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.


fangblackbone wrote:

I can think of one big reason:

No sequels

You'd be forced to do prequels and we all know how well those turn out =P

I always wanted to do a game series where the main character dies at the end of game one.

Then game two is a prequel, and you kill him at the end of that one too.

Does anyone remember the end of the Starcraft single-player campaign? Not to be too spoilerific (though it has been quite a long time), but a prominent character does sacrifice himself in the last level to end the Zerg menace. It was a nice idea, though had 2 flaws: 1) It's hard to get that much emotional attachment to a character whose personality you only see in the occasional cut-scene between levels, and 2) the cut-scene where he sacrifices himself is jarringly out of place with the battle you just won.

Part of the problem I see, like others, with the classic Tragedy is the Tragic Flaw. There's always been a conflict between author control and player control in games. The point of the tragic flaw is that protagonist makes pivotal bad choices because it is their nature to do so (at least from what I remember of the topic). Resolving this with player control without causing enraged frustration (or frustrated rage) is not a simple task.

I always wanted to do a game series where the main character dies at the end of game one.

Then game two is a prequel, and you kill him at the end of that one too.

I always wanted to do a cyclical game story. The hero defeats the big bad only to realize that someone has to fill the power vaccuum. It dawns on the hero, the irony that the big bad was the noble motived hero that defeated the big bad before him. The future is not so bright.

Its sort of the message that its much easier to be altruistic and decry injustice than to govern the masses that want their cake and eat it too. Its easier to start a fire than it is to tend it and those that are good at one may not necessarily excel at the other.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Part of the problem I see, like others, with the classic Tragedy is the Tragic Flaw. There's always been a conflict between author control and player control in games. The point of the tragic flaw is that protagonist makes pivotal bad choices because it is their nature to do so (at least from what I remember of the topic). Resolving this with player control without causing enraged frustration (or frustrated rage) is not a simple task.

Perhaps it would be better to just allow for tragedy, taking advantage of mistakes that are genuinely the player's.

fangblackbone wrote:

Its easier to start a fire than it is to tend it and those that are good at one may not necessarily excel at the other.

Yes, but you must keep in mind that it was always burning since the world's been turning. No we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it.

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio

Tragic flaws could make for interesting puzzle design. They dont physically hurt the protagonist but they gradually take the player further from his goal.

On that note, anyone seen "The Cube"?

fangblackbone wrote:

I always wanted to do a cyclical game story. The hero defeats the big bad only to realize that someone has to fill the power vaccuum. It dawns on the hero, the irony that the big bad was the noble motived hero that defeated the big bad before him. The future is not so bright.

Hmm, it's not exactly the same, but this reminds me of how Diablo ended.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth's main character, Jack Walters could be considered a tragic figure. I'll put my reasoning behind a spoiler tag, since it does involve plot elements.

[color=white]Early in the game, Jack arrives at a home in Innsmouth as part of his investigation. Upon arriving, a little girl answers the door, and in the course of conversation, mentions her mother, who is locked in the attic. If the player sticks around to listen to the girl, she is humming a certain song which sounds identical to the music from the game's introduction.

Proceeding upstairs, Jack peers into the attic through a small window in the door, only to be bowled over by something large and bestial breaking the door down and making its way downstairs. The little girl's final screams are the last thing Jack hears before passing out. The mother has mutated into a Deep One, and in a fit of rage, killed her daughter. Jack is wracked with guilt about his involvement in the girl's death, indirect as it may be, and hears her disembodied voice and experiences hallucinations in which he sees the girl's mutilated body throughout the rest of the game. In the game's ending cutscene, Jack is confined to a sanitarium, where he is still experiencing the same hallucinations, fed by his guilt.

Jack saved the world, but the little girl is still dead and it's his fault. The scene cuts away to show an orderly starting up a phonograph, and what does the record play? You guessed it, the very same song that the little girl was humming. This is simply too much for Jack's shattered mind to take, and he hangs himself in his cell.[/color]

Thanks for that Chameleon, I never could bring myself to finish that game so it's nice to know what happened. Well put, too!

