The joys of losing
Spoilers for Mass Effect 3, Papers, Please and Spec Ops: The Line
To put it mildly, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was not well-received. Reactions from players were so negative that Bioware went as far as to write up an epilogue to please them. Someone even started a petition to get Bioware to change the ending entirely. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending myself, because the trilogy culminated with a decions that didn’t take all your choices into account. But there was a different sort of anger too.
“Just as in our own lives, we are not always in control of events.”At the end, Commander Shepard dies. The hero of the story who has survived countless close calls and huge battles against all odds lies dead. It goes against the common idea that games are power fantasies, where the player is in full control of what happens in the story. You get the “good” ending if you maxed out everything and played the game well. If not, you can always reload. Here, there was no way out. That’s because Shepard had to die. Otherwise there would have been no sense of sacrifice. Things would merely have gone back to the same old same old, and would have ended with a fairytale “and they lived happily ever after” ending. As has been suggested by fan theories, Shepard could be viewed as a messianic character of sorts, as he gives up his own life so that others may be saved.
Just as in our own lives – our stories if you will – we are not always in control of events. That’s a terrifying thought, and it’s one explanation for why we play videogames: To escape from a life that probably isn’t all that exciting, and not quite as dangerous naturally. Ultimately, though, escapism is unsatisfying because it doesn’t enrich life in any particular way, even though I enjoy it in the moment. It merely steals my time. Of course, that could be said about any leisure activity, but it’s definitely possible to learn more about life and everything while playing videogames, precisely as with literature, movies and any other cultural activity. Sometimes you need to lose and admit defeat to learn more. And learning is always a joyous event because you get another piece of the puzzle.
A recent example of this is Papers, Please. All but one of the 20 endings are negative, even if you’ve been performing your job admirably. In short, you inspect passports and decide whether applicants may get inside the glorious nation of Arstotzka or not. The consequences of a rejection are often prompt and severe. The player’s role is not an enviable one, but it’s a role that is important to experience because you never know when you’ll find yourself as the man with the stamp, ruling over other people’s lives. It’s a lesson to always reflect over the power and influence you may have. And it manages to impart this, by making you lose over and over again. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that there is an ending that is actually good, though when you think about it a bit more that ending might actually be as terrifying as the others.
“We’ve grown accustomed to games having an achievable good ending, even if it requires extreme dedication or attention to detail.”A reason for this viewpoint is that we still generally see games as systems to be solved, which also explains the many poor romances in Western RPGs or black-&-white morals of the same. Games that do this aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just part of the great swathe of different themes and emotions that videogames can and should convey. Demanding that all videogames should strive to emulate French existentialist movies (or some other high-minded art form) is as ignorant as saying that games should all be “fun”. I can understand the dissatisfaction with ME 3’s ending, because spending 100+ hours on the trilogy, only to be smacked in the face it is frustrating, however, you can turn the problem around and ask whether it would be that much better if Shepard had a triumphant ending. I mean, you’d still have spent the same amount of time playing the games, only to get an ending that would be hamstrung and banal. It would be so predictable. Instead it felt appropriate. But it’s a saddening trend that many people keep demanding “good” endings.
It’s an uphill battle, though. We’ve grown accustomed to games having an achievable good ending, even if it requires extreme dedication or attention to detail. Like Jesper Juul, a game researcher, suggests in an interview about his book The Art of Failure, “[Games] promise us that we can repair a personal inadequacy – an inadequacy that they create in us in the first place.” So if a game cannot be beaten, that satisfaction disappears. I think that attitude needs to change, if we want games to diversify and tell relevant stories along with all the silliness.
A long while back, I wrote about Atom Zombie Smasher, a seemingly silly title that did well to hide a far more sinister theme. Much like Papers, Please, it’s about the faceless, nameless bureaucrat whose decisions have widespread consequences for human lives. In it, the player assumes control of the evacuation of zombie-infested city. Almost inevitably some civilians will have to be sacrificed in favor of more important people. I write “almost” because it is possible to save everyone with a bit of finesse and skill, which some pointed out. But the second it becomes about mastering those skills, it loses some significance. What AZS did well was to ask the player whether they wanted to be in that position, having ultimate power over other people’s lives. That’s a relatively common position to be in. Presumably not involving zombies, but natural disasters of a different kind. Either way, it’s not something most would like to experience first-hand, however, through a videogame you can experience a sliver of that responsibility. It might be escapism of sorts, but you walk away from it with a different feeling entirely. It’s that feeling that you’ve learned something.
“Popularly said, the only way to ‘win’ was to not play it.”But things are changing, slowly at least. One of last year’s most debated games, Spec Ops: The Line, is a prime example of this. Strongly by inspired the themes and structure of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and the film adaptation Apocalypse Now, The Line has its protagonist, Walker, experience a slow descent into madness. Most importantly, though, it takes control away from the player. Popularly said, the only way to “win” was to not play it. Regardless of what you do, there’s only one way for the story to head. Walker either survives as a broken madman, or dies and finds a form of solace in it. To incorporate an objectively good ending of the game would nullify what The Line tried to do. One reading of it is that there can be no redemption for Walker, once he’s crossed the eponymous line. That’s a very unsubtle way of conveying the point, but still valid. And yet, some people tried to merely state the theme as being “war is bad”, which is a grossly simplified reading of it. I think – in part – this attitude stems from the same dissatisfaction people showed at ME 3’s ending, as it was an unfamiliar way to end a game. Nonetheless reception for The Line has been mostly good, which is cause for optimism, as I hope to see more games telling actual stories instead of delivering power fantasies.