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June 11, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»story

Me Me Me: Interactive Entertainment and Narcissism

So there's the story behind an acclaimed niche game, taken from Mobygames:

In an ancient time long past, a young man travels to the ends of the Earth, a place that is said to be forbidden to enter. He carries a young woman, who died from a terrible curse. He seeks the Dormin, a strange and God-like being that resides there. The Dormin is surprised that the man carries an ancient and magical sword, and speaks to the man. The man pleas for his help in bringing back the woman's cursed soul, however the being says it is the law of mortals that a dead soul cannot be brought back. He does say though, that if the man is willing to accept some heavy consequences, that there might be a way to revive her. But it will not be easy.

Our hero must embark on a quest to slay 16 colossus, giant creatures that tower hundreds of feet above the Earth. Using his ancient sword and his horse Argo, he must travel across the immense landscape seeking the colossi to save his love. Taking the form of various animals and other bipedal creatures, these colossi are tough and fierce. Their skin is tougher than leather, and the armor they wear is literally rock. However, by using his ancient sword, the man can penetrate the weak spot on them and destroy the towering beings and free his love's soul.

And then there's the plot summary for an acclaimed niche movie, taken from IMDB:

A dealer in outsider art threatens the equilibrium of her middle-class in-laws in North Carolina. Madeline is a go-getting art gallery owner from Chicago, recently married to George, a near-perfect Southern beau. When Madeline needs to close a deal with a reclusive North Carolina artist, George introduces her to his family: prickly mother Peg, taciturn father Eugene, cranky brother Johnny, and Johnny's pregnant, childlike wife Ashley, who is awe-struck by her glamorous sister-in-law. Madeline's presence exposes the fragile family dynamics as hidden resentments and anxieties surface.

No, that's not entirely fair--but I'm not trying to be fair. After all, I could nominate any number of movies to take the place of that latter description. They might not have the exact same theme as Junebug, but films with shaded or outright unlikeable characters, open storylines, and no clear sense of resolution are a dime a dozen. Whereas you'd be hard-pressed to find a game that doesn't put the player into the position of being a Hero in the classical sense, complete with journey and bold nemesis to be defeated. You almost certainly can't find an interactive narrative that centers around Southern family dynamics.

This isn't about the violence, per se. It's about the kinds of stories that these media can tell. See, I'm just not sure that you actually could make a game that doesn't put the player into the position of an active, heroic force. Interactivity grants agency, and agency for most people means trying to make "better" choices. Even assuming that someone could make an interactive version of Sherrybaby, for example, who'd want to play it? Would it honestly have the same impact?

The form of the medium shapes the stories that it can tell, and I wonder if we are reaching the limits of that for interactive entertainment. Maybe that's a good thing--that it is ultimately a hopeful medium. But it is also a narcissistic one. By necessity, it casts its audience as someone who can Make A Difference, and sets aside any of the smaller stories about people who can't. That might even encourage a false hope--we don't all grow up to be President, you know.

Netjak put up an editorial that scooped me on this a little, but I think they're ultimately addressing a more limited problem. Healey is asking for more than just "save the world" plots--I'm hoping for a plot that doesn't save anything at all. What do you think? Is this an inherent lack of depth in interactive entertainment? Is hopelessness part of the button-pressing palette?

Answers that we are better off without the angst in the first place will not be accepted. A little angst is good for you. It builds character.

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Apparently this is now a Round Table post. Who knew?

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