Tragedy drivers

I’ve used the word driver in a very special sense here. By a “driver”, I mean, in the programming sense, some code that interfaces or otherwise is used in connection with another system. It contains some special or specific information that allows other programs, libraries or even users to use the system it was written for without exact knowledge of that system. In other words, I can talk to the driver, tell it what I want, and it will talk to the system for me. Stretching the definition some, they could be thought of as using tropes in literature, frequent interfaces to the common system of a story.

So, in the continuing and ever-growing conversation on Tragedy, Ari and I have started to gather ideas together to create a pool of common ideas a game that wanted to have tragic elements or endings would need to address, consider or even implement.

“A tragic flaw – The flaw could be a boon for the character at the beginning of the game, and a hindrance near the end. A supernaturally strong character who heroically fights monsters and protects others may end up terrifying his own people when he inadvertently destroys things around him and maybe even kills innocents by accident. TVTropes might say that the character is Cursed with Awesome.”

This is essential. Although to whom the flaw applies is still under debate. Aristotle called it hamartia and is translated into “tragic flaw” or sometimes “tragic mistake“. This is the part of the hero (or antihero) that will cause them trouble. For Oedipus, it is his hubris. The same for Sisyphus. For the otherwise noble person, in the Aristotelian sense, this aspect of themselves will ultimately be their downfall.

The current debate of the placement of the flaw revolves around if the flaw is placed in the character or the player. Through asymmetrical knowledge of the situation (i.e. little to no understanding of the context), the player might initial events that could lead to tragedy. However, the character might also, while not in player control, act in a certain way or make a mistake that could doom the character.

If the audience is aware of the coming doom, in the case of Oedipus the King, it is dramatic irony. We know that he has been fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. We are just waiting to see how it will turn out. We, as the audience, know more than the character. This is still asymmetrical knowledge, but is now between the audience and the characters. This is why the horror genre is so popular in movies. We know the killer is around the corner metaphorically because they are in the shot, yet the character does not know this because of some physical barrier like a shower curtain (Psycho) or wall (Halloween).

Alternately, if the characters know more than the audience, it is suspense. We, as the audience, keep up with the story to see how it will turn out. We are let in on the story during different scenes and, through the use of exposition and tension, want to see how everything will turn out for the protagonist.

“Empathy/understanding/rooting for the tragic character – not all tragic figures have to be badasses, but characters like Kratos and Akakin Skywalker certainly are. Merely being a badass doesn’t guarantee that the player will empathize with, understand, or root for the character, but fortunately, writers are armed with several tools for making readers connect to characters, and many (but as you well know, not all) of those tools can be used in game design.”

Aristotle, in his description of Character (a part of Tragedy) says the following in Part XV of Poetics:

  1. “…must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good.” [The hero is often noble, however, a protagonist might not be.]
  2. “[have] propriety” [Something to lose: property, money or reputation]
  3. “…character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. [Has to make sense in the social context of their world.]
  4. “…consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent.”[If they are acting like a fool, they should continue to do so. Admittedly, this has problems for video games where the player can, if they want, change many aspects of how the character acts.]

If I cannot care about the character, there is no reason for me to continue reading the story or seeing the movie. However, and here is where the situation can become strange, a player may keep playing a character despite this in order to interact with the reward system. They can and often do ignore the character just for their own enjoyment (i.e. playing Mass Effect just to shoot things and see the sex scene).

Even more bizarre, within the classical literature sense, the character, the protagonist, can be nearly invisible in the story. Think of Half-Life 2 and Portal as recent examples of this. The character does not really matter and is only the impression of the player upon the world, the hand or weapon from which the player interfaces with the virtual world. In a real sense, many first-person shooter games are not effaced narration (fly-on-the-wall, silent camera) but defacing narrators, destroying the world during the course of the story.

“Poor choices/a gradual lessening of choices – simply offering fewer choices is the easy part. The trick is offering a series of choices, each one worse than the last, mostly because we must decide what makes a choice poor in a video game (hopefully without relying solely on numbers). Keep in mind the distinction James Portnow makes between choices (in which there is no right answer) and problems (in which an optimal, numerically superior choice exists).” [I had to research the James Portnow reference. I’m pretty sure Ari is talking the ideas put forth in this video.]

Aristotle calls this peripeteia (“reversal of intention”) and anagnorisis (“recognition”). The best stories, according to Aristotle (i.e. complex ones), will have the “reversal of intention” lead to the “recognition”. In other words, the “flaw” comes into play, through a chain of events, that leads to the downfall or major mistake, “reversal of intention”, by which point the character sees what has happened, “recognition”, and perhaps finds a way out of it.

The point Ari is making, I think, is that these chain of events must be choices (usually moral ones) and not just problems (bluntly: puzzles or pattern recognition). The player must be allowed to fail and be brought to the point of tragedy through their own actions, ideally.

“Lost opportunities – the worse choices the character makes, the fewer opportunities the player has to redeem the character. At some point, the character will literally have no choice, no other way.”

