When the Fall is All That’s Left…

January 22, 2009

Back in December, I had the chance to go catch Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”– a two-part movie consisting of “The Argentine” and “Guerilla”– at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, where it was playing in a one-week only, five hour-long Roadshow Version, complete with an overture, intermission and free program. As a longtime fan of cinema, it was great to see a historical epic presented in a truly epic fashion, worth comparing to the good old days of films like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” or pretty much anything that Cecile B. DeMille ever did. As a longtime admirer of the noble, naive and ultimately tragic political doctrine of socialism, it was heartening to witness a film dedicated to the act of revolution, no matter how much said revolution turned its back on its own principles once the tummult and the shouting subsided. Hell, as a lifelong sufferer of asthma, it was cool to see a badass like Che fight off bouts of wheezing while leading guerilla forces and wage bloody warfare.

Still, the movie probably struck me most as a student of two eerily similar subjects– history and game design. Because after all, Soderbergh’s massive, two-part film is largely concerned with the rise and fall of one Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and painstakingly portrays that rise and fall by depicting two campaigns of revolutionary warfare– the overthrow of Batista’s military regime in Cuba, and the unsuccessful attempt to stage a similar coup in Bolivia, which ultimately ended in Guevara’s demise. In terms of history, it’s interesting to observe such a naturalistic depiction of this narrative in order to learn the lessons that only hindsight can allow us, under any political circumstances. As a designer, however, what strikes me is how the film stages the life and death of Che Guevara, on one level, in game-like fashion.

How? By sticking to their guns, and giving us nothing but war. In Cuba, Che wins. In Bolivia, Che loses. You don’t get much simpler and more straightforward than that.

And yet, it’s something you rarely see being emphasized in games themselves– the value of a game lost, rather than one. Many moons ago, a wise man once waxed political about the freedom to fail, but today I’m not wondering about the mere value a player has in being able to fail in order to find better motivation towards success. No, to me, a movie like “Che” reminds that sometimes the only natural ending a person can have is failure, loss, defeat– sometimes, instead of winning, the best that a valiant struggle can provide is a grand and glorious death.

But that’s something you rarely find in games, at least on a significant narrative level. Failure is always a natural end in multiplayer matches, and can very often be useful in understanding single-player arcade games of the infinite-play variety– games that can only end when the player gives up, where success is marked by one’s ranking in the high-score list, instead of reaching the end of a limited, linear experience.

Tetris never ends, as long as you can keep up with the increasing demands of gravity’s speed. In Space Invaders, no matter how many legions and fleets of enemy spacecraft you destroy, there’ll always be another wave descending from the sky, taunting you with their statistically infinite armies. So many of the old game challenges were Sisyphean, and victory them could only be seen in comparison to the performances of others.

About midway through “Guerilla”, Benicio Del Toro’s Che provides some haunting, enlightening words to a fellow revolutionary in Bolivia– in order to fight a war like this, he says, “you have to live as though you’ve already died”. That’s the same way a player has to approach games like Tetris or Space Invaders. You can never really “win” those games– all you can do is “lose better”.

I have to wonder whether it’s a coincidence that both of these games originated from countries that suffered defeat in their last major wars in history– Tetris came from Russia (with fun!) at around the same time they were fighting a losing war in Afghanistan, and Space Invaders hails, like so many games, from Japan, a nation that hasn’t even been allowed to raise an army since World War II. At a first glance it isn’t any wonder why American-made games tend not to be based on this same model of “play-until-you-lose”, because Americans have never thought of themselves as being on the losing side of history, even after the quagmire of Vietnam. As Patton declares before the American flag in our popular imagination, Americans love a winner, and hate a loser. We remain so intolerant towards the idea of losing, that we can’t even admit when success remains outside our reach, and stubbornly insist upon our victories, even though they may be followed by failures, as long as our hands are clean of all bloody traces of agency.

So when will it happen? When will American games, and by extension America itself, be willing to accept a noble defeat, and dwell on it enough to relive the experience, again and again? Call of Duty 4 was hailed for its occasionally harrowing depictions of death, so perhaps we’re seeing steps in the right direction. But there, the loss of life didn’t end the game so much as it punctuated it. What I’d like to see are more examples of games where a player assumes the role of a single individual, and must guide them from beginning to end towards a heroic death.

Perhaps a noble end is too much to hope for, sometimes. Perhaps the epic glory of a Bolivian defeat, like Che, Butch or Sundance, remains out of reach for even the most strident of players on the global scene. Still, if all we have to look forward to is the slow decline into personal and international irrelevance, we might all experience a little more satisfaction to live out our desperation as loudly as possible, rather than whimper towards our end like hollow men. Until then, pleasant dreamers, if today is a good day to die, make sure to make your end a grand finale…

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One Response to “When the Fall is All That’s Left…”

  1. I like the concept of putting much more emphasis, indeed, even complete gameplay dependence, upon the idea of going out with a bang. Only rarely do I experience moments that I think you may be describing, often encapsulated, among others, in the amoral, frenetic dance of death that is whatever car I’m driving in the later Grand Theft Auto series.

    For example, I love the different physics of each car, and how I must practice so that I can 1) take out as many pedestrians as possible, preferably in groups (gangs work wonderfully to satiate this urge). 2) Destroy as many vehicles as I can, preferably in head-on collisions with me driving a schoolbus or firetruck; also, hitting guys on motorcycles and watching them flail their arms as they are launched and propelled over multiple cars and land in the middle of the road, for me to run over them, and then to do it again in reverse for good measure is endlessly hilarious. 3) Line up the car perfectly for a crash that destroys as much property possible, as many of the authorities, or that lines up perfectly with a perpendicular street (must turn right or left when it ends suddenly) for me to crash, at the highest speed possible, head-on into a walking pedestrian in front of a wall, my car slamming and exploding, creating a comic spectacle of ultraviolence and eliciting giggles reminiscent of Beavis and Butthead from myself.

    This type of game was exemplified in the Burnout series, though with a more simulated realism the guilty pleasures are that much sweeter and vicarious. Ultimately, I think in your analyses the desire is to bring across a sense of triumphant heroism, and to do that, I think the player must be completely immersed in their environment and their trials and tribulations, to respond to the challenge without expectation of reward other than what they are immediately taking part in. A good message, really. Doing something well for its own sake is its own reward, you know? For myself, I enjoy the chaotic, gleeful abandonment of all things moral in the service of creating the biggest exit extravaganza possible, and it is there in that final culminating end that our two moral opposites merge: the desire to go out in grand, wonderful style. Definately would love to see a game using this premise, though its hard to really sustain adrenaline like that throughout a gaming experience, you’d have to make your controls into an art form, and keep upping the ante, otherwise things essentially are static and not progressive.

    I wait still, awaiting news of the next game that allows my darkest tendencies to erupt in my cackling, gleefully maniacal laughter, safely shut away from the outside world in my gnome-like existence in the dimly-lit basement of my apartment building. Nice post, Bob.

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