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«Everything that lives is designed to end». Une lecture écocritique de NieR : Automata

Piccola nota: il seguente articolo era stato originariamente scritto per il numero di un journal francese, verso la fine del 2021. Quel numero è stato poi completamente cancellato e non vedrà mai la luce.

Per non buttare via il contributo ho deciso di pubblicarlo qui, sul mio sito personale.

L’articolo è in francese, una lingua in cui solitamente non scrivo. Per cui è possibile che sia rimasta qualche imprecisione nel testo, che avrebbe dovuto essere poi corretta durante il processo di revisione. Processo che però, come detto, non c’è mai stato, visto l’annullamento generale della pubblicazione.

1. Ecocritique et jeux-vidéos

L’écocritique (de l’anglais ecocriticism, inventé par Rueckert[1]) peut être définie, essentiellement, « l’étude de la relation entre la littérature et l’environnement physique[2] », plus précisément finalisée à « proposer une lecture des œuvres littéraires qui puisse être véhicule d’une ‘éducation à voir’ les tensions écologiques du présent[3] ». C’est une forme d’analyse – et d’activisme – immédiatement liée au nature writing, c’est-à-dire ces textes littéraires qui s’occupent explicitement du rapport entre humains et environnement, mais d’ailleurs, comme Scott Slovic l’a mis en évidence il y a déjà des années[4], toute œuvre littéraire (et non seulement littéraire) peut être potentiellement soumise à l’analyse écocritique. L’Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) a effectivement étendu son champ d’investigation, arrivant à toucher un large éventail de productions médiatiques et culturelles[5]. Parmi celles-ci, il n’a pas manqué le médium jeu-vidéo, auquel l’on a dédié plusieurs lectures écocritiques, soit focalisées sur des titres individuels[6], soit de manière plus générale[7].

En prenant en compte ces précédents, le présent article propose une analyse écocritique du jeu-vidéo NieR : Automata (Platinum Games, 2017), lequel, tout en étant pas spécifiquement lié au sujet de l’environnement, apparait comme un cas emblématique pour la façon autoréflexive de présenter le conflit. NieR : Automata, c’est-à-dire, est une réflexion sur les modalités des représentations vidéoludiques[8] et offre donc la base pour la possibilité d’étendre l’étude « écologique » du thème. Ce terme est ici compris dans un sens plus large que son usage commun : il est défini, en reprenant plusieurs analyses écocritiques, comme un système de relations entre organismes et environnements.

NieR : Automata est peut-être la plus caractéristique des œuvres du japonais Yokō Tarō (connu aussi pour son choix de paraître en public toujours avec un masque), qui y a travaillé en tant que directeur et scénariste. Le jeu-vidéo est la suite du précèdent NieR (Square Enix, 2010), qui ne fut pas très bien accueilli par la critique et le public[9]. Le joueur se trouve dans un futur lointain où la planète est dominée par les « machines », des entités créées par des extraterrestres envahisseurs. Les humains survivants vivent sur la Lune, d’où ils envoient des androïdes de guerre sur la Terre. Les protagonistes du jeu sont trois androïdes, contrôlables en trois sessions différentes du jeu, qui à chaque fois ajoutent de nouveaux détails à l’histoire. Le joueur prend le contrôle, dans l’ordre, de 2B, 9S et A2[10]. Les renversements de perspective qui ont lieu avec les changements de personnage sont le point de départ de la première partie de la présente analyse, qui porte sur la synergie entre narration et gameplay, et qui engendre un message interprétable écocritiquement. Ensuite, dans la deuxième partie, nous nous attarderons sur quelques décors spécifiques du jeu-vidéo, pour voir comment ceux-ci contribuent à la création d’une certaine ambiance.

2. Renversements

Le premier tiers du jeu, où l’on prend le contrôle de 2B, suit un schéma de dévoilement traditionnel. 2B, presque toujours accompagnée par 9S, poursuit sa lutte contre les machines mais arrive à découvrir que certaines d’entre-elles ont développé une personnalité autonome et souhaitent être en paix avec les androïdes. Une machine nommée Pascal (plusieurs personnages de NieR : Automata portent le nom de penseurs et philosophes du passé) a fondé une communauté pacifiste dans la forêt, qui est plusieurs fois visitée par 2B et 9S. La solution future, l’espoir dans l’apocalypse, semble être tracée nettement, en termes à la fois relationnels et environnementales (c’est-à-dire les machines pacifistes vivant dans les arbres, qui s’opposent aux ruines d’une ville détruite par la guerre). Une perspective plutôt optimiste, surtout par rapport à d’autres apocalypses technologiques et écologiques de production japonaise[11], avec leurs liens plus ou moins directs avec l’exploitation militaire de l’énergie atomique[12]. NieR : Automatane se focalise pas sur les conséquences environnementales de l’apocalypse, mais les considérations de 2B et 9S à propos de l’espace environnant[13] permettent de se poser des questions sans utiliser une rhétorique écologiste explicite qui pourrait apparaître répulsive là où elle cherche à amener l’utilisateur à s’intéresser à ces thématiques[14].

D’une part, donc, on découvre petit à petit que les androïdes sont « comme » les humains, par leurs émotions et les désirs qu’ils éprouvent, en entendant ce rapport en termes de dérivation : il s’agit de copies qui ressemblent à l’original même au-delà de l’apparence physique. D’autre part, des machines comme Pascal aussi ressemblent à des êtres humains, par leur comportement, mais en sens différent : ce sont des entités inconnaissables, extraterrestres, qui ressemblent dans une certaine mesure à quelque chose de connu et qui pour cette raison sont à ceci comparés. Le dualisme hiérarchique et oppositif entre les deux parties, qui contient inévitablement à l’intérieur de lui l’idée d’un pôle supérieur et d’un pôle inférieur, n’est donc pas résolu[15]. La guerre aux androïdes continue à paraitre ‘juste’, parce que finalisée à rendre le monde à ses propriétaires légitimes, les humains (ici se révèle aussi la polarisation homme/nature). Les machines restent la représentation de l’altérité inconciliable et de l’ennemi, on se limite à reconnaitre à certaines – comme des exceptions – quelques similitudes avec les sentiments humains, ce qui permet de négocier, toujours en restant dans une perspective d’opposition.

2.1 La perspective des ennemis

La deuxième partie du jeu fait un pas de plus en renversant la perspective, en gardant toujours le même framework empathique. Le joueur revient sur les mêmes évènements qu’il a déjà vécu, de l’arrivée sur la planète à la défaite des machines Adam et Eve, mais cette fois en contrôlant l’androïde 9S. Celui-ci, à la différence de 2B, est capable d’intervenir sur les machines par des actions d’hacking, pour les contrôler ou les détruire. Cette capacité propre à lui n’est pas une simple variation du gameplay, mais elle lui offre aussi l’occasion de saisir les pensées et les sensations des ennemis. Ce ne sont donc plus seulement les machines pacifistes de Pascal qui ont des sentiments humains : dans une certaine mesure, toutes les machines, même quand elles ne sont pas capables de l’exprimer de façon cohérente, éprouvent de la joie et de la douleur, des peurs et des désirs. Même avant de prendre contrôle de 9S, il y a une courte partie du jeu, souvent négligée, où l’on joue pendant quelques minutes le rôle d’une machine :

Avant que le joueur ne contrôle 9S, il doit compléter une mission avec Friedrich, une petite machine qui est en train de récupérer de l’huile pour réanimer son « frère », qui est clairement irréparable. Bien que jusqu’ici le joueur ait passé son temps à tuer des machines comme Friedrich, le passage soudain du rapide et agile 2B au lent et chancelant robot permet une sympathie pour son impuissance, qui devient ensuite une frustration empathique quand, surchargé par son godet, le joueur trébuche sur un des nombreux tuyaux cachés qui parsèment le terrain[16].

Prendre le point de vue de l’« ennemi » n’est pas une nouveauté de NieR : Automata, mais l’interactivité caractéristique du medium vidéoludique[17] offre un élément en plus par rapport à d’autres formes d’expression. Nous n’observons pas simplement les actions d’un autre personnage, mais nous sommes en train d’opérer activement pour l’achèvement de ces actions. C’est le joueur même, dans le rôle de 2B, qui a détruit les centaines de machines, et il en détruira autant quand il contrôlera 9S, il n’est pas simplement un spectateur qui juge l’agir d’autrui. Même en dehors des moments de contrôle direct des « ennemis », l’interaction vidéoludique menée avec son propre avatar avec les NPC (non-player characters) peut facilement amener à une forme d’empathie avec eux[18]. C’est pour cela que la mort de NPC avec lesquels on a passé beaucoup de temps peut susciter des réactions émotionnelles très fortes[19] et, sous certaines conditions, il est possible de développer des liens empathiques forts avec ses adversaires, en se trouvant dans le paradoxe de devoir les tuer pour avancer dans le jeu sans en vouloir la mort (comme dans Shadow of the Colossus, Team Ico, 2005). L’intensité et la variété interne du sentiment émotionnel potentiellement généré par un jeu-vidéo[20] se lient très bien avec l’approche écocritique aux jeu-vidéos, parce que la cocréation narrative du joueur – qui est appelé à intervenir activement pour faire avancer l’histoire – et le contrôle d’avatar très différents de ce qu’on est (au point de contrôler des créatures non humaines) produisent des réponses émotionnelles qui peuvent être dirigées vers des finalités éducatives sur des thématiques déterminées[21].

NieR : Automata utilise par ailleurs des stratégies très spécifiques pour canaliser les émotions possibles du joueur, aussi en recourant à la mémoire, et il fait cela surtout grâce à la musique. La bande son du jeu-vidéo est composée de variations multiples sur les mêmes morceaux musicaux, qui non seulement définissent l’évolution du mood d’un certain environnement, mais tracent aussi des liens implicites entre lieux et personnages séparés, associés par un même morceau qui est reproposé en une forme différente[22]. La tension entre similitude et différence est accrue davantage dans les morceaux chantés. Ces derniers utilisent une langue inventée, crée par le mélange de structures de plusieurs langues réelles. De cette façon, les parlants de différentes langues croient reconnaitre quelques paroles, mais sans arriver à comprendre le sens des phrases. Ce sont des chansons qui apparaissent universellement familiales et universellement étrangères en même temps, ce qui renforce l’idée de liens sous-jacents communs à des cultures et des entités différentes, comme androïdes et machines.

