Nudgy Controls Part III: How the Last Guardian Turned Gameplay into Story

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

Introduction

In the first two parts of Nudgy Controls, I defined an important way that a game’s controls can preserve narrative consistency in a game: through “nudges.” A nudge is an instance of player input X, which usually yields output Y, instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z maintains narrative consistency. In the Part I I defined exactly what a nudge is, and discussed a variety of types of games that maintain narrative consistency through a lack of nudges. In Part II I defined two different types of nudges: player aids and player hindrances. Player aids are instances in which the player is assisted in accomplishing tasks that she potentially could not accomplish without assistance. Player hindrances are instances in which the player’s actions are disrupted, forcing the player to fail where they otherwise likely could have succeeded. All of these ideas are covered in depth in the previous two articles in the series, and so I do not focus on them here. For the remainder of the article I will assume the reader is familiar with the previous two articles, so I would suggest reading those first if you have yet to do so.

In this article I consider the case of The Last Guardian, which pushes the idea of a nudge beyond what our current model can explain. The game is about a young boy (to whom I refer as “the boy” and “the avatar”) who wakes up in a mysterious place away from home, and must escape with the help of a giant beast (Trico) whom he tames throughout the course of the story. Many reviewers, such as IGN and Game Informer, have claimed that this game suffers from a clunky control scheme, and that “platforming as the boy is occasionally spotty, but Trico’s inability to consistently follow your commands drags the experience down more than anything else.” [1]

It is true that the boy often hesitates in situations that surprise the player, leading to failure, and also that Trico is relatively difficult to control. However, I think this highly critical review of the game’s controls is misguided, since both the boy’s and Trico’s behavior can actually be explained by nudgy controls, once we add a few new ideas to the model. The nudgy behavior is a good thing as opposed to a detractor from the game overall because the behavior establishes and reinforces the overall narrative. Criticising The Last Guardian for having frustrating controls while praising its narrative does not make sense because the frustrating controls help form and reinforce the narrative of the game. In this article I explain how we can view the boy’s hesitancy as instances of nudges that are sometimes player hindrances and sometimes player aids. I will also show how the difficulty of directing Trico is the direct result of trying to control a character while there are many nudges taking place. In the end we will see that control schemes should not be judged solely on how “tight” the controls are, but rather on how well the control scheme reinforces or even helps establish the narrative of the game.

The Boy’s Hesitancy

Let’s consider two aspects of the gameplay in The Last Guardian, and how we can make sense of them using nudgy controls. There are two particularly noticeable moments where an input X shifts some usual output Y to a different output Z instead. One occurs when the player attempts to give an input that would ordinarily make the avatar run over a ledge. In these moments, the avatar stops short at the edge. So instead of the expected output of the avatar continuing to run and then running off the ledge occurring, the output is shifted to the avatar stopping at the edge. Importantly, it’s not as if the avatar is incapable of falling. If the player makes the avatar jump off the edge as opposed to running, there is no invisible wall in the game engine that stops the avatar’s movement, and he will fall off the side.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 11.54.47 AM.png

The boy stops himself at a ledge.

The second bit of unexpected behavior occurs when the avatar is falling. Whenever the boy gets close to something stable he can grab, he reaches out to attempt to cease his fall, and succeeds so long as the object is within reach. The player is supposed to be able to stop the boy from doing doing this by holding a particular button, allowing him to instead just continue to fall.

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The boy reaches out to grab a ledge as he falls.

But even while the player is holding the button down, the boy will often still grab things close to him while falling, especially if they are very close to him, or a part of Trico he can hold onto (an indication through gameplay of the boy’s trust and care for Trico). In this way, when the player is holding the relevant button, the usual output of continuing to fall is sometimes shifted to grabbing on to something to cease the fall.

But is the nudge of the boy staying away from ledges a player aid or a player hindrance? And what about the nudge of the boy breaking his fall? Upon reflection it becomes apparent that these behaviors sometimes act like player aids and sometimes act like player hindrances.

Initially, one might be tempted to declare that stopping at the edge of a platform is a player aid, since stopping at the edge of a platform would prevent an untimely death in the form of a lethal fall for the boy. But the answer is not so simple, as evidenced by the fact that many reviewers were frustrated by the nudges “messing them up” in some way. Game Informer in particular says that “the imprecise controls make the journey rough.” [2] For example, if the boy gets to a ledge right as the player attempts to jump, then the boy will stop his momentum entirely, messing up the player and frequently leading to accidentally falling off of a ledge as the player frantically adjusts her plan for the situation. Is this not an instance of a player hindrance?

Similarly, ceasing a fall while the player is attempting to prevent that action might initially seem to simply be a player hindrance, since the player did not want that action to occur. If there are many things for the boy to grab during his fall, dropping down can take quite a bit of time and effort if he grabs every ledge, which is potentially very bad for the player when there is some time-limited objective to complete. And if an enemy is approaching the player, then delay in getting to the ground could lead to the enemy capturing the boy. So an instance of the boy breaking his fall when the player is trying to make him fall seems like it must certainly be a hindrance. But what if the player misjudged the distance? Then the boy grabbing a ledge before landing on the unforgiving ground could also potentially save the boy’s life—certainly an example of a player aid. At times, the boy’s caution makes execution of the player’s goals more difficult, even though the same caution often prevents the player from making careless errors.

So it appears that at times these are player aids and at times they are player hindrances. In the rest of the analysis, I will refer to such nudges as mixed nudges. But I get ahead of myself, as there is still one more important aspect to consider before declaring that these are nudges. I must show that they preserve narrative consistency in some way. In order to do so I will introduce one more idea into our model, which I will term avatar perspective.

Avatar Perspective and Mixed Nudges

Just as the player has the capacity for perception, so too does the avatar within the fiction of a game. [3] The ability to perceive gives rise to a consistent way of viewing what is perceived that is unique to the individual because every person has a unique set of perceptions. I will call these consistent ways of viewing perceptions perspectives. One aspect of a perspective is someone with a given perspective will view certain things as belonging to the same category, such as things that square-shaped, certain things that are scary or not scary, or certain actions being moral or immoral. There are a nearly infinite number of possible categories, and exactly which items make up a particular category. Players and avatars all have the capacity for perception, and thus they all have a unique perspective, and thus unique ways of categorizing what they perceive. This includes the boy in The Last Guardian, whose actions in response to player input reveal various aspects of his perspective.

In general, the player and the avatar’s perspectives will not align with each other, simply because perception is unique to an individual. But the amount that the perspectives differ is not consistent: the player and the avatar may have very similar perspectives, but they may also have incredibly different perspectives. The way in which perspectives differ is not consistent, either. The avatar may lack a moral compass and have no issue with the murdering of children, even though most players view such an action to be repugnant. It’s possible to have a player that is color blind and an avatar that is not. And lest you think that vast differences in player and avatar perspectives are uncommon, consider any game with a third-person camera, in which the visual perception of the player and the avatar differs greatly just because of an offset in camera placement within the game engine.

Differences in perceptions and ensuing perspectives between the player and the avatar can be crucial in analyzing mixed nudges. The relevant difference in perspective in The Last Guardian has to do with which sets of objects are viewed as being within the same category. There are many possible categories to consider. For instance, let’s consider the category of corgis that look the same to an individual. For the sake of the example let’s say that I am not familiar with corgis, and that you, the reader, are. In that case, most corgis will look alike to me, even though you’d be able to discriminate between the dogs with relative ease. A similar situation arises between the player and the avatar in The Last Guardian.

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Above is how I see four corgis versus how you see four corgis. Notice that to me, all the dogs are look the same, whereas to you, each dog looks at least slightly different.

Specifically, there are many situations that the avatar of The Last Guardian sees as belonging to the category of “situations that are dangerous for the boy” that the player does not see as belonging to that category. The avatar has very simple perceptive rules in this regard: all situations of falling and being close to a stable object to grab onto are dangerous and so demand the same response. Likewise, all situations of running toward a ledge are dangerous and so demand the same response. The player, in contrast, likely does not see all of these situations as belonging to the same category. Specifically, when the avatar is already close to the ground upon starting to fall, the player would not see this as a dangerous situation for the avatar, even though the avatar would see it as dangerous. And when the avatar is running toward a ledge and the player is preparing to make the avatar jump at the ledge, the player likely does not consider this situation to be as dangerous as the avatar considers it to be.

The existence of nudges in conjunction with avatar perspective ends up being surprisingly rich in its ability to endow a character in a narrative with clear desires. The consistent way that the avatar acts in response to situations she views as belonging to the same relevant category imply that there is some consistent desire that the avatar is acting upon. These desires form the basis of personality traits. The example of the mixed nudges in The Last Guardian serve as clear examples of the creation of personality from avatar perspective.

The boy views a set of situations as equivalently dangerous. These situations are any in which he is running toward a ledge, and any situations in which he is falling and has something he can grab onto to cease his fall. From these situations we learn that the boy has a desire to avoid injury and death—a fairly sensible desire in general, but also one that makes a lot of sense for a young boy in the dangerous situations he finds himself in. Sometimes this desire is helpful for the boy in that he avoids dangerous situations, and other times the same desire leads to distraction and clumsiness that makes it harder to achieve his goals.

The boy climbing over a ledge.

The mixed nudges in The Last Guardian preserve the consistency of the boy being young and afraid. By having the nudges sometimes be player aids, the player can see that the nudges are not present to show that the boy is clumsy, and by having the nudges sometimes be player hindrances, the player learns that the aids do not arise out of training or a high degree of innate competence. Rather, the mixed nudges preserve the character of the boy as being someone trying not to hurt himself while doing dangerous things, but not always reading the situation correctly because he is young and inexperienced. His category of situations that are dangerous is too broad.

By taking into account avatar perspective, we can explain how what initially seem to be fairly clunky controls are actually instances of nudges that are sometimes player aids and sometimes player hindrances. These mixed nudges do a lot of work in preserving the consistency of the boy being young, afraid, and in a dangerous situation that he does not always navigate perfectly or elegantly, even with the help of a very experienced or skillful player, even though he will not be goaded into reckless action by an incompetent or non-cooperative player. [4] This suggests that the reviews mentioned at the beginning of the article were misguided in criticizing The Last Guardian for the clunky control scheme for the boy, since the controls in fact make the character of the boy more vivid.

Player-Controlled Entities

Reviewers who criticized The Last Guardian spoke not only of difficulty controlling the boy, but of difficulty controlling Trico as well. Polygon reviewer Philip Kollar points out that Trico’s behavior “makes for a realistic depiction of my favorite house pet [a cat], but it’s terrible gameplay.” So at this point I will switch gears to discuss the other half of the duo featured in The Last Guardian. I disagree with Kollar’s claim that Trico’s behavior is terrible gameplay: the gameplay may be frustrating, but that does not make it terrible. The gameplay is actually highly effective at building the character of Trico. The difficulty of controlling Trico can be explained by the presence of a large number of mixed nudges in the actions of Trico that actually reinforce Trico’s character rather than detract from it.

Note that in order for this analysis to work we may need to consider nudges that apply to things the player has control over generally, rather than specifically avatars. While Trico is not necessarily an avatar, he is a character in the game over which the player has at least a degree of control.

Intuitively there is a distinction between avatars, defined roughly as the entity that the player controls as an entry point into a game, and entities in the game that the player controls through the avatar, which belong to a larger category of player-controlled entities. [5] While most players would likely disagree with the claim that Trico is the player’s avatar, he is definitely a player-controlled entity.

There are many games that have a character that is not necessarily an avatar, but is definitely controlled by the player through the intermediary of the avatar. Super Smash Brothers is one notable example, since it has two examples of playable “characters” that consist of multiple entities. One of these is the Ice Climbers: the player directly controls Popo, canonically the climber wearing blue; Nana, canonically the climber wearing pink, does the same actions as the climber wearing blue, but slightly delayed in time. The other is Rosalina and Luma, a space princess and a sentient, star-shaped creature that she commands, respectively. These two can move as a unit or separate themselves and perform the same actions while standing apart from each other.

Rosalina and Luma.

The Ice Climbers in action. The one in blue is Popo and the one in pink is Nana.

In the case of the Ice Climbers, what narratively justifies this gameplay is the tight bond of friendship and trust between the climbers. The two characters have climbed dangerous mountains together, and have presumably gotten to the point where they can communicate so quickly and effectively that it is as if they were reading each other’s minds, and so can coordinate actions in a way that initially seems to be impossible. In the case of Rosalina and Luma, Rosalina is casting spells on Luma that get him to take the same actions as Rosalina instantaneously.

I will define the unit of two player-controlled entities where one is definitely an avatar of the player and the other is an entity being controlled by the player through the avatar to be a partnership. I will mostly not be focusing on the entity that is definitely an avatar (which I will just call the avatar), because we have already discussed that entity in detail in this series. Instead our attention will be on the other entity in the partnership (which I will call the partner). In general across the examples we will look at, the control players have over the avatar when also controlling the partner does not contain nudges. This is not necessarily a rule that must be followed, but examples of that sort would be very difficult to analyze, and so we will not be considering them in the scope of this article.

Within most game narratives, if a partnership exists, there is some dynamic relationship between the characters in the partnership. It turns out that this relationship can be defined and enforced by gameplay. This will prove to be a crucial idea when considering the example of Trico in The Last Guardian. So let’s consider more generally how gameplay can enforce various aspects about the relationship between the partners in a partnership. In this section we will consider two relational aspects in particular, both of which will be important in analyzing Trico’s behavior: how well an avatar and partner are able to communicate with each other, and whether a partner intends to cooperate with an avatar.

