Video games aren’t serious. There’s a reason for this: we gamers are more interested in doing absurd things, or feeling a sense of accomplishment, than in exploring the dark, untouched places of the human psyche. Given the choice in Grand Theft Auto 4 between a chilling, mature narrative and giving Niko a magic phone that heals him and lets him summon cars floating in the air, many players pick the latter option. And publishers are no better. Given the opportunity to publish one of the most intelligent games ever made, Nintendo decided Mother 3 wasn’t quite up to American standards, which means there weren’t enough explosions and too much death, not enough good guys beating bad guys and too much critique of society.
In short, we gamers are afraid of death, and developers and publishers are afraid of pushing death onto us. There are exceptions to this rule, and these exceptions prove that interactive media could be well-equipped to deliver serious, heartfelt narratives in a way perhaps surpassing “traditional” media.
(Post contains spoilers for Shadow the Colossus, Mother 3, Bioshock, Final Fantasy VII, Braid, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins (very minor), and Planetfall (which is from 1983). You've been warned.)
The knock against video games as a serious medium is that for much of their history they were amusements driven by points and little men jumping. No matter how you cut or slice it, most retro games outside of text adventures don’t feature what we’d call plot, let alone serious central moments. Sure, Pac Man can die, but then he comes back, ready as ever to gobble ghosts, who can’t die forever either. Mario has to save a princess, and the princess is always in another castle. Of course, this could become serious and heavyweight, but Super Mario Brothers didn’t tread that territory. Even such plot based games as the original Final Fantasy didn’t tread anywhere near serious conflict; the bad guys were bad because they were jerks, and you were the heroes because you had little shiny bits of crystal.
The concept of a serious video game was born at one specific point: Aeris dying. It wasn’t the first instance of character death in a video game (the earliest we can come up with is Planetfall, a text based adventure from 1983 – three years before I was born), but it was the most spectacular. Never before had the death of a playable character been such a central point to a game, so much so that it influenced millions of gamers and thousands of game designers. You have to wonder if Yoshinori Kitase knew, when he was writing that plot point, that he would spawn an entire generation of memes, the spoiler tag, and so much serious discussion on games.
Sure, it wasn’t the most elegantly used plot device. It was followed by a random, throwaway boss battle (Jenova, the most throwaway of bosses), and while Aeris’ ghost haunts the story the rest of the way, if we made a list of plot points in Final Fantasy VII, it would probably barely crack the top five in terms of importance to the narrative. But it served its function well: it turned Sephiroth from a crazy guy with a master plan to an evil villain who had killed one of your own. Sephiroth is perhaps the most enduring villain in all of gaming, and that is in no small part because of Aeris’ death. Even if it didn’t come back in the plot with much vigor, it colored the whole work with an air of tragedy. Without death, the story would have been a soulless work about the evils of corporations and running around. With it, it became a weight discussion of life and death, a game that we gamers would beg Square Enix to remake for years and years.
And Square Enix never quite recaptured that magic. Very few developers worldwide have, for good reason: they took the wrong things away from the game. The guys at Square looked at Final Fantasy VII, and thought, “Gamers love this because it has full motion cutscenes, because of the production values, and because of the emotional storyline.” The bullet point wasn’t death, it was emotion. And you can see the results in all the succeeding Final Fantasies: an emphasis on film-like cutscenes conveying a story disconnected from the game play, big budget production values, and “emotional” characters who don’t die engaging in “life or death” scenes (usually, but not always, emphatic hugs).
But no one has died in a Final Fantasy game since Aeris, and none of the games have been nearly as enduring. And I can tell you the exact reason: the villains. I can’t remember a single bad guy from a Final Fantasy game post VII. VIII had some sorceress or something. IX had the queen who was fat and some other guy who dressed like a slutty girl. X had Sin, which I remember because it was funny. XII had a very reasonable guy named Vayne who disappeared for 60 hours in the middle of the game before coming back and becoming a huge, crazy guy for some reason. XIII had…well, in the 25 hours I played of XIII before giving up I had yet to encounter anyone remotely villainous. VII had Sephiroth, who might not have been explicitly evil but sure seemed so after he killed one of your own. Aeris dying was the best thing Final Fantasy VII ever did.
The thing that VII did not do, though, was make this scene part of the game. It showed games could convey scenes like movies do, but not the actual benefit of them being games. VII could well have been a movie, and while there was a very robust, engaging game part, it was removed from the meat of the story. Replaying it with a modern eye, it is a very schizophrenic experience, skipping between traditional JRPG segments and captivating story, neither really building off the other.
For games to build truly engaging narratives, there can’t be a separation of action and storytelling. The things you’re doing when pressing buttons has to relate, directly or indirectly, to the plot that is unfolding for it to gain true dramatic weight. Sure, VII was one of the first games with that sort of narrative that demanded serious consideration, but it only possessed the most tenuous connection between emotion and gameplay, much like a gumball machine: the more quarters you put in in terms of hours and steps, the more gumballs and emotion you got.
What Final Fantasy VII did have, thought, of importance to us, is consequence. Sure, it was disconnected, cutscene consequence, a consequence that was not within your power to control, but there were real, negative results coming from your journey. Aeris died, and anyone else could die, too. You saw that there were bad things that could happen, and this informed you the rest of the time you played. The ability of the game to kill a player character gave a consequence to failure, and made that game that much more enthralling.
