When I sit down to play a game, I do so with the intention of making the world right. Because the worlds I visit are cratered places of terror and lawlessness. They’re hell on earth, which is fine by me; it’d be too easy otherwise. Whether it’s busting caps in some Fallout 3 mutant or marching through the Combine, it’s all about walking into battle, killing bad guys and walking out alive. Occasionally I’ll go a little berserk and kill a bunch of civilians just to see what happens, but I’ll always revert to an earlier save when I want to go back to the main storyline. If I really love a game I’ll go back and replay it as the bad guy, because why not see what the bad ending is, anyway? This is gaming at its best.
Industry pundits rail on and on about the need to instill games with more interesting choices and more realistic scenarios. I’ve coined the term Call of Duty 4 syndrome. This is precisely the wrong direction developers should be going in. Videogames are basically concerned with unicorns and rainbows, except the unicorn is a space marine and the rainbow is an alien under his boot. All games are ultimately optimistic. No one wants to experience the inner emotional life of a videogame character; no one wants to see Tommy Vercetti die like Al Pacino in Scarface; and certainly no one wants to play a videogame about someone’s descent into heroin addiction.
The difficult choices we face in everyday life are not the province of videogame characters. Thankfully, I can’t say a single decision I’ve made or a single action I’ve witnessed while playing a game even marginally resembles my toughest decision in the course of a typical week. Take, for example, my recent subway travails. The other day, I sat down on a moderately full train after a grueling day of shopping for limited edition sneakers. At the next stop, a brunette stunner steps onto the train, resplendent in designer duds. She eyes the cabin before striding over to my seat and standing directly in front of me. Keep in mind there are a few open seats left on the train. There’s the seat next to a fine gentleman who obviously works for the EPA, given the number of paper bags, cans and other recyclables he’s carrying with him. There’s also a woman practicing her lines for an Off Broadway play – something to do with cats and pimps.
But never mind those seats, because this girl spotted a weak one – me – and now she’s going to stare at me with her Mona Lisa smile until I give in. I won’t say I’m not tempted. I can sympathize with a long day at the Gucci store, and clearly she’s had one of those days. But I batten down the hatches and hold tight. Then she goes for the jugular: “I like your shoes,” she says. And maybe she does, or maybe she’s actually a silver-tongued siren come to steal my seat. So I make my stand. “Thanks, but you’re never getting my seat. I know your type. You think you’re slick; you think you’re pretty fast. You’ve got nothing on me.” Defeated, she runs away from me as fast as possible, as does the enemy sympathizer next me. It’ was a tough decision, as well as a shining example of real-world heroism.
My point is this: There is a war being waged between attractive women and men for seats on the subway – who knows what’s right and wrong anymore? This is why I turn to a game like BioShock where the toughest decision it offers is whether or not to harvest a little sister. Big Daddies might as well walk around with armfuls of kittens, the choice between bad and good is so clear. Either you kill them because you realize so many kittens in one place could cause a toxoplasmosis epidemic, or you let them live because … well, I don’t know what fool would let them live.
As gamers, we find solace in our worlds of terror and doom. These gritty dystopias allow us to easily discern the path of the righteous savior or evil antichrist, because they portray worlds where these extremes are believable. They allow us to fulfill fantasies the real world cannot, because the greater the adversity, the more glorious the triumph.
I don’t play games because I’m looking for some existentialist meditation on life and death. I didn’t lay waste to 43,000 tentacle thingies to assume the lotus position and light myself on fire before the tentacle queen as a form of political protest on behalf of mankind. This is the kind of ambiguous heroism reserved for real life. I played Cuttlefish Wars: The Inkening for 10 straight hours because I wanted to bring light to this game’s dark world. I wanted to bestow this game with the benevolence that has so few channels of expression in my daily life. There’s a saintliness to many of our favorite characters, a wonderful lack of imperfections that allows us to sit comfortably in their skin. Even games with an evil path steer clear of characters who can be simultaneously right and wrong. That’s ultimately the tragedy of real life: ambiguity.
Intellectuals and artists rave endlessly about how rich ambiguity supposedly makes the human experience. And for awhile, I too thought this way, until an incident several years ago taught me the ridiculousness of these sympathies. Walking outside my apartment early one morning, something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see a young man, about my age, covered in a solid sheet of blood from the bottom of his nose straight down his shirt. It was a sight unique to New York, because a place like Australia would’ve banned him immediately. He turned my way and, seeing he had my singular attention, implored me to help him. He explained that some bad guys were after him and, were they to find him, they would surely kill him. He then asked if I could hide him in the entryway of my apartment building. I looked at his knuckles, scarred and caked with dried blood, and saw a kindred spirt – the Dom to my Marcus. I briefly considered the family that was living above me and their two young children, and thought about the role model I could be for them were I to help this man, my sidekick. So I let him in and went on my way.
I could have left him outside to his fate, but that would’ve been tantamount to Gordon Freeman leaving Alyx to be devoured by a headcrab. So I did the right thing: I saved my partner. In a world of ruin, populated by deadly robots and marauding bands of post-apocalyptic gutter trash, this was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, in the more mundane world of NutriSystem, Dancing with the Stars and Pottery Barn, it turns out police have uncovered strong evidence which suggests that my sidekick was responsible for the theft of my upstairs neighbors’ television while I was out. This is the kind of ambiguity that, thankfully, kingdoms of death and destruction neatly avoid.
No doubt there are some egghead philosophers out there asking why we need a four-player co-op game set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Clearly, the same four-player co-op survivor game could take place in any of the numerous places currently dealing with genocide, child slavery and civil war. Who wants to play a history book though? Far better to fight the zombie who is without cause, the alien that lacks understanding and the orc that’s simply stupid. As terror and chaos run rampant in your latest gaming adventure, just remember that everything is as it should be in these, the best of all possible videogame worlds.
Tom Endo is a section editor for The Escapist.