use the tools at one’s disposal not just to overcome obstacles and progress, but to create entertaining and surprising situations, is always present in Mankind Divided. But the bank is an unabashed monument to that kind of self-indulgent urge, and embracing it with matching shamelessness will break the illusion of this virtual world and reveal its artificiality. Depending on your outlook, this disenchantment might seem like a threatening loss of order, or a liberating invigoration.
In his book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998), cultural critic Lewis Hyde re-examines one of the most persistently fascinating figures of our archetypal imagination: the trickster. They have many faces, many guises: Hermes, Loki, Coyote, Krishna, Eshu … it goes on. Based on close readings of trickster stories from around the world, Hyde describes a shifty figure of the doorway and the road, nestling in the margins and boundaries of communities, muddling distinctions through transgressions and mischief. The trickster is a deeply ambiguous figure. Driven by hunger, they’re both foolish prey falling for the poisoned meat, and a masterful setter of traps, a manipulator. Shameless, the trickster lies for their own profit and speaks forbidden truths by breaking taboos. After the trickster has come and gone, having slipped through pores in the boundaries erected to protect order, what was perceived as natural, eternal, and sacred before now seems arbitrary, contradictory, disenchanted.
The trickster isn’t merely a destroyer, then, but also a creator and culture hero. Their mischief can be dangerous, but it’s also essential to the health of social systems. If the status quo has become sterile and inflexible, the trickster’s antics oil its joints, make it fertile and limber again. They have their own brand of transgressive creativity that embraces the accidental, the peripheral, the noise—rather than the signal—and thereby leads to truly new things that would have been unimaginable in a self-contained, self-perpetuating system that is able only to draw from itself. Hyde is especially interested in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which recounts the mischief of baby Hermes and his path from the margins to Mount Olympus. Hermes sneaks out of his mother’s cave, creates the first lyre out of a tortoise, then steals Apollo’s cattle and brazenly lies to Apollo when confronted. He is brought before Zeus for his transgressions, but instead of being judged, he charms and sings his way into a world order that previously excluded him, and his intrusion first unravels and then rearranges this order.
Hyde also looks for aspects of the trickster outside of myths—for their mischievous creativity at work in the world around us. He sees it, for example, in the compositions of John Cage that embrace accident and noise, in the writings of Maxine Hong Kingston whose ‘shameless’ speaking breaks taboos, or the struggles of the “free slave” Frederick Douglass who exposed the self-contradictions in a racist system. At the same time, Hyde worries about the modern, post-polytheistic world’s lack of trickster figures. He asks: “What remains? What are the modern forms by which order deals with its own exclusions? Where is the dirt-work of democratic mass society? Where has trickster’s spirit settled?”
Of all the places the trickster’s spirit may settle, videogames seem to me the most intriguing. Here’s a chance not merely to tell or be told about a trickster’s exploits, not merely to perform or witness their brand of creativity, but to enter an embodied trickster figure, and play with the rules of a system through this body. The mere act of adopting a new face, of inhabiting an avatar, is deeply suggestive of the trickster: the player casually slips out of her own skin, seamlessly entering a new guise. She transgresses and upsets the boundaries delineated by screen and interface: between the real and the virtual, the physical and the imaginary, the self and the other.
There’s one type of game that seems especially relevant here: the stealth game. Even a cursory glance at the bodies these games ask us to slip on reveals their closeness to the shifty, ambiguous trickster. Snake, aka Big Boss, from the Metal Gear Solid series is a mercenary, operating in-between nations and ideologies, fighting for his own interests. Agent 47 from Hitman is an instrument of murder as much as he is a human being. Corvo from Dishonored (2012) is traitor and loyalist at the same time. And Adam Jensen is a double agent in the latest part of the Deus Ex series, negotiating in a space between Interpol and a hacker collective. All of them have to break the rules of the systems they inhabit or break into, to slip through barriers, ideally through subterfuge and deception rather than brute force. All of them are essentially amoral figures: rarely unambiguously evil, but always at least toying with the dark grey areas of ethical conduct.