2.2 Le conflit éternel et le sacrifice

La troisième et dernière part de NieR : Automata maintient la thématique de ce caractère commun de fond, du lien qui tient ensemble des êtres profondément différents, mais elle en modifie les bases. Jusqu’ici le jeu a proposé plus ou moins directement l’idée d’une possible paix future, fondée sur le comportement de machines pacifiques comme Pascal. Ce qui émerge maintenant, en revanche, c’est que toute créature a en commun le besoin de conflit. En réalité la totalité du jeu parle de conflit, mais jusqu’à présent nous avions encore l’idée qu’une porte de sortie était possible. Dans la troisième partie, au contraire, les dévoilements progressifs montrent une vérité différente. Les extraterrestres qui ont créé les machines ont disparu depuis longtemps, et l’humanité encore plus tôt : tout ce qui reste sur la lune, c’est un échantillon de génome humain, placé dans une structure qui reçoit et envoie de faux signaux. De plus, les machines furent créées avec la seule mission de vaincre l’ennemi, ce qui en même temps implique la présence continue d’un ennemi qui ne peut jamais être battu. Avec le temps, elles ont évolué en assimilant beaucoup d’informations sur les humains. Comme le synthétise une des notes de fin de jeu qui est écrite par un androïde : « Alors ! En résumé : depuis des centaines d’années, on a combattu contre un réseau de machines qui a en son centre le fantôme de l’humanité. On a vécu dans un p**** de monde où l’on mène une guerre qu’on  ne PEUT PAS PERDRE, tout ça à cause d’un Conseil de l’Humanité qui n’existe même plus[23] ». Même si l’on abandonne cette logique de conflit global – potentiellement éternel – pour s’attarder sur les vicissitudes des personnages, le résultat est le même. Le joueur, qui dans les précédents deux tiers du jeu avait expérimenté des points de vue différents et des potentialités non encore exprimées, voit maintenant tout ce monde s’effondrer sans qu’aucune de ses actions ne puisse avoir d’impact[24]. La station spatiale des androïdes est détruite, 2B découvre qu’elle a été infectée par un virus et demande à A2 de la tuer, suscitant en 9S une irrésistible soif de vengeance. La machine Pascal abandonne son pacifisme pour défendre les ‘enfants’ du village, en vain, parce que pendant la bataille ceux-ci se suicident en masse, terrorisés (ils avaient appris les sentiments humains comme la peur grâce à Pascal lui-même). Les histoires de plusieurs autres personnages secondaires se fondent sur le conflit ou sur un désir qui se révèle insuffisant pour donner du sens à une vie et qui, une fois réalisé, les pousse à se suicider.

Les comportements des androïdes et de machines sont les mêmes que ceux des êtres humains, du moment que les deux formes de vie synthétique sont directement ou indirectement influencées par les mémoires de l’humanité. Puisque tout ce qui font est fondé sur le conflit, et qu’ils suivent le comportement des humains, il parait possible d’affirmer que le conflit représente le noyau de l’humanité. En regardant bien, il n’est pas nécessaire d’attendre le final de NieR : Automata pour comprendre ce concept, qui est déjà rendu explicite au moment de la bataille entre la machine Adam et 2B. À ce moment-là, Adam affirme avoir compris la vérité après de longues réflexions : « Le noyau de l’humanité… est le conflit. Ils se battent. Ils tuent. Ceci est l’humanité dans sa forme la plus pure[25] ». À cette occasion 2B répond, indignée, que son adversaire ne sait rien à propos des humains, mais les évènements semblent donner raison à Adam.

NieR : Automata met donc en avant le comportement des humains, bien qu’ils n’apparaissent jamais dans le jeu. L’humanité apparait ici dans la forme de l’absence. Tout le monde dans le jeu parle de l’humanité, même en son absence. Les décors du jeu sont ‘infestés’ par cette mémoire du passé, ils en portent les traces, et d’une façon non positive. L’héritage de l’humanité est fait de débris et ruines, pollution et animaux mutants. La guerre qui suit, interminable, entre androïdes et machines n’a fait que produire des déchets ultérieures, à commencer par les corps des combattants, des coques vides abandonnées sur le champ de bataille. La conflictualité des humains s’est donc dirigée surtout vers la nature, « colonisée » en tant que pôle faible[26].NieR : Automata ne présente pas de nostalgie naturelle, pas de désir idéalisé de retour à une forme de pureté perdue, ce qui caractérise beaucoup de narrations green contemporaines. Yokō Tarō a affirmé à plusieurs occasions ne pas vouloir imposer aux joueurs une certaine vision, ou leur donner une seule réponse ; l’évolution continue des jeux-vidéos qu’il a produit rend encore plus grand le nombre d’interprétations possibles[27].

De cette manière, la question écologique peut certainement être laissée, à propos de NieR : Automata, à la libre interprétation de l’utilisateur, et sera facilement dirigée vers le déjà cité système relationnel entre les différent organismes, plutôt que dans les rapports avec l’environnement. Plusieurs jeux-vidéo plus ou moins contemporains de NieR : Automata proposent des paraboles narratives green beaucoup plus monolithiques, comme Horizon : Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017), qui présente un retour à la nature après la destruction et la renaissance du monde, avec la création d’un futur qui en réalité est lié nostalgiquement à une sorte d’âge d’or vert, à un passé vague et indéfini. Les considérations de 2B et 9S, les paysages de NieR : Automata, ses narrations du passé, offrent au contraire des éléments de réflexion, même contradictoires, qui poussent le joueur à s’interroger.

Même le propos d’Adam, sur le conflit comme élément fondamental de l’humanité, qui semble être devenu le pilier de la troisième partie du jeu, voit la possibilité d’être encore renversé dans la fin D[28] et surtout la fin E, dans laquelle toutes les données de jeu sont effacées. Ce même mécanisme avait été utilisé dans une des fins de NieR, ce qui avait fait saluer le génie de Yokō Tarō par une partie des joueurs, pendant que d’autres le tâchaient de sadique et mégalomane[29].

La question des sauvegardes dans NieR : Automata prend une importance particulière même avant la fin, parce qu’elle est diégétisée. Car, quand on fait une sauvegarde, les androïdes effectuent un backup des données mémorisées, qui peuvent toujours être transférées dans un nouveau corps si le précèdent est détruit. Le game over fait partie de la diégèse, l’échec a vraiment causé la destruction du corps physique de l’androïde utilisé, mais un corps de remplacement est toujours prêt (au moins jusqu’à quand un facteur externe ne l’empêche, comme le virus qui infecte 2B). En outre, ce jeu présente une logique de « RPGfication » [30], c’est-à-dire qu’il contient des processus qui poussent le joueur au « complétisme », en investissant dans le jeu beaucoup plus de temps que ce qui est nécessaire (et qui est déjà exigeant) pour terminer l’histoire principale. Par exemple, il faut pas mal de temps et de ressources pour obtenir et améliorer toutes les armes disponibles, il faut faire monter de niveau son propre personnage plusieurs fois pour arriver à battre des boss cachés.

En terminant les fins C ou D, en répondant d’une certaine manière à une question, on lance une phase du jeu où il faut tirer sur les noms du générique de fin, en contrôlant une sorte de curseur triangulaire. C’est une modalité qui ressemble au phases de hacking complétées avec 9S, mais beaucoup plus difficile, parce que les ‘ennemis’ contrattaquent tout le temps. Très vite l’affrontement devient une sorte de bullet hell, très dur à terminer. Mais, au moment où le jeu demande de reconnaitre que le monde n’a aucun sens, voilà qu’apparaissent des messages d’espoir et de soutien de la part d’autres joueurs, et qu’il est possible de recevoir leur aide. On revient au bullet hell, mais cette fois on est rejoint par d’autres ‘curseurs’ : c’est ce qu’il reste des données de jeu d’autres personnes. Cette puissance de feu accrue rend plus simple la bataille contre les « auteurs » du jeu, pendant que les paroles de la chanson Weight of the World soulignent la nécessité de continuer même ce qui semble être un effort insensé.

À la fin de l’affrontement on assiste aux réflexions des Pods, les petits robots de soutien qui ont accompagné les trois androïdes au cours du long voyage. Ici, la phrase prononcée au début du jeu par 2B (« Tout ce qui vit est conçu pour finir. Nous sommes perpétuellement piégés dans une spirale de vie et de mort sans fin. Est-ce une malédiction ? Ou quelque sorte de punition ?[31] ») est reprise avec des petites modifications. C’est peut-être le moment du jeu où apparait le plus clairement l’influence de Nietzsche[32]. Les Pods réfléchissent à une situation d’éternel retour : même en recommençant à zéro, ailleurs, il est possible qu’on arrive à nouveau aux mêmes conclusions. Un éternel retour qui refuse le devenir de l’histoire et auquel on ne peut pas échapper narrativement : recommencer NieR : Automata mènera à la même fin de la dernière fois. Ce qui peut changer – c’est les Pods qui laissent ouverte la possibilité d’un changement – c’est l’approche au jeu et les considérations qu’il produit[33].

Après cette dernière vidéo l’on demande au joueur s’il souhaite effacer toutes les données de la session pour aider « quelqu’un quelque part dans le monde », de la même manière qu’il l’a été pendant le bullet hell. Celui qui recevra de l’aide, le jeu nous dit, peut être un parfait inconnu, une personne détestable, quelqu’un qui pourrait ne pas être reconnaissant. Un renversement, si l’on veut, de l’histoire Le mandarin de Eça de Queirós[34], où il est possible de tuer un mandarin chinois inconnu et d’en obtenir les richesses tout simplement en sonnant une cloche.

Cette fin, qui a suscité d’intenses et différentes réactions parmi les joueurs[35], rouvre la question sur le nihilisme réel de NieR : Automata[36]. Comme nous l’avons déjà dit, le jeu ne donne pas de réponse univoque, notamment parce que ce sont les joueurs qui font le dernier choix : ils peuvent garder leurs sauvegardes ou ‘sacrifier’ de nombreuses heures de jeu pour aider un inconnu. Dans le deuxième cas, on peut affirmer qu’il y a un avancement empathique. Précédemment, on a parlé des manières avec lesquelles NieR : Automata contribue à créer de l’empathie envers les personnages, avec qui on a été en contact pendant beaucoup de temps ; maintenant on demande à avoir de l’empathie pour des inconnus. Tout cela, d’ailleurs, ne changera concrètement rien : l’aide reçue par un joueur amènera l’inconnu au même résultat que tous ceux qui ont terminé le jeu avant lui. C’est un « don unilatéral aux inconnus[37] », sûrement moins coûteux que d’autres sur le plan matériel, mais qui a en lui un certain élément temporel : on donne donc son propre temps passé, les dizaines d’heures consacrées au jeu. C’est un choix écologique, dans le sens relationnel du terme qui a été indiqué au début, qui peut offrir, sans l’imposer, un appel à l’action, une nouvelle perspective. Ceci est le rôle que l’écocritique reconnait depuis toujours à la narration, comme soutien de la science : « la narration est essentielle à la pratique de la prédiction et elle est la voix pour des appels à l’action. Elle est capable de porter le poids de prévoir les résultats et d’inculquer des valeurs à un vaste public[38] ». De plus, la possibilité d’un choix (non seulement concernant l’interprétation) dans une narration peut accroitre la conscience des questions environnementales.

