Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
Jack didn’t choose to be in the underwater city of Rapture, in the cross-hairs of a civil war. Rapture’s citizens have become adam-fueled drug addicts, hoarding guns from vending machines, and peppering each other with bullets at every turn.
Smugglers risked the wrath of Rapture’s authorities to bring in fish and bibles into the desperate city. They couldn’t save people from starvation, so they tried to save souls. An audio diary from a reformed call girl asked if God can still hear their prayers this far down in the sea.
In Dunwall, Corvo returned to a city half-devoured by plague rats. He went around to the other islands to ask help on behalf of the Empress, and returned with polite but blunt replies. Politicians tried to quarantine the sickness in the poorer districts. The frazzled elite have authorized the military to kill anyone suspected of infection.
At the same time, Dunwall’s industrialization is in full throttle. Scientists and entrepreneurs built tech that can rival magic, racing to find a cure for the plague and cash in on the crisis. To keep their machines humming, they burned the cleanest and most impractical fuel they could find— whale oil. A platoon of whaling vessels hover around Dunwall’s shores, their decks slick with the leviathans’ blood.
Are these the worlds I’m meant to save?
The doomed city trope is an ol’ favorite of mine, having grown up on science fiction and pulpy fantasy books. Dystopian worlds are a staple of speculative fiction. If you ever want to wake up in cold sweat without dreaming of bodily horror, try exploring your bookstore’s science fiction rack.
If utopia is the dream of a perfect world, dystopia is a world gone completely to shit, with shit fountains in the courtyard spewing shit in every direction.
Once, perhaps, this world was redeemable. A handful of brave men and women probably tried to do their best, tried to make this world livable. But times have changed, and certain social issues have taken hold of the city— a widening chasm between social classes, maybe, or easy access to guns and drugs have turned the city into The Wire’s Hamsterdam.
Dystopian fiction is a powerful literary genre. Along with satire, dystopian fictions present real-world social commentary wrapped in sensationalized, entertaining tales.
Ray Bradbury imagined a society where books were illegal and had to be burned in Farenheit 451. He presented a world that stayed consistently safe and peaceful by emphasizing conformity. This world was terrified of dissenting opinions, so reading was discouraged. Instead, people spent their time watching TV and porn.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World showed a global state that has eliminated poverty. It seems like a utopia if it weren’t for the rigid social and class structure that enforces a population limit, celebrates passive acceptance of mediocrity, and doles out hard drugs to keep the public happy and docile.
It’s a no brainer for dystopian worlds to hop on to video games. While the video game hero will eventually face-off with the game’s big bad in an epic man vs. man conflict, setting the story in a craptastic world raises the level of the conflict to man vs. world. It’s not just one villainous character trying to kill you. Look around— even the walls want your blood.
Dystopia in video games have primarily been used to heighten the player’s suspense. Showing the player how bad it has become in Rapture and Dunwall gives us a mad voyeuristic thrill. Look at that lady with a gun in her baby carriage. She’s out of her mind, singing it a lullaby. Jeez. This man shuffles aimlessly, his arms covered in rat bites. He tells you he drowned his children in the bathtub to save them from sickness. Goddamn, son.
However, video game crapsack worlds tend to overlook one of the most important cornerstones of dystopian fiction: at the heart of it all, dystopias work as cautionary tales.
The world wasn’t this bad before. Then some assholes had a bright idea that backfired or was taken to the extreme, and now this world is a shithole. Don’t let this happen to your world.
Andrew Ryan had a dream when he built Rapture, a city where men can own the sweat of their brow. He ran away from the parasites of the surface world, from governments and institutions that that would have limited man’s greatness. He didn’t expect his city to tear itself apart from the inside. If only he had social structures that could have prevented all this violent and decadent consumption.
“Everything would have been simple if people just followed orders,” laments the Lord Regent as Dunwall falls about his ears. He thought he could save the city, but it’s all gone to shit now.
