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Tragedy and Gaming

Warning: Spoilers for Prince of Persia (2008), Heavy Rain (2010), and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) ahead!

Prince of Persia has stuck in my mind far longer than other, superficially superior games. This isn't to say that it was perfect -- far from it! Critics roundly excoriated the game for its repetitive design and poor combat mechanics, and the early enthusiasm for the title (it actually received surpisingly good review scores) faded quickly. In fact, the game's lackluster sales and failure to capture the popular imagination resulted in an abrupt end to this bold new direction to the series, and perhaps rightly so. Yet there is one element of the game that some have criticized, yet on reflection seems to be its finest and most interesting element: its unrepentant embrace of tragedy.

The Prince of Persia with Elika, his companion and his love

Above: From the Prince of Persia (2008): the protagonist and his companion and love interest, Elika.

The plot of the game follows a scoundrel, Han-Solo-type protagonist who encounters a tattered princess in the desert. Together, the two must cleanse a series of corrupted realms (i.e., levels) in order to imprison the dark god Ahriman. Over the course of your time together, you learn that Ahriman was imprisoned for eons. However, he broke free of his prison with the help of Elika's father, the King. The King agreed to release the dark god because only he had the power to grant the King a wish: the resurrection of his beloved dead daughter.

The end-game of Prince of Persia is startingly memorable. You defeat the King and the dark god, and Elika reveals that she must sacrifice herself to restore life to the tree in which Ahriman will be imprisoned once more. Yet by this point, the Prince (that is, you) have fallen in love with her. Devastated, you destroy the tree and release Ahriman again -- and in doing so, you revive Elika.

This conclusion is genuinely tragic, and I mean that in a specific sense. I do not mean, for example, the death of Dom's wife in Gears of War 2. While "sad" (and I may even be stretching that word here, since you never meet her and she has no meaning to you as a character), her death is not tragedy in the artistic sense but rather character motivation. Her death inspires you to carry forward to reach the conclusion of the plot, which is triumph -- the Gears' massive, though costly, victory in the war against the Locust. This analysis would extend even to the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, a moment many gamers consider "tragic" in a more colloquial sense. In contrast, Prince of Persia concludes as a pure tragedy: an ending where the hero undoes everything, even or especially himself and his value system (and, as the DLC reveals, for no individual benefit, for Elika leaves him due to his selfish decision).

Some were enraged by the game's finale. What was the point of playing a game and striving to reach an objective (the imprisonment of the evil force) when, at the end, you released that force? In a certain light, it makes all your effort, and the narrative, a waste of time, or meaningless. It is a game that no one can "beat," since its conclusion is the undoing of its only objective.

Yet these criticisms reveal a deep feature of almost all video games: they must end in triumph and cannot abide by tragedy. This is especially startling, given the desire of many gamers (and game developers) that video games achieve recognition as a form of art. It also leads me to return to a puzzle I've discussed several times before.

Games as Narrative or as Skill?

In two earlier posts, I commented on a growing schism in modern gaming: that between narrative and skill. And regarding this divide, I offered a natural law of gaming: that narrative games will become easier and easier over time, and that skill games should become more and more difficult (or at least, that the difference between the two will become more pronounced).

To briefly summarize my argument, there appear to be two types of games: narrative games, which try to replicate the experience of a movie or a novel, but with the advantages of interactivity; and skill games, which are about mastering a difficult task and defeating others. The contemporary paradigm of the first group is the Uncharted series, which aspires to out-Indiana Jones the Indiana Jones movies themselves (and, no small feat, succeeds). The contemporary paradigm of the second group are sports games, where there is no story at all, only repetition aiming toward excellence. Alternatively, one can consider the multiplayer components of most shooters, e.g., Call of Duty. There, the already threadbare story of the campaign is stripped away in favor of completely non-contextual battles between friends or anonymous foes, where victory means being better than those around you.

I continue to stand by this argument today. In fact, the most narrative games, such as Heavy Rain, have abandoned the concept of difficulty altogether, since it is impossible to "lose," (the idea of losing has no meaning in its design) and you never have to replay a sequence to get it "right" or "win" an encounter.

Scott Shelby, from Heavy Rain

Above: Heavy Rain (2010), another title that offers a glimpse of tragedy and is an exemplar of the narrative school of game design.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Heavy Rain is also one of the few titles I can recall that squarely confronts the possibility of tragedy. In several of the narrative's conclusions, the protagonist does not reach his abducted son in time to save him, rendering the entire playtime effectively "meaningless." Yet as anyone who has played the game and loved it can surely attest, it is far from meaningless to fail to save the boy -- if anything, the failure evokes greater feelings: of despair, of the value of love, and the consciousness of evil.

The tragic ending is most compatible with the player/viewer's experiences the game entirely as a narrative. After all, no one reads Hamlet, or watches The Titanic, to their sad conclusions and angrily asks, "Well, what was the point of all that? What a waste!" No one does so precisely because it takes no skill to reach the end -- you as the reader or viewer are passive, and the play or movie transmit their narrative to you. Thus, it is no insult to your time spent or your endeavors, your awareness of your own effort or striving, when the narrative ends badly for the protagonist.

On the other hand, when the player/viewer experiences the game as skill, tragedy is seriously unfulfilling. The entire point of skill is winning or achieving some discernable result -- after all, there's a reason people rage-quit sports games when they are getting destroyed, and a reason why people become addicted to Call of Duty multiplayer when they gain enough experience to tear apart their opponents with ease. Tragedy unwrites the accumulation of ability and unhinges the fantasy of the skill-gamer: the transformation into someone or something more powerful, even unstoppable. Tragedy is an acknowledgment of vulnerability or, even worse, the inevitability of utter defeat. In Prince of Persia, you and Elika strive together and grow more powerful together; yet it is precisely those shared experiences that result in the ruin of your shared project.

The Birth of Tragedy

The infrequency of such tragic occurrences testifies to the immaturity of gaming as an artistic medium, but also hints at one direction where I believe gaming ultimately will go (indeed, must go). And as it does so, it will strike at the heart of this schism between narrative and skill.

Concededly, gaming will always remain some mixture of the two. (Even Uncharted involves skill portions, such as learning its combat system and then clearing increasingly difficult set-piece battle sequences. Even Madden gives you Franchise Mode, allowing you to craft the story of your own team, your own version of the Browns, or Cowboys, or Redskins.) However, as the narrative portion of some sub-set of games grows in prominence, the medium will attract more and more attempts to depict tragedy. This is a good thing. As tragic gaming develops as a genre, I predict it will produce epics that root themselves firmly in the public consciousness, and establish gaming as art in the mainstream. Even Shakespeare, after all, is lionized more for his great tragedies (MacBeth, Hamlet, and King Lear) than for his more audience-friendly comedies.

Imagine, for instance, a shooter that did not automatically end with a triumph over our enemies. (The Resistance series, whatever its flaws, offers a glimpse of this narrative possibility). The first game could describe a war, and the first major setback of the good guys' efforts. (Imagine if Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had ended with the famed nuclear strike scene.) The second could thoroughly chronicle the subsequent defeat of the protagonist's side, from a new perspective. And the third would take place in a post-apocalyptic setting and end on a note reminiscent of McCarthy's The Road. Why do we not see this type of game more often, instead of the mindless progression of Modern Warfare, with ever more ridiculous enemy scenarios thrown at us, and ever more ridiculous victories over evil?

This generic growth will demand a change in our attitudes about games -- a shift away from the skill gamer inside of us that screams in protest when a game ends not by celebrating our mastery, but by signalling our futility.

The famous nuclear scene from COD4.

Above: An unforgettable scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007).