The gameplay for the Ice Climbers describes both of those relational aspects quite simply. The nearly simultaneous actions of the climbers show how these two characters can communicate quickly and effectively with ease. And since the climbers never act antagonistically toward each other, they clearly determined long ago that they intend to cooperate with each other.

The Ice Climbers are just one example, however. There is no reason that a partner needs to be able to communicate well with the avatar or intend to cooperate with the avatar. Both of these factors are at play in the example of Trico. Let’s consider two examples of partners that speak in important ways to how the avatar and partner in in The Last Guardian do or do not communicate.

For our first example, let’s say that a developer would like to create a game with a partner who is a femme fatale. While she is incredibly sharp and picks up on everything that the player commands her to do, sometimes she acts mischievously based on a set of intentions that the player is unaware of. Through gameplay that has her usually be responsive to player input except in certain circumstances where she acts against player direction, the developer could maintain this sort of characterization very effectively in the narrative. So the extent to which a partner is responsive to player input can give insight into the level of cooperation between the avatar and the partner. Note again that this analysis only works if the relevant gameplay is not nudgy in terms of controlling the avatar as opposed to the partner.

One particular manifestation of the archetype of femme fatale is Kainé from Nier. She sometimes assists Nier, the titular character and player’s avatar, in various combat situations. It might surprise some people who have played the game, but it is in fact possible to give Kainé a small set of specific commands.

Kaine1.png

The menu screen for issuing commands to Kainé (1/2).

Kaine2.png

The menu screen for issuing commands to Kainé (2/2).

However, Kainé’s behavior does not change much when issued these commands, hence why few people use the feature at all. Even though she is clearly aware of the command issued to her, she apparently has no desire to heed the requests made of her, evidenced by the fact that she literally does not act upon the requests. This is all fitting to her character as a perpetually angry, foul-mouthed warrior.

Kainé killing a monster, but probably not listening to the player.

Now consider a game where the avatar’s partner is someone who is only slightly conversant in the language that the avatar speaks. In this case, that partner, who is player controlled, is slow to respond to player input, or doesn’t respond at all, simply because that message cannot be efficiently communicated, if at all. Unlike the previous example, there is no malevolence or masking of intentions: the gameplay speaks specifically to the inability of these two characters to communicate with one another. A very frustrating example of this is Hey You, Pikachu, a 1998 game in which the player communicates with Pikachu on-screen, attempting (almost always unsuccessfully) to get Pikachu to perform a variety of actions.

Pikachu almost certainly misinterpreting the player’s input.

While Pikachu is intuitively does not appear to be the player’s avatar, because the avatar is apparently the character from whose perspective we are seeing Pikachu, Pikachu certainly is controllable by the player. [6] [7] But the player usually has such difficulty communicating with Pikachu that it is as if Pikachu were not controllable at all. On the level of literary criticism, the issue with Hey You, Pikachu is that Pikachu is so difficult to communicate with that it appears as if he is actually very stupid, as opposed to simply being an animal. This shows the power of gameplay in characterizing a player-controlled entity.

Moving forward I will use these two examples of inter-partner communication to think about Trico’s response to the player’s actions through the intermediary of the avatar. The lack of ability of communicate generally, and not intending to cooperate even if the message is understood, are important aspects of the relationship between boy and his beast that the gameplay highlights and reinforces.

Trico’s Behavior

We now have the groundwork necessary to analyze how Trico’s behavior preserves the narrative consistency in The Last Guardian. To see how this is the case, I will first define one of Trico’s behaviors in question. From there I will show how Trico’s behavior can be seen as mixed nudges and that those mixed nudges arise from Trico’s perspective differing from the player’s in one of the two ways mentioned in the previous section. Trico either does not understand the message, or Trico has an intention that differs from that of the player’s.

One primary way of communicating with Trico is to give him a visual cue of where to move. As anyone who’s played The Last Guardian knows, getting Trico to actually do this is often a long and frustrating process, as he often does not notice what the player is asking him to do, does not understand, or just refuses to do it. This leads to a situation where the player input can yield a wide variety of responses from Trico, some of which help the player, some of which are neutral, and the rest of which hinder the player in some way.

In this way, we can see that the output-shifting required for a nudge exists: the player input can yield any of several outputs from Trico. I remind the reader that the gameplay for controlling the avatar in these circumstances of directing Trico is nudgeless, and so we do not need to worry about compound nudges. Since the nudges can be hindrances the player in some circumstances and be helpful in others, the nudges are in fact mixed nudges. But what of preservation of narrative consistency? What does this gameplay accomplish in terms of that?

Interpreting Trico’s Behavior

Since Trico is a sentient being, he, like the player and the avatar, has a unique perspective. The problem is that since Trico is a beast, his perspective frequently differs from that of the player, who is human. Trico’s larger size means that he looks at the navigation of physical space differently from the smaller human avatar. There are certain things out in the world that scare Trico, especially stained glass images of eyes, that do not have the same impact on the player or the avatar.

The stained glass eyes that frighten Trico.

And Trico is uncontrollably attracted to certain scents that do not seem to have any impact on the avatar. This is all evidence for Trico having a consistent perspective based on his non-human sense modalities.

The difficulty of communicating with Trico arises from the inherent difficulty of bridging the divide between avatar and partner in terms of language and species, such that the player can communicate what she wants to Trico through the avatar, and the player can understand what Trico needs in return. When the player gives a command to Trico, if he sees it and understands it, Trico then responds by performing the desired action, and we can view his behavior as a player aid. If Trico does not see the command or is unable to understand, his lack of action ends up being a player hindrance. The mixed nudges present in this case preserve the narrative that Trico does not have an easy communication channel with the boy at the start of the game, and may not be able to understand what he is being asked to do. This is similar to the example of Pikachu from Hey You, Pikachu: he often literally does not understand the commands he is given, and thus cannot act upon them in a logical way. The mixed nudges further drive this lack of ability to communicate expediently home.

Trico not understanding his commands is not the only source of nudges in his behavior, however. There are times when Trico understands what the player is asking him to do, but does not want to perform the action, similar to Kainé’s reactions to commands in Nier. One clear example of this is when the player is asking Trico to jump into the water. It takes a while to goad Trico into jumping in the water in the first place, and he is quick to get out whenever given the chance. Apparently he does not like getting wet. These player hindrances—moments when Trico does not quickly perform an action even when he understands it, because he has different intentions and desires—preserve the narrative that Trico is a being with feelings and desires, as opposed to just a robot that processes inputs from the player and acts if he understands the command. The usual output of Trico performing the output when he understands it shifts to Trico (at least temporarily) not performing that action. Trico, like Kainé, thinks and feels for himself, and that comes out in the gameplay.

“Training” and the Disappearance of Hindrances and Mixed Nudges

Over the course of the game, the frequency of moments in which Trico stares dumbly back at the player lessens. The net impact of this is that as the game progresses, many mixed nudges get replaced by player aids, as commanding Trico to do certain tasks gets easier and easier. This change in the nature of the nudges in the game over time preserves the narrative that Trico is being trained and forming a bond of friendship with the boy. As these two characters work together more and more, it becomes easier to communicate quickly and effectively. The boy has taken on the role of an animal trainer and created a capacity for communication with an animal with whom most people are unable to communicate.

Some of the player hindrances start to disappear toward the end of the game as well. There is a moment in particular when the boy is in danger of being captured by moving statues where Trico overcomes his fear of the stained glass eyes to jump in to destroy the statues and save the boy. As these hindrances disappear, it preserves the narrative that Trico cares for the boy and is willing to overcome fear and danger in order to save the boy, just as the boy overcomes his own fears and dangerous situations to save Trico. The existence of a vast number of mixed nudges early in the game that gradually turn into mostly player aids (or at least mixed nudges that are aids far more often than hindrances) over time displays the growing bond between these two characters. The game succeeds at displaying the birth of this friendship through of the nudges in the gameplay as opposed to dialogue or cut-scenes, which are few and far-between in the game.

Trico and the boy connecting with each other.

Responding to Critical Review

Game Informer complains that “Trico’s inability to consistently follow your commands drags the experience down more than anything else,” yet they also say that “The Last Guardian forges a connection between the player and Trico unlike anything else in gaming.” Now we can understand that Trico’s inability to consistently follow commands is actually a crucial part of how that special connection gets forged. While it is tempting to view the inconsistencies in the control scheme as factors that make The Last Guardian worse, it actually is the case that the controls do work to develop the relationship between the boy and his beast. [8] The nudges present in the boy’s gameplay reinforce his status as a young child, and the nudges present in controlling Trico reinforce his status as a non-human creature. It is not as The Verge author Andrew Webster says: “Often [the controls] don’t work as they should, and you’ll need to push through some terribly frustrating moments to experience everything The Last Guardian has to offer.” Rather, the terribly frustrating moments are an essential part of what the game has to offer in creating the relationship between the boy and Trico.

Although it may be initially tempting to criticize a game because of “clunky” controls, I hope that this analysis has shown that it’s worth taking pause to consider what a game’s control scheme may be saying about the story of the game itself. While it is true that at times controlling the boy and Trico is difficult in surprising ways, these aspects of the gameplay carry weight in preserving the narrative consistency of the game. The mixed nudges present in controlling the boy drive home his attempt to be cautious, even though his youth sometimes leads him to misread situations. The wide variety of nudges present in controlling Trico drives home his status as a non-human animal, and the change in types of nudges over time shows how he forms a strong bond and ability to communicate with the boy. Kotaku reviewer Mike Fahey sums it up well by saying “The unpredictable AI can make for some frustrating moments, but that frustration only enhances the illusion that this strange cat-beast is a living thing. I am not irritated with a video game. I am irritated with my large feathered friend.” [9] The game uses nudges in a way that is poignant and subtle to develop the relationship within the partnership that the game features.

Directions for Future Research

We’ve covered a lot of ground in these articles. Starting from defining nudgy gameplay and progressing through games that don’t need nudges to games with player aids and hindrances, and then on to games with mixed nudges based on avatar perspective, we’ve seen a wide variety of ways that games have dealt with the variable that is the player in ways that preserve their narratives. My hope is that the reader uses this way of thinking to critically analyze the games that they play, including ones that I did not discuss in this article specifically, and that these articles can serve as a starting point for further analysis.

To that end, there are many topics I brought up in these articles that I did not have space or time to comment on to the degree that is deserved. I think it pertinent to bring up a few of those topics and pose questions as a place to leave the reader at the end of this work. Hopefully one of these questions will spark a reader’s thinking and they will think of some way to explain some aspect of the stories in video games that at this point remains elusive.

One topic that I hinted at but did not dive into for lack of space is the issue of the definition of ‘avatar’. While the term is frequently used among game fans and analysts alike, the word does not seem to have a consistent definition. So what exactly is the avatar? How does the avatar differ from other player-controlled entities? WaTF founder Aaron Suduiko has some foundational thoughts on these questions in the form of his senior thesis, which is an ontology of single-player video games. But other than that work, the question at this point has no clear answer.

Another open topic is the topic of multiplayer generally, something I discussed in Part I of this series in the context of multiplayer skill tournaments, and how games of that sort are better off remaining nudgeless. One challenge in writing that section was identifying exactly what the narrative of a multiplayer game is. Finding the narrative within a multiplayer game is not as easy as it might initially appear. Consider, for example, a group of six players cooperatively playing a Destiny mission. While there is a story presented by the game in terms of voice lines and cut scenes, there is also a narrative being weaved within the conversation between the players, which need not actually bear any relation to the cut scenes and voice lines. Which of these is the dominant narrative? Or do they coexist? How do you analyze a narrative that has multiple agents influencing the narrative’s events? This is massively under-explored territory, even here on With a Terrible Fate.

Nudgy Controls Conclusion

Participatory storytelling has a unique challenge to handle: how does a storyteller convey a cohesive narrative to an audience that has a hand the instantiation of that narrative? We can all imagine an audience member in some participatory theater who gets bored and rolls his eyes at a dramatic moment in the show, critically undermining believability of the narrative being presented. This sort of challenge is a constant issue for writers of stories for games. How do you make sense of the role of the player in your story? What if the narrative requires skill on the part of the player that the player does not possess? What if your player is too skillful in a moment when failure is expected? What if your player’s desire is to try and break the narrative consistency of your game through their actions? In general, how do you handle the variable that is the player, who is importantly external to your game?

Sometimes the most effective technique is to nudge the player’s input toward a more narratively appropriate output in the controls themselves. We’ve seen how doing this can make a character appropriately badass regardless of player skill, and how it can be used to make vivid the critical condition of a dying character. But beyond that we’ve seen an even more subtle and fascinating capacity that these nudges possess. Nudgy controls can create and reinforce character traits and relationships, to the extent that a game like The Last Guardian needs little exposition other than just the gameplay itself.

It’s time to stop judging the control scheme of a game solely on how “tight” the controls are. Sometimes a game’s controls are difficult, or frustrating, or even too easy, in a way that reinforces the narrative of a game. Gameplay and narrative are inseparable. Let’s start judging control schemes based on how well they work with the narrative, rather than in the superficial ways we have been up until now.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] Game Informer.

[2] Game Informer.

[3] For this section, I stipulate that the avatar is a sentient being, for sake of simplicity. This is not actually a requirement for the analysis to work, but it makes the argument easier to follow.

[4] While mixed nudges that arise from personality traits and perspectives, such as the ones described in the previous section, are deep and rich, this is not the only possible manifestation of mixed nudges. To see this, consider the following case. One could imagine a science fiction game in which the avatar has a “quantum fuse box” implanted into his brain. The device works in the following way: half of the times it is activated it makes the avatar successful at whatever he attempts to do, aiding the player tremendously, and half of the time it forces the avatar to fail at whatever he attempts to do, hindering the player. The activation of the device occurs randomly, and the output of the device is random.

