Monday, March 4, 2013

When games become life (there will be spoilers)

I will warn you that this will probably ramble in and out of my original point because thats just how I roll... On tangents of crazy.
(also, expect spoilers for The Walking Dead, Dragon Age 1 and 2, Mass Effect series, The have been warned)
You ever played a game you really got into? You find yourself yelling at the screen when the characters do something stupid, or don't say something that would resolve the situation they are in, when they don't use common sense? I'm sure you have, just like when you watch a horror movie and someone in it says "we should split up" and you think*  "are you stupid? splitting up is an awful idea, you're all gonna die!"
I think we all do that. *(for the anonymous asshole who flipped his shit because I forgot a word and forced him to read this entire post)
But, what about when a game or game series becomes "real" to you? I don't mean real in the sense that you lose touch with reality and think these characters and places really exist, cause that would be crazy. no, I mean when you get so immersed in a game that when you talk about it, you talk about the characters as if they WERE real. You worry about pissing off or hurting someone in your party. You consider every option and choice because you don't want to make the wrong one. You learn all you can about the characters, the world, the lore.

I don't know if you're like me but there are stories, series, characters that stick with me. That I feel concern over and yes, I've even cried when a character dies.

At this moment in gaming developers are going out of their way to try and get you to engage with the worlds and characters in games more than ever. Moral choice is a big thing  now in games, will you be the kindly hero or the take no prisoners hard ass? Will you save the world or dance on its corpse?

I tend to lean towards "good" in games where choice is an issue. Its not really even a conscious effort on my part really, I tend to choose being helpful, biting my tongue, being diplomatic. I won't lie though, I also tend to be good because being bad usually doesn't pay off. Prime example, Fable 2/3 (probably 1 as well but I haven't played that one). When I played Fable I was ready to be a badass. Next thing I know, my character is so damn good she has a halo. So I started a new character and went out of my way to be as big a dick as possible. The result was that every villager ran away as soon as they saw me. The few who didn't wouldn't give me any missions, the stores would either not sell to me or would jack up the prices. There I was  with no quests, hardly any money, not being able to shop and the game was suddenly a chore. I never did finish the game with that character. I went back to my big burly pirate queen with the halo. Between that experience and my natural proclivity towards good, I tend to sometimes bite my tongue, or more accurately my characters tongue in certain situations in order to get the best outcome (kinda like life I guess).

But what about the games where there really isn't a "good" option? Or where your choices truly mean nothing at all.

I'll start with a game that had an impact on pretty much everyone who played it, an easy one, The Walking Dead. (*I warn you there will be Spoilers now)

From the beginning of the game I was diplomatic in my choices while sitting in the squad car and when I first met Clementine and butchered her zombie babysitter, I tried my best to say something that would help her deal with the brutality I had just exhibited.
As the game progressed everything became about Clem (just as the developers intended). I would try to weigh all the options as fast as possible and choose the one I felt was the lesser of multiple evils to avoid Clementine being hurt or looking at me sadly with disappointment. The few times I did things she didn't like I felt horrible. Perhaps its because I'm a parent and that naturally spilled over to my game play and Lee's situation as a surrogate parent and mentor. Perhaps it was just great writing and voice acting on the game's part. That's not really the issue. The thing is that as I played, Clem became my daughter, I became Lee, her protector and she was most definitely my moral compass. I admit that there are places in the game where I chose things she might not agree with, but those were rare and far between.
I helped take car of Lilly's father when he had his heart attack and I felt I was right.
I killed one of the cannibal brothers in front of Clem and while I felt it was necessary, it killed me to know she was horrified and disappointed in me.
I chose to let go of Ben at the school and I still feel I was justified, but, I wish Kenny hadn't said what he did, because I hated that Clem was disgusted and disturbed by what I had done. Regardless of how I felt about Ben, to her she was a friend and I effectively killed him by zombie proxy.

When Lee  was bitten my first thought was, "No! How will I take care of Clem? WHO will take care of Clem? Why couldn't I have avoided that bite?" And as Lee sat there dying and trying to comfort Clem I cried. I cried until I could barely see the screen. In that moment the game changed for me. I was no longer controlling Lee, I was a ghost in the room witnessing a horrible and intimate moment between father and daughter (yes, I know Lee isn't her real father but, come on, he was more than just the guy that let her tag along.). I desperately wished I could change things so he wouldn't have to die and she wouldn't have to be faced with all that horror on her own. In that moment, they were just as real as I am. And when Clem pulled that trigger, I hated myself and the world. I hated myself because I encouraged her to do it and the world because it had forced us into that situation. When it was all over, I mourned Lee's death and wondered what would become of Clem with concern.
TWD was created with that intent, to make you think and feel and face who you are and they did an amazing job accomplishing that.
But not all games or, I should say very few, if any games create bonds in such a deep way.

