So. I have some thoughts about videogames I’ve played recently, specifically smaller narrative-centric games colloquially named “walking simulators”.
This post is going to dive into the internal narratives and conclusions for several games, so
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR:
- Shadow of the Colossus
- Spec Ops: The Line
- What Remains of Edith Finch
- Stories Untold
- Her Story
Okay, let’s go. I like videogames that play with the idea of player morality, and the gray morals of the things you’re doing. Spec Ops: The Line gets this right, as does Shadow of the Colossus.
But, games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Stories Untold don’t.
and I’ve been trying to find the right words for why they don’t, what about them that’s rubbing me wrong, and, I think it’s about complicity.
In Spec Ops, the end is that you find out that you were hallucinating the whole time. This objective you’ve sought the whole time is a fabrication of yourself, and you have done serious, awful things in your pursuit of this ending. The game even says to you “You wanted to be the hero, so you kept going.”
It was a great subversion of what it meant to consume a videogame.
Shadow of the Colossus does much the same - killing the Colossi is about achieving a goal, but, by the end, has some dark consequences for everyone. But you chose, as the player. The player made those choices, to do those things.
In What Remains of Edith Finch and Stories Untold, the frame the game presents is that the events have already happened, and we’re effectively playing a flashback. On the face of it, this is fine.
But what changes in these games as compared to Spec Ops: The Line is that you can’t choose to stop. The way the events are framed, stopping is not an option. Everything has already happened.
So, by making the player replay the actions, as in Stories Untold where you play a text adventure game that describes in detail how you got into a drunk driving car crash and framed someone else for it, as the player you know that everything coming up is wrong, and you don’t want to perform those actions.
It’s not things that you did that have been revealed, it’s things that you are now complicit in the re-enacting.
The same happens in What Remains of Edith Finch. One of the early vignettes has you playing a small girl sent to bed without dinner, and in her raw hunger you, the player, are forced to eat something that, as the player, you know is poisonous, to proceed.
Or the scene where I had to swing hard enough to launch a small boy off a cliff.
Or where I was complicit in divorcing a man from reality. In this one I was repeatedly shouting at the screen about the incompetence of the psychologist narrating the scene.
And that forced complicity really doesn’t jive with me. It’s not a subversion of the stereotypes, such as in Shadow of the Colossus, or the sudden reveal of a ludonarrative dissonance1, such as in Spec Ops: The Line. Instead, there’s the disgust of doing something you know is wrong, that you never had control over, and there being no other choice.
That this is, well, it.
I think this contrasts well with Her Story, another game about tragic and horrible things happening in the past. In this game, you’re uncovering a woman, or maybe twins, conspiring to murder their husband. In gameplay terms the same outcome is created, that as the player I Know What Happened.
But in narrative terms, I’m not complicit in creating the outcome, not forced to re-enact as though I am performing those actions. I’m experiencing the reveal of act, but it’s not me who acted. I’m watching interview tapes of something that’s happened, while still participating in Knowing What Happened.
It comes down to the were versus are separation of the player’s actions. I performed those actions, and now it’s revealed that I was doing awful things. I am performing awful actions, and I know it, and I don’t want to.
I don’t want to have done the things, but now I have. It was the only path forwards, but I chose to kept going in spite of my misgivings.
I don’t want to do the things, yet the only path forwards is to do so, even though I already know what happens, but now I’m complicit in spite of my objections.
To use the fancy word I picked up and liked a lot from Folding Ideas, I don’t like the diegesis2 of it. Outside the diegesis, I know that the events have already happened because they were written and built by the authors. It exists, the choices are made, the story is already written and I am by my nature as a player participating in it and complicit in its outcomes. I recognise this.
I recognise that the authors are trying to create discomfort, but it still breaks my suspension of disbelief and damages my willingness to continue to consume the story. It strips my agency up front.
And that stripping of my agency is, maybe, the crux of it. That it takes the medium of games, that a narrative that can be meaningfully impacted by player interactions, and then strips it away. This by itself would be fine! Her Story also presents a story that is fixed, but the other half of games, that gameplay gives you its own narrative, is still present. How you consume the videos and the path you take gives you a unique take on the tale. You have agency around your own understanding.
For What Remains of Edith Finch or Stories Untold, the only aspect of game-ness is using that complicity to create a forced discomfort that other media would struggle to reach. They strip away agency over the story itself, as well as agency over the gameplay narrative.
What Remains of Edith Finch was rated as one of the best games of 2017, it won Best Narrative in 2017, but I’m not going to remember the story or the themes or the writing. None of that touched me, because of the alienation of discomfort. All I remember is that discomfort. All I will remember is that discomfort.
Rock Paper Shotgun recommends Stories Untold. When I remember the story from (at the time of writing) last night, what I remember is “drunk driving bad”, and the alienation of discomfort. Later, I won’t remember the writing or the nuance. All I’ll remember is that discomfort.
You will feel uncomfortable. That’s it.
That’s the experience.