We Come In Peace, Shoot to Kill

I finished Metro 2033 last night. The game ends (as many do) with a final kind of choice you have to make between wiping out the freaky aliens/mutants who’ve been kicking the shit out of you for the last hours (sort of), or deciding to leave them alone. Being a gamer, I “got” both endings by first destroying them (with nukes, I think) and then replaying the last bit to spare them.

In fact, I’m a little bewildered as to why I would want to save the mutant people. As best I could determine during play, they seemed to cause nothing but problems for humanity, making people go insane just by being nearby for instance. After I’d fought all the way through the damn game and finally, finally stood on top of a radio tower with the device that would target the mutants’ stronghold (unsure why I knew where it was, but okay)… why would I not go ahead and nuke them?

The one reason that there appeared to be to spare them was that one of the “wise dudes” who had given me advice during the game had said you shouldn’t necessarily just do the knee-jerk obvious thing. In fact, to help me out, the game made my character “remember” this at the crucial moment with a little voice over. So clearly I was meant to question my decision to nuke the mutants. But really? Everything that I experienced in the game presented our relationship with the mutants as a war, including the mutants’ increasing attempts to kill me as I got closer to kill them. Dog eat dog world, after all.

Yet sparing them is an option in the game, and when you do it turns out the mutants are all peaceful and just wanted to be friends. Nice happy ending and a an achievement called “Enlightened”. Pretty heavy handed suggestion there that sparing them was the “right” thing to do.

This experience leads me into thinking about stories and video games. Yes, that old chestnut. In particular, when I saw that sparing the mutants was the “preferred option” in the game, my mind scrabbled back through the game experience to understand why in the hell I should have thought that – why I should have chosen to spare them based on my experience. Other than the quote from “wise dude” I couldn’t think of a single reason that I would think of the mutants as anything but my mortal enemy. This then turned me to the central question that all gamers feel at some point: did I miss something? Was there a whole layer to the game I had totally missed? If I’d looked left instead of right at some point, would I have seen mutants waving and smiling at me, holding placards reading “we come in peace!”?

It’s entirely possible, because video games are systems rather than linear narratives. It’s entirely possible to miss elements of a game in a way that you can’t miss something in a movie, say. You might quite literally just not go into the room where the information is, say – which would be a bit like closing your eyes (and ears) for some period of the movie. Because games are systems, you can’t quite be sure that you actually saw everything. So you can’t be sure you’re making an informed choice. Which is why Metro 2033 is still pretty cool – I made my choice based on the information I had, and that’s cool by me.

On the other hand, the systemic nature of video games is a major problem for the stories they tell. To the extent that your Metro 2033 story experience is meant to be a poignant telling of “one man’s crusade to blah blah blah”, it doesn’t pay to think of your experience as engaging with a system with multiple possibilities. The instant you know that you could have made a different choice and had a different outcome, you feel an inevitable tug to take that choice and see that outcome. This splits your possible experience into two, or three, or more different experiences. In doing so, I think it sucks meaning from them all.

While approaches like permadeath or simply roleplaying really hard can enhance our affective experience of the stories in games, the system nature, our knowledge that there are different avenues we can go down, arguably leaches significance from our experiences. Even though we make our choices, we don’t quite feel the need to stick with them. We flat out don’t have to. This “having it all” problem is something that a game like One Chance seeks to address.

Put as simply as I can: video games are systems and our core purpose (and joy) in playing them tends to be an exploration of that system. The stories in video games are necessarily subjugated to the system and to that extent having a scripted narrative with different endings is in conflict with our exploration of the system. Stories aren’t made for exploring, they’re made to hear (once) or to tell.

Video games can help us tell amazing, beautiful stories through out interactions with their systems (think of Minecraft), but it’s far less clear that video games are good at telling stories. Ironically, they’re particularly poor when they try to make the stories more “system-like” by providing multiple paths.

23 February 2011
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