Playing to Suffer, Suffering to Play

by G. Christopher Williams

23 April 2013

I have found myself struck with admiration recently by games that I have played that have put me in less than empowering positions, games that celebrate difficulty and hardship, struggling and deprivation, rather than empowerment and excess.
Don't Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013) 

Kitschy though it might be, I have to admit that there is something I have come to admire in the lyrics of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer.  It’s the fact that the song celebrates a difficult economic lifestyle with its introduction of Gina working the diner all day and Tommy having once worked on the docks. It’s that romantic notion that “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got / It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not / We’ve got each other and that’s a lot” that I kind of miss from media from several decades ago.

I’ve grown sick of scoffing while peeping in the windows of the Real Housewives, while at the same time living in a culture that seems to suggest that everyone should aspire to an OC lifestyle, as if money and cars and vacations to Cancun are the goal of every American.  Whatever happened to the romance of survival itself?  Isn’t Jon in some way right that “For love” we should “give it a shot”, even if that means experiencing deprivation and hardship?

In particular, it has been the downturn in the American and global economies that has found me pining for the wisdom of Bon Jovi. I’ve kind of been waiting for someone in music or any part of pop and media culture to thumb their nose at the notion of “making it” economically as the only measure of success in the United States. 

Having begun my marriage, almost 20 years ago, in a trailer furnished with items from Goodwill, I have to say that I breathed a sigh of relief on first hearing Macklemore’s ode to lower class shopping.  My wife—who grew up the daughter of a single mother who had to turn the heat off in the winter and frequently had to figure out how to get her kids invited to dinner at friends’ houses, so that they could eat that week—said with some disbelief upon hearing the song, “Finally, the place where I shopped my entire life is cool?”  Whether Macklemore is just slumming or not, the message that the thrift shop is a satisfying way to itch the scratch of picking up some reasonably decent goods on the cheap seems like one that more Americans need to hear and begin to believe in. Plus, someone needed to speak the plain truth that so much of American retail pricing is very simply “being tricked by business.”

Now, of course, I’m no music critic.  (“Thank God,” many of you are probably saying right now. Dude thinks Bon Jovi is a profound lyricist!)  Instead, my neck of the woods of pop culture is in the landscape of video games, and frankly, it isn’t a medium that obviously lends itself to down-to-earth representations of reality or reasonable ideas about what is an achievable goal. Saving worlds and princesses is the stock-and-trade of most video game protagonists. The video game industry sells “power fantasies” to its consumers. Most games are all about not being satisfied with who and what you are at the start, instead they are about amassing power, amassing loot, while growing ever more capable in your capacity to shape the outcomes of a game world.  From the rise to wealth of gangsters off the streets of a Grand Theft Auto title to the enlargement of a portly plumber into a Super Mario that can hook up with a princess, video games are rarely about subsistence. They are about playing a avatar that can more than “make it”, and they are about feeling powerful enough to “take it”.

In other words, most games are empowering to the point of absurdity. While players might need to learn how to play, the power and wealth that trickles, then rushes, into their hands over the course of a 20 or 40 hour gaming experience parallels in my mind the bullshit mythology of inevitable yuppie apotheosis that seems as if it was sold to anyone that grew up in the ‘80s, Bon Jovi and Springsteen notwithstanding. The promise of the ideal American life, then, is that you will get there. Most games don’t reflect that some lives (most lives?) are lived, economically at least, in terms of the maintenance of basic needs, not in a shangri la of overwhelming financial abundance.  And I feel like the last decade or so has done nothing to debunk the myth of making it—despite the reality of shrinking salaries and global financial meltdowns.

Thus, I have found myself struck with admiration recently by games that I have played that have put me (or the characters that I play in those games) in less than empowering positions, games that celebrate difficulty and hardship, struggling and deprivation, rather than empowerment and excess.

I feel like I started to notice the tendency towards making the player aware of his own limitations with the recent mini-revival of roguelike-style games. The roguelike is, of course, a genre that is predicated in some way on punishing the player. Typically, these titles are role playing games, games very much about acquiring new skills, abilities, and items that empower players.  However, the roguelike puts a finger in the eye of “character development” by stripping one or all of those things from the player on death. You have to start over in these games, losing forward progress with death, often only taking with you lessons learned from failure in an effort to help you only succeed when you try again. But when you try again, you will be starting from ground zero more or less.

The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, 2012)

The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, 2012)

Not everyone likes the punishing nature of the roguelike, and these games are admittedly niche titles. Nevertheless, the surprising successes of bringing games like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls to the attention of the mainstream says something about players who are willing to experience struggle In a game and who are willing to lose it all for the sake of learning from failure or just are willing to fail at all.  Mini-roguelikes like The Binding of Isaac or FTL don’t often seem fair (though they do offer the experience of a roguelike in an abbreviated and less time consuming form than the aforementioned games), and indeed, I have spent far more games of both Isaac and FTL losing than I have in winning.  However, one comes to appreciate playing for the sake of playing when experiencing these titles, not playing for the sake of achievement.  Yes, I curse my failures, but I “give it a shot” because doing it in and of itself seems valuable in and of itself.

