How many times have you been a saviour? It’s a fundamental expectation of games that, given a task, the completion of it must deliver the appropriate recognition. Imparting the knowledge that we have positively influenced the game world (like no NPC could) serves the basic nature of videogames, providing the illusion of personal success that drives us to play on.
Yet as audiences mature, and as game worlds and narratives develop in sophistication, it’s also an expectation that is occasionally confounded. It is a brave developer that dispenses with happy endings and decides that the act of playing is reward enough. But, to varying degrees over the years, the risk has been shown to pay off.
I recently had the pleasure of playing through Bethesda’s Fallout 3. Beyond the monumental scale of its post-apocalyptic Washington DC, many moments throughout the game – some scripted and some not – offer perplexing messages about the player’s influence in the capital wasteland. Of course, there’s the usual ‘karma’ nonsense for being a goody-goody, but the difference lies in the indirect social repercussions of your choices.
Take the opulent Tenpenny Tower, for instance. Given the choice between murdering its bigoted inhabitants or the ghoulish interlopers intent on taking their home from them, what do you do? My democratic choice to act as conciliator should have been a simple one: a hero’s good deed always earns adulation and respect, doesn’t it? Well, after brow-beating the residents into accepting their rotten neighbours, a friendly visit the following week revealed that the ghouls had decided to murder everybody anyway.
In another quest, I befriended a relic hunter named Sydney, fighting alongside her to find the Declaration of Independence. After sharing the spoils of our discovery, she retired from her dangerous profession...only for me to find her in a metro station days later, without her head.
We’re used to being the hero in videogames. Fallout 3 illustrates just how contrived this philosophy of game design is. Videogames are fairy tales with guns, perpetuating the notion that good deeds result in happy outcomes. Fallout’s jarringly brutal ignorance of this principle does much to lend the world its credibility; something that a simple pat on the back could not achieve. As a mature art form, perhaps a greater breadth of emotional resonance should be sought from the games we play.
Braid was an unlikely example of this; a puzzle/platform game that deliberately subverted the traditional ideals of its genre. On a quest to find the princess, Tim never succeeds. No matter how many times he undoes his mistakes, the realisation slowly dawns that the perfection he seeks is forever elusive. Games are still perceived as a means for cheap thrills rather than introspection and emotional investment – things that film and literature take for granted. Are Braid and Fallout an indication that we’re growing up?
As a legacy of Pong’s simple instruction set (“avoid missing ball for high score”), the innocent goals of gaming’s past continue to undermine the potential of the medium. While generations of new technology have given gaming a sophisticated face, a glimpse into its eyes reveals the soul of a child, just waiting for the happy ever after. Game design needs to move beyond the blueprint of “do this to get that”. Instead, the raison d’etre should be “do what you like, but don’t blame us for the consequences”.