Monday, January 16, 2012

Choosing to Be the Other

This is part of Blogs of the Round Table run by Critical Distance.  The original topic can be found here.

Almost none of the games I have ever played have made me empathize with the characters.  I say almost, but I'll get back to that.

Growing up, I had a Super Nintendo and the family computer.  All of the games I played were either branded by Nintendo or educational games, such that they were.  Narrative complexity was something I didn't know existed and wouldn't experience until I was much older.  However, I don't resent those games for being simple.  Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, and Donkey Kong were all characters that I enjoyed playing as, but I could never connect to their situations and actions, though I don't think I was meant to.

This continued into further Nintendo generations: N64, Gamecube, and the Wii.  These weren't characters that I couldn't wait to become, but more like good friends that had a story to tell me about that one time they got lost in the woods or the one day when they "just wanted some cake, but you wouldn't believe I had to do when I got there."  Even when I started getting into the Sony crowd, it felt like a new circle of friends making new stories.  Despite all the bigger and better RPGs and storytelling experiences, I couldn't connect to anyone.

I may be able to blame my relatively limited gaming scope, but I have only truly felt like I was firmly inside a character's shoes in two games:  Mass Effect and Bastion.

I was late to the Mass Effect party.  I bought it on Steam at a discount, and only because I heard that it was absolutely amazing.  I had never played a game by Bioware before so I had no expectations going into the experience.

I enjoyed my time playing as a Male Paragon Sheppard, but because of my chosen alignment, I felt like all of those tough decisions were automatic, filtered through a binary process of "Is this good or bad?" and I would choose "good" without thinking.  That is, until I got to the end of the game and had to make a decision about which of my squad mates would live or die: Kaiden or Ashley.  The game essentially pauses and asks what I should do.

Up until this point, I hadn't used either one of them (I used Garrus and Tali because if I'm playing a sci-fi game in future-space-times then why would I want boring Humans on my team?), so the choice held no stakes in my enjoyment of the game.  This also wasn't a simple selection between right and wrong, morality wasn't even a factor.  The decision was completely divorced from any gameplay mechanics.  Whatever choice I made was going to kill someone, and it was my duty as the commanding officer to choose.  

Wait, where did that come from?

I had to walk away from the computer.  I had no idea what to do, and I needed time to think.   That got me even further into Shepard's mind: I wouldn't actually have this much time to think about this, I need to give an order.  I felt squeezed by my obligation, and I couldn't rely on any game metric to choose for me.

I ended up ordering Kaiden to his death.  I thought that there would be a greater chance of him surviving than Ashley, but when we escaped the planet he wasn't on board the Normandy.  Making that call didn't make me feel any better.  It was even worse when Ashley stopped by my quarters for a "visit."  I had flirted with her a couple of times but I had no designs for us being together.  I knew what she was doing and I wanted her to leave, I shouted at her, told her to go away and leave me to stew in the consequences of my actions.  No matter what I said, though, she stayed, and what followed didn't provide me with any comfort or solace, I just felt more and more empty.

Um.  So yeah, Bastion.

I love Bastion to death.  It was my absolute favorite game of 2011, and I have to restrain myself from going off on tangents and simply gushing about the thing.  I need to wield some precision gushing, here.

Before I get into anything, I need to talk about the story and the world and how well it's built.  I love the narrator and what he adds to the story.  No, I'm not talking about the "reactionary narration" thing because that lasts for all of one level in any meaningful way (maybe once again later on), and I'm not talking about the sex-tacular gruffness of his voice, though that is nice.

It's what he says and how he says it and how narration and information becomes a kind of commodity for the player.  In the beginning you march forward to each area with little reason other than "you have to" and Rucks fills in the who's and the why's when you get there.  Even with the Middle of Nowhere challenges, story is the carrot that's dangled in front of you between each round of battle.  It becomes the reward and it sinks in even further as a result.

This spills into the game's choice at the end.  There's really two choices, but I saw them as one.  The first choice is whether you should carry Zulf to safety or continue to haul around  your new-found death pillar and wade through a massive Ura resistance force.  The second choice is between pressing the Bastion's world-reset button (as was its intended purpose) and pressing the evacuate button, scrapping the idea of starting over again.

These two questions were really one question for me.  Leading up to my choice with Zulf, the narration was revealing the true function of the Bastion and essentially laying out the final choice before I had to make it.  This made me weigh my options with both situations in mind.  Zulf was a traitor and actively helped his brethren to destroy everything you had worked for, but his entire life was destroyed by the calamity and blames the only people left for his misfortune.  Also, if I reset everything then saving him is pointless, but if I choose to evacuate then I would feel terrible about leaving him to die.

Taking all of this in, I remember Rucks's stories of Caelondia, how it was a beautiful place and a great society, but that it had also committed atrocities like abusing nature and the Ura.  Then I thought back to the retelling of each character's history in those Middle of Nowhere levels, how Zia had a terrible life filled with discrimination and hate, while Zulf had a comparatively great life before the Calamity.  As for the Kid, well, he just had a life.  It wasn't great but it wasn't terrible, so he could choose either way.  In that moment, all of the history and triumphs and sorrow of each character and place filled my head like an over-blown balloon.

Some people complained about the last minute choices and how they were simply levers to pull to see the ending you wanted.  To that, I say: perfect.  Similar to my choice in Mass Effect, I was severed from any game systems that could make my decision for me.

(Quick aside.  This is actually somewhat untrue.  If you choose Zulf then you move slowly and can't attack as you trudge through waves of attacking Ura, unlike the battering ram which makes you an unstoppable beast, but the distinction here is that the new weapon makes you much slower as well, and feels much less free than the rest of the game.  I love this as a metaphor for the burden of power and the burden of sacrifice, but regardless the section following this is maybe a minute long, so the importance to gameplay is minimal.)

This was an instance of the game honestly asking me what I should do.  Again, like Mass Effect, I had to stop and think about it.  I thought about what my decision would mean to the people I had met, how their lives factored into it, how I felt about the whole situation.  There was no right or wrong, just the option to try again, or move on.

I chose to save Zulf, which also meant that I chose to evactuate the Bastion.  Those choices go hand in hand, any other combination doesn't make sense to me.

Games are a soup of tiny decisions, every moment we choose to pull a trigger or jump or swim or steal a car or swing a sword, and it's all done without much thought.  However, when the game goes beyond the automatic and asks you, honestly, what you would do, that's when I can feel the full brunt of what it means to be that character.

Even if it's only for a few minutes while I wrack my brain for an answer, cursing my decision to play a game that makes me think so hard.

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