Apparently I’ve placed myself in the center of a divisive issue with the publication of my new article, â€œâ€˜You are dead. Continue?â€™: Conflicts and complements in game rules and fiction.â€ [Note: There are some spoilers in here, including for the ending of Shadow of the Colossus.]
The paper might look somewhat familiar to regular readers of Geek Studies, as it weaves together some strands I’ve been playing with here for awhile. I discuss how the trial-and-error approach to death and failure can be a frustrating narrative interruption in games where the characters, story, and emotional involvement are treated as comparably important to the gameplay mechanics. Some games in recent years, however, have offered differentâ€”and sometimes quite emotionally engagingâ€”ways of thinking about death and failure.
So, what’s this divisive issue I speak of? Well, game studies scholars might call it “ludology” versus “narratology” (even if I see it as a bridge between these). Among gamers, though, it seems to boil down to “the way games have traditionally been” versus “the direction (some) games are headed.”
On one side are the “hardcore.” We see this viewpoint represented by a subset of commenters on Kotaku, a gaming blog, where Maggie Green recently linked to the recent issue of Eludamos and remarked upon my article. Several of the commenters on Kotaku seemed receptive to the argument in the paper, and, given some of the games suggested as considerations of how death in games works, I suspect some would’ve been even more receptive if they could actually read it. (I suspect that link drove too much traffic to the journal, as its site has been down ever since.) Some other comments, meanwhile, simply refer to me and my article as “just wrong all over,” “pretentious bullshit,” and “as arrogant as he is ignorant.”
It’s hard not to feel insulted when people go beyond criticizing the work and start criticizing the person behind it, especially when the insults are so off-base. (â€œDoesn’t have a strong background in gamingâ€? â€œArmchair games theoristâ€? I’m tempted to throw down my glove and challenge somebody to duel. Choose your weapon, swords or pistols!) I see these hostile reactions, though, less as a personal attack or even an informed criticism of the paper itself, and more as a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that the focus of gaming is changing at all.
Much of the protest in these comments comes from gamers who clearly feel threatened that anyone would want to change their medium. For these gamers, the whole point of games is to face challenges and prove mastery, and focusing on any other appealâ€”like storytellingâ€”is a sign of femininity and weakness among players, or ungratefulness from the industry. (We see similar vitriol toward Nintendo in recent years for abandoning its “core.”) One commenter, for example, suggests that the problem with death scenes has already been answered in the form of “easy mode,” and that other modes are for “old school gamers and everyone who’s done with Easy Mode, where we screw the story and get hair on our chest.” To these players, the story is for “casuals”â€”those who aren’t real, manly gamers.
Oh well. We’ve already discussed around here how gaming encompasses multiple appeals (as have a number of other writers), but some opinions are set on the issue. Even as some passionate gamers on a blog decry the idea that games should evolve, however, other passionate gamers and developers point furiously at examples of how games have already begun to change, and call for even more.
In a recent issue of the Orlando Sentinel, for instance, film critic Roger Moore strangely extrapolated from the Max Payne movie adaptation that games in general are “emotionally inferior” to film. He then erroneously stated, “Nobody ever shed a tear over a video-game character’s death.” Having just written a paper that I would’ve hoped could put that very statement to rest, I checked out the comments thread of that review, and found I had little to add to what had already been stated. Gamers asked, what about Aeris? What about Shadow of the Colossus? And so on. (Also feel free to check out Kotaku’s comment thread on a post about this review, offering another glimpse at differing opinions about the role of storytelling in gaming.)
Games aren’t inherently emotionally inferior; we just don’t yet have many examples of games that really prioritize story comparably to gameplay. That’s why the same handful of games keeps coming up over and over again in Moore’s comments thread.
This is changing, however, and that’s what “â€˜You are dead. Continue?â€™” is about. Changing approaches to death and failure in games represent just one piece of a larger move to create games that give more attention to narrative. The “hardcore” may call me a n00b, and film critics may think that games have no stories to speak of, but I suspect we’d see some different opinions, say, on Bioware’s forums, where the regulars discuss immersion breakers and actions they can’t bear to make their protagonist commit. Meanwhile, the developers of the upcoming PS3 title Heavy Rain pledge that the game’s story keeps going even after the protagonist dies, and urge players not to restart from checkpoints, instead “bearing with the consequences of their actions”â€”exactly the sort of development predicted in my paper.
These are just a couple examples that didn’t make it to my article before it went online (at press time, as it were). I suspect we’ll see even more over the next several months.
Let’s be clear here: I enjoy wickedly challenging games from time to time as much as the next player. I play my games almost exclusively on “Insanity,” “Legendary,” or “Expert” as soon as I unlock that difficulty level. I don’t mope every time I die in a video game. And, heaven help me, I still enjoy playing NES games like Legendary Wings and Ninja Gaiden.
But some games, like N’gai Croal says, are more about getting from point A to point B, and experiencing that in a way you never could with a movie. My paper isn’t arguing that game developers need to start making these; it’s explaining how this has already started. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing where it’s headed. If it’s any consolation to the hardcore gamers out there, I doubt this will eliminate your favorite genres any more than Citizen Kane prevented Max Payne from hitting the big screen.