Now ultimately there’s probably something slightly disingenuous about me bringing up these titles as examples of games based solely on deprivation and hardship. From the Souls games to The Binding of Isaac to FTL, ultimately these are games not based solely on subsisting. Victory is usually achieved by Isaac or a bridge crew in FTL because on a particular run through of the game, you happened to get some really good items, some really good powers, and managed to not only make it through, but make it through as a power house.  Indeed, if successful, you will feel achievement probably in addition to the fact that you just survived a pretty difficult experience.  However, as I said, this recent spate of games has gotten me feeling like games are considering how difficulty and suffering are important experiences.  They set the tone for this type of idea, but they maybe haven’t soldered down the experience of deprivation entirely.

Though the idea of deprivation and survival does bring me to begin thinking about the reintroduction of Lara Croft on the gaming scene as a slightly less competent, considerably more vulnerable version of one of the most iconically competent and successful video game characters. That the game’s central theme seems to be about endurance, rather than treasure hunting and “powering up” (at least in the traditional sense of that idea in video games), sets it apart from most video game power fantasies. Heck, even the idea that Lara Croft should be brought down to earth is a novel one in a medium filled with space marines and plumbers who will eventually bag a princess.

Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

Tomb Raider is a game that constantly reminds the player that Croft is just making it by, as her clothing and face are smeared with dirt and blood. She is forced to forage for food and look for shelter from the weather, as she limps or finds herself unable to jump or cling to those cliffs and ledges that in the past she has always been able to so nimbly and effortlessly scale.

Now, in a sense, Tomb Raider might be deemed an empowering game, as the player is able to unlock new abilities and the like as Croft levels up. However, the game speaks to the idea that the cost of getting stronger is uncomfortable and difficult. Deprivation is a necessity for eventual success. “Success” itself, though, is not so clearly defined in Tomb Raider in any case, though.  Croft begins the game as a rather “normal girl” surrounded by friends and colleagues supporting her education and development. Tomb Raider ends with the image of a steely-eyed woman isolated from her fellow survivors (literally, Lara stands at a distance from everyone in the final scene, staring off into the empty ocean, not back towards home or friends).  Deprivation has made her stronger, but also transformed her into something harder. This may not be an accomplishment.

However, the game that has most brought to my attention the idea that subsistence and maintenance might become the central tenet of a game itself is Don’t Starve

Instructions for Don’t Starve are simple: don’t starve. That is also the goal, meaning there is no end goal. It doesn’t make a difference if you make it or not in Don’t Starve. The object of the game is to survive and maintain, until you no longer can.

If you have played any economic simulators before, you’re probably fairly familiar with what I like to call the “bust to boom” trajectory of such games. Most economically based video games (and board games for that matter) begin with a player in possession of a little cash or meager resources or both. Usually such games allow you to transform money and resources into farms or factories or mines that in turn produce some profit, some more resources that allow you to build factories and processing plants and other businesses that will eventually make even more profits that can be sunk into greater engines of financial progress. Don’t Starve has elements like that, but resources are limited throughout the game.  Meters like health, hunger, and sanity require constant maintenance, and resources are replenished if you put effort into replanting, reorganizing, and the like. The game is about subsisting for as long as you can for the sake of subsisting. 

Then winter comes and things get harder.

Admittedly, I have to say that I find the lessons in Don’t Starve to be fairly bitter ones. The game is sometimes cruel, sometimes monotonous. The player takes on the role of an inexplicably abandoned individual on a largely deserted island. Spending the day gathering enough carrots to make ratatouille for one in order to slake just a bit of hunger can be downright disheartening. I played the game for a couple of days before abandoning it for a time. So, maybe there is an element of romanticism, of some kind of goal driven play necessary to make this kind of gaming palatable. Maybe I need to do it “for love” to make it worth “giving it a shot”. 

But maybe “love” shouldn’t be represented as it has in gaming’s past with princess saved and all right with the world. Maybe maintaining love or something like it, some other noble or ennobling value, alongside “things” like money and resources is something that could help make it feel worth it. Just please don’t make it even more money or even more power. I think that’s the lesson that I am learning most from my recent gaming experience and that explains my pining for a culture that doesn’t see those things as the end goal of a life well lived.

I am just as happy to go to the thrift shop with my wife as I was 20 years ago. I know that there are some perpetual goals that require maintenance that make playing on in the face of struggle or deprivation or discomfort worth still “giving it a shot”.

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