We're currently going through a family crisis. My father-in-law is 80 and has had a brain hemorrhage. My husband immediately flew out to be with his father and after 10 days, he's finally back home now. It's been several weeks of tiny steps forward, small slides backward... but the one constant companion on this journey is Death. Whether it's a day from now, a week from now, or many years off... the Specter of Death has made it's presence known. Whether my father-in-law lives or dies, it's possibly going to be a heartbreakingly long road with many hills and valleys. In video games, it's rare that we get to see this long road. Death in video games is usually fast. There are deaths in games that affect us... where we mourn the loss of a character we came to like, but rarely do they end up in a hospital where we sit by their bedside or get constant calls updating us as to their condition. We don't put our virtual lives on hold to attend to their condition, their finances, their situation. We don't get to see them as weak or broken people... so much less than they once were, with only the vague possibilities that they could recover and again be that strong companion traveling the open road with us, that they might end up with life altering disabilities, that we might have to make a life or death decision, or that they could simply pass away suddenly one night after lingering from their injuries or illness for a time. Games like Mass Effect touched on these issues when Kaiden was in the hospital recovering from his injuries, and with the terminal illness of Thane Krios... but we weren't asked if we wanted to go into debt and pay $1000 credits to take unpaid time off from saving the world and for travel expenses to be with them during this time of crisis. We didn't have to do our daily battles with constant phone calls regarding updates of their condition, perpetually reminding us of the life and death struggle that we have no control over. We didn't have to see the constant stress on their immediate loved ones or family as the patient went through these high and low points, while waiting out some form of resolution, with a constantly changing prognosis.
Some indie games like That Dragon: Cancer
are now starting to deal more specifically with these issues, but in all reality, I don't think I want mainstream games to do so. Mainstream gaming for me is is an escape. TV is filled with slow, painful deaths, it's filled with women's issues like rape, abuse and their gruesome murder. Most of the cop, forensic, detective, hospital, drama shows - they slap us in the face with variations of reality. Racism, feminism, poverty, LBGT issues, death, illness, addiction, depression... these issues often creep up on us in TV dramas with no "trigger warning" that we'll be seeing a hazy mirror reflection of a painful reality in our own current lives. In mainstream gaming we can generally evade this unpredictability.
There has been a lot of criticism of mainstream gaming as being bland, that the plots are simplistic and they don't deal with various important very real life issues. The current negativity often makes me feel like a bad gamer for even liking mainstream games. What is a "mainstream" game though? Generally it's a product with a large budget, financed by a large publisher, made to appeal to as large a demographic as possible. They're designed as a product, not a social commentary, and they're not usually designed to make us think too much, so instead they tend to rely on well known, predictable story tropes with the emphasis usually being more on gameplay. Yes, the protagonists are "vanilla" because they are meant to appeal to the largest possible demographic, which for console gaming is still straight, white men, who apparently don't have issues or "isms" that might remind us of real world issues we face. Developers are gradually realizing that even straight white men get tired of playing as straight, white men... so we are gradually seeing more varied protagonists being used, but even then, they tend to be pretty bland, forgettable characters so that the broad spectrum of gamers is better able to identify with them (Connor of AC3 was a Native American... but substituting a straight, white male would have made almost no difference in the game). The main characteristic of video game characters in most AAA games is that they are stereotyped fantasy, and really, there's nothing wrong with this. Their blandness is escapism. One of the most unique aspects of gaming is that it's much more about the gamer than the protagonist, otherwise gaming would be no different than a book or movie. Moreso than any other media, we are the heroes of the stories, and the stories are usually placed well out of our current reality and we are stopping nuclear wars, saving the world, or simply rescuing some distant damsel in distress in such a classic trope that it bears little resemblance to real life.
I'm currently playing Dragon's Dogma, which at first glance seems a generic fantasy laden, Skyrim-esque game where you slay big critters and level up, while of course ridding the world of a great evil. The protagonist is so bland that they can be male or female and it makes no difference. Like any game though, there are depths if you care to see them. You are introduced to Death by it's sudden appearance. There is little warning and suddenly Death is just "there". It's just like real life, appearing while you're doing other things, like slaying that huge pesky dragon or a fire breathing pack of hellhounds (yeah, I do this all the time in real life!) Suddenly the game becomes chaotic and priorities change. That dragon that a moment ago was the most important thing, is now a footnote and something to simply be avoided while you face the bigger enemy of Death... though that job of killing that dragon is still there, complicating things! The job of looking after your pawns is also still there, so while you're battling Death and a Dragon, you are also trying to protect your party members and keep them out of harm's way and attend to their needs. Death is massively huge, floating through the air, and it is truly terrifying as it seeks you out with it's lantern or suddenly disappears then reappears behind you. When you first meet death it's a memorable and terrifying experience.
