In my most recent article I talked about heroism in video games and how few protagonists are forced into an undignified position (“Forced Failure and the Undignified Hero.” PopMatters. Jul 23 2012.). Arguing games as a literary media runs into a wall with the word “game.” A few years ago, Roger Ebert wrote an article arguing that “Video Games Can Never be Art” (Roger Ebert.com. Apr 16 2010.) Ebert is better off speaking for himself so I won’t try to do it for him, but one of his key arguments—and I’m paraphrasing—was that a “game” has a set of rules, a clear goal and an apparent means of achieving it. Shadow of the Collossus and Half-Life 2 are brilliant, but they can be reduced to pressing the right buttons at the right time. Progress means climbing to a weak point and striking it or shooting past an entrenched position. In more traditional art forms, character motivation is usually established quickly but it’s subject to changes, it isn’t always clear how a character will accomplish their goals: sometimes heroes fail.
If a hero in a video game successfully strikes the enemy weak point than they are incrementally closer to solving the plot. If the hero fails to strike the enemy weak point, they are killed and the story will return to an earlier point until the player gets it right. This leads to a constant string of successes, which makes characters harder to relate to and their challenges seem less threatening. This isn’t something that other literary media has to deal with.
Alternatively, characters Dorthea and Tertius from Middlemarch have goals, motivations, ideals and plans. But their stories aren’t subject to alteration. Middlemarch has been written and published. It’s open to interpretation—that’s the point of reading it—but nowhere does any reader have to flip back a few pages because a protagonist did something they weren’t supposed to. Dorthea and Tertius are constantly frustrated by the world around them. They make mistakes that cost them everything and the reader has to follow them while they negotiate around their failures. They have to compromise and push forward with decisions they can’t take back.
Video games seldom work that way. Games are primarily centred on empowerment and achievement, an unwinnable fight or a problem with no solution is toxic to players. What’s unfortunate is that having a little control stripped from the player leads to some incredible stories. What made Mass Effect 3 so powerful was the tone of overwhelming hopelessness. After working so hard to accomplish so many impossible things, the game would throw them back in Sheperd’s face and remind her that she’s totally powerless. A part of what made the ending so frustrating was that it cheapened the danger of the Reapers to know that they came with an off switch. It was a cop-out that weakened all the decisions the player made up to that point. Especially the decisions that forced the player to carry a failure with them.
There are brilliant moments where a character has to live up to choosing the wrong path, but it’s rare. A lot of contemporary games, especially RPGs, boast the emphasis put on choice. The game forces a hard choice on players, where they have to decide who to sacrifice to progress. But they always progress, the hero is always closer to their goal. Players don’t play out a doomed marriage or struggle hopelessly to maintain a toppling empire. Games all about winning and heroes are all about heroism. It’s disappointing.
This is not to say that the player should never be allowed to succeed, but when success is inevitable it tarnishes the whole experience. There’s a courage in carrying regret and letting people down. Everybody knows what it’s like to fail and to suffer for it. Heroism is not continued reward for every action—that’s infancy—heroism is persevering after messing up. It’d be nice for more developers to demand it of us.
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Further reading: Smith, Quintin. “Video Games’ Obsession with Winning is Killing Them.” Kotaku. Jun 25 2013.
Juul, Jesper. “Video games make us all losers!” Salon. Jul 13 2013.
Bycer, Josh. “Making Failure Fun.” Gamasutra. Jul 11 2012.