This hypothetical game definitely has nudges whenever the device is activated, in that any input on the part of the player is shifted, and the nudges preserve the narrative consistency of the existence and effectiveness of the quantum fuse box. But the nudges are player aids half of the time and player hindrances half the time, meaning that they are mixed nudges. So there is no requirement for mixed nudges to arise out of avatar perspective. Thanks to Aaron Suduiko for proposing the quantum fuse box example.

[5] Player-controlled entities and its subset, avatars, actually end up being incredibly rich and complicated territory to consider. All avatars are player-controlled entities, but it’s not clear where the dividing line between the categories is. What differentiates a player-controlled entity from an avatar? Are any of the individual units in a game like Halo Wars avatars? In a role-playing game in which the player controls an entire party of characters, is each character just a player-controlled entity, or an avatar as well? Are all of the characters avatars of the player? Is one character the player’s avatar and the rest just player-controlled entities? The answers here are not clear, and so for the most part I will leave these questions unanswered, as the answers are likely long and tangential to the topic at hand. This leaves open the possibility that player-controlled entities and avatars are in fact the same set of entities, making one of the two terms redundant. Intuitively this does not seem to be the case, as it seems that some things are avatars and others are simply player-controlled.

[6] I leave open the possibility that Pikachu is the player’s avatar, but common intuition from players is that while he is controllable by the player, he is not the player’s avatar.

[7] Note how even in first-person, in which we cannot see a manifestation of our character on-screen, we still think of the character from whose eyes we are seeing to be the “avatar.” There can be no figure on screen and yet we can refer felicitously to an avatar being present. This is odd and warrants further analysis.

[8] Of course, my analysis of nudges in The Last Guardian doesn’t excuse all of its control issues. I readily admit that controlling the camera in The Last Guardian is pointlessly difficult and that the game would have been better with tighter camera control.

[9] Mike Fahey, Kotaku.

“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

Andrew Ryan Statue

At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.

The Tragic Irony of Final Fantasy XIII-2

Since the beginning of With a Terrible Fate, I’ve made passing comments about how deeply the storytelling of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy offended my sensibilities, both as a player and analyst of video games. On the first day of my three months analyzing Majora’s Mask, I discussed the Zelda game’s value by showing how it succeeded where Lightning Returns failed; when I discussed my fears about Square Enix dividing the Final Fantasy VII remake into multiple games, I cited the weak episodic storytelling of the XIII saga as prima facie reasons to worry about Square’s ability to tell one story across multiple games. Yet despite constantly using the XIII trilogy as fodder for broader critiques, I have never yet devoted an article to tackling the problems of the series head-on.

Well, with today at last marking the release of Final Fantasy XV, I found it a fitting occasion to turn my full attention to Final Fantasy XIII, as something of a personal reflection on why I was so let down by the trilogy. I do view the trilogy as a fantastic failure in storytelling, but the undertone of this critique is the quiet hope that Square learned its lesson and remembered how to tell stories. This, I think, is the core issue to keep in mind as FFXV finally enters the universe of game criticism in the coming weeks: remember that FFXIII also “looked pretty” and had a decent enough battle system; its colossal failure was one of storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is the measure by which FFXV will stand as a masterpiece or fall as an epic waste of time and resources.

Sadly, I could probably spend as long picking apart the FFXIII trilogy’s problems as I spent analyzing Majora’s Mask (but don’t challenge me on that–it wouldn’t be fun for anyone). So today, I’m just going to focus on Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve long thought that, of the three games in the trilogy, FFXIII-2 was the one with the most redeeming features and the greatest narrative potential. The problem is that FFXIII-2 is, in a surprising and sad sense, a very poignant story trapped inside of a very poorly composed story. The project of this article is to explain what I mean by that claim; in particular, I want to show you how the very structure of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s universe renders its narrative shortcomings tragically ironic, perhaps even in a way that can give disappointed players a new appreciation for a game that fails in an almost beautiful way. I’ll first argue that, sacrilegious though it may sound to say so, FFXIII-2 was poised to be the spiritual successor of the classic Chrono Trigger. After that, I’ll show how the overall framing of FFXIII-2‘s story destroyed what initial potential the game had–in fact, I’ll argue that it suffers from failures similar to those of Assassin’s Creed III, but suffers from those failures to an even greater extent than ACIII does. Lastly, I’ll combine these two strands of analysis to show how the game becomes a tragically ironic narrative failure. In the end, we’ll walk away with some lessons in how stories can fail–and, hopefully, how stories can succeed.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

I’m still waiting for a justification of why this Moogle was so crucial to the plot of XIII-2.

Not a Hallway Anymore: Temporal Overworlds

One of the most common criticisms of the first entry in the FFXIII trilogy–named simply Final Fantasy XIII–was that its world and story were overly linear, meaning that the game consisted in a singular path from the beginning to the end of its narrative with very little by way of exploration or divergence from that path. One of JonTron’s most popular video’s, criticizing precisely this aspect of the game, bore the fitting title “Final Hallway XIII” in reference to the game’s severe linearity. So, you might expect that the developers, in crafting a sequel to FFXIII, might compensate for this aspect of the original game by making the sequel substantially less linear, with a variety of different paths and narrative outcomes to explore.

And indeed, less linearity is exactly what we see in FFXIII-2; in fact, the structure of the game’s world and narrative is radically non-linear. What I mean by ‘radically non-linear’ is that, where the worlds of most games tend to be spatially organized, the world of FFXIII-2, at its highest level, is actually structured in terms of time. The player’s main interface with the game is the Historia Crux, a metaphysical space that allows them to access various moments across time–some of which occur in alternate timelines. The Historia Crux is analogous to the ‘world map’, or ‘overworld’, of many other games: the global space that contains all of the various locations to which the player can travel over the course of a game’s narrative. Yet instead of being a broad swath of space, the Historia Crux is a broad swath of time: we could justly call it a temporal overworld in the sense that it fundamentally structures the game’s narrative and locations based on time rather than on space.

historia-crux

The Historia Crux matrix of gates to locations throughout time and timelines.

One might even say that the story of FFXIII is about linearity and non-linearity in narrative. The Historia Crux is made possible by a variety of paradoxes that corrupt time with impossible events following the end of FFXIII‘s narrative, when the goddess Etro intervened to save the player’s party of characters, thereby distorting the flow of history. One way of viewing the goal of FFXIII-2, then, is to travel through time resolving these paradoxes, trying to restore order to the timeline. One might actually see this as a clever response on the part of Square to the linearity criticisms about FFXIII: by resolving paradoxes in FFXIII-2, the player is able to travel to a variety of potential timelines and witness several paradoxical outcomes to the game’s history–yet all of this is done in service of restoring order and linearity to the storyline, ultimately reaching the game’s singular, canonical ending. It’s easy to interpret this as a metaphor for the tension in games between the need for games to present multiple possibilities on the one hand, and the need for games to tell a coherent story on the other hand: for players’ choices to matter in game narrative, multiple outcomes to events must be possible, and yet this increasing variability in the game seems to cut against the grain of a well-articulated story with fixed, carefully arranged events.

So far, so interesting. While I haven’t yet said much at all about the particular content of FFXIII-2‘s story, the form of its world certainly seems like an interesting basis for telling a tale that plays on the special features and constraints of video games as a medium. And it’s worth noting at this juncture that this isn’t a radically new idea: in fact, it picks up on some of the central mechanics and themes of a much older game of Square’s: Chrono Trigger.

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The Epoch’s time-traveling interface in Chrono Trigger.

Though it wasn’t structured around paradoxes, Chrono Trigger did gain fame for its time-travel narrative structure, complete with a wide variety of potential game outcomes depending on choices the player made, when the game’s ultimate enemy (Lavos) was defeated, and so on. Released in 1995, the game was ahead of its time–no pun intended–in the way it built a robust game narrative out of multiple possibilities and timelines for the player to explore. This is the tradition in which FFXIII-2 followed; you can even see echoes of the time-hopping interface of Chrono Trigger’s time machine, the Epoch, in the design of the Historia Crux.

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Caius with one of many ill-fated Yeuls.

But FFXIII-2 goes beyond merely elaborating the structure of Chrono Trigger: in the details of its story–or rather, one of its storylines–it makes the game’s time-based narrative deeply poignant in a surprising way. The central antagonist of the game is Caius Ballad, a man who has been made immortal by being endowed with the heart of the goddess Etro–the Heart of Chaos. He is the designated guardian of Yeul, a Seeress with a double-edged gift: the young girl can see the future, but her lifespan shortens each time she does so, causing her to die young, only to be reincarnated thereafter. Thus the immortal Caius, knowledgeable of all time thanks to Yeul’s visions, has also had to watch countless Yeul’s die in his arms, “carving their pain on his heart” every time. Caius’ mission in the game is to kill the goddess Etro, from which time and history flow, in order to end time itself: he only wants to do this in order to end Yeul’s suffering by putting a stop to the cycle of her dying by degrees every time she sees the future.

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Noel and a dying Yeul.

On the other hand, we have the protagonist Noel: one of the player’s two characters, who gets wrapped up in a quest to change the future and resolve the timeline. Growing up, he knew both Caius and one incarnation of Yeul; he refused to become Yeul’s guardian when he learned that he had to kill Caius in order to do so. As he travels throughout time, he clashes with Caius and meets numerous other incarnations of Yeul; thus he comes to understand both the fate of Yeul and the pain endured by Caius as Yeul’s companion and protector. In the game’s final battle, Noel confronts Caius and challenges his views about Yeul: though Caius believes Yeul to have been cursed by Etro to die and be reborn countless times, always living a short life, Noel tells Caius that he knows Yeul wanted to come back because she loved Caius and wanted to be with him, time and again.

The closer you look at the story of Noel, Caius, and Yeul in relation to the overall architecture of FFXIII-2‘s narrative and world, the more poignant the story becomes. The very act of the player and Noel progressing through the story and constantly changing the future causes Yeul to have more visions, thereby shortening her life and killing her more quickly; Caius, the game’s final villain, wants Noel to be strong enough to kill him so that, by Caius dying, Etro will die too (since his heart is her heart) and Yeul will be free from seeing history. And as Noel continues in his journey, he comes to understand both Caius and Yeul, all the while unknowingly unwinding the coil of fate to the point where he is strong enough to kill Caius, and Caius forces him to do so. And on top of all this, perhaps most impressively, this narrative perfectly mirrors the act of playing the game: as the player explores and exhausts all the game’s narrative possibilities, she becomes more invested in and knowledgeable about the characters, all the while progressing the story to the point where the game reaches its conclusion, effectively ending the timeline of the game’s world and terminating the player’s interaction with the various timelines. This is a story shockingly rich with layered conceptions of time, sympathy, pathos, and the tension between possibility and fate.

I started out this article by claiming that FFXIII-2 was a game with tragically ironic narrative shortcomings, but thus far I seem to have been describing an incisive, acutely self-aware game with a moving narrative. So where’s the problem? Well, you might have noticed that I said above that Noel is one of the player’s two characters–and it’s the other one of these characters that makes trouble for the game.

Tragedy and Time

In a nutshell, the problem for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that the story I just related to you above is relegated to the status of a sub-plot: Noel and his cohort are effectively supporting characters in service of the player’s other controllable character, Serah Farron. The game is principally conveyed through her perspective, and her goal–the primary impetus for the game’s overall narrative–is to effectively undo the world and story of Noel, Yeul, and Caius.

serah-and-company

Note here that Noel is backgrounded relative to Serah and Mog the Moogle, and that Serah is the one deciding that the party is ready to go. In these respects, this picture symbolizes pretty much every aspect of the problems I’m pointing out for the game.

Serah is the sister of Lightning, who was a major character in FFXIII and the primary protagonist (and only player character) of Lightning Returns, the last entry in the trilogy. She is engaged to Snow, another key character from the first game that gets downgraded to little more than “Serah’s fiancée” in FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns. The overarching narrative of FFXIII-2 is that, as the time paradoxes began (following the events of FFXIII), Lightning was effectively erased from history, trapped in Valhalla, the realm where the goddess Etro dwells beyond time. Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning’s presence after the events of XIII-2, due to the paradoxes; Lightning, from Valhalla, sends Noel to join Serah on a journey to fix time, along with Mog, a Moogle who guides Noel and Serah through the world and time.

Personally, Serah doesn’t strike me as a very interesting character–she seems to, for most of the game, have a generally bad time in the style of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and to be generally two-dimensional besides this–but it’s not especially insightful to critique a character by saying tit isn’t one’s personal cup of tea. I think the more interesting problem with Serah is actually much deeper and harder to forgive than anything like her likability: the problem is that Serah’s epistemic perspective is directed outside of the game’s universe. The entire thrust of Serah’s storyline is that she remembers her sister when no one else does, and wants to restore time to the way she remembers it; in other words, she remembers the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and is trying to reestablish them in a world that is radically different. (Note, as an aside, that this is one of the reasons why it’s so challenging to make sense of the series’ overall consistency: the very premise of time paradoxes in FFXIII-2 effectively undoes many narratively central elements of FFXIII, and similar anti-plot devices bridge the gap between FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns.) So the primary objective of the game’s narrative, as presented through the lens of its focal character, Serah, is to undo the world of the game by changing history to reinstate the world of the previous game. So Serah’s narrative isn’t simply a “distraction” from Noel, Caius, and Yeul’s narrative: it actually actively disqualifies it as relevant, since that narrative constitutes part of the world that Serah is aiming to undo. Indeed, even when Serah is identified as a Seeress who, like Yeul, can see the future at the cost of her life, this fact that could potentially unify the two narratives seems nevertheless to be something that Serah’s narrative tries to overpower and disqualify: she decides to continue trying to change the future despite the fact that it may cost her life. Thus when Serah does die at the end of the game as a cost of her visions, the death doesn’t beautifully tie her story and fate together with Noel’s–rather, it just puts a final emphasis on the bizarre fact that the game you just played forced you to focus on a player who never wanted to be in the world of the game.