3. Trois paysages

Après avoir reconstruit le parcours empathique long et ramifié de NieR : Automata, on va par la suite laisser quelques suggestions sur quelques décors spécifiques du jeu (le désert, le village de Pascal et le royaume de la forêt), pour montrer comme le décor de ce produit ait contribué à véhiculer spécifiquement le cadre général décrit jusqu’ici.

3.1 Le désert

Le désert est un des premiers environnements que le joueur rejoint. Il s’agit d’un environnement hétérogène, composé au début d’un espace rocheux (qui confine avec les City Ruins visitées précédemment), puis d’une étendue de sable entourée d’hautes montagnes (appelée Desert Zone) et d’un complexe résidentiel abandonné (Desert Housing). C’est dans le désert que les androïdes (et le joueur avec eux) commencent pour la première fois à se poser la question de la capacité des machines d’éprouver des sentiments. Les ennemis qui sont présents, en effet, copient maladroitement les habitudes des êtres humains et semblent effrayés par l’irruption des androïdes dans leur repaire. C’est encore dans le désert que Adam et Eve naissent, deux personnages très importants dans l’économie complexive du jeu.

Le désert est depuis toujours le lieu de l’affrontement, soit dans sa traversée, soit dans les permanences initiatiques qui se passent là-bas ; c’est le lieu de la lutte contre soi-même, ainsi que de l’attente, au moment où on se pose en dehors du monde, dans un lieu où le temps parait s’être arrêté. Dans NieR : Automata il s’agit du lieu de l’épreuve au sens physique (le boss le plus puissant du jeu se trouve dans cette zone), au sens de l’espace (il est difficile de s’orienter dans les tempêtes de sable pour rejoindre l’oasis cachée) et surtout au sens de la vie intérieure : pour la première fois, le doute s’instille dans les croyances des androïdes sur leurs ennemis. Le passage dans le désert se révèle donc un moment significatif, et le lieu même, pour ses caractéristiques, contribue à renforcer implicitement un des éléments de fond du jeu, celui du temps bloqué, enroulé, qui revient tout le temps sur soi-même. Mais, en même temps, le désert contient la promesse d’un changement futur, un tournant (la paix avec les machines, leur évolution par le biais de Adam et Eve, etc.).

Le désert, lieu de l’attente et de la patience, de l’immutabilité indiscutable, essaye de s’ouvrir au devenir. C’est un espoir qui sera plusieurs fois modifié au cours de l’histoire, au point qu’il semble parfois s’évanouir, mais il sera encore présent à la fin, dans le dialogue entre les deux Pods qui précède l’effacement des données de jeu.

3.2 Le village de Pascal

Après la rencontre avec les machines du désert et ensuite avec celles de l’Amusement Park (pacifiques, mais plongées dans une sorte de fête perpétuelle, où il est difficile de comprendre s’ils sont en train de s’amuser ou seulement de mimer l’acte du divertissement), on arrive à rencontrer la communauté de Pascal, qu’on a déjà mentionné. Leur village se développe sur un système de passerelles autour du tronc d’un arbre immense. Les maisons sont minuscules, plus ou moins de la taille exacte de leurs habitants, mais d’ailleurs les machines n’ont pas vraiment besoin de ces édifices minuscules qui sont plutôt utilisés pour imiter les humains.

Le village ressemble visuellement à certaines représentations du lieu où habitent Peter Pan et les Garçons Perdus. À bien des égards, les différences sont plus nombreuses des similitudes, mais il y a un point qui mérite d’être souligné pour le rapport avec le lieu. Peter Pan apparait comme un médiateur entre nature et culture, grâce aussi à son statut hybride (il n’est pas complétement humain, mais il n’est pas non plus quelqu’un de non-humain), qui se révèle très déficitaire dans ce rôle. De même manière, pour une bonne partie du jeu, Pascal apparait comme un personnage de médiation, et son projet semble la voie meilleure pour arriver à la fin du conflit. Il est un médiateur double, entre technologie et nature et entre machines et androïdes. Mais finalement, lui aussi s’avère incapable de se proposer pour ce rôle, quand son projet échoue et la douleur l’anéantit e l’amène à s’échapper à la réalité.

3.3 Le royaume de la forêt

Le Forest Kingdom est une zone de bois placée entre les ruines d’un centre commercial et d’un château. C’est le territoire d’un groupe de machines qui se comportent comme des anciens soldats et se battent pour protéger le « roi de la forêt ».

Grace Gerrish[39] rappelle une des quêtes secondaires qui ont lieu ici comme exemple emblématique des modalités que NieR : Automata met en œuvre pour renverse les attentes du joueur.

La forêt est depuis toujours une des étapes fondamentales de nombreux voyages fantastiques et initiatiques, le long d’un voyage de découverte où l’on récupère sa propre identité perdue que la routine avait endormi.

Une machine à l’orée de la forêt propose une mission – appelée « Treasure Hunt at the Castle » dans le menu – aux deux androïdes, en leur expliquant comment trouver un trésor caché au centre du château. Il s’agit d’un type de quête secondaire très fréquent dans les jeux de rôle : on explore une zone en plus, au cours d’un détour du parcours principal, et en reçoit un trésor de quelque sorte. Dans ce cas aussi le joueur – fort de ses expériences vidéoludiques et de la valeur que le lieu détient dans les aventures de recherche – s’attend probablement à recevoir une nouvelle arme ou quelque chose du genre. Après avoir (re)parcouru la forêt et le château et avoir atteint la zone non explorée, les androïdes trouvent le personnage classique qui garde le trésor, une machine-cavalier très puissante. Après avoir battu l’ennemi, ils découvrent que le trésor qui été gardé par le cavalier est seulement le tombeau de l’ancien roi de la forêt, Ernst. Comme on le découvre par une lettre obtenue à ce moment-là, il s’agissait d’une machine pacifique qui avait construit un royaume formidable au centre de la forêt, qui distribuait ses composants électroniques aux sujets qui en avaient besoin, avec beaucoup de générosité, jusqu’à quand il avait cessé de fonctionner. Donc, la seule récompense de la quête secondaire est la certitude d’avoir tué sans une bonne raison les gardiens fidèles d’un roi juste et bon.

Cette absence de sens d’ailleurs s’étend au destin du nouveau roi de la forêt, Immanuel, une machine ‘nouveau-né’ qui a reçu les composants de Ernst, et de laquelle on attend qui grandisse pour avoir un nouveau roi juste. Mais, en tant que machine, Immanuel est destiné à rester un nourrisson pour toujours, ne pouvant pas grandir réellement. La détermination inébranlable avec laquelle les soldats du royaume son prêts à se sacrifier pour protéger Immanuel ressemble à la lutte que les androïdes poursuivent dans le nom des humains. Ceux-ci se battent pour quelque chose qui n’existe plus, tandis que les machines de la forêt luttent pour un espoir sans futur (et, à un moment donné, A2 tue Immanuel, vidant complètement de sens la lutte des soldats).

C’est à ce point là peut être que réside, comme on l’a dit, une des interprétations plus pertinentes du point de vue écocritique du message de NieR : Automata. Sa lutte et son parcours apparaissent totalement privés de sens, sans perspective future, mais même dans une situation si radicalement nihiliste il est possible de trouver une raison pour poursuivre, en gardant une ouverture empathique vers les autres.


[1] William Rueckert, « Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism », Iowa Review, n° 9, 1, 1978, p. 71-86.

[2] « [T]he study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment », Cheryll Glotfelty, « Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis », p. XV-XXXVII, in Cheryll Glotfelty, Harold Fromm (dir.), The Ecocriticism Reader. Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Athens (Georgia) – London, University of Georgia Press, 1996, p. XVII

[3] «proporre una lettura delle opere letterarie che possa essere il veicolo di una ‘educazione a vedere’ le tensioni ecologiche del presente». Serenella Iovino, Ecologia letteraria. Una strategia di sopravvivenza, Milano: Edizioni Ambiente, 2006, p. 16. Dans le temps on a formulé des définitions plus précises, mais en général l’écocritique se présente comme un champ d’investigation assez libre et en cours de réalisation, défini par les pratiques des chercheurs : Scott Slovic, « Ecocriticism: Containing Multitudes, Practising Doctrine », p. 160-162, in Laurence Coupe (dir.), The Green Studies Reader. From Romanticism to Ecocriticism, New York – London, Routledge, 2000, p. 161).

[4] Scott Slovic, « Ecocriticism: Containing Multitudes, Practising Doctrine », op. cit.

[5] Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism, New York – London, Routledge, 2004, p. 4.

[6] Par exemple Alenda Chang, « Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game », Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, n° 19, 2, 2012, p. 237-252 ; Alexander Lehner, « Videogames as Cultural Ecology: Flower and Shadow of the Colossus », Ecozon@, n° 8, 2, 2017, p. 56-71

[7] Par exemple Hans-Joachim Backe, « Within the Mainstream: An Ecocritical Framework for Digital Game History », Ecozon@, n° 8, 2, 2017, pp. 39-55 e Victor Navarro-Remesal, « Pixelated nature: ecocriticism, animals, moral consideration, and degrowth in videogames », Logos: comunicação e universidade, n° 26, 2, 2019, p. 13-26.

[8] Milan Jaćević, « This. Cannot. Continue. – Ludoethical Tension in NieR : Automata », The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Kraków 2017, 2017, p. 1-15.

[9] Voir Nicolas Turcev, The Strange Works of Taro Yoko: From Drakengard to NieR : Automata, Toulouse, Third Editions, 2018.

[10] Trois noms significatifs parce que la manière de les prononcer rappelle, respectivement, le « to be » shakespearien, le « non esse » latin et l’expression « et tu » que César aurait prononcé en s’adressant à Brutus et qui est utilisé par Shakespeare dans la tragédie du meme nom (acte III, scène I). Ce sont trois renvois de leur personnalité (A2, par exemple, est une traitresse, qui s’est retournée contre ses commandants).

[11] Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, New York, Palgrave, 2000, pp. 193-218.

[12] Marco Pellitteri “Funghi nella foresta animata. Le esplosioni atomiche nell’animazione giapponese”, Manga academica, n° 10, 2017, pp. 163-190.

[13] Où la nature a réussi à reconquérir que partiellement les divers loca horrida du contemporain, placés non plus dans des lieux inaccessibles, mais produit par l’action m ê me des humains : Hannes Bergthaller, « Response: Hailed by the Genius of Ruins—Antiquity, the Anthropocene, and the Environmental Humanities »,  p. 61-68, in Christopher Schliephake (dir.), Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2016, p. 66.

[14] Greg Garrard. Ecocriticism, op. cit., p. 104-107 et Greg Garrard, Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[15] Serenella Iovino, Ecologia letteraria, op. cit., pp. 75-77.

