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The Rules of "The Game"

by Brian Flory

Like any other game, The Game (Fincher, 1997) is played according to certain rules. Unfortunately for Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), those rules seem obscure, contradictory, and full of red herrings. The game seems to begin, for example, with the information, “you’ve received the very first key, and others will follow. You’ll never know where you’ll find them, or how you’ll need to use them, so keep your eyes open.” While the last piece of advice about keeping his eyes open serves him well for most of the film (only reversed in the last moments when he’s advised to keep his eyes closed, because the safety glass can still cut him), the keys turn out to be largely red herrings, or at the very least misleading. He does use one key later in the film, but far more important is the flood of keys that implicates his brother in the game.
    Still, just a distraction. Daniel Schorr, playing himself, delivers these rules portentously, as if reading holy writ. “This is your game,” he says, “and welcome to it.” In truth, at least to some extent, Van Orton sets the rules of the game himself, and began playing long before this moment. Though there are several moments early in the film that one could argue inaugurate Nicholas Van Orton’s game, I think the strongest case can be made for the diagnostic sequence at CRS headquarters.
    While the battery of physical tests through which Van Orton is put are certainly important given the trials he’s about to endure, it’s important to note, too, that psychological tests are interspersed throughout. He’s presented, for example, with a series of black and white drawings presenting a number of situations, images that can be easily read into the subsequent events of the movie. Though his responses leave some room for interpretation, it’s quite probable that they shape the final form of his personal game. An image of a beach beauty being stalked by a giant serpent provokes a response of “risky” from Nicholas, which may have prompted the game’s designers to initially present Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) as harmless, even scattered. Conversely, his sardonic attitude toward the car barreling over a cliff may have prompted the designers to include the sequence of Nicholas’ car plunging into the San Francisco Bay with him inside, on the assumption that his dry humor suggests he can handle it.
    But this is speculation. What is clear is that he is to some extent setting the rules of his game by participating in the early stages of it. This is consistent with character design sequences in some video games, wherein the player makes a series of choices - in some cases practical, in some cases theoretical - that indicate how the player intends to approach various obstacles in the game. These choices then dictate the starting skills of the player’s avatar in the game. Indeed, Bethesda’s Fallout 3 (2008) presents the player character with the G.O.A.T. (Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test). A video of this sequence is available on critical commons. These are more common than is immediately apparent, even in older games, though they are often interspersed throughout the game rather than concentrated at the beginning as is the case in the Fallout 3’s G.O.A.T.. The original Fallout (Interplay, 1997) or Deus Ex (Eidos, 2000), for example, lack the initial G.O.A.T. sequence, but prompt you to choose between skills useful in combat, or diplomacy, thievery or other areas as your character gains experience. The skills chosen then go on to influence the remainder of the game, and the approach your character must take to various problems in order to succeed. Other games - Baldur’s Gate (Bioware, 1998) or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Bioware, 2003) - gauge a characters’ actions on a scale of good and evil (or light side and dark side) and modify the game’s story to suit the player’s style, as well as which abilities players can access as their characters gain experience.
    Both the G.O.A.T. and the value judgments apparent in these games is also visible in The Game. Early in the diagnostic sequence, there’s a shot of Van Orton filling out a form indicating his responses to various value statements. These responses (probably along with his response to the pencil no doubt carefully engineered to break) are measured and applied to the design of Van Orton’s game. On the surface, the game manipulates him, but beneath, he manipulates the game first.
    Each of these sequences suggests connections to Alexander Galloway’s book, Gaming, which draws distinctions between gamic actions of various kinds. The key distinction here is between nondiegetic operator acts and diegetic operator acts. In most games with which we are familiar - that is to say, most games that take place in the physical world, such as sports - one either sets the rules then enters the game (such as by deciding an amount to wager on a skins golf game) or enters a game for which rules are long established by custom and regulation (as in any number of spectator sports). These nondiegetic operator acts are defined as such because the nature of the game in question is determined by agreements and compacts put in place outside the context of the game itself. In The Game, though, we are presented with a radically different model, in which the player - always already in the game - is presented with a series of choices, options, that affect the way the game plays out. Nicholas Van Orton is engaging in diegetic operator acts almost immediately in the film.
    To some extent, this is something we all do every day. For those of us who are students, we chose whether or not to attend a demanding graduate program, setting the difficulty - or at least required duration - of our studies, while at the same time already engaged in them. This decision, obviously, has ramifications throughout the life course. That said, Nicholas Van Orton’s wealth is a major factor, as it is precisely his wealth that allows him to essentially “pause” the game of life, pull up the options menu by going to CRS and taking the diagnostic, and change the rules of The Game. This same option is less available to those without Van Orton’s means, easily observable in the influence of money in politics or any other public arena.

Fallout 3: G.O.A.T.

Diegetic Operator Acts Defining Rules of Game, referencing also the diagnostic scene in Fincher's "The Game" (1997). Uploaded by Brian Flory.

from Fallout 3 (2008)
Creator: Bethesda Game Studios (sampled by littleicyman on youtube)
Distributor: Bethesda Softworks
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media