Reuben Shaul
October 5, 2013
Blog Post Assignment
Word Count: 1065

Database Cinema or Video Games?
The Emerging Genre of Pathfinders: Classification and Ethical Potentialities

             Throughout our course we’ve observed many authors and artists who trace a declining purity in their arte de preference. Anne Friedberg (The End of Cinema) and Kristen Daly (Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image), while not necessarily projecting an unfavorable outlook, nonetheless agree that cinema is transmogrifying into a “vessel of redistributed auteurship” (Daly 126) and “being displaced by systems of circulation and transmission which abolish the screen as an instrument of presentation.” (Friedberg 16) Erika Balsom (A Cinema in the Gallery, A Cinema in Ruins) examines the work of artist Tacita Dean whose artwork gloomily presented the antiquation of film and the motion picture. Nathan Walters (Cinematic Experiences in Video Games: A Worrying Trend) prognosticates a dark future for video games, infected by cinematic narrative, a burdensome influence which “inherently cheapens [it’s] inherent qualities.” (Walters 137) However, if popular and critical acceptance are reasonable barometers of artistic excellence, certainly the marriage of interactivity and narrative has been a boon to both divisions of media. For instance, video games that Mr. Walters offers as examples of fixtures with bloated narratives, “The Last of Us” and “Bioshock Infinite,” have both gained widespread repute as featuring tightly-metered stories whose impact only serves to enhance and further dramatize game-play; they are among they highest-reviewed games of all time. (IGN)


Films, too, seem to be benefiting from adapting towards structures which Daly identifies as “Database Cinema.” These encompass genres such as “mind-game” movies like “Memento” and “Identity” in which the viewer is given a database of clues to participate in the mystery of the film, and also films like “Borat” in which performers interact with the real world by preparing a database of responses in anticipation of said interactions.


However, in no form of art does the commingling of database and traditional narrative prove more synchronous than the newly popularized “Pathfinders.”

Pathfinders, a recently coined nomenclature describing choose-your-own-adventure style cinema and video games, is composed of clear elements of traditional and database narratives. (Painter) Marsha Kinder describes database narratives as those whose “structures expose the dual processes of selection and combination,” (Kinder 118) structures exemplified in every choice made amongst these games/films. Simultaneously, they are traditional because the viewer’s auteurship, his control over the choices involved, is limited by the creators. Thus, labeling them as video game or cinema can be a difficult exercise. However, there exists a precedent for labeling these pieces of art as games dating back as far as 1983, when “Dragon’s Lair” seized the attention of arcade-goers worldwide.

The game involved the player performing as Dirk the Daring, having to react to danger by selecting one of three options, two of which usually resulted in Dirk’s demise. Only by trial and error could one improve their outcomes. Dragon’s Lair was a hit so groundbreaking it achieved the rare status of being critically acclaimed and financially magnetic; it earned ten million dollars within two years of release and holds the honor of being one of three video games enshrined in the Smithsonian Institute. Furthermore, Dragon’s Lair distinguishes itself from choice-oriented stories such as Kinoautomat because, while both works involve interactive decision-making, Kinoautomat is spectator rather than goal oriented. There is no sense of impending doom behind making a wrong choice, no penalty for failing correctly as there is no correct. It is thus fair to declare Dragon’s Lair, and hence all Pathfinders, as games.

“The Outbreak” (2008) and “The Walking Dead” (2012), both games which follow the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, are descendants of Dragon’s Lair, exhibiting the same goal-oriented database structure.

Both games involve difficult, morally ambiguous choices, such as saving only one of two characters the user has grown attached to. Each are also, obviously, quite violent. Yet despite the mature aspects of these games, few would deign to christen them controversial. Such indignity is reserved for Stanton Audemars’ “Stockholm: An Exploration of True Love.” The “game,” whose goal is to assert one’s sexual dominance over a kidnapped female, was considered so outrageous feminist groups rallied Amazon to remove it from their product library. The game is also, technically, a pathfinder, as it is played through a goal-oriented series of choices. The user must determine which methods of abuse will render the victim most submissive. As a target for rabid vitriol, it bears examining why this specific form of media generated such an extreme reaction and whether this implies any overarching function on the moral coordinates of pathfinders as a whole.

In his examination of a virtual rape case Thomas Powers (Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities) gives several literal definitions of “wrongness”: “an action that results in net unhappiness (utilitarianism), violates duty (Kant), steers one away from their goals (Aristotle) or violates community norms (Hagel).” (Powers 140) Based on these interpretations it is difficult to ascertain why pathfinders would allow for more net wrongness than a film, novel or other form of video game. After all, books and films can convey rape just as brutally as any medium. However, pathfinders occupy a unique space in media in that unlike books and films the user gets to interact and determine the fates of characters and unlike other video games the user’s behavior gets reinforced positively or negatively via expansion or contraction of the game itself. (Painter) Therefore, the pathfinder, in its most sinister transformation, could, in theory, condition some particularly influential individuals towards very antisocial behavior. Given such information, that games such as Stockholm would be capable of generating such emotional reaction is not illogical considering the subject matter.

Nonetheless, it remains necessary to allow such technologies to operate without the threat of censorship. Pathfinders should not be subject to over-analysis merely because of what the worst of us could be capable of under specifically manipulated conditions. Most healthy adults are capable of digesting art with maturity and detachment; society is strong when built around our hopes for the best of us, not our fear of the worst of us. Mark Twain once famously said that “censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.” Who wants to live in a world without steak?

Works Cited

  1. Friedberg, Anne. The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change. Pg 13-28. Course Packet.

  2. Balsom, Erika. A Cinema in the Gallery, A Cinema in Ruins. Pg 82-99. Course Packet.

  3. Daly, Kristen. Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image. Pg. 123-133. Course Packet.

  4. Walters, Nathan. Cinematic Experiences In Video Games: A Worrying Trend. Pg 134-137. Course Packet.

  5. Powers, Thomas M. Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities. Pg. 138-146. Course Packet.

  6. Stroud, Brandon. Top Games Since 2010.

  7. Painter, Ellis. The Rise of the Pathfinder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s