One of the great strengths of a game like Dragon Age is that it wisely shied away from strictly good or evil choices with a few exceptions (I think it is safe to say that letting a demon keep possession of a child is probably an evil choice, for example). The world of Dragon Age thrives on grey areas for your Grey Warden to find himself navigating, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the various political situations that seem to get in the way of stopping that whole “Blight” thing that seems so urgent. It is a cynical view of a cynical business, and where the game really shines is in its absolute refusal to give you any one safe choice. These aren’t paragons of virtue; they’re generally people with goals that may seem noble but are really just interested in plays for power or else they are despicable people who happen to have noble goals. As a disclaimer here, I should explain that I played through the game as a dwarven commoner, and that particular origin influenced at least one of my decisions a good deal more than I thought it ever could.
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“You’re joking, right? I don’t care about titles or power. I just wanna be number one.”
—Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes
We are a culture obsessed with ranking. No multiplayer game worth its salt releases without having leader boards anymore (and even single player games have leader boards these days) so that we can all see who is the “best” at whatever game that we’re currently talking about. Suda 51’s No More Heroes takes the obsession with being number one into the world of assassination, presenting a world where the mysterious United Assassins’ Association has created a ranking system for assassins in which one can move up the ranks by killing those above him. For Travis Touchdown, the promise of being the top ranked assassin is enough. “I wanna be number one… Short and simple enough for you?” he asks the player in the introduction. This is the first step on a bloody path that comprises the game’s story, which darkly points out by the end that the rankings don’t mean anything. Travis’s battle has been in the service of nothing at all. It is a nihilistic message that lies hidden under the game’s constant pressure to move up the rankings and be the “best”. By the end of the game, the plot itself refuses to provide any sort of actual conclusion, as Travis seeks only to bail out of the plot, saying “You want me to tie up all these loose ends [in the plot]? I don’t think so”.
There is a hint at this lack of meaning after the very first fight, when Travis complains that “I’m not feeling the sense of accomplishment that I should”, which in turn leads to the promise (but not a guarantee) that if he reaches number one, Sylvia might “do it” with him. The motivation for making a run at the number one spot (the desire to be “the best”) changes once Travis realizes that the defeat of the former 10th ranked assassin is not half as satisfying as he hoped it would be. Apart from the promise of sex, the only other motivation he has is that defeating assassins pays the bills, but when one of those bills happens to be the fee for setting up the next fight, it all seems a bit self-defeating. This is also setting aside the number of perfectly legitimate jobs that can do the exact same thing for Travis—and in many cases the assassination jobs that Travis can pick up pay less than some of these more menial tasks—the gas pumping job can reap sizable rewards, as can a job cleaning up litter, although the game does provide at least one assassination mission that pays far better than most other jobs.
In a book, the first person narrator is always difficult to trust. We read a story as told to us by one of the characters, who may or may not be telling the truth. Things are emphasized that may not actually be important, while other seemingly more important events are ignored. The narrator may even outright lie to the audience, seeking to elevate his or her own importance. (This is one of the fascinating things about The Sound and the Fury, for example. The narrators of the first three parts all carry their own biases into the mix, which makes it difficult to figure out what is going on until the introduction of an omniscient third person narrator in the fourth and final section.). A similar trick can be used in a movie, as the camera may follow one character’s version of events only to go back and contradict that very same version of events (such as in Fight Club or really any movie with a twist that involves a trusted friend’s betrayal). The narrator of a story mediates between the world of the story and the world of the reader/viewer.
Suda 51’s divisive masterpiece Killer 7 chooses to throw additional levels of mediation into its gameplay beyond merely seeing the game world through one character’s eyes (or more accurately the seven characters’ eyes). Killer 7 utilizes several sub-layers of mediation as the game progresses, including changes in art style during some animated sequences that add to the confusion of what the world of the game really looks like. The reality of the game demands that the player engage it through these additional levels of symbolic mediation in order to not just play the game but to understand what is going on in the narrative.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: I have a soft spot for horror games. As a rule, I do not have a soft spot for horror films (although I’ve got a soft spot for movies with zombies in). I am fairly certain that the reason for this differing feelings about the genre lies directly in the lack of control that one has when watching a horror movie—I am totally okay with stomping around a mansion infested with zombies, because at least I’m smart enough to know that if something starts eating me alive and I don’t have any bullets left, it was my fault for being foolish with my ammunition. My problem with horror films is that I tend to spend a lot of time shouting at the characters for acting as if they are characters in a horror movie. Horror games don’t have that same baggage (except in cutscenes, at which point all bets on my shouting at the television are off), because if anyone is making a bad decision, it is probably me.
I got to thinking about horror games after reading a bunch of reviews about Dead Space 2 that complained that the Dead Space series just hasn’t been that frightening because you generally have the ammunition required to survive a situation. This, apparently, goes against the survival part of survival horror, which in turn means that to call Dead Space a horror game at all is a misnomer—except that there are other types of horror games out there. Or maybe there aren’t, and the problem is merely a definition of “survival horror” that is just too strict. I decided that the best thing to do would be to take three games, all of which I consider to be “horror games”, and see on what each relies to drive its horror element. Deciding on the three games was a bit of a trick, and I know that I will catch hell for not including a Silent Hill game in this analysis, but to be honest, I’ve yet to play any of them (I swear it’s on my list of things to play). So instead, the three games that I’ve selected are: Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness, and the game which got me thinking about this in the first place, Dead Space.
Ah, the ‘80s. That magical time when men did lots of cocaine and women wore those suits with really big shoulder pads. This was the time of the stock trader, and it is this time that the simple browser based game American Dream seeks to take the player back to. It has a simple enough goal: become a millionaire by playing the stock market.