Quest Updated: Tragic Lack Of Tragedy
The oxygen is pouring out of the hull breach, ironically right next to the damaged circuitry that should slow this down. Joel’s sweat instantly evaporates from his forehead. His pulse is weak. His friends are all dead or dying, ripped apart by explosions, or suffocating slowly attempting to get the shields online. A final laser tears the ship’s hull apart, and the vacuum of space leaves nothing of Joel, his crew, or his final thought that he should never have aided that sodding Rock ship in the first place.
Faster than Light is my latest addiction, and it is at times incredibly brutal, and if you imagine the little retro-pixel crewmates having lives and thoughts, the game takes on an almost nihilistic sense of tragedy as you attempt endlessly to improve on your previous performance and unlock ship upgrades. It is the best kind of painstaking fun, and it has made me think about something that is very scarce in games: tragedy.
Warning: this column may contain spoilers for the God of War series, and for Shadow of the Colossus. You have been warned (besides, the games are relatively old so I’m assuming the majority of readers will have some experience of them anyway). This may be a long column, but I think it’s important if we think about games as the wonderful narrative form that they are.
The term tragedy is actually more nuanced than it appears, and has a long philosophical history going back to Aristotle. Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is a serious or solemn (we’ll come back to this) piece of art “with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions”. Another element of tragedy any Shakespeare done at school will have hammered into one’s head is the harmartia, often translated as the “tragic flaw”, but it actually carries the image of an archer missing the target, that is: a missing of a mark. Aristotle says that tragedy through our identification with a great character with a flaw or flaws that brings an unnecessary downfall is actually vital to our psychological well-being in an emotional outpouring.
Why is this even relevant to gaming, which tends to veer somewhat away from seriousness (I’m looking at you, Saints Row!). Well, that isn’t exactly true; I believe we’ve been moving steadily into an amazing time of compelling storytelling in gaming, to the point where some, like Dear Esther are what I call “post-games” or interactive narratives. But have we had any properly tragic games? On the whole, I think not, for a reason I’ll discuss in a moment. I would like to look at the near-tragedy games that I have actually encountered: Shadow of the Colossus and the God of War series.
Shadow of the Colossus begins with a protagonist who seeks to revive a loved one. The protagonist enlists the aid of an unknown entity, Dormin, and makes a deal, despite Dormin’s warning that he will have to pay a high price. The player then guides the protagonist, Wander, to slaughter 16 massive creatures in order to raise his love from the dead. Instead, his body is possessed by Dormin, who is actually a demonic entity. This, to me, feels supremely like a tragedy. Wander’s love was put to death as a sacrifice, and he, blinded by grief misses the mark, fails to perceive the danger he has exposed himself to, until it is too late.
God of War follows a Spartan, Kratos, who also makes a deal with a higher power, the God of War, Ares. In his service, Kratos kills his family in a battle rage. In fact, Aristotle argues that the slaying of kin is one of the central forms of tragedy that evokes pity and fear in an audience, imagining the loss and destruction of one’s own family relationships. God of War executes one of Aristotle’s methods perfectly: “the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards”. From there, Kratos seeks vengeance against the gods, working his way across the trilogy in divine blood, killing everything he can in the most spectacular fashion. Here we have a double set of harmartia: Kratos is damned by his blood-lust and fury, as well as by the hubris of a mortal striving against the gods, another classic of Greek tragedy. The narrative drives onwards until Kratos slaughters his father, Zeus, and then takes his own life to release hope, which hid in his breast when he opened Pandora’s Box. His hubris, which drove him to contend with the gods, set him at odds with the mortal world which he is condemned to save. (I’d also like to note that GoW does some amazing things with perspective, placing the camera in the eyes of Kratos’s victims, highlighting just this hubristic barbarism. The games are much, much more nuanced than I’d given them credit for!)
Except that he isn’t entirely dead. There’s an after-credits scene which shows a trail of blood leading away from the Blade of Olympus, suggesting perhaps that the Ghost of Sparta lives on. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus ends with a redemption, perhaps suggesting the reincarnation or return of Wander in the form of a horned infant. The fatal part of the flaw eludes us.
Why? Why does true, Aristotelian tragedy seem to slip out from under gaming? Tragedy is often seen as the highest form a genre can aspire to – Aristotle seemed to think so – so then why does gaming turn away at the last second, giving the hero a sneaky out?
Well, gaming is inherently optimistic. If the game isn’t inherently endless, then there is an expectation that it can be beaten. The term “game” implies a winner as much as it implies a contest. Not only this, but we also expect to have control over the ending. We want to choose our outcome, and we therefore play in order to have the best ending for the character we have been embodying. As a result, I think we tend to expect, even subconsciously, a victory against all odds. This is helped further by the fact that in the course of a game, the player is likely to fail and die a number of times before the end. It’s really hard to make the final sacrifice or death of the tragic hero rise spectacularly over the myriad times I forgot to hold “x” and Kratos went plummeting to his death instead of soaring over the gaps on Icarus’ wings.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a tragic game. It just makes it a harder genre for games to achieve, and I’m not even certain that it really does so. Instead, I think it is simply a mental block we have against it. In my unresearched opinion, there are fewer classically-styled tragedies being produced in the 21st Century. Of course we have films, and books, and games where the hero dies. But not often at the level of Aristotelian tragedy. I’m not even sure we can count Ned Stark here, but he’d be my guess for a tragic hero (at least for the first book/series).
Maybe there are tragic games out there that I haven’t encountered, and if there are, stick them in the comments section and bring on the katharsis!
TLDR: Games are optimistic, and we don’t often actually have a situation where the player’s character is dead forever and ever. Why not try?