How You Got Videogames Wrong #2: The Vanity Glitch
Pissing you off in installments, the monthly series “How You Got Videogames Wrong” delves beyond appearances into the slimy interior of The God’s Truth (about videogames). This month we’ll be looking at videogame culture’s heavy, though not altogether unhealthy, reliance on sin: in this case, vanity.
After two dozen hours of killing, cussing, and Old West-mythesizing, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption risks it all on a last-act twist:
Oh it’s riveting stuff. You’ll scare off crows…You’ll herd cattle alongside your whiskey-addled “uncle”…You’ll even deliver empty sacks. But as the game’s final missions pile on–and boy will they pile on–you’ll come to realize the following about the player/character relationship between yourself and protagonist John Marston: how you feel about things doesn’t matter anymore. John Marston the object is gone. He’s his own John Marston now.
And if you don’t like it, well, friend, you can get the hell on…
…This is a common dilemma in storytelling, not just in videogames, but in all mediums whose narrative potency is predicated upon interaction (oh let’s not get into that again): how to make things happen that readers, players, and listeners intuitively don’t want to happen. Games, it seems to me, feel the brunt of this dilemma more so than any other medium. Nevertheless, from the slow-burn, family-oriented opening of Heavy Rain, to the slow-die, mushroom-cloud-oriented mid-section of Modern Warfare, videogames keep at it, determined to educate us into getting over ourselves.
Here’s my line of thinking: in 1992, at the age of twelve, I went to see Alien 3, a particularly goofy entry in a series that’s already about a woman battling a walking penis. Brimming with 90s faux-“edge,” the end of the film sees our protagonist diving into a pit of molten lava, in order to…well, it doesn’t really matter. Despite whatever intentions there may have been, film-goers were not happy about this decision, and the box-office reflected their unhappiness. On the one hand, I get it: the ending does seem a little last-ditch (“How do we make people care? Oh I know…we’ll sink her in freaking LAVA!“) But I never heard people complain for that reason…No, people were simply upset that a main character was killed off. That confused me: while Alien 3 had a butt-load of problems, the death of a character at the end was not one of them. Even to my 12-year-old brain it seemed that one’s shock at the death of a character was a proof that one had, at least on some level, connected with said character. The opposite reason is why no one cries foul when a bad guy takes a steam-pipe through the throat: we’ve been trained throughout the course of the movie to not only anticipate his gruesome end, but to desire it.
The older me realizes that there is something even deeper to this: the human brain, geared towards energy efficiency, does not like waste, or what it considers to be waste anyway. What do I mean by “waste” ? I mean that feeling you get when you’ve gone out of your way to be kind to someone who doesn’t even notice, or when hard work doesn’t pay off, though you just knew that it would. When we make predictions that fail, when we invest energy into patterns that go awry, we feel a pain of waste. And that, 2012-Eric realizes, is what happened to Alien 3.
So a prediction goes sour and we call it waste. But what about the opposite, when a pattern goes awry in a positive way? Let’s call it anti-waste, that feeling you get when the fumbling waiter gets your food order totally right, or when a bad date ends in–let’s say–awesome coffee. For me, videogames are at their best when producing narrative anti-waste. Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because most of our interaction in games is grounded in physicality–a (more) literal expenditure of energy, which makes the anti-waste feeling all the more potent. A good writer can make a reader feel breathless, but any mad-scientist developer can toss a hundred enemies onto the screen and exhaust players outright. But perhaps there’s more to it…When we play videogames, though the characters have names and occupations and families that we don’t have; though they appear and talk and die differently; we tend to often, well, take shit personally. Though we’re technically only visiting these virtual worlds, we sometimes, in small ways, slip deeper than we realize.
I mean, it’s not as if your average narrative-based game forces us to take things personally. I mean, pissed-off personally. Nonetheless, we feel a kind of pain when a character becomes something other than us; when he or she goes a direction we don’t want them to…and it’s not (necessarily) a fault of the game. No, it’s a different kind of glitch–one that’s located in us.
But sometimes, just sometimes…games will purposely agitate it.