I could go with the obvious and controversial game with choices Mass Effect...But I'm really sick of hearing people bitch about how your choices didn't matter, they did, just not in a way that people felt had enough impact. whine whine, deal with it. Though I assure you I could say plenty about my feelings for my crew.
Instead I'll go with its sister series, Dragon Age.

Now Dragon Age: Origins was an awesome game and Awakening was a great expansion to an awesome game. Dragon Age 2...meh, not so much. I'm not going to discuss the merits or lack thereof of Dragon Age 2, that's for another day. I'm gonna talk about my party.

You see, I didn't really give that much of a shit that I was the chosen one, the Grey Warden, the Champion. Come on, save the world (or in the case of DA2 the city) is standard fare. What really kept me playing were the people in my party.
In Dragon Age my party consisted of Alastair, Morrigan and Leliana most of the time, eventually I swapped Morrigan for Wynn and fora brief time Zehvran for Leliana. If you've played the game you know Morrigan and Alistair hate each other with a passion. This led to a lot of hilarious conversation between them. I found myself stopping often to listen to them banter. Later Wynn and Zehvran had a fascinating conversation about her bosom. That right there, those conversations, that was what I came back to the game for. To smack down bad guys and listen to my party bitch at each other.
Those moments let me get to know and love my companions much more than standing in camp and asking them questions.
Alistair was a man-child, he was idealistic and innocent and sweet and I loved that about him. When the time came to toughen him up or not, I chose not to. I couldn't bring myself to be the one that changed him into a hard person.
Morrigan's tough exterior masked the fact that she had led a sheltered life and was pretty ignorant of life outside the Wilds. Not only that but she had been so isolated she had never had a  friend, and she really needed one. I felt compassion for her.
There's a lot more I could say about my companions but I have a bit more ground to cover and don't wanna make this last forever.

The point is that, while I played they were living people with their own feelings, fears and motivations. But, it wasn't just my party that affected me...for example, I let the demon in Warden's Keep go. I felt a bit sad for it and i figured if I had to, I could always go take care of it later, and so I gave it a chance. That felt right to me. Another thing was Blood Magic and Jowan the blood mage. Blood Magic is a big no-no in the world of Dragon Age, so I felt wrong about and I didn't use it. On the flip side, I spared Jowan because I sympathiszd with him, and because I found the idea of Tranquils utterly disturbing. None of it is real, yet I felt morally wrong using blood magic and horrified at the idea of being cut off from your dreams and ambitions.

Dragon Age 2 was...inferior in many ways to Dragon Age, but one thing it DID do right, at least to me was the interaction between your party members. My companions not only bickered while out in a town or dungeon, now they discussed things they did while not out and about with me. Varric and Fenris joke about gambling with Isabella. There's that hint that Isabella and Fenris got their groove on. It made them all more real. It made you feel like they were no longer automatons that were on standby til you chose to take them with you. They hung out, they went drinking and wenching and gambling while I went out to woo Anders or kill a few Qunari. When I talk about my characters exploits, its not "Hawke" its "Me". When Fenris screwed me over, I felt it. I was in shock. Both hurt and angry. Here I had saved him from slavery and he rats me out. He betrayed me not Hawke.

When I talk about games I rarely talk about my character, I talk about me. What happened to me in such and such a place. The enemies I defeated. The sweet new weapon I got.
Now, that's not to say that I always see myself as the character I control. For example, Assassin's Creed. When I play AC2 I never see it as a game I'm playing. I'm not scaling walls and shanking people. Its Ezio. His personality is larger than life and I'm more of a tag along. I'm there seeing him in action, but I'm not him, I never could be, he's so much his own person. He's not just a bunch of pixels. He's this amazing man doing extraordinary things and I'm just there sharing in his exploits.

Not all games have that thing. That spark of life that. But the ones that do, those are the ones that touch me. They make me consider my actions, temper my decisions. They make me care. and long after the game is done, the console is off, that stays with me. I still feel sad at the loss of Mordin and Thane. I still feel intense hatred for Griffin in  Gears 3 and would cheerfully chainsaw his ass.

Its a blurring of the lines between fiction and reality. Not in the sense that I think these people are real, but more that I FEEL they are real and while that might sound like the same thing, it really isnt. Its illogical, maybe a bit silly, perhaps even a little crazy, I don't know. All I know is that when I was saying my goodbyes to Garrus before setting out on that final push in Mass Effect 3, it was bittersweet and brought tears to my eyes. I spared Anders in Dragon Age 2 because while I couldn't stand his obsession and I didn't agree with his actions, he was my man and I loved him and I stood by him. With sadness I let Alistair go because as a mage, I could never be his queen, and in The Darkness I grieved and raged with Jackie over the death of Jenny.

Perhaps I'm just quixotic, maybe I'm just bonkers, I don't really know. Perhaps gaming is just evolving.

