Needing Closure: Another Look at Interactivity

As many memories of nights in San Francisco begin, it was hazy and I couldn’t figure out what sort of coat actually kept me warm in that weather. It was a classic trench but cut in more feminine ways, shorter, more dramatic buttons, a latch make it a ¾ sleeve, and a hood. As far as I understand any sort of cold weather wear, it’s not really for insulation but rather looking like I have business to attend to while walking through wind and rain. It was my first coat, when I went to Chicago a few years before this, where I would be experiencing Real Cold™ (I saw snow on the ground and that was enough to freak me out) as a Florida gal, and I’m not really sure it helped at all.

Standing on a corner at Market St downtown, streetlights glowing in a light night fog, I was probably talking about Chicago with my friend Jenn Frank. We were about to split for the night, but tried to rush in as many conversation topics at that street corner, as I found is something that happens at conferences. You don’t know if you’re going to see someone for more than 10 minutes, so might as well say all the things you can while you have them. Another quirk about seeing people exclusively through work events is that you have conversations or topics that you bring up over and over again, only slightly advancing it since it’s been 9 months since you’ve last seen each other. They always start the same way too, and we try to speed through the parts we’ve already been through, with a lot of “yeah!”s and “totally”s as you recreate it, get a new sentence or two in, and oh gosh it’s 1 AM and I need to stop by somewhere for at least one more drink.

Jenn started one such conversation with me, about how tarot are a form of comics. At that time, most people didn’t know I had an intense amatuer venture into divination when I was younger, so it was the first time I started to recontextualize tarot into a form of play, the act of reading its own art form. It’s an interesting connection, though at first I wasn’t sure what it really meant. I believe at that time I only vaguely knew of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, mostly because often I would hear “I want an Understanding Comics for games” from games people. I decided then to read it so I could slowly grow this conversation over the next three years.

To situate the graphic novel, it was written back in the 90s to do what games are doing now, which was explaining how comics are an art form and should be taken seriously. It wanted to broaden people’s assumptions of what comics are and can be, and show the different elements that make up the medium and distinguish it from others. Like what I feel about a lot of words on how games are special, I didn’t think there was much actually unique to comics, though I don’t believe any art form needs to be entirely unique to merit its existence, and as well, that any art form is actually entirely unique from the rest.

Of particular interest is the book’s focus on the element of closure, in so far that Scott says “Comics is closure!” Rereading this recently, still healing from a past relationship, the term closure felt like a rather powerful one. It implies the inevitable ending of something, or a needed emotional resolution. It’s a word used during mostly painful times, when things are confusing. I have “how to get closure” in my search history. With comics, closure is filling in the blank between two image panels that are separated by frames (what Scott says are colloquially called “gutters”). Because comics tend not to depict every single second that is happening in the story, readers unconsciously fill in the blanks with their imagination. To the author, this is a very interactive process that he feels is most prevalent in comics than, let’s say, movies. That might sound familiar, because many arguments about games are that they have interaction that separate them from things like, let’s say, movies, are touted around on the regular.

I’ve found putting interaction on a pedestal as a defining trait of games more of a grab for legitimacy and exceptionalism rather than actually finding something interesting to say about a medium. I feel like this is the same for comics; as mediums, they reveal interactions that have taken place in all of life because they stress them, but they are not uniquely suited to them. Prose is the most efficient and possibly invisible prompt for closure, as it needs your active imagination constructing the story in order to make sense of what is going on. Scott’s “Comics is closure!” line is better suited for “Art is closure!” or some other wide-reaching statement that I wouldn’t necessarily make. The moment something is perceived as creative expression or Art™, the perceiver is filling in information on what the piece is trying to do and what it mean as it relates to their experience. Comics, and play, are great lenses that help people who aren’t sitting around musing about the elements of art all day to find new ways of relating to the world around them. Reading something as a comic or as a game bears more than only being able to read comics as comics, games as games, and having some larger entity decide what are comics and games. To be fair, this book is about 20 years old, so who knows what the author’s opinions are now.

So tarot reading is already established as play, though not commonly thought of as much, so now, do we find a link between comics and games when we establish them as comics as well, per Jenn’s insight? Even without my looser way of defining things, tarot fits Scott’s “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” once laid down in a spread.  Through some recent readings, I’ve focused on the act of closure, and ultimately found that tarot further emphasizes closure through play, by deliberately asking people to exercise their imagination and molding the experience around that. The reader doesn’t require mysticism to feel like something is connecting them to the experience that is going on, as interpretation feels like a strange twist of personification. As Understanding Comics posits, the reader fills in the blanks with their own image of themselves, contextualizing everything to how they understand the world. Closure is the kind of interactivity that is shared by all mediums, where the piece requires imagination, for people to fill in themselves in the blanks knowingly or not. I’m starting to think that play is games’ version of closure, if it isn’t closure in and of itself.

This contrasts to what people in games generally consider interactive, and how games are judged to be good games, or even games at all. Interaction is often described as ‘doing something,’ with the doing something being an active change in some sensory or mental process. Making a figure jump, solving a puzzle, etc. Yet I’m finding it’s not these sorts of interactions that are actually connecting the player with the experience despite how much attention they receive from critics and developers. Instead, I believe it’s this act of closure, the spaces between where the player is prompted to fill in their interpretation, play as it is, that connects us to an experience and where we can find all sorts of interesting things happening. I think critics do attempt to reach this closure, but typically through how they understand closure in other mediums, which is why there are so many narrative analyses. Many games don’t allow for varying kinds of closure except for those we see in movies and books, and these elements are often the least deftly deployed. It’s much easier to interpret tarot cards because they are literally a distillation of interpretation; they often have complex images, with optional literature on what they may mean, with gutter spaces between them that encourage participants to complete the experience by making it particularly relevant to them. To find closure, to make peace.

This perspective is helping me consider new kinds of designs and ideas that are made for people, not gamers, to experience in a meaningful way. To understand how play connects us to things in life we can’t perceive unaided. And that’s how I approach reading tarot cards, as an experience that is going to structure your imagination in a way to help you view something that you didn’t or couldn’t before, because you need prompts for closure to recognize it. Interaction is a false idol, it doesn’t exist solely because it is shiny, covered in polygons and pixels and cards and miniatures. There is something more personal and involved at work with closure, but not because it is unique or special to certain mediums. Rather, it exists everywhere, and we have another way of accessing it. Ignoring how closure/play is newly accessed by games, rather than discovered, is like getting a new book and never reading it, just feeling complacent that you have a new object within your grasp, for people to read the spine and wonder what it’s about, and you always giving some empty answer, not wanting anyone to see you too closely, just the things you own, and not ask any more questions.

 

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