Warning: spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
We all know that video games can be emotional experiences. The exhilaration of taking down a boss by the skin of your teeth, the excitement and wonderment of a new adventure begun and the sheer pride in a perfectly executed headshot that wins the game for your team. But one emotion that video games aren’t very good at producing is sadness. To be fair, most games aren’t even aiming to give a kick to our oxytocin levels and ratchet up our empathy but I wonder why this is. Are video games not expected to be a suitable medium for this kind of emotion in the way that films or novels are? There aren’t many games that have moved me to tears but the ones that did have stuck in my mind as they provided an experience that was somewhat unique within the medium.
Here are a few games that have brought a lump to my throat:
Dragon Age: Origins – asking Alistair to cheat on you
Ah, Alistair, my favourite fictional boyfriend. I originally started to “romance” him on my first play through of Dragon Age because I wanted to be Queen of Ferelden but his superb characterisation won me over. He was funny, honorable and rather charming. Once we had the “lamp post” conversation there was no turning back, I was determined to make sure Alistair and my character got the happiest possible ending. This turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. Near the end of the game, you discover that either you or Alistair must die in order to slay the Archdemon. There is one way out – Alistair can perform a ritual with the character Morrigan (whom he dislikes greatly) in order for you both to live. Unfortunately, this ritual involves him impregnating Morrigan. I have never felt more guilty playing a video game than when I asked Alistair to sleep with Morrigan. After everything we’d been through and all the conversations we’d had it felt genuinely painful to ask him to something I knew he’d hate. At this point in the game it wasn’t an easy decision to make but this is exactly why it has remained such a powerful moment in my mind.
Red Dead Redemption – there are no happy endings
John Marston is a former outlaw that has been recruited by federal agents to round up his old gang members under threat that his family will be hurt if he does not. You spend the whole game playing through various missions to this end but the game never lets you forget that Marston is doing so under duress. After Marston finally catches up with the gang leader Dutch and kills him in a climatic moment, he is finally allowed to return home. At this point the game gives you missions that revolve around every day activities – herding cattle, hunting with your son and generally allowing Marston to settle into family life. The game gives you the opportunity to see Marston happy and to get to know his family. And sure, Marston could be pretty unlikeable some of the time but it’s hard not to get at least a little attached to a character you’re playing so it’s almost heartening to see him finally free. It also helps set the scene for what comes next and give it pathos. The serenity does not last. US soldiers and federal agents surround the farm and Marston sends his son Jack and wife Abigail to safety whilst he prepares for one last shoot out. After all, Marston IS the last member of the gang and must meet the same fate according to the law. At this point the player realises that Marston never stood a chance. He was simply a pawn to be used. There is no happy ending to be found here. Marston cannot escape from his past. The only redemption he can achieve is to save his wife and son by sacrificing himself.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – the horror of war
The CoD games aren’t exactly known for their deep plots or well-rounded characters. This isn’t a criticism because CoD is very, very good at what it does. However, there was one moment in the first Modern Warfare game that gave me pause to feel something amongst all the bullets and explosions. In the first act of the game during a search and rescue mission there is a lot of foreshadowing that the major terrorist threat has a nuclear bomb. Well, so what, that’s just about the type of thing I expect out of terrorists in these games and I am fully looking forward to kicking their asses before said bomb goes off. Just need to save a few more and then hop back onto the chopper and speed away. Except, instead of escaping, you are suddenly faced with a massive detonation, a mushroom cloud in the air and as the blast catches up with your helicopter you know there is no way anyone is surviving this. I wasn’t expecting it. The game hands control back to you once the chopper has crashed and you make your character crawl his way out. The entire scene is red and the mushroom cloud looms large. Your character can barely move and his breathing is becoming more and more laboured. Everything is silent. It’s horrific. It’s a moment in the game when it’s not simply about killing AI characters or enjoying raining down merry hell on pixels below – it’s a moment about death as it often is in war; frightening, painful and horribly pointless. I’ve forgotten many of the moments in CoD games but not this one. It stuck with me.
What games, if any, have made your bottom lip wobble?
I’ve been sinking quite a few of my gaming hours into Red Dead Redemption on the 360 the past few weeks. On the whole I have been enjoying myself immensely whether it be shooting bandits, hunting rattlesnakes or breaking horses. I even began to enjoy the gambling once I figured out that the AI had a “tell” in Liar’s Dice that allows me to win 99% of the time. In fact, if you asked me if you should buy the game I would say yes because it is damn good fun if you enjoy open-world, sandbox type games. However, this review isn’t gonna be about how great the game is. You can read one of those reviews quite easily. They’re everywhere. This review is about the things that are bad about RDR because very few people are talking about them.
There are few differences between RDR and GTA – the mission structures, character types and game mechanics are extremely similar. It doesn’t introduce anything new or original to video games and sometimes heavily relies on stereotypes and predictable plot to drive the narrative forward. The environment is the major distinction. To be fair, the praise heaped upon Rockstar for the landscape is well deserved. It is diverse, packed with wildlife and has some extremely beautiful moments around sunrise and sunset. It is not a chore to ride your horse through it on the way to missions but actually rather pleasant. The music also resonates beautifully with the landscape creating an emotional resonance. Unfortunately, RDR fails to create the same level of emotional resonance in any of it’s characters.
The main character, John Marston, is presented to the player as a gruff and tough man who is attempting to leave his former life as a criminal behind him and be a good father and husband. He is surly, quick to anger and has little qualm in gunning down those who stand in his way. He is also presented as a stand-up, honest sort of guy who won’t cheat on his wife or kill without reason. Regardless, the game will let you gun down whomever you please for whatever reason. You will inevitably end up with a bounty on your head and NPC’s will stay clear of you but it doesn’t change John Marston’s plot. In the cut scenes he still talks like an honorable sort of dude. This can be quite jarring if you’ve just robbed a bank and shot a man off a horse just because you could.
Another problem with John’s character is the fact it grates against a lot of the missions. Most of the core game missions are started by talking to particular NPC’s. Some of these characters are largely comic relief stereotypes which are fun and show off Rockstar’s sharp wit but absolutely clash with Marston. They are constantly making life difficult for Marston and sending him off on wild goose chases whilst promising to help. And Marston just takes it. He may threaten them and do a lot of talking about how annoyed he is but he never actually follows through with any intimidation and he always, always does what they say even if they have betrayed him previously. Of course, Marston HAS to do these things because this is how the plot and the game advances but it doesn’t make any sense in context of his character. Personally, I feel this is a large oversight by Rockstar. I don’t mind not having choice about taking on a mission or not because Marston is not my avatar like in a game such as Fallout 3 – he is a well-rounded character with a specific story that is meant to unfold as I play the game. Fair enough. But the fact is that the story does not always gel with Marston’s character. This inconsistency can throw you out of the story and doesn’t help you to form an emotional attachment with Marston. He’s a character that is always ready to help the law take out some bandits but the next minute will take on a mission to burn down a village or two. He acts like he has no time for drunks or swindlers but will pretty much do anything they ask. If Marston himself doesn’t seem to know what he cares about, why should I care about him?
I know this all sounds like a lot of complaining. Despite the fact that RDR has little in the way of originality and a flawed story it really is fantastically atmospheric and plays very, very well. I cannot say that I am not having fun. Also, bear in mind that I have not finished the game yet so do not know where the story will end up. However, the narrative is flawed in many ways and claims that this will be the game that will change popular opinion of games as an art form are definitely hyperbole. But that’s okay. After all, it’s still entertaining pretending to be a cowboy.