[16] “Before the player controls 9S, they are given over to Friedrich, a small machine who is retrieving oil in order to revive his clearly irreparable “brother.” Despite the fact that the player has been killing machines like Friedrich until this point, the switch from the agile, lightning-fast 2B to the slow, shuffling robot fosters a sympathy for his helplessness, which deepens into an empathetic frustration when, burdened by the bucket, the player inevitably trips over one of the seemingly inconspicuous pipes that litter the ground”. Grace Gerrish, « NieR (De)Automata: Defamiliarization and the Poetic Revolution of NieR : Automata », Proceedings of Nordic DiGRA 2018, 2018, p. 1-10 (3).

[17] Lori Landay, « Interactivity », p. 173-184, in Mark J.P. Wolf, Bernard Perron (dir.), The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, New York, Routledge, 2014.

[18] Une empathie, par ailleurs, vers des ennemis qui sont considérés comme des objets (encore plus que les protagonistes, dont les corps sont des coques remplaçables, tant qu’ils arrivent à préserver la mémoire des boites noires), ce qui inscrit ce sentiment dans une perspective plus large. On sympathise non seulement pour ce qui n’est pas humain, mais aussi vers la matérialité même (Serpil Oppermann, “From Ecological Postmodernism to Material Ecocriticism: Creative Materiality and Narrative Agency”, p. 21-36, in Serenella Iovino, Serpil Oppermann (dir.), Material Ecocriticism, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2014), vers des entités qui n’apparaissent pas vraiment comme ‘vivantes’ : des machines aux poissons mécaniques qui nagent dans les lacs de pétrole, jusqu’à la planète. L’empathie s’étend donc au-delà des règnes animal et végétal.

[19] Katherine Isbister, How Games Move Us. Emotion by Design, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 2017, p. 22-23.

[20] Eugenie Shinkle, « Corporealis Ergo Sum: Affective Response in Digital Games », pp. 21-35, in Nate Garrelts (dir.), Digital Gameplay: Essays on the Nexus of Game and Gamer, Jefferson, McFarland, 2005; Steve Swink, Game Feel. A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation, New York, Routledge, 2009.

[21] Alenda Chang, John Parham, « Green Computer and Video Games: An Introduction », Ecozon@, n° 8, 2, 2017, p. 1-17.

[22] Grace Gerrish, « NieR (De)Automata… », op. cit., p. 5.

[23] « So then! To sum up: For hundreds of years, we’ve been fighting a network of machines with the ghost of humanity at its core. We’ve been living in a stupid *****ing world where we fight an endless war that we COULDN’T POSSIBLY LOSE, all for the sake of some Council of Humanity on the moon that doesn’t even exist ». Machine Research Report. Morceau de texte dans les information archives de NieR : Automata, 2017.

[24] Milan Jaćević, « This. Cannot. Continue…», op. cit., p. 4.

[25] « The core of humanity… is conflict. They fight. Steal. Kill. THIS is humanity in its purest form ».

[26] Serenella Iovino, Ecologia letteraria, op. cit., p. 77.

[27] Archipel, « Yoko Taro, Game Creator (NieR, Drakengard series) – toco toco », YouTube, 01/04/2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3wScHE28K8.

[28] La fin D mérite un appel de note. 9S, au moment de mourir après le duel avec A2, découvre que la tour gigantesque qui a été consruite par les machines est une arche qui sert à transporter dans l’espace lointain la mémoire des machines (et, indirectement, des humains) qui ont participé à la guerre. Adam et Eve, dont les mémoires résides dans la tour, demande à la conscience de 9S, si il veut les rejoindre, surmontant ainsi leur rivalité.

[29] Nicolas Turcev, The Strange Works of Taro Yoko, op. cit.

[30] Rob Gallagher, Videogames, Identity and Digital Subjectivity, New York – London, Routledge, 2017, p. 179.

[31] “Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped in a never-ending spiral of life and death. Is this a curse? Or some kind of punishment?”.

[32] Milan Jaćević, « This. Cannot. Continue…», op. cit.

[33] Grace Gerrish, « NieR (De)Automata… », op. cit., p. 7.

[34] José Maria Eça de Queirós, O Mandarim, Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1880.

[35] « Some felt a sense of loss and regret after deleting their saves; others felt liberated from the compulsion to ‘100%’ the game and collect everything; others still were moved to reflect on the game’s ‘message’, and on the terms on which we remember games »: Rob Gallagher, « Memory and Meaning in Analogue: A Hate Story and NieR : Automata », pp. 1-3, DiGRA ’18 – Abstract Proceedings of the 2018 DiGRA International Conference: The Game is the Message, 2018, p. 2.

[36] Grace Gerrish, « NieR (De)Automata… », op. cit.

[37] Gianni Gasparini, Sociologia degli interstizi. Viaggio, attesa, silenzio, sorpresa, dono, Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 1998, p. 157.

[38] « [N]arrative is essential to the practice of prediction and is the voice of calls to action. It is capable of bearing the weight of predicting outcomes and instilling values to an inclusive audience ». Heidi Scott, Chaos and Cosmos: Literary Roots of Modern Ecology in the British Nineteenth Century, University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014, p. 86.

[39] Grace Gerrish, « NieR (De)Automata… », op. cit.,

Sovvertire ed evadere: dall’Art Brut ai videogiochi

Carceri e manicomi sono esempi emblematici di dispositivi di controllo. Lo sono nella realtà e lo sono anche nei videogiochi, in cui vengono impiegati come spazi contenitivi. Ma il controllo e l’ordine implicano sempre anche la loro sovversione, talvolta con strumenti estrapolati dallo stesso contesto di prigionia.

L’articolo osserva differenti forme di sovvertimento evasivo, tra le esperienze dell’Art Brut e il medium videoludico.

Ho scritto questo contributo insieme all’artista visuale e tessile Anna Bassi.

Prigionie videoludiche

Come scriveva Mauro Salvador in un suo articolo, «Il rapporto che intercorre fra il medium videoludico e il luogo carcere è molto stretto e profondo» (2011, p. 41). Salvador cita, in particolare, tre macrocategorie di carceri videoludici:

  • «La coincidenza tra carcere e mondo di gioco. Si tratta di quei casi in cui l’intero videogioco è ambientato in un carcere da cui bisogna fuggire (o, più raramente, in cui infiltrarsi). Un esempio è Batman: Arkham Asylum, in cui l’eroe si trova intrappolato nel penitenziario psichiatrico di Arkham.
  • Il carcere come sostituzione del game over, quando si viene per esempio catturati dai nemici e si è costretti a fuggire dalla cella in cui si viene collocati. È quanto avviene in alcuni episodi della serie The Legend of Zelda, come all’inizio di The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), quando ci si trova disarmati (e, tutte le volte in cui Link è identificato dai nemici, viene rispedito nella cella da cui è evaso).
  • Il carcere come passaggio obbligato nella progressione del gioco. In questo caso lo sviluppo narrativo della vicenda conduce necessariamente il personaggio, in un certo momento, a trovarsi in prigione. Un esempio fra i tanti è Fable II (2008), in cui il protagonista, col progredire dell’avventura, viene catturato e torturato» (Salvador 2011, pp. 42-43).

Nella maggior parte dei casi lo spazio carcerario non viene problematizzato. Il suo inserimento è semplicemente funzionale alle necessità ludico-narrative, quando torna utile avere a disposizione uno spazio chiuso e sorvegliato. In tal senso, il carcere offre una rappresentazione spaziale immediatamente riconducibile a questi elementi.

Gli spazi videoludici, per come sono strutturati, sono sempre chiusi, finiti e delimitati (Fassone 2017). In generale, però, nella loro costruzione si va a suggerire un’idea di apertura. Le persone che giocano devono essere portate a credere che il mondo narrativo in cui si muovono sia molto più vasto ed esteso di quel che possono effettivamente vedere e percorrere. Talvolta, però, può essere utile far risaltare la sensazione opposta, di claustrofobica chiusura. E in casi del genere il carcere può offrire un modello rappresentativo che già richiama, senza bisogno di altri elementi, a quell’idea. Simili strutture sono infatti fondate su alcuni elementi di base, tra cui la sorveglianza, il controllo e il recinto.

Sui primi si può citare, come esempio noto, «il Panopticon di Bentham, il carcere costruito in modo che i prigionieri sanno di essere costantemente osservati senza poter mai vedere il loro osservatore, esempio chiave di dispositivo disciplinare che riconduce i soggetti agli effetti di un potere “automatizzato” e anonimo attraverso procedure diffuse di sorveglianza» (Eugeni, 2017, p. 19).

L’equiparazione con il recinto, che porta con sé la più ampia idea di confine spaziale ma ancor più simbolico, emerge invece da queste parole di Antonella Barbato:

«Nel caso del carcere, ad esempio, l’archetipo del recinto trova concretezza nel muro di cinta: recinzione dispotica e segregante del corpo e l’anima, dal carattere unico, in quanto capace di proteggere sia dalle forze centrifughe che da quelle centripete. Esso è, di conseguenza, evento architettonico che impedisce il contatto con la città e fissa coppie oppositive come dentro-fuori, liberi-reclusi, colpevoli-innocenti, rendendosi parallelamente superficie scrivibile, leggibile e interpretabile, dal significato anche politico» (2020, p. 42).

Dato che, culturalmente, i carcerati vengono espulsi ed esclusi dalla vita civile e sociale, anche fisicamente i penitenziari sono collocati all’esterno del perimetro della città, in modo tale da effettuare una separazione tra chi è meritevole di vivere all’interno della società civile e di chi invece ne ha infranto le regole.

Sulla falsariga del carcere troviamo il manicomio. Anche in questo caso siamo in presenza di un’istituzione che controlla la devianza dalla norma, separando e talvolta punendo, senza alcuna rieducazione effettiva, le trasgressioni all’ordine prestabilito. Come sosteneva Franco Basaglia, le istituzioni (scuole, carceri, manicomi, fabbriche, ecc.) si basano su una disparità di potere tale per cui ci sia un controllo totale da parte di chi lo detiene nei confronti di chi lo subisce (Basaglia 2017). Per tale motivo gli spazi sono pensati non per l’effettivo benessere di chi li abita, ma per agevolare i controllori nel sorvegliarli e nel separarli dal resto della società.

Similmente, anche nei videogiochi si è assistito a diverse equiparazioni fra il penitenziario e il manicomio, in termini di funzionalità e rappresentazioni, fin dagli albori del medium. Già all’inizio degli anni ’80 emergevano prodotti videoludici come The Institute (1981), in cui si gioca nei panni di un paziente ricoverato in un bizzarro e inquietante ospedale psichiatrico.

La stessa “follia” è stata per lungo tempo principalmente presentata sotto due punti di vista: o come caratteristica di nemici pericolosi o come parametro. In questo secondo caso, essa ha svolto in vari videogiochi una funzione analoga ai punti vita o al mana, una risorsa da tenere sotto controllo per evitarne l’esaurimento. Un esempio molto famoso in tal senso è Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002), in cui la presenza di mostruosità innominabili andava a danneggiare la sanità mentale (visivamente rappresentata da un indicatore a schermo) dei personaggi, provocando visioni allucinatorie. Una caratteristica peculiare del gioco era il coinvolgimento dell’utente nel processo, in quanto alcune di queste allucinazioni avevano un carattere extradiegetico, esterno al mondo di Eternal Darkness (cancellazione dei salvataggi, spegnimento dell’audio del televisore, ecc.). Al suo fianco si possono ricordare diversi altri videogiochi come Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005) o Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010).

