Like many avid gamers, I frequently feel compelled to detail all the myriad ways that our favorite industry has gotten everything wrong. This, I assure you, is not pleasant business. There's hardly a thing in the world more frustrating than being able to describe a seemingly simple fix for a vexing problem, while nevertheless being utterly unable to implement that fix for reasons that are both stupid and unnecessary. Why, then, do I so routinely engage in an activity that is invariably futile and unpleasant? Quite simply: Because unpleasant things must sometimes be endured for the sake of some further purpose.
So, although you may find the tale I am about to tell unpleasant, try to stick it out. I swear that when it ends, I'll have a point to make--a point about games, and how they've once again gotten everything wrong.
For over 4,000 years, people have been telling the story of the god-man Gilgamesh. He ruled the city of Uruk, and the people of Uruk slaved away in the clay pits, lamenting daily their cruel king's terrible power. The gods heard their cries, and in the wilderness not far from Uruk they created Enkidu, a wild man with power equal to that of Gilgamesh. A hunter led a love-priestess to Enkidu, and she proceeded to "civilize" him for six days and seven nights. (The poem actually employs far more blunt language here, which would make your work filters rather unhappy.)
After this, Enkidu found that he could no longer live among the wild animals. He instead turned his sights toward Uruk, and the great injustices being committed within its walls. Enkidu soon confronted Gilgamesh, and the two men fought each other in a battle that shook the walls of the city. In fighting, they became fast friends; their bond was strengthened by their rivalry. Gilgamesh soon expressed to Enkidu his desire to destroy the tree-god Humbaba, guardian of a distant forest, and Enkidu agreed to help. Gilgamesh hoped that by killing Humbaba, his name would live on forever.
They set out on their journey, but as they approached the forest gates, Enkidu gave voice to his own misgivings. Nevertheless, the two men advanced upon Humbaba and slew him after a ferocious struggle. They returned to Uruk, where the angry gods sent the Bull of Heaven to punish the two heroes for their act of defiance. Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the Bull of Heaven, too, and then they spurned the gods while boasting of their own superhuman prowess. (If you know anything at all about epic poetry, then you know that this was not a smart thing to do.)
For this, Enkidu was struck down by the gods. The two men had been as gemini, and Gilgamesh mourned the death of his friend. Fearing his own mortality, he set off on a great quest to find a plant that would make him immortal. He journeyed into the underworld and across the waters of death before he came upon the old man Utnapishtim. The wise Utnapishtim instructed Gilgamesh in the ways of life and death, but with respect to Gilgamesh's quest, he had only this to say: nothing is permanent. He then gave Gilgamesh the plant of everlasting vitality--the plant that he had sought for so long.
Gilgamesh set the plant on the shore of a crystal clear lake so that he could take a swim. As he swam, a snake emerged from the water, wrapped its body around the plant, and made off with it. Gilgamesh was forced to return to Uruk in failure.
That's right. This most ancient of stories has a sad ending--one of the saddest ever written, in fact. When, pray tell, was the last time you played a game with a sad ending?
In his recent Game Developers Conference keynote address, Nintendo's president, Satoru Iwata, noted that the main thing gamers are looking for when they play games is a sense of accomplishment. Most gamers wish to be rewarded for their efforts in a simple and expedient manner, like dogs that successfully perform a set task. I do not disagree with Iwata-san; I think his assessment of the current state of affairs is accurate. However, I also believe that the ubiquitous notion of "reward" that has taken hold of the industry is far too narrow. It's about time we gamers realized that there are other types of reward to be had than triumphing over one's digital enemies for the hundredth time.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that catharsis--not mere achievement--is the goal of all tragedy. When Gilgamesh loses his plant to his own carelessness, we the audience are so shocked at his foolishness that we can only stammer and grasp for meaning. This is important: the meaning we take away from the epic of Gilgamesh is not spoonfed to us. Instead, the epic forces us to choose between either devising our own meaningful interpretation, or else losing our sanity. It is a deeply unsettling feeling to be placed in such a situation, but many people also find an appeal in being forced to contemplate tragedy, loss, and chaos. That's why the tragic art has endured through the millennia.
I've played hundreds of games in my life, and of those, the games with narratives that refuse to end in joyous victory for the good guys can be counted on one hand. Frankly, I find this state of affairs more than a bit insulting. I accept from the outset that, as with any sufficiently large group, most gamers are basically ignorant of important matters and unaccustomed to critical thought. But are we any more uncultivated than the average moviegoer? If Hollywood can occasionally pull its act together and produce a film unladen with a saccharine ending, then what strange and unseen obstacle blocks the game developers' path? Some people would take this discrepancy as evidence that games just aren't suited for telling a compelling story. As my previous article will attest, I don't believe that for a minute.
Rather, I choose to believe that these days, game designers (and the people that employ them) are largely devoid of ambition, talent, and creativity. This is not a particularly insightful conclusion that I have reached. The best that I can say for myself is that I've discovered an unorthodox route to the same ruinous cliff as everyone else. Anyone who has kept a pulse on the games industry of late will tell you that gamers who've been active in the hobby for a decade or more are growing worried. We stand gathered there on the precipice, huddled together for warmth, as a strong wind threatens to cast us all into rocky depths best left unplumbed. The reasons for this dire situation are manifold; you will find that many of them have been well documented in the GWJ articles from the last few months. Consider this article as yet another insistent voice, added to a growing choir.
Then, go back and reread my first paragraph, and make of things what you will.