Thursday, April 30, 2009

April '09 BoRT: Characters with History

This post is part of Corvus Elrod's monthly cross-blog event, The Blogs of the Round Table. This month's topic is about social problems that disturb us, and how games handle them. As per request, I would rate this post "T" according to the ESRB ratings guide.

For this month's BoRT, Corvus asked us to imagine a game that would tackle a social issue that disturbs us. As usual, I will prod the boundaries of the topic guidelines and suggest something more nebulous than explicit violence or harmful sexism. Of the many disturbing social ills in existence, I am most troubled by societal tendency to embrace historical amnesia.

What has happened to our beloved video game heroes over the years? The answer depends on the frame of analysis: They have become prettier, have branched out into a various genres, and some have learned to speak. But as characters, as psychological and historical actors, they have remained stagnant. Examine some of the legends of the gaming pantheon like Mario, Link, Samus, Sonic, or Lara Croft, and one will find characters that defy history as readily as they do gravity. I would like to try to envision a game in which the characters do not live in a universe devoid of time and consequences. I yearn for a game that makes its characters, and by extension, the player, responsible for their actions.

As Jorge eloquently described, Gears of War 2 awkwardly attempts to humanize the brutish super soldiers introduced in the first game. While the success of marrying emotions to characters that generally amount to one-liner-spouting tanks is debatable, I found some of the scenes unexpectedly engaging. When Tai, a stout soldier in both mind and body, is taken prisoner by the enemy and brutally tortured, he ultimately kills himself. His suicide scene briefly exposes the psychological cost of total unrestricted combat. However, it is only a glimmer, and is quickly snuffed out after the cut scene ends.

Metal Gear Solid 4 contains similar sparks of character development and the exploration of trauma's effects. Snake's aging body conveys the passage of time and the exhausting life he was born into. The brilliant flashback sequence also hints at the mental toll his adventures have exacted. However, instead of using his flashback to explore his psyche, the game quickly brushes it off as a dream.

While short, scenes like these game me the impression that not only was I witnessing the effects of trauma, but as the player, I was complicit in them. After seeing Tai's death, I could not help but comtemplate what Marcus Fenix must see when he closes his eyes. Going back to setting of Metal Gear Solid 1 with Snake made me re-live the decades of missions I led him through. Every time I saw him groan and rub his back, I mused on the origins of that pain: did the recklessly thrown grenade on Shadow Moses or the the senseless fistfights I started on the Tanker contribute to that?

The gameplay wheel need not be re-invented in order for a game to create a character subject to history. Imagine a game where in some scenes, the player controls a character at the height of their physical and mental prowess. They could go "Rambo" at every opportunity and still survive, but they would face the consequences in the next scene, in which they would control the same character some forty years later. Is it not somewhat perverse that, in most games, fighting makes characters stronger? What if experience points were not absolutely positive?

Perhaps all the gunfire damaged their ears, and the sound would be muffled? Maybe all of the flips and physical stress has lead to chronic pain, thus severely limiting the player's movement. Post-traumatic stress disorder could come in to play: the years of battles might make the older version of the character prone to flashbacks or hallucinations similar to those in Eternal Darkness. It could that be in winning the wars of yesterday, the player paved the way for the character's journey into obscurity. Envisioning Duke Nukem, rid of any alien foes, whiling away the hours as an employee in a run down hardware store is both hilarious and melancholic.

Video games excel in reflecting the way humans often conceptualize the world: in discrete moments. While it is essential for survival, viewing events as snapshots, disconnected from a timeline of events, is both limiting and damaging over the long term. I fervently hope that Six Days in Fallujah will show us the broader ramifications of war and its effect on people, but I fear we will learn very little about how the combatants actually dealt with the process of being sent, surviving in, and coming back from conflict.

There will always be a place for characters that exist within their contextual vacuums, but this need not apply to all games. Link is known as the "Hero of Time," but I think the medium would be equally enriched by heroes that simply existed in time.

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