Nonostante questa tendenza generale, sono presenti sul mercato dei videogiochi con un approccio radicalmente differente. Uno degli esempi più noti è The Town of Light (2016), interamente ambientato nell’ex manicomio di Volterra. Il videogioco del team italiano LKA ricostruisce degli eventi reali, mostrando un crudo spaccato di alcune pratiche che, al giorno d’oggi, sarebbero percepite come autentiche forme di tortura, ma che in passato erano considerate delle “normali” pratiche mediche per il trattamento dei pazienti. The Town of Light è ambientato nel presente, nel manicomio abbandonato da decenni, ma l’esplorazione di quel luogo rievoca costantemente gli orrori del passato, che a distanza di anni ancora infestano l’ambiente. La ricostruzione è frutto di un lungo lavoro in cui il team ha collaborato con il comune di Volterra e con diverse realtà istituzionali per realizzare un videogioco che fosse il più possibile vicino alla realtà storica di quel luogo (Dalcò 2020).

L'ex manicomio di Volterra
Comparazione tra l’effettivo ingresso dell’ex manicomio di Volterra e la sua versione ricreata all’interno di The Town of Light.

La contrapposizione con alcuni dei videogiochi precedentemente citati emerge anche nel rapporto con la luce e l’oscurità, come impiego ludico e come metafora. A proposito di The Town of Light si riportano le parole dell’environmental artist Conticelli: «”The whole game uses light as a metaphor,” Conticelli elaborates. “You can hide in the dark, but you can’t hide in the light, you can’t escape the light» (in Donnelly, 2020, p. 51). E infatti, seguendo questa contrapposizione che cita, in diversi videogiochi horror l’oscurità è funzionale al nascondimento, ma è anche fonte di paura (e quindi di abbassamento della sanità mentale), come nel citato caso di Amnesia.

Creatori di sovversioni

Attraverso The Town of Light possiamo introdurre il tema della sovversione simbolica rispetto all’ordine costituito. Infatti, presso il manicomio di Volterra è tuttora presente, seppur estremamente deteriorato, il graffito realizzato dal suo internato più celebre, Oreste Fernando Nannetti. L’autore, che si firmava “Nanof o “N.O.F. 4”, realizzò un enorme “libro di pietra” sul muro di un cortile dell’istituto in cui era ricoverato. Per realizzare quest’opera, lunga 180 metri e alta due, «incise in un decennio con la fibbia del panciotto migliaia di scritte, immagini, numeri che raccontano di invasioni, metalli, onde magnetiche…» (Mina 2011, p. 177).

Segmento dell'opera di Nannetti
Oreste Fernando Nannetti, parete incisa, ospedale psichiatrico di Volterra, 1980 circa.

Visivamente, il risultato complessivo è una personalissima forma di scrittura che ricorda i caratteri etruschi. Nannetti si riferiva a sé stesso come ad un “Astronautico Ingegnere minerario del sistema mentale spazio temporale” che trascriveva quotidianamente, durante l’ora d’aria, le sue memorie affidandole alla stessa struttura che lo imprigionava. L’elemento di ribellione e riscatto diventa duplice, non solo in quanto l’autore marchiava con i suoi personalissimi segni il luogo che lo privava della sua identità, ma anche perché utilizzava la fibbia dell’uniforme come strumento incisorio. Anche un dettaglio del vestiario che lo rendeva un numero tra tanti altri poteva diventare veicolo di una silente ma profonda rivendicazione personale.

L’operato di Nannetti non è un caso isolato: esiste una corrente artistica denominata Art Brut oppure Outsider Art che accorpa opere realizzate prevalentemente in contesti manicomiali da persone prive di qualunque tipo di istruzione artistica pregressa. In diversi casi gli autori si avvalevano di media artistici recuperati in modo “clandestino” nella stessa struttura dove soggiornavano. Si può riportare la definizione presente in uno dei cataloghi della collezione permanente di Losanna che ospita tali opere: «In 1945, Jean Dubuffet decided upon the term “Art Brut” to designate a creative output by people who are self-taught, who work outside of any institutional framework, beyond all rules and all artistic considerations. For the most part, these are solitary people, persons living on the fringes of society or committed to psychiatric hospitals» (Lombardi 2012, p. 9).

Come altro caso di ribellione simbolica alla coercizione possiamo ricordare Marguerite Sirvins, autrice di un abito da sposa ricavato dalla lenta e progressiva operazione di sfilacciamento delle lenzuola manicomiali della struttura di Saint-Alban in Francia.

L'abito da sposa di Marguarite Sirvins
Marguarite Sirvins, abito da sposa realizzato a mano, tessitura ad ago, 1944-1955, Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Marguerite all’età di 41 anni venne internata con la diagnosi di schizofrenia e rimase fino alla fine dei suoi giorni nella struttura manicomiale. Impossibilitata a sposarsi e a diventare madre, l’artista sublimò il suo desiderio realizzando un abito nuziale utilizzando fibre recuperate dalle lenzuola che venivano cucite e tessute tra di loro: «Using only sewing needles, she produced alternately tightly woven parts and more loosely embroidered sections, pulling her needle through in an astonishingly rapid and casual manner» (Lombardi 2011, p. 116).

Tale fibra tessile, fornita dal manicomio stesso e impregnata dai dolori di quel luogo carico di sofferenza, diventava medium attraverso cui l’artista esprimeva un suo irrealizzabile desiderio d’amore e libertà.

Anche Agnes Richter, una sarta ricoverata nell’istituto di Hubertusburg nel 1893, rivendicò la sua identità ricamando frasi sulla giubba dell’uniforme a guisa di diario personale. «In a situation which meant the deprivation of rights and the loss of all possessions, Richter gave, with a usually only decorative, subordinated technology of embroidery, material expression to the most intimate, her own recollection and thus her own psychical hold» (Röske 2014, p. 228).

La giacca di Agnes Richter
Agnes Richter, giacca ricamata a mano con testo autobiografico, 1895, Prinzhorn Collection.

Fibbia, lenzuola, giubba: biancheria e vestiario che assumono in questi contesti un ruolo discreto ma potente nel rivendicare la propria identità in un luogo altamente spersonalizzante.

Joker: un personaggio liminale

Anche uscendo dal perimetro dell’Art Brut, in contesti mediali molto differenti, il legame tra il vestiario e il binomio libertà/prigionia presenta diversi elementi di interesse che meritano di essere sottolineati. Questi rapporti sono in particolar modo significativamente osservabili nel Joker del videogioco Batman: Arkham Asylum, una delle innumerevoli declinazioni di questo personaggio fumettistico. Se, in generale, l’aspetto del Joker è decisamente parlante, nello specifico caso di questo videogioco assume una valenza ulteriore, legata all’ambientazione in cui si svolgono le vicende (il penitenziario psichiatrico di Arkham, come accennato in precedenza).

Batman: Arkham Asylum è un videogioco in cui si controlla Batman e in cui l’eroe è indicato fin dal titolo, ma – come è stato osservato (Bezio 2015) – sembrerebbe molto più un videogioco incentrato sul Joker. Il clown prende il controllo del manicomio, ribalta i rapporti di potere ed è una presenza costante nell’avventura: «Within Arkham Asylum’s ludic walls, it is the Joker — not the player-character — who is in control, a situation that is immediately apparent in Arkham Asylum» (Bezio 2015, p. 134).

Il Joker, nelle sue varie incarnazioni fumettistiche, cinematografiche e videoludiche, ha spesso un forte legame con il tipico ribaltamento carnevalesco, in cui l’ordine viene capovolto e sovvertito. Il film Joker (2019) ha per esempio molti tratti del Carnevale descritto da Mikhail Bakhtin (1979), in una esplicita lotta per la sovversione dell’autorità (Javanian e Rahmani 2021). Anche il Joker di Batman: Arkham Asylum segue questa sovversione che però, alla fine, si conclude dopo un breve periodo, quando Batman lo sconfigge e l’ordine viene ripristinato.

Secondo Bernardi una delle fasi dei riti di passaggio è «quella liminare, caratterizzata dai riti di inversione, quando il momento di passaggio, di margine, da un tempo all’altro, costituisce il momento di fusione massima del gruppo. […] Segue la fase post-liminare, infine, che sancisce il ritorno all’ordine. In essa appaiono i tutori sociali (giudici, preti, guardie, autorità ecc.) che processano il Carnevale e lo condannano a morte» (1983 pp. 277-278. Corsivi dell’autore).

Nel caso di Batman: Arkham Asylum il cronotopo del Carnevale coincide con il videogioco stesso, delimitato a livello spaziale (il carcere-manicomio) e temporale. L’avventura copre l’intera durata di questo rovesciamento, tutto il resto rimane al di fuori di essa.

L’elemento sovversivamente atipico del Joker, così come la complessità del suo personaggio, passano anche attraverso un’attenta costruzione del suo vestiario. L’occhio è immediatamente catturato dal suo aderente completo gessato, dal taglio elegante ma dai colori fortemente contrastanti. Il completo viola complementare alla camicia giallo/arancio, il papillon verde della stessa tinta dei capelli e l’inquietante sorriso dipinto sul volto enfatizzano l’aspetto clownesco del suo personaggio. Anche le righe del completo, per quanto siano delicate e sottili, si riallacciano alla tradizione che associa gli indumenti rigati a personaggi liminali della società quali carcerati (la cui uniforme è spesso rigata) oppure giullari in tempi più antichi.

I vestiti del Joker
Batman: Arkham Asylum, il Joker e il suo abbigliamento.

Il Joker è allora una figura di sintesi e un ponte tra il mondo rituale carnevalesco del passato, in cui giullari e buffoni diventavano per un giorno signori e padroni, e l’ambiente ben più recente dell’istituto carcerario, che spersonalizza i suoi ospiti anche attraverso la standardizzazione degli abiti. Il Joker è il giullare dai colori sgargianti che ribalta per un giorno le regole ordinarie dell’istituto, imponendo il proprio regno capovolto. 

Vale comunque la pena sottolineare una volta di più anche quelle che sono le differenze rispetto ad altre forme di sovversione delle logiche carcerarie. Questo videogioco è molto lontano da The Town of Light e dalle pacifiche e silenti operazioni degli esponenti dell’Art Brut. Qui, in Batman: Arkham Asylum, i prigionieri del carcere sono pericolosissimi criminali, spesso con tratti inumani. Lo stesso Joker, quando viene affrontato nel finale, si trasforma in un energumeno mostruoso, tramite una sostanza nota come Titan.