An example is needed to get us where we need to go. I’ll use Metal Gear Solid, which was the first time I ever noticed the thing-that-has-yet-to-be-named. Here’s the scoop: in the final act, Solid Snake finds himself pitted against a mechwarrior-thing, piloted by none other than Liquid Snake, the central antagonist of the game. Halfway through this battle, Snake is assisted by the Cyborg Ninja, who proceeds to whoop ass cyborg ninja-style until he is incapacitated. It is at this point that the player is given a choice: opening himself to attack, Liquid informs Snake that if he were to strike now–to insert a rocket right into his stupid face–that the battle can be ended. Just like that. Ah but there’s a catch: doing so will kill the Cyborg Ninja, who Snake recently learned is actually his old friend in disguise. And with this information the player resumes control, rocket launcher at the ready, Liquid egging you on. All the player has to do is aim and fire.
It is at this point that the best of us weigh the options, simple as they are: don’t shoot, and continue fighting giant mech; shoot, and though you’ll kill this stupid ninja-dude, Liquid’s mech will become an anti-Mech and Liquid an anti-Liquid and all will be dandy in candyland. And thus we press fire.
But there’s a problem. “No…” Snake exclaims, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
“Well why the hell not, Snake?!” That’s our usual reply. “I–the frickin’ player–have been using a rocket launcher for half the game now…don’t you tell me what you can and cannot do! I point at things, push a button, and those pointed-at things explode! We might even say that this process has been trained into me! Thus you have to…you just gotta…let me shoot dis punk!”
Still Snake refuses; and on the battle goes.
That, of course, was a weak-sauce dramatization. But whatever we say, or think, or feel, it should be immediately evident what has happened here: that the player’s desires have been pitted against the character’s; that a gap has been created between the two, or rather a gap has been re-introduced, one that players had collapsed intuitively: the Vanity Glitch. And though our little pattern-sucking brains are angry at the ruse, we grasp its purpose: to convey Snake’s own feelings–despite the fact that the players themselves couldn’t care less about some wack-ass ninja.
This isn’t a new way to tell a story…incongruity is one of the most important aspects of a tale’s staying power, and can be seen in everything from Hamlet’s delay to Willie Stark’s strange charity to, well, Alien 3. But the way games do it seems different to me: videogames, as they are grounded in layers of processes, have the capacity to change the cause and effect of these processes…to commit what I call Process Shift…and when coupled with a contextual drama, it can be extremely effective…due to our thrownness, or our heightened physicality, or whatever. You know that last (playable) scene at the end of Shadow of the Colossus? Process shift. How about that feeling (many) players felt in Bioshock when they donned the Big Daddy suit only to be escorted by the very Little Sisters they’d been killing the whole game? Process shift. Or how about that first (unbeatable) battle against Ridley in Super Metroid? the reverse-version of the final chase scene in Braid? the Citadel-storming, absolute ass-kicking final scene of Mass Effect? All examples of process shift–of a developer training players into a mode of thinking, then deliberately altering the rules to accompany a meaningful context.
Is it “fair”? Probably not. It’s also not fair that we learn best from pain…or at least a delicate balance of pain and reward. Nor is it player-generated narrative (well…Damn it I said we wouldn’t get into that!), a path many theorists want games to eventually take. And most certainly it can be abused (just check out the obnoxious process shift of Modern Warfare 3, also known as the “look at us, we’s hurtin’ children!” scene).
But I do believe it can be used correctly, and that the cleverer developers get at using it, the more potent videogame narratives will become. Take Red Dead Redemption, for instance: for all its faults (including the faults of the process shift in question), the final act of the game at least attempts artfulness. By throwing the until-then standard mechanic of kill-to-save-family for a loop, Rockstar suddenly asks its players to reconcile the early-game excitement of outlawry with the late-game banality of, well, the very thing John Marston wants most: a peaceful life. Rockstar invites players to fill in the gap between “rescuing family is exciting” and “having family is boring and tedious” with their own answers. Which is to say: players are asked to be the workhorses of meaning, and moreover, to imitate the question so often posed to John… Can you truly, as many predicted you cannot, make the transition from legendary outlaw to common man?
As it turns out, most of could do it: we just didn’t like it very much.
And maybe that’s why–for all his sins–John Marston is still better than us. Or almost anyway.
*Parts are reprinted from an older essay, “Red Dead Recognition: the Marston/Slave Dialectic.”