So, traditionally the comedy ends with a marriage and the tragedy ends with a death. So, Super Mario Bros. is something like a comedy, right? And Pac-Man is a tragedy?
Of course, Super Mario Bros. and the comedy both have something in common, they both concern having a goal, one that a player in reaching may still have to encounter some problems along the way to resolve, but in the case of Super Mario Bros. and the comedy, both are optimistic works that assume that problems can be solved, something like consummation can be reached.
Pac-Man is about consumption, about acquiring, about gaining as much as possible—before you die. Both tragedy and Pac-Man presume a kind of frailty, a kind of limitation to existence. Hamlet tries. Lear tries. Macbeth tries. Pac-Man tries. They reach towards a less defined goal in some cases, knowing that an ending is inevitable. Eat while you can.
I have found myself very taken with a scene in Cardboard Games’s recent release Kentucky Route Zero. Three gamers sit in a dark basement with some paper and some dice playing a game. The game they play in the near dark obviously has a tabletop role playing element, but there is no graph paper, no pewter miniatures in sight. Instead, they play with road maps stretched out in front them in an obvious parallel to the game that you are playing yourself, Kentucky Route Zero, which concerns a lost delivery driver driving up and down highways in a (possibly) vain attempt to find an address. (A very Hamlet-esque moment, yes? A play within a play, a game within a game.).
As the gamers struggle with understanding the rules of their esoteric game, one of them begins to doubt the possibility of every completing it, saying something like, “I don’t think you can win this game. On the box, it says it’s a tragedy.”
Thus far (since the only released part of this episodic game is the first part), Kentucky Route Zero seems in part to be a meditation on tragedy, as its world contains a graveyard, a car wreck, and a mine abandoned after a terrible and deadly accident. And, the conversation that I mention is not the only one to contain the word “tragedy.”
But the gameplay itself seems like a meditation on tragedy, too. The aforementioned delivery driver, Conway, seemingly has a goal to reach, an address to locate, and a package to deliver—frankly, this process should not be unfamiliar to any gamer, fetch quests and whatnot being what they are. However, much of the “game” (assuming that it is a game because it seems to lack challenges and puzzles that can be solved or that allow Conway to progress towards an end goal) is really spent in making choices about how closely to adhere to the clues leading you supposedly on a path to the goal and how much to merely diverge and explore the world for seemingly no practical reason.
So far, Kentucky Route Zero is about exploring for the sake of exploring and the more that one tries to get on the right path to resolution, the more one begins to doubt that a solution, a good ending is possible.
This notion should be troubling to a gamer. Is a game that cannot be won still a game at all? It lacks the most important rule of any game, the object of the game, suggesting that solutions might not be important and even worse that goals and final objects may be illusions at best.
We play to play, not to win, not to solve, not to progress. Eat while you can, Pac-Man.