This connection between narrative and game play, between consequence and emotion, is something we are just now figuring out how to achieve, and even then only on the periphery, in the best and brightest. It’s a topic that developers are only recently realizing works in getting the player excited, into getting the player involved into their work of art.
One of the best examples of this, or rather one of the first games that very consciously played with this idea, was Braid, and this comes with an astounding caveat. The little text between game screens is a profound disconnection from the actual experience, and unfortunately the part of the game that is being copied left and right. The little books are something that is an integral bulwark to holding the piece up, but they are forgettable and kind of over the top.
But the kernel of good? It’s there. The actual game play relates to the plot, and develops the powers of Tim in the powers he uses to solve puzzles, and how they make him, and by extension us, feel. Tim’s powers of time travel are fascinating, as they provide us with a physical definition of Tim’s mental situation, as well as an enthralling game mechanic. There is development of his character in every puzzle that is solved. This is then magnified a hundred times in the conclusion, where the player, as Tim, is told to do something good, something he knows is good, and then watch it turn back on them using the game mechanics. It’s a scene where real consequences are visible to the player, and it is effective because the consequences occur in the game play.
Another game that employs these consequences is Bioshock. Bioshock, too, is an odd bird. The audio diaries seem like a good idea, but they’re just narrative that’s tacked on: instead of being in books, its spoken to you while you’re doing something else. This makes it less immersion breaking, and therefore a more practical solution than reading walls of text, but still frustrating. No, where Bioshock succeeds is in its central narrative, where it combines the two most effective story telling things in video games: the death of a developed character and turning the player’s expectations backwards. Going to visit Andrew Ryan, you expect him to be the villain and Atlas your friend: in the end, Ryan turns out to be probably the only person on Rapture who cares about you, and Atlas turns out to be a murderous traitor, a man who tries to kill you multiple times. It’s a brilliant balance, because in one scene you’re forced to kill the man who cared most about you, while you are discovering that Fontaine is the bad guy, trying to destroy you. That turn of expectation makes him a memorable villain (until his terrible final boss fight, at least), and gives the story some heft.
A third, different example of this narrative swing is in Mother 3 which, in my opinion, has the most compelling plot ever penned in a video game. Mother 3 opens with perhaps the most dramatic, effective raising of stakes ever employed in a video game: what starts as a frantic, happy JRPG in the tradition of Earthbound suddenly turns an entirely different direction when you find out, no, you were too late, Hinawa, the mother of Lucas and Claus, the wife of then PC Flint, is dead. There’s nothing you can do. This is one of the most impressive and important scenes in video games (that people from the west will never be able to play, except through fan-made patch), because it employs a tactic that is so effective but so alienating to the player: making the player lose. We, as gamers, hate to lose. We may not love to win as much as some people
, but we don’t like feeling like we’ve failed, either. And when we’re told that we couldn’t save the princess (Hinawa being nothing if not a princess), we’re devastated. Just like in Braid, where we realize we can’t save the Princess, that she doesn’t want to be saved. Just like in Final Fantasy VII, where we come so close to saving the Princess but watch her die at the last second. Here, we find the Princess dead, and we hate. We hate the thing that killed her, so much so that one character, and then another, go out to find the things that destroyed her (one a PC, one an NPC). And in the process, they are destroyed themselves. It’s only Lucas, the timid, shy boy, who finds any hope in the situation, and comes to a sort of conclusion.
Forcing the player to lose, or to commit morally reprehensible acts, gives video games their one leg up on other media: the player can be made to do things, to feel complicit in their action. This is something that a lot of games are trying to do, but many are failing at. Mass Effect 2, for instance, is a spectacular game, but the consequences of the ending feel like a multiple choice test: choose right, either through guesswork or by going on the internet and finding the right choices (as I’m sure a lot of gamers did) and you can have the “perfect” playthrough, where all the companions make it. There are no consequences, only mistakes that you can scrub away. Dragon Age, I’ve been told, is better about this, and offers you a collection of choices you can make, each with horrible consequences.
One final enduring example of consequence in game design is Shadow of the Colossus. You are presented with a task: kill Colossi. It’s not a task you can choose to do or not, except in the sense that one can choose to play or not to play the game. Through the very act of turning it on, you are complicit in the actions committed by the character. As the weight of these actions, the killing of Colossi, dawns on the player, they begin to feel the weight of the consequences, and this weight, this heft, is what makes the game something we remember now, rather than a beautiful, esoteric game about mountain climbing that we forget about under a pile of other games.
This comes to the problem, sometimes, with game designers: they take the wrong things away from games. That, or they refuse to acknowledge that the consequences are what made the games memorable. They look at the internet, that cesspool of knowledge, and they see people loved Braid for the kooky, reimagined retro aspects, and bemoaned the consequences that came with them. They develop their own retro platformer, and it’s fun, probably, but the weight isn’t there. They take the game play of something like Final Fantasy VII and the plot clichés, but don’t look at why we hate Sephiroth, or what motivates us to save the Planet. And that’s a shame, because gaming, like any other artistic medium, is about heart, is about soul, but many of its leading lights seem to think its’ about the hearts and the souls and the platforms and not emotion.