“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

Andrew Ryan Statue

At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.

The Tragic Irony of Final Fantasy XIII-2

Since the beginning of With a Terrible Fate, I’ve made passing comments about how deeply the storytelling of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy offended my sensibilities, both as a player and analyst of video games. On the first day of my three months analyzing Majora’s Mask, I discussed the Zelda game’s value by showing how it succeeded where Lightning Returns failed; when I discussed my fears about Square Enix dividing the Final Fantasy VII remake into multiple games, I cited the weak episodic storytelling of the XIII saga as prima facie reasons to worry about Square’s ability to tell one story across multiple games. Yet despite constantly using the XIII trilogy as fodder for broader critiques, I have never yet devoted an article to tackling the problems of the series head-on.

Well, with today at last marking the release of Final Fantasy XV, I found it a fitting occasion to turn my full attention to Final Fantasy XIII, as something of a personal reflection on why I was so let down by the trilogy. I do view the trilogy as a fantastic failure in storytelling, but the undertone of this critique is the quiet hope that Square learned its lesson and remembered how to tell stories. This, I think, is the core issue to keep in mind as FFXV finally enters the universe of game criticism in the coming weeks: remember that FFXIII also “looked pretty” and had a decent enough battle system; its colossal failure was one of storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is the measure by which FFXV will stand as a masterpiece or fall as an epic waste of time and resources.

Sadly, I could probably spend as long picking apart the FFXIII trilogy’s problems as I spent analyzing Majora’s Mask (but don’t challenge me on that–it wouldn’t be fun for anyone). So today, I’m just going to focus on Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve long thought that, of the three games in the trilogy, FFXIII-2 was the one with the most redeeming features and the greatest narrative potential. The problem is that FFXIII-2 is, in a surprising and sad sense, a very poignant story trapped inside of a very poorly composed story. The project of this article is to explain what I mean by that claim; in particular, I want to show you how the very structure of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s universe renders its narrative shortcomings tragically ironic, perhaps even in a way that can give disappointed players a new appreciation for a game that fails in an almost beautiful way. I’ll first argue that, sacrilegious though it may sound to say so, FFXIII-2 was poised to be the spiritual successor of the classic Chrono Trigger. After that, I’ll show how the overall framing of FFXIII-2‘s story destroyed what initial potential the game had–in fact, I’ll argue that it suffers from failures similar to those of Assassin’s Creed III, but suffers from those failures to an even greater extent than ACIII does. Lastly, I’ll combine these two strands of analysis to show how the game becomes a tragically ironic narrative failure. In the end, we’ll walk away with some lessons in how stories can fail–and, hopefully, how stories can succeed.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

I’m still waiting for a justification of why this Moogle was so crucial to the plot of XIII-2.

Not a Hallway Anymore: Temporal Overworlds

One of the most common criticisms of the first entry in the FFXIII trilogy–named simply Final Fantasy XIII–was that its world and story were overly linear, meaning that the game consisted in a singular path from the beginning to the end of its narrative with very little by way of exploration or divergence from that path. One of JonTron’s most popular video’s, criticizing precisely this aspect of the game, bore the fitting title “Final Hallway XIII” in reference to the game’s severe linearity. So, you might expect that the developers, in crafting a sequel to FFXIII, might compensate for this aspect of the original game by making the sequel substantially less linear, with a variety of different paths and narrative outcomes to explore.

And indeed, less linearity is exactly what we see in FFXIII-2; in fact, the structure of the game’s world and narrative is radically non-linear. What I mean by ‘radically non-linear’ is that, where the worlds of most games tend to be spatially organized, the world of FFXIII-2, at its highest level, is actually structured in terms of time. The player’s main interface with the game is the Historia Crux, a metaphysical space that allows them to access various moments across time–some of which occur in alternate timelines. The Historia Crux is analogous to the ‘world map’, or ‘overworld’, of many other games: the global space that contains all of the various locations to which the player can travel over the course of a game’s narrative. Yet instead of being a broad swath of space, the Historia Crux is a broad swath of time: we could justly call it a temporal overworld in the sense that it fundamentally structures the game’s narrative and locations based on time rather than on space.

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The Historia Crux matrix of gates to locations throughout time and timelines.

One might even say that the story of FFXIII is about linearity and non-linearity in narrative. The Historia Crux is made possible by a variety of paradoxes that corrupt time with impossible events following the end of FFXIII‘s narrative, when the goddess Etro intervened to save the player’s party of characters, thereby distorting the flow of history. One way of viewing the goal of FFXIII-2, then, is to travel through time resolving these paradoxes, trying to restore order to the timeline. One might actually see this as a clever response on the part of Square to the linearity criticisms about FFXIII: by resolving paradoxes in FFXIII-2, the player is able to travel to a variety of potential timelines and witness several paradoxical outcomes to the game’s history–yet all of this is done in service of restoring order and linearity to the storyline, ultimately reaching the game’s singular, canonical ending. It’s easy to interpret this as a metaphor for the tension in games between the need for games to present multiple possibilities on the one hand, and the need for games to tell a coherent story on the other hand: for players’ choices to matter in game narrative, multiple outcomes to events must be possible, and yet this increasing variability in the game seems to cut against the grain of a well-articulated story with fixed, carefully arranged events.

So far, so interesting. While I haven’t yet said much at all about the particular content of FFXIII-2‘s story, the form of its world certainly seems like an interesting basis for telling a tale that plays on the special features and constraints of video games as a medium. And it’s worth noting at this juncture that this isn’t a radically new idea: in fact, it picks up on some of the central mechanics and themes of a much older game of Square’s: Chrono Trigger.

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The Epoch’s time-traveling interface in Chrono Trigger.

Though it wasn’t structured around paradoxes, Chrono Trigger did gain fame for its time-travel narrative structure, complete with a wide variety of potential game outcomes depending on choices the player made, when the game’s ultimate enemy (Lavos) was defeated, and so on. Released in 1995, the game was ahead of its time–no pun intended–in the way it built a robust game narrative out of multiple possibilities and timelines for the player to explore. This is the tradition in which FFXIII-2 followed; you can even see echoes of the time-hopping interface of Chrono Trigger’s time machine, the Epoch, in the design of the Historia Crux.

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Caius with one of many ill-fated Yeuls.

But FFXIII-2 goes beyond merely elaborating the structure of Chrono Trigger: in the details of its story–or rather, one of its storylines–it makes the game’s time-based narrative deeply poignant in a surprising way. The central antagonist of the game is Caius Ballad, a man who has been made immortal by being endowed with the heart of the goddess Etro–the Heart of Chaos. He is the designated guardian of Yeul, a Seeress with a double-edged gift: the young girl can see the future, but her lifespan shortens each time she does so, causing her to die young, only to be reincarnated thereafter. Thus the immortal Caius, knowledgeable of all time thanks to Yeul’s visions, has also had to watch countless Yeul’s die in his arms, “carving their pain on his heart” every time. Caius’ mission in the game is to kill the goddess Etro, from which time and history flow, in order to end time itself: he only wants to do this in order to end Yeul’s suffering by putting a stop to the cycle of her dying by degrees every time she sees the future.

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Noel and a dying Yeul.

On the other hand, we have the protagonist Noel: one of the player’s two characters, who gets wrapped up in a quest to change the future and resolve the timeline. Growing up, he knew both Caius and one incarnation of Yeul; he refused to become Yeul’s guardian when he learned that he had to kill Caius in order to do so. As he travels throughout time, he clashes with Caius and meets numerous other incarnations of Yeul; thus he comes to understand both the fate of Yeul and the pain endured by Caius as Yeul’s companion and protector. In the game’s final battle, Noel confronts Caius and challenges his views about Yeul: though Caius believes Yeul to have been cursed by Etro to die and be reborn countless times, always living a short life, Noel tells Caius that he knows Yeul wanted to come back because she loved Caius and wanted to be with him, time and again.

The closer you look at the story of Noel, Caius, and Yeul in relation to the overall architecture of FFXIII-2‘s narrative and world, the more poignant the story becomes. The very act of the player and Noel progressing through the story and constantly changing the future causes Yeul to have more visions, thereby shortening her life and killing her more quickly; Caius, the game’s final villain, wants Noel to be strong enough to kill him so that, by Caius dying, Etro will die too (since his heart is her heart) and Yeul will be free from seeing history. And as Noel continues in his journey, he comes to understand both Caius and Yeul, all the while unknowingly unwinding the coil of fate to the point where he is strong enough to kill Caius, and Caius forces him to do so. And on top of all this, perhaps most impressively, this narrative perfectly mirrors the act of playing the game: as the player explores and exhausts all the game’s narrative possibilities, she becomes more invested in and knowledgeable about the characters, all the while progressing the story to the point where the game reaches its conclusion, effectively ending the timeline of the game’s world and terminating the player’s interaction with the various timelines. This is a story shockingly rich with layered conceptions of time, sympathy, pathos, and the tension between possibility and fate.

I started out this article by claiming that FFXIII-2 was a game with tragically ironic narrative shortcomings, but thus far I seem to have been describing an incisive, acutely self-aware game with a moving narrative. So where’s the problem? Well, you might have noticed that I said above that Noel is one of the player’s two characters–and it’s the other one of these characters that makes trouble for the game.

Tragedy and Time

In a nutshell, the problem for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that the story I just related to you above is relegated to the status of a sub-plot: Noel and his cohort are effectively supporting characters in service of the player’s other controllable character, Serah Farron. The game is principally conveyed through her perspective, and her goal–the primary impetus for the game’s overall narrative–is to effectively undo the world and story of Noel, Yeul, and Caius.

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Note here that Noel is backgrounded relative to Serah and Mog the Moogle, and that Serah is the one deciding that the party is ready to go. In these respects, this picture symbolizes pretty much every aspect of the problems I’m pointing out for the game.

Serah is the sister of Lightning, who was a major character in FFXIII and the primary protagonist (and only player character) of Lightning Returns, the last entry in the trilogy. She is engaged to Snow, another key character from the first game that gets downgraded to little more than “Serah’s fiancée” in FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns. The overarching narrative of FFXIII-2 is that, as the time paradoxes began (following the events of FFXIII), Lightning was effectively erased from history, trapped in Valhalla, the realm where the goddess Etro dwells beyond time. Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning’s presence after the events of XIII-2, due to the paradoxes; Lightning, from Valhalla, sends Noel to join Serah on a journey to fix time, along with Mog, a Moogle who guides Noel and Serah through the world and time.

Personally, Serah doesn’t strike me as a very interesting character–she seems to, for most of the game, have a generally bad time in the style of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and to be generally two-dimensional besides this–but it’s not especially insightful to critique a character by saying tit isn’t one’s personal cup of tea. I think the more interesting problem with Serah is actually much deeper and harder to forgive than anything like her likability: the problem is that Serah’s epistemic perspective is directed outside of the game’s universe. The entire thrust of Serah’s storyline is that she remembers her sister when no one else does, and wants to restore time to the way she remembers it; in other words, she remembers the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and is trying to reestablish them in a world that is radically different. (Note, as an aside, that this is one of the reasons why it’s so challenging to make sense of the series’ overall consistency: the very premise of time paradoxes in FFXIII-2 effectively undoes many narratively central elements of FFXIII, and similar anti-plot devices bridge the gap between FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns.) So the primary objective of the game’s narrative, as presented through the lens of its focal character, Serah, is to undo the world of the game by changing history to reinstate the world of the previous game. So Serah’s narrative isn’t simply a “distraction” from Noel, Caius, and Yeul’s narrative: it actually actively disqualifies it as relevant, since that narrative constitutes part of the world that Serah is aiming to undo. Indeed, even when Serah is identified as a Seeress who, like Yeul, can see the future at the cost of her life, this fact that could potentially unify the two narratives seems nevertheless to be something that Serah’s narrative tries to overpower and disqualify: she decides to continue trying to change the future despite the fact that it may cost her life. Thus when Serah does die at the end of the game as a cost of her visions, the death doesn’t beautifully tie her story and fate together with Noel’s–rather, it just puts a final emphasis on the bizarre fact that the game you just played forced you to focus on a player who never wanted to be in the world of the game.

