Video games are often presumed to be escapist power fantasies. Many of the most popular games are action titles in which the player straps on the combat boots of an exceptionally powerful and empowered character. Games offer discrete goals with fixed completion points, and those goals are almost universally possible. Games offer us the ability to experience the world of fantastic characters, but also the power and autonomy available to those characters.
Definitions of "game," be they definitions given by academics, dictionary writers, or anyone else, tend to incorporate the notion of a goal that is to be achieved — a way to win. Often the trials of games are presented as "pass / fail." The player-character either succeeds in the trial or fails. The hero either defeats the monster or is defeated by the monster. While skill tests resonate with the interactivity of the medium, the standard implementation leads players to expect and desire to “win.”
But games don’t only tell stories of power and triumph. Games can also handle tragedy.
It’s easy enough to overlook the fact that players are participating in creating a story via the game. Sometimes this is as simple as loading a saved game to correct a mistake or make a different choice. Failure and death are momentary setbacks, missteps to be smoothed and written over on the palimpsest of their player-character's story. Most common understandings of the story of Super Mario Bros. don’t involve Mario’s frequent and sometimes embarrassing falls to death in a pit, hesitant steps forward and doubling back, warping ahead past entire worlds of game, or attempts to duck into pipes that do not function as warp pipes.
These details are overlooked in the service of some presumed perfect version of the story, an imagined non-interactive version which was converted and adapted to game format. Mario traverses eight worlds, destroying the King Koopa in the castle at the end of each world, being told that the princess is in another castle until, finally, the princess is saved at the end of World 8. Failure is a temporary setback. On one hand, these lives are akin to balls in a pinball table.
On the other hand, Mario can survive death, and gain the ability to survive future deaths, in a way that is difficult to map to a simple story of saving the royal macguffin. The player experiences a unique story, in which she perhaps, as Mario, goes through the level warp at the end of stage 1-2, thus bypassing three false King Koopas and three disappointing messages from a rescued servant of the Mushroom Kingdom.
Skill tests are great for making us feel accomplishment in a heroic quest, but they’re strikingly bad at telling the tales of Kings Lear or Oedipus. Oedipus in particular is the story of an epic struggle to escape a terrible fate. To fall unavoidably victim to that fate seems, in the parlance of gaming conventions, to be very much in line with a failure state. Game Over, Oedipus. Insert coin to continue.
But games can incorporate tragedy in a number of ways.
Games can simply treat failure with a black screen with "game over" in the center, before returning to the title page. Others rank the player's progress or score before the game ended. Still others go further, providing a narrative denouement to end the player-character's story.
A story that ends in failure could stand as a complete story, with the noble player-character valiantly attempting to save the day, but failing. Operation Wolf departed from other arcade games by giving players a comparatively lengthy death screen, with full-sized image of the player-character’s death and short, voiced message ending with “Sorry, but you are finished here.” This iteration of the story has concluded, and the conclusion has been treated as such. The story of such games is generally considered as if it were the entire, beaten game, even if, were the game a printed book, most players would only ever have seen the first few chapters. (Which makes publishers and gamers wonder why they wait and pay for devs to write all those other chapters.)
Some games don’t even allow for a full and actual victory. Some games go on forever, while others other only a kill screen instead of a true “victory” screen. Some, like Jason Rohrer’s Passage, have a finite end and no discernible way to “win.” In the end, you die, and all that is left is a larger or smaller pile of points. This type of empty ending plays out similarly in Rohrer’s previous Gravitation.
There are games that deal with the relative powerlessness of the protagonist. E.T., Darfur Is Dying and Hush all emphasize the player-character's disadvantage. The difference, of course, is that those games are about escape, or mere survival. Survival can of course be a type of victory, but it’s a triumphal act in the same category as saving the princess while ridding the world from evil.
And survival games are not alone in their weak or disempowered characters. Legend Of Zelda is one of many games about slaying monsters, but the player-character starts unable to fight. Many games at least begin by presenting the player with a protagonist against the odds, with the notion that the player-character will, through skill and perseverance, overcome and save the day. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, at least since Morrowind, has had players begin as prisoners, released from captivity and into a hostile world early in the game.
Some games handle the expectation of player volition by explicitly taking the power from the player. The death of Aerith in FF7 occurs in a non-interactive cutscene. BioShock's climactic scene does not recognize player input, and the screen remains in first-person perspective as we beat our estranged father to death, helplessly, in first person.
Call Of Duty 4 touches on multiple tragic aspects. Players find themselves helplessly trying to crawl to safety as a nuclear bomb is detonated nearby. Unable to escape, the player-character dies. The screen fades out, and the player becomes a new character at a later date within the game’s narrative. In Modern Warfare 2, the player-character (unless the player opts out of the scene via meta-game menu) maintains a secret identity infiltrating a terrorist group by participating in a massacre in a Russian airport. The only option the player has regards how many innocents to shoot.
And then there are games in which the player-character commits villainous and tragic acts. In some cases, the player may be tricked into villainous actions. Other games offer no option, except for the ever-present option to choose failure.
Oftentimes, when games trace a tragic path for players, the tragic ending is hidden from the player-character until the final moment. In both Shadow Of The Colossus and Braid, the tragedy of the goal is not revealed until the player-character reaches it. Both Shadow Of The Colossus and Braid flip the objective into a failure in a way that, if not to the player, certainly seems a surprise to the protagonist.
The player still has some control in these games. Far Cry 2 offers numerous side quests that at least seem as though they would help the world around you. Still, the majority of the game involves committing atrocities in order to earn the trust of the two warring militias in the war-torn region.
Both The Darkness and BioShock feature main characters who must sacrifice their humanity to achieve their goals. Jackie in The Darkness embraces the demon inside him in order to gain its power, knowing that it will consume him. Jack in BioShock must douse himself with chemicals and steam-fuse a diving suit into his skin in order to become a “Big Daddy,” a monstrous half-conscious human filled with chemicals and armed with a giant drill for a hand.
And then there’s Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG — a … difficult game. There is very little mechanical or strategic difficulty, but the player is constantly forced to choose: Can I go on? Will I go on? The player may attempt to let Dylan and Eric fail, but the process is exceedingly long. If the player continues, the boys reenact the rest of their day, including their suicide. There is a second act of battling through a skewed version of Dante’s Inferno, but most players don’t go that far. Few play the game at all.
Tragedy in drama would not be tragedy if the audience walked out early in the plays, though the potential for tragedy would remain. The death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII does not become tragedy until the player admits that they are powerless to prevent or undo the loss. Super Columbine is not tragedy until the player can admit that they cannot triumph over the darkness of the game. It is important to note that, despite varying definitions of “tragedy” since the time of Plato, the notion of catharsis has not been lost, and is still relevant, especially in terms of the audience action at the core of the concept, a participatory audience that engages with the tragic.