Always glad to help out.

[I know I'm late to the party, but I don't work on weekends (or fridays, for now)! and by law, I can only check this site while at work.]

A thought experiment.

Imagine the leering skeleton of a tragedy, composed of 4 'bones':

the 'head' or character
the 'spine' or compromised support structure (aka, tragic flaw. kind of like scoliosis)
the 'hands' three of them, each with one finger (aka, the unities of action, space, and time)
the 'feet' or ultimate escape (aka, catharsis or purging after the moment of terror upon viewing the scary skeleton)

ok, so it's kind of a holographic meta-skeleton, containing both the tragedy and the experience of the tragedy as a subset of the whole thing...

So a scary floating holographic meta-skeleton...just like in the Poetics.

As such, it's a tall order to ask modern gaming to put flesh to these bones! but how about just presenting the bones?

I offer the following, in ASCII (dots added in a frail attempt at proper alignment):


those are the unities sticking straight out of the @-head, the tragiclly curved spine, and the feet at the bottom (both exit and entry, since the cathartic moment returns the member of the audience to his initial state, though it feels new and shiny). Ideally, the 'feet' would flash like a prompt (what, no [blink] tags??).

Maybe you see where I'm going with this:

The only truly tragic game is NetHack.

Some might say the game is masochistic, and some might even try to 'finish' it; but no, it is tragedy, encapsulated. I could riff on the theme for pages but if you've played, then you've played repeatedly--and this must certainly seem at least feasible.

A 'game' of NetHack comprises the birth and death of your character, all in one sitting (if you 'save' in NetHack, then you aren't playing right, or you're one of those confused people that are trying to 'finish' it). Thus, it observes the unities. Creating your character's back-story is the first part of the game. It inevitably leads to a life of adventuring and ceaseless exploration, either one of which means certain death (your tragic flaw). and then, upon death, all the tension is released, and you are offered ultimate insight: "Do you want your possessions identified?"

By your death, all mysteries are revealed. You (the player) are then returned to the prompt, free to live your newly refreshed life, or to dive back in, maybe trying monk instead of archeologist. You can even find the tragic remains of your former characters, thus ensuring the unity of the 'space' of the game.

NetHack is a tragedy primer.

--Note on the ASCII skeleton--
In game, the ASCII elements I've used mean:

@, of course, is where you're at. it's your main character. your 'guy'. your one tragic life.
_,|, are walls of a room, an open door, or a grave. what better way to represent the unities of space, action, and time?
?, a scroll. I could have used 'I' which is an invisible or unseen monster, since this best represents the focus of '@'s tragic flaw. But I also could have used '+', which is a closed door or an unlearned spell. Or '%', which is something edible and, in all likelihood, poisonous. But 'scroll' is a question mark, which is perfect. Also, its curvy like a scoliotic spine...

duckideva wrote:

"Tragedy tells of the fall of a worthwhile, usually noble, character. Greek and Elizabethan tragedies relied on a protagonist [...] who was of high station, but modern tragedies also use protagonists of low or middle station as a means of exploring their worthiness. Traditionally, tragic heroes or heroines faced an unexpected fate. Fate, or destiny, dominates tragedy, and the plot reveals the protagonist resisting fate before finally yielding to it. Fate in classical tragedy was determined by the will of the gods; in modern tragedy it is sometimes determined by inherent characteristics of the heroes, by the force of the environment, or by both. Tragic heroes and heroines face their fate with determination, courage and bravery. Thus, they are worthy of our respect. [...] Tragedy is, above all, serious in tone and importance. It focuses on a hero or heroine whose potential is great but whose efforts to realize that potential are thwarted by fate: circumstances beyond his or her control"

This to me is word for word the meta-plot of Planescape:Torment.

