Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Everything in Its Right Place

Wow, it's been a while since my last post.  Well, between packing and moving into college for another year of classes, my time has been pretty occupied.  I don't even know if I can fit in more posts with classes.  Hopefully so.  But, in case I can not post more with my workload, I'd like to have a very serious post as my potential "last" post.

This issue was spawned in a debate my friends and I had last night when we were walking around.  After discussing video games for a while, we eventually began a debate on one of my favorite games, Visceral's Dante's Inferno.  In particular, we were debating Dante's Inferno's Condemn/Absolve system.  For the uninformed, throughout Dante's trek through Hell, he comes across not only the minions of Hell but also notable sinners throughout history, including Pontius Pilate and Attila the Hun.    Dante then has the decision of whether to "absolve" this souls, sending their souls to Heaven, or "Condemn" them, in which Dante burns the souls and condemns them to stay in Hell forever.  The mechanic doesn't have much story application, it mainly just serves as a way to get upgrades.  It does the usual trade off you've seen in other moral choice games (Evil choice gets the bigger short-term gains, Good has the better long term gains).

The problem I have with this mechanic is not any particular flaws with it.  It works well, and there is nothing I would particularly fix.  But the problem I have with the mechanic is that it has no real reason for being there.  It's there because it's cool and because it worked in other games.  There is no narrative reason for it being there.  And while I have no problem with games putting in mechanics to be cool or fun, I think it doesn't work in a game like Dante's Inferno, where other elements have a narrative application.  The enemies, for example, represent the Circles of Hell.  The weapons represent the difference between Heaven (Dante's cross) and Hell (Death's scythe).  Everything is there for a particular reason and to represent something about the world or the character.  But the Condemn/Absolve mechanic doesn't represent anything.  It doesn't change anything about Dante and other characters' views towards Dante don't change regardless of what you decide.  The mechanic, in other words, has no narrative weight or meaning.  It's just there.

But the saddest thing is, this mechanic could have weight!  It could have been Dante's reaction to the things he has seen in Hell.  If he absolved the souls, we could have seen a kinder, gentler Dante; one who forgives himself for his actions.  If he condemned, we could have seen a meaner, colder, more callous Dante, who still believes he is holier than others and learns nothing from his trials and thus deserves his sport in Hell.  It could have made Dante a deeper, more interesting, and just more human character.

See, as much as I love games that are just generally fun and cool, sometimes I want a game that feels planned and feels like every element, from the mechanics to enemies, is there for a reason.  Let's look at two examples, one a novel, the other a game.

My favorite book of all time is George Orwell's Animal Farm.  By itself, the novel is a brilliant story of a revolution of farm animals against their cruel owners and the aftermath, where the leader pigs soon become as corrupt as their former, human owners.  But when you learn that is an allegory for Stalinist Russia, and every character, from the pigs to the sheep to the horses, represent something in the Russia. The Horse is the working class, who blindly and fervently works on government projects to serve Napoleon the Pig, who represents Stalin.  With these concepts and allegories in minds, the story has more weight and meaning, and you care for the characters more.

Let's now take Silent Hill 2.  As explained in a previous post, all the enemies represent something about James's character and psyche, and thus, his actions and violence against these enemies thus have a psychological meaning that can be analyzed.  That's why people complain about more modern Silent Hill games including the sexy nurses and Pyramid Head.  Those creatures meant and represented something to James.  They really don't for the other characters without seriously convoluted reasons.

So what am I saying?  I think we can still have our fun games, but I think the games that want to tell a story and send a message truly need to think about what they are including in their game.  The people who created Dante's Inferno would have to truly consider the Absolve and Condemn mechanic and what it could mean to the character.  In other words, more artistic games will have to consider EVERYTHING in a narrative context when in the concept stage of development.

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