This problem is deep and inescapable because the narrative of FFXIII-2 virtually always focuses on events through Serah’s perspective. This is important to note because there are multiple ways in which games can intermingle good and bad narratives, and these ways bring about different effects in the overall narrative. It’s useful in this regard to contrast FFXIII-2 with the case of Assassin’s Creed III.

The Animus

Desmond and the Animus of Assassin’s Creed.

Again, regulars to the site will know I’ve been harshly critical of ACIII in the past, mostly in virtue of what I see as a baseless use of an alien-like First Civilization dominating and confusing a narrative about Templars fighting with Assassins; I first detailed this in an article comparing the “aliens” of Assassin’s Creed to the “aliens” of Majora’s Mask. Roughly, my gripe against the game is that the imposition of the First Civilization discounts the value of any agency the player appeared to have within the world of the game, thereby undercutting the entire point of having played the game; this is especially clear when Desmond killed with little narrative justification or explanation at the end of ACIII. But it’s crucial in understanding ACIII to note that there are two layers to the narrative: we have Desmond working as an assassin in present time, and we also have him accessing and living out the memories of his ancestors in the past via the Animus. When engaged in the Animus, the broader storyline of Desmond, the First Civilization, etc., largely fade away: instead, we are left with a compelling narrative about a Native American ancestor, Ratonhnhaké:ton, taking part in the American Revolution, becoming an assassin, and undertaking a deeply personal quest for justice.

The key thing to notice about the above ACIII example is that the layered aspect of the narrative, with the Animus interface serving as a barrier between Desmond’s story and Connor’s story, allows us to effectively consider each narrative independently of the other, while still being able to consider them compositely if we so choose. Despite my qualms about the overall game and series, I quite enjoyed Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story in Assassin’s Creed, and the overall narrative structure allowed me to enjoy it without the overarching Desmond narrative severely impeding it. But this isn’t the case in FFXIII, because there is no Animus-like interface between Serah and Noel’s narratives: Serah is the player’s primary conduit to the entirety of the game’s world–the world she wants to undo. Even in the momentous final confrontation between Noel and Caius that I described above, we find Serah collapsed a few yards from them on the beach of Valhalla, being sad and generally having a bad time. We’re trapped in the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong or want to participate in the world in which we as players as participating, and that is the crux of FFXIII‘s failure.

Conclusion: A Tale of Tragic Irony

If you like irony, then there’s a silver lining for you in all this: even though the overall architecture of FFXIII-2 spoiled what could have been a moving and cerebral story, it does leave us with some tragic, dramatic irony in the way that Serah’s narrative interacts with the narrative of Noel, Caius and Yeul. Noel, Caius, and Yeul are deeply enmeshed in a universe rife with paradoxical possibilities and timelines, trying understand the best way to shape their world and each other as they grapple with the complex perspective and sympathies that come with witness life, death, and pain across countless generations and potential timelines; yet all of their struggles to understand and make meaning ultimately depend on the whim of a player whose actions are being filtered through the lens of a girl who has no intrinsic stake in the events or native inhabitants of the world in which she finds herself. This almost recalls classic Greek tragedy in how laughably ironic it is: as characters wrestle with their humanity and universe, their fate rests in the hands of someone whose priorities are entirely elsewhere–literally in a different game.

If there’s any larger takeaway here, I think it’s this: the worlds and metaphysics of video game worlds are integral to the stories of video games, and the characters of games oftentimes relate to the game’s world in different ways. If the characters have different stakes in the world, then the relations between those stakes, along with the weight given to each of those stakes, must be mindfully architected, or else the whole narrative could be thrown out of balance. And, although we might think it obvious, FFXIII-2 shows us how crucial it is that the principal avatar in a game is actually invested in the world of that game. After all, what incentive does a player have to act as an avatar that does not wish to participate in the game’s world?

But, with that, a new chapter is beginning. Here’s hoping that Square learned from its mistakes, and that Final Fantasy XV has a story worth telling. The only way to know for sure is to dive into its world and find out. Or, you could head back here in a few weeks and see what I think of it.

Or both. Both is good.

FFXV Art.jpg

 

From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask

With a Terrible Fate is in the process of releasing articles detailing the arguments of our presentation at PAX Australia 2016 on horror storytelling in video games. I’ve already released an article on the horror of Bloodborne, which I discussed at PAX; now, I’m returning to Majora’s Mask to discuss the metaphysical and metaethical details of the game that make it more horrifying than you might first think.

A word of background before we get started: before With a Terrible Fate became a central hub for rigorous video game analysis and theory, I began the site as a project in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months leading up to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in an effort to defend my claim that Majora’s Mask is one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times. So, what I say here condenses various theses that I defend at length in that much larger body of work. If you’re interested in reading my comprehensive work on Majora’s Mask, you can find the entire library here. I’ll also link to articles from the library as they become relevant in this article.

With that in mind, let’s return to Termina and talk about what makes it far scarier than Creepypasta, fan videos, Gibdos, or nearly anything else. In keeping with the format of my PAX Aus presentation, I’ll first argue that there is no metaethical grounding for a hero’s quest in Termina. I’ll then turn to the iterative-timeline structure of Link’s journey through Termina, and argue that Termina cannot every truly be saved in the way the game suggests.

skull-kid-and-moon

“Not In Hyrule Anymore”: The Lack of Ethical Grounding in Termina

It might not seem that there should be any question about whether Link is a hero in Majora’s Mask: after all, Legend of Zelda games are quintessential journeys of heroism, defeating evil against great odds. But I contend that special features of Termina deny that Link’s journey is truly good in the way that the journeys of other Links in other Zelda games are. To show this, I’ll first contrast the metaphysical foundation for morality in Hyrule with the lack of such foundation in Termina. I’ll then discuss the purpose of Link’s quest, and the degree to which morality within Termina is treated as a game. By the end of this section, we’ll see that players should be seriously doubtful that they can do anything good or heroic in Termina–and that should scare them. (You can read more about this in my early article on why Majora’s Mask should terrify you.)

triforce

The Triforce.

Perhaps the most recognizable image from the Legend of Zelda series is the Triforce: a sacred object derived from the three Goddesses who created the world of Hyrule. Each of the three triangles represents a different virtue: Power, Wisdom, and Courage. These are the virtues that created the world and that ground its goodness, metaphysically. They are also traditionally represented by the individuals in whom one of the three virtues is manifested: typically Ganondorf (Power), Zelda (Wisdom), and Link (Courage). The harmony of these virtues grounds order in the world and safeguards against chaos.

The heroism of Zelda quests is almost categorically grounded in restoring order to the world by restoring balance to the Triforce. Consider, for instance, the story of Ocarina of Time: Link must take up his fated role as the Hero of Time and bearer of the Triforce of Courage by uniting with Zelda, bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom, in order to defeat Ganondorf, the “Great King of Evil,” thereby preventing him from taking over the world and throwing it into chaos. This is fairly typical of Zelda games: Link’s quest against evil is grounded in restoring order to the Triforce.

The first thing to notice about Majora’s Mask, then, is that there is no mention of the Triforce at all in the game. There is no mention of Link as bearer of the Triforce of Courage, nor is there any “Great King of Evil,” nor–despite this being a “Legend of Zelda” game–is Zelda present at all, except for one flashback of dubious ontological status (you can read more about that problem here). Given that Majora’s Mask is supposed to be the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, it’s pretty remarkable that the entire metaphysical basis for moral facts in the universe is glaringly absent from Termina.

But of course, you might think that I’m being unfair: after all, the Triforce is the metaethical structure of Hyrule, but we’re in Termina now, not Hyrule. Thus, it’s plausible, you might object, that Termina still has a foundation for moral facts–it’s just not the same foundation as we see in Hyrule-centric Zelda games. Yet I think there are independent reasons to think that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up. To see why, we’ll turn to the purpose of Link’s quest, and the surprising way in which the enigmatic Happy Mask Salesman frames and motivates Link’s time in Termina. (You can read more about the Happy Mask Salesman’s ontology and narrative significance here; you can read about the significance of his two most famous lines in the game here and here.)

Happy Mask Salesman entreating Link

The Salesman sets you on a fetch quest.

It’s easy to forget that Link’s adventure in Termina is initially framed as a fetch quest: when he arrives inside the Clock Tower, the Happy Mask Salesman simply asks Link to retrieve Majora’s Mask for him within three days’ time, since he is only in town for three days. This is the context with which Link ventures out into Clock Town and Termina for the first time. His adventure only becomes a story of fighting evil once he confronts Skull Kid atop the Clock Tower for the first time, “remembers” the Song of Time, and travels back in time, meeting the Happy Mask Salesman inside the Clock Tower for a second time. When Link fails to produce Majora’s Mask, as the Happy Mask Salesman asked, the Salesman flies into a rage, warning Link of what will happen if he fails to recover the Mask. I quote at length:

What have you done to me!!! If you leave my mask out there, something terrible will happen! The mask that was stolen from me… It is called Majora’s Mask. It is an accursed item from legend that is said to have been used by an ancient tribe in its hexing rituals. It is said that an evil and wicked power is bestowed upon the one who wears that mask. According to legend… the troubles caused by Majora’s Mask were so great… the ancient ones, fearing such catastrophe, sealed the mask in shadow forever, preventing its misuse. But now, that tribe from the legend has vanished, so no one really knows the true nature of the mask’s power… …But I feel it. I went to great lengths to get that legendary mask. When I finally had it… I could sense the doom of a dark omen brewing. It was that unwelcome feeling that makes your hair stand on end. And now… that imp has it… I am begging you! You must get that mask back quickly or something horrible will happen!

The Salesman Encourages Link

The Salesman encourages Link and the player.

It’s easy to take the Salesman at face value here, but I think another analysis better explains the data of the overall game and world of Termina: namely, the Salesman is imposing an artifice of morality upon Termina and Majora’s Mask in order to motivate Link and the player to get his mask back for him. For at this point in the game, Link has already failed once to complete the Salesman’s fetch quest; thus it seems reasonable that the Salesman would seek to further motivate Link to complete the task. An easy way to do this is to suggest that the mask is endowed with evil power and thus must be recovered in order to prevent something terrible from happening. Combined with the observation that there is no obvious Triforce-analogue grounding morality within Termina, it seems plausible that the appearance of evil in Majora’s Mask is just that: mere appearance, rather than something evil in a metaphysically deep sense.

Moreover, the Happy Mask Salesman as an entity seems to be in just the right position to impose an “apparent morality” on Termina–this is what I call ‘moral artifice’, or moral dimension that lacks metaphysical grounding in a world, imposed by an external source. For the Happy Mask Salesman himself doesn’t really exist within Termina; rather, I think it makes sense to consider him as metaphysically adjacent to Termina: he exists externally to Termina but is poised to influence and interface with the world in a variety of ways. Inside the Clock Tower, where the Salesman resides, time does not flow, as it does in the rest of Termina. Moreover, it is implied that the Salesman effectively has comprehensive knowledge of Termina–without ever leaving the innards of the Clock Tower, he knows the origin and ontology of every mask Link acquires throughout the game, including masks that Link creates by healing fallen heroes (he describes the origins of these masks in vivid detail if Link speaks to him while wearing the masks). Moreover, he is the one who imparts to Link the Song of Healing, which allows Link to drastically change the structure of Termina by converting spirits into masks. This is the song that is described as healing “evil and troubled spirits”–again, the concept of evil is fundamentally introduced into the game by the Happy Mask Salesman. So it seems that even when we see evil at work in Termina, this is only the case because the Salesman is coloring the world this way for us. Again, there is no Triforce or heroic destiny guiding us here–we are left with only the guidance of a disarmingly smiling Salesman in pursuit of a fetch quest.

Majoras Wrath

The final confrontation against Majora’s Forms.

It’s worth noting, too, that when morality is introduced to Termina via moral artifice, it seems to center on the entity of ‘Majora’: the Salesman refers to an evil possessing Majora’s Mask, and the various putatively evil forms in the game–Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath, and the masks sealing away Termina’s four giant–all derive their apparent relation to Majora. When Link obtains the Fierce Deity’s Mask, too (discussed further below), the game asks whether “this mask’s dark powers could be as bad as Majora” (emphasis mine), again deriving moral valence from the mask’s relation to Majora. But notice that it’s not at all clear in the game exactly who or what Majora is: Link only ever confronts various forms derived from from Majora (Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath), and the Salesman never says outright what Majora is. One virtue of the theory outlined above is that it gives us the resources to explain what Majora is: on my view, Majora is just identical with the concept of evil that the Salesman has imposed upon Termina. This makes sense when we consider other references to evil and to the impact of Majora on the world of Termina: in every corner of the world, we see that Majora has effected “evil” by distorting the natural order of things–a swamp is poisoned; a mountain in trapped in endless winter; an ocean is clouded and storm-ridden; and a desert is corrupted by lingering spirits and death. We can analyze these effects by saying that Majora, as the concept of evil, is distorting the universe of Termina, because Termina is a world that does not support moral facts or reality: by trying to impose morality upon Termina, the Salesman is distorting the very foundations of the world. (You can read more about Majora as Termina’s concept of evil here.)