Although the first tragic character that instantly sprung to mind was the Vaultdweller. All along you're a victim of the circumstances. An unlikely hero that is flung around on the waves of the fate's stormy seas. And then finally, when you come through and overcome all obstacles... well... I guess all is not as it seems at first.

I also don't think that leading a character to their doom is necessarily diametrically opposed to players' free will. Half Life 2 comes to mind. Or rather the opening scenes of it. Where you are persued by the combine soldiers. There is a predetermination to that chase. Inevitably leading you in the single conclusion, yet you still feel it is you who is making the decisions. It's you who is running and choosing the path. You still feel you have all the free will you need to have, yet the outcome is 100% prescribed.

Speaking of which, would not Gordon Freeman be somewhat of a tragic character as well (specifically in the original HL)?

I almost found Prey getting tragic.

****Start Prey Spoiler Alert****

When, at the end, the woman in the cube says you have to fill her place. That was a really strong piece of the game. I really thought he would fall for it, and I wouldn't have minded if he did. He had lost everything, and I think, if the woman had chosen her words just a tad bit wiser (maybe somthing about bringing back his girl), he should have fallen for it. And it would be a fitting tragic end, because it would be pretty in character and story.

****End Prey Spoiler Alert****

I for one, would really love a tragic ending in games. But the game should give you a reason, and should show you its inevitable to end like that. Simply taking away the controls and letting you die is not an option. It is the gamer who should be granted the last defense, and allthough it is clear that it is futile, the player shall do his utmost best to kill as many enemies as possible and be as brave as possible. Maybe add some NPC's wich have been given some character along the game, and it could be a very emotional happening, ending in alot of death. But they should not linger on it when you die, I love my endings with alot to fill in for my brain, with all the options open, but with a chapter ended. Also leaves room for a sequel.

As a none-tragic game, but wich you could make tragic with a backstory, I loved the coop multi player mode from Alien VS Predator. I would play the mode with the endless horde of aliens, and me and my friend would try to reach the bunker, and make a stand for as long as we could. But after a while, one of us would die, and the other one would be doomed aswell.

Excellent piece, Malacola. Never too late to say it.

I read your piece and immediately thought of survival-horror games. While yes, the goal of the game is to--duh--survive, I think these games require a sense of overwhelming tragedy to succeed. The most brilliant setting for a horror game is also one where great tragedy has occurred, where someone other than you had experienced such an enormous catastrophe that you are essentially left to wander a graveyard.

Take, for instance, Fatal Frame: [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Ostensibly, the game is about you surviving malevolent ghosts in a haunted house. But as you play it, you realise you must also uncover the secret behind a ritualistic sacrifice, forbidden love, and eventual death. The final boss is not so much malevolent as utterly miserable, and by beating the game, you are ending her existence and giving her a much needed catharsis. I also think that Spencer, from Resident Evil (the GC remake), is a tragic character: through his experimentation, he caused so much harm and lost everything, including his beloved daughter.

Anyway, good job, Malacola.

And, on a completely unrelated topic: Anybody notice that Malacola's avatar looks like Hyde from that awesome show that's not on anymore which makes me sad?

Sam Fisher becomes a tragic figure in the next Splinter Cell game, and the possibilities for gamers sound exquisite. Near the start of the game, Fisher's daughter dies (and his wife seems to have been dead for a long time). In this precarious dark mood, with nothing to live for, Fisher must go deep undercover and infiltrate a terrorist cell to ultimately stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb. To what lengths must Fisher go to gain the terrorists' trust? Those decisions are entirely in the player's hands.

The situation reminds me of the movie Training Day. My favorite part of that film is looking for the moment where Denzel Washington's character Alonzo "crosses the line." I personally felt that Alanzo oversteps when he pulls a gun on Ethan Hawke for refusing to smoke some weed. However, in listening to the DVD commentary the director points out that a narc would be dead if he turned down "sh*t" from a real dealer, and Alonzo is perfectly right in that moment.

So I anxious to see how far I feel I can take Sam Fisher to fulfill my mission without losing my soul.