Per trovare, nei videogiochi, altre esplicite problematizzazioni dello spazio carcerario/manicomiale bisogna guardare altrove, per esempio al breve A Prison Strike (2018) di Paolo Pedercini (La Molleindustria). Anche il Joker, però, è un forte simbolo di deviazione dalla norma, di capovolgimento carnevalesco del potere. Forse è anche per questo che ha un così grande successo, e il suo abbigliamento è così iconico.

Bibliografia

Bakhtin (1979): Mikhail Bakhtin, L’opera di Rabelais e la cultura popolare. Riso, carnevale e festa nella tradizione medievale e rinascimentale, trad. it. Mili Romano, Einaudi, Torino 1979 [ed. orig. 1965].

Barbato (2020): Antonella Barbato, Re(in)cludo. Il carcere come luogo di accoglienza nella città, in M. Talia (a cura di), La città contemporanea: un gigante dai piedi d’argilla. Atti della conferenza internazionale UrbanPromo XVI Edizione, Planum, Roma-Milano, pp. 41-46.

Basaglia (2017): Franco Basaglia, Le istituzioni della violenza [1968], in Id., Scritti (1953-1980), Milano, Il Saggiatore, pp. 459-61.

Bernardi (1983): Claudio Bernardi, Il corpo in festa: il carnevale, in V. Melchiorre e A. Cascetta (a cura di), Il corpo in scena. La rappresentazione del corpo nella filosofia e nelle arti, Vita&Pensiero, Milano 1983, pp. 277-290.

Bezio (2015): Kristin M.S. Bezio, Playing (with) the Villain. Critical Play and the Joker-as-Guide in Batman: Arkham Asylum, in R.M. Peaslee e R.G. Weiner (eds.), The Joker. A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, pp. 129-145.

Dalcò (2020): Luca Dalcò, Volterra in un videogioco, in S. Pescarin (a cura di), Videogames, ricerca, patrimonio culturale, FrancoAngeli, Milano, pp. 51-54.

Donnelly (2020): Joe Donnelly, Checkpoint. How Video Games Power Up Minds, Kick Ass and Save Lives, 404 Ink, United Kingdom.

Eugeni (2017): Ruggero Eugeni, Che cosa sarà un dispositivo. Archeologia e prospettive di uno strumento per pensare i media, in J.L. Baudry, Il dispositivo. Cinema, media, soggettività, trad. it. G. Avezzù e S. Arillotta, La Scuola, Brescia, pp. 5-43.

Fassone (2017): Riccardo Fassone, Every Game is an Island Endings and Extremities in Video Games, Bloomsbury, London. 

Javanian e Rahmani (2021): Mohammadreza H. Javanian, Farzan Rahmani, Killing Joke: A Study of the Carnivalesque Discourse in Todd Phillips’ Joker, «Bakhtiniana: Revista de Estudos do Discurso», 16(3), pp. 39-56.

Lombardi (2011): Sarah Lombardi, Collection de l’Art Brut. Lausanne, Skira, Paris 2011.

Mina (2011): Gabriele Mina, Archeologia del sogno: Oreste Fernando Nannetti. Conversazione con Teresa Maranzano, in Id (a cura di), Costruttori di babele. Sulle tracce di architetture fantastiche e universi irregolari in Italia, Elèuthera, Milano 2011, pp. 177-180.

Röske (2014): Thomas Röske, Agnes Richter’s jacket, «Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences», 23, pp. 227–229.

Salvador (2011): Mauro Salvador, Luogo, prova, espediente, punizione Le molteplici facce del carcere nel videogame, «Comunicazioni Sociali on-line», 4, pp. 41-52.

The Rise of the Witch-King (RotWK) Community

Di seguito ho pubblicato un mio contributo dedicato alla community del gioco Il Signore degli Anelli: La Battaglia per la Terra di Mezzo 2: L’ascesa del Re Stregone, noto anche come RotWK, abbreviazione dell’inglese Rise of the Witch-King.

Il contributo, pensato originariamente per un’altra destinazione, è rimasto per un po’ tra i miei file del computer. Avendo perso il suo scopo originario ho deciso di pubblicarlo qui, senza sostanziali modifiche.

Chi volesse leggere un testo più leggero e divulgativo (e in italiano) sullo stesso argomento può dare un occhio al mio articolo pubblicato su Everyeye. Più in generale ricordo che potete consultare la pagina delle mie pubblicazioni su questo sito.

ENG

I’ve published here an article about The Rise of the Witch-King (RotWK) and its community, originally written for another purpose. There are no changes from the original text. I publish it here, on my personal, website to make it accessible.

rotwk

1. The complex history of RotWK

This article investigates the self-managed eSports practices in the marginal video game communities related to three licensed real-time strategy (RTS) video games: The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth (Electronic Arts, 2006), The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II (Electronic Arts, 2006) and in particular The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II: The Rise of the Witch-King (Electronic Arts, 2006)[1].

Tolkien’s works have inspired – directly or indirectly – a large number of video games since the dawn of gaming. The names of numerous video games reveal such inspiration: Moria (Batton and Duncombe, 1975), Orthanc (Hagstrom, Resch and Kemp 1975), Akalabeth: World of Doom (Garriott, 1979), The Hobbit (Beam Software, 1982), another Moria (Koeneke, 1983), Angband (Astrand and Cutler, 1990) and many others[2].

Moreover, many video games with a fantasy setting are influenced by the Tolkien world through the mediation of Dungeons & Dragons. Over the years, the creator of this famous tabletop game, Gary Gygax, has expressed himself differently about the tolkienian influence on his work (1985; 2000); however, regardless of its actual extent, some sort of ascendancy is certainly traceable (Cover, 2010; Tresca, 2011; Lucas, 2014; Appelcline 2017; about Tolkien and video games specifically, see Makai, 2014; Dor, 2016; Young, 2016).

At the beginning of the century, Peter Jackson’s film trilogy The Lord of the Rings produced a further interest in Middle-earth, accompanied by the release of licensed video games. The licenses were distributed atypically, what produced some situations out of the ordinary (Young, 2016, p. 10)[3]. It’s important to remember the licensing issue because it is one of the factors underlying RotWK’s problems. The Electronic Arts company had originally obtained only the license related to the film trilogy, while the one related to Tolkien’s books was obtained by another video game publisher, Vivendi Games. Electronic Arts could thus, for example, create character models inspired by the film actors, but not insert a character like Tom Bombadil, who is present in the book The Fellowship of the Ring but not in the homonym movie. Each of the two publishers highlighted the authority of their license to guarantee the authenticity of their products (Wallin, 2007).

Some of the video games published by Electronic Arts were the two hack-and-slash The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Stormfront Studios, 2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (EA Redwood Shores / Hypnos Entertainment, 2003), the role-playing game The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age (EA Redwood Shores, 2004) and the RTS BfME I. In 2006, the year of BfME II‘s release, the circumstances had changed, as the previous year Electronic Arts had acquired the literary license for Tolkien’s books. The contents of BfME II are much more differentiated than those of BfME I, which included only what was shown in the movies. Characters from novels appear, such as the aforementioned Tom Bombadil, alongside characters invented especially for this video game (such as Gorkil the goblin king or Drogoth the dragon lord) and others originally introduced in The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age. Later that year, the expansion RotWK, which added Angmar’s army, increased the number of playable factions to seven (the other six were Men of the West, Elves, Dwarves, Mordor, Isengard and Goblins).

In 2009, the situation changed furtherly: Electronic Arts’ expired license was acquired by Warner Bros., who “now holds all the digital gaming rights to Middle-earth under its single franchise” (Young, 2016, p. 10). Following the loss of the license, the game servers for BfME I, BfME II and RotWK were shut down by Electronic Arts in2010. In addition, apart from some residual (and often overpriced) physical copies, these video games are no longer available for purchase.

These video games, apparently destined for oblivion, have been preserved thanks to the attention of a small but active community. Among the problems that required a solution, there were the closure of the official servers and imbalances in the game’s difficulty. In fact, the latest official RotWK patch (the number 2.01) still had numerous bugs – for example the attack speed of Black Numenoreans and Half-Troll Swordsmen were so defective that these units were almost completely useless – and balance issues (like the overpowering of Mirkwood Archers of the Elven faction).

Therefore, a group of players decided to work on the unofficial patch 2.02[4], the first version of which was released on 11 January 2008, before the servers’ shutdown. After they were closed, work on patch 2.02 intensified and the community found a new way to play RotWK and the other two video games online, using the third party software GameRanger, a free online-gaming service.

The community has always shown interest in communicating the existence of GameRanger and patch 2.02 as much as possible, to attract the attention of nostalgic gamers. Two useful tools for this goal are YouTube and Twitch.tv. On YouTube, in addition to numerous gameplays, some players have uploaded video tutorials about the installation of the unofficial patch (e.g. PhaeronXII, 2018; Elrohir, 2019) and presentation trailers of the 2.02 (like tg – sacred, 2012). Currently, the latest version of patch 2.02 is 8.4.0, released on 2 August 2020 (Excelsior, 2020).

There are at least three guidelines, with different priorities, at the base of this patch: balancing and bug fixing, adherence to the original game and loyalty to Tolkien. The latter case concerns only some small details, to which, however, a ‘philological’ attention has been paid. For example, the correct name of the mûmakil (the giant elephants of Middle-earth) has been recovered. The singular of mumakil is mûmak, but in RotWK the plural form was also used in reference to a single creature; now, in 2.02, this is partially corrected, with the adoption of the term ‘mumak’ (which is missing, however, the circumflex accent).

About the adherence to the original game, the creators of patch 2.02 have followed a different path compared to numerous modding projects, such as The Age of the Ring (Age of the Ring Development Team, 2017), in which many new factions and units are inserted. In 2.02 patch the additions are minimal and limited to units already present in the game files (like the Galadhrim Warriors). So, rather than adding new contents, they tried to give usefulness to all the units and powers already present in RotWK. “Useless Turned Useful”, says the introduction to patch 2.02 on Gamereplays.org (2015). For example, in patch 2.01, heroes like Haldir and Sharku were extremely weak, while they are now among the most frequently recruited heroes for the Elves and Isengard factions respectively.

The 2.02 patch has the goal to preserve and even increase the competitive playability of RotWK. Thus, this unofficial patch is radically different from other modding operations[5], which follow a more “just for fun” approach or are guided by a certain completism (insert as many factions and characters from Middle-earth as possible).

Two considerations emerge from what has been said so far. First of all, this small community is composed not only of proplayers (professional players) and enthusiasts, but also of people with high skills in the creation and reworking of content, which can be defined as petty producers (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998) or prosumers (Toffler, 1990).

Furthermore, the constant search for an optimal balance of the video game, with a continuous improvement of the 2.02 patch over the years, underlies a general interest in organised competition and, therefore, tournaments.

