I am currently teaching a survey of American literature from the 19th century. As a result, part of my goal is to help students understand two of the more dominant literary philosophies of the period, romanticism and naturalism. Part of the benefit of teaching these two philosophies side-by-side is the fact that one can contrast varying qualities of the two in order to more clearly define each one. One such contrast that I spend some time on is the approach of the romantics and the naturalists to the question of free will, and it is fairly easy to demonstrate the ways in which the romantics tend to champion the notion of human beings having control over their own choices, while the naturalists tend to assume a more deterministic approach to human behavior, assuming that people’s biology and natural instincts as well as their socialization and education tend to determine more about who and what they will become.
We have already looked at some examples of romantic fiction and are now reading stories by Stephen Crane and Jack London, and thus, are largely considering naturalism in contrast to those earlier more romantic stories by Hawthorne and Melville. Following a recent class, a student who was aware that I wrote about video games approached me and began discussing Bioshock in this context. He astutely observed that the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is signified by the position of Andrew Ryan in the game, was one more aligned with romantic thought. While Rand is often viewed as a pragmatist and even Machiavellian in her approach, it is true that she is much more of an idealist when it comes to notions of free will and human beings’ control over their own destiny. In terms of Bioshock, Ryan’s infamous line, “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” would certainly be one that many romantics would likewise align themselves with (Byron and Blake’s advocacy of the notion that it is “better to reign in hell then to serve in heaven,” for example, seems along similar lines).
He then began discussing the “Would You Kindly?” business from the game, and the notion that the protagonist of Bioshock finds himself “in service” to the demands of an external force, one that he has been programmed to follow and noted its deterministic or naturalistic qualities. I responded by noting the beauty of creating such a contrast within the medium of video games, a medium in which players so frequently are given the illusion of choice. He quickly followed up by finishing my thought, noting that in reality most games push us in particular directions because the plot must move forward ultimately as it was scripted.
Of course, none of this understanding of Bioshock’s themes are especially new. I was just pleased that this undergraduate was clearly identifying concepts from the class and applying them to other storytelling media. That being said, I did begin to think about my recent love affair and preference for (nearly above all other games) what I have come to call a “mini-roguelike,” games like The Binding of Isaac and FTL, and how the idea of self actualization and control of our destiny and control of the game and the system might be related to this dichotomy.
The Binding of Isaac and FTL are short form versions of roguelikes. Like longer and more involved examples of the genre, they ask a player to confront a randomized setting through randomized encounters within a game in which failure is more or less permanent. While characters in a roguelike often gain levels and attributes or pick up new items and equipment to “better themselves,” some or all of these improvements evaporate on death. The player doesn’t get to continue after death or pick up from a save point. The player has to begin again.
Since play is randomized and advancement and loss of that advancement is a part of play, this Is a different experience than playing Pac-Man. Sure, Pac-Man will eventually lose all of his lives and the player will have to plunk down another quarter to try again from the beginning of the game, but, then again, no investment was made in Pac-Man himself through character development, nor will the mazes that you experience be different the next time. You can learn the “script” of Pac-Man, know what to expect as a result, and then adjust accordingly.
The roguelike or mini-roguelike also treats death and failure as a learning experience, but there is no regular script to consider. Environments change, encounters change, what items are available on a given playthrough, and what you encounter and where vary constantly. You have to make choices and you have to learn to play this game and apply that knowledge to an ever shifting and changing experience.
By contrast, most games offer saves and continues to push one to an inevitable conclusion. The honest truth is as long as the game is and as frequently as people fail to complete Grand Theft Auto IV if you play long enough, you will reach its conclusion. You will reach the end of the script and inevitable resolution. You also will not have to recreate yourself each time. You can count on you’re the progress of your character remaining a part of that character. Interestingly, while naturalism and its tendency to adopt a deterministic philosophy historically has been associated with fatalism, these games in which the outcome is predetermined and expected and the player is pushed towards it resolve in a far less than dismal fate.
You might be seeing where I am going with this, though, there is something, somehow less deterministic about the mini-roguelike, something more like an advocacy of the significance of choice and control in the hands of the player, perhaps, present here. Despite the fact that the player character is likely to be destroyed often, it is the player’s progress and his or her own development of strategy and skills that are retained from playthrough to playthrough. These are games that are about the development of a player, not a character, and as such celebrate the player’s skills and smarts in ultimately overcoming obstacles despite the fact that these games feature more failures than not. Victories are made sweeter in the knowledge that the game does not expect me to run through from beginning to end successfully, it expects me to only reach a conclusion if I can develop myself as player enough to do so.
In some sense, then, I am almost coming to think of The Binding of Isaac and FTL as examples of anti-Bioshocks, games that do not presume the player can only succeed by following a script, but that the player can develop a sensibility of his or her own about play and through which victories that can only be attributed to you, as that player, are achieved.