This problem is deep and inescapable because the narrative of FFXIII-2 virtually always focuses on events through Serah’s perspective. This is important to note because there are multiple ways in which games can intermingle good and bad narratives, and these ways bring about different effects in the overall narrative. It’s useful in this regard to contrast FFXIII-2 with the case of Assassin’s Creed III.

The Animus

Desmond and the Animus of Assassin’s Creed.

Again, regulars to the site will know I’ve been harshly critical of ACIII in the past, mostly in virtue of what I see as a baseless use of an alien-like First Civilization dominating and confusing a narrative about Templars fighting with Assassins; I first detailed this in an article comparing the “aliens” of Assassin’s Creed to the “aliens” of Majora’s Mask. Roughly, my gripe against the game is that the imposition of the First Civilization discounts the value of any agency the player appeared to have within the world of the game, thereby undercutting the entire point of having played the game; this is especially clear when Desmond killed with little narrative justification or explanation at the end of ACIII. But it’s crucial in understanding ACIII to note that there are two layers to the narrative: we have Desmond working as an assassin in present time, and we also have him accessing and living out the memories of his ancestors in the past via the Animus. When engaged in the Animus, the broader storyline of Desmond, the First Civilization, etc., largely fade away: instead, we are left with a compelling narrative about a Native American ancestor, Ratonhnhaké:ton, taking part in the American Revolution, becoming an assassin, and undertaking a deeply personal quest for justice.

The key thing to notice about the above ACIII example is that the layered aspect of the narrative, with the Animus interface serving as a barrier between Desmond’s story and Connor’s story, allows us to effectively consider each narrative independently of the other, while still being able to consider them compositely if we so choose. Despite my qualms about the overall game and series, I quite enjoyed Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story in Assassin’s Creed, and the overall narrative structure allowed me to enjoy it without the overarching Desmond narrative severely impeding it. But this isn’t the case in FFXIII, because there is no Animus-like interface between Serah and Noel’s narratives: Serah is the player’s primary conduit to the entirety of the game’s world–the world she wants to undo. Even in the momentous final confrontation between Noel and Caius that I described above, we find Serah collapsed a few yards from them on the beach of Valhalla, being sad and generally having a bad time. We’re trapped in the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong or want to participate in the world in which we as players as participating, and that is the crux of FFXIII‘s failure.

Conclusion: A Tale of Tragic Irony

If you like irony, then there’s a silver lining for you in all this: even though the overall architecture of FFXIII-2 spoiled what could have been a moving and cerebral story, it does leave us with some tragic, dramatic irony in the way that Serah’s narrative interacts with the narrative of Noel, Caius and Yeul. Noel, Caius, and Yeul are deeply enmeshed in a universe rife with paradoxical possibilities and timelines, trying understand the best way to shape their world and each other as they grapple with the complex perspective and sympathies that come with witness life, death, and pain across countless generations and potential timelines; yet all of their struggles to understand and make meaning ultimately depend on the whim of a player whose actions are being filtered through the lens of a girl who has no intrinsic stake in the events or native inhabitants of the world in which she finds herself. This almost recalls classic Greek tragedy in how laughably ironic it is: as characters wrestle with their humanity and universe, their fate rests in the hands of someone whose priorities are entirely elsewhere–literally in a different game.

If there’s any larger takeaway here, I think it’s this: the worlds and metaphysics of video game worlds are integral to the stories of video games, and the characters of games oftentimes relate to the game’s world in different ways. If the characters have different stakes in the world, then the relations between those stakes, along with the weight given to each of those stakes, must be mindfully architected, or else the whole narrative could be thrown out of balance. And, although we might think it obvious, FFXIII-2 shows us how crucial it is that the principal avatar in a game is actually invested in the world of that game. After all, what incentive does a player have to act as an avatar that does not wish to participate in the game’s world?

But, with that, a new chapter is beginning. Here’s hoping that Square learned from its mistakes, and that Final Fantasy XV has a story worth telling. The only way to know for sure is to dive into its world and find out. Or, you could head back here in a few weeks and see what I think of it.

Or both. Both is good.

FFXV Art.jpg

 

From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask

With a Terrible Fate is in the process of releasing articles detailing the arguments of our presentation at PAX Australia 2016 on horror storytelling in video games. I’ve already released an article on the horror of Bloodborne, which I discussed at PAX; now, I’m returning to Majora’s Mask to discuss the metaphysical and metaethical details of the game that make it more horrifying than you might first think.

A word of background before we get started: before With a Terrible Fate became a central hub for rigorous video game analysis and theory, I began the site as a project in which I analyzed Majora’s Mask for three months leading up to the release of Majora’s Mask 3D, in an effort to defend my claim that Majora’s Mask is one of the most significant pieces of art in modern times. So, what I say here condenses various theses that I defend at length in that much larger body of work. If you’re interested in reading my comprehensive work on Majora’s Mask, you can find the entire library here. I’ll also link to articles from the library as they become relevant in this article.

With that in mind, let’s return to Termina and talk about what makes it far scarier than Creepypasta, fan videos, Gibdos, or nearly anything else. In keeping with the format of my PAX Aus presentation, I’ll first argue that there is no metaethical grounding for a hero’s quest in Termina. I’ll then turn to the iterative-timeline structure of Link’s journey through Termina, and argue that Termina cannot every truly be saved in the way the game suggests.

skull-kid-and-moon

“Not In Hyrule Anymore”: The Lack of Ethical Grounding in Termina

It might not seem that there should be any question about whether Link is a hero in Majora’s Mask: after all, Legend of Zelda games are quintessential journeys of heroism, defeating evil against great odds. But I contend that special features of Termina deny that Link’s journey is truly good in the way that the journeys of other Links in other Zelda games are. To show this, I’ll first contrast the metaphysical foundation for morality in Hyrule with the lack of such foundation in Termina. I’ll then discuss the purpose of Link’s quest, and the degree to which morality within Termina is treated as a game. By the end of this section, we’ll see that players should be seriously doubtful that they can do anything good or heroic in Termina–and that should scare them. (You can read more about this in my early article on why Majora’s Mask should terrify you.)

triforce

The Triforce.

Perhaps the most recognizable image from the Legend of Zelda series is the Triforce: a sacred object derived from the three Goddesses who created the world of Hyrule. Each of the three triangles represents a different virtue: Power, Wisdom, and Courage. These are the virtues that created the world and that ground its goodness, metaphysically. They are also traditionally represented by the individuals in whom one of the three virtues is manifested: typically Ganondorf (Power), Zelda (Wisdom), and Link (Courage). The harmony of these virtues grounds order in the world and safeguards against chaos.

The heroism of Zelda quests is almost categorically grounded in restoring order to the world by restoring balance to the Triforce. Consider, for instance, the story of Ocarina of Time: Link must take up his fated role as the Hero of Time and bearer of the Triforce of Courage by uniting with Zelda, bearer of the Triforce of Wisdom, in order to defeat Ganondorf, the “Great King of Evil,” thereby preventing him from taking over the world and throwing it into chaos. This is fairly typical of Zelda games: Link’s quest against evil is grounded in restoring order to the Triforce.

The first thing to notice about Majora’s Mask, then, is that there is no mention of the Triforce at all in the game. There is no mention of Link as bearer of the Triforce of Courage, nor is there any “Great King of Evil,” nor–despite this being a “Legend of Zelda” game–is Zelda present at all, except for one flashback of dubious ontological status (you can read more about that problem here). Given that Majora’s Mask is supposed to be the direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, it’s pretty remarkable that the entire metaphysical basis for moral facts in the universe is glaringly absent from Termina.

But of course, you might think that I’m being unfair: after all, the Triforce is the metaethical structure of Hyrule, but we’re in Termina now, not Hyrule. Thus, it’s plausible, you might object, that Termina still has a foundation for moral facts–it’s just not the same foundation as we see in Hyrule-centric Zelda games. Yet I think there are independent reasons to think that this hypothesis doesn’t hold up. To see why, we’ll turn to the purpose of Link’s quest, and the surprising way in which the enigmatic Happy Mask Salesman frames and motivates Link’s time in Termina. (You can read more about the Happy Mask Salesman’s ontology and narrative significance here; you can read about the significance of his two most famous lines in the game here and here.)

Happy Mask Salesman entreating Link

The Salesman sets you on a fetch quest.

It’s easy to forget that Link’s adventure in Termina is initially framed as a fetch quest: when he arrives inside the Clock Tower, the Happy Mask Salesman simply asks Link to retrieve Majora’s Mask for him within three days’ time, since he is only in town for three days. This is the context with which Link ventures out into Clock Town and Termina for the first time. His adventure only becomes a story of fighting evil once he confronts Skull Kid atop the Clock Tower for the first time, “remembers” the Song of Time, and travels back in time, meeting the Happy Mask Salesman inside the Clock Tower for a second time. When Link fails to produce Majora’s Mask, as the Happy Mask Salesman asked, the Salesman flies into a rage, warning Link of what will happen if he fails to recover the Mask. I quote at length:

What have you done to me!!! If you leave my mask out there, something terrible will happen! The mask that was stolen from me… It is called Majora’s Mask. It is an accursed item from legend that is said to have been used by an ancient tribe in its hexing rituals. It is said that an evil and wicked power is bestowed upon the one who wears that mask. According to legend… the troubles caused by Majora’s Mask were so great… the ancient ones, fearing such catastrophe, sealed the mask in shadow forever, preventing its misuse. But now, that tribe from the legend has vanished, so no one really knows the true nature of the mask’s power… …But I feel it. I went to great lengths to get that legendary mask. When I finally had it… I could sense the doom of a dark omen brewing. It was that unwelcome feeling that makes your hair stand on end. And now… that imp has it… I am begging you! You must get that mask back quickly or something horrible will happen!

The Salesman Encourages Link

The Salesman encourages Link and the player.

It’s easy to take the Salesman at face value here, but I think another analysis better explains the data of the overall game and world of Termina: namely, the Salesman is imposing an artifice of morality upon Termina and Majora’s Mask in order to motivate Link and the player to get his mask back for him. For at this point in the game, Link has already failed once to complete the Salesman’s fetch quest; thus it seems reasonable that the Salesman would seek to further motivate Link to complete the task. An easy way to do this is to suggest that the mask is endowed with evil power and thus must be recovered in order to prevent something terrible from happening. Combined with the observation that there is no obvious Triforce-analogue grounding morality within Termina, it seems plausible that the appearance of evil in Majora’s Mask is just that: mere appearance, rather than something evil in a metaphysically deep sense.

Moreover, the Happy Mask Salesman as an entity seems to be in just the right position to impose an “apparent morality” on Termina–this is what I call ‘moral artifice’, or moral dimension that lacks metaphysical grounding in a world, imposed by an external source. For the Happy Mask Salesman himself doesn’t really exist within Termina; rather, I think it makes sense to consider him as metaphysically adjacent to Termina: he exists externally to Termina but is poised to influenced and interface with the world in a variety of ways. Inside the Clock Tower, where the Salesman resides, time does not flow, as it does in the rest of Termina. Moreover, it is implied that the Salesman effectively has comprehensive knowledge of Termina–without ever leaving the innards of the Clock Tower, he knows the origin and ontology of every mask Link acquires throughout the game, including masks that Link creates by healing fallen heroes (he describes the origins of these masks in vivid detail if Link speaks to him while wearing the masks). Moreover, he is the one who imparts to Link the Song of Healing, which allows Link to drastically change the structure of Termina by converting spirits into masks. This is the song that is described as healing “evil and troubled spirits”–again, the concept of evil is fundamentally introduced into the game by the Happy Mask Salesman. So it seems that even when we see evil at work in Termina, this is only the case because the Salesman is coloring the world this way for us. Again, there is no Triforce or heroic destiny guiding us here–we are left with only the guidance of a disarmingly smiling Salesman in pursuit of a fetch quest.

Majoras Wrath

The final confrontation against Majora’s Forms.