The trickster, according to Hyde, is a creature interacting with actual or metaphorical traps: setting, breaking, subverting, or falling into them. Blinded by hunger or lust, the naïve trickster is unable to recognize the danger. Similarly, the stealth game tantalizes and beckons the player with goals, rewards, opportunities, ready to spring the trap set by the designers and the procedures of the program. It’s the most obvious pathway in Deus Ex; an assassination target walking right in front of you in Hitman; an elite soldier just asking to be abducted in Metal Gear Solid V (2015). The naïve player will jump at the poisoned ‘opportunity’ as soon as it presents itself.
But the trickster may learn from previous mistakes. And the experienced stealth player will refuse the urge for immediate gratification in the knowledge that the eventual reward will be the more satisfying. She’ll study the traps carefully, and knowing their mechanisms, she’ll be able to get at the ‘meat’ without springing the trap. Or even better, she may subvert it, turn it against the trappers. Adam Jensen can hack security systems so they’ll target his enemies. Snake may spring an enemy’s trap with a decoy, allowing him to sneak past or flank distracted guards. Of course, setting and manipulating traps is a tricky business, and just as the guard’s traps may turn against them, the unwary player may easily fall into her own pit: Agent 47, lurking in some broom closet, waiting for his victim to appear, only to realize too late that some embarrassing mistake’s been made and there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Snake tripping over his own sleeping gas mine in a moment of humiliating slap-stick idiocy, ruining a carefully laid-out plan. The trickster is a paradox living on the boundaries between opposites. They are both hunter and hunted, the ingenious manipulator and the bumbling fool, the monster lurking in the shadows and the scared child hiding in the closet.
In some ways, Hyde points out, the trickster is the most foolish being of them all, since they have “no way of his own,” no instinctual response to a problem. Doom Guy’s way is to shoot whatever moves in front of his gun. Super Mario’s way is to jump over obstacles. What is the way of Snake, of Agent 47? They have easily definable goals, but how do they get there? ‘Sneaking’ doesn’t exhaust it at all, as it often encompasses a plethora of possible actions and strategies. The way of the one with no way, it turns out, is to have countless ways. Agent 47 doesn’t have an M.O. In fact, the challenge system of this year’s Hitman is all about exploring dozens and dozens of potential murder strategies rather than perfecting a single one.
By having many ways, the trickster circumvents what Hyde calls the “trap of instinct.” It’s hard to catch a being whose moves cannot be predicted. Even their appearances are fluent: Snake is a master of camouflage and tactical cardboard box deployment, Corvo can slip into any living thing he sees, and Agent 47 blends into any crowd simply by dressing smartly. After all, the trickster “can encrypt his own image, distort it, cover it up” and is “known for changing his skin.” Conversely, the trickster exploits this trap of instinct to get what they want. How easy it would be to trick Mario or Doom Guy with their single-minded ways. Put some encouraging coins over a wide abyss and the plumber falls to his death. Steal away the ammunition in a Doom level and the space marine will be at his wit’s end. A stealth player’s opponents follow predictable rules and are prone to fall into traps of instinct.
There’s a powerful kind of creativity to the trickster’s hijinks, Hyde suggests, and by extension to the player’s actions. If conventional creativity is seen as a process that reveals what is orderly and essential in the world, then the trickster’s creativity reveals the noise and accidents of the cosmos. The trickster improvises: their plans and actions are as fluent as themselves, and they embrace contingency, incorporating it into their work. Stealth games are simulations first and foremost, and therefore highly emergent. The player may easily predict the behavior of a single guard, but emergent complexity will still take her by surprise. Such systems are proficient at creating ‘accidents’, i.e. unexpected situations that neither player nor designer could have planned or foreseen, through the interaction of their many moving parts. Whether the player gets caught in the chaotic interaction between guards and swarms of murderous rats in Dishonored, or is flushed out of her hiding place by the unexpected arrival of a truck in Metal Gear Solid V, emergent systems will always create surprises.
