Sometimes people say the most hilarious things. Case in point.
Citizen Kane moment? Really? REALLY? Ok, ladies, gentlemen. Let’s get down to business. This is something that’s been brewing for a while. It’s something I wanted to talk about after Bioshock, but in that specific case other people did it better. Now with TLOU, I think I have a more general case to make in this regard. Bear in mind if the whole gender/sexism debate in games pisses you off this is going to make you both annoyed and probably uncomfortable, though it’s used just to make a broader point. I also realise the above is developer hype, but it fits with many opinions I’ve read or seen online in formal journalism, informal journalism and casual opinion.
When people talk about these games and praise them as narrative art, I find myself grinding my teeth a bit. I mean, all games are art, the discussion is about quality not absolute properties. These games get held up as comparable to other works of fiction of high notoriety- in this case Citizen Kane, when that is just simply not warranted. The reason this is done is because they are comparatively good when compared against other games. When the other games are as well written as call of duty or gears of war, this is like saying twilight is high art because it isn’t my immortal. If the industry is going to get anywhere, it has to hold itself to absolute or true comparative standards, not simply ones relative to other, less well polished produce from the same field.
That means we have to look at the ‘characters’ of these supposed narrative masterpieces in the context of other literature and evaluate them as such. I hate to break it to you, but they don’t stand up that well. We can (and do) blame that on the medium with excuses like
“you cannot be held responsible for the actions of a character you cannot control.”
I’m sorry, but what? Art imitates life, and in life you are constantly responsible for the actions of people you don’t control. Sure, if we’re playing wish fulfillment fantasy then we want to make things different to reality. But isn’t the point of these games that they’re something beyond slaughter-porn-and-titties? Of course that sort of thing can be incredibly frustrating, but if you wanted to achieve literary significance your goal wouldn’t be to just kind of ignore or avoid it completely, but to address it in a meaningful way. I mean, forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole subtext of TLOU about parenthood and isn’t parenthood at least a little about ‘being held responsible for the actions of a character you can’t control’. Seems like a missed opportunity, at the very least.
There’s a particular issue I want to address here, and that’s the use of a particular character archetype in this kind of game. That being ‘young, pretty and somewhat assertive/hopeful woman/girl’. As a onetime writer and occasional character designer, let me tell you something about those properties in combination: they trigger the empathy instinct in about the broadest segment of mankind you can reasonably sample. It is no accident that when game companies set out to have a character you can empathise with and bond with (for a degree of bonding, we’ll get to that in a bit), we get characters like Alyx, Elizabeth and Ellie. Everyone wants to see the underdog come through, and nothing says underdog like plucky young lass in a tough ol’ world. It’s one of the deepest most earnest desires we have as a species. To see the vulnerable and meek- who are simply stand-ins for ourselves at some level- triumph. Your gender, ethnicity or age is immaterial in this regard.
The problem is, they aren’t actually characters, in the traditional literary sense. Their entire existence revolves around you. Without you they are lost. Anything they could do to even mildly offend the most touchy of players has been neatly circumcised to make them pliant, docile attendants to your every need and fantasy. This is not an idle metaphor. In Semitic cultures anyway, circumcision symbolizes submission to God’s will. Here, all that might be independent is cut away to fulfill the unwavering dedication to the validation of the player as the ultimate agent.
So, not only are these ‘characters’ forged from the most emotionally manipulative of character archetypes, but even that wasn’t enough to ensure you like them. They must constantly provide you with unconditional encouragement, succor, moral justification, material assistance (though only enough to ensure you can keep soldiering on, never so much that you truly depend on them) and, of course, beating it into your head that you’re helping poor little them in their time of trial. It’s the equivalent of having a puppy follow you around woofing and occasionally giving you candy bars made out of pure dopamine. A puppy that never, ever poops. They are tools that exist to make you happy, not to make a point. Which, I remind you, is what characters are all about. The tradition of literature is about characters you like because they are meaningful, not characters who are meaningful because you happen to like them.
The only reason you adore these characters is because they are basically the most compliant form of slave ever invented. To own another living creature’s loyalty and dependence so completely is why we buy dogs. So it is completely valid, in this case, to call these creations your bitches. I feel that stating this is not degrading towards women because none of these characters in any way resemble actual women. To portray these caricatures as wholesome, meaningful characters and your relationship with them as something positive and human, THAT is demeaning to women.
Any woman, hell any person, as intelligent and capable as they are superficially made out to be would get the fuck away from your homicidal ass as soon as possible. If you think differently… I’m sorry, but go actually meet some smart girls. They’re kind of cool, and they tend to be able to solve their own problems. Crazy, I know, but that’s the way things actually are. If they were portrayed as some kind of abused, demeaned, broken wrecks, their servility might be in character. They are not. It is not.
