If there was ever a class on interpreting games and understanding their ideas, The End of Us
would be the perfect introductory game. It's distribution of information is straightforward. It's structure of ideas is beautifully organized. It's short and without barriers, and it doesn't overflow on the abstract. It's the "Hello World" of video game interpretation.
The beauty of The End of Us is its basic structure. It's elements are clearly presented and portrayed, and the changes they go through clear and recognizable. When an element in a universe changes in a way that we find significant, we see those as ideas that the game presents to us, and The End of Us' presentation of its ideas is straightforward, making it easier to track and understand these ideas, and eventually piece them together to form some kind of conclusion.
Because of this, it won't be exactly 'difficult' to figure out the game. Rather, I want to talk about The End of Us because it supports concepts that are very helpful in understanding what a game is telling us, and how
it's telling it to us. I'll show you why. Like, right now.
The first thing I like to do whenever I write these, is to ask myself: Who does the player embody in this game?
Who are we in The End of Us? How are we portrayed?
We can answer this question by simply stating we play as asteroids, but that answer is useless and unhelpful. We want to examine our player projection with deeper lens. What are some traits of asteroids that we know?
- Asteroids are made of rock (or metals)
- Asteroids can form planets and belts (the asteroid belt)
- Asteroids can collide and form larger objects
- Asteroids can collide and destroy larger objects
- Asteroids don't think
- Asteroids don't feel
- And asteroids are very similar to comets, the difference being comets are made from ice and asteroids from rock
What we want to do, is to try and personify the traits of our player projection, and see how we can gain a deeper understanding of the object we embody. The first one is sort of obvious: asteroids are made of rock; this shows toughness and resiliency. So that's cool. We have that covered.
But the next three points are more interesting. Asteroids are powerful forces of nature. In large numbers, they can form massive planets and huge asteroid belts, and provide minerals for extracting
or possible environments for colonization, but they can ruin planets
and destroy populations
just the same. That's a very polar power opposition. The ability to create incredible things in large numbers, accompanied with the ability to destroy them? The trait carries a resemblance to people, who have also created incredible things, but have destroyed them, showing how they too, are powerful forces of nature. We can say that asteroids, in a way, resemble people, but then we see a contradiction. Asteroids do not think or feel
. Asteroids do not emote like we do. They have no morals, they have no empathy, they have no apathy, and no sympathy. Asteroids don't make decisions, either. They have no inner conflicts or ideas, or anything that resembles human complexity. They don't think.
So then asteroids, like people, can create incredible things, or they can destroy incredible things, but they lack the human ability necessary to decide which one to do. They're a sort people without a purpose. A powerful being, like us, only void of any real direction. And that's how can see our player projection in The End of Us. A powerful force of nature, void of real purpose, void of emotion, of life, and the most nominal of thought. Lifeless beasts, if you will.
Understanding Mechanical Freedoms
I try my best to disprove the idea that mechanics and narrative are best separated structurally. Mechanics should serve and strengthen narrative, instead of contradict like we see in many games. We have to interpret mechanics in relation
to narrative, to show how mechanics can go beyond their technical uses, and become a true narrative strength. We want to understand a game's mechanical freedoms
: what a game lets us do and what it doesn't let us do. Why does a game give us specific freedoms but prohibits others? In Bioshock, the player cannot die. Why can't you die in Bioshock? What does that say about the game's views on death? Max Payne 3 lets the player fire excessive bullets at the last enemy in a room, whose body is shown exploding with bullet holes. Why would a game let you do that? Is it a power fantasy? What does Max Payne 3 think about power fantasies? These are the kind of questions we can arrive to by thinking of mechanical freedoms. In the case of The End of Us, the most significant mechanic is its ability to let you control both asteroids. Most games give you control of one object, which you use to interact with other objects in a universe, but in The End of Us, you are simultaneously the interacting object and the object being interacted with. Why would it do that?
I thought about what I'm actually doing in The End of Us. I move the asteroids around, bump them into each other, twirl them and makes patterns with their tails. I'm playing with the asteroids, and they're consequently playing with each other. Remember what our projection was: a powerful, lifeless being, since asteroids are, by nature, lifeless and without purpose—but by allowing us to control them, we create real characters who are interacting with each other in a sincere way. Through interaction
, we project life onto lifeless beings. This is a big idea in The End of Us. It's takes objects that are supposed to be without life or character, and allows us to project character onto them, by simply interacting with them and using our imagination.
As the game progresses, the asteroids appear to get older (which strengthens their portrayal as characters as opposed to asteroids), and they start to break apart until one of them crashes into what I assume is earth. If you place the purple asteroid behind the orange, the orange asteroid will die and the purple asteroid will survive, and then the game will take away your control, and make you watch it swerve left and right, until its colour dims and it dies, leaving the screen. This is another case of mechanical freedoms. The game, without notice, takes away your control. Remember that it was the interaction with the orange asteroid and with us, that gave that asteroid character and life. Now when that interaction goes away, we see the asteroid die.
This proves the conclusion we can make form the The End of Us, that it believes interaction is what gives things character and life, and it's what gives us character and life. It does this by letting us project life onto its objects through interaction, and then showing them die when it's taken away.
So what does all this mean?
In my introductory sociology course, we discussed the phenomenon of feral children, kids who have never experienced social interaction for an extended period of time. Some are locked in basements for most of their lives, and others simply ignored
, but when retrieved, they're never able to speak or properly interact.
It's because interaction is what keeps us alive. It keep us thinking. It's the medium through which we communicate with the universe. Interaction is what keeps athletes tied to their sport. It gets consumers to buy iPads, it keeps a pianist's body swaying when she strikes chords, and it's probably what keeps gamers so in love with video games. It keeps me
in love with video games.
The End of Us is an argument that interaction is what keeps us alive. Because without it, we're the dumbest of space rocks, drifting in space, void of purpose.
Follow Chelsea Howe at @manojalpa & Michael Molinari @onemrbean and check out his game Basketbelle. Follow me @Fengxii. If you have ideas DON'T LET THEM GO TO WASTE. Let me know what they are in the comments. Take Care!