I Don't Want To Save the World
I don’t want to be the chosen one. I don’t want to get the girl. I don’t want to make kingdoms rise and fall on my whim. I don’t want to dictate who lives and dies. Most of all, I don’t want to save the world.
I want small moments instead; they mean more to me. Getting stood up at dinner. Figuring out how to deal with a student that’s being bullied. Deciding whether or not you’re going to use the swingset or toss a ball with your son. Perhaps, even, dealing with the death of a parent. Hey, that’s an actual game! Well, actually, all of these are. But, we’ll get to this specific game–Winter Voices–a bit later, after I explain my rationale a bit.
Basically, I don’t want games to act as an extension of masturbation. Wish fulfillment. Escapism. ‘Power fantasies‘, as Leigh Alexander would put it. Frankly, I’m tired of it. I want something new, something that challenges the entitlement we experience as players–the power that comes with god-like control. Perhaps then, choice and morality would actually mean something, instead of being just another thing you have have authority over. Perhaps then, relationships with other characters can feel more genuine–they are not simply pawns that we can manipulate how we see fit. Perhaps then, I’d be put in my place–and this could be a valuable experience.
I think back on that now that I’m playing through Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. Day 3 happens, and an immortal demon called Beldr arrives and is slated to kill us all at a predetermined time and place. Of course we happen to find the singular item that will slay the supposedly immortal being (not really a spoiler, considering the game takes place over 7 days and so it would follow that you do not die on the 3rd day). My party rejoiced, only to find out there’s three or four other beings like him. Of course, they’re supposed to be crazier and more powerful (than an immortal being?) and we have to take them out if we want to survive.
No problem. ……right?
Not that I resent the game for throwing such a premise at me–most games position themselves around the idea of going against impossible odds–but, there’s this underlying uneasiness about it all. Three days in, we’re slaying mythological, all-powerful immortal beings? It’s the same feeling I get when games try to mitigate all the SUPER COOL AWESOME powers they give you by throwing a million enemies at you at the same time (Fable 3, Dragon Age 2, I’m looking at you). Am I supposed to feel empowered by this all? Because most of the time, I feel emptiness instead.
After all, I’m just playing the badass of the group of badasses that do badass things–again. How is this sort of power supposed to feel thrilling when it is the norm? Yes, within the context of the game, it might make sense: say, in the Witcher, it’s your job to kill mythological creatures. And, ultimately, the game has to show that you’ve progressed and gained power somehow, right? But what does power mean to us, as players, when it’s a given in almost every game we play? What does that power become except mindless vapidity, yet another privilege we are granted in our voyage to become Orpheus, Zeus or Ares?
It’s with this mindset that I read about criticisms of DA2’s lack of “epic scope” (saving the world, being a part of the elite grey-wardens, etc) with a tinge of annoyance. Really? That’s a fault now? Why? It’s one thing to criticize the aimlessness of the game–I can see that, though I do not prescribe to it. Being a daughter of an immigrant family in the US, I know that going to a faraway, unknown land with the purpose of “making it” is every bit as amorphous as presented in the game, even though, yes, the game stops being about that fairly quickly. Shame! Like the folks over at RPS, I would have liked to play “that” game.
Games shouldn’t all have to be about saving the day, or saving the world. I don’t understand why that is a marker of validation, why that is a neccesity for gamers to feel that a game is worth their time. Games can be about smaller, more intimate things. You don’t have to wrap something like achievement in a grand scope, you don’t have to make players god reincarnate for them to become engaged. One of the most interesting games to have come out in the last few years has to be Winter Voices–a game whose premise is to get over your father’s death. That’s it. You’re not stopping some crazy impending doom. You’re not the descendant of a mythological god. You’re not killing death itself. You’re just…choosing how to best deal with the death of a loved one.
Normally something like that sounds like some fancy art game that, well, barely classifies as a game. Actually, Winter Voices has the underpinnings of a typical tactical RPG–XP, battles and all. Your “class” is the type of person that you are, reflects how you deal with obstacles such as grief–do you make light of it all? Do memories haunt you, eat you alive? There’s a class for those, respectively. Your skills–Humor, Will Power, Memory, Perspicacity, Charisma and Intuition–determine what kind of ‘build’ you take. And while yes, these can be thought of as traditional HP/SP/etc frameworks, they also have a higher metaphorical significance–again, you’re defining what type of person you are. You further pronounce what type of person you are via the skill tree–where you can give yourself skills like “emptiness”(halfs HP, buffs absorption), “imaginary friend” (a summon), consolation (allows you to gain energy), resignation (increases damage, but ups your energy) amongst other skills.
Now, I’m a typically a huge perfectionist when it comes to character builds. It’s actually the reason I can’t play New Vegas anymore, even though the new DLC is pretty damn good. I have playing New Vegas down to such a science–my character is so terrifyingly good at everything–that it’s no longer any fun for me. I play Persona by plotting out what the most optimal schedule for maxing out everyone’s social link by the end of the game. Winter Voices, however, snapped me out of that habit. Partially, it’s because there’s no technical ‘optimal way’ to go about playing the game. Partially, it’s because…it’s not about winning, or being efficient at all. Hell, you can be “counterproductive” and still get getting at ‘the point’; that is, exploring ways in which one may deal with grief. Do I want to go all emotional and harness my emptiness and cynicism? That’s possible. Do I want to hold my head up high and not let anything get to me? That’s possible. It’s not so much about finding the most viable build inasmuch as it is about…roleplaying. And, until Winter Voices I had never found a compelling reason to impose certain rules on the type of character I was going to play in an effort to make the game more interesting than it inherently is.
The game goes further than that, though. Battles themselves are manifestations of memories. And, that makes more sense than a million random bandits that attack you in the world map of, say, Tales of Vesperia. You might be taking a walk somewhere in Winter Voices and something small will trigger a powerful memory. Suddenly you find yourself trying to hold on, to persevere despite an onslaught of metaphorical pain. That wording is key, too–holding on or persevering, I mean–because often times you simply have to escape or survive, not necessarily defeat anything. Battles take on more meaning this way, too–they have actual, personal significance. To add another metaphorical layer to the mix, the higher memory you have, the more difficult the battles are. This seems particularly apt because, the more intelligent and self aware your character is, the more painful memories might become: your foothold on realism can mean that you are particularly harsh on yourself. You over analyze things. You rationalize everything. Memories can eat you alive.
It’s certainly not the best game. I won’t say that. But it’s an interesting game, and you don’t have to save the world to enjoy it. Besides, how can saving the world possibly remain fulfilling or interesting when you do it every time you boot up a new game?