…At the center of a low dishonest decade
where selves grow immense, then shrink…
– David Wojahn
Let’s start with a simple question. What is this thing (Figure 1.0)? Well, in the world of Code Vein this little object is called a Blood Vestige. Revenants, undead vampire super soldiers manufactured from citizen’s dead bodies, drop these things off every once and a while. It’s never really explained how, nor does it matter [I like to imagine it’s like passing a kidney stone, but also the size of a watermelon]. What does matter is what’s on the inside – memories. Every time a revenant dies a little bit of his/her/their memory goes away before you get resurrected. Those memories end up in the kidney stone. A literal memento mori; often the memories inside the little blood crystal are of death. Else those memories are of grief or things grieved. The player never opens one of these things and gets a dude sipping tea [ but they do have fragrant tea in Code Vein, and you can gift it to your friends]. Importantly, the player character is the only one who can access vestiges without going into a mindless frenzy. And when you do access them, when you allow the vestige to pierce your skin and mix with your blood, it explodes.
Explodes into what? Well – a memory echo. A large field with crumbling statues and the voices of the lost. These statues give you, and anyone caught in the expansion a front row seat to a shadow play. You walk through the crumbling, abandoned, field of your friends – and your enemies – memories. Glimpsing something that while the player may remember, the characters will certainly forget. The blood vestige unlocks powers in the game; powers sourced from the essential selves stored away within the blood of revenants. Drinking the blood of a revenant in Code Vein is like drinking a persona or a soul [So don’t drink from jerks]. They become a part of your character, in a sense, usable and movable. While I could investigate that sense of essential self and its representations in Japanese culture; I’m much more interested in the gamic object of the vestige. What is it – and what lived experience is it mediating?
What comes mind most immediately, is a little Panasonic XBS portable CD player I stole from my mother’s attic at 16. There’s no blood in this tale, just moth laden drapes and some cobwebs with spider carcasses – the kind of thing you expect to find in a Virginia attic. It was something like 90 degrees, mid-day. I spent an hour clawing the splinters from between my toes after I recovered it. As it turns out, our attic was never finished; the floorboards were coarse as pinecones and deadly as Lego bricks. My Mom caught me when she needed to scrub the tile in our bathroom. Her reprimand was halfhearted, “Don’t break it, it was a wedding gift”. She plucked another branch out of my sappy heels.
I took to spinning Iron and Wine in that little disc jockey. Learned to love how it skipped when I stumbled and the gentle hiss when the headphones weren’t properly seated. Used it every day until the volume wheel got dislodged. While still usable, it only knows how to play at fortissimo. So the memento sits in my closet, even now when mom is just another angry voice on the telephone. If you asked me what it all meant I couldn’t tell you – sappy pine boards, another cup of steaming something, and “please, remember me” [says the Trapeze Swinger]. But letting it all go is too much, would always be too much.
The far more famous Rainer [and the real poet between the two of us], Rilke purported to have, “just a few [books that were] indispensable to [him], and two even are always among my things, wherever I am” (24). And he said of these tomes [The Bible & Six Stories of J. P. Jacobsen], to love them and “this love will be repaid to you a thousand and a thousand times.” (Rilke 24). Between April 5th and April 23rd of 1903, Rilke received correspondence from the young poet he’d been sharing ideas with – and reports to feel validated that his instruction, “had not erred in guiding [his] life and its many questions” (27). These tomes, or outdated records, or pocket photos, or stuffed animals, or little lake glass – are reminders packaged and sealed so we might carry their meaning with us. Portable & potable.
There’s something there. Something like the Code Vein vestige. Vestige arrives from the Latin vestigium, meaning footstep or trace. Perhaps this is a pun of sorts on the localizer’s part, a mix of movement and memory. The Oxford English Dictionary offers us two interesting definitions, especially when taken together. First, “A mark, trace, or visible sign of something esp. a building or other material structure, which no longer exists…” gesturing once again to a sense of space. Second and perhaps more profound:
“A surviving memorial or trace of some condition, quality, practice, etc., serving as an indication of its former existence.”
So not just space, but the indication that a practice was there. The indication that something, now abandoned, was once lived through. I’m not certain what the original Japanese translates to – if anyone does know, it would be deeply helpful [ and comments left are always appreciated]. However, I do think the translation might guide us to a meaningful end. The vestige is between memory, self, place, and practice. All of this distilled down into a little enigmatic object that you can carry with you.
