Hail to the King: on games telling you how great you are

About a year back I got around to playing Brütal Legend. It’s pretty damn good, overall. As you’d expect of Double Fine, it has a distinctive premise, a vividly imaginative, joyfully over-the-top world, some kick-arse tunes, and more than one joke that’s actually funny. It’s got some problems, though, so obviously that’s what I’m going to talk about. (This is liable to degenerate into an attempt to figure out why certain things really bother me, so take a grain of salt and be prepared for some navel-gazing. Apologies in advance.)

Always the bridesmaid.

Always the bridesmaid.

A major theme of the plot is that protagonist Eddie Riggs is, as a roadie, vital but invisible, a guy whose job is making other people look good, doing most of the work and getting none of the credit. This is framed as the Character Problem at the outset of the game, recurs occasionally over the course of the story, and gets an acceptance reframing in the epilogue – he’s still an overlooked guy whose job is to make other people look good, but he’s cool with it because he’s acknowledged and appreciated by the people in the know. In the RTS battle parts, the Roadies – anti-tower stealth troops – are one of the most strategically vital units, precisely because they’re invisible. Some of the side-quests play on the fact that as a roadie it’s your role to go around doing chores, making beer runs, cleaning up messes.

But on the other hand, Eddie gets tons of recognition throughout the game. After the prelude, everybody knows him by sight. ‘Whoa, it’s Eddie Riggs,’ enthuse random headbangers when you run into them. Throughout, the major figures of the world implicitly acknowledge him as their peer, groundlings as their hero. Eddie drives and directs most of the action and does all the cool frontman-type things (explosive guitar solos, bitchin’ car, soaring on giant demon wings). Eddie can, if he so chooses, carve a giant representation of his own face across a mountainside. It’s traditional for escapist fantasylands to invert the protagonist’s frustrations, to turn ignored kids into monarchs, make the bullied strong, to bring the mighty down from their thrones and exalt the humble. But the thing is that it wants to push the overlooked theme at the same time, within the same Brütal Land in which Eddie is constantly recognised. When, a little before the final battle, Lita observes that Eddie never gets any credit for all his hard work, it rings so false, so out-of-place in an otherwise capably-written work, that I almost thought it must be a piss-take. There’s some serious narrative dissonance going on here.

In another genre, I might be tempted to say that this inconsistency was a significant clue, that perhaps (for example) it’s a sign that the Brütal Land is a fantasy of Eddie’s into which his anxieties keep intruding. But I think that’d be a bit like watching an action movie, seeing the hero escape unscathed in a hail of bullets, and then declaring (a la Pulp Fiction) that we should regard this as demanding an extraordinary explanation. The over-appreciated protagonist, like the bullet-immune action hero, is such a stock device in games that it’s not the kind of thing you can subtly lampshade.

In games generally – particularly CRPGs and their ilk – there’s a tendency to not just make the player-character the most significant person in the world: that significance has to be recognised. In Fallout 3, your exploits are recounted in glowing tones in news broadcasts in between the music playlist. Skyrim takes it a step further and makes the songs themselves folk-music about you. In Mass Effect 2 Shepard can trade on her celebrity status by endorsing stores. Once you’ve got some positive local reputation in Fallout: New Vegas, a member of street gang The Kings occasionally runs up to you with the greeting ‘You’re the one who’s been going around helping people?’ and gives you small gifts in appreciation. In L.A. Noire a high proportion of bystander chatter is along the lines of ‘Hey, there’s that cop who…’ The power fantasy offered by these games is not just about wealth, prowess and accomplishmentit’s about fame, recognition, adulation. You don’t just shape the fate of the world: you must be fêted for it.

This happened all the time in West Side Story.

This happened all the time in West Side Story.

It’s a very specific kind of fame, though.

Power-fantasy is not just about power per se, but about existential power, power over one’s identity. In the real world, your identity is never fully yours; you’re constrained by culture, biology, personal history, ability, reputation, institutional structure. (Not all of this is a bad thing. We wouldn’t want anybody unilaterally declaring themselves a heart surgeon.) It’s uncomfortable not to be recognised for greatness merely because one has failed to do anything to earn it. Games offer a trade-off: be this badass guy, and in return we will not just allow you to do badass stuff: we will never, ever allow the author’s voice to doubt or misconstrue that you are this guy. (Some restrictions apply.)