If the above metaphysical considerations haven’t convinced you that there’s no basis for morality within Termina, then I invite you, lastly, to consider how the game treats morality in its ultimate confrontation: Majora’s Forms versus the Fierce Deity. Though the player needn’t acquire and use the Fierce Deity’s Mask to defeat Majora’s Forms, the game implies that this is the “proper” way to complete the narrative: the Mask is only available once the player has acquired all other masks in the game, at which point they must give those masks away to the various Moon Children with whom Link can play hide-and-seek before facing Majora’s Forms. At that point, Link can speak to the Moon Child wearing Majora’s Mask, who, noting that Link doesn’t have any masks left, says that they can instead play “good guys against bad guys,” and tells Link that Link is the bad guy in the game. He gives Link the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which, again, is described as a mask with dark powers that could be as bad as Majora.

Fierce Deity's Mask

Link receiving the Fierce Deity’s Mask.

In the final confrontation of the game, Link isn’t framed as a destined hero battling the Great King of Evil: he’s framed as a child playing the role of a villain in a game of good-and-evil. Moreover, the Fierce Deity’s Mask effectively turns the game’s final boss fight into “child’s play”: Majora’s Forms as frankly pathetic when faced with the Fierce Deity’s Mask, and it is trivial for the player to massacre a final boss that is quite challenging when faced without the Fierce Deity’s Mask. So the final battle isn’t a moment of heroism; rather, it’s a game in which Link takes on a mercilessly evil role. If we think that good and evil really have a metaphysical basis in Termina, it’s not clear how to make sense of this confrontation, nor is it clear how to make sense of Link’s relationship to the Fierce Deity’s Mask more generally; on the other hand, armed with our thesis that Termina lacks real moral grounding, this final battle is a poignant accent on the fact that the universe refuses to acknowledge Link and the player’s quest as morally significant.

If we accept the above arguments, then I think we already have ample reason to see Majora’s Mask as deeply horrifying, especially when we consider the game’s status as the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The player, having defeated the evil Ganondorf on Link the Hero’s destined quest in Ocarina, expects the same sort of heroism and triumph of goodness over evil in Majora’s Mask. The Happy Mask Salesman even assures them that they are right to expect this sort of heroism and goodness in their quest–he does this by imposing a moral artifice upon the world of Termina for the player and Link. Yet, over the course of the game, the player slowly discovers that there is no moral foundation for Link’s quest: there is no Triforce, no heroism, and no reason to believe that Link is doing something inherently good in his quest. And so the player is forced to confront the question: just what is the purpose of Link’s quest, as he goes to such lengths to fetch a mask for a Mask Salesman? The more the player looks for an ethical justification in Termina, the more it eludes her–and the loss of this basis for Link’s quest is a fearsome thing indeed.

In fact–despite this view being “against Zelda canon”–I think the scariest thing to emerge from this metaethical analysis is the implication that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Hero of Time whom we encountered in Ocarina of Time. This strikes me as the best explanation of Majora-Link’s not possessing the Triforce of Courage, of ultimately donning the form of a dark god (the Fierce Deity), and generally bearing no relation to destiny in the way that Ocarina-Link did (you can read more about this here, and about how Majora Mask’s flashback to Zelda fits into this analysis here). So on my view, the deepest horror to be found here is just this: the player steps into Majora’s Mask expecting a classic tale of Zelda heroism, and slowly discovers that they literally aren’t controlling the hero that they thought they were. It is this profound alienation that makes the playing of Majora’s Mask a terrifying experience.

The Terminal Metaphysics of Termina: Majora’s Mask and the World that Can’t be Saved

Even if we agree that there’s no foundation for morality within Termina, we might still think that the player and Link can achieve something meaningful by “saving” Termina from the moon falling on Clock Town and the rest of the world. However, I think that trying to make sense of the game in this way just invites further horror, as we discover that Termina isn’t the kind of world that can be saved: rather, it is a world that is fundamentally doomed, and Link cannot change this fact. I’ll defend this claim in three parts: first, I’ll argue that Termina depends on Link for its existence; then, I’ll argue that Termina is constrained to three-day timelines; lastly, I’ll argue that the timelines of Termina are endlessly iterative. From these arguments, a picture emerges of Termina as a world that truly is Termina: though Link can participate in the world, he cannot save it from its doomed state.

MikausGrave

Termina is a strikingly unusual video game world, and only because time in the world constantly counts down towards the apocalypse: events in Termina also happen in an unusual way. The best way to see this is to consider the puzzle of the Zora hero Mikau, who tragically dies during the course of the game (I case that I explore in detail here). When Link arrives at the Great Bay, he sees Mikau dying in the water: the player must bring him to shore and use the Song of Healing to convert his spirit into a mask as he dies–and then Link buries him, in one of the most poignant and jarring moments of the series. There are many things to say about this moment, and I’ve written much about it in the past; for our purposes, however, we just need to think about one surprising puzzle that emerges from this event: what was the status of Mikau in timelines before Link arrived at the Great Bay? By the time Link arrives at Great Bay, he has already traveled through multiple three-day cycles of Termina; presumably, we would want to say that Mikau still existed in those timelines prior to Link discovering him in the water. Yet the state in which Mikau existed in these prior timelines is not at all clear. Certainly he is not dead: he only dies once Link encounters him. Yet it also doesn’t seem quite right to say Mikau is alive and well in previous timelines, for he dies as soon as Link encounters him: we know he is dying and can’t survive the three days. So it seems as if we have to say that he is in an indeterminate state of being neither dead nor alive, but rather in a state of dying, suspended there until Link encounters him and he truly dies.

I think the conclusion to which considerations such as the above lead us is that the world of Termina actually depends on Link encountering it in order to exist. Beyond Mikau, we can also see (for example) that time doesn’t actually pass in Termina except when Link is there: when he enters the inside of the Clock Tower, time in Termina freezes until he exits into Clock Town. Generally speaking, the progression and instantiation of events in Termina do not proceed without Link. If you like, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that Termina is “solipsistic” with regards to Link.

The existential dependence of Termina on Link doesn’t alone simply anything obvious about whether or not Termina can be saved; however, a clearer and scarier picture of these implications emerges when we consider this dependence relation together with the iterative-timeline metaphysics of Majora’s Mask. 

Link falling through time

Link bringing about a new timeline in Termina.

It seems clear to me that Link and the player progress through the game’s storyline by instantiating new timelines each time he plays the Song of Time. I detail this argument here, but the general thought is just this: Link clearly doesn’t reset the universe of Termina each time he plays the Song of Time, as various states of affairs throughout the world can change each time. Mikau, again, is an example: once Link sees Mikau die, he does not appear again even after Link plays the Song of Time. Link also retains the masks he acquires even when he plays the Song of Time. Thus I think that the best explanation of the Song of Time is that it allows Link to effectively abandon the timeline of Termina in which he’s currently situated, and travel to a new timeline that is linked to the most recently abandoned timeline by what I call ‘temporal afterimages’–metaphysical remnants of earlier, alternate timelines. As an aside: this notion of temporal afterimagery, I think, has broader applicability in the series: even when Link alters time, the inhabitants of whatever new timeline he brings about seem to have “remnant” memories of previous timelines; again, the Zelda flashback in Majora’s Mask is a prime example of this.

With a metaphysical picture in view of Link’s journey through Termina as bringing about increasingly more timelines as the game progresses, we can better understand the implications of Termina’s existential dependence on Link: Link only ever encounters Termina as three-day timelines, bounded by his arrival on one hand and the apocalypse on the other hand; thus, if Termina’s existence really does depend on Link, then Termina itself seems metaphysically constrained to Link’s arrival and its apocalypse. There seems to be no broader existence of the world that Link can fight to preserve.

But, you might now object, this is clearly false: if you beat the game, then we very clearly see that Link has saved Termina, once and for all; thus, there is a greater existence to the world that Link can fight to preserve. Yet I think we have every reason to doubt this, and to take this ending to the game instead as a case of unreliable narration (about which you can read in more detail here). For one thing, the ending doesn’t make much sense with regard to the overall narrative. We know that Link cannot save everyone in Termina over the course of a single timeline, yet the ending “victory” scene of the game implies this sort of success, with everyone in the world happy. And, even more pressingly, the game itself implies that the perpetuation of doomed Termina timelines persists after the end of the game. We can see this because there are certain events that the player can only bring about after she instantiates a new timeline in Termina after beating the game. For example, one of the functions of the Fierce Deity’s Mask is to allow Link to transform into the Fierce Deity during the four Giant boss battles in the game; and, since Link only gets the Fierce Deity’s Mask during the final battle of the game, he must go back and bring about another doomed timeline to use the mask in this way. Notice how starkly the above vision of Termina contrasts with the world of Ocarina of Time: it is not possible to “continue” in Hyrule after defeating Ganon; the game simply proclaims that the game has ended, and, if the player reloads her save file, she returns to wherever her last save was before defeating Ganon. Termina could just as easily “conclude” if Link were able to really save it; yet the very fact that the player can return to Termina and bring about further doomed timelines even after beating Majora’s Forms suggests that there is no way to truly overcome Termina’s doomed fate.

Though we might initially trust the game in telling us that Link can save Termina, the metaphysics of the world tell us otherwise: beyond the metaethical nihilism of the world, it is not even possible for Link to end the apocalyptic timeline cycle of the world. Termina, as the name suggests, is inherently terminal: it should fill the player with horror to realize that they are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to save a world that literally cannot be saved.

Conclusion

As we reflect on the overall horror of Majora’s Mask, it’s useful to contrast Kaepora Gaebora, the owl and sage whom Link encounter in Ocarina of Time, with Kaepora Gaebora, the owl whom Link encounters in Majora’s Mask (I study the owl in more detail here). In Ocarina, Kaepora Gaebora is a manifestation of the sage Rauru, who guides Link on his quest to defeat Ganondorf. Kaepora Gaebora inundates Link with the message that he is the Hero of Time, and that it is his destiny to travel through time to defeat Ganondorf. He repeatedly emphasizes what I said above: the Link of Ocarina is an agent of goodness and courage who will ultimately save Hyrule.

Kaepora Gaebora in Woodfall

The Kaepora Gaebora of Majora’s Mask is virtually antithetical to his Ocarina of Time counterpart. He constantly treats Link as an intruder in a world that he describes as “destined to fade,” and offers to help Link only if he has “the courage and determination to proceed in the face of destiny.” Rather than Link being destined to save the world, Link is fighting to save a world that is designed to be destroyed. This in essence, captures the horror of Majora’s Mask: at every turn, the player expects to be able to do the right thing, and to save the world; yet, at every turn, the game denies the player the ability to find any moral justification for her actions, along with any possibility of truly saving the world. Without this foundation for making meaning out of Link’s journey, the player is left to make up some form of alternative meaning for the journey through Majora’s Mask. If you read my full analysis, you’ll see that I actually do think this is possible, and that the player can ultimately be a positive and meaningful force in the world of the game–but this is only possible once she overcomes the initial horror of the game, a horror which you’d be hard-pressed to overstate.

"Majora's Mask"

The Philosophical Justification for FromSoftware’s DLC

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know that I tend to be skeptical of the potential for justifying add-on video game content as artistically valuable to the video game experience. For example, even though I ultimately argued that Nintendo’s amiibo are philosophically justifiable, I rejected many of the typical reasons why someone might think amiibo are valuable. So, when it comes to DLC (“downloadable content”), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve historically been extremely skeptical of its value as well. Like many others, I’ve feared that DLC makes it all too easy for developers to release games that are, in one way or another, incomplete, and then compel the player to complete the game by paying for additional content later on.

However, as is often the case, FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne (among other games), has challenged my assumptions about game development. In this article, I’m going to discuss two cases of FromSoftware’s DLC that I take to be imminently justified as aesthetically valuable additions to their parent games: Dark Souls 3‘s “Ashes of Ariandel” and Bloodborne‘s “The Old Hunters.” First, I’ll outline what I take to be the general dilemma that makes DLC so difficult to justify as a supplementary work of art. I’ll apply this dilemma to System Rift, the recent DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, to show how it helps to explain why DLC fails when it does. Then, I’ll argue that our two test cases solve the dilemma facing DLC in surprising and informative ways.

DLC and The Completeness Dilemma

To begin, we need to be more precise with how we’re defining ‘DLC’. After all, all sorts of material could potentially fit the broad label of “downloadable content”–for example, extra weaponry, bonus outfits for avatars, extra songs for a game’s soundtrack, and so on. In this article, I’m only concerned with DLC that purports to extend the narrative of a video game. Granted, that’s a rather broad definition, and I’m not going to try to provide a full analysis of ‘narrative’ for the purposes of this article. However, our intuitions should give us a good idea of what I’m talking about here: these days, many story-rich games feature DLC that “adds on” to the story of the main game by adding a new plot line, either in an old area of the game’s world or in a new area of the game’s world created just for that DLC. Think of DLCs like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard and Dragonborn, or Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. These are all examples of the type of DLC I have in mind.

Why focus this particular type of DLC? As I’ve argued from the start of With a Terrible Fate onward, I believe that video games as a medium facilitate new, robust forms of narrative that wouldn’t be possible in other media. In light of this, I think it’s especially interesting to see what implications DLC has for video games specifically as a vehicle for storytelling. And indeed, I will aim to show here that DLC does have interesting implications and insights regarding the nature of storytelling in video games.

Before we dive into any concrete examples of DLC, I think it’s fairly easy to notice a problem for DLC on the level of pure theory. I call this problem ‘the completeness dilemma’, and the dilemma goes like this: for DLC to be possible, it must be possible to extend the narrative of the main video game to which the DLC is appended. However, video games, as a narrative art form, already have a complete world with a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end. So, for the narrative of a video game to be “extendable,” it stands to reason that the original game’s narrative must, in some sense, be incomplete. And so the completeness dilemma is that either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete.

