I love video games, I really do. They keep me distracted when life is difficult, relaxed when times are stressful, and entertained when things are slow. But there have only been chance instances that games have made me truly feel for their stories. As a kid, I typically had no idea for my character’s motivations or mythology concerning the world around them. Once narrative became an increasingly important and ultimately primary part of the gaming experience, sure there were sparks of feeling for a dying love interest or a dark revelation, but very few of these sentiments carried past the credits. As for those rare experiences where my mind and heart were still dealing with what had transpired days or weeks after the story had concluded, I can only wish that more games would be so interactive as to truly affect me.
Warning: massive spoilers are involved, as only an elegant conclusion could ever bring about such emotions.
Was I upset that Aeris died? Sure, but only because she was my main healer and I had spent so much time getting her best limit break. Did I feel bad for what happened to Lucca’s mom in Chrono Trigger? Well yeah, but it was a short segment that even if you did realize the impact it held, it was hard to revel in it short of watching Lara walk about. The twist in Bioshock and the jump scares in Dead Space were neat but didn’t shake me to my core. Two recent games, however, have truly tested what I thought about not only games but my own principles. Perhaps the language is a bit inflated, but as the ideas both these games brought up still go unanswered in my head tell me that a chord was struck that hadn’t yet been plucked by any book, movie, or medium yet discovered by my humble bite into the knowledge of the world.
The first one is Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. A beautiful looking game that seems to have a somewhat controversial standing with most gamers, I easily fell in love with the game partly for my admiration for the eponymous Chinese tale of Monkey it draws on. The characters were stock, two-dimensional archetypes, but you didn’t need to know their backstory or motivations to appreciate the sincerity and realistic portrayals they were given. By the end of the game, Monkey, Trip, and even Pigsy were believable in a way only some well written scripts and nuanced actors can pull off. This made the climax of the story all the more tragic: our heroes are faced with the realization that the humans being snatched from their lives were (possibly?) being saved and brought to a sanctuary from the outside world and into a mental fantasy fabricated from memories of the past. Ultimately, the decision is made (not by the player, mind you) to destroy this sanctuary and its caretaker and free the people back to their savage world. But as Trip so aptly put it once it was done: “Did I do the right thing?” with no clear answer and a solemn song plays during the credits as you think about the choice.
The impact of this event hit my hard primarily because Monkey and Trip weren’t brazen heroes or pure-hearted and honorable. The characters went through a bevy of emotions with one another as well as the world around them before this point. It also helped that some moral choice wasn’t given to the player in some ham-fisted manner: this was a choice of the character, and anything else would have detracted from that character development. And I’ll be damned if anyone can so easily tell me what IS the right answer for that situation. Ignorant heaven or a cognizant hell, it’s a question that comes up often in such epics, and too often is it tackled by those destined to be heroes or the true-hearted souls. Monkey and Trip were just bystanders who didn’t even know what they were doing even after they had already committed to their choice. Who the hell are they to assume they know what’s best for humanity? But as the credits rolled, I realized that how I felt about myself too. Maybe I hadn’t pressed A to make the choice for them, but their emotions led mine to the same place, and even though their story had ended, I was left wondering how to feel.
Where Enslaved brought about feelings of sincerity and some true ambiguity from its end, Nier is a game that left me nearly troubled with the things that I not as a character in the game but as a player made happen. First off, I will say that the soundtrack for this game is the best I have ever heard from a video game bar none. The heartstrings this game pulls with only its musical cues much less everything else gave me genuine pause. Music aside, the story and how the world reflects that sentiment is so poignant it nears metafictional. The people at cavia know how to weave a story about suffering, and Nier is likely the pinnacle of this effort. What few characters there are in the game, each one has their own plight that is “Japanese” in that they are all intensely convoluted. But that does not detract from the effectiveness of each sacrifice or point of no return that happens. It’s easy to play the game without paying much attention to the story and seeing it as a half-finished product with little redeeming value, but as with many modern games, the story is of a high enough quality that what gameplay issues there are can be readily excused so that the story behind it all can be followed.
Perhaps what makes the game most effective in pulling you (and I mean YOU) into what its selling is its most traditional trappings mixed in with a complete abandonment of such notions. You have levels, boss health bars, different weapons, item collection, and modular magic spells. But this is a game best explained as a third person action-adventure bullet hell. An entire level is text-based while another is an overhead dungeon crawler where you collect keys to open doors. This mish-mashing put me in a state where it wasn’t so much about the game as what was happening, and for that I commend the developers for making me think more about what I was doing. What was I killing this whole game? Why do the people that help me out do so? And worst of all, am I any worse than the persistent evil that I’m fighting because I, like all other games, will do what is necessary to beat the game? Because after beating this game a first time, the biggest revelation is yet to come. The second playthrough of the game reveals something that simply cannot be expressed here, but I will say that it will, in a narrative context, make you feel bad for beating the game. I mean bad. Just telling someone what happens does not give you same impact as going through the story with these characters, only to see the truth unravel the second time, helpless to do anything but the same exact thing despite these revelations. And cavia knew exactly what they were doing when they designed the game this way! I didn’t do it, but if you collect 100% of the weapons (a la Drakengard) and play through the game 3-4 times, the true ending, in a narrative and metanarrative move, actually erases all your save data. Affecting the gamer so directly is a dangerous move, but this game pulls it off magnificently.
I strongly wish that there was a cinematic version of Nier where all cutscenes and important gameplay sequences were parsed out and available to watch. But where that would work wonderfully with Enslaved (which was originally supposed to be a CGI movie), Nier would lose something because of its direct interactions with its players. Sure, it could be a great, touching movie, but it makes an even better game. And for that, I have to say that that game has made me realize that video games can do more than simply be “as good as a movie/book”. They can actually accomplish more because of the medium they are. As of this writing, is it half a year later, and I still feel bad for the way that game made me feel playing through it. There’s no other way to play it – and that’s the point! – but I still harbor regret for what I did to some fictional characters, my protagonist’s avatar included. And that tells me that they did something right.