Cutscenes is a column exploring—and blurring—the intersection of cinema and video games.
The game is rigged; you cannot lose if you don't play.
—Marla Daniels, The Wire
When I was eleven or twelve, my friend and I used to go to our local LAN center, a café with a room full of network-connected computers where, for a small fee, you could play the latest video games online or against other opponents in the same space. We would log onto Counter-Strike (2000)—a competitive shooter game in which two opposing teams face off in order to commit, or prevent, an act of terror—and, without invitation, join the server that the groups of older teens in the room were playing on. We used our characters’ bodies to obstruct the other players on our own team, blocking the various single-entry ladders, pathways, and corridors on the map, frustrating their progression in a game that, like us, they had paid good money to play. Initially, they would accuse each other, before quickly realizing someone else in the room was to blame, cussing angrily and demanding the culprits make themselves known. We would then drop off the server undetected, sniggering in the corner about how clever we had been.
What we were doing would probably most accurately be described as “trolling,” the act of antagonizing someone in a virtual arena, but the collective Total Refusal might have interpreted our act differently. The group describe themselves as a “pseudo-marxist media guerilla focused on the artistic intervention and appropriation of mainstream video games,” and currently consists of members Susanna Flock, Adrian Haim, Jona Kleinlein, Robin Klengel, Leonhard Müllner, and Michael Stumpf. In their work, which spans moving image, installation, and performance, they inventively subvert video-game spaces to political ends, slyly reorienting the function of game worlds beyond their creators’ original intentions. Importantly, as they explained in a video interview, they do not “modify” or “manipulate the code” of the games they work with, but instead just “log in like every other player” and “ignore the intended gameplay.” As preteens, my friend and I didn’t have the language to think of our ladder-blocking, game-breaking antics as anything subversive or performative, but maybe Total Refusal would argue that this is exactly what it was.
“We are breaking the rules of the game in order to find new use for the game's resources,” Total Refusal state in that same video. Their film How to Disappear (2020) is emblematic of this objective. In it, the collective celebrates a history of real-world military desertion by exploring the in-game possibilities of deserting the combat zone of Battlefield V (2018), a multiplayer military game set during the First World War. Using screen-capture technologies, they set up scenes within the game’s online battles and record gestures performed through their character-avatars; then, they edit these clips into visually sophisticated video essays, complete with music and narration. In one scene, filmed in a static medium shot as if to replicate documentary-style reality, they stage a firing squad lineup with three soldiers unloading endless rounds into a fourth ally who bleeds but never dies, showing how the game’s “friendly fire” rules make the execution of your own soldiers—a common real-world punishment for desertion—an in-game impossibility. In another, more surreal scene, three soldiers stand in a pop-band-style triangle formation, then spin around and fire their weapons in all directions—an attempt to deliver something other than endless death, the game’s focus. While they orchestrate these synchronized movements, the fourth soldier circles around them, acting as the camera-operator and capturing this absurdist dance sequence from an in-game, first-person POV.
Experimenting within the confines of the game’s “voluntary” battles while outlining the role of dissent and desertion in various real-world conflicts, Total Refusal’s ultimate finding is that, unsurprisingly, there is no way to put down your arms, nor is it possible to walk away from the field of combat. According to the narrator, the in-game horizons are “as impossible to reach as the end to Battlefield’s perpetual war.” In lieu of the possibility of actual desertion, only two conscientious possibilities exist: obstruction, an act of pacifism that the game’s other players generally interpret as a joke rather than a political act; and hiding in plain sight, a more effective, if temporary, form of dissent achieved by laying low in non-combative areas of the game’s natural environments. The film’s final image, a wide shot in a field, shows the four soldiers again standing in a triangle. Each then drops a smoke grenade at their feet, filling the screen in a cloudy miasma. When the fumes dissipate, the soldiers are nowhere to be seen. It is on this ambivalent note that How to Disappear ends, making it a dryly confrontational essay film reminiscent of Harun Farocki’s direct and critical form of address. “There is no way to leave the battlefield in Battlefield,” the narrator concludes, “but there is a way to disappear.”
This sort of in-game political performance, referred to as “transgressive play” by artist and academic Joseph DeLappe, is not new, nor is the analysis of the connections between the treatment of warfare in video games and real war. Spacewar! (1962), generally considered the first video game, was created by MIT graduate students receiving their funding from the Pentagon. More recently, the US military have been using games for digital recruitment since the start of the millennium, most overtly with their own military-simulator-slash-recruitment-tool America’s Army (2003-), nicknamed How We Fight after the World War II-era propaganda films Why We Fight (1942-45). Besides the aforementioned Farocki, who explored early applications of virtual reality and gaming technologies within US military recruitment, training, and treatment of PTSD with his series Serious Games I–IV (2009–10) and then continued to work with game worlds in Parallel I-IV (2012-14), one obvious video-art forebear for How to Disappear is Eva and Franco Mattes’ Freedom (2010), in which the artist duo enter online shooter game spaces and plead over the text-chat for their bemused opponents to spare them.“Don’t shoot,” they write, “this is an art project.” As might be expected, wo0Ty Boy, the first opponent they face, replies with an expletive and then caps them in the head. The situation is repeated with similar results, but it’s difficult to fault the players for playing the game as its creators intended. “Okay dude,” another player says over voice-chat, “if you’re an artist then don’t play in Counter Strike, go play with paint.”
