essay, tragedy, video games

What happens next: Asymmetrical knowledge in tragedies

While we, in this on-going conversation on tragedy, are quickly approaching the limits of my currently held knowledge, I thought it would be good a time to define how I perceive the two closely parallel paths Ari and I are following in coming to this subject matter. I am trying to understand the process of optimizing for tragedy (“Can you optimize for tragedy?”) from the player’s perspective and while (I think) Ari is (probably correctly) looking at it from the story structure (closer to developer’s) view.

If you could not tell from the conversation between hellfire (“Performativity and Identity in Games?“) and myself (“Role, Fortunes and Performativity“), I am highly interested in the on-going and in-moment discourse between player and the character they control. My thoughts have been leaning in that direction. In the course of examining performances, I have been examining the planned expressions of players that arise from their understanding of the plot, mechanics and endings of the games. In order to optimize for a tragic total experience, I thought, the player would need to have played the game through at least once and developed a planned execution of the story that would render it a tragic retelling in a second journey through the story. The problem comes, of course, in the knowledge of the events.

“You can, of course, have tragedy through ignorance (such as when people do wrong without knowing what they’re doing), but can you truly have it through omniscience? By knowing the entire plot and all possible outcomes, the player could avoid tragedy entirely. You’d said, “What if the player wanted to design an experience toward tragedy?” If the player is omniscient, then tragedy only occurs if and when he/she wants (emphasis added).”

There is the problem as Ari states it. By already knowing the events, it is not truly tragic because the player has knowledge of how things turn out and can avoid outcomes and choices that would produce that ending. (Of course, if they did not see such material the first time through and only knew of its existence from something like an achievement or trophy name, it would still be tragic.)

An example of this would be in my own playing of Mass Effect 2. The first time I played through the game, I made choices that lead to many of my crew dying at the end of the game. Since a large portion of that game is about going on “Loyalty” missions and building up a strong crew of people toward this singular battle, I felt defeated by the ending. In my own pride, I had branched the stories in certain ways that resulted in an ending I did not like.

In a demonstration of the both the power and potential problems for story-telling in video games, I went back into the game a second time (months later) and made different decisions. With knowledge of how the original tragedy had happened, I rewrote the branches and had a totally successful ending (in my opinion) where none of my crew died and we defeated the (immediate) threat to the galaxy.

“Also consider the tension-and-release nature of tragedy: the audience know what’s coming, but they don’t know when or how. This suspenseful tension creates reader/viewer/player interest. At the moment it happens, the tension, the suspense, is released.

For a tragedy game, the player has to be like the audience member who knows that the big fall is coming, but doesn’t know when. The player might be flawed in that they don’t know everything the character knows, but they do know where the character’s flaws will end him up: the character himself doesn’t know.”

Here we have the power of story and especially tragedy. The “What happens next?” that drives people to digest tragic narratives: asymmetrical knowledge.

If “audience member who knows that the big fall is coming, but doesn’t know when” then there is not a symmetry between what the character knows and what the audience knows. The audience knows more than the character. In books, plays and film, this is what builds dramatic tension. The audience is watching “the slow-motion train wreck” about the happen and is transfixed by their sheer curiosity of how the situation will resolve. Will the character escape their fate (made manifest by their flaw) or not? Can Oedipus escape the Oracle’s prophecy?

“Further, to fully make the events tragic, the character (and the player) must find out what their actions have wrought just after crossing the story’s event horizon; the horror of their realization hits them after it’s too late to stop the terrible outcome they’re responsible for. They may try to turn away, but they can’t.

Allowing the character a way out, a final final chance to let them improve their fortune, leads away from tragedy, thus minimizing the impact.”

Looking at the situation in the light of monomyth [Note: I’m in the process of reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces, so my knowledge in admittedly limited. Also, this works best with male stories.], the last temptation is a necessary part of the journey. The hero is given one last chance to stop their actions (e.g. Kratos’s attack on Athens in God of War) but, of course, does not and the tragic events come to pass (Kratos kills his family).

I see this flow of flaw leading to mistake/downfall and then catharsis as being a great way to construct fixed story games. Developers could construct a story for players to pass through that could result in their actions leading to a tragic outcome (Andrew Ryan’s death in BioShock) but come from the player’s flawed perception of what is going on in the story and who they should be trusting. This does not happen in BioShock, as I see it by the way, as control is taken away from the player in both the linearity of the game and in the use of “Would you kindly…?” to force actions. It’s powerful and perhaps ultimately tragic, but it does not arise from the player’s flaw manifest in the character. It instead arises from the player’s flaw with the player’s understanding of the game experience (i.e. they do not have the control they thought they did). The tragedy happens to the player and not the character.

Now we’ve gotten to the other problem asymmetrical knowledge brings about as it applies to players and charatcers: multiple endings.

“Would the player need in-game rewards to continue to take their character down a tragic path, (assuming that the game allowed a wide range of outcomes, positive to negative)? Perhaps just the desire to see said outcome, to complete the game, is sufficient.”

“Comparing the tension-and-release of a good horror game to that of a tragedy, I suppose it’s fair to say that we can expect players to endure suspense so as to reach the end, with or without rewards. Of course, a devious and clever game designer would place the rewards to guide the player towards the game’s tragic ending. Or at least, I would.”

How do you get the player to take the tragic ending/path? You reward them!

But now we are back to the same problem: asymmetrical knowledge. If the player knows, as part of the audience, that a certain ending is more positive than negative, why would they choose that?

Even if they are playing as an “evil” (revenge) character, in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed as an example, they can still achieve a comedic (in the Aristotelian sense) ending by becoming a martyr and kick-starting the rebellion, despite killing off Jedi and other “good guys” up to that point. One of the problems I saw with that game, as I just pointed and similar to Final Fantasy X-2, was the option of ending was open to either styles of play despite inherent contradictions to the story as played if arriving from the opposite direction.

Due to the current climate of achievements and trophies, many people (including myself) will seek the more negative endings, but not because of ” the desire to see said outcome.” It arises out of the developers rewarding such exploration that I would do it. I get points for it and will, of course, suffer such tragedy (as well as loss of time) just to make myself look better in those social spaces. (It’s not uncommon for me spend hours trying to get a small number of gamerscore points. Which, of course, is the more tragic situation than the ending it would unlock.)

In looking at the reward process, we are back to Line Hollis’ idea of tracking fortune.

How would it appear to a gamer if the reward system suddenly changed? Is that tragic or just confusing? If the player’s rewards (e.g unlock art/video) are separate from the character’s reward (additional weapons/powers), what does that mean for the character? In the process of aiming toward a tragic ending, would that undermine the character’s morality? What if, for example, the player went about killing people and the game rewarded such behavior, as Fallout 3 does, yet the character had ‘Saint’ karma before that point? The player’s reward for reaching multiple levels with “Bad” karma (more achievement points) conflicts with the perceived cultural norms of only attacking threats.

It’s complicated. The asymmetrical knowledge situation of the player often knowing more or less than the character they are playing is continuously, if you will excuse the pun, at play. By the time this dissonance is resolved, in most games, the story is over. This is the case with God of War where the player finally catches up to the scene of Kratos falling off a cliff only toward the very end. The active participation in the story as an actor (with limited script knowledge) means that this dissonance is always part of the experience as the player is constantly reading and writing the story as they experience it.