If the plague and corruption weren’t enough, somewhere in Dunwall is a book that foretells of a future when the entire world is sucked screaming into the void. The only thing keeping the world afloat is the mystical powers of whales– and the whale population has plunged exponentially in the name of progress.
The thing about dystopias is that they’re hardly ever redeemable anymore. The people of this doomed city are so far gone and every aspect of the place has become unlivable. It has come to a point when the only possible solution is to burn it all down and start anew.
This was the inescapable fate of the city of Atlantis. Plato described the city as an anti-thesis of Athenian utopia. Atlantis was a proud empire that waged war against its neighbors and enslaved its prisoners. As punishment, the gods struck the city down and sunk it under the sea.
The moral lesson is clear— don’t let your city be overrun by dicks, or no force on earth will be able to save you.
But even doomed cities must have the occasional ray of light, right? Perhaps. The Judeo-Christian god rained fire and brimstone down the sinful party kingdoms of Soddom and Gomorrah, but spared Lot and his family after judging them worthy of pardon.
In video games, the godlike power over life or death are in the hands of the player. Which brings me back to my first point— when playing Bioshock and Dishonored, what exactly am I fighting for?
Rapture is lost. It is literally surrounded by death. The only thing that stands between its people and crushing ocean pressure is a few meters of cracked reinforced glass. The citizens are twisted and foul, facilities are fucked up, and there’s semen on everything.
If I save the Little Sisters, no matter what new lives they carve for themselves topside, they’ll always be haunted by the things they’ve done.
Meanwhile, the road to Dunwall is paved with the purest intentions. Once the rats got into the city, it was all over. Not everyone in the city is evil. Some have been forced by circumstances to loosen the definition of the word. Part of the city is submerged in water, while the other part is crawling with plague. Every day, the guards throw the dead into the sea. There is no help coming from the other islands. Whoever inherits Dunwall inherits a drowning world that doesn’t know it yet.
“We all start with innocence but the world leads us to guilt” reads the graffiti on the wall of Corvo’s prison cell, hinting at the mental state of the last man to spend the night there. If this is true, then maybe we ought to let the city drown and start again.
Even if Jack and Corvo do the best that they can, there is no hope for either Rapture or Dunwall.
Sometimes a take-no-prisoners run can be a profound exercise of mercy.
Despite the 40-plus years of the medium’s existence, writing in video games has yet to catch up and fulfill its potential. That’s fine though, and every emergent medium has its birthing pains. Even film took near a century to move out of black-and-white and introduce sound.
The beauty of talking about video games is that we all become part of the medium and the culture’s growth. We might not all be game designers and producers, but through our criticism and viewpoints, we can challenge the way games are made and played.
Video game bad endings don’t have to be consolation prizes or the fount of ragequits. There is a reason why game designers have made bad endings, and why bad endings are easier to get than good endings. If both the hero’s narrative and the game world demand a bad ending, we players would be defying narrative logic by manipulating the plot, and for what? For a feel-good but empty ending?
Some of the best stories in either film or literature have bad endings. This allows the reader to feel the bittersweet pang of speculation. What if this character did this, or chose this route instead? But all that is moot, of course. Human existence in itself is generally a bittersweet affair. Which is why bad endings sometimes leave us shell shocked in this realization.
Don’t get me wrong, though: the game’s the same. It hasn’t changed. It’s the same general jump-run-shoot mechanics that got us through for 40 years. We still play to have fun.
The stakes, however, have been raised. The players have grown and, presumably, matured. The industry grows in leaps and bounds. Video games are influenced by other mediums such as film and literature, while having attained sufficient recognition to influence popular film and literature in turn.
The ways that video games tell stories have become more complex and sophisticated. It’s not about just losing and winning anymore, and the game characters are not just black and white. Modern video games try to challenge our very notion of morality and justice, and stack the odds against “good” choices because, as in real life, good doesn’t necessarily mean right.
Game’s the same, just got a hell of a lot more fierce.
This essay is the third of three parts.