What is different about Total Refusal is the nature of their proximity to the game-objects they analyze. They could be fairly accused of taking their subject matter too seriously, but this is the essence of their practice: to offer the sort of serious analysis of mainstream video games that, beyond journalistic outlets like Waypoint, Rock Paper Shotgun, or Edge, is rare within the context of mass-market games-based entertainment. The mainstream cultural debate often asks repetitive, reductive questions about whether or not violent video games encourage real-world violence, and Total Refusal’s analysis is not just more sophisticated, but also better informed. They have an intimate insider’s knowledge not only of the games themselves, but also of the culture and industry within which these works are circulated. As players themselves, they are implicated by their own criticisms, which their work foregrounds through their nerdy, self-aware gamer presence. Unlike the Mattes, they are not chastising the players—nor even really the makers—of the software they work with, only asking that both think more consciously about how games both reflect and impact a real world that is increasingly indivisible from virtual space.
One way to achieve this is to simply look at a game more closely and take the time to notice what is occurring in the background. The concept of Operation Jane Walk (2018)—one of the collective’s earliest works and still their best known—is simple. The film documents a longer performance situated in Tom Clancy’s The Division (2016), a online multiplayer shooter set, oddly, in a world ravaged by a viral pandemic, in which a tour guide walks members of the public through one of the game’s levels “with peaceful intentions,” educating them about the various representations of New York City’s real-world architecture that are recreated in the game.
In some ways, the sixteen-minute film version acts like a sort of “highlights reel” version of the real-time, in-game tour format that Total Refusal have developed over the years. In these lecture-style performances, the collective spend roughly an hour walking an audience through a game space, allowing spectators—who either participate by joining the game’s server, or simply watch the livestream—to react to what they see in real time.In the filmic condensation, the tour focuses on the conflicting approaches of the city’s infamous urban planner Robert Moses, who faces criticism for his role in the conversion of New York into a “city of cars,” and Jane Jacobs, activist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, thanks to whom, the guide argues, “the era of unquestioned car-based city planning ended.” Stopping at focal points like the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive, Trump Tower, and the United Nations headquarters—described sardonically as a place “where the vision of world peace finds its final form”—the tour’s narrator explores how the rise of neoliberalism in the US is reflected through this mid-twentieth-century architecture.
Rather than breaking anything, Total Refusal here does what John Sharp, writing about internet artists JODI, refers to as “disrupt[ing] the use value of the game”: they look for alternate extant possibilities than those that its creators prescribe. Participants on this tour undertake a flâneur-like reclamation of the city; they steer what Total Refusal refer to as a “host body” through the streets. If the subversive pacifism attempted in How to Disappear is found to be, in the narrator’s words, “limited by the options available to the player,” in Operation Jane Walk it is mostly successful. Barring a few stray bullets that tour-goers are invited to “just ignore,” the tour is more or less as satisfying as any real-world one would be—and also more accessible for players with reduced mobility, or who cannot afford to travel to see the real New York. “Instead of using cameras, we use our scopes,” the film’s narrator says early on; in-game photography modes are now built into almost all mainstream games, enabling players to ignore their primary objectives and capture environmental snapshots instead. While the subversion of game spaces has long been possible via hacking or other forms of unofficial modification, the official incorporation of creative or exploratory modes seems like a clear acknowledgment from game developers that the desires of players do not necessarily always match the games’ intended designs. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018), an action exploration game set in ancient Greece, even introduced a mode in which players can be taken on an educational historical tour guided by characters from the game.
Although explorations of architecture and games are widespread—as shown by “Serious Games,” a recent exhibition dedicated to the subject (in which Total Refusal took part), and the fact that the Bartlett School of Architecture has an entire program dedicated to the study of “video game urbanism”—the execution of Operation Jane Walk is unique. Total Refusal have stated that absurdist humor “is the lubricant in [their] machinery,” and Operation Jane Walk is a good showcase for this, making something that could be dry feel fresh and lively by voicing incisive, rigorous analysis in a jovial, wry tone. At one point, the narrator describes a vehicle pile-up that the tour group stumbles upon as an “installation of modern sculpture” through which “the old ideas of individualized, motorized, gas-guzzling transport collides with the practical world of bicycles,” and then absurdly suggests that the game developers crafted this car-crash as a tribute to New York traffic administrator Janette Sadik-Khan, who advocated for the conversion of the city’s roads into bike lanes. At the end of the tour, the narrator also offers a more sincere “thanks to the people who built this digital scenery,” a reminder that game designers are not just architects, but, when representing real spaces in their designs, also archivists too.