Partly it’s because the way that fame works is subtle stuff, and games are very rarely allowed to be subtle. I loved Beyond Good & Evil, but its account of media distortion was basically drawn in finger-paints. I was entertained by the way that that one war ballad in Skyrim has faction-specific variants, but it’s a pale, attenuated shadow of how fascinating real ballad variants are. In L.A. Noire you go from celebrated to condemned, but this is a no-brainer progression of your Only Honest Cop In Town identity (even though you’re taking the fall for, y’know, a dishonest thing which you did in fact do). In Mass Effect 2 you’re a hard-nosed pragmatist renegade unafraid to piss people off in order to get shit done, but everyone holds you in the highest respect except for one bargain-basement caricature of a Politician Who Only Cares About Politics. These games have a story to tell, and fame is only ever allowed to act as its chorus: it can’t contradict or confuse the narrative that’s being pushed. (Thus, why Eddie Riggs’ narrative of not being acknowledged keeps getting acknowledged.)

It’s not just that, though. Much of the time, the accolades are delivered by mooks rather than major NPCs: the fantasy is not just about being well-regarded, it’s about being looked up to by the groundlings. Well, and isn’t that an OK thing to want? Isn’t being admirable and exemplary a reasonable human goal? Wouldn’t a person totally uninterested in the good opinion of anybody else be a tiny bit sinister?

Frankly, it skeeves me the fuck out. A good deal of this, I’ll admit, is personal reaction: it seems pretty clear to me that these are moments intended to push through the distinction between player and player-character, bathing the player in the reflected warm fuzzies of the player-character’s popularity. I abhor an insincere compliment or a baseless reassurance with all my being; I have less than zero desire to be told nice things about myself by anybody whose opinion I don’t trust on the matter. The very last thing I’m inclined to trust is a program designed to stroke my ego. You don’t know me, machine, declares something deep within me. You are not actually a person who respects or cares about me, and it is fucking insulting to mimic one. Back the fuck off.

Clearly this is doing something for somebody, or it wouldn’t be so prevalent. There are lots of things in this general space. There are apps and twitterbots dedicated to delivering whatever flavour of reassurance you prefer; they make me grind my teeth, but surely they serve important and legitimate functions for plenty of people. I won’t pretend that I am a being of pristine rationality, immune to all forms of baseless encouragement; socially tricking one’s own brain into a more useful state is a powerful and important tool. I have walked across actual hot coals on that basis. I have become measurably, immediately stronger purely on the basis of people telling me that I am. And yet.

There’s an unspoken contract in place about delivering gratification to the player. When I write about interactive fiction design, I talk a lot about the need to give the player rewards early and often, to not take their active cooperation for granted, to offer incentives. In many mainstream games, no such advice is necessary: the problem is one of excessive focus on constant reinforcement, and of coming up with rewards that aren’t painfully crass. There’s a certain inflation at work here. I’ve heard people complain about how Oblivion, a game in which you can swiftly and reliably rise to the top of every significant institution in the world, fails to sufficiently acknowledge your status once you have done so. How could a game even manage that? How could you write a reaction line for a shopkeeper meeting a guy who’s Genghis Khan, Cecil Rhodes and Benjamin Jowett all at once, without exposing how ridiculous the whole thing is? ‘Thanks for holding together the very fabric of reality on four separate occasions, here’s a 20% discount coupon’?

A tension. Games are so often about wanting acceptance, wanting to belong; but they’re often simultaneously about an insistence on remaining the emotionally impervious lone-wolf outsider. (There’s an inherent asymmetry in single-player games: the player character is an outsider, categorically unlike any NPC.) The Witcher wants us to believe that witchers are a declined order, unfairly reviled and distrusted: but also that Geralt is at the heart of the turning world, trusted and relied upon by everyone from horny peasant girls to monarchs to minor gods, his deeds immortalised by bards; and also that he cares not for politics or worldly fame, and his relationships are either one-night stands or bothersome impositions. The core power fantasy is about unconditional acceptance, of getting it all without having to compromise anything of oneself. That’s… just a tiny bit adolescent.

Ravaged by injury and mutation, Geralt's grotesque body consigns him to an angst-ridden life of awesome fights and doin' hot babes.

Ravaged by injury and mutation, Geralt’s grotesque body consigns him to a lonely, shunned existence.