Returning again to Poetics, this is (from Part XVIII):

“Every tragedy falls into two parts- Complication and Unraveling or Denouement. Incidents extraneous to the action are frequently combined with a portion of the action proper, to form the Complication; the rest is the Unraveling. By the Complication I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end. Thus, in the Lynceus of Theodectes, the Complication consists of the incidents presupposed in the drama, the seizure of the child, and then again … [the Unraveling] extends from the accusation of murder to… [the paragraph stops there]”

The flaw will continue to cause complications, the tying of the knot, as more and more situations force the character or player onto the tragic path. One they have committed to a goal, past a certain threshold and to a certain path, the player should be hard gated from going back. One you have collected enough bad karma, it should not be possible to totally reverse the situation.

Of course, the player, in wanting to fix these events, could always start the game or even section over again. With the knowledge of one ending, they could optimize around that problem which should, ideally, either not be possible or lead through, via a tangent, to the same path they tried to avoid.

“A shift from good to ill fortune – the higher the good fortune, the greater the fall when tragedy strikes. Think back to Line Hollis’s ‘Moral Incentives and Story Structure.'”

[I’m going to have to come back to this. I have more thoughts on it, but this post is already growing very long. Basically, I agree but think there are some interesting aspects to how the reward system, as I noted before, can be interpreted in such a way to render the outcome comedic even if that was not the intended situation. The reverse, tragic from intended tragic, is also possible.]

“Violence, death, or disaster – violence in video games has been with us even before Mario stepped on his first goomba. Death, since before the first goomba ran into Mario. We got this one down cold.”

Part XIV of Poetics says:

“Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful.

Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet.”

As a pacifist, I am frequently annoyed that only solution to most situations in games is to kill something. Yes, I do play first-person shooters and other games where there is a high degree of personal violence. I have an idea to write a post one day on what the difference between conflict and battle is and how I see that distorted in many games.

Ignoring that personal qualm, I agree that there needs to be something to arose emotions. Naturally, this means that some sort of contest or battle is needed in order to engage the flight-or-fight centers of our brains. Mario fights against Bowser. In shooters, the enemies are Nazi, zombies or a combination of the two that are visually or narrative similar.

It is easier for us, as players, to construct a narrative if we, as the character, are fighting against something. Whatever we are fighting against must be, we reason, the “bad guys”. [See “Dissociation and death“]

3 thoughts on “Tragedy drivers

  1. Ari

    You found the exact right video. If you haven’t yet checked out Extra Credits, James Portnow and Daniel Floyd’s excellent web series of animated shorts, dealing with various topics of importance in the gaming industry, I highly recommend that you do so. They’re fun, informative, and thought-provoking (as seen by the fact that my girlfriend and I usually end up spending an hour discussing each episode).

    Anyway, just wanted to share today’s notes. I hope I’ll have a chance to respond to your post before you charge on ahead.

    Should the designer set the game on a straight track to tragedy, such that the player is ensured to get a tragic, impactful ending? I thought it was a good idea, until I realized that it wouldn’t be that different from setting the game on the track to success, which the vast majority of games do today (and have done in the past). If the player fails a mission, they must retake it until they succeed.
    Elements like lessened difficulty, instant restoration (BioShock’s Vita-chambers, Prince of Persia’s Elika, etc), and health regeneration (Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed II, etc), are added to keep the player playing (or at least keep them from losing) so they can finish the game.

    Many people on sites like Gamasutra feel that such hand-holding cheapens the experience when victory is all but assured, or is the only possible outcome.

    The opposite end of the spectrum, what I like to call the “Hardcore Movement”, as seen in games like Mega Man 9, Super Meat Boy, Demon’s Souls, etc. seems to believe that, as harder games require a greater investment of time and effort, they’re less likely to be abandoned.

    I’ve read several blogs and posts, and I’ve watched for topics that resurface time and again.
    Players today are clamoring above all for two things: meaningful experiences, and consequences to their choices, and most games today aren’t delivering.

    Designers have to trust their players, without resorting to Skinner Box tactic MMOs, without hand-holding, without hardcore difficulty. Give players what they’re hungering for, and you won’t have to hold their hands, compel them, or punish them. Players want their games to grow up, and it’s time they did.

    While a tragedy game is feasible, a game in which tragedy is the only possible outcome is, I feel, not the best solution. Without the option to do evil acts, players can’t choose to do good. Without the possibility of a happy ending, players can’t feel responsible for a tragic one.

    1. Dan Cox

      I’m taking a break from this topic for a few days. In fact, I’m taking a break from writing on the blog for at least today. I have nearly a ton — not totally kidding — of books and articles to read on the subject that I have found since starting the discussion days ago. I just don’t have time right now to go through it all and type up posts on it.

      1. Ari

        Hey, if there’s going to be a lull in the posts, now is the perfect time for it: we’re going through a big changeover at work right now, and I’ll be moving all this week, so lots of things to set up and adjust for. Pretty sure Line will want a chance to catch up on the reading, too, so good timing all around. Just be sure to include a list of your sources: I might want to check them out later.

        Good talking to you, Dan: we’ll keep in touch.

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