It’s worth noting, too, that when morality is introduced to Termina via moral artifice, it seems to center on the entity of ‘Majora’: the Salesman refers to an evil possessing Majora’s Mask, and the various putatively evil forms in the game–Majora’s Mask, Majora’s Incarnation, Majora’s Wrath, and the masks sealing away Termina’s four giant–all derive their apparent relation to Majora. When Link obtains the Fierce Deity’s Mask, too (discussed further below), the game asks whether “this mask’s dark powers could be as bad as Majora” (emphasis mine), again deriving moral valence from the mask’s relation to Majora. But notice that it’s not at all clear in the game exactly who or what Majora is: Link only ever confronts various forms derived from from Majora (Majora’s Mask, Incarnation, and Wrath), and the Salesman never says outright what Majora is. One virtue of the theory outlined above is that it gives us the resources to explain what Majora is: on my view, Majora is just identical with the concept of evil that the Salesman has imposed upon Termina. This makes sense when we consider other references to evil and to the impact of Majora on the world of Termina: in every corner of the world, we see that Majora has effected “evil” by distorting the natural order of things–a swamp is poisoned; a mountain in trapped in endless winter; an ocean is clouded and storm-ridden; and a desert is corrupted by lingering spirits and death. We can analyze these effects by saying that Majora, as the concept of evil, is distorting the universe of Termina, because Termina is a world that does not support moral facts or reality: by trying to impose morality upon Termina, the Salesman is distorting the very foundations of the world. (You can read more about Majora as Termina’s concept of evil here.)

If the above metaphysical considerations haven’t convinced you that there’s no basis for morality within Termina, then I invite you, lastly, to consider how the game treats morality in its ultimate confrontation: Majora’s Forms versus the Fierce Deity. Though the player needn’t acquire and use the Fierce Deity’s Mask to defeat Majora’s Forms, the game implies that this is the “proper” way to complete the narrative: the Mask is only available once the player has acquired all other masks in the game, at which point they must give those masks away to the various Moon Children with whom Link can play hide-and-seek before facing Majora’s Forms. At that point, Link can speak to the Moon Child wearing Majora’s Mask, who, noting that Link doesn’t have any masks left, says that they can instead play “good guys against bad guys,” and tells Link that Link is the bad guy in the game. He gives Link the Fierce Deity’s Mask, which, again, is described as a mask with dark powers that could be as bad as Majora.

Fierce Deity's Mask

Link receiving the Fierce Deity’s Mask.

In the final confrontation of the game, Link isn’t framed as a destined hero battling the Great King of Evil: he’s framed as a child playing the role of a villain in a game of good-and-evil. Moreover, the Fierce Deity’s Mask effectively turns the game’s final boss fight into “child’s play”: Majora’s Forms as frankly pathetic when faced with the Fierce Deity’s Mask, and it is trivial for the player to massacre a final boss that is quite challenging when faced without the Fierce Deity’s Mask. So the final battle isn’t a moment of heroism; rather, it’s a game in which Link takes on a mercilessly evil role. If we think that good and evil really have a metaphysical basis in Termina, it’s not clear how to make sense of this confrontation, nor is it clear how to make sense of Link’s relationship to the Fierce Deity’s Mask more generally; on the other hand, armed with our thesis that Termina lacks real moral grounding, this final battle is a poignant accent on the fact that the universe refuses to acknowledge Link and the player’s quest as morally significant.

If we accept the above arguments, then I think we already have ample reason to see Majora’s Mask as deeply horrifying, especially when we consider the game’s status as the sequel to Ocarina of Time. The player, having defeated the evil Ganondorf on Link the Hero’s destined quest in Ocarina, expects the same sort of heroism and triumph of goodness over evil in Majora’s Mask. The Happy Mask Salesman even assures them that they are right to expect this sort of heroism and goodness in their quest–he does this by imposing a moral artifice upon the world of Termina for the player and Link. Yet, over the course of the game, the player slowly discovers that there is no moral foundation for Link’s quest: there is no Triforce, no heroism, and no reason to believe that Link is doing something inherently good in his quest. And so the player is forced to confront the question: just what is the purpose of Link’s quest, as he goes to such lengths to fetch a mask for a Mask Salesman? The more the player looks for an ethical justification in Termina, the more it eludes her–and the loss of this basis for Link’s quest is a fearsome thing indeed.

In fact–despite this view being “against Zelda canon”–I think the scariest thing to emerge from this metaethical analysis is the implication that the Link of Majora’s Mask isn’t the same Hero of Time whom we encountered in Ocarina of Time. This strikes me as the best explanation of Majora-Link’s not possessing the Triforce of Courage, of ultimately donning the form of a dark god (the Fierce Deity), and generally bearing no relation to destiny in the way that Ocarina-Link did (you can read more about this here, and about how Majora Mask’s flashback to Zelda fits into this analysis here). So on my view, the deepest horror to be found here is just this: the player steps into Majora’s Mask expecting a classic tale of Zelda heroism, and slowly discovers that they literally aren’t controlling the hero that they thought they were. It is this profound alienation that makes the playing of Majora’s Mask a terrifying experience.

The Terminal Metaphysics of Termina: Majora’s Mask and the World that Can’t be Saved

Even if we agree that there’s no foundation for morality within Termina, we might still think that the player and Link can achieve something meaningful by “saving” Termina from the moon falling on Clock Town and the rest of the world. However, I think that trying to make sense of the game in this way just invites further horror, as we discover that Termina isn’t the kind of world that can be saved: rather, it is a world that is fundamentally doomed, and Link cannot change this fact. I’ll defend this claim in three parts: first, I’ll argue that Termina depends on Link for its existence; then, I’ll argue that Termina is constrained to three-day timelines; lastly, I’ll argue that the timelines of Termina are endlessly iterative. From these arguments, a picture emerges of Termina as a world that truly is Termina: though Link can participate in the world, he cannot save it from its doomed state.

MikausGrave

Termina is a strikingly unusual video game world, and only because time in the world constantly counts down towards the apocalypse: events in Termina also happen in an unusual way. The best way to see this is to consider the puzzle of the Zora hero Mikau, who tragically dies during the course of the game (I case that I explore in detail here). When Link arrives at the Great Bay, he sees Mikau dying in the water: the player must bring him to shore and use the Song of Healing to convert his spirit into a mask as he dies–and then Link buries him, in one of the most poignant and jarring moments of the series. There are many things to say about this moment, and I’ve written much about it in the past; for our purposes, however, we just need to think about one surprising puzzle that emerges from this event: what was the status of Mikau in timelines before Link arrived at the Great Bay? By the time Link arrives at Great Bay, he has already traveled through multiple three-day cycles of Termina; presumably, we would want to say that Mikau still existed in those timelines prior to Link discovering him in the water. Yet the state in which Mikau existed in these prior timelines is not at all clear. Certainly he is not dead: he only dies once Link encounters him. Yet it also doesn’t seem quite right to say Mikau is alive and well in previous timelines, for he dies as soon as Link encounters him: we know he is dying and can’t survive the three days. So it seems as if we have to say that he is in an indeterminate state of being neither dead nor alive, but rather in a state of dying, suspended there until Link encounters him and he truly dies.

I think the conclusion to which considerations such as the above lead us is that the world of Termina actually depends on Link encountering it in order to exist. Beyond Mikau, we can also see (for example) that time doesn’t actually pass in Termina except when Link is there: when he enters the inside of the Clock Tower, time in Termina freezes until he exits into Clock Town. Generally speaking, the progression and instantiation of events in Termina do not proceed without Link. If you like, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that Termina is “solipsistic” with regards to Link.

The existential dependence of Termina on Link doesn’t alone simply anything obvious about whether or not Termina can be saved; however, a clearer and scarier picture of these implications emerges when we consider this dependence relation together with the iterative-timeline metaphysics of Majora’s Mask. 

Link falling through time

Link bringing about a new timeline in Termina.

It seems clear to me that Link and the player progress through the game’s storyline by instantiating new timelines each time he plays the Song of Time. I detail this argument here, but the general thought is just this: Link clearly doesn’t reset the universe of Termina each time he plays the Song of Time, as various states of affairs throughout the world can change each time. Mikau, again, is an example: once Link sees Mikau die, he does not appear again even after Link plays the Song of Time. Link also retains the masks he acquires even when he plays the Song of Time. Thus I think that the best explanation of the Song of Time is that it allows Link to effectively abandon the timeline of Termina in which he’s currently situated, and travel to a new timeline that is linked to the most recently abandoned timeline by what I call ‘temporal afterimages’–metaphysical remnants of earlier, alternate timelines. As an aside: this notion of temporal afterimagery, I think, has broader applicability in the series: even when Link alters time, the inhabitants of whatever new timeline he brings about seem to have “remnant” memories of previous timelines; again, the Zelda flashback in Majora’s Mask is a prime example of this.

With a metaphysical picture in view of Link’s journey through Termina as bringing about increasingly more timelines as the game progresses, we can better understand the implications of Termina’s existential dependence on Link: Link only ever encounters Termina as three-day timelines, bounded by his arrival on one hand and the apocalypse on the other hand; thus, if Termina’s existence really does depend on Link, then Termina itself seems metaphysically constrained to Link’s arrival and its apocalypse. There seems to be no broader existence of the world that Link can fight to preserve.

But, you might now object, this is clearly false: if you beat the game, then we very clearly see that Link has saved Termina, once and for all; thus, there is a greater existence to the world that Link can fight to preserve. Yet I think we have every reason to doubt this, and to take this ending to the game instead as a case of unreliable narration (about which you can read in more detail here). For one thing, the ending doesn’t make much sense with regard to the overall narrative. We know that Link cannot save everyone in Termina over the course of a single timeline, yet the ending “victory” scene of the game implies this sort of success, with everyone in the world happy. And, even more pressingly, the game itself implies that the perpetuation of doomed Termina timelines persists after the end of the game. We can see this because there are certain events that the player can only bring about after she instantiates a new timeline in Termina after beating the game. For example, one of the functions of the Fierce Deity’s Mask is to allow Link to transform into the Fierce Deity during the four Giant boss battles in the game; and, since Link only gets the Fierce Deity’s Mask during the final battle of the game, he must go back and bring about another doomed timeline to use the mask in this way. Notice how starkly the above vision of Termina contrasts with the world of Ocarina of Time: it is not possible to “continue” in Hyrule after defeating Ganon; the game simply proclaims that the game has ended, and, if the player reloads her save file, she returns to wherever her last save was before defeating Ganon. Termina could just as easily “conclude” if Link were able to really save it; yet the very fact that the player can return to Termina and bring about further doomed timelines even after beating Majora’s Forms suggests that there is no way to truly overcome Termina’s doomed fate.

Though we might initially trust the game in telling us that Link can save Termina, the metaphysics of the world tell us otherwise: beyond the metaethical nihilism of the world, it is not even possible for Link to end the apocalyptic timeline cycle of the world. Termina, as the name suggests, is inherently terminal: it should fill the player with horror to realize that they are engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to save a world that literally cannot be saved.

Conclusion

As we reflect on the overall horror of Majora’s Mask, it’s useful to contrast Kaepora Gaebora, the owl and sage whom Link encounter in Ocarina of Time, with Kaepora Gaebora, the owl whom Link encounters in Majora’s Mask (I study the owl in more detail here). In Ocarina, Kaepora Gaebora is a manifestation of the sage Rauru, who guides Link on his quest to defeat Ganondorf. Kaepora Gaebora inundates Link with the message that he is the Hero of Time, and that it is his destiny to travel through time to defeat Ganondorf. He repeatedly emphasizes what I said above: the Link of Ocarina is an agent of goodness and courage who will ultimately save Hyrule.

Kaepora Gaebora in Woodfall

The Kaepora Gaebora of Majora’s Mask is virtually antithetical to his Ocarina of Time counterpart. He constantly treats Link as an intruder in a world that he describes as “destined to fade,” and offers to help Link only if he has “the courage and determination to proceed in the face of destiny.” Rather than Link being destined to save the world, Link is fighting to save a world that is designed to be destroyed. This in essence, captures the horror of Majora’s Mask: at every turn, the player expects to be able to do the right thing, and to save the world; yet, at every turn, the game denies the player the ability to find any moral justification for her actions, along with any possibility of truly saving the world. Without this foundation for making meaning out of Link’s journey, the player is left to make up some form of alternative meaning for the journey through Majora’s Mask. If you read my full analysis, you’ll see that I actually do think this is possible, and that the player can ultimately be a positive and meaningful force in the world of the game–but this is only possible once she overcomes the initial horror of the game, a horror which you’d be hard-pressed to overstate.

