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Last week, Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer wrote about his relationship with Sleeping Dogs protagonist Wei Shen. While exploring the player’s implicit responsibility for Shen’s actions, Abbott identifies one of the narrative benefits of occupying a predetermined character:
These games hand me a controller, but not full control. I maneuver constructed characters through game worlds, but never fully command them. I relate to them as avatars who respond to my base choices (walk, run, eat, sleep, fight, flee), but I never fully identify with them. I can’t subordinate them to my will, but I’m with them, and I often feel I am them. Wei Shen may do things I don’t like, but until I press “W” he does nothing at all. He essentially ceases to exist. When I give him life, he springs to action and operates by his own rules. Under such conditions, it’s worth asking who is controlling whom.
Abbott adroitly defines what I have previously called the false positive of interactivity, which is more often than not a system of give and take between player and game. The article largely focuses on the latter argument of the paragraph, as Abbott is faced with the inherent (and, for Sleeping Dogs, pronounced) complicity of performance in violent or ethically questionable games. Here, I want to build on the narrative consequences of identification and hone in on the mechanical side of things; to see how the walking, running, fighting, and fleeing can be just as influential a marker for association as the various motives and aftermaths of a given character.
Let’s start with Batman.
Batman: Arkham City
It seems as though the most common praise for Rocksteady’s Batman series has been a variation of the following: “you really feel like Batman.” If Sleeping Dogs forces the protagonist’s worldview and subsequent actions into the player’s hands, Arkham Asylum and City bind these perfunctory transgressions to the unimpeachable presence of the Dark Knight. Unlike the Nolan films, Rocksteady’s games do not propose a justification of extreme vigilantism so much as explore the troubled psyche of Wayne; the result is a protagonist whose efforts are rarely shed in a negative light.* Even more importantly, however, the game’s base mechanics reinforce Batman’s character and allow a near seamless association on behalf of the player. While not themselves Batman, players are both free to use his strengths and constrained by the character’s established moral weight.
Modern beat-em-ups and action games are typified by the constant accumulation of new tools and abilities. Sequels often have difficulties with explaining away the player’s loss of power (see Metroid Prime); aside from it having a revered spot on my Steam list, I chose to write about Arkham City because it cleverly disguises the illogical trope of removing the protagonist’s tools for the sake of balance. Batman’s iconic tools are received on a need-to-use basis, and some of the newer additions are personally crafted to overcome obstacles hitherto unnoticed. There is no serendipity in Batman’s rise (ahem), only the calculated efforts of a character known for his craftiness and connections.
But all of this pales when compared to the actual control of the game, an intensely focused effort that brings the character to life to an extent only hinted at in other media. The gliding, fighting, and running coincide with my own notion of how Batman would act, and the virtual response to the player’s physical input further blurs the imaginary (in a Lacanian sense, even. But I digress.) line between controller and avatar. It is a testament to Rocksteady’s understanding of the genre that players can avoid a large part of the dissonance so prevalent in the medium. If we operate–as Abbott rightfully asserts–under the developer’s rules, their’s is the rare set that the player can fully agree upon.
There are many games about war; few attempt to present War in the flesh.** In Darksiders, Batman’s nonlethal approach is replaced by a predictable amount of slaughter and bloodshed. But instead of recoiling at the thought of emphatic violence, the player is partly comforted by the natural interpretation of the chosen protagonist. Much like Batman, we expect one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to act in a certain way, and in these situations, the violence typical to the genre only intensifies the player’s experience and association. While the action of Darksiders is not as technically fluid as the formula used in Arkham City (at least with keyboard and mouse), the various upgrades and weapons available to the player make up for any mouse drag or stilted command chains. As the player grows, War grows–purchased combos and powers return the protagonist to a state of near immortality that buoys interest despite the otherwise repetitiveness of the game’s mechanics. It’s a familiar theme for both hack-and-slash and beat-em-ups, but modern advances in play styles and technical ability have harmonized a traditional genre with new forms of narrative inclusiveness in an attempt to eliminate the “space between player and avatar.” While this style of design might negate the need for self-reflection, I believe that it has its own merits aside from petty escapism.
There are minor caveats, however, as War’s enthusiasm about the task at hand seems to waver between hordes of Miltonian enemies. When a defeated sounding War claims that there “must be another way,” I was obliged to question not my complicity in the events at hand but who was benefiting from War’s being war. Such glimpses of–dare I say it?–humanity are brief, but they point towards a subtle appeal for a moment similar to Abbott’s, in which the veil is lifted and our allegedly thoughtless exploitation of virtual subjects is revealed.
*Wayne goes through some important self-discovery in Nolan’s trilogy, of course, but I would argue that in most cases it is a means towards an end rather than the end itself.
**Darksiders also possesses the undervalued honor of being one of few games to qualify as an actual epic–no small feat.