Category Archives: Art

Agency and the Inevitable: Introduction

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.

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Review: To the Moon

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.

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The Stories People Tell

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)
  • Food
  • 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?

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Dissolving Anna Karenina’s Paradox

Philosophers of art have a long-standing problem known as “the Paradox of Fiction“, also known as “Anna Karenina’s Paradox”.[1] The problem is generally presented thus (this is not a direct quote):

When we watch scary or touching (or exciting or funny) movies, we claim to be actually feeling the emotions the medium is meant to inspire. When Anna Karenina dies, we say we feel sad, in the same way we would feel sad if a friend told us their mother had died. If we later found out the friend had been lying, however, we would become angry instead of sad: this implies that we must believe in the truth of a situation in order to feel genuine emotion. Yet we know that Anna Karenina does not exist–her tragedy is a falsehood, but we still say it makes us feel sad. This presents a contradiction: either we are lying when we say we feel sad, or the kind of sadness we feel when we hear of the death of someone we know is a qualitatively different emotion than the one we feel when we witness the death of a beloved character. This seems to be supported by the fact that we do not engage in behaviors that would normally be associated with emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness when engaging with fiction: we do not run screaming from the movie theatre in terror when we see the monster approach the screen; we do not call the police when a character in a book is murdered; and we do not climb on stage to seek revenge if a character we like has been wronged in some play.

In short, the problem is that the emotions we feel when we engage with fiction seem to be different than the emotions we profess to be feeling.[2] Normally I would work up to my refutation gradually, but this is–I’m sorry–an incredibly stupid “problem”. The so-called “paradox” of fiction can be completely dissolved with just a few simple counterexamples. Continue reading

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