"Majora's Mask"

The Philosophical Justification for FromSoftware’s DLC

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know that I tend to be skeptical of the potential for justifying add-on video game content as artistically valuable to the video game experience. For example, even though I ultimately argued that Nintendo’s amiibo are philosophically justifiable, I rejected many of the typical reasons why someone might think amiibo are valuable. So, when it comes to DLC (“downloadable content”), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve historically been extremely skeptical of its value as well. Like many others, I’ve feared that DLC makes it all too easy for developers to release games that are, in one way or another, incomplete, and then compel the player to complete the game by paying for additional content later on.

However, as is often the case, FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne (among other games), has challenged my assumptions about game development. In this article, I’m going to discuss two cases of FromSoftware’s DLC that I take to be imminently justified as aesthetically valuable additions to their parent games: Dark Souls 3‘s “Ashes of Ariandel” and Bloodborne‘s “The Old Hunters.” First, I’ll outline what I take to be the general dilemma that makes DLC so difficult to justify as a supplementary work of art. I’ll apply this dilemma to System Rift, the recent DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, to show how it helps to explain why DLC fails when it does. Then, I’ll argue that our two test cases solve the dilemma facing DLC in surprising and informative ways.

DLC and The Completeness Dilemma

To begin, we need to be more precise with how we’re defining ‘DLC’. After all, all sorts of material could potentially fit the broad label of “downloadable content”–for example, extra weaponry, bonus outfits for avatars, extra songs for a game’s soundtrack, and so on. In this article, I’m only concerned with DLC that purports to extend the narrative of a video game. Granted, that’s a rather broad definition, and I’m not going to try to provide a full analysis of ‘narrative’ for the purposes of this article. However, our intuitions should give us a good idea of what I’m talking about here: these days, many story-rich games feature DLC that “adds on” to the story of the main game by adding a new plot line, either in an old area of the game’s world or in a new area of the game’s world created just for that DLC. Think of DLCs like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard and Dragonborn, or Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. These are all examples of the type of DLC I have in mind.

Why focus this particular type of DLC? As I’ve argued from the start of With a Terrible Fate onward, I believe that video games as a medium facilitate new, robust forms of narrative that wouldn’t be possible in other media. In light of this, I think it’s especially interesting to see what implications DLC has for video games specifically as a vehicle for storytelling. And indeed, I will aim to show here that DLC does have interesting implications and insights regarding the nature of storytelling in video games.

Before we dive into any concrete examples of DLC, I think it’s fairly easy to notice a problem for DLC on the level of pure theory. I call this problem ‘the completeness dilemma’, and the dilemma goes like this: for DLC to be possible, it must be possible to extend the narrative of the main video game to which the DLC is appended. However, video games, as a narrative art form, already have a complete world with a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end. So, for the narrative of a video game to be “extendable,” it stands to reason that the original game’s narrative must, in some sense, be incomplete. And so the completeness dilemma is that either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete.

There are two qualifications I have to make immediately about this dilemma, both of which have to do with exactly what I mean by “complete” and “incomplete.” As written, the dilemma might strike readers as wildly implausible. After all, you might say, countless narratives, in video games and in other media, have sequels, which would also seem theoretically impossible by the above logic. So something must be wrong with the above analysis.

I actually think there probably are substantive theoretical problems for sequels/prequels/etc. based on the above logic, but I’ll set those aside for now because I do think the completeness dilemma for DLC is a different issue than any problems that arise for sequels. The key is that DLC “extends” the narrative of a video game in a different way than a sequel “extends” the narrative. Broadly speaking, sequels tend to tell an entirely new narrative that takes the former game’s narrative as a starting point, whereas DLC tries to enrich a game’s narrative by adding other events that are coextensive with and subordinate to that game’s narrative. This makes sense when you think of DLC as “add-on content”: rather than telling a whole new story, like a sequel would, DLC “adds on” to a game’s narrative, aiming to supplement it with “more” story. So, for example, a DLC might add a storyline that happens during the events of a game’s main story, but that involves different characters than the main game’s avatar. This was the case with Dishonored‘s DLC, which had its own problems as a result. Or, alternatively, DLC might add a new episode that doesn’t strictly speaking occur at the same time as the events of the main game, but that nonetheless coherently fits as a constituent of the main game’s narrative. This is something like what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just did with their System Rift DLC, which effectively folds a new “chapter” into the main game’s narrative of Adam Jensen trying to uncover details of a global, augmentation-related conspiracy. So the first crucial qualification to the completeness dilemma is that I’m talking about “completeness” in the sense that the self-contained narrative of a game is internally complete: more precisely, its various narrative constituents are more-or-less coherent with one another, and adding substantially more narrative would interfere with that coherency. This measure of completeness has no bearing on the justifiability of sequels to games.

The second qualification to make about the incompleteness dilemma is that this dilemma is largely grounded in the somewhat unintuitive way that the worlds of video games operate as narrative elements. I’ve argued previously that the worlds of video games are fundamentally designed to respond to the avatar in various ways, depending on player choices. This might seem obvious and trivial, but the result is that the ontology of video game worlds functions to create the game’s narrative. And if a designer has created a world that functions to create the narrative of a game, it isn’t at all clear how you could just “add on” more story or more world in order to extend that narrative. Indeed, doing so, one might think, would completely disrupt the ontology of the game’s world. This is the metaphysical basis for the completeness dilemma; once we see this basis, I think the dilemma itself becomes much more plausible.

Deus ExSystem Rift and The Completeness Dilemma

Beyond purely theoretical considerations, many concrete instances of DLC bear the hypothesis out: a large amount of DLC seems unsatisfying, and I think the reason for this lack of satisfaction just is the completeness dilemma in many cases. To take just one example, let’s look at System Rift, the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC that I mentioned above. In broad strokes, Mankind Divided follows Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the earlier Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as he tries to mitigate rising tensions between the augmented and non-augmented in a world of human-augmentation-through-biotechnology. The main thread of the game’s plot is Jensen’s mission to uncover a secret, powerful group of people, the Illuminati, controlling and orchestrating the course of events at a global scale. At the end of the main game, while Jensen has successfully thwarted a major terrorist, he is left with most of the same questions about the shadow organization he’s been hunting for the entire game. The DLC then picks up with Jensen getting a request from an old colleague (from Human Revolution), Francis Pritchard, to help him infiltrate a major data storage bank, Palisade Blades. Though Pritchard has his own motives for wanting to infiltrate Blades, he also motivates Jensen to help him by pointing out that Jensen could well be able to uncover more information about the Illuminati while inside the facility–indeed, the DLC’s ad campaign actually motivated people to purchase the DLC for this same reason (i.e. finding out more about the Illuminati).

Without diving into too much depth about System Rift, we can pick out two overarching problems with the DLC that the completeness dilemma allows us to explain. The first problem is the selling point of the DLC’s story: uncovering more about the shadow organization that Jensen has been hunting all long. Many people reviewing the DLC have commented in one way or another that the story wasn’t especially satisfying; with our theoretical framework in the background, we can make this complaint more precise and understand just why the story isn’t satisfying. The DLC is predicated on getting answers about an organization that, throughout the first game, Jensen never really fully identified or confronted; in this respect, the main narrative force of the DLC explicitly directs players’ attention to the fact that the main game was incomplete in terms of uncovering the Illuminati. But Eidos Montreal (the developer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided, and the DLC) put themselves in a difficult situation, because they also couldn’t provide in the DLC the real answers about the Illuminati that were missing from the main game: to do so would be to effectively treat the DLC as a resolution to the main game’s narrative, and that would imply that the main game had been “missing” an ending all along–meaning players had to pay extra for the ending. As a result of the above theoretical constraints, Eidos Montreal was effectively forced to make the DLC’s answers to questions about the Illuminati minimal: though Jensen and Pitchard discovered a little about Stanton Dowd’s involvement in the organization, there wasn’t much substantive information to be had.

Of course, if a player is familiar with the broader Deus Ex series, she will know more about the Illuminati based on the earlier Deus Ex games that (confusingly enough) take place in the future relative to Mankind Divided, but this doesn’t change the facts-of-the-matter in terms of what information Mankind Divided and its DLC promise and come short of delivering. The upshot here, I think, is that Eidos Montreal probably intends to make another full Deus Ex game more directly confronting the Illuminati–as we saw above, to have any such direct confrontation in any Mankind Divided DLC would just further compromise the completeness of the main game. But the result is that the DLC feels unsatisfying and unjustified.

I said above that there were two overarching problems with System Rift that the completeness dilemma could help us explain. The first, then, was simply that the story is unsatisfying; the second is that there are continuity problems owing to the fact that the DLC is more of a stand-alone mini-game than it is an add-on to Mankind Divided. By this I mean that none of the actions of the player in the main game has any impact on System Rift–in fact, you can even play System Rift before playing Mankind Divided, though the game warns you that you may spoil some of the main game by doing so. So, despite the game being billed as Mankind Divided DLC, it really ends up being a separable narrative. The most compelling way to recognize this is to notice that none of Jensen’s augmentations carries over from the main game to the DLC: this implies that you’re playing two different versions of Jensen, meaning that the main game and DLC actually can’t exist as part of the same reality (unless you hold a view claiming something like multiple iterations of Jensen exist in the same world and have the same relationships with other people, which strikes me as wildly implausible).

Now, there are real issues with continuity across multiple games in the same series more generally, and it might sound like those are the issues I’m talking about in this case. But again, I’m containing my critique here to focus solely on DLC. There may well be a way to make reasonable sense of multiple games in a series even if a player’s choices don’t carry over between subsequent entries in the series (but see this article on Final Fantasy VII for the serious theoretical challenges that such an explanation would need to overcome), but the problem for DLCs would remain as a result of the completion dilemma. Recall that the whole thrust of DLC is that it extends a game’s narrative; in order to do this, it seems to be a minimal prerequisite that the DLC and main game occur in the same reality, unless there are compelling science-fiction reasons why they don’t (e.g., BioShock Infinite and its Buried at Sea DLC). This might seem obvious, but it points to the heart of what makes crafting effective DLC so difficult: DLC bears the burden of staying in the same reality as the main game while also justifying why its narrative content did not exist as a part of the main game. This is just another formulation of the completeness dilemma.

I should say in closing here that I quite enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and there are plenty of theoretically interesting things to say about the game in a positive light–indeed, I plan to write more on it in the future (and you can read my work on Human Revolution here). My aim here was just to show that the completeness dilemma allows us to understand many of the reasons why DLC tends to fail, along with why it’s so hard for them to succeed in the first place. I encourage readers to take their own least-favorite DLC and see whether this framework can shed light on why it doesn’t work.

The other reason why I dwelled so long on how and why DLC fails is because I think appreciating the extent of the difficulties facing DLC makes us that much more impressed when DLC manages to succeed. I turn to two such examples, Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters, next.

FromSoftware and Ontologically Sound DLC

We’ve seen that DLC, in order to be justified as part of a game’s narrative, must somehow find a way to overcome the completeness dilemma: either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete. I argue here that FromSoftware has recently released two pieces of DLC that found ways to avoid this dilemma, and that the ways these DLCs avoid the dilemma give us insight into what makes for a sound ontology for DLC and its world. I’ll first look at narrative of imposition found in the recently released Dark Souls 3 DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, and then I’ll go a bit further back in time to discuss the narrative of curiosity found in Bloodborne‘s DLC, The Old Hunters. What we’ll ultimately see is that the key to these DLCs avoiding the completeness dilemma is that they make their status as DLC, along with the player’s choice to purchase and play the DLC, narratively significant.

Ashes of Ariandel begins with an invitation for the player and her avatar to enter a new world and take on a new mission: Slave Knight Gael, prostrate on the ground of the Cleansing Chapel, enjoins you to show the Painted World of Ariandel flame in order to cleanse away its rot. The player is given the choice to either accept or reject this request; only once you accept will your avatar touch a scrap of painting and be sucked into Ariandel.

sister-friede-dark-souls-dlc

Sister Friede warns you to turn back.

