When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.
If you really examine the story of many of the most successful videogames you will find that they ask a great deal of the player. When playing the average triple AAA title, the player must constantly to suspend her disbelief so as to enjoy the story. Too often games ask us to take out entire military bases with an assualt rifle and a couple med kits. We know this is ridiculous and we embrace the joyful escape that games provide. However, this brings up a host of questions. Can games provide us with meaningful experiences beyond mere escape? Are there emotionally resonant moments in these big name games worth experiencing?
So how can we encourage developers to move their game stories in more meaningful directions? There are of course many answers to this question. Every dollar we spend is a vote and we can commit our money to the Team ICOs and the Jonathan Blows of the world. We need to recognize, however, that for every Tale of Tales game that is sold millions more copies of the latest dudebros game are purchased. Games are not going to change over night. First person shooters and action RPGs are safe bets for publishers and developers. Games made in these genres tend to both fun and over the top. Of course there is nothing wrong with fun. However, if games are ever to provide us with enduring narratives their stories must lend credibility to their mechanics and vice versa . In other words, story must mesh with play.
Stealth games are often the worst culprits of asking us to suspend our disbelief as we play. They often give a false sense of immersive authenticity in the way they ask us to sneak and silently take down enemies. In Splinter Cell or Deus Ex, the player is rewarded for finishing missions without taking any casualties. Thus the player sneaks from cover to cover, silently punching guards in just the right places in order to incapacitate them. I can do this to every single guard in the complex–I hide their unconscious bodies so as not to alert the other guards. I take them down one by one by one and in the course of a half hour, I have subdued every guard in my path. That means that none of the dozen guards ever thought to check in with each other, heard me punching their comrades in the throat, or happened to walk into any of the many corners where I sloppily hid their friend’s bodies.
Don’t get me wrong–I loved the Splinter Cell trilogy and I worked hard to look past the horrible boss battles of Deus Ex: Human Revolution–these games are certainly fun. But their stories are only resonant in so much as we determine not to consider the implications of what we are actually doing on screen. This is why I was tickled by the stealth portions of Batman: Arkham City–it’s narrative gave weight and purpose to it’s mechanics.
There is much to be said about Arkham City’s sheer impossibilities, like taking on 50+ armed thugs at once, but we have an easier time suspending our disbelief as Batman, who is superbly trained and impeccably equipped. However, the game constantly highlights Batman’s humanity. Any time you come across an enemy with a gun, it only takes one misstep for Batman to die. These encounters require thoughtful stealth and ask the player to plan his attacks and calculate their consequences. These encounters are given distinct narrative weight as well. When you manage to silently take down one of the Joker’s armed goons, Joker knows it. He has equipped them all with heart rate monitors–so with every victory the game becomes more difficult and requires greater precision from the player. Take out another enemy and Joker threatens his guards from an overhead speaker and warns Batman that he is watching. In this moment my heart p0unds and my breathing quickens–I fear Joker yet I determine to best him. In this moment, I am Batman.
I can’t say that Arkham City represents the best of videogame storytelling of 2011 but I can say that the game succeeded in making it’s stealth battles meaningful. Though often hard to find, there are meaningful stories that have been told in games and I trust that I will have the privilege of experiencing many more. This moment in Arkham City gives me hope because it was a moment of truth. A moment when the world worked as it should and my determination to save it was tested.