Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
I’m smoking a cigarette in this rickety plane, talking to myself. My man hands and easy tenor are mildly surprising. Where am I going? I don’t know that yet. The captain tells us to fasten our seat belts.
The air turbulence turns into a full-on water landing. The carnage drags the flight crew and passengers screaming under the waves. Everyone but me. I find a lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. I get into a submarine-like pod, and plunge deep into the underwater city of Rapture.
Or I am coming home after a long journey at sea. This close to shore, the stink of rats and rotting corpses meet the spray of sea salt. Where did I go, and why? I’m unlikely to learn.
I get on solid land but still feel the phantom swaying of the waves. My first five minutes back in Dunwall, and the earth tilts sharply under my feet. I’m accused of a crime I did not commit, propelling me like a bullet through the plot.
The video game hero is often a blank slate. He barely has dialogue and thoughts of his own.
In the early days of video games when gameplay was king, it wasn’t important for the hero to have a personality. What was important was the hero’s mission. Most times, the hero is a noble mute who stumbles around fighting bad guys.
This, perhaps, is to cement the bond between the player and the character. The idea is to let the player imprint his thoughts on a character who can’t think on his own. That and the hero’s facelessness in many first person games create the illusion is that the player is the character.
The player’s bond with the video game hero is an intimate thing. When Mario hits a goomba and loses a life, the player’s knee-jerk realization is “I died” instead of “Mario died.” This player-hero connection raises the stakes of the game. We don’t simply guide Mario to save the princess. Saving the princess becomes a matter of personal pride, and every game over screen is a personal affront.
Through the years, games have become more complex. The story has moved to the forefront, and many modern games present the player with choices that can affect the hero’s fate and the fate of the video game world.
Despite this, the game hero remains blank.
How can we make choices for a character when we have no clue of their inner turmoil? Instead of learning about the hero, we assume the role of the hero. We put ourselves in their shoes and look to the game world to inform our decisions, and desperately hope we made the right ones that earn us the good ending.
In Bioshock, I am faceless Jack. I run around Rapture with my guide Atlas yammering in my ear, telling me to kindly find a weapon or kill this character. Jack never answers back.
When Jack kills a Little Sister, I am the weight on Jack’s soul. When Jack saves a Little Sister, I am Jack’s sigh of relief.
Wrongfully accused, I am tossed into a prison cell to await my execution. What am I going through as I sit here, facing certain death at sunrise? I seethe in impotent anger at my enemies. Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.
When the guard arrives with my last meal and a key to my cell door hidden in the bread, do I suspect dark dealings afoot, or am I overwhelmed at the thought of freedom that I leap happily out of my prison and into uncertainty?
Is all this even important? If decision-making is an integral part of the game, then yes, it is.
In real life, we make decisions based on our personal values and priorities. We look to ourselves and think “Is this the sort of thing I would do? Can I live with the consequences of my actions? Faced with the possibility of explosive diarrhea in the morning, do I risk eating this ancient tin of potted meat/ can of jellied eels?”
But video games ask us to suspend our sense of self. It asks us instead to step into the shoes of another. However, because I have no idea who Jack or Corvo are as individual characters, I do not know what they would do. I do not know their priorities and values. The decisions I make for them may not necessarily be the right ones for the characters.
So I look to the game world to inform me of who I am. What am I like in this game? What have I done before and which characters are important to me? Why are they important to me? The game world supplies the hero’s lack of history and personality. This is where I have to base my decisions on.
There is a possible disjoint then between what the player wants and what the character wants.
As a player, I want to be the hero. I want the good ending. I want this game to make me feel good.
The good ending is the ultimate prize. It’s the nearest we can get to 100% game completion. To get the good ending, the player has to satisfy certain conditions. He must have taken the “good” choices of the game, or survived particularly trying levels (Escort missions! Fetch quests!). If you get the good ending, you didn’t just finish the game– you finished it well.
But I am the character too. I am Jack, terrified shitless at the bottom of the ocean, with no memories before my plane crash. Rapture is crawling with villains. Even the little girls are dead-eyed and leech off the essence of corpses. My instinct is to kill anything that moves before it kills me.
I am Corvo, betrayed and dishonored, given a second chance at life by a political conspiracy and a frivolous god. Dunwall has taken everything from me, ripped my heart out and left only anger and grief in its place. How can anyone expect me to take the high road after that?
There are choices that I can make as a player that would merit me the good ending. If I take this path, I get to see what happens to Rapture and Dunwall if everything turns out for the best. I get the feel good music as the credits roll. I get to be the hero.
But there are other choices I can make if I truly put myself in the character’s shoes. I can choose to explore the humanity of these voiceless and faceless characters. If I make these choices, I get the bad ending. I get to see what happens if Jack and Corvo were not selfless, noble heroes but were flawed and imperfect characters. These may not be good choices, but they could be the right ones for them.
This, of course, is just the way I game. By all means, choose life. Choose the good ending. Choose 100% game completion. Choose to save Rapture’s swarm of filthy brats in their tattered ribbons and veiny cheeks, their skin cold as dead fish. Choose to turn the other cheek while Dunwall’s fat cats frolic in grand balls and the rest of the city dies of plague. Choose to unlock trophies. Choose your future. Choose life…
But why would I want to do a thing like that?
To be continued.
This essay is the second of three parts.