This opening interaction with Gael sets the tone for the entire narrative of the DLC: the game constantly requires the player to reaffirm her choice to take on this alternative mission in Ariandel. When the player and her character first meet Sister Friede, who presides over the Forlorn members of the world (and thus, in one sense at least, presides over the world), she asks the player’s character to leave Ariandel, explicitly pointing out the bonfire next to her as a method of doing so: “Lord of Hollows,” she says, “I know not the missteps which led thee to this painted world. But thy duty is all, and thy duty lieth elsewhere. Return from whence thou cam’st. I presume it is visible to thee? The bonfire here, in this room. A meek and faded thing, but ’twill guide thee nonetheless.” Sir Vilhelm, a knight apparently in Sister Friede’s service, warns the player’s character to heed Friede’s words as well. If the

Sir Vilhelm.jpg

Sir Vilhelm warns you to turn back.

player instead chooses to press onward in the world of Ariandel, Vilhelm eventually confronts and attempts to kill the player’s character, deriding the character as he attacks: “I’ve seen your kind,” he says, “time and time again. Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.” If the player goes still further, she ultimately returns to the Ariandel Chapel where Sister Friede sits; Friede speaks to the player’s character again: “Be forewarned, eager Ash,” she says, “Should this world wither and rot, even then would Ariandel remain our home. Leave us be, Ashen One. Thou’rt the Lord of Londor, and have thine own subjects to guide.” Ultimately, if the player chooses to continue, she encounters Father Ariandel, in chains in a vast room with vaulted ceilings just beyond Sister Friede. Entering the room does not trigger a cutscene or a battle. Instead, the player must walk her character all the way across the room to Father Ariandel and speak to him; only then does a cutscene initiate, followed by a battle (actually, several) against him and Sister Friede. If Sister Friede kills the player’s character during the fight, she tells the character to “Return from whence thou cam’st, for that is thy place of belonging.”

approaching-father-ariandel

The approach to Father Ariandel. You can still avoid fighting him at this point.

I describe all these moments from the DLC in such detail simply to make the point that the DLC figuratively beats the player over the head with the theme that she doesn’t belong in this world, this isn’t the proper quest or duty of the player’s character, and she should leave. The theme of this DLC’s narrative, if you do choose to play it all the way through, is that you are imposing yourself and your character upon a world and mission that don’t rightfully belong to you. The player cannot credibly claim that she just stumbled into the storyline, or that she just had to go along with the plot line: the DLC begins with a conscious choice to take up a new mission in a new world, and you have to constantly ignore and kill NPCs in order to finish the DLC.

What does this narrative of imposition have to do with the problem of completeness and Ashes of Ariandel‘s success as DLC? I claim that this narrative avoids the problem of completeness by, in a certain sense, “making narrative” the fact that the story is DLC and that the player chose to purchase and play it. To understand what I mean by this, step back for a moment and consider what it means for the player of a game like Dark Souls (or any other game) to purchase DLC for the game. Regardless of the player’s more peculiar, individual motives for purchasing the DLC, it’s fair to say that anyone purchasing the DLC wants something “more” than the main game, whether that’s more plot, more characters, more world, or what have you. But there’s something not quite rational about this desire on the part of the player: certainly players want to play games that are well designed and that contain complete, coherent narratives; yet at the same time, these players are eager for “more” in the form of DLC.

Returning now to the case at hand, the crucial feature of Ashes of Ariandel is that the game’s narrative reflects the player’s decision to play it. The player is trying to take a character that was designed for a specific, internally coherent quest, one that endlessly cycles with different possible endings, and put that character in  new environment that, by definition, could not have been a part of that original quest. The avatar, mirroring the player, is leaving its preordained, destined quest as an Ashen One (Sister Friede presupposes the Ashen One’s destiny as the Lord of Hollows, but the argument holds even if the Ashen One chooses a different path through the game) to instead take on an entirely different mission in an entirely different world–a world contained within an entirely different work of art (i.e. a scrap of a painting). Many pieces of the NPCs’ dialogue could be directed to the player just as accurately as to the player’s character: the player of DLC should hear herself reflected in Vilhelm’s words that “Every fleeing man must be caught [and every] secret must be unearthed,” and should recognize that she really is, as Friede says, going out of her way to walk her character through a world not at all related to that character’s initial purpose or design. This union of player and avatar, together with the union of the narrative and its status as DLC, culminates in the long walk down the hall to Father Ariandel: if the player has all been paying attention to the game, she should be acutely aware of the fact that she is choosing, throughout the entirety of the DLC, to disregard the vast majority of voices telling her to turn back.

So FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma in Ashes of Ariandel by turning the tables on the player: recognizing the player as part of the game’s narrative (which I have argued many times is the case in all game narratives, whether or not the game is self-consciously concerned with that fact), the DLC tells the story of a world that doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the narrative of the main game, and of a character who decided to ignore their real quest to instead, for want of a better word, invade a totally different world. In other words, FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma by pointing out that the player has chosen to purchase and play DLC in spite of the completeness dilemma.

Moreover, FromSoftware seems to have generally recognized the above method as a reliable way to develop aesthetically justifiable DLC. Turning to Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, we can see that same method alive and well–but, typical of an adept storyteller, FromSoftware has altered the precise execution of the method to better fit with the themes and broader metaphysics of Bloodborne.

Bloodborne DLC

 

I can’t say enough positive things about Bloodborne, and if you’ve read my earlier work on the game then you know some of the reasons why I think it’s so philosophically rich, in the sense of rigorous metaphysical and epistemic themes and explorations. If you know my earlier work on the game, then you also probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was extremely skeptical when DLC was announced for the game. I thought (and still think) that the main narrative of Bloodborne is practically perfect in terms of internal coherence as a cyclical narrative, in which, no matter which ending the player chooses, they can never truly escape the dream of Bloodborne, nor can they learn whatever truth (if any) lies outside that dream. This was the reason why I continue to hope that Bloodborne never has a sequel, and it was the reason why I doubted that any DLC for the game could truly be justified. However, much like Ashes of AriandelThe Old Hunters challenged my expectations by making narrative the facts that it was DLC and that I as a player had chosen to play it; the difference was that, whereas Ashes of Ariandel crafted this narrative in terms of imposition, invasion, and shirking duty, The Old Hunters crafted it in terms of curiosity and the limits of our understanding.

The Old Hunters takes place inside The Hunter’s Nightmare, a previously unaccessible part of Bloodborne‘s world which the player can access by acquiring an Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter from a Messenger and using it to apparently lure an Amygdala into grabbing the player’s character and transporting it to the Nightmare. Once there, the player is able to unravel a variety of secrets about the origins of the Healing Church of Bloodborne‘s world: she witnesses the hideous beast that Ludwig, the Church’s first hunter, became; she sees the results of the Church’s covert (largely failed) experiments to transform humans into Kin of the Great Ones (the ethereal beings that exist at the edge of human comprehension and are largely responsible for the madness that infects Bloodborne); and she encounters a dead Kos, a Great One whose appearance apparently mutated the inhabitants of a seaside Fishing Hamlet, destroying their sanity in the process.

The Hunter’s Nightmare is a realm for hunters who have been driven insane; the player and her avatar are guided through it by the one remaining hunter with some apparent sanity, Simon the Harrowed. At the beginning of the Nightmare, he warns the player’s character to turn back, “Unless, you’ve something of an interest in Nightmares?” The player can choose to either respond that “I’ve no interest” or else that “Nightmares are fascinating,” and it is only in the latter case that Simon continues to guide the player through the DLC (though the player can of course progress on her own). Simon thus sets the tone of the DLC, albeit perhaps more subtly than the characters of Ashes of Ariandel did: only the curious player has any purpose being here.

lady-maria

The player’s character investigates Lady Maria’s corpse.

So, if the player chooses to continue in the DLC, it’s fair for the narrative to assume the player is curious: and indeed, the DLC punishes the player precisely for being curious, most notably in two specific instances. First, after seeing the Church’s experimentation facility, the player encounters an apparently dead hunter slumped in a chair at the far end of a clock tower: this is Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower. The introduction to this boss fight is notably similar to the introduction to the Sister Friede/Father Ariandel boss fight: in both cases, the player must approach the boss

brador

Brador, the Church’s assassin, imprisoned.

from the other side of a long room and choose to interact with the boss before the fight actually begins. In Maria’s case, the player’s character must inspect her corpse, after which she rises from the chair and says that “A corpse… should be left well alone.” She continues: “Oh, I know very well. How the secrets beckon so sweetly,” concluding to the player’s character that “Only an honest death will cure you now. Liberate you, from your wild curiosity.” Later, as the player investigates the Fishing Hamlet, an imprisoned  Church assassin named Brador periodically invades and attempts to kill her character. Whenever Brador kills the player’s character, he proclaims that “Unending death awaits those who pry into the unknown.” Both Lady Maria and Brador reinforce the narrative of the Nightmare as the player’s tortured attempt to proceed through countless deaths and eventually satisfy her curiosity for secrets that don’t want to be uncovered.

orphan-of-kos

The Orphan of Kos, having just emerged from a deceased Kos.

In a very broad sense, The Old Hunters justifies its DLC in the same way that Ashes of Ariandel does: it tells the story of the player and her avatar trying to get something out of the game that they shouldn’t rationally expect the game to provide. But, as I said before, the details of how they tell this story are different because the narratives of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne are wildly different animals. In The Old Hunters, the narrative reflects the player’s desire to answer the game’s unanswered questions, combined with the overarching Bloodborne theme that the answers you seek often lie outside of your epistemic capabilities. The DLC does this in a tricky way: it promises that the Hunter’s Nightmare holds secrets to uncover, but what little the player uncovers only leads to further questions, showing that very little of the original curiosity has actually been satisfied and very few explanations provided by the DLC have been adequate. The DLC pretty obviously shows a connection between Lady Maria and the animated Doll who guides the player through the main game: the characters look the same, have the same voice actor (Evetta Muradasilova), and, once the player kills Lady Maria, the Doll exclaims that she feels liberated in some way. Yet the exact nature of the relationships between these characters is left unexplained. The exact relationships between the various, titular “old hunters” are left unexplained. And, most pointedly, the DLC ends with a battle against a Great One, one of the beings whose very existence is beyond the pale of human comprehension. The ending in particular points to the fact that, even if the player were able to parse out the entire history of the hunters and the Healing Church from the vague hints of the DLC, they would still have gone precisely no distance towards truly understanding the otherworldly Great Ones, the ultimate grounds of Bloodborne‘s horror and narrative force. So the DLC plays on the player’s curiosity by hinting at some explanations of plot elements while also highlighting that the entire crux of Bloodborne is that some great and terrible things–e.g., the Great Ones–are entirely outside human frameworks of explanation and understanding. The player can learn that Kos cursed the hunters who investigated and mutilated the mutated villagers of the Fishing Hamlet, but she cannot learn the truth of what Kos itself truly is.

The world of the Hunter’s Nightmare is not separate from Bloodborne‘s main world in exactly the way that Ariandel is separate from Dark Souls 3, but the framework remains the same–albeit thematically transformed. The base assumption is that the player who has played Bloodborne wants more answers than the game provides, and purchases the DLC in the expectation of having that curiosity sated. Yet the DLC tells a story of explanations and forces that ultimately prove elusive, feeding the player scraps of new information while ultimately returning to the same incomprehensible plane of unknowability that grounded the main game. Just as in Ashes of Ariandel, we have a narrative grounded in the player’s choice to irrationally want more from a complete game–in this case, it’s just couched in terms of the limits of comprehensibility and the madness that follows curiosity, seamlessly marrying its themes to those of Bloodborne.

Conclusion

The completeness dilemma isn’t easily overcome, and those DLCs that simply promise additional story content face a serious challenge as a result. This makes it all the more remarkable that FromSoftware has managed to develop DLC in which not only are the narratives are interesting and engaging, but they are also narratives that would only work as DLC. The narratives overcome the completeness dilemma by inviting the player into the narrative, and telling a story of how bizarre and paradoxical it is that the player would want an extra story to extend a world and story that was already complete. The amazing result is DLC that is justified both intrinsically and also in relation to the main game. Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters set a high bar in this regard, but they also show us that DLC falling short of this bar just won’t work. Try these DLCs out if you haven’t already, and, as you play, reflect on your choice to buy DLC in the first place; and the next time you buy a new DLC, ask yourself whether and how it avoids the completeness dilemma.

