Cyclical Stories in Video Games

Many games are meant to be replayed, dangling the carrot of a “new game+” to entice us, but few acknowledge this repetition in their stories, even when it would make perfect sense.

In the last level of From Dust you get more powers than you’d ever thought possible given the strict limitations the rest of the game places on your godhood. You can create land, water, volcanoes, plants, tsunamis, and take them all away. It feels like you’ve finally come into your own. But then some disaster strikes, everything begins to sink, and you have to rush your villagers to the magical exit. Once through to safety, you find yourself back at the beginning, literally. You’re back at the first level with all your new powers stripped away.

It’s an interesting moment, if only because it’s so oddly rare in games: finding yourself back at the start. Many games are meant to be replayed, dangling the carrot of a “new game+” to entice us, but few acknowledge this repetition in their stories, even when it would make perfect sense.

I knew about the existence of a new game+ in Borderlands before I beat it, so certain pieces of graffiti caught my eye. Near the end of the game when you’re rescuing a character from a prison cell, you can peek behind the bars to see her prolific writings on the wall. One piece stood out to me: a sentence that mentioned cyclical universes. I got excited, expecting this seemingly throwaway piece of graffiti to actually be a subtle narrative justification for the new game+. I assumed my character would get sucked into a time warp and sent back in time -- or something. This didn’t happen. Instead I just beat the boss and got to select “Second Playthrough” from the menu. Even though someone at Gearbox had come up with a great justification for the new game+, the game ignored it.

More recently, Bastion has a new game+ and part of its story revolves around turning back time. At the very end you get a choice: reset the world to a time before the big Calamity, even though it’s likely nothing would change and the Calamity will just happen again, or keep living in this post-apocalyptic world. This choice could have led to a cynical justification for a new game+ and even some meta commentary on gaming itself: A new game+ that was only unlocked if you decided to reset the world would imply that this world-ending event is inevitable and for us to have the kind of game we want to play the peaceful world must be destroyed. But Bastion doesn’t use its new game+ as a metaphor for gaming. While there’s a sense of fatalism about the game, it never ties that fatalism to the act of gaming itself. The new game+ is just an extra mode, nothing more.

Shadows of the Damned has a similar problem, just in reverse. Whereas Borderlands and Bastion have a new game+ but no story that acknowledges it, Shadows of the Damned has a story that (essentially) acknowledges the new game+ but that mode isn’t actually in the game. As G. Christopher Williams writes about the game's coclusion:

What Hotspur does at the end of the game is finally explain the story’s premise. He explains that he chose to court the lord of the underworld’s mistress, which is Paula, leading to the game that you just played, and which he additionally implies, that will continue to be played. For every time that he gets Paula back, he will “kill the world” again, just as he has always done. And just as we always do every time we boot up yet another video game. (“I would kill the world before it did you harm”, PopMatters, 13 July 2011)

Hotspur acknowledges that his fight is endless and embraces that fact. He’s ready for more demon killing, so it’s weird that the game doesn’t let us continue his fight.

The only game in recent memory that’s done something interesting with new game+ is -- sadly -- a game I couldn’t bring myself to finish: Nier. It’s a repetitive, tedious, and confusing game, but its endings are fascinating.

There’s a distinctive mid-point in the game when the story jumps ahead a couple of years. When you start a new game+, this is where you begin, not at the actual start of the game. Also, you can now understand what the monsters are saying. They hate you because you killed their friends and family, they’re after you for revenge because, and to them, you’re the monster. I don’t know if this new understanding is justified by the story in any way, but it certainly adds an interesting twist to the game.

There’s also a new game++, which ends with your teammate getting seriously injured. You can sacrifice yourself to save her, but this isn’t just any sacrifice. You’re not just giving up your life but your existence; all memories and proof of your life gets wiped away. It also deletes your saved game. It’s a powerful moment to consider, especially since this would be the climax to a game that you’ve beaten three times now. Not only does this twist make the new game+ more relevant to the story, it also gives new meaning to “completing” a game.

It’s surprising how few games play around with the idea of the new game+. It seems like a missed opportunity to have some fun with the player, some mention of déjà vu at the very least. Instead the new game+ seems to be mostly used as an easy way to extend the life of a single-player game, like in Red Faction: Armageddon and Dead Space 2. Personally, I prefer to think that my Lilith from Borderlands is stuck in a time warp that keeps sending her back to random points in her past. Hey, it makes about as much sense as anything else in that game.


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