To Carry is to Rhyme, To Carry…
To best understand the vestige – analog or digital – perhaps we can investigate it’s uses. Top of mind is its portability. What does it mean to “carry”? When I trace my fingers over the shape of lake glass what have I evoked? An affective moment perhaps, unreachable, precognitive? Chasing after the lights of a fog bound train in a snowstorm: gone before it arrives? When considering forms of cultural capital in “Parlaying Value” Thomas Malaby argues that digital artifacts are “objects that draw a significant amount of their value from their status as repositories of cultural capital.” (158). The object becomes in a way metonymic for its association with social practices. This definition offers some sense of what the object carried is; and maybe what carrying it means. Take Rilke’s books, works that retain some sort of cultural situation [I’m underselling it in the case of the bible] passed onto another through the act of instruction, competency, or learning. But I think not all memory necessarily finds footing in milieu of greater cultural context. The vestige seems, in some ways, intensely personal and lacking in a cut-and-dry relationship with its use. Or perhaps, it’s situation in daily life has become so essential that it blends in. Maybe the vestige gains meaning through an emblematic relationship with habitus? Another possibility is to trace the analogy of my CD player and look to Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice. Since the portable CD player came from a kinship relationship, does it have more to do with kinship than anything? Bourdieu certainly suggests that the relationship between the object, or symbol, and the self can be emblematic of kinship lineages (36). At one time, maybe this was the case. My mother had given the object to me, the object was related to her relationship with my father. But now, I don’t see her in it. The weight of our fraught relationship doesn’t live there. Instead, I find myself dreaming of the cobblestone streets of Richmond – the places I’ve walked through. Perhaps Bourdieu offers a connection to this practice of the vestige by indicating our ability to learn “with the body” (90). So again, we return to habitus. The vestige carries an echo of the lived through the inert.
Both in the case of Code Vein and the case of the CD player. There seems to be a relationship with temporality present. The loss of the connection to my mother was informed by our progression forward in time. Code Vien‘s game world, though constantly battered with the act of forgetting, retains some sense of chronology within it’s vestiges. Perhaps in the sense of Sally Falk Moore’s work, “Uncertainties in Situations, Indeterminacies in Culture”, the relationship between the object and the person is indeterminant. As Moore reminds us,
“Every explicit attempt to fix social relationships or social symbols is by implication a recognition that they are mutable”(47)
The result is that the relationship to the vestige is wrapped up in other countervailing processes, not unknown but always imprecise. To return to Rilke and poetry, perhaps it is an enacting of the process of the vestige that is this carrying. Perhaps carrying is, as Rilke said, living the question so that “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer” (35).
From Artifact to Space
While the connection to Bordieu’s habitus seems a fruitful site for exploration into the vestiges’ symbolic meaning, it doesn’t seem to explain the explosion of memory. Why have this artifact project it’s meaning out onto the world? Certainly, it serves a purpose for the player: getting to see the memories enacted in order to build the world and characters. But then, why make it diegetic and why a space that can be inhabited by anyone within a certain radius? I’d feel satisfied stopping here if this was just a diorama, but it’s not. It’s a whole environment. Michel De’Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life offers an interesting dissection of Bourdieu, that in a sense captures precisely the theoretical object Code Vein is mediating. De’ Certeau argues that within Bordieu’s habitus are
Practices (expressing the experience) correspond adequately to situations (manifesting the structure) if, and only if, the structure remains stable for the duration of the process of interiorization/exteriorization; if not, practices lag behind, thus resembling the structure at the preceding point, the point at which it was interiorized by the habitus (57).
De’Certeau means to argue that Bordieu isn’t considering the possibility of practices to constantly be changing in relationship to structures – but in this case, evokes exactly why a vestige would bring someone into a memory. Incidentally, Code Vein’s vestiges take the player to the structure that resulted in the practice of the owner. The collection of abandoned architectures, the statues of characters, and the liminality of the space are all indicative of its stagnation. Code Vein doesn’t mediate the changing relationship its characters have to their memories, but rather the practice they retain despite forgetting why it is they are enacting it in the first place. If we can understand the architecture of these sections of the game is symbolic of place, then certainly the created “memory echo” is standing in for a space. Space here meaning “the practice of a particular place” (De’Certeau 117). Perhaps the game sweeping you out of the present and into the past is designed then to demarcate a boundary between the sense of practice within the object and the present moment with its indeterminacies.
Perhaps then it’s no wonder that Code Vein would lead the player through a destroyed city hunting for these vestiges. Marking the map even requires you drip blood onto a structure (figure 2.0). This game mechanic recalls De’ Certeau’s conception of mapping as a “procedure for forgetting” (97). It amounts to remembering a way of being so that you can forget it all over again. And, as with any Souls-like experience, the new-game+ features you doing exactly that. Forgetting all over again. The player takes everything they learned from mapping the world the first time, into mapping the world the second time. All their skills – all their emotions. A second experience with these spaces isn’t quite as magical; they become very obviously sculptural. All of that leads me to believe that the concept of these vestiges is simply mediating our experience with mementos. With the personal artifacts of our own existence. Or at least, the sorts of things we would like to remember by pressing play and listening to one more song.
Bourdeiu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Code Vein. Windows PC Version, Bandai Namco, 2019.
De’Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.
Rilke, Rainer. Letters to a Young Poet. New York, Norton, 1954.
“Vestige.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, March 2020, https://www-oed-com.ezproxy.lib.uwm.edu/view/Entry/222911?redirectedFrom=vestige#eid. Accessed 5 May 2021.
Wojahn, David. World Tree. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.
Moore, Sally. “Uncertainties in Situations, Indeterminacies in Culture”. Symbol and Poetics in Communal Ideology. E-Book, Cornell University Press, 1975. https://doi.org/10.7591/9781501737268-011