 

 

Teaser Metaphysics: Storytelling in Xenoblade X.

A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.

I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.

With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.

(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)

 

I. Teaser Metaphysics

The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.”[1] In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.

 

  1. What are we talking about? (Ch. 5) 

When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.31.08 AM

Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”

Lin: “Huh…good point.”

[…]

Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”

Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”

Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”

Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”

Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.

Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”

Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”

Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”

Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”

Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”

Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”

 

And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.

Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.

The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.

 

The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)

This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.

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Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”

Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”

Lin: “I know…”

 

I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.

Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.

But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.

But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.

 

The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)

After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.

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Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.

Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?

Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”

 

Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?

If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.

Character Creation

For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).

So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”

However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.

But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.

 

II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues 

The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.

Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.

Story Mission

The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.

Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.

It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.

From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.

In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.

 

III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel

Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.

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I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”

 

If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.

 

As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.

 

[1] To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.

Bayonetta: Female Sexuality and Agency in Video Games

by Laila Carter, Featured Author.

Equipped with her four guns and always waging war against the heavenly army, the Umbra Witch Bayonetta has become one of the most recognizable female characters in gaming. Some people have (understandable) qualms with Bayonetta as a character: they claim that her over-sexualization – making someone excessively sexual whether in looks or actions – only attracts people to look at her body for pleasure, and that viewers do not respect her as a women of agency. However, judging by the many reactions people had when she was announced as the newest character in the last Super Smash Brothers game, I do not think that this is true. People respect Bayonetta and her abilities despite her over-the-top sexuality, or, as I argue, because of it. She is one of the few women in video games who is overtly sexy yet owns her sexiness, incorporating it in her personality. She is not simply some side-girl with no purpose other than to show off her huge breasts. She is the main star of her game and kicks major butt with witch power and sexual grace, showing off a butt-shot here and there simply because she feels like it. Bayonetta has agency of her own over-sexuality; She has the ability for a character to create and change the way she presents herself, and she does so by owning her image and enjoying every minute of it.

Let me be clear about the goal of this article: I am not discussing whether or not Bayonetta is a feminist icon in gaming. That discussion is an ongoing one[1] that will probably never be fully answered, but it has no place here. I am instead discussing how Bayonetta uses her sexuality in a different way than most women in video games.

Bayonetta, The Male Gaze, and Agency

When watching film or animation, certain topics tend to appear when analyzing how and why a scene is shot. The most relevant film term here is the term “gaze”; its definition is to “look at steadily and intently, in fixed attention.” In film studies,[2] “the male gaze” specifically refers to when the camera positions itself so as to objectify the woman (or women) on screen. The audience does not view the woman as a person, but rather as an object, thanks to camera angles and movement, character attire, or scene setting (for a simple example, a woman lying in bed in a provocative manner). You can use these terms when talking about any visual medium, like comics, art, television, and video games. The types of art that use the “male gaze” depend on spectators’ scopophilia: deriving pleasure in looking at a woman for sexual interest. Scopophilia is what feminist film critics argue heavily against because the “male gaze” reduces women on screen to an object rather than to a character. By “object,” I mean a thing that one can own and handle as their own, and by “character” I mean an fictional entity representing an intelligent and sentient being that has its own independent existence. Critics and gamers have argued against Bayonetta’s entire character because of the “male gaze” the game’s cinematics produce; they claim that she invites spectators to look at her for her over-sexual body and not for her actual character.[3]

While I agree that the “male gaze” is a problem in film and animation, I do not think it can fully apply to Bayonetta’s character. To demonstrate, I will compare Bayonetta to the comic heroine Power Girl of the DC Universe, and to another controversial video game heroine, Tracer from Overwatch. Through Power Girl and Tracer, I will show the inconsistency between their character design – the way they look – and their character development – the way they act, feel, and understand the world as a whole. The inconsistency between design and development is a common way to distort female characters and attract the “male gaze,” having viewers focus on appearance rather than the overall character; And yet, this flaw of design and development does not exist within Bayonetta’s character.

The comic book heroine Power Girl is a tough, short-tempered superhero who has all the superpowers of Superman, except that she as a very low tolerance of nonsense. Her outfit, though, is more suggestive. It is a leotard, but it has a huge hole at the chest, which reveals Power Girl’s unnaturally huge breasts. While Bayonetta does possess unnatural body portions, mainly in her freakishly long legs, her sexual organs – breasts and backside – are fairly normal. Power Girl’s obviously enlarged and showcased breasts attract the “male gaze,” inviting viewers to read her comic for sexual pleasure rather than for her actual story. Her sexualized character design contradicts her character development, ignoring her no-nonsense personality, making it apparent that her outfit and body were not of her own design. The only explanation for these features is that the creators wanted her to look that sexualized; nothing in her own personality and behavior suggests that she would ever wear such an outfit (especially with breasts as big as those – one jump and they are flying right out).

Another good example of character inconsistency comes from a recent controversial pose of a female character. In Blizzard’s new team-based shooter Overwatch, the most iconic character, Tracer, had a new victory pose that some people did not like.[4] In the shot, she had an “over-the-shoulder” look, meaning her back was as the camera while her head looks over the shoulder. With her back to the camera, she shows off her orange behind, Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.39.05 PM.pngfully outlined in tight spandex. Tracer is a fun-loving, silly, and friendly character, but the pose had nothing “to do with the character [Blizzard] is creating.” The argument does not call out all female heroes in the game (such as a sniper who purposely “flaunts her sexuality” to distract her enemies, so it makes more sense for her to be showing off her behind), but does not approve of Tracer’s pose because it showed that “at any moment [the creators] are willing to reduce [female characters] to sex symbols.” The pose contradicted her personality and was very jarring in comparison to her character development. The article sparked a huge discussion to the point where Blizzard studios removed the pose altogether.[5]

On the other hand, Bayonetta’s black, detailed body-suit establishes her as a sexy character. She is a flirtatious and dramatic dominatrix, not afraid of showing off her sexy body to anyone who is willing to watch. Her skin-tight outfit, in both games, pronounces her behind, but not so much her breasts. It creates a strange balance of sexualization, not making her too top-heavy but still allowing her to flaunt her body. It would not make sense if she wore a modest outfit, just like it does not make sense that tough and cranky Power Girl wears an overtly suggestive one. Her design works well and builds upon her character development, making her a more consistent character overall, one that does not feel like the creators wanted to give her a sexy overfit for the sake of sexiness.

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The most important aspect about Bayonetta’s character design is that her sexuality does not seem out of place. Bayonetta takes full control of her sexiness and unashamedly shows it off. She is a dominatrix, sexy yet intimidating and powerful. She poses erotically as she performs killing blows on her enemies. She summons demons fully naked, making the most ridiculous and sexy stances in the game. Everything about Bayonetta reflects over-the-top female sexuality that startles, shocks, and impresses its viewers. Her hair-woven outfit and appearance in general match her abundant sexiness in her speech and actions. Unlike many other female character designs that have no business being sexual, Bayonetta’s design encompasses her sexuality in all aspects of her person: her outfit, her personality, her behavior, and her gameplay (more on that later). She has agency – the ability to create and change – over her sexuality and revels in it, using it as a means to portray who she is as a person. If you take away her sexiness, Bayonetta would cease to be Bayonetta.

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In both of Bayonetta’s games, she exhibits her over-sexualization in two media: cutscenes and gameplay. Both produce different iterations of Bayonetta, as the prolonged cutscenes are more blatantly sexual than the gameplay, but the latter produces many instances of Bayonetta flaunting her body, triggered by the player’s choice in attack. I will discuss both separately in order to further argue my case that Bayonetta has the ability to create and change her own over-sexuality.

Bayonetta in Cutscenes

When you are first introduced to Bayonetta, chances are that you think she is just another over-sexualized female character in gaming. You load Bayonetta 2 and start the story by watching the first cinematic cutscene of the game. You see Bayonetta in a fancy shopping outfit strolling down the sidewalk, when a fighter jet barrels towards her. She stops it, leaps on top of another one in midair, and faces the horde of angelic monsters that confront her. They attack, she dodges; but in the process, the angels’ weapons tear away her outfit, presenting her in the middle of the sky fully naked (luckily, shading prevents the game from being pornography). She then summons her hair to wrap around her nude body, creating her outfit (yes, it is made out of her hair) as she poses dramatically. She then proceeds to destroy the angels in a series of sexy and over-the-top attacks before the game drops you into gameplay.

Bayonetta’s cutscenes are, to put it mildly, absurd.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.39.51 PM.png

If players manage to survive the opening cutscene, then they realize Bayonetta’s over-sexualization definitely earns the word “over.” Bayonetta performs ridiculous stunts, flying through hell on a giant demonic horse, avoiding weapons by spreading her legs, or participating in a sexy posing contest with an enemy angel. She may perform her actions in sexual ways, but everything happens so fast and so outrageously that it leaves one in utter surprise rather than in sexual pleasure. Bayonetta will summon a demon and slap an angel’s behind in the same scene, and the player can barely process all the images and what they imply. The over-sexualization of the opening scene is mainly for shock value: the combination of the presentation and subject material makes it hard for the viewer to take everything seriously. Bayonetta’s sexuality is less for visual pleasure than for people to stop and question what they just saw, to rethink the entire situation that Bayonetta is in. This is especially true if you play the game for the first time and have never seen the cutscenes. Bayonetta’s over-sexualization is so absurd and over-the-top that it becomes comical – it is nonsensical shock-value entertainment. Even when players watch the cutscenes and Bayonetta’s poses for the third or fourth time, nothing gets old; it’s still fascinating how Bayonetta creates an extravagant show out of her own sexuality.

Bayonetta in Game Design

People are sometimes rightfully frustrated with female characters in video games because of their narrative placement: that is, when a woman appears in the narrative and what she does to impact the story. Many women appear in DLC, or in no gameplay at all–they are there to help, but are never fully playable. They are in the game to be rescued, to help the main protagonist but never accomplish anything by themselves, or for the infamous factor of sex appeal. This kind of representation of women becomes more frustrating when the designers decide to sexualize female characters that are crucial to the narrative. For example, Kaine from Nier is not playable at all and shows up to assist the protagonist Nier most of the time. She[6] is important to the story, but her apparent lack of agency over her own story (she gets possessed by a monster at one point, and it’s up to the player whether she lives or dies) can be very disheartening for people who want her to have more control in her own narrative. In addition, her skimpy outfit barely covers her body, revealing most of her behind,[7] and greatly contradicts her cold and anger personality (much like Power Girl). Her character placement is frustrating because her lack agency over her own story and her contradictory design, which invites the “male gaze” to mostly “gaze” at her cutscenes. Kaine’s sexualized (and unnecessary) character design and placement makes it seem like she is in the story mainly for the player’s pleasure, and not for a consistent character development.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is the main and most prominent character of her game (it is named after her). Her character placement is the center stage, and the player does most of the action through her character. She is playable 98% of both games,[8] and, more importantly, she is the active character of the game. Active characters change the environment and story according to their own will.[9] In the first Bayonetta, she decides to head to the ancient city Vigrid to figure out her past and find her lost memories. Without spoiling anything, in the end she reclaims who she is as a person and fights for both what’s right and for the safety of the world. In Bayonetta 2, she decides to venture into Inferno itself, ignoring the improbability of survival in order to save her near-dead best friend Jeanne. She rekindles relationships with many characters and saves the world in the process, again. In the first Bayonetta, the plot revolves around her self-discovery and asserting her right to live, and in the second Bayonetta, the plot follows her selfless adventure to save her one true friend. She is not a side character present in order to assist the protagonist, nor is she unessential to the plot. The narrative would not exist without her taking charge, without her deciding her own fate, and without her overcoming all obstacles with the strength and willpower of her one-woman army.

