The Inner Lives of Video Game Characters

Can video games induce fear, panic, anxiety? Wired reports that the makers of a game based on the Saw horror film franchise are trying:

The “reverse bear trap,” a diabolical metal mask that will slice your head off unless you figure out a way to disable it, is the first nightmare you will encounter in the Saw videogame. I tried out a few minutes of the third-person adventure game, scheduled for release this fall on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, at Konami’s recent Gamers’ Night event here. Saw’s developer says the game is meant to induce the same sense of panic that the popular horror films do. (Bold mine — PS) In the grisly game, you play a desperate individual caught, like one of the characters who face death in the torture-porn movies, in a booby-trapped environment created by serial killer Jigsaw. Your character begins his ordeal in the aforementioned mask, furiously trying to rip it off. On the bottom of the screen, an icon of a joystick appears, rotating in a circle. If you simply spin your analog stick, you’ll die.

In the movies, the characters caught in deathtraps feared for their lives. And if the movies worked effectively, viewers sympathized with these characters and responded with shared panic. Playing on the universal fear of death is something of gimmick, a cheap way to stir up emotion. But it can be effective anyway, especially in a film that displays a willingness to inflict lasting pain and death on its characters. The problem in video games, however, is that there’s nothing at stake. The character whose life is “threatened” isn’t a person, or even a particularly convincing representation of one, but a pixelated avatar controlled by the player. Unlike a traditional fictional character, it has no inner life, no particular human characteristics except for its virtual shape. It rarely has any specific relationship with any other person, save for you, its controller. Which explains why you probably feel as much concern for its “life” as you would for a puppet — probably less, for a puppet, at least, is physical and hard to replace. The video game avatar cannot be destroyed, cannot actually die or be destroyed, for it does not exist; its presence is virtual from the get-go.

Further releasing the player from the bonds of empathy is the fact that, in video games, death is never permanent, and rarely meaningful at all. There’s no finality to it, for video game characters never truly die; they simply reset to an earlier point. Video games treat death as, at worst, a speed bump on the way to one’s goals. It’s remarkable, really: Even comic books and soap operas, known for their inability to let characters stay dead, still understand that death has consequences, that it is a long-term, meaningful event. Video game death is more like an out of bounds in basketball — cause for a short pause in gameplay before things continue on. But even still, there’s a crucial difference: In basketball, the other team can win the game. In a video game (unless you’re playing online against a human opponent), the game can beat you back, and perhaps you might even give up for a time, but it will never beat you definitively. There’s always another chance. In video games, losing, failing, and dying have no permanence.

I’ve been working my way through Gears of War 2 recently. It’s a fantastic ride and an amazing technical achievement, but that’s all. Part technical puzzle, part roller coaster, it offers plenty of visceral entertainment and not an iota of emotional engagement, which is almost universally true of games.

Even those games with the most involving, immersive environments and stories — games like Half Life 2, Portal, and Bioshock — offer very little of the pleasures of traditional storytelling. Instead, the enjoyment comes from figuring out the game’s mechanisms — the behaviors and systems by which it operates — and from mastering the technical challenges — which fingers to move in which order — required to master those systems. That’s a lot of fun, but it has a lot more in common with, say, learning to build a computer, or learning to shoot a bow than it does with watching a movie or reading a book. Without any good way to represent death as something permanent and meaningful, without the ability to convincingly portray inner life or complex human relationships — all of the attributes of narrative that bond us to characters — video games seem destined to remain primarily technical challenges, devoid of emotion save for the frustration you feel when you don’t succeed and the pleasure of mastery you feel when you do.