There are two qualifications I have to make immediately about this dilemma, both of which have to do with exactly what I mean by “complete” and “incomplete.” As written, the dilemma might strike readers as wildly implausible. After all, you might say, countless narratives, in video games and in other media, have sequels, which would also seem theoretically impossible by the above logic. So something must be wrong with the above analysis.

I actually think there probably are substantive theoretical problems for sequels/prequels/etc. based on the above logic, but I’ll set those aside for now because I do think the completeness dilemma for DLC is a different issue than any problems that arise for sequels. The key is that DLC “extends” the narrative of a video game in a different way than a sequel “extends” the narrative. Broadly speaking, sequels tend to tell an entirely new narrative that takes the former game’s narrative as a starting point, whereas DLC tries to enrich a game’s narrative by adding other events that are coextensive with and subordinate to that game’s narrative. This makes sense when you think of DLC as “add-on content”: rather than telling a whole new story, like a sequel would, DLC “adds on” to a game’s narrative, aiming to supplement it with “more” story. So, for example, a DLC might add a storyline that happens during the events of a game’s main story, but that involves different characters than the main game’s avatar. This was the case with Dishonored‘s DLC, which had its own problems as a result. Or, alternatively, DLC might add a new episode that doesn’t strictly speaking occur at the same time as the events of the main game, but that nonetheless coherently fits as a constituent of the main game’s narrative. This is something like what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just did with their System Rift DLC, which effectively folds a new “chapter” into the main game’s narrative of Adam Jensen trying to uncover details of a global, augmentation-related conspiracy. So the first crucial qualification to the completeness dilemma is that I’m talking about “completeness” in the sense that the self-contained narrative of a game is internally complete: more precisely, its various narrative constituents are more-or-less coherent with one another, and adding substantially more narrative would interfere with that coherency. This measure of completeness has no bearing on the justifiability of sequels to games.

The second qualification to make about the incompleteness dilemma is that this dilemma is largely grounded in the somewhat unintuitive way that the worlds of video games operate as narrative elements. I’ve argued previously that the worlds of video games are fundamentally designed to respond to the avatar in various ways, depending on player choices. This might seem obvious and trivial, but the result is that the ontology of video game worlds functions to create the game’s narrative. And if a designer has created a world that functions to create the narrative of a game, it isn’t at all clear how you could just “add on” more story or more world in order to extend that narrative. Indeed, doing so, one might think, would completely disrupt the ontology of the game’s world. This is the metaphysical basis for the completeness dilemma; once we see this basis, I think the dilemma itself becomes much more plausible.

Deus ExSystem Rift and The Completeness Dilemma

Beyond purely theoretical considerations, many concrete instances of DLC bear the hypothesis out: a large amount of DLC seems unsatisfying, and I think the reason for this lack of satisfaction just is the completeness dilemma in many cases. To take just one example, let’s look at System Rift, the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC that I mentioned above. In broad strokes, Mankind Divided follows Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the earlier Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as he tries to mitigate rising tensions between the augmented and non-augmented in a world of human-augmentation-through-biotechnology. The main thread of the game’s plot is Jensen’s mission to uncover a secret, powerful group of people, the Illuminati, controlling and orchestrating the course of events at a global scale. At the end of the main game, while Jensen has successfully thwarted a major terrorist, he is left with most of the same questions about the shadow organization he’s been hunting for the entire game. The DLC then picks up with Jensen getting a request from an old colleague (from Human Revolution), Francis Pritchard, to help him infiltrate a major data storage bank, Palisade Blades. Though Pritchard has his own motives for wanting to infiltrate Blades, he also motivates Jensen to help him by pointing out that Jensen could well be able to uncover more information about the Illuminati while inside the facility–indeed, the DLC’s ad campaign actually motivated people to purchase the DLC for this same reason (i.e. finding out more about the Illuminati).

Without diving into too much depth about System Rift, we can pick out two overarching problems with the DLC that the completeness dilemma allows us to explain. The first problem is the selling point of the DLC’s story: uncovering more about the shadow organization that Jensen has been hunting all long. Many people reviewing the DLC have commented in one way or another that the story wasn’t especially satisfying; with our theoretical framework in the background, we can make this complaint more precise and understand just why the story isn’t satisfying. The DLC is predicated on getting answers about an organization that, throughout the first game, Jensen never really fully identified or confronted; in this respect, the main narrative force of the DLC explicitly directs players’ attention to the fact that the main game was incomplete in terms of uncovering the Illuminati. But Eidos Montreal (the developer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided, and the DLC) put themselves in a difficult situation, because they also couldn’t provide in the DLC the real answers about the Illuminati that were missing from the main game: to do so would be to effectively treat the DLC as a resolution to the main game’s narrative, and that would imply that the main game had been “missing” an ending all along–meaning players had to pay extra for the ending. As a result of the above theoretical constraints, Eidos Montreal was effectively forced to make the DLC’s answers to questions about the Illuminati minimal: though Jensen and Pitchard discovered a little about Stanton Dowd’s involvement in the organization, there wasn’t much substantive information to be had.

Of course, if a player is familiar with the broader Deus Ex series, she will know more about the Illuminati based on the earlier Deus Ex games that (confusingly enough) take place in the future relative to Mankind Divided, but this doesn’t change the facts-of-the-matter in terms of what information Mankind Divided and its DLC promise and come short of delivering. The upshot here, I think, is that Eidos Montreal probably intends to make another full Deus Ex game more directly confronting the Illuminati–as we saw above, to have any such direct confrontation in any Mankind Divided DLC would just further compromise the completeness of the main game. But the result is that the DLC feels unsatisfying and unjustified.

I said above that there were two overarching problems with System Rift that the completeness dilemma could help us explain. The first, then, was simply that the story is unsatisfying; the second is that there are continuity problems owing to the fact that the DLC is more of a stand-alone mini-game than it is an add-on to Mankind Divided. By this I mean that none of the actions of the player in the main game has any impact on System Rift–in fact, you can even play System Rift before playing Mankind Divided, though the game warns you that you may spoil some of the main game by doing so. So, despite the game being billed as Mankind Divided DLC, it really ends up being a separable narrative. The most compelling way to recognize this is to notice that none of Jensen’s augmentations carries over from the main game to the DLC: this implies that you’re playing two different versions of Jensen, meaning that the main game and DLC actually can’t exist as part of the same reality (unless you hold a view claiming something like multiple iterations of Jensen exist in the same world and have the same relationships with other people, which strikes me as wildly implausible).

Now, there are real issues with continuity across multiple games in the same series more generally, and it might sound like those are the issues I’m talking about in this case. But again, I’m containing my critique here to focus solely on DLC. There may well be a way to make reasonable sense of multiple games in a series even if a player’s choices don’t carry over between subsequent entries in the series (but see this article on Final Fantasy VII for the serious theoretical challenges that such an explanation would need to overcome), but the problem for DLCs would remain as a result of the completion dilemma. Recall that the whole thrust of DLC is that it extends a game’s narrative; in order to do this, it seems to be a minimal prerequisite that the DLC and main game occur in the same reality, unless there are compelling science-fiction reasons why they don’t (e.g., BioShock Infinite and its Buried at Sea DLC). This might seem obvious, but it points to the heart of what makes crafting effective DLC so difficult: DLC bears the burden of staying in the same reality as the main game while also justifying why its narrative content did not exist as a part of the main game. This is just another formulation of the completeness dilemma.

I should say in closing here that I quite enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and there are plenty of theoretically interesting things to say about the game in a positive light–indeed, I plan to write more on it in the future (and you can read my work on Human Revolution here). My aim here was just to show that the completeness dilemma allows us to understand many of the reasons why DLC tends to fail, along with why it’s so hard for them to succeed in the first place. I encourage readers to take their own least-favorite DLC and see whether this framework can shed light on why it doesn’t work.

The other reason why I dwelled so long on how and why DLC fails is because I think appreciating the extent of the difficulties facing DLC makes us that much more impressed when DLC manages to succeed. I turn to two such examples, Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters, next.

FromSoftware and Ontologically Sound DLC

We’ve seen that DLC, in order to be justified as part of a game’s narrative, must somehow find a way to overcome the completeness dilemma: either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete. I argue here that FromSoftware has recently released two pieces of DLC that found ways to avoid this dilemma, and that the ways these DLCs avoid the dilemma give us insight into what makes for a sound ontology for DLC and its world. I’ll first look at narrative of imposition found in the recently released Dark Souls 3 DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, and then I’ll go a bit further back in time to discuss the narrative of curiosity found in Bloodborne‘s DLC, The Old Hunters. What we’ll ultimately see is that the key to these DLCs avoiding the completeness dilemma is that they make their status as DLC, along with the player’s choice to purchase and play the DLC, narratively significant.

Ashes of Ariandel begins with an invitation for the player and her avatar to enter a new world and take on a new mission: Slave Knight Gael, prostrate on the ground of the Cleansing Chapel, enjoins you to show the Painted World of Ariandel flame in order to cleanse away its rot. The player is given the choice to either accept or reject this request; only once you accept will your avatar touch a scrap of painting and be sucked into Ariandel.

sister-friede-dark-souls-dlc

Sister Friede warns you to turn back.

This opening interaction with Gael sets the tone for the entire narrative of the DLC: the game constantly requires the player to reaffirm her choice to take on this alternative mission in Ariandel. When the player and her character first meet Sister Friede, who presides over the Forlorn members of the world (and thus, in one sense at least, presides over the world), she asks the player’s character to leave Ariandel, explicitly pointing out the bonfire next to her as a method of doing so: “Lord of Hollows,” she says, “I know not the missteps which led thee to this painted world. But thy duty is all, and thy duty lieth elsewhere. Return from whence thou cam’st. I presume it is visible to thee? The bonfire here, in this room. A meek and faded thing, but ’twill guide thee nonetheless.” Sir Vilhelm, a knight apparently in Sister Friede’s service, warns the player’s character to heed Friede’s words as well. If the

Sir Vilhelm.jpg

Sir Vilhelm warns you to turn back.

player instead chooses to press onward in the world of Ariandel, Vilhelm eventually confronts and attempts to kill the player’s character, deriding the character as he attacks: “I’ve seen your kind,” he says, “time and time again. Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.” If the player goes still further, she ultimately returns to the Ariandel Chapel where Sister Friede sits; Friede speaks to the player’s character again: “Be forewarned, eager Ash,” she says, “Should this world wither and rot, even then would Ariandel remain our home. Leave us be, Ashen One. Thou’rt the Lord of Londor, and have thine own subjects to guide.” Ultimately, if the player chooses to continue, she encounters Father Ariandel, in chains in a vast room with vaulted ceilings just beyond Sister Friede. Entering the room does not trigger a cutscene or a battle. Instead, the player must walk her character all the way across the room to Father Ariandel and speak to him; only then does a cutscene initiate, followed by a battle (actually, several) against him and Sister Friede. If Sister Friede kills the player’s character during the fight, she tells the character to “Return from whence thou cam’st, for that is thy place of belonging.”

approaching-father-ariandel

The approach to Father Ariandel. You can still avoid fighting him at this point.

I describe all these moments from the DLC in such detail simply to make the point that the DLC figuratively beats the player over the head with the theme that she doesn’t belong in this world, this isn’t the proper quest or duty of the player’s character, and she should leave. The theme of this DLC’s narrative, if you do choose to play it all the way through, is that you are imposing yourself and your character upon a world and mission that don’t rightfully belong to you. The player cannot credibly claim that she just stumbled into the storyline, or that she just had to go along with the plot line: the DLC begins with a conscious choice to take up a new mission in a new world, and you have to constantly ignore and kill NPCs in order to finish the DLC.

What does this narrative of imposition have to do with the problem of completeness and Ashes of Ariandel‘s success as DLC? I claim that this narrative avoids the problem of completeness by, in a certain sense, “making narrative” the fact that the story is DLC and that the player chose to purchase and play it. To understand what I mean by this, step back for a moment and consider what it means for the player of a game like Dark Souls (or any other game) to purchase DLC for the game. Regardless of the player’s more peculiar, individual motives for purchasing the DLC, it’s fair to say that anyone purchasing the DLC wants something “more” than the main game, whether that’s more plot, more characters, more world, or what have you. But there’s something not quite rational about this desire on the part of the player: certainly players want to play games that are well designed and that contain complete, coherent narratives; yet at the same time, these players are eager for “more” in the form of DLC.

Returning now to the case at hand, the crucial feature of Ashes of Ariandel is that the game’s narrative reflects the player’s decision to play it. The player is trying to take a character that was designed for a specific, internally coherent quest, one that endlessly cycles with different possible endings, and put that character in  new environment that, by definition, could not have been a part of that original quest. The avatar, mirroring the player, is leaving its preordained, destined quest as an Ashen One (Sister Friede presupposes the Ashen One’s destiny as the Lord of Hollows, but the argument holds even if the Ashen One chooses a different path through the game) to instead take on an entirely different mission in an entirely different world–a world contained within an entirely different work of art (i.e. a scrap of a painting). Many pieces of the NPCs’ dialogue could be directed to the player just as accurately as to the player’s character: the player of DLC should hear herself reflected in Vilhelm’s words that “Every fleeing man must be caught [and every] secret must be unearthed,” and should recognize that she really is, as Friede says, going out of her way to walk her character through a world not at all related to that character’s initial purpose or design. This union of player and avatar, together with the union of the narrative and its status as DLC, culminates in the long walk down the hall to Father Ariandel: if the player has all been paying attention to the game, she should be acutely aware of the fact that she is choosing, throughout the entirety of the DLC, to disregard the vast majority of voices telling her to turn back.

So FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma in Ashes of Ariandel by turning the tables on the player: recognizing the player as part of the game’s narrative (which I have argued many times is the case in all game narratives, whether or not the game is self-consciously concerned with that fact), the DLC tells the story of a world that doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the narrative of the main game, and of a character who decided to ignore their real quest to instead, for want of a better word, invade a totally different world. In other words, FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma by pointing out that the player has chosen to purchase and play DLC in spite of the completeness dilemma.

Moreover, FromSoftware seems to have generally recognized the above method as a reliable way to develop aesthetically justifiable DLC. Turning to Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, we can see that same method alive and well–but, typical of an adept storyteller, FromSoftware has altered the precise execution of the method to better fit with the themes and broader metaphysics of Bloodborne.

Bloodborne DLC

 

I can’t say enough positive things about Bloodborne, and if you’ve read my earlier work on the game then you know some of the reasons why I think it’s so philosophically rich, in the sense of rigorous metaphysical and epistemic themes and explorations. If you know my earlier work on the game, then you also probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was extremely skeptical when DLC was announced for the game. I thought (and still think) that the main narrative of Bloodborne is practically perfect in terms of internal coherence as a cyclical narrative, in which, no matter which ending the player chooses, they can never truly escape the dream of Bloodborne, nor can they learn whatever truth (if any) lies outside that dream. This was the reason why I continue to hope that Bloodborne never has a sequel, and it was the reason why I doubted that any DLC for the game could truly be justified. However, much like Ashes of AriandelThe Old Hunters challenged my expectations by making narrative the facts that it was DLC and that I as a player had chosen to play it; the difference was that, whereas Ashes of Ariandel crafted this narrative in terms of imposition, invasion, and shirking duty, The Old Hunters crafted it in terms of curiosity and the limits of our understanding.

The Old Hunters takes place inside The Hunter’s Nightmare, a previously unaccessible part of Bloodborne‘s world which the player can access by acquiring an Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter from a Messenger and using it to apparently lure an Amygdala into grabbing the player’s character and transporting it to the Nightmare. Once there, the player is able to unravel a variety of secrets about the origins of the Healing Church of Bloodborne‘s world: she witnesses the hideous beast that Ludwig, the Church’s first hunter, became; she sees the results of the Church’s covert (largely failed) experiments to transform humans into Kin of the Great Ones (the ethereal beings that exist at the edge of human comprehension and are largely responsible for the madness that infects Bloodborne); and she encounters a dead Kos, a Great One whose appearance apparently mutated the inhabitants of a seaside Fishing Hamlet, destroying their sanity in the process.

The Hunter’s Nightmare is a realm for hunters who have been driven insane; the player and her avatar are guided through it by the one remaining hunter with some apparent sanity, Simon the Harrowed. At the beginning of the Nightmare, he warns the player’s character to turn back, “Unless, you’ve something of an interest in Nightmares?” The player can choose to either respond that “I’ve no interest” or else that “Nightmares are fascinating,” and it is only in the latter case that Simon continues to guide the player through the DLC (though the player can of course progress on her own). Simon thus sets the tone of the DLC, albeit perhaps more subtly than the characters of Ashes of Ariandel did: only the curious player has any purpose being here.

lady-maria

The player’s character investigates Lady Maria’s corpse.

So, if the player chooses to continue in the DLC, it’s fair for the narrative to assume the player is curious: and indeed, the DLC punishes the player precisely for being curious, most notably in two specific instances. First, after seeing the Church’s experimentation facility, the player encounters an apparently dead hunter slumped in a chair at the far end of a clock tower: this is Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower. The introduction to this boss fight is notably similar to the introduction to the Sister Friede/Father Ariandel boss fight: in both cases, the player must approach the boss

brador

Brador, the Church’s assassin, imprisoned.

from the other side of a long room and choose to interact with the boss before the fight actually begins. In Maria’s case, the player’s character must inspect her corpse, after which she rises from the chair and says that “A corpse… should be left well alone.” She continues: “Oh, I know very well. How the secrets beckon so sweetly,” concluding to the player’s character that “Only an honest death will cure you now. Liberate you, from your wild curiosity.” Later, as the player investigates the Fishing Hamlet, an imprisoned  Church assassin named Brador periodically invades and attempts to kill her character. Whenever Brador kills the player’s character, he proclaims that “Unending death awaits those who pry into the unknown.” Both Lady Maria and Brador reinforce the narrative of the Nightmare as the player’s tortured attempt to proceed through countless deaths and eventually satisfy her curiosity for secrets that don’t want to be uncovered.

orphan-of-kos

The Orphan of Kos, having just emerged from a deceased Kos.

In a very broad sense, The Old Hunters justifies its DLC in the same way that Ashes of Ariandel does: it tells the story of the player and her avatar trying to get something out of the game that they shouldn’t rationally expect the game to provide. But, as I said before, the details of how they tell this story are different because the narratives of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne are wildly different animals. In The Old Hunters, the narrative reflects the player’s desire to answer the game’s unanswered questions, combined with the overarching Bloodborne theme that the answers you seek often lie outside of your epistemic capabilities. The DLC does this in a tricky way: it promises that the Hunter’s Nightmare holds secrets to uncover, but what little the player uncovers only leads to further questions, showing that very little of the original curiosity has actually been satisfied and very few explanations provided by the DLC have been adequate. The DLC pretty obviously shows a connection between Lady Maria and the animated Doll who guides the player through the main game: the characters look the same, have the same voice actor (Evetta Muradasilova), and, once the player kills Lady Maria, the Doll exclaims that she feels liberated in some way. Yet the exact nature of the relationships between these characters is left unexplained. The exact relationships between the various, titular “old hunters” are left unexplained. And, most pointedly, the DLC ends with a battle against a Great One, one of the beings whose very existence is beyond the pale of human comprehension. The ending in particular points to the fact that, even if the player were able to parse out the entire history of the hunters and the Healing Church from the vague hints of the DLC, they would still have gone precisely no distance towards truly understanding the otherworldly Great Ones, the ultimate grounds of Bloodborne‘s horror and narrative force. So the DLC plays on the player’s curiosity by hinting at some explanations of plot elements while also highlighting that the entire crux of Bloodborne is that some great and terrible things–e.g., the Great Ones–are entirely outside human frameworks of explanation and understanding. The player can learn that Kos cursed the hunters who investigated and mutilated the mutated villagers of the Fishing Hamlet, but she cannot learn the truth of what Kos itself truly is.

The world of the Hunter’s Nightmare is not separate from Bloodborne‘s main world in exactly the way that Ariandel is separate from Dark Souls 3, but the framework remains the same–albeit thematically transformed. The base assumption is that the player who has played Bloodborne wants more answers than the game provides, and purchases the DLC in the expectation of having that curiosity sated. Yet the DLC tells a story of explanations and forces that ultimately prove elusive, feeding the player scraps of new information while ultimately returning to the same incomprehensible plane of unknowability that grounded the main game. Just as in Ashes of Ariandel, we have a narrative grounded in the player’s choice to irrationally want more from a complete game–in this case, it’s just couched in terms of the limits of comprehensibility and the madness that follows curiosity, seamlessly marrying its themes to those of Bloodborne.

Conclusion

The completeness dilemma isn’t easily overcome, and those DLCs that simply promise additional story content face a serious challenge as a result. This makes it all the more remarkable that FromSoftware has managed to develop DLC in which not only are the narratives are interesting and engaging, but they are also narratives that would only work as DLC. The narratives overcome the completeness dilemma by inviting the player into the narrative, and telling a story of how bizarre and paradoxical it is that the player would want an extra story to extend a world and story that was already complete. The amazing result is DLC that is justified both intrinsically and also in relation to the main game. Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters set a high bar in this regard, but they also show us that DLC falling short of this bar just won’t work. Try these DLCs out if you haven’t already, and, as you play, reflect on your choice to buy DLC in the first place; and the next time you buy a new DLC, ask yourself whether and how it avoids the completeness dilemma.

 

 

Teaser Metaphysics: Storytelling in Xenoblade X.

A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.

I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.

With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.

(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)

 

I. Teaser Metaphysics

The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.”[1] In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.

 

  1. What are we talking about? (Ch. 5) 

When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.31.08 AM

Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”

Lin: “Huh…good point.”

[…]

Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”

Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”

Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”

Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”

Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.

Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”

Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”

Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”

Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”

Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”

Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”

 

And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.

Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.

The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.

 

The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)

This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.

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Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”

Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”

Lin: “I know…”

 

I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.

Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.

But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.

But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.

 

The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)

After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.

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Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.

Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?

Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”

 

Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?

If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.

Character Creation

For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).

So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”

However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.

But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.

 

II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues 

The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.

Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.

Story Mission

The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.

Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.

It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.

From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.

In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.

 

III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel

Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.

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I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”

 

If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.

 

As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.

 

[1] To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.

Bayonetta: Female Sexuality and Agency in Video Games

by Laila Carter, Featured Author.

Equipped with her four guns and always waging war against the heavenly army, the Umbra Witch Bayonetta has become one of the most recognizable female characters in gaming. Some people have (understandable) qualms with Bayonetta as a character: they claim that her over-sexualization – making someone excessively sexual whether in looks or actions – only attracts people to look at her body for pleasure, and that viewers do not respect her as a women of agency. However, judging by the many reactions people had when she was announced as the newest character in the last Super Smash Brothers game, I do not think that this is true. People respect Bayonetta and her abilities despite her over-the-top sexuality, or, as I argue, because of it. She is one of the few women in video games who is overtly sexy yet owns her sexiness, incorporating it in her personality. She is not simply some side-girl with no purpose other than to show off her huge breasts. She is the main star of her game and kicks major butt with witch power and sexual grace, showing off a butt-shot here and there simply because she feels like it. Bayonetta has agency of her own over-sexuality; She has the ability for a character to create and change the way she presents herself, and she does so by owning her image and enjoying every minute of it.

Let me be clear about the goal of this article: I am not discussing whether or not Bayonetta is a feminist icon in gaming. That discussion is an ongoing one[1] that will probably never be fully answered, but it has no place here. I am instead discussing how Bayonetta uses her sexuality in a different way than most women in video games.

Bayonetta, The Male Gaze, and Agency

When watching film or animation, certain topics tend to appear when analyzing how and why a scene is shot. The most relevant film term here is the term “gaze”; its definition is to “look at steadily and intently, in fixed attention.” In film studies,[2] “the male gaze” specifically refers to when the camera positions itself so as to objectify the woman (or women) on screen. The audience does not view the woman as a person, but rather as an object, thanks to camera angles and movement, character attire, or scene setting (for a simple example, a woman lying in bed in a provocative manner). You can use these terms when talking about any visual medium, like comics, art, television, and video games. The types of art that use the “male gaze” depend on spectators’ scopophilia: deriving pleasure in looking at a woman for sexual interest. Scopophilia is what feminist film critics argue heavily against because the “male gaze” reduces women on screen to an object rather than to a character. By “object,” I mean a thing that one can own and handle as their own, and by “character” I mean an fictional entity representing an intelligent and sentient being that has its own independent existence. Critics and gamers have argued against Bayonetta’s entire character because of the “male gaze” the game’s cinematics produce; they claim that she invites spectators to look at her for her over-sexual body and not for her actual character.[3]

While I agree that the “male gaze” is a problem in film and animation, I do not think it can fully apply to Bayonetta’s character. To demonstrate, I will compare Bayonetta to the comic heroine Power Girl of the DC Universe, and to another controversial video game heroine, Tracer from Overwatch. Through Power Girl and Tracer, I will show the inconsistency between their character design – the way they look – and their character development – the way they act, feel, and understand the world as a whole. The inconsistency between design and development is a common way to distort female characters and attract the “male gaze,” having viewers focus on appearance rather than the overall character; And yet, this flaw of design and development does not exist within Bayonetta’s character.

The comic book heroine Power Girl is a tough, short-tempered superhero who has all the superpowers of Superman, except that she as a very low tolerance of nonsense. Her outfit, though, is more suggestive. It is a leotard, but it has a huge hole at the chest, which reveals Power Girl’s unnaturally huge breasts. While Bayonetta does possess unnatural body portions, mainly in her freakishly long legs, her sexual organs – breasts and backside – are fairly normal. Power Girl’s obviously enlarged and showcased breasts attract the “male gaze,” inviting viewers to read her comic for sexual pleasure rather than for her actual story. Her sexualized character design contradicts her character development, ignoring her no-nonsense personality, making it apparent that her outfit and body were not of her own design. The only explanation for these features is that the creators wanted her to look that sexualized; nothing in her own personality and behavior suggests that she would ever wear such an outfit (especially with breasts as big as those – one jump and they are flying right out).

Another good example of character inconsistency comes from a recent controversial pose of a female character. In Blizzard’s new team-based shooter Overwatch, the most iconic character, Tracer, had a new victory pose that some people did not like.[4] In the shot, she had an “over-the-shoulder” look, meaning her back was as the camera while her head looks over the shoulder. With her back to the camera, she shows off her orange behind, Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.39.05 PM.pngfully outlined in tight spandex. Tracer is a fun-loving, silly, and friendly character, but the pose had nothing “to do with the character [Blizzard] is creating.” The argument does not call out all female heroes in the game (such as a sniper who purposely “flaunts her sexuality” to distract her enemies, so it makes more sense for her to be showing off her behind), but does not approve of Tracer’s pose because it showed that “at any moment [the creators] are willing to reduce [female characters] to sex symbols.” The pose contradicted her personality and was very jarring in comparison to her character development. The article sparked a huge discussion to the point where Blizzard studios removed the pose altogether.[5]

On the other hand, Bayonetta’s black, detailed body-suit establishes her as a sexy character. She is a flirtatious and dramatic dominatrix, not afraid of showing off her sexy body to anyone who is willing to watch. Her skin-tight outfit, in both games, pronounces her behind, but not so much her breasts. It creates a strange balance of sexualization, not making her too top-heavy but still allowing her to flaunt her body. It would not make sense if she wore a modest outfit, just like it does not make sense that tough and cranky Power Girl wears an overtly suggestive one. Her design works well and builds upon her character development, making her a more consistent character overall, one that does not feel like the creators wanted to give her a sexy overfit for the sake of sexiness.