These accidents will disrupt the player’s plans, but they may also provide opportunities to seize, gaps to slip through. Another result of emergent complexity are frequent glitches, which range from the grenade-enabled wall climbing of the original Deus Ex, to brainwashing enemies into becoming your buddies in Dishonored, to taking your horse along for a ride in Metal Gear Solid V. Glitches also highlight how the creative player can exploit opportunities that lie outside a game’s design proper, using hiccups in physics or AI simulation to create their own amusement or advantages. The player who recognizes the ‘meaning’ of the accidental and works with it behaves like a trickster. Whenever a player reloads the game since her plan didn’t work out as intended, she tries to restrain trickster creativity.
Acts of trickster creativity are always disruptive within the system they are performed. This is equally true of a player’s misbehavior in stealth games. Metal Gear Solid V has been criticized for its silliness, which clashes with the game’s serious topics of war, child soldiers, and genocide. It’s a valid point, but it also neatly illustrates the game’s disruptions. Every time the player hides under a cardboard box or fulton-extracts a sheep in a war zone, she’s effectively challenging how we think about the relationship between the serious and the frivolous in the first place. Playful silliness and horrors exist side by side. Something similar is true for Mankind Divided, where the player’s transgressions—breaking into apartments, robbing the bank—seem at odds with its themes of oppression. But whereas these disruptions lead to a flawed-but-interesting provocation in Metal Gear Solid V, they merely undermine the whole fiction of its world in Mankind Divided.
Dishonored tries to ‘tame’ trickster creativity by distinguishing between what Hyde calls the wild vs. the domesticated trickster—the former destroying the status quo, the latter restoring it at the end. If the player kills too many people, chaos rises and the game world becomes apocalyptic. But the distinction between wild and domesticated is subverted as soon as the player starts to consciously play with the chaos system, e.g. by starting to sneak through a high chaos world without harming anyone.
Hitman dispenses with the flimsy moral choices of these other games. You don’t get to choose whether to murder your target, only how you do it. Agent 47 isn’t at all interested in questions of right and wrong; he is perhaps the most amoral among stealth protagonists. As a result, Hitman confuses our moral compass, and replaces it with a completely different code of conduct: the ethos of the contract killer. The ‘good’ killer, as is reflected in the rating system, murders only their targets, doesn’t make a mess, leaves quickly and undiscovered.
But even this subversion will be subverted in turn, because the player is enabled and even encouraged by the game to cause havoc and kill her targets in inefficient, ridiculous manners, thereby breaking the contract killer’s rules. Killing a man via exploding golf ball and calmly standing in the middle of the unfolding chaos is a similar thrill as hijacking a tank in Metal Gear Solid V and waltzing right through what was supposed to be a stealth mission. These are gleefully self-indulgent acts that transgress the cardinal mandate of the stealth genre itself: Be Subtle. That these games allow for such rule breaking is sometimes seen as a concession to mainstream tastes, but I’d argue that it is really a concession to the trickster spirit. The rules are there to be broken.
Still, these games seem to consider some of their boundaries sacrosanct, not to be transgressed. Seemingly being anxious about the trickster they themselves invited, they impose structures on the player designed to keep the more troubling aspects of the trickster in check. I’m specifically talking about goals, motives, and framing stories. Metal Gear Solid V and Dishonored use revenge stories to justify their players’ behavior. In Mankind Divided, the player fights conspiracies and terrorism. Even Hitman, despite its amorality, often pits Agent 47 against people who are markedly more evil than he is. No matter how much you transgress, these games tell the player, you are always already justified.
Of course, the trickster can never really be bound, but the damage is already done: by trying to tame them, these games hamstring themselves and their potential to say something meaningful about the world, its communities, and the conceptual boundaries they use to make sense of it. Hyde writes that, instead of futilely attempting to restrict the trickster, “it would be better to learn to play with him, better especially to develop styles (cultural, spiritual, artistic) that allow some commerce with accident, and some acceptance of the changes contingency will always engender.” As said before, videogames are a strong contender for cultivating these styles of negotiating with trickster creativity. Unfortunately, modern mainstream stealth games seem hesitant to go the full distance. I’d love to see future stealth games that embrace the trickster spirit and their players’ transgressive creativity more fully, that challenge our seemingly natural understanding of creative works or the world more coherently.