Agency and the Inevitable: Don’t Look Back

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.

MAJOR SPOILERS for Don’t Look Back follow–if you haven’t played it before, I recommend you do so before reading this post.


Terry Cavanagh’s Don’t Look Back is a retelling of the classic Greek tragedy of Orpheus.  In the original story, a gifted musician  charms his way through the underworld to bring back his lost love.  Through his beautiful singing and playing, Orpheus manages to convince the lord of the dead himself to allow his beloved Eurydice to return with him to the world of the living–but, as always, there’s a catch.  If Orpheus sees even a glimpse of his beloved’s face before they have both come out into the sunlight, she will be banished back to the underworld forevermore. Of course, this being a tragedy, Orpheus looks back at the last minute by mistake, catching only one last look of Eurydice’s face before she is dragged back to the world of the dead forever.

Many artists throughout the centuries have re-adapted the Orpheus myth into various different media, but translating the story into a videogame–particularly an action-platformer–presents a unique set of challenges.  The most noticeable change is Cavanagh’s choice to turn the protagonist’s skills into shooting and jumping rather than singing and playing.  Instead of charming and beguiling the obstacles in his path, this hero kills or jumps over them.  This is such a common design choice that it may seem insignificant, but for Cavanagh–whose other games include a platformer with no gravity (VVVVVV), a co-op game where the players never interact directly (At a Distance), and an MMO where the instructions consist entirely of “Be a cat” (ChatChat)–the conservatism of Don’t Look Back‘s gameplay is actually somewhat unusual.

Other changes to the story are consistent with the action-platformer genre and its various tropes: the lone wolf hero defeating legendary monsters and overcoming hellish obstacle courses in order to rescue his true love, the “damsel in distress.”  The player’s victory is virtually guaranteed because every time they are killed, the game simply re-starts them at the beginning of the screen to try again.  The player has an infinite number of lives, to ensure that by the time they defeat Hades and find Eurydice the only “canon” narrative is that of the unstoppable hero overcoming every obstacle.  At that point, the player must bring their love back to the surface.  True to the game’s name, if they turn around even once during the ascent she will vanish with a gasp–but each time they do they simply start over again from the beginning of the screen, lover (and player) restored.  How, then, can the tragedy of the original be preserved?  In a game where every aspect of the mechanics is designed to make the player feel powerful and in control–if its structure is such that the player can never really lose–then what “mistake” could possibly lead to a tragic ending?

The obvious answer is to mirror the original story, and have the protagonist look back at his love by mistake in a cutscene over which the player has no control.  This is the usual choice for big-budget titles looking to inject emotional depth into their narratives–but the problem is that it introduces dissonance between the story of the game (the part the player controls) and the story of the cutscene (where the developer is in control of the narrative).  To have the protagonist’s tragic mistake committed by a character the player normally controls, in a scene in which that control is taken away, feels forced and disingenuous.  Cavanagh’s answer is much more subtle and appropriate, as it leaves the player in control through the entire experience.  As the player triumphantly returns to the surface world and makes their way back to the opening screen of the game (pictured at the top of this essay), they finally come across themselves–unmoved from their lover’s grave, still mourning, since the very beginning.  A few seconds pass before both Eurydice and the player’s avatar vanish with a puff of smoke, revealing the entire quest to have been nothing but a desperate fantasy.

In the end, Cavanagh’s use of the action-platformer genre serves as a critique of that very genre’s expressive limitations, and by extension the limitations videogames in general face.  It seems to ask us: in a world where the hero’s losses are always temporary–a world, inevitably, of fantasy–is it possible to tell a story with any emotional depth?  The hero’s “mistake” in Don’t Look Back–the fated decision that sets in action the events which inexorably lead to the tragic ending–is not anything the player does while playing.  Rather, it is the very decision to play!  It is the hero’s–and, by extension, the player’s–desire to live out an unrealistic fantasy that leads to the ending’s harsh reminder that such stories can only ever be fantasy.

We’ll see this theme repeated several times with other games in this series–since the decision to play is one of very few the developer can take for granted, it’s common to make it into the player’s tragic mistake.  Don’t Look Back argues that a game based on a power fantasy can never be truly tragic, except as a reminder that it is only a fantasy–but is this true?  Can a game in which the hero never loses tell a tragic story, without also having to be ironic?

Up next: Bastion

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