Gamer's Grammar: Frank Underwood of 'House of Cards' inside 'Monument Valley'

City Paper

In season one of “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian character Frank Underwood plays an online first-person shooter, most likely “Call of Duty.” It’s a striking scene. Alone, on the couch, this southern congressman anonymously plays with who we would assume are teenagers. Who would have thought the Democratic majority whip from South Carolina would spend his downtime blind-firing assault rifles around splintering drywall?

At first, I thought this was a quirky characteristic—an easy way to give Underwood a weirdly relatable depth. As diabolically vile as he can be, he’s still a boy at heart. But it wasn’t until season three that I realized what kind of insightful gamer Frank Underwood is supposed to be.

Let me explain a little: There’s somewhat of a gap between the casual gamer who primarily enjoys blockbuster military shooters and the gamer who actively seeks out experimental and conceptual experiences. It’s the difference between someone who loves the newest Marvel superhero movie and the person who waits for the next comic to come out. There’s nothing right or wrong about either. There’s just a difference. Some people love the medium, not just the message.

In season three of “House of Cards,” Underwood is revealed to be more than a casual gamer. After a long day of work, he lays belly-down on his couch and stares at his iPad and plays “Monument Valley,” the 2014 Apple iPad game of the year by ustwo. It’s a geometric puzzler of striking beauty. You lead a tiny princess through impossibly shifting castles, manipulating architecture and perspective to connect pathway and staircases. Each movement is a small epiphany as minarets pivot to create newly entangled routes.

It’s impossible not to reference M.C. Escher when describing the game’s logic-defying labyrinths. And that’s a good thing. You’ll feel like a child again when you finish the first few levels. Turning a crank makes the sound of a harp. Minimal text drives the silent story as you fill in the blanks to the narrative. You wonder what this princess is doing here. Is she lost? What is she trying to find? There are few answers. It’s rare to experience a game that is not only sensually lovely, but quietly conceptual.

In the scene where Underwood is playing “Monument Valley,” he’s transfixed. Later, he calls a novelist to the Oval Office because of the novelist’s lush review of the game. We learn that Underwood is already a fan of this novelist’s books, but it’s the game review that made him reach out to him and request that he write a biography—something unusual, something that will stand out from other cliché political bios.

There’s something subtle going on here. It wasn’t only the review of the game that made the president of the United States reach out to this novelist. And it wasn’t just the writer’s body of work. It’s the fact that Underwood is a gamer who understands the craft of unconventional storytelling. Underwood chose this novelist because his review proves that he admires nontraditional narratives.

Great art often arranges a carefully curated set of questions rather than a bouquet of answers. It allows the reader or viewer or player to enter the medium and navigate it with his or her own set of values. Few things are spelled out. In this concrete world of Washington elite, Underwood longs for art and play. And he wants a true artist—this novelist—to portray him not as the linear hero, but as the multidimensional man finding his way through a maze of deception. Underwood knows there is real power there. And he uses talented people to shift the public’s perception of him.

The tagline for “Monument Valley” reveals a lot: “An illusory adventure of impossible architecture and forgiveness.” But it’s the last word that adds the most intricate piece to the puzzle. Our princess is searching for forgiveness, and that might be the hardest labyrinth of all. As Underwood slithers further down into his morally dark hole, it might be forgiveness that he’s trying hardest to find. In the partisan valley of monuments and marble tombs, the tortured boy simply wants people to understand him. Maybe the novelist-turned-biographer can provide that insight. I’m hoping—to Underwood’s eventual demise—that he can’t.


Justin Sirois is the author of “So Say the Waiters,” “Falcons on the Floor,” and “The Last Book of Baghdad” (forthcoming). He lives in Baltimore and loves games.

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