Theme Party: A More Perfect Union


The narrative elements of video games are a curiously fluctuating beast.  It’s rare to have this wide a spectrum of variance on the story qualities of a medium; on the one hand, we have games like Heavy Rain or Gone Home that are almost entirely story driven, and on the other, we have games like Geometry Wars or Super Hexagon where the story is virtually non-existent.  I have a hard time thinking of such a strong variance in movies or novels, as it’s rare one would encounter a movie or book that eschews narrative entirely in order to heavily emphasize say, a particular visual element or pure linguistic mastery.  In that respect, gaming is unique; we have the ability to play with story elements and even the level to which the story itself is relevant at all.


So, when we choose to incorporate them into a work, what do we need in video game stories to create emotional investment and narrative power in a way that is different from that which is available in other mediums?  When looking at a Call of Duty game or Uncharted, we see a lot of cinema’s trappings being stapled onto gameplay concepts.  These are stories that, by and large, gain little from their gaming environment and merely serve as a backdrop or justification for the action that takes place in the interactive environment.

The key difference in our medium is interactivity.  The player character is an insertion of the consumer of the media in a way that is impossible to emulate in movies or television.  Other forms of art ask the viewer or reader to confront the material intellectually, visually, responsively, but it’s rare to find something beyond a video game that asks the consumer to act in a certain way.  A video game is a call to action.  Nothing will move forward unless the player moves it forward.  The player character, then, is both the narrative driver and passenger, and the story can be utilized in such a way as to create an impact that is much more personal to the player by calling them to act in ways that resonate with a certain theme.

For the Theme Party this week, I want to call attention to three games that I feel achieve a perfect merger of story and gameplay, causing the player to feel a deep connection not just with the story as it is presented to her, but with it as she is forced to embody it.  The three games I’ve chosen to this end are Metal Gear Solid 3, Shadow of the Colossus, and Papers, Please.  Through these three games, I intend to examine the power of the gameplay/story merger of a moment, of a scene, and of an entire narrative.


The final scene of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of the most heart-wrenching stories in gaming.  Snake’s connection with The Boss goes beyond words, and the fact that you’re forced to battle her to the death for the machinations of political entities miles away is a powerful statement to the drive of the Metal Gear saga’s themes about soldiers and the roles they play.

But the key moment here is the one after the boss battle and the dialogue, where Snake is faced with the culmination of his task: kill The Boss, finish the mission.  Metal Gear games are somewhat infamous for their over-reliance on cutscenes, and it would have been easy here to show this moment cinematically, as so many other crucial moments in the series have been shown.  But Hideo Kojima didn’t give us the luxury of the camera this time.


After the cutscene, the camera pulls out and the player is put back in control, with only one action available, one thing left to do before the game can end: pull the trigger.  The game makes you do it, and makes you the one responsible for The Boss’s death in the end.  With that depression of the Square button and the sickening rumble of the controller, you and Snake both take the Boss’s life, killing the one true hero in the entire game.  This action resonates into future games, with Snake/Big Boss being haunted by it well into Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid 4, and we’re right there with him the whole damn time because we’re the ones that had to do it.  It hurts, and it hurts in a way that never could have come about if we’d just seen Snake do it in a cutscene.  In that one moment, the game pulls you in and makes you take the crucial shot, and that’s why that shot and that death send shockwaves through the series: it’s our fault.


Shadow of the Colossus takes this idea one step further.  Throughout the game, even with minimal plot or exposition, it becomes more and more dubious what it really is that the objectives of the game are driving the player and the protagonist toward.  Wander’s clothes become shredded, he starts looking haggard, and by the time you’re facing down the final colossus, Wander looks like a complete trainwreck.  He has nothing left but his goal, and he’ll waste away entirely and take all of the Colossi with him if that’s what it takes to accomplish it.

It’s not terribly far off what happens.  In the end, Wander finds himself transformed into a monster not unlike all the ones he slew to reach that point, and the ones who followed him to the forbidden lands of the game’s setting finally manage to create a portal to seal him away.  In the final scene, the monstrous Wander is being slowly sucked away into the portal, but desperately tries to claw his way away from it to his sleeping love on the altar.


The kicker is that the game makes you do the clawing.  The game is, for all intents and purposes, over; all the colossi are dead, the objectives have been completed, and there’s nothing you can do to change the game’s outcome at that point.  It’s a done deal.

But I’ll be damned if I didn’t claw for that girl on that altar like a motherfucker as I got dragged away into that portal.  I don’t know why I did it, but it didn’t matter.  The game put me into Wander right at the last moment, one more time, and it made me know his futile struggle before being sealed away.  Wander’s desperation became mine, and that entire sequence connected me to the character more than all of the 16 colossi leading up to it.


                Papers, Please is the ultimate expression of the ideas conveyed in brief scenes in the games above.  Your role in Papers, Please makes it so that the only narrative drive that takes place in the game occurs entirely within the confines of player action.  If you want something to happen, you have to actively make a choice to either do or not do.  Accept or Deny.

It’s a brilliant fusion and it makes the game haunt the player long after they’ve put it down for the day.  I spent a long time after playing it each night just sort of staring off into the darkness, thinking about what it was I’d done.  The consequences weren’t the result of some abstract dialogue choice or something my avatar did in a cutscene.  No, they were things I did with my damned rubber stamp, and every arrest, death, and mistake was all directly on my head and the result of my actions.


Even outside of that, though, the game forces you to connect to it on a gameplay level.  Your desk gets cluttered, you wind up with junk on it, junk that you start to feel sort of sentimental toward even though you don’t have any real connection to it.  There’s a tactility to everything you have to do that makes it all so much more real, and the game becomes a perfect fusion of gameplay and story.  That man died because I stamped red on his passport.  My family starved because of my actual physical limitations in how fast I could process people.  It’s gripping and haunting and it sticks in your head far more than any choice in a dialog tree or accumulation of Paragon or Renegade points.

So what’s the takeaway here, then?  More games need to start embracing the very thing that makes them what they are: interactivity.  The faster we move away from cutscenes and start moving toward making all of the player’s actions correspond to the player character’s consequences, the sooner we’ll have these kinds of deep emotional ties running through all of our experiences.  That’s not to say that games that don’t participate in this kind of fusion are inferior or wrong; it’s just that those games aren’t truly embracing the unique power of the medium: action.  The final shot, the futile struggle, the rubber stamp, all of these things are representative of the true emotional connection and power that games can have when gameplay and story merge seamlessly.


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