Incompleteness on Video Game Horizons

Curator's Note

On both a material and narrative scale, video games are incomplete media. Punctured with open and unoccupied peripheral ports, disassembled into the connector, controller, console, and producing symphonies of snaps, clicks, and clunks that disrupt the circular hums of spindle whir and fan whine–the material “stuff” of video games bear tangible evidence of the many discrete divisions that continually blend and break over the duration of play. These fragments and their provisional patchwork assembly accompany an equally significant ontological lack at the heart of video game software and design. As played media, Alexander Galloway explains, video game software and content anticipate (but do not contain) the thumbs, muscles, keystrokes, and RAM, necessary for video games’ operation and experience. Galloway writes, “Without action, games remain only in the pages of an abstract rule book. Without the active participation of players and machines, video games exist only as static computer code” (Galloway 2). Hardware, software, data, etc., are fundamentally incomplete, only becoming a “video game” once paired with the player. Once in action, the seemingly seamless relay of physical grammars (button presses, data moving from disk to RAM, etc.) passing messages between player and machine are ultimately confounded from completion by the paradoxes of player identity and desire. Like the lone wooden ball caught circling the grooved track of Alberto Giacometti’s Circuit in pursuit of a goal ironically seated just outside of the course, endings achieved in a loop of a game rarely signify completion for players. Hours of playtime before or beyond diegetic resolution, for instance, testify to the relatively subjective and imprecise science of what constitutes a “complete” video game.

Video game landscapes, as the space where physical actions between players and machines unfold in various representational forms, share similar traces of “incomplete-ness”--particularly in their depictions of other-than-human species and ecosystems. Ecocritics such as Alenda Chang, Melissa Bianchi, and Lauren Woolbright have charted this incompleteness through the ways that playing with and within video games is to encounter anthropocentric hierarchies of ecology expressed through image, action, and code. Species of animals and plants that would be vital to the health and survival of the captivating landscapes found in video games, for example, instead appear (if at all) as low-resolution and textured backdrops pushed to the margins of visually bombastic events and sight lines. Moreover, human character assets are commonly privileged during loading and deloading, allowing players to walk into flat and lifeless spaces that suddenly spring to life with flora and fauna after a noticeable delay. And while landscape resources often have trouble being here during play, video game landscapes are themselves never quite out there either; rather, landscapes in video games have an ontological dependency upon player proximity, and their representational state as either stored data or navigable space is often relative to player distance.

In spite of the many anthropocentric breaks in what might be identified as the “complete-ness” of video game landscapes, video game landscapes still tend to feel connected and complete for players. Brendan Keogh characterizes this phenomenon as a “consensual hallucination,” which is a phrase he borrows from William Gibson’s Neuromancer to describe how the desire for immersion prompts players to construct the completeness of video game worlds through acts of consciously repressing their many gaps (33). A practice with a long history in the visual and written arts, the desire for felt connection to the places of paintings and books often involves deliberate acts of obscuring picture frame and page turn (34). Yet such desires are, of course, not enough to eliminate the corporeal foundations through which media represents and is experienced. Thus, players navigate doubled worlds linked through their signifying practices.

Horizons in video games, from this vantage point, thus do not implicitly make sense; instead, they might be read as instances where sense is made. The curved screen edges marking the horizon in Atari’s Pong, for example, are sites of transition and transformation in the emotional state of play, shaping players’ connection with each other and the space of the video game. In the dark and unlit text-based caverns of Zork, the horizon is embodied in the form of an adventure-ending monster dubbed the “Grue” that patrols the material limits of the text parser and diegetically nudges players away from the (main)frame. The late 80s and early 90s would see horizons depicted as places and environments serving to spotlight technological achievements and techniques such as parallax scrolling and sprite scaling. Players catching a glimpse of West Side Island (the setting for Sonic the Hedgehog 2) as they blaze through the opening act of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 or witnessing a castle under siege in the first screens of Rocket Knight Adventures’ first stage harness horizons for world building and defining global objectives for play. Into the 00s and 10s, landmark titles such as Shadow of the Colossus, No Man’s Sky, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild deploy horizons to temper player egos with awe-inspiring presentations of scale and life that potentially eclipse even the corporeal limits of player bodies.

Of course, many more varied and fascinating examples of horizons exist from these periods that stand to offer greater nuance for conclusions about their intersections with ecology and play. While such work is beyond the scope of this brief article, we are excited about what rests on the horizon of critical work with the environmental limits of video games.


Works Cited:

Bianchi, Melissa. “Ecoplay: The Rhetorics of Games about Nature.” Mediating Nature: The Role of Technology in Ecological Literacy, edited by Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean Morey, Routledge, 2019, pp. 15–29.

Chang, Alenda. Playing Nature. U of Minnesota P, 2019.

Cheel. “Lazy Walk.” YouTube. Uploaded by Cheel, May 11 2021,

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. U of Minnesota P, 2006.

Giacometti, Alberto. Circuit. 1931, Centre Pompidou, France.

JasperRLZ. “Anor Londo Dark Souls.” noclip;ShareData=AN!:KUQ+Z|T6!d^Ub6)&+!CvE5gfE7Uovgg8*XQ7V3E{;94ST:TF$HCUH:ZCVt

JasperRLZ. “Liberty City Grand Theft Auto III.” noclip;ShareData=ANt=gUozw=UA+;O969u/...{a20WKx,BUqhnr9S5c=Ufl{eV[

JasperRLZ. “Make a Star 9 Katamari Damacy.” noclip;ShareData=AO=eYUsCYk9bN/EUZS$[W;8ANQ&P_2UZ9FGULt3-WD,1O9yG,W8-a9_UZa7~WPA

JasperRLZ. “3-1 Wonky Waterway Donkey Kong Country Returns.” noclip,,-AJh@:TJ/]0Us=GtVEg*XAbk

Keogh, Brendan. A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames. MIT Press, 2018.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Developed by Nintendo EPD. Nintendo. 2017.

No Man’s Sky. Developed by Hello Games. Hello Games. 2016.

Pong. Developed by Allan Alcorn. Atari. 1972.

Rocket Knight Adventures. Developed by Konami. Konami. 1993.

Shadow of the Colossus. Developed by Japan Studio and Team Ico. Sony Computer Entertainment. 2005.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Developed by Sega Technical Institute. Sega. 1992.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Developed by Sega Technical Institute. Sega. 1994.

Woolbright, Lauren and Thaiane Oliveira. “Where the Wild Games Are: Ecologies in Latin American Video Games.” Ecomedia: Key Issues, edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, Sean Cubitt, Routledge, 2015, pp. 196-212. 

Zork. Developed by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Ledbling. Infocom. 1977.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.