This post is the first in a series examining the relationship between videogames and the tragic form–today’s topic is Terry Cavanagh’s excellent action-platformer Don’t Look Back.
This post is the introduction to a series examining the relationship between videogames and the tragic form.
The tragic genre, along with comedy, is one of the oldest in Western literature. Classically speaking, a tragedy is more than just a sad ending–it’s a particular kind of story meant to inspire particular kinds of emotions in the audience. A story where the protagonist is miserable from start to finish, with no pretensions to changing their fate, isn’t really a tragedy–it’s just depressing. Similarly, a story that ends in tragedy due to circumstances beyond the protagonist’s control isn’t really tragic, either–that’s just a disaster. True tragedy, as argued most famously by Aristotle, requires that the protagonist bring the ending upon themselves through some crucial mistake or flaw. The tragic ending is a direct result of the protagonist’s own actions, which the audience can only sit helplessly and watch–yet this introduces a big problem for the medium of videogames, in which the audience is the protagonist. The mistake or flaw derives its power from the excruciating if only it leaves in the mind of the audience. If only Hamlet had killed Claudius when he had the chance! If only Oedipus had known his true lineage! If only Eve hadn’t listened to that stupid snake! Yet when the audience is the protagonist, what’s to stop them from avoiding the mistake altogether? How can we reconcile a genre that pre-destines the hero’s downfall with a medium in which the audience influences their every decision? How can we successfully weave together the agency of games with the inevitability of tragedy?
In the following posts, I’ll be taking a look at some games that attempt to do this, analyzing and discussing the various techniques they employ. Over the course of this series, I hope to show that videogames are no more or less suited to the tragic form than any other medium–they simply require different strategies than most narratives employ.
- Part one: Don’t Look Back
- Part two: Bastion
It seems I don’t have anything interesting to say this week. So here’s a list of writers who do!
- Mattie Brice writes about videogames a lot. Unlike most videogame journalists, however, her writing style is neither obsessively technical nor academically detached–she approaches all her writing with a fierce individualism and a strong commitment to broader perspective that is sorely lacking in videogames. You won’t find stat breakdowns or frame rate counts in her reviews, and you won’t find excessive academic jargon in her critiques; instead, you’ll find thoughtful and articulate musings, analyses, and manifestos on how games relate to our wider culture, and how we can relate back.
- Chris Bateman writes about videogames a lot too, but he also maintains an interest in a broad range of topics, especially the intersection between science and philosophy. Though his tone is much more academic than Brice’s, he writes with a clarity and open-mindedness that is refreshing in academic works and in philosophical writing particularly. I have yet to read a piece of his writing without at some point going “huh, that’s an interesting thought”–and unlike most philosophers, those thoughts frequently have actual applications!
- Finally, Paul Graham is one of the most intelligent, readable, and influential people writing about computers today. Though the subject matter of most of his essays focuses on his interests (computer programming and technology startups, mainly) nearly all of them can be read with no prior knowledge of the subject, and in every case he tries to tie the topic in to some broader theme of interest (e.g. effective communication, or the nature of beauty). Though I don’t agree with everything he says (and since some of his older essays were written years ago, he probably doesn’t either), and he occasionally suffers from the naive short-sightedness endemic to all people of privilege, he invariably has something interesting to say and he almost always says it well. If Brice is the heart and Bateman is the eyes, then Paul Graham is the head.
How about you? Who are your favorite internet writers?
To the Moon is a very sweet and often sad story about two doctors—Neil Watts and Eva Rosalene—trying to grant the final wish of a dying man named Johnny. The game’s central plot device is a machine that allows Watts and Rosalene to traverse and modify Johnny’s memories, in an attempt to piece together his past and use that information to grant his last wish: a trip to the moon. Johnny himself doesn’t know why he wants to go to the moon, which makes finding out the game’s ultimate goal. As you make your way through his memories, a number of other mysterious objects and places show up again and again, prompting you to discover how all these elements fit together to form Johnny’s life. All of this information—the context that ties the whole story together—is provided exclusively through dialog and cutscenes. The game contains very few elements that could be called “game-like” at all. So why is it even a game in the first place?
Let’s start with To the Moon’s interactive elements that aren’t essential to the story.
Working at a printing company that helps produce on-demand custom photobooks, I sometimes get an interesting peek into the lives and interests of a pretty broad range of people. In my completely anecdotal, thoroughly non-scientific experience, there are a few common patterns in what people take pictures of–and presumably, the parts of their lives that interest them the most. In approximate order, they are:
- Sex (including weddings and babies)
- Other people (and their pets)
- Variety: new places, experiences and activities
It should probably not be surprising that survival and reproduction are at the top–they are, after all, our most fundamental drives, the ones we share with all living things. What’s a little more interesting is that we seem to value other people and new experiences almost as highly. Social interaction and curiosity are almost as fundamental to our behavior as basic survival.
Perhaps it also shouldn’t surprise me that I immediately start thinking about how this applies to games. Most games seem to place a much heavier emphasis on exploration and problem-solving than on social interaction, while more linear media such as films and (especially) literature tend to place more emphasis on characterization and social interaction. I think it’s no coincidence that the most popular genres in prose fiction are the ones like mystery and romance that derive their interest almost entirely from the characters. Why do so few games do this? The popular answer–that social interactions are too complex to easily model–is clearly bogus. The success of franchises like The Sims and the popularity of the “dating sim” genre in other countries is proof that social interaction in games can still be deeply engaging and successful even when the underlying model is cartoonishly simplified–indeed, perhaps all the more so because of it.
Is it simply because modeling social interaction in a game seems harder? Perhaps…but I think it’s more likely that the problem lies in trying to reconcile simplified social interactions with the epic, highly-structured narratives we continue to insist on stuffing into our games. The Mass Effect franchise is perhaps the defining example of this style of storytelling, and it was clearly successful, but it took massive amounts of people and money to (mostly) pull it off.
Are smaller, independent games just doomed when it comes to combining social interaction and narrative realism? A lot of people seem to think so, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps the solution lies, not in removing the narratives from our games, but in recognizing that the narrative is not the same thing as the story. We often forget this due to the ubiquity of literature and film, but non-linear media such as painting, sculpture, and architecture have been telling stories without narratives for centuries. It may be impossible to fully author the narrative of an interactive work–but that does not necessarily mean that they cannot tell authored stories.
I wonder…what might a non-narrative story look like? How would you tell one?