Be More Tragic

I finally got around to reading through Line Hollis’ article Four Types of Videogame Tragedy yesterday (and let’s just get it out of the way that “Line Hollis” is a totally amazing name, straight out of a William Gibson novel). In it, she goes through, well, four types of videogame tragedy, focusing in on the kinds of mechanical to enforce tragic actions and tragic endings. It’s not something I’d given much thought to, so it was extremely interesting to see a (brief) analysis to this subject, and it’s a well-written piece, so certainly worth reading. On the other hand, it struck me that there was a rather substantial gap in the reasoning Hollis uses, and in fact that is so frequently wielded in these sorts of design-analysis essays. We could call it the “player-as-idiot fallacy” perhaps.

In Hollis’ article we get to hear some perceptive looks at how various games enforce tragic moments or at least attempt to, for instance by making it extraordinarily arduous to go back and change things or by offering a variety of tragic options, rather than an obvious “correct” choice. What I find is lost in all of this is the idea that the player is a participant in creating their experience of the game. In this version of games, players speed along maximising and cannot be trusted to engage emotionally/thoughtfully with the dramatic conditions of the game they’re playing. Even I play this way myself at times (I’ve certainly rushed through aspects of Sword & Sworcery EP for instance), but the notion that this is the unavoidable state of things and that we must therefore discover “tricks” to push players into dramatic engagement is sad and, I hope, incorrect.

One particular element of the tragic that I don’t find mentioned in the article, but which I find important, is that tragic experiences/moments don’t always have to be chosen. Red Dead Redemption provides one of the strongest tragic moments in recent memory in the ride you take into the town of Blackwater for the first time. I’ve written about it in the past, and that experience of realising that the time of cowboys (like John Marston, the avatar) is passing is exquisitely sad and poignant. Yet it’s not something you choose to engage with, it merely part of the nature of the world itself, as so much genuine tragedy is.

In fact, if anything, we could suggest that much of the tragic isn’t about making choices but rather about the inability to make them. Perhaps one of the challenges for tragedy in video games is to jettison the notion that the player should always be the explicit author of their circumstances but instead as merely one part in a larger world which is not always impressed or even affected by their actions.

Beyond this, however, I think it’s simply true that we, as players, need to get our shit together a bit and attempt to engage with the drama of the games we play. If it’s really true that we’re incapable of choosing a tragic ending, then to my mind that suggests a degree of apathy and weakness of spirit on our part and we ought to train ourselves to be stronger participants. It would help, of course, if games themselves respected us more in this same way, but it’s clearly a shared problem, not the pure responsibility of game makers.

And of course this is part of a much broader “player-as-idiot” problem we have in games, from the obsession with usability to the re-re-re-re-representation of lame power fantasies in so many games. The cycle of being treated as idiots and then playing like idiots is a serious issue, and at least a part of strong game journalism and criticism has to be to repeatedly drawn this to our attention and to break the cycle through engaged and passionate play.

Or something!