Art serves our needs.

There’s a spectrum I think in terms of – a crude and problematic one, based on an ad-hoc tradition of usage – between the purposes of art. Porn is art that serves one purpose. It is not coy about what that purpose is; the audience has a need, and the work sets out to gratify that need in the most straightforward, unconflicted way possible. Generally it’s pretty clear about what desire it’s serving. Baby animal videos, photos of expensive home interiors or tasty-looking food, ASMR, giant robot battles. Literature also relies on the audience having desires about its content, but there are multiple desires at play, and they’re brought into conflict. Most simply, you want the hero to succeed, but you’d feel cheated if it was easy. Difficult loves, incommensurate desires.

And there’s a place for both. Sometimes you just want to look at sexy naked people without dealing with all the complicated, conflicted nuance of real human relationships. Sometimes you want catharsis without a ton of caveats. Totally legit. But if that’s all you ever want, or all you’re ever offered, that’s a problem.

The relevant part, here, is that porn is a lot more make-or-break; if you don’t have the relevant need, at best it does nothing for you. At worst… well, it can be taken two ways. You might feel as though you’ve been erroneously treated as though you do have that need, and be pissed off that someone’s made assumptions about you. And you also might feel that you are not the intended audience, and wonder about who is, and feel uncomfortably as though you’re in the wrong place. For me, lavish game-praise prompts a little of both reactions.

Amanda Lange’s otherwise-awesome You’re Just Gonna Be Nice doesn’t really consider the significance of bleed, a phenomenon very well-acknowledged within Nordic LARP but only patchily addressed in the context of single-player games. Bleed is a huge part of the appeal of games, and too often it is used in very crude and pornish ways. I think that in order to get better at it, we need to do more to acknowledge its importance.

Some elements are much more susceptible to bleed than others, and elements relating to morality are among the strongest of these. ‘We have science fiction, but we don’t have moral fiction,’ one of my aesthetics lecturers once said; ‘we can accept it if Kirk flies a spaceship based on ridiculous pseudo-science, but we wouldn’t accept it if we were told that in the Star Trek universe it’s OK to kill black people for no reason.’ I’m not convinced of this as an absolute – I think we demonstrably have moral fictions of various kinds. But they are by nature permeable and precarious, prone to serious bleed. Moral fictions distort their worlds around the needs they serve, trails that you can’t help tracing back; and the more straightforward the needs, the more ugly and obvious the trail. All art distorts, including the thing that I self-righteously call literature; but single-point distortions are a lot harder to ignore.

It’s not that I’m indifferent to the prospect of playing a good person in games. It’s more that I’m deeply unsettled by games in which being virtuous, or looked up to, is presented as straightforward. The thing I love most about Telltale’s Walking Dead is not that there usually isn’t an author-anointed Good Option. It’s that it doesn’t let you be good just because you say you’d like to be.

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2 Responses to Hail to the King: on games telling you how great you are

  1. This is really interesting, and seems like it could deserve a whole series of articles. (Also, props for linking to the “binders of women” article series: that’s some amazing stuff.)

    I think there’s a wider ?problem? of writers (including of static media) being unwilling to subject their protagonists to certain forms of vulnerability. I see it in different forms across genres. It’s emotional integrity: James Bond in the 2006 “Casino Royale” film making snarky comments (even though clearly in pain) under torture (in the novel, he screamed). It’s physical integrity: the heroines of romance novels regularly being virgins when the story starts, or the extreme rarity of stories about male captives (in horror films, war stories…) being sexually assaulted by their captors, even while they are subjected to other forms of torture.

    And in case I seem harsh, I notice this in my fiction as well. I put a lot of myself into my protagonists, and as a result I find myself making them more idealised than is probably appropriate for a fictional character: I’m OK with them being ugly, or physically flawed, or not exceptionally bright, but I don’t want them to be stupid, or emotionally weak, or (this is my personal opinion, not intended to reflect on anyone else’s life) promiscuous. Writing a character who fails to live up to those standards would in some way feel like compromising myself.

    tl;dr: there may be a bigger problem of writers taking the safe option and catering to the audience’s need for perceived invulnerability. But I had never thought about it in the way you describe in this article before.

  2. Pingback: IF Comp 2015: Arcane Intern (Unpaid) | These Heterogenous Tasks

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