A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” – From the movie “WarGames”, 1983
Yesterday I published an article about doing things for yourself. Well, I’m writing this one less than 10 minutes after finishing that article.
It’s something that’s been rolling around my mind for a while and is going to be about storytelling, the video game series “Borderlands” and what I as a player would like to see in the story.
I understand that it’s not for everybody, and it’s really just a post from me to… Well… Me!
So, this began when I was thinking how one could use the mechanics to help tell the story in a video game. At the time there was talk of a game based on Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”.
What mechanics would help tell that story?
I went through and analyzed a bunch of old video games and came across “Missile Command” from 1980.
The game is pretty basic but what fascinates is that the outcome, much like in “Robotron 2084″, is that you inevitably lose.
A theme I find in Lovecraft’s world is that it’s unforgiving. It doesn’t care if the main character is good. It doesn’t care if they‘re tenacious. It beats them mercilessly until they succumb to madness.
There’s really no escaping it, and using Missile Command’s mechanic I felt would help tell the story.
However, given that the outcome is either getting killed by the robots or nuclear annihilation, what are we to learn from it?
Let’s hear what Dave Theurer the creator of “Missile Command” has to say:
Looking back “Borderlands” has continuously been asking the player the question: “Who is the hero?”. Thus challenging our assumptions that we must be the hero. Because we’re basically good human beings, right?
Curiously enough in Telltale’s “Tales From The Borderlands” it’s the villain Handsome Jack that hands us the lesson:
“Everybody thinks they’re the hero of their own story.”
Where do you go from there?
Sure, you could keep hammering that lesson home while also giving us another awesome iteration of the game with some added features, new characters etc.
But is there anything else we can pick up from these two games?
A mechanical aspect to both “Missile Command” and “Robotron 2084” is that they almost seem endless. Like you could go on and on and on without ever reaching the limit.
Yet another quote from Handsome Jack about how we as players inevitably are sucked into the game’s main mechanic:
“Take a good look around you Rhys… this is what success looks like. You’ll see… after a while you start to measure it by the size of the pile of destruction around you.
You’ve gotta break it down to build it back up. This was your first step in that. It’s the only way. You’ll see. And there’s so much to break down before you can build again.”
This quote illustrates the theory of “anacyclosis”. A theory stating that “benign” governments such as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy are flawed and decay into malignant forms of government like tyranny, oligarchy, and mob rule.
Basically, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, the systems are inherently weak and unstable.
So, how can “Borderlands” tell this story and offer an answer?
In a much simpler way the solution to this was highlighted by Ash in “Pokémon: The First Movie — Mewtwo Strikes Back”:
“Someone’s got to take a stand. Someone’s got to say ‘no’ and refuse to fight.”
If you couple the “endless & inevitable” mechanic with the lesson from “Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back”, I feel you’ve got a really good story and endgame.
The endgame could be in the form of a classic “Slaughterdome” where the last tier is unbeatable with ever stronger and an increasing number of enemies spawning.
Here a couple of ideas that’ve been bouncing around my head for the final mission.
- You have to sacrifice one of your companions to defeat the final boss.
- You watch Lilith follow the same road Handsome Jack did, and gradually turn into the enemy.
- Once you finish the main story you do whatever you can in order to stay in power and become the very same thing you fought to destroy.
These stories give us an honest chance to consider whether this is the kind of game we want to spend our time playing in the real world, or if there might be another way.
In terms of where the franchise and story could go next this might not be the best choice. Having a game basically tell the player: “If you play this game there can be only one outcome. The only way to win is to walk away.” might be risky.
However, I think gamers are ready to be challenged that way. The only thing that’d make us actually walk away is if the game isn’t fun.
Have a kick-ass ₢eative day!