Long Live Play: When Games Tell The Truth

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I am not a hero. Watching Sony’s recent “Long Live Play” commercial for the Playstation 3 confirmed this. Don’t get me wrong, I am Michael. I diffused the atomic bomb in Megaton, I saved every little sister I came across, and fearlessly stormed the beaches of Normandy. However, watching these many videogame characters raise a glass to my virtual achievements only served to remind me of how fleeting they actually were. There is value in escaping reality, but if that’s all videogames can do, it will remain a shallow medium. I believe games can and are doing more. If we have eyes to see, games will not merely give us a break from reality but confront us with it.

John Marston is not a good man—he spent the majority of his life stealing and using people for his own selfish ends. He recognizes this and wants to atone for his past. Marston wants to change. He wants to put his past behind him and be a good husband to his wife and a good father to his son. The path of reform for Marston is complicated and riddled with compromise. The drama of Red Dead Redemption centers around the question, “can Marston overcome his past?” I’d raise a glass to John Marston.

A friend of mine recently told me that he won’t play games that don’t allow him to play as a true hero. He wants games to give him the option to do the right thing. He would probably hate John Marston. But honestly I can’t see how he stomachs Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. I was there when Drake beat all those museum security guards to a pulp and shot down countless mercenaries in the name of treasure.

Most people like to play the hero. We like to feel we have the power to positively impact our environment. Very few of us want to be bad. This, however, is not only a narrow view of games but a narrow view of the world and our place in it. Much of the appeal of videogames stems from their predictable worlds and the player’s ability to control them. In the average first person shooter, we face endless hoards of enemies and never fear running out of ammo or incurring permanent injury. Additionally, it’s almost always clear who our enemies are—they are huge bands of ruthless bandits, malicious aliens, or terrorists. We think these types of worlds justify our power hungry violence but they are too convenient.

“Wanderer,” a boy by most accounts, has suffered the loss of his lover. This has driven him to the Forbidden Land to seek out a spirit believed to possess the power to raise the dead. Wanderer learns that this resurrection power can only be unleashed by slaying 16 giant creatures. The “colossi” hardly notice the boy when he first sees them. They are majestic and peaceful until he attacks. Wanderer shoots arrows at them to reveal his true intentions, climbs them holding on for life as he slashes and stabs them with his sword. And as each creature falls, a darkness grows inside the boy. Despite the improbability of Wanderer’s victories, these battles feel more tragic than epic. As I stand over the bodies of each of the colossi, I don’t feel accomplished. I feel ashamed. I may yet help Wanderer raise his lover from the dead, but at what cost? Wanderer is not a hero, but I will never forget “playing” as him. I would raise a glass to that.

When Infamous’ Cole MacGrath, standing at the bar with electricity flowing from his hands, says I “brought out his good side,” I don’t buy it. Even if I chose to take the “good” path in Infamous 2, the game is constantly limiting my influence—in many ways MacGrath is out of my control. This reminds me of Wanderer, who I was powerless to help. I could only sit by and watch him be consumed by his impossible desire to change fate. Shadow of the Colossus refused to let me bring out Wanderer’s good side and the result was the most sobering game I have ever played.

In actuality, it’s very hard to define who our enemies are and even more difficult to determine the most noble way of overcoming them. Conversely, most problems in games are imminently solvable and most enemies are purely diabolical. Additionally, games often give us immediate feedback for our actions—we receive “karma” points telling us whether we have done good or evil. These two elements, the diabolical nature of our enemies and the immediate feedback we get from defeating them, combine to produce one of the most common assumptions of games—the ends justify the means.

Nipton, a small town in New Vegas, has been utterly destroyed by a group called Caesar’s Legion. The terrorist group killed or enslaved every citizen save a lucky few who “won the lottery” and were allowed to flee town. When I arrive to Nipton, I find that many of its inhabitants have been executed by crucifixion. When I find the men who committed these atrocities, I don’t try to reason with them. I make my own justice with a cowboy repeater. I expect someone to notice my act of vigilante justice but no one does. I don’t receive a medal or even a “thank you.” While it may be clear that Caesar’s Legion is evil, in this moment I am suddenly aware how easily I resorted to the same sort of brutality that characterized the Legion. Perhaps these men could not be reasoned with, but I wonder if a true hero would have tried. I’m the main character in Fallout: New Vegas, and if my experience in Nipton taught me anything, it’s that my understanding of heroism is deeply flawed. I’d raise a glass to that realization.

Most gamers probably had a similar reaction to Caesar’s Legion. My friend killed every last member of that gang and felt a noble sense of accomplishment doing so. But is that a good response? I have to wonder, if he knew John Marston or Wanderer, would his violent response to Caesar’s Legion have inspired more nuanced reflection?

If you play the hero who only does good, at best you are projecting, and at worst you are lying to yourself. If we want to see games taken seriously, they have to start taking the world seriously and, perhaps more importantly, they have to start taking human nature seriously. We are complex people with hopes, fears, and both good and bad intentions. Sometimes life presses us to choose between two equally unpleasant decisions. Sometimes we overcome our past mistakes, while other times we are consumed by our own selfishness. At the very least, that potential lies within all of us. The moments in games that impact me most deeply are those that acknowledge the difficulty of heroism and the complexity of the world.

I wonder if my friend felt nostalgic or maybe even proud watching Drake, MacGrath, and Snake toast his virtual heroics. I’m not entirely sure these men are heroes. I definitely know I don’t deserve to be toasted by them. Instead, I would like to make a toast of my own—to the moments when games tell the truth. I love a good diversion, but these moments now have me asking different questions when I play games. As an adult I have come to value games as means of highlighting my own weaknesses, failures, and the complexity of life’s problems. In such moments, I am rarely a hero. These moments are meaningful, helpful even. These are moments of truth.