Death's most potent weapon is it's ability to cast sleep... and while you're in that vulnerable state, it can strike with it's scythe, which can instantly kill you or your party members. You can run away, and even complete the game while running from Death every time it comes calling....but Death will keep appearing in your life for so long as you continue to remain in Bitterblack Isle. You can stay and fight death, but as my pawns are overly-fond of saying "death can not be slain in one go". My pawns are right, death isn't like in most video games... one single battle with a winner and a loser. No, Death is instead a series of battles that randomly occur to interrupt your daily digital life. The specter of Death appearing at any nearly any moment is constantly there. I've finally killed Death... but Death has respawned and returned once more. Death is like that. You can win the battles, and even eventually win the war... but Death is always there, somewhere, just patiently waiting to make it's appearance once more. However, each time I face Death I learn more about it, and I fear it less. Each encounter teaches me better how to deal with it's appearance, that it can be successfully fought and battles can be won... but that it's a very long war and Death is a persistent and unpredictable foe.
The blandness and lack of character development, of story, of real life issues in mainstream gaming allows us either blissful escape or it allows us to see what we want to see. If we view games seeking to find sexism, or racism or ageism, or homophobia...we'll find those things. We can also simply seek the beauty and uniqueness in in the escape that gaming can provide. Even when playing Dragon's Dogma and battling Death, I didn't see the allusions to my real life situation until later, after the game was turned off and I was thinking back on it through the lens of my current reality.
While some may think that they are clever for seeing and pointing out the sexism or racism or other isms in mainstream gaming, the reality is that sometimes a game is just a game and they are seeing things they want to see that are a reflection of their own interests, circumstances or personal realities.... just as I saw Death as more than simply being a boss battle and saw allusions to my current life. It's an interesting perspective I'm sure, but the reality is that it's not a defining perspective. Mainstream games are like clouds. You can lie on your back and observe them and there is really nothing there... but your own mind will often create shapes and visions out of the very nebulous shapes of those clouds to reflect your own reality.
Generic characters, created to reflect my own reality of my husband and I.
We can protest that mainstream games are the death of gaming. They have no depth, no real characters, no real plot. We can try to kill them by citing all the obvious tropes and lack of real world issues and lack of representation. However the reality is that, as most gamers already know, these games exist for a reason. Gaming is one of the purest forms of escapism because of it's interactive nature and it's focus on gameplay over everything else. When the actual interactivity of Mario jumping, or shooting at an opposing player occupies our mind; when the fantastical saving the world story or perfect, innocuous characters in games are so far removed from out daily lives that they provide us with a total escape. Many of the more recent best selling video games include Call of Duty, Halo, Assassin's Creed, Madden, Mario. These are all games where the mechanics of gameplay far overshadow any social messages, where the characters are bland, where the plots are forgettable or even non-existent, where the gamer can seek a blissful escape from reality. Other media like books, movies, TV shows have to reflect reality because they are passive rather than interactive. The most unique quality to games is the interactive nature of gameplay. Remove the gameplay and yes, you have to substitute plot and character development in order to have a viable product, but games... the wonder of games is how they can totally remove you from current reality through the simple process of hitting buttons and spending large amounts of time trying to simply "win". Our mind is totally occupied by preparation, strategies, timing, reactions.
To a large degree we see what we want to see in games. Better stories, more developed characters... this removes the nebulous clouds, replacing them with sky writing... telling us exactly what we are supposed to see. It removes the generic escapism inherent to so many larger mainstream games. Mainstream games aren't the "Death" of gaming... they're the lifeblood of gaming and prioritize the interactive nature of the gameplay over everything else. You can try to kill Death... but like Dragon's Dogma and like real life, it will always be there, because escapism is part of life, something that needs to be there. On behalf of my fellow sheeple that love the generic, trope-filled, mindless plots... that love that male and female characters are so bland they can usually be gender swapped, that love the unreality of gaming - don't hate us! There are lots of games out there... but there's a reason that these generic, escapist games are so popular. We're just more accepting that you can't ever truly kill Death, because much as Death might be seen as evil, there's a beauty there too. We need to have escapism - where we can see what we need to see... or not.
... and now I'm off to go kill the two firedrakes in the Everfall for a Bitterblack Isle quest I'm doing. I've lost this battle several times and it would make a boring movie, but it's an incredibly exciting battle and it's in an area where Death doesn't come calling. I think my lady Archer might have to switch to the Assassin class and try poison to weaken the dragons... and maybe I'll have to bring some mages with ice powers in addition to my party member who looks just like my husband who is a healer class. I'll have to go through my inventory to find some fire resistant rings and armor and carry some strength-enhancing items... and crap... it's a phone call... hopefully letting me know how my father in law's brain shunt surgery went today. Real life sucks.