*** Coletta Factor: Spoileresque discussion of Far Cry 2, Bioshock, Prince of Persia below***
No, I'm not talking about the moral hysteria periodically visited on the medium whenever some malfeasant decides that simulation mitigates their wrongdoing. Listen, old people: I don't think that 12-year-olds should be playing GTA either, but I don't think that their doing so is going to lead to a life of bank heists or jetpack abuse. I consider myself beyond outrage when it comes to Victorian panic, but it turns out I'm still capable of shock: last week, I heard a video-games expert on the BBC suggest a correlation between the rise of video-game enthusiasm and suicide in middle-age women.
I'm talking about the things you do in the games themselves. We often operate under the assumption that games realize their storytelling potential as a interactive medium when they give the player full control with regard to the important decisions in the story. But one thing that struck me as I've been thinking over my favorite narratives of the last year is that these stories are most compelling when they force you into actions you'd rather not commit.
In Far Cry 2 the game tells you: go to this town, and hold a machete to the throat of some low-level functionary so he gives up some information. And then kill him. Or it says: go to this town, murder a bunch of guards, and destroy this shipment of malaria medicine. Things of this nature. The rationale for all this destruction gets progressively fuzzy as you move through the game. But the moral queasiness you feel as you walk down the path that the mission-structure sets out in front of you is one of the most compelling aspects of the game.
Quite a few games have traded on this productive friction between the demands of the game-structure and the player's sense of choice. The most compelling narrative moment in Bioshock doesn't emerge from the vaunted moral decision; it comes when you face Andrew Ryan and learn that the player's obedience to the rules of the game-world is slavery. The only memorable aspect of Prince of Persia's narrative is its conclusion, where the game compels you to undo everything you've accomplished and betray your consort in order to finish the story. GTAIV progressively humiliates the player's desire to shape their protagonist's character and destiny by sending the player on a program of senseless murder that leads to his ruin.
Some might think that this friction between the player and the game is a sign that the design has gone horribly wrong. One can feel especially betrayed when the game-mechanics suggest a level of control over the shape of the whole experience that is lacking in the narrative elements. (its open-world, coerced-narrative) But it appeals to me. I think the deliberate friction evident in these scenarios is an audacious response to a central problem with narrative in games.
The problem is this: on one hand, games traffick in empowerment. From the perspective of gameplay, the fundamental goal of game-design is to give the player a feeling of agency, a sense of power that grows as the player masters the rules of the game-world. It's agency that makes games fun. This is the core value proposition that games offer w/r/t non-interactive media-- games have this unique capacity to make the player feel like an active participant in the creation of something grand: a picaresque fantasy adventure, a rock concert, a war epic.
But the omnipotence of empowerment presents difficulties when it comes to making meaningful narratives. If the mechanics always tell the story of the player's glorious triumph over the world, how is it possible to craft a story that embraces the full range of dynamics available to mature narrative: failure, regret, chance, tragedy? Narrative thrives on conflict, ambiguity, and irresolution, values that are difficult to realize within the triumphalist script laid out by the gameplay.
And this is why I admire games like Far Cry 2 so much: their narrative elements make the player feel uneasy about their thirst for power. Realizing that fun is at any rate indispensable, they decide to make power itself problematic. Far Cry 2 knows that it feels like a colonialist power trip, and it doesn't shy away from the unflattering aspects of murder; if you're paying attention it subtly leads you to some unsettling conclusions about the behavior it forces on you in the name of fun.
And the thing is, I think it's more interesting to be unsettled by your behavior than spend all your time heeding your better angels. For me, moral choice is usually boring. I can't help it: given the choice, I attempt to be a good person, and the comfort of making the virtuous decisions makes for an uninteresting narrative. Fallout 3 is an excellent game, but there's nary an interesting decision to be made in it, because the choice for unstinting heroism is always on the table.
So perverse as it might sound, I'm going to plead for less choice in video games. It's a paradox: by limiting the player's discretion, you can expand the narrative possibilities of the medium. Coercion can create a kind of emotional heft that you can't achieve within the confines of the empowerment-myth. When I play games like Far Cry 2, Braid, and Shadow of the Colossus, I'm convinced turning the myth against itself may be the way to go.