Book Report: The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom - Part 2

-Greg Livingston

Why bother applying The Anxiety of Influence to video games?

The more I play games, the more I recognize how they influence each other. I’m willing to bet the same is true for you. For instance, last week, I used the example of the cover system. Gears of War contributed to the popularity that mechanic now enjoys; in other words, Gears of War has influenced other games to implement cover systems.

Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence gives us one way of understanding that influence. While his book focuses on poetry in particular, it’s a framework that can be applied to anything. Granted, mileage may vary depending on the subject at hand.

To be honest, I don’t think The Anxiety of Influence holds much relevance in video games, partly because Bloom’s theory centers on the author’s state of mind. He starts with a poet who is jealous of a previous poet and goes from there. The theory is pretty dependent on that jealousy.

In video games, it’s hard to pinpoint an author. We may look to a director, but even then, a director is influenced by a producer, and a director relies on programmers and designers and other kinds of folk to do the actual legwork of putting the game together. Can just the director be jealous? Or does everyone on the development team have to experience the same jealousy? Can they be jealous to different degrees? You can see how this line of inquiry gets very silly very quickly.

But to say that Bloom’s theory is totally alien to video games isn’t true, either. We can see features of it in games, and that’s food enough for thought.

Last week, I named the first three steps of The Anxiety of Influence and discussed how you can see them in video games. This week, I’ll pick up at the fourth step.

4.) Daemonization or the Counter-Sublime. I got ahead of myself last week and covered this during the third step. Steps 3 and 4 blend together, I think. During step 3, the new poet forgets everything of the old poet aside from the old poet’s core inspiration; during step 4, the new poet uses that core inspiration for himself or herself.

Daemonization is the acquisition of an abstract inspiration. If the inspiration for your game is Super Mario 64, that’s something concrete—I can hold and observe Super Mario 64 completely. If your inspiration, however, is the sensation of discovery in a 3D space, then you’ve got something abstract on your hands. I can’t look at the sensation of discovery directly in and of itself. Rather, I can only observe it as it appears in other things. In this case, you’ve been Daemonized. It sounds pretty cool when you put it like that. Or pretty ridiculous, I haven’t decided.

Last week, I discussed how Burning Rangers did this for Sonic the Hedgehog. Both games pursue the idea of a journey with one end goal and multiple ways to get there—an abstract concept. However, they both explore this idea in unique ways. One game is a 2D platformer about a hedgehog who can spin into robots to cut them to bits, and the other is a 3D dungeon crawler platformer type thing where you put out fires with a gun. They share nothing in common aside from that abstract inspiration.

5.) Askesis or Purgation and Solipsism. In this step, the new poet purges anything that seems related to the old poet. In doing so, it seems like the new poet is all that exists.

It’s hard to see this in video games. Rarely do video games exclude ideas simply because they resemble other games. For instance, most platformers have something that resembles Mario’s coins. You’ve got Sonic’s rings, for one.

If a platformer doesn’t have a coin-like object, chances are it’s because that game doesn’t need them. Mega Man works fine without coins, and I don’t think anyone would expect it to have them. It’s not like Mega Man left out coins because it was struggling to separate itself from Mario.

To find a game that experiences Askesis, you need a game that’s utterly bent on uniqueness to the point of harming itself. If you can think of any such games, I urge you to name them in the question box below.

6.) Apophrades or The Return of the Dead. After spending a lifetime evading an older poet, the newer poet faces that older poet head on.

In this step, the newer poet creates a poem that resembles something like the older poet’s work. In a strong poet, this new poem will make the older poet look unoriginal. This is the truest test of a poet’s strength.

Dead Space immediately struck me as the perfect example for this step. I’ve never played Dead Space myself, so this is written with an indirect experience of the game. For the sake of journalistic integrity or something like that, I should probably choose a game I’ve actually played, but the fit is so perfect that it’s hard to resist.

On the surface, Dead Space might resemble Resident Evil 4. It’s a third person shooter posing as survival horror. However, where Resident Evil 4 was more an action game, Dead Space remains loyal to the notions of survival horror.

Resident Evil 4 comes from a line of games where enemies are intimidating. In classic Resident Evils, handling enemies is a rough task due to a fixed camera paired with “tank controls.” Simply put, the camera’s position is completely divorced from your method of controlling the character.

In Resident Evil 4, on the other hand, the camera is tied directly to how you control Leon. As a result, the game is much easier, and comes off more as action-oriented than your standard survival horror. With the shift in camera, there’s less focus on strategy.

Dead Space takes this focus on action and turns it into a strategic element of survival horror. Killing a necromorph is notoriously difficult and meticulous, and as a result, enemies become frightening again. RE4’s controls simplify zombie combat, and Dead Space picks up the slack by making zombies themselves more hardy.

In this sense, despite being the older game, RE4 comes off as an imitation Dead Space. Dead Space creates an action-centric game that’s thoroughly survival horror. RE4 attempts the same thing and fails to keep survival horror in sight.

And with that, I’ve hit all six steps in The Anxiety of Influence. I’m not sure anyone gained any insight on anything here, but we made it to the end, all the same. I still think literary theory has a place in video game criticism, but the approach I’ve taken here is misguided.

Have any games excluded features or gameplay elements out of fear of seeming too similar to another game?