Who Wants to Play Oedipus?
Something is missing. To be honest, I didn't even notice it until recently, but now that I have, its absence has weighed on my thoughts. There is a narrative void in our medium. Games have thus far ignored a particularly revered dramatic template; a template which Western society holds in quite possibly the highest regard. Why has our most venerated of dramatic modes not yet been satisfactorily adapted to our newest medium? Where is our great videogame tragedy?
I've begun to wonder what role tragedy could play in games, if any- and I consider it an important consideration. For why should this most universal human drama not be adequately explored in our medium? Do games and tragedy mix? If not, what would such an insoluble relationship mean for the legitimacy of games as a narrative art-form?
True, I have played games with "unhappy" endings, works which concluded on something of a minor chord; but nothing which compares to the primal dissonance of true tragedy. Some games with multiple endings have the potential for tragic outcomes, an interesting conceit in and of itself, but still not in the tradition of pure tragedy- tragedy is not found just in the conclusion, but also in the inexorable march towards that conclusion. Furthermore, the existence of the so-called "better" endings dilutes the potency and reduces the effectiveness of any tragic ones. By and large, most games work towards that most basic of endings: the indisputable triumph of good over evil, a complete resolution of all conflicts. More often than not, we leave our characters in a child-like state of "happily ever after". Let's face it-most games are fairy tales.
There's nothing wrong with happy endings or fairy tales-but they're somewhat disingenuous. As the incomparable Joseph Campbell puts it, "the happy ending is justly scorned as misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it, as we have seen it, yields but one ending: death, disintegration, dismemberment, and the crucifixion of our heart with the passing of the forms that we have loved." Tragedy holds such power over us because we all lead ultimately tragic lives. We are all made subject to forces greater than ourselves, be they fate, institution, or death itself.
Which is why it is somewhat distressing that games designers have yet to adequately forge something within this narrative mold. We assign tragedy such a high rank, yet our industry has yet to produce a truly "tragic" work. Are our designers simply not up to the challenge-or is a genuinely "tragic" game simply impossible? Perhaps tragedy and gameplay are fundamentally incompatible. In all honesty, who wants to play Oedipus?
One contentious point would be the concept of the tragic flaw. Traditional tragic characters are ultimately undone by their own individual hubris, picked apart by their own actions. When players control these actions, they are not subject to the flaws of the character, except when the character is out of their control. Players would have to be coerced, or ultimately forced, down tragic paths.
Perhaps a particularly adept designer could place her players in situations where they choose the tragic path of their own volition, dilemmas which turn the imperfections of the players themselves into the character's tragic flaw. A tragedy in the truest sense would be a situation in which any decision leads to a catastrophic end. Maybe players could be made to understand a character as existing somewhat outside the player ego; in essence, not simply an avatar the player inhabits, but a shared personality, having their own motivations and flaws.
Perhaps most discordant of all is the fact that by definition, all tragedies have but one outcome-one that most designers would concede as being fundamentally unsatisfying to a player. Gamers unconsciously associate death with "losing" the game, thus a game where a player is in some way doomed to die would be considered "unwinnable", and thus, not fun. Such control of player freedom goes against the very concept of gameplay, while the ability to change the narrative's conclusion goes against the very nature of tragedy. No one wants to play a game they can't win, and no one wants to watch a rendition of The Crucible where everyone lives.
But perhaps as our medium matures, and as we as players mature, our ideas about just what "fun" is will change. Perhaps the concept of a "winning condition" will change, or simply be discarded, in favor of a broader appreciation of entertainment on the whole.
The idea of such deep-seated conceptual changes occurring in our industry is deeply compelling to me. A tragic game would have to completely redraw certain fundamental concepts of gameplay, and such an examination would be healthy for our young medium. Tragedy shares an intimate link with mortality, a condition which games still struggle to depict. Hamlet had but one life to lead, and no savegames to fall back on. For a tragic game to work, designers would have to reexamine the mechanic of death itself- they would have to reconsider what the meaning of death inside a game actually is.
Not only do these reconsiderations excite me, but according to Aristotle, tragedy fulfills an important societal need- an emotional purgation, a cleansing, called catharsis. This is the "emptying out" one experiences during a tragic work, followed by a kind of euphoria, an ecstasy at having lived a life not quite so terrible as the characters' they've just seen. Through catharsis, the tragic play would ideally increase the audiences' appreciation for life.
Imagine, then, the kind of catharsis a game could inspire. A tragic game could achieve a kind of hyper-catharsis, a super-purgation involving a suspension of ego and the temporary assumption of another person's character and flaws. Players could theoretically finish a tragic game with a heightened sense of cathartic bliss, having actually played out a character's tragic path instead of merely watching it.
Most tragedy is so inextricably dependent upon the power of the Fates, the Will of the Gods. In the traditional single player videogame, the player is a God-if only by virtue of their capacity for conscious thought. But to some degree, games are intrinsically tragic systems in and of themselves. There is a will to which players must bend built within every game- the will of the designer. Players are already subject to forces beyond their control, they've simply thus far been devoted to the edification of the player rather than their destruction. It would seem as though the medium itself is prepared its first great tragic work.
If there is such a thing as an immutable, undeniable truth to the human condition, it is that we all eventually learn that life is not a fairy tale. There is no happily ever after. There is, however, toil, and dilemma, compromise and regret, discontentment, disappointment and despair; the tragedy of old age, of madness, weakness, sickness, decrepitude; and at the end of it all, death. No second chance, no extra lives, merely unfulfilled potential and an infinite list of sins to contemplate. We are all inherently tragic creatures.
Perhaps we don't play games to be reminded of this. Perhaps that is simply not their function. Or perhaps, like any other art-form, games can be crafted in such a way that in their reminding us of our own nature, they fulfill that inscrutable magic, that arcane purgation, and despite our own myriad tragedies we are filled with the ecstasy of living.