Not only does she direct the game’s story (as a well-designed character should do) by making her own decisions and changing the course of the narrative, but Bayonetta has also become one of the most powerful figures in video games. This is important because, as I have stated before, many women who are sexualized are portrayed as weak compared to other characters (protagonists especially) in the story. On the other hand, Bayonetta is ridiculously strong and is arguably the strongest character in the game. In terms of gameplay, Bayonetta has one of the most fluid and powerful combo systems containing a large variety of options that never make the gameplay dull. She acquires different weapons that can pair with other weapons to form even more combos. These weapons range from sharp and deadly swords to a giant hammer, from ice skates to whips, and from a living scythe to a bulky grenade launcher. Every weapon has a unique demon that Bayonetta can summon either if the player uses the right attack combination or if the player initiates umbra Climax, a mode in Bayonetta 2 in which Bayonetta’s attacks increase in magical strength. In this mode, Bayonetta manifests larger versions of her normal attacks and can summon her large personal demons more easily. Everything on screen explodes in purple magic with Bayonetta glowing, and the players gets a rushing sense of exhilaration. They can feel her magical power whenever they destroy a fleet of angels with her giant, demonic punches, and they can feel the true strength of an Umbra witch when they annihilate a boss as big as battleship. The player feels powerful through Bayonetta, that they, through her, can conquer any obstacle standing in the way. Cutscenes may show off some of Bayonetta’s fighting power in sexy and comical ways, but players get real understanding of her ridiculous and amazing strength through gameplay. Her combos and demonic summons demonstrate the full force of an Umbra Witch, a being who is not to be trifled with.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.40.07 PM.png

To top it off, Bayonetta incorporates her sexiness in all of her gameplay. Some attack combos have Bayonetta perform acrobatic stunts, which she finishes with dramatic and flirtatious poses. For example, when Bayonetta attacks with her “breakdance” move, she spins around on the ground, shooting bullets in a whirlwind that does great damage to nearby enemies. She stops this attack by lying on the ground with her behind in the air, arching her back and winking directly at the camera (breaking the 4th wall). Torture attacks are special summons that produce great damage or instantly kill enemies. When she summons them, Bayonetta usually performs another sexy pose; for example she can summon a tombstone to flatten enemies, and when the heavy stone lands, she squats with her knees spread and makes a face, all like she is posing for the camera (the flattened enemy is behind her). The funniest are the punish attacks, where she will sit on top of a fallen enemy and slap them to death, usually on their butt. It is highly sexual and creates the picture of Bayonetta as a dominatrix; yet the player prompts Bayonetta to use her punish attacks because they are incredibly efficient in dealing with enemies, not just because they are sexy.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.40.21 PM.png

The most sexually revealing of Bayonetta’s attacks are her demonic summons, yet they are the most spectacular parts of the game. Bayonetta summons her large inferno demons at the end of mini boss fights, boss fights, after certain attack combos, or during umbra Climax in Bayonetta 2. She can call forth beasts such as Gomorrah, a dragon, Diomedes, a Unicorn whose horn is a giant sword, and the infamous Madame Butterfly, her personal female demon whose limbs Bayonetta summons the most for fighting. The witch even uses her to fight against an equally strong opponent angel, resulting in an grand aerial battle between Bayonetta and a Lumen Sage in the foreground (the fight the player controls) and between the giants of Madame Butterfly and the angel Temperantia in the background. Demonic beasts encompass the entire screen, finishing off other large enemies with ease. In order to summon such monsters, Bayonetta uses her hair; her hair, though, is what makes up her clothing, so in order to summon demons, Bayonetta has to be naked. It is a little startling when a player first summons Madame Butterfly’s fist and Bayonetta appears nearly naked on the screen. It is not complete nudity: gray shading covers her breasts, stomach, vagina, and behind, but she still does not wear any clothes. She will appear like this in regular combat, whereas in cutscenes she will be naked, but with her hair blocking anything inappropriate. When she summons demons for a grand finisher, her nakedness is more suggestive as the gray shading is no longer present and only weaves of hair cover her private areas. It is over-sexual to the extreme: the over-the-top, ridiculous, and absurd nature of Bayonetta’s near-nudity adds even more to the shock value of game, making players ask whether if what they saw on screen really happened. Playing as Bayonetta gives the player a whirlwind of initial confusion and shock, but it never deters from the thrill of overpowering enemies by summoning a giant canine to tear them to shreds.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.40.36 PM.png

Bayonetta’s attacks are graceful and powerful, exhibiting the female body throughout the gameplay. Her moves mean business, and that’s what is so great about Bayonetta. She is over-sexualized, but she defeats her enemies with overwhelming strength. She fights legions of both Paradiso and Inferno, angels and demons, minions and giant bosses, and still is able to pull a dramatic pose at the end of fighting. Her prominent display of her feminine body is empowering; in art media, the female body is usually presented as sign of weakness – something undesirable for the self to become – or as sexual interest – something desirable for the self to possess. Bayonetta demonstrates through her gameplay that having a female body does not make a person any less powerful: that one can have sexy breasts or a sexy behind and still defeat any enemy that comes one’s way. She proves that the female body is not a sign of weakness but of strength, because she accepts the body she was given and is proud of it.

Conclusion

Bayonetta’s agency of her over-sexualization makes her a wonderful female character. Many female characters have no agency at all, making their visual design mismatch their personality and behavior, thereby creating bad character design. With many fictional female characters – whether in movies, TV shows, animation, comics, or video games – female sexuality is present for the spectators, and not for the woman herself. She is sexy for the appeal of the audience, but not for her own tastes and pleasure. Bayonetta, however, fully enjoys her over-sexualization and professes it to the world, which is apparent in both cutscenes and gameplay. Who would perform sexy poses while in the midst of battle if they did not love their own body? She has full agency over her entire character – she owns her outfit, her sexiness, her personality, her narrative actions (meaning decisions she makes within the story),[10] and her goals, and nothing stops her from believing in herself, sexiness and all. Her sexiness does not make up her entire character, either: she is courageous, witty, commanding, headstrong, and compassionate for her friends and family. Bayonetta is not a character who only has a game to exhibit her undying sexiness: she is there to teach her enemies a lesson and display real emotions at the same time. Looking sexy while doing it is just a good bonus. Bayonetta exemplifies that it is okay for a woman to be sexy if the woman wants to be sexy; you can have characters with sexy breasts, a sexy butt, and a sexy personality, and that’s fine as long as the characters are okay with it. This applies to both fictional characters and real people, male and female. Yes, it would be outstanding to have a female character who is just as powerful, prominent, and successful as Bayonetta without the intense over-sexualization; but I, a straight woman, do enjoy Bayonetta’s abundant sexiness because, for once, she also enjoys her own sexiness and celebrates it for her own sake.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.40.50 PM.png

Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/10/femme-doms-of-videogames-bayonetta-doesnt-care-if.html

[2] Feminist Film Studies, to be precise.

[3] https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/bayonetta-and-the-male-gaze/

[4] The original post and the huge discussion it caused: http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583. Another video explaining the pose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf5SdrJoOdc

[5] The only reason I had any problem with the pose is because Tracer had no butt to show off – it’s non-existent and looks weird to me.

[6] Kaine is a hermaphrodite, but most people use she/her pronouns to describe her.

[7] I understand the argument for why she reveals most her skin – that she must expose the most skin to sunlight in order to control the monster possessing her – but it’s still shady. It is also in great contrast to her cold, calm, and shy personality.

[8] The other 2% you play as Jeanne, her best friend, and Loki, an important side character.

[9] For more on active and passive characters: http://readingwithavengeance.com/post/77195680492/on-writing-active-vs-passive-characters

[10] As a video game avatar, Bayonetta cannot completely control her actions: her fighting and traveling is in the hands of the player. But in terms of her crucial decisions and how she responds to certain events, Bayonetta has control.

Why 3 disks were acceptable for Final Fantasy VII, and why 3 games are not for its remake.

“The book I’m looking for […] is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.”[1]

 

I promised as part of With a Terrible Fate‘s one-year anniversary that I would present further analysis on Final Fantasy VII (I’ll be shortening the title to “FFVII” in this paper). With a remake of the game on its way and Cloud newly added to Super Smash Bros. 4, it’s clear that the title is far from outdated, despite being nearly twenty years old.  At the time I made this promise, I was hoping to further analyze the content of FFVII‘s story; however, I’ve come to believe that it’s currently more important to discuss Square Enix’s announcement that FFVII‘s remake will be released as “a multi-part series,” as opposed to as a single game.

Just as most people who play video games have an opinion on FFVII, most people who are following news on the remake have an opinion on this choice to develop it episodically. I want to write about this decision because I think I have two unusual perspectives to contribute to the topic. First, I ended up changing my mind on whether this was a prudent development choice. Second, I think this case actually provides crucial insight into the ontology of video game worlds, and how this ontology intersects with the way that video game narratives work. Accordingly, I’m going to first tell the story of the way my view on the issue changed over time, and then I’m going to present my argument for why I now believe the developers are probably making the wrong choice. If all goes well, I’ll say something interesting about the general form of video game stories along the way.

(Please note that, as always, spoilers abound.)

I. Wrestling with Narrative Form

I think it’s fair to say that the first, “pre-theoretic” response that many people have when developers announce substantial changes in remakes of beloved games is that the changes are a terrible mistake. Maybe, on some level, the response is both intuitive and defensible: “After all,” the fan might say, “the reason why the game was so well-received in the first place was because it worked. If the developer changes the game, they’ll ruin what made it special all along.” But of course, this isn’t always the case, for the game almost certainly wasn’t “perfect” (whatever that means) to begin with—and besides, the point of a remake is, in part, to make changes to the original game. So if we find ourselves with this initial intuition, we need to seek out reasons why the particular change in question might be detrimental to the particular game in question. As someone who did feel the initial rage at Square Enix’s announcement that the FFVII remake would be episodic in form, I set about seeking out such reasons.

I’ll confess that I don’t normally endorse episodically structured video games, but my hope was that there was a more principled reason behind my worries concerning FFVII. I decided that this reason was justified doubt in Square Enix: even though the studio is rightly renowned for some exceptional games (including FFVII), their track record in the past few years has been less than stellar. Case-in-point for our present concerns is the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy: Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Though a comprehensive critique of the trilogy is well beyond the scope of this paper, one criticism that I have shared with many other gamers is that the three games, taken together, have very little semblance of any compelling, unified narrative. Whatever you may say about each of the three titles taken individually, it seems almost impossible to reconcile their stories, themes, and even characters with one another when you consider the games as a comprehensive trilogy. The saga of Lightning &co challenging the Fal’cie in XIII has little in principle to do with the saga of Noel, Caius, and Yeul, which dominates the narrative of XIII-2; and if anyone can offer me a reasoned argument as to how Lightning Returns has anything to do with XIII and XIII-2 besides reusing character names and some visual assets, I’d love to hear it.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

Pictured: Lightning, Serah, and a Moogle that is somehow integral to the plot of the FFXIII trilogy.

As I said, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the FFXIII trilogy is outside the scope of this article.[2] Suffice it to say, I initially took the problems of that series as sufficient grounds to worry about Square Enix releasing FFVII’s remake as a trilogy. However, I ended up changing my mind when I reconsidered an obvious fact about FFVII: it was originally released as a set of three disks of game content.

When I had first considered FFVII, I hadn’t thought that its separation into three disks mattered. I assumed that the fact that the original game took place over three disks was nothing more than a technological limitation of its platform, the PlayStation 1: the game simply had more content than could fit on a single disk, but it was still just one game. But then I realized that this wasn’t quite fair to Square: technological limitations aside, they had actually done quite an impressive job of making the separation between the game’s three disks narratively meaningful. Disk #1 concludes with most of the most famously shocking and final deaths in the history of video game stories: the death of Aerith, a romantic interest of Cloud and the last of the magical Cetra race. Disk #2 ends with the player’s party killing Hojo, the creator and father of Sephiroth. Both of these moments pivotally influence the overall trajectory of the game: the death of Aerith hangs over Cloud and his friends for the rest of the game, and largely shapes the events of the game as well as Cloud’s growth; and the death of Hojo paves the way for the final confrontation with Sephiroth on Disk #3.

Sephiroth and Aerith

The famous moment at the end of Disk 1 when Sephiroth kills Aerith.