So am I the lone nutcase?
What games speak to you?


BLD said...

One last game I'd like to add as one that grabbed my attention was Castlevania Lords Of Shadow. It has a great story and better yet, how its told.

BLD said...

As a reader of books you appreciate the connection one can have when reading a good piece of literature.
The games you mentioned all have fantastic stories and characters despite some flaws some of them may have had in their game mechanics execution.

For you to relate to these characters is not unheard of. I would add Bioshock to this piece since many (and I) thought that it was a great story, same can be said for System Shock 2.

I did find myself playing DA Origins several times for two reasons. 1) I wanted to see what would happen with different character ensembles and 2) The great story AND music. This last one cannot be underestimated. Music can make or break your experience. However it tends to be subtle.

If you played Darkness 2 then you know the scene with Jackie meeting Jenny again in the dreamworld in the dinner. While this scene plays out the background is filled with the sultry song "I Only Have Eyes For You" by the Flamingos. This was nothing short of genius.

I read about some of your decisions while playing these games and more importantly your predetermined disposition of being inherently "good" games that offer the ability for the gamer to make investments in your decisions makes games like DA (Dragon Age), or ME (Mass Effect) so utterly re-playable.

For example I felt while playing DA that Morrigan may have lived in the wilds and sheltered as you suggest, However out of all my companions she had a keen view of the outside world something the other characters in my party lacked even Wynn.

She also did her own thing regardless of what others felt. This is a strength in character that most real folks you know may lack. I knew from the outset that she was one to keep my eyes on because she had a no nonsense approach to life. Strong in character and with laser beam focus on the final goal. Even if it meant using her female wilds or forcibly removing obstacles like say her mother.

On the other hand Leliana to me always felt like a naive child. Bright eyed and full of feelings. I was even more perplexed by her cavalier attitude when I played her DLC and I found out more about her past.

So what does all this mean? I think that we see what we want to see based on our own life experiences and what our predisposition is.

I think games that allow you to make connections (i.e. well written pieces) are the best kinds of games regardless of genre.

Thank you for this piece. it was very entertaining and thoughtful.

Oh I would add Heavy Rain, Uncharted and God Of War as some well written games that connect with their players.

Sihaya Atreides said...

There are many games that I felt a connection to, I limited the ones I listed for the sake of brevity. AS it is hardly anyone reads my blog and making the posts longer would guarantee no one made it through one.

I didn't include Bioshock, because while its a fantastic game and had its jaw dropping moments, it didn't "get" me in the same sense these other games did.

I didn't include Heavy Rain because I hated it and stopped playing shortly after starting.
Uncharted because its entertaining but not particularly deep. I mean I love the Indiana Jones movies but they aren't exactly War and Peace.

Finally God of War. I adore Kratos. Hell i even cried when I played Chains of Olympus during a particular scene. But again, while I do sympathize with Kratos, there's just something about the story, about the Character that doesn't reach me at that kind of emotional level.

But, the thing of it is that what I see in a game might not be what others see in it and vice versa.
So, a subject like this, you could have 50 people and not 2 of them give you the same answer.

I also tend to be according to others "weird" in both my temperament and my tastes so, I doubt many people would see things the way I do.

Nocturne.™ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BLD said...

This was a nice topic to touch on.

Nocturne.™ said...

good god I almost fell asleep halfway BLD's reply... he basically says the same as you did with slightly different words...
So original.

yes I reposted it... too many damn typos :3

Nocturne.™ said...

but to stay ontopic, I didn't read the parts directed at Mass Effect or Dragon Age 2, since I haven't played it yet, well I did start ME1, but I'm not far in it.

You were pretty spot on TWD though, I did actually feel like I was Clem's caretaker and I chose actions which I hoped would have less shitty consequences.
I actually played the ending 3 times and prayed that the outcome would be different each time, but sadly not.
There I was, looking at the screen with poor little Clem in it feeling like shit.
Still I kinda hope Telltale would launch something to let us see what happeend to her, but on second thought it would be better to not know.

Another game I sort of got sucked into was Final Fantasy VII, I actually felt bad for Sephiroth, while his actions might be a little overdone, I could understand why he was this pissed.
And in my opinion, he deserved that privilege. I would be pissed also if shit like that happened to me.

More games need that "spark of life", most games are that, just games.

Aye Nonimou said...

If you expect someone to read something this long you could at least proofread.

"just like when you watch a horror movie and someone in it says "we should split up" and you "are you stupid?"

Forget something?

Sihaya Atreides said...

Then don't read it. Shit happens, people make mistakes. move along

Nocturne.™ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nocturne.™ said...

I deleted my previous comment, because I can't be bothered with simpletons like that Aye Nonymou character and flamewars would only foul up this blog and it's not the place. ;)
I can be nice if I want to lol