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The most important aspect about Bayonetta’s character design is that her sexuality does not seem out of place. Bayonetta takes full control of her sexiness and unashamedly shows it off. She is a dominatrix, sexy yet intimidating and powerful. She poses erotically as she performs killing blows on her enemies. She summons demons fully naked, making the most ridiculous and sexy stances in the game. Everything about Bayonetta reflects over-the-top female sexuality that startles, shocks, and impresses its viewers. Her hair-woven outfit and appearance in general match her abundant sexiness in her speech and actions. Unlike many other female character designs that have no business being sexual, Bayonetta’s design encompasses her sexuality in all aspects of her person: her outfit, her personality, her behavior, and her gameplay (more on that later). She has agency – the ability to create and change – over her sexuality and revels in it, using it as a means to portray who she is as a person. If you take away her sexiness, Bayonetta would cease to be Bayonetta.

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In both of Bayonetta’s games, she exhibits her over-sexualization in two media: cutscenes and gameplay. Both produce different iterations of Bayonetta, as the prolonged cutscenes are more blatantly sexual than the gameplay, but the latter produces many instances of Bayonetta flaunting her body, triggered by the player’s choice in attack. I will discuss both separately in order to further argue my case that Bayonetta has the ability to create and change her own over-sexuality.

Bayonetta in Cutscenes

When you are first introduced to Bayonetta, chances are that you think she is just another over-sexualized female character in gaming. You load Bayonetta 2 and start the story by watching the first cinematic cutscene of the game. You see Bayonetta in a fancy shopping outfit strolling down the sidewalk, when a fighter jet barrels towards her. She stops it, leaps on top of another one in midair, and faces the horde of angelic monsters that confront her. They attack, she dodges; but in the process, the angels’ weapons tear away her outfit, presenting her in the middle of the sky fully naked (luckily, shading prevents the game from being pornography). She then summons her hair to wrap around her nude body, creating her outfit (yes, it is made out of her hair) as she poses dramatically. She then proceeds to destroy the angels in a series of sexy and over-the-top attacks before the game drops you into gameplay.

Bayonetta’s cutscenes are, to put it mildly, absurd.

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If players manage to survive the opening cutscene, then they realize Bayonetta’s over-sexualization definitely earns the word “over.” Bayonetta performs ridiculous stunts, flying through hell on a giant demonic horse, avoiding weapons by spreading her legs, or participating in a sexy posing contest with an enemy angel. She may perform her actions in sexual ways, but everything happens so fast and so outrageously that it leaves one in utter surprise rather than in sexual pleasure. Bayonetta will summon a demon and slap an angel’s behind in the same scene, and the player can barely process all the images and what they imply. The over-sexualization of the opening scene is mainly for shock value: the combination of the presentation and subject material makes it hard for the viewer to take everything seriously. Bayonetta’s sexuality is less for visual pleasure than for people to stop and question what they just saw, to rethink the entire situation that Bayonetta is in. This is especially true if you play the game for the first time and have never seen the cutscenes. Bayonetta’s over-sexualization is so absurd and over-the-top that it becomes comical – it is nonsensical shock-value entertainment. Even when players watch the cutscenes and Bayonetta’s poses for the third or fourth time, nothing gets old; it’s still fascinating how Bayonetta creates an extravagant show out of her own sexuality.

Bayonetta in Game Design

People are sometimes rightfully frustrated with female characters in video games because of their narrative placement: that is, when a woman appears in the narrative and what she does to impact the story. Many women appear in DLC, or in no gameplay at all–they are there to help, but are never fully playable. They are in the game to be rescued, to help the main protagonist but never accomplish anything by themselves, or for the infamous factor of sex appeal. This kind of representation of women becomes more frustrating when the designers decide to sexualize female characters that are crucial to the narrative. For example, Kaine from Nier is not playable at all and shows up to assist the protagonist Nier most of the time. She[6] is important to the story, but her apparent lack of agency over her own story (she gets possessed by a monster at one point, and it’s up to the player whether she lives or dies) can be very disheartening for people who want her to have more control in her own narrative. In addition, her skimpy outfit barely covers her body, revealing most of her behind,[7] and greatly contradicts her cold and anger personality (much like Power Girl). Her character placement is frustrating because her lack agency over her own story and her contradictory design, which invites the “male gaze” to mostly “gaze” at her cutscenes. Kaine’s sexualized (and unnecessary) character design and placement makes it seem like she is in the story mainly for the player’s pleasure, and not for a consistent character development.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is the main and most prominent character of her game (it is named after her). Her character placement is the center stage, and the player does most of the action through her character. She is playable 98% of both games,[8] and, more importantly, she is the active character of the game. Active characters change the environment and story according to their own will.[9] In the first Bayonetta, she decides to head to the ancient city Vigrid to figure out her past and find her lost memories. Without spoiling anything, in the end she reclaims who she is as a person and fights for both what’s right and for the safety of the world. In Bayonetta 2, she decides to venture into Inferno itself, ignoring the improbability of survival in order to save her near-dead best friend Jeanne. She rekindles relationships with many characters and saves the world in the process, again. In the first Bayonetta, the plot revolves around her self-discovery and asserting her right to live, and in the second Bayonetta, the plot follows her selfless adventure to save her one true friend. She is not a side character present in order to assist the protagonist, nor is she unessential to the plot. The narrative would not exist without her taking charge, without her deciding her own fate, and without her overcoming all obstacles with the strength and willpower of her one-woman army.

Not only does she direct the game’s story (as a well-designed character should do) by making her own decisions and changing the course of the narrative, but Bayonetta has also become one of the most powerful figures in video games. This is important because, as I have stated before, many women who are sexualized are portrayed as weak compared to other characters (protagonists especially) in the story. On the other hand, Bayonetta is ridiculously strong and is arguably the strongest character in the game. In terms of gameplay, Bayonetta has one of the most fluid and powerful combo systems containing a large variety of options that never make the gameplay dull. She acquires different weapons that can pair with other weapons to form even more combos. These weapons range from sharp and deadly swords to a giant hammer, from ice skates to whips, and from a living scythe to a bulky grenade launcher. Every weapon has a unique demon that Bayonetta can summon either if the player uses the right attack combination or if the player initiates umbra Climax, a mode in Bayonetta 2 in which Bayonetta’s attacks increase in magical strength. In this mode, Bayonetta manifests larger versions of her normal attacks and can summon her large personal demons more easily. Everything on screen explodes in purple magic with Bayonetta glowing, and the players gets a rushing sense of exhilaration. They can feel her magical power whenever they destroy a fleet of angels with her giant, demonic punches, and they can feel the true strength of an Umbra witch when they annihilate a boss as big as battleship. The player feels powerful through Bayonetta, that they, through her, can conquer any obstacle standing in the way. Cutscenes may show off some of Bayonetta’s fighting power in sexy and comical ways, but players get real understanding of her ridiculous and amazing strength through gameplay. Her combos and demonic summons demonstrate the full force of an Umbra Witch, a being who is not to be trifled with.

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To top it off, Bayonetta incorporates her sexiness in all of her gameplay. Some attack combos have Bayonetta perform acrobatic stunts, which she finishes with dramatic and flirtatious poses. For example, when Bayonetta attacks with her “breakdance” move, she spins around on the ground, shooting bullets in a whirlwind that does great damage to nearby enemies. She stops this attack by lying on the ground with her behind in the air, arching her back and winking directly at the camera (breaking the 4th wall). Torture attacks are special summons that produce great damage or instantly kill enemies. When she summons them, Bayonetta usually performs another sexy pose; for example she can summon a tombstone to flatten enemies, and when the heavy stone lands, she squats with her knees spread and makes a face, all like she is posing for the camera (the flattened enemy is behind her). The funniest are the punish attacks, where she will sit on top of a fallen enemy and slap them to death, usually on their butt. It is highly sexual and creates the picture of Bayonetta as a dominatrix; yet the player prompts Bayonetta to use her punish attacks because they are incredibly efficient in dealing with enemies, not just because they are sexy.

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The most sexually revealing of Bayonetta’s attacks are her demonic summons, yet they are the most spectacular parts of the game. Bayonetta summons her large inferno demons at the end of mini boss fights, boss fights, after certain attack combos, or during umbra Climax in Bayonetta 2. She can call forth beasts such as Gomorrah, a dragon, Diomedes, a Unicorn whose horn is a giant sword, and the infamous Madame Butterfly, her personal female demon whose limbs Bayonetta summons the most for fighting. The witch even uses her to fight against an equally strong opponent angel, resulting in an grand aerial battle between Bayonetta and a Lumen Sage in the foreground (the fight the player controls) and between the giants of Madame Butterfly and the angel Temperantia in the background. Demonic beasts encompass the entire screen, finishing off other large enemies with ease. In order to summon such monsters, Bayonetta uses her hair; her hair, though, is what makes up her clothing, so in order to summon demons, Bayonetta has to be naked. It is a little startling when a player first summons Madame Butterfly’s fist and Bayonetta appears nearly naked on the screen. It is not complete nudity: gray shading covers her breasts, stomach, vagina, and behind, but she still does not wear any clothes. She will appear like this in regular combat, whereas in cutscenes she will be naked, but with her hair blocking anything inappropriate. When she summons demons for a grand finisher, her nakedness is more suggestive as the gray shading is no longer present and only weaves of hair cover her private areas. It is over-sexual to the extreme: the over-the-top, ridiculous, and absurd nature of Bayonetta’s near-nudity adds even more to the shock value of game, making players ask whether if what they saw on screen really happened. Playing as Bayonetta gives the player a whirlwind of initial confusion and shock, but it never deters from the thrill of overpowering enemies by summoning a giant canine to tear them to shreds.

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Bayonetta’s attacks are graceful and powerful, exhibiting the female body throughout the gameplay. Her moves mean business, and that’s what is so great about Bayonetta. She is over-sexualized, but she defeats her enemies with overwhelming strength. She fights legions of both Paradiso and Inferno, angels and demons, minions and giant bosses, and still is able to pull a dramatic pose at the end of fighting. Her prominent display of her feminine body is empowering; in art media, the female body is usually presented as sign of weakness – something undesirable for the self to become – or as sexual interest – something desirable for the self to possess. Bayonetta demonstrates through her gameplay that having a female body does not make a person any less powerful: that one can have sexy breasts or a sexy behind and still defeat any enemy that comes one’s way. She proves that the female body is not a sign of weakness but of strength, because she accepts the body she was given and is proud of it.

Conclusion

Bayonetta’s agency of her over-sexualization makes her a wonderful female character. Many female characters have no agency at all, making their visual design mismatch their personality and behavior, thereby creating bad character design. With many fictional female characters – whether in movies, TV shows, animation, comics, or video games – female sexuality is present for the spectators, and not for the woman herself. She is sexy for the appeal of the audience, but not for her own tastes and pleasure. Bayonetta, however, fully enjoys her over-sexualization and professes it to the world, which is apparent in both cutscenes and gameplay. Who would perform sexy poses while in the midst of battle if they did not love their own body? She has full agency over her entire character – she owns her outfit, her sexiness, her personality, her narrative actions (meaning decisions she makes within the story),[10] and her goals, and nothing stops her from believing in herself, sexiness and all. Her sexiness does not make up her entire character, either: she is courageous, witty, commanding, headstrong, and compassionate for her friends and family. Bayonetta is not a character who only has a game to exhibit her undying sexiness: she is there to teach her enemies a lesson and display real emotions at the same time. Looking sexy while doing it is just a good bonus. Bayonetta exemplifies that it is okay for a woman to be sexy if the woman wants to be sexy; you can have characters with sexy breasts, a sexy butt, and a sexy personality, and that’s fine as long as the characters are okay with it. This applies to both fictional characters and real people, male and female. Yes, it would be outstanding to have a female character who is just as powerful, prominent, and successful as Bayonetta without the intense over-sexualization; but I, a straight woman, do enjoy Bayonetta’s abundant sexiness because, for once, she also enjoys her own sexiness and celebrates it for her own sake.

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Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/10/femme-doms-of-videogames-bayonetta-doesnt-care-if.html

[2] Feminist Film Studies, to be precise.

[3] https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/bayonetta-and-the-male-gaze/

[4] The original post and the huge discussion it caused: http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583. Another video explaining the pose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf5SdrJoOdc

[5] The only reason I had any problem with the pose is because Tracer had no butt to show off – it’s non-existent and looks weird to me.

[6] Kaine is a hermaphrodite, but most people use she/her pronouns to describe her.

[7] I understand the argument for why she reveals most her skin – that she must expose the most skin to sunlight in order to control the monster possessing her – but it’s still shady. It is also in great contrast to her cold, calm, and shy personality.

[8] The other 2% you play as Jeanne, her best friend, and Loki, an important side character.

[9] For more on active and passive characters: http://readingwithavengeance.com/post/77195680492/on-writing-active-vs-passive-characters

[10] As a video game avatar, Bayonetta cannot completely control her actions: her fighting and traveling is in the hands of the player. But in terms of her crucial decisions and how she responds to certain events, Bayonetta has control.