Perhaps because it was conceived as a single game rather than the three games of the XIII trilogy, FFVII masterfully divided itself into three narratively distinct, potent, interconnected segments on its three disks.[3] Once I contemplated this, I started to think that a three-game remake of FFVII could actually work quite well.(Because this seems like the most plausible defense of how to break the game up in a remake, I’m going to assume for the rest of the article that FFVII will be remade as three games, although Square Enix has only said, to my knowledge, that it will be a “multi-part” remake.) After all, if Square Enix expanded each of the original disks to fill an entire game, perhaps adding more content while keeping the overall narrative arc the same as in the original, then it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose that the narrative progression through the three games would be just as cogent and well crafted as the narrative progression through the original FFVII’s three disks.

–well, “it seemed perfectly reasonable” at the time. I no longer believe that the three-disk success of the original FFVII justifies it being remade as a three-game series. Moreover, understanding the reason why FFVII shouldn’t be transposed into a trilogy sheds light on one of the many ways in which the player’s agency in videogame worlds directly influences the way videogame stories work.

II. Player Causality and Narrative Teleology

I’m going to argue that, because of the ways game worlds and game narratives function, it is inappropriate for FFVII to be remade as three standalone games. The argument depends on two more general claims about the dynamics of video game stories. Although I take both claims to be intuitively plausible, I’ll offer some arguments in further support of each of them.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

 

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

 

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. If I’m right, then FFVII falls into that very set, and that, I shall argue, explains why it ought not to be separated into three distinct games.

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearing to interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.[4]

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games (FFVII is one of these), the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative.[5] As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)

More specifically, I think that the consequence we just drew provides the theoretical foundation for a very common narrative structure in role-playing games (especially JRPGs): the game concludes with the entire universe being metaphysically changed forever—essentially, one world ends and another begins. Oftentimes, a RPG narrative will culminate in a confrontation with some god-like figure; upon defeating him or her, the structure of the universe will be irrevocably changed (hopefully, for the better). So in a certain sense, the narratives of these games are intrinsically apocalyptic: they lead to the end of one world, and the start of something else. As Calvino beautifully writes in the quote I’ve taken as an epigraph for this paper, “the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world.” This is a natural way to marry the widespread impact of the player’s causal power with the narrative significance of that impact: tell a story in which that causal power actually brings about the end of the game’s universe in one way or another.

We can think of narratives that fit this quasi-apocalyptic structure has having a special kind of narrative teleology: that is, the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. That this is a feature of how the game is designed underscores the fact that this narrative teleology is not something that the player alone has the power to bring about—rather, game stories are made in such a way that the player’s power within the universe is made meaningful through this apocalyptic storytelling. I underscore this to make the point that this narrative teleology is by no means an essential feature of how video game stories work: it’s just one possible design choice that is especially intuitive and appealing as a means of respecting Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent—and I have argued that those three claims are much more generally applicable to video games as a storytelling medium.

Games that espouse this narrative teleology constitute an interesting type of narrative because they are so common in modern gaming and because they all respect Claim 1, Claim 2, and the consequent in (roughly) the same way. And such games are very common. Let me offer a brief selection of examples to give readers a sense of what I mean. (Again, and especially because this narrative teleology largely involves the ends of games, spoilers abound.) In Xenoblade Chronicles, the actions of the player’s party (and Shulk, in particular) culminate in the killing of a god, the destruction of the game’s universe, and the creation of a new universe. Dark Souls culminates in the player’s avatar killing Gwyn, who had used his own soul to perpetuate the world’s Age of Fire; thus, killing him threatens to end the Age of Fire, at which point the player must choose to either sacrifice her avatar to perpetuate the Age of Fire, or else let the fires die out and usher in the Age of Dark. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker leads to a fated battle between Link (the player’s avatar) and Ganondorf, which culminates in the ancient land of Hyrule being buried in the sea by the King of Hyrule—once Ganondorf is defeated and Hyrule lies buried, Link and his companion Tetra set out to find New Hyrule—a “new world,” for all intents and purposes. I could go on, but my hope is that those who play video games recognize the narrative I’m picking out as fairly standard for many modern video games.

Meteor

Holy and the Lifestream stopping Meteor.

What’s important for our current purposes is that FFVII also fits into this category of narrative teleology. On one level, the story of FFVII is a struggle to prevent the antagonist, Sephiroth, from radically reshaping the game’s universe by unleashing Meteor on the planet and subsequently merging with the planet’s energy (which would gather at the point of Meteor’s impact in order to heal the planet) to become a god. Ultimately, the player, controlling Cloud, is able to defeat Sephiroth—both preventing Sephiroth from becoming a god and preventing the full force of Meteor’s impact by releasing Holy—a spell that Aerith had cast, and that Sephiroth had been preventing from taking effect—which combines with

Midgar Healed

The ruins of Midgar, 500 years after Meteorfall.

the spiritual force of the plant’s Lifestream to stop Meteor. Meteor still damages the planet—it reduces most of the city of Midgar to rubble—but the game’s final scene, five hundred years after the party’s confrontation with Sephiroth, shows that the planet ultimately healed. Through the party’s actions, the world of the game is replaced with a different world: the world post-Meteorfall. The party’s (and player’s) struggle against Sephiroth permanently changes the structure of the game’s universe, which satisfies the analysis of narrative teleology that I have laid out.

 

What does this have to do with an argument against a multi-game release of a FFVII remake? Well, if the two claims and the consequent that I initially laid out all hold, and if FFVII really does respect those parameters of storytelling by invoking the conception of narrative teleology with which I have been working, then (I submit) the singular game of FFVII can’t be remade into three separate games while still representing essentially the same story.

My reasoning here is as follows. FFVII makes meaning out of the player’s actions by telling a narrative about a global cataclysm, the defeat of that cataclysm’s instigator, and the new universe that results from these two events. This follows from the consequent of Claims 1 and 2—i.e. the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative—and the game’s narrative teleology—i.e. the entire world of the game is designed in such a way that the player’s causal influence drives the world towards its conclusion. In order for this structure to work, the causal force of the player’s actions must seamlessly persist over the entirety of the game’s narrative—otherwise, the player’s actions won’t have the sort of universal influence required for the sort of story that the game is telling. This seamlessness can easily be effected by separating a single game into three disks—the switching between disks is little more than the videogame equivalent of turning the page in a book, and, as I’ve already mentioned, these “page turns” are made even more meaningful in FFVII because they happen at pivotal points in the story. However, the seamlessness is lost when the game is divided into multiple games. This is so because of two reasons.

First, it’s implausible to suppose that the causal influence of a player extends across multiple games, such that the very same actions made by a player in one game directly influence the world of another game. In part, this is because the storytelling of any given game seems primarily designed to be limited to that game’s world and no others (something that I address further below); but it’s also because it is oxymoronic to design a game that both stands on its own and is a direct extension of a different game.

Mass Effect

Wait a minute…

The reader might be ready to object, “But what about the Mass Effect trilogy?” However, that trilogy is actually the perfect example of what I’m talking about. Despite its many virtues and the fact that it does try to continue a singular story across three games, no one would argue that the transition between the three games is as seamless as inserting the next disc in a single, multi-disc game. The later games do of course note certain aspects of a player’s playthrough of the earlier games, but this process does not preserve the entire state of the prior game’s universe. For example, much content, rather than being directly preserved between games, is “translated” in some way: if you start Mass Effect 2 using a Mass-Effect-1 character that was between level 1 and 49, then you begin Mass Effect 2 at level 2, with 20,000 credits, and 2,500 of each resource. This is not the sort of literally direct continuation of story that’s required to preserve all the effects of player actions throughout the universe of a narrative. But it’s of course perfectly reasonable that Mass Effect is designed this way: after all, even though the trilogy is meant to convey a single narrative, each game is also a stand-alone title, which is precisely my point: you can’t release a stand-alone game and say that it is literally just an additional part of an existing game. It needs to be playable on its own terms. This is why, for example, Mass Effect 2 (prior to the Mass Effect Trilogy collection) had to include Mass Effect: Genesis: this was an interactive comic allowing the player to make the principal choices that Mass Effect 2 was designed to carry over from Mass Effect 1. In order for Mass Effect 2 to be its own game, it needed to be playable without necessarily presupposing that the player had played the original Mass Effect—and this is what Mass Effect: Genesis accomplished. This is wildly different from a multi-disk game, which of course presupposes on each later disk that the player has played the prior disks. In fact, on multi-disk games like FFVII, there’s no way (without hacking the game or something like that) to play the later disks without playing through the earlier disks sequentially and thereby reaching the later disc. “Skipping” Disk 1 and playing Disk 2 in the way that one could ostensibly “skip” the original Mass Effect and play Mass Effect 2 (though that isn’t recommended) isn’t really possible within the constraints of the narrative.

The second reason why the narrative seamlessness needed for a game like FFVII can’t be achieved through multiple games is that each individual game needs its own narrative responding to the constraints of Claim 1, Claim 2, and their consequent, which opposes the possibility for multiple games to work together as mere components of a single, larger game narrative. If I am right and the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as the player causally impacts it, is essential to the game’s narrative, then video games will be aimed (at least partly) towards making their own universes meaningful. In order for a game to do this while retaining a sense of cohesion in its narrative, the game’s story must address the totality of its universe on its own terms—that is to say, the game’s narrative must not stretch beyond its own universe. For to do otherwise would be to make a game whose narrative focuses on a universe other than the game itself, and it’s not obvious why or how a narrative could address something other than its own universe.

If we accept this argument, then it looks as if video games really do need to each be concerned with their own particular world. I think that the landscape of modern video games reinforces the truth of this observation: even in series of games, each member of the series is directly concerned with its own world—other members of the series are only relevant insofar as their events relate to the world of the particular game in consideration. While Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time both nominally take place in Hyrule, the narrative of Twilight Princess is not concerned with Hyrule as conceived in Ocarina of Time—and indeed, Ganondorf only becomes relevant once he appears in the world of Twilight Princess, irrespective of his presence in Ocarina of Time. And returning to the example of FFXIII, I actually think the trilogy does quite well with demonstrating the need for each game to be principally concerned with its own world: the worlds of FFXIII, FFXIII-2, and Lightning Returns are very different from one another. In fact, I think this is part of why the trilogy, when taken as a single narrative, fails to be compelling: each entry is so different from one another in virtue of the very different worlds that it feels confusing and disingenuous when the games lead us to believe that these are really the same characters who exist across the three games. The narrative arcs of the three games are so distinct that attempts to tie them together fail, which further demonstrates the tension between developing independent games and trying to make them part of a single narrative.

Lightning posing as Cloud

Pictured: the main character of Lightning Returns trying to distract you from the game by pretending to be Cloud.

My hope is that it is now evident why remaking FFVII into three games is not at all similar to the original game being split across three disks. When we stop to consider just what world-building and player agency mean in the context of video game narratives, we realize that it fundamentally doesn’t make sense to separate one game into three. I should note, however, one other possibility raised by previously Featured Author Dan Hughes: Square Enix could conceivably take a broader swath of the FFVII oeuvre—say, Crisis Core, FFVII, and Advent Children—and remake that collection of material as a trilogy. I don’t see any problem in principle with such an approach. And of course, if the remake ends up simply being some sort of reimagining or retelling of the FFVII series, then such a new story could have exciting. However, if the goal, as has been suggested, is to remake just FFVII‘s narrative as a trilogy of games, we have a problem—and I worry for the future of a true classic in the pantheon of gaming, when it seems as if a remake could turn that classic into a lesson in the limits and constraints on game narrative.

Cloud Strife

[1] Ludmilla in If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, Chapter Ten.

[2] I actually do think that XIII-2, in particular, has a lot of redeeming features as a standalone narrative—but that’s a story for another time.

[3] In fact, further evidence for the fact that FFVII’s three-disk split only worked so well because it was conceived as a single game can be found by considering the FFVII oeuvre collectively. FFVII’s overarching story—spanning other games (Dirge of Cerberus; Crisis Core; Before Crisis), a movie (Advent Children), an OVA (Last Order), and a novella (On the Way to a Smile)—is famously intricate and confounding to try to grasp in its entirety.

[4] In certain “less clear-cut cases,” I think that you need to stipulate the player as a causal force in the game’s universe in order to make sense of the game’s narrative at all. I won’t belabor the point here, but you can see examples of this in my analyses of Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade, and BioShock Infinite.

[5] I discuss this determinacy relation in a paper on Dishonored.