Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Closing The Book

This particular closed book was by Ian Irvine.  You need to treat those things like the Necronomicon - don't even open one, no matter how much the shiny cover tempts you.It's a child's response, isn't it?

Sensing that the story is not going to have a happy ending, you close the book. The resolution remains unread, the story remains unfinished, and the tragic conclusion is indefinitely postponed.

The mature reader does not close the book. The mature reader turns the last page, experiences the ending for better or for worse, and then draws a conclusion as to whether it was a well-told story.

I'm really talking here, of course, about the new Prince of Persia, which has... an ending. Just the one. There is no alternate ending; if you play the game to its conclusion, there is only one manner in which things can be resolved. This ending is not to everyone's tastes.

The thing is, the game starts to roll the credits a good five to ten minutes before the actual ending, but then stops. Judging from the blogosphere, a good many people, sensing what is coming next, choose to take that as the end of the game and stop there. Not because they've stopped enjoying the gameplay, but because they want to pretend that what comes next njever happened. They feel it's a better story if they stop there.

Another example is Shadow of the Colossus. Throughout that game, the player is given the sense that what they are doing is wrong, and that with each colossus defeated they are making things palpably worse for everyone concerned, including their own character. Some people choose to stop playing before finishing the quest - again, not through dissatisfaction with the gameplay, but because of a desire to avert the otherwise inescapable tragic conclusion.

That's wrong, isn't it? It's like making an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman where nobody dies and everybody rediscovers their lost love of life. The point is the tragedy. The point is the experience.

I say this, but then I look at Braid. That is a fantastically deep and moving game, right through the main story and concluding with the final level. And that's what I thought for six months or so, until I found out about the bonus stars. Suddenly it was revealed I hadn't finished the game, and the new ending turned everything into a contrived mess about nuclear physics.

I am quite happy to say there are no bonus stars. I am quite happy to take the ending which I liked, and ignore everything that came afterwards. It is an exponentially better game this way. I see this as no different to loving the original Dune novels and ignoring the Kevin J. Anderson / Brian Herbert rubbish which has come out recently.

How do I reconcile this? On the one hand, finishing a story early is deliberately refusing to engage with the authorial vision, and denies you the right to claim to have genuinely experienced the work. On the other hand, a little wilfull blindness can allow you to perceive art and quality where otherwise there may only have been mediocrity.

Thoughts, anyone?

NB: No spoilers please!


Zubon said...

I have never heard of anyone abandoning a book because they were avoiding the ending. Someone must have done it, but I have no impression that it is common or even so un-rare as uncommon.

I abandon lots of books because I do not think it is going to go well. Not that I will be unhappy with story events: it is a lousy book. Any concerns about abusing the characters are secondary to the way the author is abusing the reader and him/herself.

I have done the same with games on the premise that I have gotten everything I am going to out of them. If it is Nintendo hard, I can abandon it or cheat to get past the not-fun parts.

I cannot comment on Persia, but for Colossus: if you think what you are doing is wrong, you can stop. It is interactive media, and you do not need to take part in atrocities. Of course, I do not expect any real moral consequences to arise from having played the game, but it creates a certain sort of railroading. You are lead to think of it as you doing things, but you are not really fulfilling a role. You have no choice in what you are doing except to play or not. Many games do that: you can make an obviously dumb choice, or you can quit. If you object to Hobson's choice, game over. For Colossus, that sense of tragedy is lessened when you realize that your choices (none) are independent of the story path (pre-determined). At which point, why bother playing through the conclusion when you could just read it? Blank text is no less interactive.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I loved the endings of both Shadow of the Colossus and Prince of Persia - they may be dick moves, and they may also be doing something that is inherently wrong; but that is the story that the developers wish to tell.

I finished Prince on the weekend; and once the first set of credits roll, it is painfully obvious what is coming next. You could turn the console off, treating the full ending as some sort of non-canon epilogue, but that would be depriving yourself of some of the best storytelling of the year, no matter what Yahtzee says.

Damn, I can't talk about specifics about why the Prince ending is as awesome as it is without spoiling it.

I have my own theories about why what happens, happens, and by paying attention to the dialogue, you can work out quite a few details about the Prince's backstory.

Honestly, I believe in many ways, the story is better, if not cleverer than Sands of Time, and can't wait for the next part.

Let's hope they don't screw it up.

GregT said...

Zubon: I'm (I hope) obviously not referring to people who stop playing (or reading) something because it is bad. If it fails to hold your attention, of course you can put it down.

I think you raise an interesting point - is the character who is doing those things an independent protagonist of the story, or is it you? I think the answer is, in part, both, but is defined to some extent by the game. In Prince of Persia, it's not "you" - it's the Prince. He's a defined and fleshed out character distinct from the player, and I'd be prepared to argue for the sake of discussion that identifying his actions as your actions is a form of game-specific media illiteracy. Whereas in something like Mass Effect, part of the point is that the character is, indeed, you, and that they are your choices.

Eliji: I never warmed to the Sands of Time story, but I was blown away by the new Prince. Not only is it an exceptionally powerful self-contained story, but it is an amazing first act as part of a trilogy - and Ubisoft Montreal are one of the few studios that can be reasonably certain that if they start a trilogy they'll get the chance to finish it.

Anonymous said...

Exactly - some people, for some reason, get annoyed when the character in a game does something that they don't want him to do. They fail to understand that unlike other games where you control the actions, ambition and attitude of a character, there are games in which you can only control how you get a character to achieve something, not what the character is trying to achieve.

I suppose, in some way you feel betrayed by this - both you and the character are working towards the same goal, and then suddenly the character decides, with little to no warning, to go off on another tangent. Plot wise, it makes sense, but it still feels like a betrayal.

In that, I can understand why some people don't like the story. However, therein also lies the power of the narrative.

Also, I now understand why they left the Sands Prince alone, as charming as he may be. With his established backstory, they simply couldn't tell the story that they wanted to; hence the new Prince.

I still think the plot of Prince of Persia is going to be linked in some way back to Sands of Time; the donkey being named Farah is one such hint, and the references to sand being another. We shall see.

Chris said...

Haven't played the new Prince of Persia, but I can imagine the set up.

I've nothing against tragedy, but it's difficult to make this play in videogames without issues of some kind.

I think, though, that not all adults have your attitude to closing the book. Some people I know read the final page first - confirm they like how it ends - and only then decide to read the book. Strange but true! :)

Greg Tannahill said...

The whole thing is especially troubling to me because there are very few videogames, in total, which do tragedy. Even looking at character deaths, there are very few meaningful ones which can't be taken back in some fashion - (you can get back your dog in Fable 2 *grumble*) - and even then, most of those are "women in fridges", killed off not because that's where their character takes them but purely because the protagonist needed some motivation.

We've been trained out of accepting tragedy; when confronted with a seemingly unavoidable evil we go looking for cheat codes and FAQs to get around it.