At the annual Game Developer’s Conference held in San Francisco this past March, French game studio Quantic Dream presented a tech demo of their latest achievements with the graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 3 and their use of motion capture technology.
While I did see some bits and pieces of news about the video back in March and glanced at the article on eurogamer.net, it was Shane Denson’s post on the blog for the Initiative für interdisziplinäre Medienforschung (the Initiative for Interdisciplinary Media Research) at the Leibniz University of Hannover, Germany, that drew my attention to it in a renewed way.
In “Kara: Digitally Rendered Frankenstein,” Denson comments on the gender politics that underpin Quantic Dream’s video, recalling the scene in Mary Shelley’s novel where Victor tears apart the female creature he had promised to build for his original creation. He concludes his short post with a criticism of the “instrumentalization” of the female body that “Kara” quite obviously foregrounds:
According to Quantic Dream, the program code/video demonstrates the emotional depth that video games are capable of generating. Clearly, though, it is designed above all to demonstrate technological sophistication—and recalling that the spectacle is rendered in real time on a PS3, it is indeed quite impressive. But if emotional maturity and depth were really at stake here, would it be necessary to instrumentalize the female body in this way? Finally, though, we see here a further demonstration of the continued persistence of the Frankensteinian model—with all its problematic intertwinings of biological, technological, sexual, and media-oriented questions and themes—in shaping our fantasies and imaginations, both for better and for worse, with regard to our visions of the (near) future and the possibilities it holds for novel anthropotechnical relations: whether in the field of android-assisted living or in the space of our living rooms, where in the name of “playing games” we have rapidly grown accustomed to interacting with nonhuman agencies.
While this critique is spot on, I feel that to explore the potential “Kara” holds for “novel anthropotechnical” relations requires more than a disavowal of its gender representations.
It would seem to me that the one aspect of the “Frankensteinian model” that “Kara” plays upon most heavily—though sentimentally so—has to do with the (bio)ethical obligation of the creator to creation. In her novel, Shelley asks after the responsibilities we hold in any act of generating, engendering, and engineering things with “lives with their own”: children, art works, technologies. The tragedy of the novel stems in large part from Victor’s initial blindness toward, and ultimate refusal of, his responsibilities toward the creature.
The part of novel involving the female creature that Victor ultimately tears apart is compelling for me because he actually does wrestle with the enormous ethical complexities of the task. At first, he promises to create the female as an obligation toward his original creation, with the agreement that the latter take his new mate to the jungles of South America. After the creature tells his story in the cave at the Mer de Glas, Victor consults his conscience: “His tale, and the feelings he now expressed, proved him to be a creature of fine sensations; and did I not, as his maker, owe him all the portion of happiness that was in my power to bestow?” (vol. 2, ch. 9; 170). The language of duty, responsibility, right, and, ultimately, justice, comes to the fore in this chapter and the ones that follow as both Victor and the creature echo the notion that there is “a portion of happiness” that Victor has a “power to bestow” upon his progeny. The creator waffles between, on the one hand, the sympathy and compassion he feels when he hears the creature speak, and, on the other, the revulsion that overcomes him when he looks at “the filthy mass that moved and talked.” “I tried to stifle these sensations;” he recalls, yet, “I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow. . . . After a long pause of reflection, I concluded, that the justice due both to him and my fellow creatures demanded of me that I should comply with his request” (vol. 2, ch. 9; 171-72).
As Victor recalls the moments leading up to his final decision to destroy the female, he outlines a number of arguments against going through with his promise. It strikes me that what cuts to the heart of the matter, both in the novel and with regard to the broader question of the ethics of creation, especially the creation of “life” (or the act of “making live,” to recall one half of Foucault’s formulation of biopower)—what cuts to the heart of the matter are Victor’s consideration for the position of the female creature:
He [the creature] had sworn to quit the neighbourhood of man, and hide himself in deserts; but she had not; and she, who in all probability was to become a thinking and reasoning animal, might refuse to comply with a compact made before her creation. (Vol. 3, ch. 3; 190)
He goes on to wonder if the female would be abhorred by the original creature and leave them both to solitary misery, precipitating a new round of violence. Or if, on the contrary, the two of them might have children, such that “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth” (ibid.).
Victor’s motivation to destroy the nearly-completed female is, in the final instance, characteristically self-centered. When he decides to build the original creature, he is seduced by the promise of glory, both from his peers on account of his feat of reanimating dead flesh, and from the new species who would revere him as their demiurge. Inversely, he tears the female to pieces when he considers how he would be perceived: “I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (ibid.).
In any event, this notion of the “compact” that precedes the female’s birth, that lies at the root of her conception, that is supposed to bind her, neither with her consent nor even her knowledge; this agreement between two people, two men, that emerges, one might argue, not even out of the desire to create new life, but rather out of their violent struggle for mutual recognition; this settlement between others that stand prior to her own existence and that, ultimately, she must inherit but is ultimately free to disavow; this compact is the key to the bioethics at play in Frankenstein, and, indeed, the descendants of Shelley’s novel.
I think that this is at work in the unseen engineer’s “Oh my god!” at the end of “Kara,” as she steps onto the skid with the other androids to be shipped to retail. It is the realization that something has been created according to a set of assumptions that are expected to bind it, but to which it is by no bound.
Of course, this is the existential condition of being born, of being created, being engendered or engineered, whether as a so-called natural or an ostensibly artificial process. It is also the condition of actively bearing, of creating, engendering and engineering. I think we all know this, but the question is how to respond to and be responsible for the monstrous ethics involved here beyond the zero-sum game of debating whether it is better to create the monster or destroy it.
I wonder if there is some of this questioning at work at the authorial level at Quantic Dream. Here is the figure of Kara, a tech demo and a sexual plaything, which she is at both the level of the narrative itself (which blatantly signals this fact), and at the “meta” levels of video game design and play. The folks at Quantic Dream have consistently been concerned with creating photo-realistic character models at the same time as they experiment with some of the conventions of character control during game play. Kara herself seems simultaneously to address the QA engineer in the narrative and the audience watching the video, but also her designers at Quantic, asking what it means to create a “lifelike” being, the sole purpose of which is to be played with, to be manipulated, and to seduce—that is, to produce the desire to play and manipulate. How, then, do we respond to Kara’s ethical demand in a way that sidesteps simply saying “yes” or “no” to, say, certain representations of gender characteristic of a particular medium or genre; the use of a specific medium or technology; the creation of, or intervention in, the lives of others?
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. D.L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. 2nd ed. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 1999.