All games are comedies

Line Hollis, who if you are not following you should be, has another great post up on her blog. In it, she puts forth some thoughts on a discussion of the incentives and plot of games. And while the first is interesting to me, the later has me making this post. Because I think she has hit on something that I have begun to try to pull forth from my random attempts at drawing narratives from game stories: all games are comedies.

I don’t mean that they are funny. Although they can be. No, what I mean by using the word comedy is that the hero wins, the villain is defeated and everything is set right in the world, or at least back to the way it was. Some sort of balance is achieved in the consideration of the events that happened and someone changes as a result of the story. It is a happy ending.

Says Hollis:

“In the beginning of the story, Cinderella’s good behavior is punished (her mother dies, she’s tormented by her stepfamily, and so on), while the bad behavior of her stepsisters is rewarded (they get free labor). Then the fairy godmother shows up, and the moral incentives reverse: Cinderella gets to go to the ball, and the stepsisters get snubbed. Then comes midnight and another reversal: her carriage turns into a pumpkin, and the stepsisters convince the Prince that she’s nobody. Finally, the Prince shows up at their humble home, and fortunes reverse again: Cinderella gets to be a princess, and something horrific happens to the stepsisters, level of horrificness depending on what era you’re telling the story in.”

For as good as a story many people might believe Cinderella might be, the story has a major problem that is also pointed out: “Cinderella stays good all the way through.” If she is indeed the protagonist (doubtful, she doesn’t change!), her story could be that as long as you do what you are told, you will get rewarded. The step-mother and step-sisters get punished not because they thought they acted in the wrong — they did — but because their relative moral incenitives were different from that of the Prince and Cinderella’s. (The version I am more familiar with has the step-relatives getting their eyes pecked out by birds, the same birds Cinderella commands earlier in the story. Coincidence?) I think the problem then is in considering that everyone in the story is acting from a single set of rules.

Cinderella is acting from the moral code of following whomever has power in the hopes of getting a reward. While her step-mother is around, she followers her. If her step-sisters tell her to do something, she does it. In fact, even with the presence of the fairy godmother, Cinderella still follows this code. She is instructed that by following order — “doing what she is told” — she will be rewarded in the end. Which, as it turns out, she is. Dark Souls is basically the same story.

The player continues to the follow the command of “Keep trying, you might win” in the hopes of getting a reward at the end of the experience. Those that follow this do not change in their approach to the game. They keep trying new and different ways of matching the various demands that the game places on them as they play. Their punishment is doled out from them not getting the exacting standards and methods that the game demands that they have, not unlikely the situation that Cinderella is in at first.

The step-relatives, in Cinderella, are acting according one of several moral incentive systems. While Disney paints them with a single brush, it might be the case that the mother was trying to get her children taken care of and was thus abusing not because she was just evil but because she wanted her own daughters to succeed in catching the Prince’s eye (and thus be taken care of, both one of the them as wife and the family in connection). Still, assuming they are all evil, it would mean that they were trying to get to the goal, marrying the Prince, by any means necessary.

Here is the problem as I see it: players exist as both sets of people. Both incentive programs exist in most games.

“Outside of games, my intuition is that this moral universe is pretty hard to find. The protagonist and antagonist tend to embody opposing points on the morality line, so for a fixed-narrative story to embody this universe consistently, both the protagonist and the antagonist would have to win at the end. And that would be odd.”

What if the player was the antagonist though, not in the sense of the story but as an example? Taking Cinderella as a basis, the two groups are this: protagonist (always doing what you are told will get you to the goal) and antagonist (get to the goal, nothing else matters). Let’s take that to another story, in this case, Super Mario Bros.

Bowser wants the princess, he kidnaps her. He does not care about his troops and sends them against Mario. (Antagonist)
Mario wants the princess, he takes her from Bowser. He kills everything in his path, including blocks. (Protagonist)

Both are following the same systems and have, in a way, the same goals. In what way, from the point of view of Bowser and all the other characters in the game, is Mario not the enemy? The reward system in the game, you get to keep playing by performing well, reinforces the idea that Mario should continue to kill the people in his path. This is a good thing? From one interpretation, Mario is a psycho killer who is disrupting the natural form of government in this kingdom.

The reward, in the end, is that the world is reset to the state it was before though. The Princess — Did any one actually ask her opinion? — is back with Mario and Bowser does not have her. It’s a comedy. In fact, since the player must “win” by the end, the game will always be a comedy. There is not a case, at least that I could think of, where the hero winning did not mean the problem went away, the central conflict of that particular story stopped.

Regardless of the system at play, the player is always striving toward the end of the game experience. This means then that he will continue to play until stopped at the end by the classic declaration of the evil being defeated or the war over. It’s all comedies. And that is very troubling. Where are the tragedies?

2 thoughts on “All games are comedies

  1. Aren’t there some games where you as the player finish the game, but the game protagonist doesn’t complete their goal? Portal has GLaDOS very much still alive, and Chell being dragged off. Would that qualify as a tragedy?

  2. Dan Cox

    Yes… maybe. That’s an interesting case.

    It could be said that it is not a true tragedy because Chell does not gain knowledge of GLaDOS’ reboot. The catharsis, release of emotion, happens for the player and character upon defeat of the enemy at the end. It is a comedy; Chell wins and finds her freedom on the surface!

    Chell getting dragged away, as I understand it, was added a great deal of time after the original game came out. That would, since Chell has knowledge that her defeat was short-lived in the revised version, make it a tragedy.

    It’s also hard to tell who is getting that information of GLaDOS being “Still Alive” at the end of either version too. Whose point of view is that? Chell’s? She’s on the surface. If it’s the player’s story, then it is tragic but more confusing to understand as a narrative.

    Short answer: yeah, probably.

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