The point of this rant isn’t about the representation of women. I’m just stressing, as hard as possible, that these characters are neither deep nor the connection you feel with them somehow a literary achievement. They’re well crafted to achieve their goal, of course, but to be of literary significance a character needs to achieve more than that. Something like this, perhaps:
When I say literary significance, I’m speaking here about real significance, a character that connects with something widespread and primal, that makes you sit back and breathe out slowly because you’re not quite sure what to think. When you call out Citizen Kane moment, you’d better be fucking ready to defend that assertion on equal grounds. Do these deuteragonist characters match up to say, Y.T, Clare Abshire, Lyra Belaqua, Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger or Ellen Ripley? No they do not, and those are only in the ‘pretty high up there’ range for their mediums, not ‘greatest ever’. I’m happy to debate this. Please try. Please. No, really. Do. It will be so fun.
The most common response to this I hear is woah, man, back the fuck up, games aren’t books or movies, you can’t have characters like that. Well, from the same sources, apparently games are meaningful and their narratives powerful. Unless we want to cede that they are in reality simply manipulative and their narratives trite, which I sure as hell don’t, we have to take a step back and say, ok, yes, these were good. Better than normal for the medium at any rate. We achieved empathy, but we had to try SO hard. And better than normal doesn’t mean good compared to other things that have been around for a century or more longer and had time to develop themselves to the point of overcoming the problems games still have.
The next step is to achieve that level of companionship with a character archetype which isn’t quite as universally d’awww inducing. Say, an old lady or a teenaged guy. They can still be sweet and helpful, but if we can’t manage to at least avoid damsel syndrome then we’re pretty much boned.
Once that’s done, we can work on supporting characters that are… well, characters. They do stuff because they believe in it, not because it helps you. They don’t see you as the centre of the universe, and so on. When a game- specifically an 3PS/FPS- manages to have a supporting Stanislaus Katczinsky, an Ellis Redding, a Doc Daneeka, a Captain Nemo, then I think we can say we’ve hit a Citizen Kane moment. A character who is not inherently attractive, desirable, worthy of protection and adoration etc. A character who disagrees with you from time to time. A character whose respect you must win and who you come to respect as well, despite the fact they don’t always do what you want. That will be truly a moment for momentous celebration, but we’ve a long way to go yet.
And treating games like TLOU as the pinnacle of narrative potential isn’t helping us get there.
I want to stress that here I am talking about the FPS/3PS action genre. I think, by and large, RPGs and narrative centric games like Allan Wake are further along the track, though I think this is more largely due to their ability to throw loads of characters at you and hope you find one that sticks. That model has worked ever since Baldur’s Gate (I still have fond memories of Jaheira and Viconia shit-talking each other). Creating and implementing a single character who is universally meaningful- a Holden Caulfield or an Atticus Finch- without the crutches used right now, that is a real challenge.
It’s difficult to throw down punches like this because I actually quite liked all three of the games under consideration here. I’m also aiming these blows mostly at fellow consumers and critics, not the developers themselves. It feels awkward jumping at people simply for enjoying things and expressing how much they enjoyed it. This is my justification, and you can take it or leave it.
I care about games. I think the medium is amazing and important in far more ways than are generally understood. At the very least, gaming represents a revolution in the truest sense, full circle back to when our leisure activities largely involved play and social interaction rather than passive consumption of media. That means that, if history is any indication, the capability and importance of videogames is only going to grow and the extent to which we interact with them as a society is as well. I want the industry to find its way to a point where videogames can truly match more established forms of media in terms of the scope of what they can talk about effectively. Where a public who plays more and reads less will not lose out on the insights I have derived from other literature. Where games exist that are as powerful and meaningful as they are entertaining. I want to hear from a schoolchild that a game, not a book, taught them why science is important or how to cope with depression or deal with puberty or maybe just made them feel just that little bit better about being human. I want to be able to, when my kids ask me about war or unfairness or love or the mysterious beauty of the universe, reach up to the shelf and hand them a jewel case instead of a novel, knowing that is the best choice. My imagination predates the digital storage revolution, just FYI.
That is not a goal that will simply occur in time. It must be sought. There will always be a slight pressure towards it from those people who desire to make such meaningful games, but without the stronger pressure of consumers, the market will stymie progress. If there is no serious demand for a higher standard, there need be no serious attempt at supply. When you give something a 10/10, you’re saying it could not be improved in any way. It’s a tricky thing, because improving on what’s already ahead of the game is never intuitive, unless you happen to be competing with someone. If it happens, however, the world becomes a better, or at least a more interesting, place. I think that’s worth at least talking about.