While Operation Jane Walk may be Total Refusal’s most intelligent, and funniest, film, it is in Hardly Working (2022) that the Marxist element of their practice comes most clearly into focus. Made within Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018), a western-themed action-adventure game set within a large and vivid open world, Hardly Working (2022) combines many of the elements present in the collective’s work to date into a compelling and cohesive package. An essay film made in the same Farockian vein of How to Disappear, the film offers a class analysis of the game’s background characters through close observation of their digital motions. “No action was taken to interfere with the game world or the characters within it,” the narrator insists at the beginning of the film. “We simply observed their daily routines, protocolling their lives over many days.”
Utilizing an almost sociological approach, the film proceeds with its stylized in-game ethnography, watching over various characters—including a street sweep, a carpenter, a stablehand, a washerwoman, and several sex workers—as they repeat the exact same set of movements and actions each day. The collective finds them locked into a Groundhog Day-style, “infinite loop” of useless workaday drudgery. Described as “extras” who “bring a bit of bustle into a lifeless world and thus simulate normality,” these characters—as elaborate as their animations may be—were never designed to be so closely scrutinized, and as such, their repetitions take on an eerie quality when magnified by Total Refusal’s inventive, distinctly cinematic array of in-game close-ups, zooms, and top-down perspectives. In one scene, staged as a series of fixed close-ups shot during an in-game afternoon golden-hour, the stablehand carries bales of straw “from the storage yard to the paddock.” Through repeated observations, Total Refusal note that come the next in-game day, all this straw will magically disappear. A top-down shot shows the fruits of his labor, the stacked bales, emphasizing the total pointlessness of it all. The sweeper always sweeps the same patches of the same path, never to any perceivable effect, and the carpenter “always drives two nails into the same spot,” never visibly altering anything on the dock that he works every day. “There is no option for the grind to stop,” the narrator says flatly, maintaining the film’s tone of pointed irony. “There will never be enough nails in the wood.”
The film brings to mind Studs Terkel’s non-fiction book Working (1974), a study of the “daily humiliations” of labor told through interviews with various ordinary workers about their day-to-day life and routines, but the characters in Hardly Working aren’t even able to speak. Though the collective’s subjects are only in-game workers, in an interview with Matteo Bittanti, academic and curator of game-based-art, Total Refusal bridged the gap between the game world and the real world themselves. With neoliberalism forcing “more and more people into humiliating labor [...] we have all become zombies,” they said, “toiling away according to the neoliberal algorithm—quite similar to NPCs [non playable characters] working in loops of endless pre-coded routines.” The principal irony of Hardly Working is that the actual game environment—the very site of Total Refusal’s critique—was likely produced under poor labor conditions. In a game as enormous as Red Dead Redemption 2, each character’s animations are the result of intense, grueling work by the game’s developers, skilled artists who are often subjected to particularly intense forms of workplace exploitation. Around the time of Red Dead Redemption 2’s release, its developer and publisher, Rockstar Games, came under particular scrutiny for their culture of “crunch,” or compulsory “grueling overwork and mandatory overtime.” Though this layer is not explicitly commented on in the film, Rockstar’s developers receive a thanks in the credits, an admission from Total Refusal of the multiple layers of labor present in their game environment of choice. The irony here is that as limited as the parameters of play that is possible in these sorts of mainstream games may be, they also provide the most elaborate environments in which films can be made. Little about Red Dead Redemption 2’s politics are progressive, and yet the expansiveness of the game’s open world makes it a ripe, malleable space for political critique. Because of this, Total Refusal’s thanks to the designers seems at once sardonic and sincere: they respect the developers’ talents and appreciate the game’s craft, but also believe that mainstream games can offer players something greater than what they currently provide.
Despite all this bleakness, Total Refusal finds eventual inspiration in the form of a glitch. The stablehand, having worked hard all day and then drunk through to the evening’s end, finds himself frozen: his motion becomes locked as he stands still in a field at night during his regular walk home. For Total Refusal, this stuck stablehand becomes an icon of “collective idleness”: an idea with parallels in growing popular movements like “antiwork” or “lie flat,” wherein (mostly white-collar) workers around the world reject the oppressive competition of contemporary capitalism and resist by quitting, or by doing as little work as possible while still getting paid. “In capitalism, the laborer’s work belongs to the person who bought it,” the narrator explains. “To the employer, idle laborers aren’t just lazy, they are stealing time.” In the introduction to Working, Terkel writes that “to survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.” Hardly Working advocates for something stronger than survival: all-out refusal. Total Refusal see a radical sentiment in what might otherwise be seen as a simple bug—a section of code that deviated from its prescribed pattern, breaking the game in the same way that their art attempts to do—and ask whether real workers should “start glitching” too.
Interpreting a glitch as an symbol of a revolution may seem a little portentous, a move away from the lack of self-seriousness that has enabled the collective’s high-minded, academically-oriented projects to resonate with audiences in art galleries and film festivals (most recently at the Viennale and at Locarno, where Hardly Working won a directing prize). And yet, it is the sort of speculative stretch that has been central to the aims of their “pseudo-marxist” project from the start. In her book Critical Play (2009), the writer and games designer Mary Flanagan argued for the need for “games that take on, and challenge, the accepted norms embedded in the gaming industry.” Total Refusal, however, take the opposite approach. Rather than calling for the creation of more creative or critical games, they transform the games that already exist into playgrounds for ideological critique.