2. The RotWK community on YouTube, Twitch and GameReplays

Before proceeding with the analysis of specific contents, a more general observation was carried out, aimed at identifying the dimensions of the phenomenon on YouTube and Twitch.tv. For the purposes of the analysis, a group of 19 Twitch channels and 14 YouTube channels was identified. This number may seem small for an analysis, but it should be noted that the RotWK streamers are a niche on these platforms.

The identification of the sample base has begun with a search by keywords (“rise of the witch king”, “rotwk” “2.02 8.4”) on YouTube – taking into account the channels that published videos related to RotWK during the analysis’s period – and with the exploration of the videos in the Twitch.tv directory “The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II”, which contained contents about BfME II (‘vanilla’ and 1.09 patch) and RotWK (‘vanilla’, 2.02 patch and mods like The Age of the Ring). On Twitch.tv, recommended channels within the main streamers’ were checked as well.

In light of this fact, the Twitch channels that do not deal with patch 2.02 have been listed anyway. Some of the results returned by this double search were excluded, instead, because only tangentially linked to BfME games. A channel like VeneficusTV, for example, was find in the search but excluded because its streamer seems to play these video games rarely. Some channels almost exclusively dedicated to BfME I were also excluded, like BFMEOrange.

The research on Twitch.tv has identified the following channels, divided according to the content they offer most frequently[6]:

  • RoTWK: BeyondStandards (3393 followers); TheDestroyer001 (4830 followers); Elrohir_Bfme (3305 followers); MasterExcelsior (666 followers); Solas1994 (457 followers); Velenorion (730 followers); MAYSHADOWFAX12 (163 followers); leslotje (13 followers); The_Eternal (364 followers); kingthran (87 followers, seems inactive); Elite_Banner (66 followers); MrSmoKkkk (351 followers); hoplite300 (42 followers); Amarrow (35 followers); GLoRf1nDeLL07 (27 followers); Olumba (73 followers); MiraakThuri (33 followers); OrtaDunyaCom (26.690 followers); Muadddd (56 followers).
  • Edain mod or The Age of the Ring mod: luke_xfr (91 followers); Bilban_bfme (270 followers); ogizza (153 followers); Gasolt (102 followers); foxybrosgaming (198 followers); Toinoua (105 followers); AgeoftheRing (1213 followers); andysangr (863 followers).
  • BfME II: BFME2yoda (1253 followers); Ruudw (3309 followers, seems inactive); GranThorino (41 followers, seems inactive); LATINO19 (853 followers); Ryke676 (2442 followers); ohtakeover (256 followers); JoelogyTv (651 followers); KepregenyfejtoJanos (29 followers); Lookmanohandzz (108 followers); KitsuneNakigitsune (81 followers); MrMocki (7 followers); Ferhaz (94 followers).

The research on YouTube has identified the following channels, some of which are versions of the Twitch channels listed above:

  • TheDestroyer001, 20.800 followers, 9.391.353 total views, RotWK 2.02, gameplay.
  • BeyondStandards, 7180 followers, 920.478 total views, RotWK 2.02, commentary.
  • BOYZ TALK ROTWK, 50 followers, 2.291 total views, RotWK 2.02, replays commentary.
  • Joelogy Tv, 439 followers, 54.366 total views, RotWK 2.02 and BfME II 1.09, replays commentary.
  • Radu Urdea, 3 followers, 116 total views, RotWK 2.02, gameplay.
  • Velenorion BFME, 10 followers, 118 total views, RotWK 2.02, tutorial/how to.
  • Orta Dünya Oyunları, 1360 followers, 51.031 total views, RotWK 2.02, various contents.
  • Ghost the Grumpy Aussie, 297 followers, 38.280 total views, RotWK 2.02 and Blue Wizard mod, gameplay.
  • LeoSmaug, 62 followers, 1474 total views, RotWK 2.02, gameplay.
  • Mr. SmoKkkk, 147 followers, 13.178 total views, RotWK 2.02, gameplay.
  • Talos, 133 followers, 21.816 total views, RotWK 2.02, gameplay.
  • Дмитрий DeimaN, 276 followers, 66.006 total views, RotWK 2.02, commentary.
  • TheGuyofTheEast, 942 followers, 190.451 total views, RotWK 2.02 and The Age of the Ring Mod, gameplay.
  • E.W.A., 601 followers, 68.972 total views, RotWK 2.02 and BfME II 1.09, gameplay.

Two other channels deserve a mention. The first one is RuudDevil, a channel quite followed for the standards of this group (42.600 followers, 27.112.004 total views), but almost exclusively dedicated to mods, like The Age of the Ring. The other one is PhaeronXII (202 followers, 30.948 total views), no longer active, which for a certain period of time has been an interesting example of replay commentaries and live casting.

There were two periods of in-depth observation. The first was December, chosen for the presence of the XMAS Tournament. The addition of a second period, from 1 to 15 March, was determined by the occurrence of the Good vs Evil Tournament (in which each participant signed up by selecting a faction from the good side and one from the evil side, and had to play all the games just with these two). The attention focused on three of the content creators listed above, selected by different criteria (not only based on their numbers – although they are some of the most followed – but also based on their relevance to the research focus)[7]. All of their videos published during the analysis periods have been viewed and analysed (N=54). Several of their other videos, published outside the analysis period, were also viewed, although the same systematicity was not maintained. Likewise, an attempt was made to view as much content as possible from other channels as well. Due to temporal restrictions, in many cases Twitch live shows have been recovered afterwards, either from the platform itself or once uploaded to YouTube (if, in the meantime, they were removed from Twitch). During the same time period, the RotWK forum on GameReplays.org was monitored.

The first content creator selected is Shanks of the BeyondStandards channel (YouTube and Twitch.tv), as he is currently the commentator and in some cases the host and organiser of said tournaments. The second is TheDestroyer001 (YouTube and Twitch.tv), since in the past, for a time, he has been playing a role similar to the one that Shanks plays currently, in tournament commentary (“After doing some casting videos I was asked to join the GameReplays.org staff as a caster for RotWK unofficial patch 2.02” – Interview with TheDestroyer001). Now he deals with another kind of game-related content, but he is always very active in the RotWK community. The third is Elrohir (YouTube and Twitch.tv), which in recent years has been carrying out a sort of parallel project, linked to the La Terre du Milieu (2017) website. He provides French-speaking fans of The Lord of the Rings with a meeting place, with a particular focus on video games, RotWK specifically. Elrohir, among other things, comments on tournament matches. Unlike Shanks and TheDestroyer001, who produce English content, Elrohir’s videos are in French.

These three content creators were interviewed, with a base of common questions tailored to the individual case. The interview request was sent by e-mail (Shanks) and social network (Instagram for Elrohir and Discord for TheDestroyer001).

3. Tournament practices and community development

The case of RotWK is an example of virtuous interaction between a streamer and a community of gamers in a niche context. The effect produced by their practices is the maintenance over time of a community that one might expect to have exhausted its strength following the closure of RotWK official servers and the disappearance of the video game from the market.

This case is not a planned operation of product revitalisation rooted in retrogaming nostalgia (Jenkins, Ford, Green, 2013), representing instead the ‘posthumous’ continuation of a video game whose online service was discontinued.

Several factors must be considered in order to fully understand this practice. Some of them concern the work of the community involved, while others are external.

First of all, RotWK is an RTS. This genre of video game has generated some highly competitive niches, due to some of its characteristics. In fact, it is mainly played on PC, the only device providing effective controls by the combination of mouse and keyboard. There are strategic video games on other platforms, but they either have less effective controls (thus being unfit for high-level competitions) or are slow if not turn-based or implementing other hybrid forms of gameplay. These video games tend to be competitive and difficult to master, with a relevant ability gap between casual gamers and proplayers compared to other genres. Their difficulty is mainly linked to two aspects: knowledge of the game and speed of reaction and execution.

RotWK appears to be an RTS with a considerable potential for spectacularity, for a number of reasons. The first and most immediate is the presence of characters and settings from Tolkien’s world, and in particular from the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. The second one is the nature of RTS games, which – more than games of other genres – optimally suits live commentary, useful to identify the principal points on the map and explain the technicalities of some moves to the viewers. Finally, in RotWK there is an abundance of special powers with a great impact on the game and a high level of spectacularity, like the Balrog summon or the Army of the Dead. Powers like these can destroy an entire army or an enemy base in seconds. Their visual impact adds to their effects on the current game.

These powers are engaging not only because visually pleasant, but also for their impact on the progress of the match. All strategies are based on the management of resources, and if the system is not correctly set up an “avalanche” effect can occur, by which the player who gained an initial advantage will become stronger and stronger until the opponent cannot defeat her or him. Wayward Strategy (Wayward, 2018) gives the example of Tooth and Tail (Pocketwatchgames, 2017) to explain this. This video game is focussed on a single resource, and it is very difficult to recover even from a marginal disadvantage, because the gap tends to become wider and wider as the game progresses. In fact, the player who manages to obtain an advantageous position continues to generate more resources than the opponents (and therefore to produce more troops, expand faster etc.). In video games like RotWK, on the other hand, it is possible to come back from a situation of disadvantage, at least in some cases, which makes the games more interesting to watch[8].

Apparently, this video game, like Tooth and Tail, is based on a single resource, but in reality there are at least two others (three, if the experience obtained by soldiers and heroes is counted): command points and power points. The first ones are linked to the quality of the troops in relation to the population limit: the most powerful troops require more command points than the others. The second ones are used to obtain special powers that can overturn a situation that would be disadvantageous according to the parameters of the other two resources.

Such elements are optimal for commentary on official tournaments and competitions, as they increase the uncertainty of matches. It does not happen often, but even in tournaments there have been comebacks where a player at a strong disadvantage was able to win thanks to a special power, for example by destroying the opposing fortress with the Giants or Ents summon[9].

Additional game mechanics need to be considered. In fact, the general complexity of RTS games derives from the overlapping of different components, which must be kept in mind at the same time. The resource factor, for example, is often combined with a “rock, paper, scissors” structure that governs the balance of power between different units (Molina, 2003 pp. 27–30). Cavalry overwhelms archers and swordsmen, but is annihilated by pikemen, who are in turn weak against swords and arrows. This factor stratifies the mere cost and command point ratio between different units, but it is not an absolute factor per se: a group of high-level pikemen (such as the Tower Guards) can win against cheap swordsmen like an Orc battalion, despite the general balance of power in favour of the swordsmen.

All of these elements are suitable to be discussed in the videos. The ‘readability’ of the game mechanics of an RTS is lower than that of other genres’ games, thus it is possible to frequently bring this topic up in match commentaries. Obviously, this is not necessarily the only focus nor does it suit everyone’s tastes. RuudDevil, for example, has focused above all on modding, with numerous videos presenting the different contents that certain mods add to the game. Similar videos have also been made by TheDestroyer001 in the past, while his channel is now focussed on patch 2.02 almost exclusively, and he has repeatedly denied an interest in certain modding operations, curious to view but not easily replayable. His channel was, for a certain period of time, the ‘official’ voice of the community that revolves around Gamereplays.org. In the first place, he was the one who records and shares the official competitions. He also recovered some files containing the games that the experts upload to the Gamereplays website[10], making them available in a more accessible and understandable form. Finally, he was entrusted with the first public presentation of the new versions of the 2.02 patch.

