Quest Updated: Dark And Twisty
Think about the common events of the games you play. How many times have you saved the world, or brought down gangs or crime syndicates, or taken revenge on your lifelong enemies? But how many times have you been stuck in traffic, drunk coffee, gone to bed early, or caught a cold? These tropes are almost ubiquitous in the gaming industry, especially in the mainstream. Now I’m not saying I want games that are truer to life. This column isn’t about saying what game production should do. Instead, I want to think a little bit about why gaming is so conflict focused.
Of course, games aren’t alone in placing a central emphasis on conflict. Any basic study of narratology will cover the fact that, in essence, any story is driven by some kind of conflict. However, it doesn’t need to be the protagonist blasting his or her way through millions of enemies in order to kill the Big Bad, or save the universe, or reclaim the holy Macguffin. Conflict in many forms of story-telling is just as much about psychology and emotion as it is about slashing orcs with a sword.
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In part, this arose through talking about GTA with Natalie for her post about it. GTA is not realistic. That might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m not merely talking about the more ridiculous elements of the gameplay. I’m thinking more about the content of the story. Yes, there are enough news reports about the seedy underbelly of urban life across the world to confirm that, surely, many of the situations in the game must be realistic. But the key-word in the previous sentence is “underbelly”: most of the players, and probably creators, of the game are not personally involved in that side of life. Its more based on our cultural ideas about the crime-ridden underworld – from books and films going back decades. If nothing else, this proves that gaming isn’t alone in its focus on the world beyond the direct experience of the average individual.
And this makes sense. How would a game based on T.S. Eliot’s everyday-life-focused “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” even work? Would you have to measure our the main character’s life in a coffee-spoon minigame? A quick-time sequence to ascend the stairs so that the women don’t laugh at the bald-spot in your hair? The final stage has you as a pair of ragged claws scuttling along the sandy seas in a platform adventure? Facetiousness aside, I think this gestures towards a central element of the whole medium of gaming that provides a strong guideline for the kinds of conflict that games, especially mainstream ones (more about this later), tend to deal with.
What makes a game, a game? Gameplay. On the overwhelming whole, the storyline of a game is a much smaller percentage of game time than the nuts and bolts of play – running around, finding collectibles, following instructions, completing objectives that often aren’t directly part of the storyline. This is especially the case for sprawling behemoths like Skyrim, where I know I spent about 200% more time (a totally not-made-up statistic) randomly exploring caves and towers with no direct reason than I did actually saving the damn world from dragons.
One of the key elements of gameplay is keeping it as something more than merely walking around. While this can be done in many, many ways, one of the most common is to provide lots of things for you to attack. Or rather, lots of things to attack you, from wolves, to rats, to dragons, to aliens, to generic “whoever America is at war with” soldiers. And this does make a lot of sense – it adds an element of risk, provides players the chance to hone skills, and indeed to be the hero they want to be, and most importantly fun.
There are games, of course, that have tried doing things slightly differently. Take Dear Esther as a prime example of a game with no conflict. But, as I described in a previous column, I don’t even know if you can call it a “game”, because I don’t know how to talk about its “game-play”, beyond walking and looking at things. A post-game is what I have called it before. Other examples are hard to come by, but browser based games are an example. Take “Every Day the Same Dream“. I’d also perhaps add puzzle/platformer Fez to this list, as the emphasis is much more on exploration to drive the story. There’s no combat.
After all this discussion, you may well ask “well?” As I already said, I’m not trying to argue for anything here. I don’t think that GTA is inferior to Fez, or that Dear Esther is any better or worse than Killzone. But I think it is important to look at the ways in which the medium suggests an emphasis on content around combat in order to look towards talking about how the nuts-and-bolts of gaming can be worked with to compliment the narratives that games are telling with increasing diversity and nuance.