This year, I’ve been a little touchier about games than in the past. I’m tired of violence in games: yes, it’s a classic theme, rich in narrative possibilities; yes, it lends itself to a myriad of success/failure conditions that are rich in gameplay possibilities; but even so, does it have to be quite so dominant? (And generally so unreflectively dominant, to make matters worse.) And I’m tired of adolescent games: sure, the transition from childhood to adolescence is a great theme, but it gets old, and it especially gets old when that transition doesn’t lead to a struggle with the question of what it means to be grown up, but rather leads to becoming an all-powerful manchild who saves the world from an evil daddy figure while dominating it himself. (These two, of course, frequently unite: saving the world involves leaving an endless stream of corpses behind you, as it turns out.)
I seem to be particularly interested in unpacking that latter problem, as I realized when I found myself defending Catherine fairly vigorously in a VGHVI symposium a couple of months ago. Because yeah, there’s a lot to complain about in Catherine. Vincent is nobody’s idea of a role model: he may not be an all-powerful manchild (aside from one of the endings which is at least entertainingly self-aware in its presentation of the situation), but he is a hapless loser manchild, somebody whom I probably wouldn’t enjoy spending time with in real life, whom I probably wouldn’t enjoy reading about or watching a movie about. So this is not a character or a game that I would normally think of myself as defending. (At least on a thematic/narrative level; the block pushing puzzle aspect of it is a different matter.)
But I nonetheless was: it turns out that, right now, I’m surprisingly grateful, embarrassingly grateful even to games that present me with a narrative that doesn’t end up with me becoming all-powerful and saving the world. I mean, yes, Dragon Age II is a legitimately wonderful game, but should I be quite so grateful for the fact that you only save a city from a crazed demon lord instead of saving the entire freaking world from a crazed demon lord?
So it would seem that I need some space from current conventions. Which makes me wonder: what if we try to further stretch the distance from conventions? Saving the world is clearly overblown, but maybe my problem is as much with the “saving” part of that statement as with “the world”. Maybe games have a savior complex; maybe I have a savior complex and I’m uncomfortable with that aspect of myself. Maybe what I want right now are games that present a world around you and people around you that are interesting in their own right, that are worthy of respect in their own right, and that don’t need you to validate them, let alone save them?
Now, I realize that games traditionally have externally prescribed goals, and that one way to combine external goals with a single-player context (and one that includes a narrative framework) is to present you as trying to win over some parts of that external context for the benefit of both yourself and other parts of that external context. If we step too far away from that, we have, what, Proteus? Well, as it turns out, Proteus is a great game, and I’m much happier having spent time playing it than yet another save-the-world fantasy.
There are other ways to frame those externally prescribed goals, though; one of my favorites is that games are about systems understanding, and the goals are vehicles for the rules that give structure to the games’ systems. If you focus on the systems, though, goals are merely one way to approach those systems, and the systems themselves can present a world, a work that is worthy of approach and appreciation on its own terms, with no need for external validation.
That systems understanding approach itself can, of course, be problematic; but it can also be beautiful. And beautiful in ways that aren’t threatened by goals and show how goals can be presented in ways that have nothing to do with a savior complex: go is an example here.
So: I’d like games that are less about saving the world, aspiring to become all-powerful; in fact, I’m curious about games that step away from aspiration completely. Having said that, that’s just me right now, not a general statement about what other people should be interested in or even what past or future me should be interested in.
One of the reasons for this is the social context of how aspiration is frequently presented in games. The games I’m thinking of aren’t just adolescent fantasy: they’re a particular kind of adolescent fantasy, one that generally harmonizes well with boys who grow up in a world that, at least in part, tells them that they are special, that they can go on to do great things, where that latter is identified in part with dominating and showing their superiority to others.
Which, in its own way, was a big part of my adolescence: sure, I was a geeky kid, but I was in an environment that was rather supportive of that geekiness, and if we’re talking about dominance, I did extremely well at math contests. That latter skill led to a fair amount of other rewards; I’m certainly far from dominating the world, but my career has put me in a quite comfortable place.
And following narratives that reinforce certain aspects of that, or for that matter that tell me that I’m still a failure because I didn’t dominate the world, gets kind of tired after a while: I’d like to learn from something different. And, worse, these aspirational savior narratives seem to resonate with some aspects of a culture around games (and around internet technology enthusiasm in general) that can be pretty horrible at times: an ideological fervor to demonstrate that you are Right, that those who have come to a different conclusion from you are Wrong and must be crushed under the weight of your righteousness.
If I’d had different aspirations growing up, or less support for my aspirations, though, my response to aspirational games might will be different. In that case, a game that spoke to my aspirations could turn into a beacon of hope; certainly there seem like a lot of games out there these days that have the potential to be that.
I dunno. I guess, having written this, I’m really not against aspiration in games. I am still against being a savior in games, at least to the extent that that others whom you are saving.
More than either of those, though, I’m actively for games that quietly observe the world around you. Games that don’t focus on the world as a vehicle for your actions on it: games that focus on the world as something in its own right, games that focus on multi-way relationships involving you and others, even games that focus on understanding yourself without a builtin assumption that that understanding naturally leads to adulation. Or games that set aside the world, removing that external narrative largely or entirely to instead carve narrative out of interactions within the mechanics of the game.
Fortunately, there are a lot of games out there that present a world that welcomes observation, now that I’m calming down enough to notice them.
This post has not been revised since publication.