Issac Clarke may be the second most recognizable working class hero in video games. The obviously more iconic plumber and savior of princesses, Mario, comfortably garbed in overalls while cleaning pipes overrun by mushrooms and turtles would, of course, be the most recognizable. Intriguingly, though, and largely unlike Mario, Isaac is not a working man transformed into a fantastical hero. Instead, Dead Space is a game that finds heroism in doing real work.
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The story of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is one told in fairly minimalistic terms. While offering a wealth of cut scenes, events within the game tend to be briefly presented before returning to the action of play, conversations tend to be short, and even the dialogue within those conversations tends towards brief, clipped phrases.
In that sense, the characters themselves in the story, the three heroes, Trip (though her full name is Tripitaka), Monkey and Pigsy, as well as the story’s villain, Pyramid, all have fairly short, minimally descriptive qualities. While two of these names are derived from the nicknames of characters from Enslaved‘s source material, the sixteenth century Chinese novel Journey to the West, both Monkey and Pigsy’s names seem initially merely a way to define their obvious physical similarities to the animals that they bear the names of and possibly to suggest the generally accepted “personalities” of those animals.
I hate the elf. I’ve always hated the Elf.
You know what I mean. You have to know what I mean because that tattletale narrator in the arcade classic Gauntlet is always telling you who to blame: “Elf Shot the Food.”
That damned Elf is always shooting the food.
Gauntlet, like most games of the arcade era, is a game designed to eat quarters. While offering only a single life per initial quarter for the player occupying the role of Warrior, Valkyrie, Wizard, or Elf, it was one of the first games in my recollection that featured “hit points” in the form of a Health counter that ticked ever downwards over the course of a playthrough. Health could be increased by gathering food, or better yet for the owner of the machine, by adding another quarter during that time.
I frequently complain about the “moral” choices that modern video games ask of players. I know that Mass Effect, Fable, and Bioshock are supposedly attempting to force us into interesting moral quandaries by offering binary choices to moral dilemmas. As I often say, this frequently comes down to what I view as bogus choices because of the extreme quality of the binaries laid before us. Save the baby or eat the baby? Boy, that’s a head scratcher.
No matter the actual state of our souls, most of us tend to view ourselves as basically decent human beings, and when faced with such extreme black and white choices (with little actual consequence built into the choice), most of tend to make “the right decision.” I imagine that even Adolf Hitler would have chosen to save (not harvest) the Little Sisters within the context of a video game like Bioshock.
This discussion of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West contains major plot spoilers.
Quite a number of games in recent years have dealt with the curious exchange that occurs in gaming between player freedom and the submission to authority required by following a game’s rules. The most obvious example, of course, is Bioshock with its evident concern with considering how a player blindly submits to the will of the game in order to advance in it. The infamous “Would you kindly?” twist suggests that player freedom is frequently an illusion in a game, as submission to and trust in the direction given by the game is taken for granted by the player who all too quickly assumes that the game’s “direction” exists to merely help the player learn the ropes, but it doesn’t decide for us along the way what is the right and wrong path.
A similarly unsettling revelation of just how authoritarian “the computer” is in directing the player can be found in Portal, in which that voice that we essentially take for granted, the voice of the tutorial, eventually morphs into the antagonist of the game. While initially GlaDOS is that familiar teacher who explains how to play the game to the player, the series of test chambers that seem to serve as a tutorial for learning how to solve puzzles through the use of a portal gun soon become deadly traps set by a sadistic AI. The irony of Portal is that this intimate antagonism between the player and the programming of the game is really not unfamiliar at all. Portal, both figuratively and literally, exposes what is behind the scenes in most video game experiences, a voice that first wants to support us by teaching us the ropes but then just as quickly wants to stymie our efforts to succeed in completing the game by attempting to “kill” us.
I have written before about the strange intimacy that the player has with GlaDOS, an intimacy that is promoted through the authoritarian and submissive relationship that they share (”An Intimate Moment With the Computer”, PopMatters, 31 March 2010). However, Alexander Ocias’s Loved takes the metaphor a few steps further by creating a game solely predicated on submitting to or defying the authority of a bodiless “tutor” and allowing this exchange to become a metaphor for being “loved.” In the universe of Loved, love becomes a concept that is based on power relationships. The more that the player submits, the more that the game grows easier to deal with. However, the exchange for this form of “care” is to give up one’s own will to that of the AI.