In the last three years, however, its contents have changed, and currently they are focussing on a series of autonomous live streaming on his Twitch channel, uploaded to YouTube in the following days.

The commentary provided by Shanks clarifies some choices made by the experts, explaining why a certain move can be a winning strategy (or, conversely, why constitutes a mistake). In this way, his work proves to be potentially attractive to some types of spectators, that Cheung and Huang (2011) identified by observing the public of a much more popular RTS: Starcraft 2 (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010). Numerous points of their discourse would be applicable, on a different scale, also to viewers of RotWK replays.

The videos made by Shanks can be for many viewers a first point of contact with the 2.02 patch and the possibility to play on GameRanger, generating a new interest in the game. This first point of contact is sometimes accompanied by more targeted initiatives, from the community, aimed at those who already know at least a little about the video game, such as, for example, the mentoring program, in which some “veterans” play with newbies to provide advices and feedback, to make them more competitive. But watching a video is more immediate than reading a written guide (Gibson, Petrova, 2017) by Gamereplays or the mentoring program, which makes it easier to intercept a strong interest in YouTube and Twitch users by explaining how to master certain factions of RotWK.

His videos, for example, reveal numerous comments on “build orders”, an essential component of RotWK, and many other strategic elements, which is also one of the focal lessons of the mentoring program. A build order is a sequence of actions that the player performs immediately after the start of a game, to create some structures and units in a specific order. Especially in strategic games with the aforementioned “avalanche effect”, a single mistake in this phase can compromise the entire game. This is the reason why, in top-level competitions, there is basically only one possible opening for each situation, which must be performed with speed and perfect timing. We are then in the presence of a “dominant strategy” (Bertolo and Mariani, 2014, p. 205) which substantially nullifies the possible choices, as one of them is better than the others. This also applies in part to RotWK but, also due to the absence of official competitions at the level of the most successful strategists, some variations are possible on the basis of a “range of choices” (ibid., p. 207) in which greater risks generate greater benefits. To give a concrete example: a “standard” opening foresees the construction of two resource production buildings before creating one for the production of troops, while a “risky” opening anticipates the building for the troops. This allows to launch an attack on the opponent’s base more quickly and destroy some buildings before a reaction (high gain), but in case of failure puts the player in disadvantage, because generates a less developed economy than that of the opponent (high risk). The knowledge of building orders, like in other RTS games, is also an element frequently mentioned in commentaries to live tournament streamings.

Here it emerges, in fact, what Cheung and Huang defined as “information asymmetry” (2011, p. 769) between players and spectators. The players know details unknown to the spectators (the strategies they want to adopt), and the spectators in turn can see things (the opponent’s map) that are covered by the fog of war. The two authors link this asymmetry closely to video games like Starcraft II, but it is actually present – albeit in different forms – in numerous other competitive genres. Furthermore, the fixity of some strategies tempers this cognitive distance: even with little information, an experienced player can guess with good precision what strategies will be put in place by the opponent.

As it has been observed, the search for information is not one of the main values for which the streamings on Twitch.tv are followed (Sjöblom and Hamari, 2017), but in RotWK’s case this interest is stronger. This situation probably derives from the fact that many people discover this video game – or rediscover it years later in a very different form from the original – right through these videos, and there is little or no discourse about them outside the community; therefore, streaming is for many a first access to the practical knowledge on how to download and install patch 2.02, how to play etc.

The Shanks videos, anyway, are not only a possible source of attraction for newbies: they maintain over time a great usefulness for the members of the community themselves. It is not only a question of strengthening the sense of community, but also – for example – of being able to better verify how the metagame changes from version to version of the patch. The metagame, which defines the user interactions with the game, assumes a central value in eSports (Scholz, 2019, pp. 105-109), because even small variations in a patch are enough to radically modify it, creating new strategies and benefiting certain players. RotWK is no exception. For example, a small buff to the Orcs, the cheap and weak infantry of Mordor, was enough to make this faction much stronger and played in version 8.4 of patch 2.02. In other cases, the impact of changes has not been perceived initially, instead emerging a posteriori, also thanks to live performances. The Good vs Evil tournament, in particular, was dominated by the Angmar faction, one of the most used, and the performance of the Dire Wolves unit emerged, which with the Spike Collars upgrade – very little used in the past – turned out to be an extremely cost-efficient troop.

As Shanks said in the interview, one of the most exciting aspects of organizing and following a tournament is the reaction of the participating players, who try to give their best and exceed their limits, often giving exciting performances, much more than when they play just for fun: “When there is something to fight for, either a title (champion) or even a cash price, players tend to go beyond standards, I like to see the ambition and the motivation of the players being hyped about the upcoming events and trying to train for them, which increases the activity of BfME games. Win-win” (Interview with Shanks). Moreover, the presence of a ‘professional’ gaming context or even just the very factor of playing in the presence of an audience affects the performance of a player (Taylor, 2016, p. 124).

Figures like Shanks, who is at the same time organizer, streamer and caster, unite different roles that are normally separated in the world of eSports. Similarly, the economic front sees a certain overlap compared to the norm (Jacobson, 2021, pp. 20-30). It is the community itself, made up of players and spectators, in fact, that finances the small monetary prizes available for the tournaments. Both Shanks and TheDestroyer001 said in the interview that one of the things they love about their streaming activity is the ability to interface with people from all over the world. Being a rather small community, at least the core group of the most passionate players ends up getting to know each other quite well. In more than one tournament, however, the nationality of the players is highlighted, based on the model of official eSports competitions. The nations represented in the tournaments are numerous, from Canada to Lebanon, from Turkey to Ukraine. English is used as lingua franca, but it happens to witness the emergence of phrases or single words from other languages. Shanks himself, in many live shows, underlines the fact that he is a Turk who lives in Germany and that, therefore, in his daily life he often finds himself alternating between three different languages, of which English is used for his live commentaries. ESports practices pose an intercultural challenge (Stein and Scholz, 2016) for those involved and above all for those who manage them. This, especially in a relatively small community, can work as an enrichment factor.

The community is fond of streamers, but it seems to participate above all for the loyalty to the video game. Attempts to bring other video games – especially if they are not related to Tolkien – to these channels have not produced optimal results. As TheDestroyer001 pointed out in the interview, in addition to loyalty, a recognition factor also has come into play after a certain period from the opening of his channel: “I have attempted to branch out to other games but it never does as well. Once you are known for doing something in particular, that’s what people expect from you so I’ve decided to embrace that route and go all in on BfME, more specifically RotWK patch 2.02” (Interview with TheDestroyer001).

From all three interviews, it also emerges that this community, despite its small size, produces continuously new contents that improve the gaming experience: “This community shares a lot. We have a lot of events, mods that improve the game, mappers that create original maps. It’s an evolving group and we’re always trying to improve the game experience “(Interview with Elrohir). Even those who do not organize tournaments directly contribute to enriching the experience. Not only – of course – the people who work on patch 2.02 to improve its balance more and more, but also, for example, those who create new maps. Some of their creations are often included in the pool of maps used in the tournament, and this is certainly a significant token of esteem for the work of these creators, considering that their creations are found alongside historical maps of RotWK competitions such as the very famous “Fords of Isen”.

All these people dedicate, in different ways, a considerable part of their free time (“I do this for fun, it’s not my job […] I try to find time to manage everything”: Interview with Elrohir) to RotWK, guided by their passion for this video game, but also by a desire to make it known, to spread it as much as possible and to continuously improve the gaming experience, not only for themselves, but for the whole community: “the reason was my passion of the games I wanted to share with others and also get to know other fans of these awesome BfME games” (Interview with Shanks); “in 2016 I wanted to play this game again but there was no French community. so I decided to create one and I always liked this game because it is great” (Interview with Elrohir). Their work, therefore, is much more layered than the mere presence of that affective labour (Woodcock and Johnson, 2019) which also characterizes them as streamers. The fact that all these activities are confined to free time, despite the professionalization they bring to the field, can have positive connotations, of greater decision-making freedom but also of purpose and gratification, compared to the overlapping of play and work that occurs in official eSports (Brock, 2017).

Furthermore, all three interviewees, talking about the future of their channels and their activities, mentioned another fanmade project under development: The Battle for Middle-earth: Reforged (BFME Reforged Team, TBA), on which dozens of people are working, with the intent to recreate BfME II with a new engine, and new models much more detailed than those of the original video game.

Sometimes eSports competitions seem to be the vanguard of obsolescence for which many video games, especially those based on online gaming, seem destined. The servers are shut down, the developers no longer support the product and the video game ends up in limbo, forgotten and difficult to recover. The work carried out by the RotWK community takes on a significant value, in this context, because it shows how bottom up practices can counteract this oblivion. This is not an operation of retrogaming for collectors, but a living practice, which they try to spread daily to attract new active users. The results seem to confirm their commitment: over time, participation in tournaments grows more and more.

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[1] Hereinafter abbreviated to BfME I, BfME II and RotWK respectively.

[2] Moria, Orthanc and Angband are places in the Middle-earth. “Akalabeth” recalls the word Akallabêth (in the fictional language of Númenor), which means “the fall”.

[3] see also Wasko and Shanadi (2006, pp. 32-34) for a source contemporary to the release of these video games.

[4] Similarly, they have made patches for BfME I and BfME II, respectively numbered 1.06 and 1.09, but for convenience we will take the case of RotWK as an example.

[5] The numerous mods of RotWK would deserve an ad-hocstudy, focused on their similarities and differences compared to the general phenomenon of video-game modding (Postigo, 2007, 2008; Behr, 2008; Banks, 2013).

[6] All the following numerical data are updated to the last check on March 15, 2021.

[7] The choice also took into account the topic on GameReplays.org dedicated to RotWK streamers (Motoma, 2019).

[8] A recent BeyondStandards video (2021) shows an example of a comeback. For most of the time the Men of the West army is struggling against Mordor, they can only defend themselves and seem on the verge of defeat. The powers of the heroes, and in particular the use of Gandalf, however, turn the situation around.

[9] but even in the early stages of the game, the correct use of much less impacting powers can be decisive. A correct use of Rallying Call / War Chant buff (a temporary boost for damage and armour of the troops) can be game changing.

[10] The practices of archiving and sharing the files containing the replays of certain matches has also been a focal point within the evolution of the RTS genre, and has accompanied the progressive affirmation of online challenges (Dor, 2014). these replay files can only be viewed by those who have the game installed and the corresponding patch available and active, while the videos on YouTube are freely accessible from any device.

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