I’ve been attempting to thrash out some opinions in my head recently, and I think they’re reached the stage where writing them down would help. I’m thinking about the sorts of games the industry tends to make, and seeing in them parallels with fiction in books. Specifically I’m thinking about the sorts of stories we tell, and the kind of writing involved. Looking back on the most notable games of the last twenty years, it seems to me that many if not most games use a science-fiction or fantasy (SF&F) setting. The ones which don’t (I’m thinking Call of Duty and the other modern FPS games, Uncharted, etc.) all tend to rely on the same tropes which I’ll talk about later.
For some background, I’ve recently read the Game of Thrones series, which for those who haven’t read it is a gritty fantasy series set in an essentially medieval world. The characters are dark and flawed, and the line between the heroes and villains of the piece is most definitely blurred. ‘Good’ characters are not uniformly noble, and ‘evil’ characters are not unremittingly bad. The main characters are vulnerable as everyone else in the world, they don’t have special skills, they’re not extraordinarily lucky. They die just like everyone else, and just being a main character is no guarantee they’ll even survive till the end of the book. Interesting stuff happens all over the place, not just where the main characters are. Fortuitous events are as often bad for the protagonists as they are good. I won’t say “just like real life” because real life doesn’t have a whole lot of dragons in it, but certainly a lot more plausible than a lot of SF&F fiction.
I’m almost tempted to use the term ‘grown-up fiction’ here, but I think that’s doing a disservice to SF&F fiction, which can be as grown-up and compelling as regular fiction. But the tropes that I see in non SF&F games are the same ones you come across in SF&F fiction and games. Here are few:
- The protagonist(s) turn out to have amazing powers that elevate them far above regular people, e.g. amazing strength, abilities with weapons or magic, or supernatural senses; or maybe they’re the one and only person who is the fulfilment of some ancient prophecy.
- These powers are often previously undiscovered and the protagonists develop them through the course of the story, leading to the story’s climax where the full range of their abilities will be tested.
- The antagonists have powers or a similar advantage that rival the protagonists’, but they will already be in full command of them at the start of the piece
- Alternatively the antagonists will be in control of the world situation (e.g. an evil government commanding an army of minions), and the protagonists are only safe because they are hidden, and achieve victory by using their superior abilities against ever-increasing numbers / strengths of minions.
- Minions will be so staggeringly ineffective their only purpose is to be cannon fodder for the developing protagonist. The unstoppable army that has supposedly swept away all resistance seems to be entirely staffed by soldiers that seem unable to tie their own shoe-laces.
- If the protagonists don’t have great abilities, then they are at least unnaturally lucky – other minor characters throw their lives away while the main characters are miraculously untouched, despite the antagonists being in a clearly superior position.
- Alternatively they will be the rich and noble sons and daughters of the rulers of the land; uniquely placed to get involved in high adventure, without needing to ever sully themselves with something as hum-drum as a regular job, just to earn enough to put a roof over their heads.
- The protagonists will always be in the right place at the right time for interesting stuff to happen. The village which has been ignored by the evil emperor for years is raided by the empire’s secret police only a day after the protagonists seek refuge there.
Sounding familiar? Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Eragon, The Belgariad; Call of Duty, Half-Life, Doom, heck – every FPS ever, Uncharted, GTA, Max Payne, Prototype, Ninja Gaiden, God of War. They’re not unique to SF&F settings, but SF&F does use them rather a lot.
This I think is where my feeling that these are immature stories comes from. They appeal to our sense of wanting to be special, we sympathise with a powerless character becoming powerful, and standing for all that’s good against a clearly evil villain. We don’t want them to have weaknesses because we’re putting ourself in the protagonist’s place, and we don’t want to have weaknesses. But the notion of a super-powerful character who is only vulnerable because they don’t realise just how strong they are is the very definition of an adolescent fantasy of what a great character would be. He’s a ninja with super-strength, who can fly faster than the speed of sound, and can also stop time and can totally be invisible. Really? And he hasn’t conquered every enemy in the entire world yet why? Comic writers have realised this since the start, as the arms race of super-hero versus super-villain is a never ending one. A super hero who is invulnerable and superior to all his foes is a really boring character. They have to be vulnerable, both in their powers and in their characters, to be able to weave them into an interesting story. And no, not being able to be everywhere at once isn’t a vulnerability, at least not a proper one. This isn’t limited to super-hero fiction either: if you’ve played Call of Duty or Wolfenstein but haven’t seen Band of Brothers, watch at least a couple of episodes; the brutality of fighting in WWII is inescapable – one man wouldn’t be mowing down dozens and dozens of Axis soldiers, they’d be lucky to kill a half a dozen before luck meant that they took a bullet themselves.
Now flip it around the other way. There is a surfeit of fiction out there that doesn’t fall into these traps (classic literature such as Dickens, Austen, etc. not to mention crime novels, historical fiction novels, romance novels). But comparably there are very few games which don’t. There are plenty of abstract games (e.g. Tetris), simulation games (e.g. Gran Turismo, flight sims, or The Sims), but I think most people would struggle to name more than one or two high profile games with narratives that don’t fall prey to these same easy tropes. From memory I’d call out “Hotel Dusk: Room 215,” as being a good story with compelling and believable characters without any of the tropes I’ve mentioned above. Similarly the LucasArts games did very well at telling a story without requiring the main characters to be super-special in any way. But these are the exceptions and hardly the norm.
Of course, there are reasons why the fiction in games is written the way it is. A Call of Duty game where you were dropped by a single bullet quite simply wouldn’t be fun. An RPG where you played a subsistence farmer, struggling to get by, wouldn’t keep any but the most masochist player interested. However I still think it’s important to recognise that there is a richness of narrative fiction out there largely untapped because we are treading the safe road we’ve walked before. When accusations are levelled at the games industry that we only make games for kids, and that we’ll never make a game that will make people cry (a lie, I know), I look at the sorts of games that get made, and I can’t help but think that we’re not doing ourselves any favours.
That’s not to say that some games aren’t bucking the trend. “Dear Esther” sounded like a laudable attempt, although I’ve yet to play it. I’d love to see more crime fiction brought to life through games (L.A. Noire, for all its plodding repetitive game-play, was a great stab at this genre). I wish someone would tell a compelling ghost story in the form of a game. Heck, I’d even settle for romantic comedy. Just, you know, something that stretches our boundaries a bit, and not just another bullet-proof space marine or boy that finds he is actually an ultra-powerful magician.