I’ve been reading Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish in English — it’s interesting how ‘surveiller’ has been translated by ‘discipline’), mostly out of curiosity after seeing it mentioned so many times in various conversations. I’m reading it in French because I’m a French speaker. It’s quite enjoyable to read — and I’ve been enjoying reading more philosophical texts over the past months thanks to my PhD.
Questions that arose while I was reading (I’ve only read 1/4 of the book, I haven’t reached the Panopticon’s description yet):
- Are video games elaborate systems of punishment? => Can you design a reward system without also designing a punishment system? (Like, the absence of reward is a punishment)
I usually hate that, games punishing me for not doing the ‘right thing’ according to the game’s system. Or the game judging me I’m not good enough yet to ‘enjoy the game’ yet (I don’t like competitive games). I don’t believe in meritocracy anymore anyway. It is quite a challenge when writing a story, and even more so when writing stories for games. I hate these stories where only the ‘most deserving’ get to learn something. The whole narrative about ‘you have to go through pain to make it worth it’ is boring me to death.
It’s not to say that there shouldn’t be any depiction of pain or endeavors or struggles in games. I’m just not a fan at all of the narratives highlighting things that need to be overcome. Anything with ‘over’ in it (overpower, overachiever) kind of makes me grind my teeth.
- Is the playable character necessary a ‘monster’ in game stories? => Monster in a sense that they do not obey the same laws as any other character in a game. Could that inherent duality of playable characters — of being able to coexist in two realities (the player’s world, and the character’s world) be seen as somewhat ‘monstrous’ by other characters?
When ‘non-playable’ characters are aware of that duality, usually it’s through tutorial texts and it’s not seen as an issue at all (with a NPC telling you ‘press A to kill that guy’ with the subtext of ‘and yeah as a character I’m perfectly comfortable with interacting with an entity that has agency in my reality and outside my reality’). Sometimes non-playable characters have a vague hunch, and in this case the playable character is seen as godlike (the chosen one, the one who has a power no one else has, the one that has to make all the decisions).
I mean, if I realized that I was a non-playable character in a game, I would totally freak out if I suddenly had to interact with the playable character.
Not exactly related but somewhat a bit: Dramatic Irony in game narrative
I’ve rewatched recently Six Feet Under and have been amazed once more by the level of depth all characters have in that show. At some point all characters lie to each other (not only about major plot points but also for more mundane things, they obfuscate or remain elusive on many aspects of their inner lives). Also there’s a lot of dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is a super powerful tool. It’s usually when the audience is aware of something that some of the characters in place do not know (yet). In great stories, it’s often layered — one character in a scene knows something that the audience also knows but another character doesn’t know at all, and everything has a double meaning.
I don’t have many examples in games where you have such intricacies between characters in a game (regardless if they’re playable or not). Or the playable character knows almost everything, has access to as much information as they need to progress (transparency being a criteria for fairness) and almost at any time.
To have dramatic irony you need characters who are capable of memorizing something — so many times most NPCs don’t have memories of their own, they don’t have any tools to collect information and be able to use it for their own good. At best they have intricate backstories with other game characters (besides the playable one) — which makes for cool side quests in the best case scenario. Unless the game’s narrative is fully focused on that — on making a NPC remember things the playable character does and react to them (but again, it’s not about agency — it’s more reaction than taking actions, it’s about making things more interesting for the playable character).