Flaws in Virtual Tragedy

This entire conversation kicked off with a single question: “Can a video game ever be a tragedy?”

It was followed, very quickly, with “If so, can you optimize for tragedy?”

Initially, I was against the idea. However, I have, in pursuing the idea, been mostly converted. I think its possible but have not yet seen a game that has achieved it. In considering the issue, I went back to Poetics and attempted a summary — yes, 3600 words is a summary; printed, it’s 26 pages! — yesterday so that  I could reference the ideas (and sections) that we use in modern narratives to define such terms. I think now I can move on towards what I think are some fundamental flaws in trying to move the tragedy paradigm from passive mediums like books and film to video games, an active one.

1. Seriously inconsistent

First, the definition according to Aristotle from Poetics:

“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions. [Part VI]”

Do you see the first problem? It’s this “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (emphasis added).

In order that the player meet the criteria of acting within the established role that the designer has set forth, the player must be committed to playing that role in as serious a manner as possible and with full knowledge of the world in which it is placed. Expecting players to be serious all the time is problematic. Adding to that dissonance is the inability of the player, without having read up on and completed the game at least once, to have the knowledge needed to act in the required manner.

“The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent. [Part XV; Emphasis added]”

How can the player, who is supposed to be the character, be “consistently inconsistent” without knowledge of the world, culture and even people who, the game suggests, are friends or enemies? This is where the problem of asymmetrical knowledge arises in the Character that influences every other part of the framework. By giving the player agency and inherently a nearly tabula rasa state, they will constantly be in a state of asymmetrical knowledge between themselves (the player), the virtual world and the other characters around them.

This is where player bias — something I am working on defining but, in quick summary, is what the player brings with them over the simulation gap and into the magic circle of games — is employed. There has to the “suspense of disbelief” or “secondary belief” that the world they are interacting with is real and that it matters at all. The perpetual state of asymmetrical knowledge must, in some way, be mitigated by the expectations and foreknowledge that players bring with them from game to game — in order to complete the game, they have to be aware it is a game in the first place.

2. Where is the irony?

Within any other medium, there is a separation between the performance and the audience. The person doing the acting, the player in a video game with often only a few pages of script, must continue to make choices (moral options) and solve problems (number comparison) as the story unfolds. Their combined unit, the player-character, is in a constant flux of knowledge as, in some situations, the player will know more and in others, the character will demonstrate — often in a cut-scene (i.e. without player control) — knowledge the the player did not possess.

Herein lies another problem: whose story is it?

For tragic irony to happen at all, the audience needs to have knowledge about the plot, upcoming outcomes or even backstories for character(s) that the people in the story do not have. As the story unfolds, the characters will take actions and speak of things with a flawed set of information. The audience must know that these are the wrong paths to take and the wrong things to say. They then anticipate the moment of Recognition — by signs, author, memory or logic — by the character in which the the discovery is made.

If the story of the game is about the player-character (as a unit) and it is intended to be a tragedy, then there can never be a cut-scene or any other information delivery system that gives the player more information than the character. If that happens, the player is forced to define their choices either by that information or in spite of it. Either case, asymmetrical knowledge begins to pollute the decision making process.

However, if the story is about the character, then by all means deliver exposition by any form. Be warned though that while dramatic and tragic irony will now come into play, the player is no longer in complete (or any) control over the narrative of the story as the player-character. The player has moved beyond the acting role is now mostly the director, picking the ending and scripts for other characters to act out according to the story as they understand it.

For Catharsis — “proper purgation of these emotions” — to be possible, the story must be about a/the character only. Put in the most blunt form, the audience has to care about the character and not be the definition of it. If, at any part, the player is given information that their character does not have, then they, as the primary audience, cannot achieve the state of Catharsis because their asymmetrical knowledge corrupts the ability to develop irony. If the character knows the audience knows that the character seemingly does not know something, its a comedy and the character is acting in a way to create humor.

3. Which actions are pitiful or terrible?

For us as an audience to make the emotional connection with the characters (build up the emotions to be “purged” later), we have to see the character perform actions that:

“…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. [Part XIV; Emphasis added]”

How often do we, as players, have the necessary context to make that evaluation correctly? Sure, I personally have had to pretend to care that one character is killing another. Often, I have been the one doing the killing. But how often have I really had the time to build up the emotional complexity to both understand and care about it? That complexity takes a great deal of time and often I am in the position — often literally — of given a weapon and told to shoot things.

For me to be a part of the tragedy creation process — as both Ari and I want — I have to have done actions that I (as the player) did not know were bad or tragic — “done in ignorance, and tie… discovered afterwards“ or “about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done.” While it is okay for the character to be “wittingly or unwittingly” doing something, it is impossible for the story to be about the player-character and lie to character while simultaneously not lying to the player. Asymmetrical knowledge becomes part of the equation and corrupts again.

“For the deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or unwittingly. [Part XIV; Emphasis added]”

Tragedy is still possible in a video game but it requires that the player-character (as a unit) be ignorant (so as not to develop irony between character and player as audience) of knowledge until the moment of Recognition at which point a choice should be given where the outcome(s) is a Reversal of Situation and fortune changes.

If someone could solve the paradox of giving me an example of a game, while simultaneously not letting me in on the fact that it has this outcome, I would gladly like to be proven wrong in this. I’m not happy with my conclusions.