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After my rant about the depiction of globally destructive forces of Evil in video game plots, I should like to turn my attention to the other side of the ancient coin: the Good. That’s right, I’m sick of that too. I am sick of the way in which the depiction of the Good Guys in the majority of games, movies and popular novels, usually serves to reaffirm people’s faith in figures of authority.

Let me ask you a question: you know how at the end of a story, after the hero defeats an evil, all-mighty villain, in a lengthy battle that completely obliterates several city blocks or maybe even Paris, just before the credits start rolling, a fleet of cop cars swarm onto the scene? This is usually when they cut to a helicopter shot, slowly zooming out to reveal flashes of blue-red sirens of ambulances, police cruisers and black FBI SUVs speeding to offer aide that is no longer needed. You know what I’m talking about? So, here is my question: why? Why have these scenes at all? What is the point of including the arrival of the ‘cavalry’ in the overall arc of the story at all? After all, the villain is dead. There is nothing left for these figures of authority to contain, manage or defeat. If anything, one could argue that these late arrival scenes reveal the inadequacy of the authorities to deal with tangible threats. What is the point of the charade? Well, I’m glad I asked, because I have the answer.

The police take over.

The arrival of the ‘cavalry’ scene is essentially there to reinforce the status quo. To assuage the deep seated fears of the audience that all systems are breaking down, that life is mostly a crap shoot and that the ‘authorities’ don’t know how to deal with an overwhelming threat any better than your Average Joe. The scene is there to let us know that everything would have been fine no matter what. ‘We got it! We got it!,’ it seems to say. ‘Sure, Bruce Willis just won the day by decapitating that bad guy with the severed limb of another bad guy, but we want you to know that if for any reason he had failed we were only seconds behind, our guns drawn, ready to protect and serve. The day was going to be ours either way. Now, please exit the theater in an orderly fashion, and don’t forget to take any personal belongings you might have brought with you. And have a safe drive home down Main Street, and remember: the authorities have your back in all situations. There is nothing to fear (except black people, of course).’

Or how about this little nugget of staple storytelling: whenever the hero discovers a vast governmental or otherwise institutional conspiracy, where dark minded people get together in poorly lit rooms, in order to plot and scheme their insidious plots and schemes, in front of computer monitors that can monitor the rate at which the African swallow beats its wings on its winter migration route, there is always someone amongst them who turns out to be ‘good’ on the inside. The success of the hero in such cases always depends on realigning the moral compass of said character, who, as an act of redemption, provides the hero with the only blue key to success. Sometimes, this character type is not even a part of the conspiracy proper. Often we see this archetype as a renegade of honor and honesty in a world of institutional corruption. It’s a kind of a ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington so that one day he can help Wesley Snipes clear his name, remind Matt Damon of his lost memories and help that French guy from Assassin’s Creed get out of the Memory thingamajig!’

If you squint you can see Wesley Snipes drop kicking a corrupt senator in the background.

What I hate about the above mentioned element of so many stories is that its subtext is that the solution to the problem created by systematic institutional corruption lies within the institution itself. What we are being told is: ‘sure there are lots of bad guys in our government, sure systematic corruption permeates every aspect of whatever organization you have placed your trust in, sure the kind of behavior that conditions innocent children into ruthless killers with bars or letters or numbers on the backs of their heads is legitimized; but don’t worry for a second because its nothing a single idealistic insider could not fix. Its grade A, pure American bull shit, folks! Pacified consumers sucking on a long, fat dream made of 6th grade civics lessons and delusion.

So, what is it that keeps people coming back for these narratives? What is at the root of the storytelling problem in popular media when it comes to the depictions of Good and Evil? I can’t answer these with 100% certainty but my impulse is to seek answers from biology and psychology and only when that fails do I start praying to the mighty Quetzalcoatl.

Human beings developed their ability for abstract thought as a matter of survival. (The caveman understands that the bison he draws on the wall of the cave represents the actual bison in the field.) Because humans are not as strong as other predators, abstract thought provided them with the edge needed to organize and survive. The same need, the need not to die, begot us our sense of agency. (It may only be the wind that rustles the leaves of the tree, but it’s better for survival to assume that it was a tiger.) As a matter of fact, evolution has produced a hyper-developed sense of agency in humans to ensure survival in some really harsh environments. Our sense of agency is so strong that if you reread the previous sentence you might notice that while writing it, I was subconsciously verging on insinuating that evolution itself is an agent. (This is nonsense, of course. Nature has no agency.) Indeed, the above example of almost ascribing agency to evolution is a microcosm of the process of how we arrived at the idea of deities who are actively involved in our lives. The combination of agency with abstract thought produces something unique to homo-sapiens. (It would be safe to say that a sense of agency preceded the capacity for abstract thought. After all, animals have the former but not the latter. But it is of no relevance which came first. What matters is what happens when you combine the two.) Abstract thought + sense of agency = invention of divinity. Life made god, not the other way around. But before I get too sidetracked, let me try to connect all this to the topic at hand.

He even makes individual bolts of lightning!

The idea that when someTHING happens someONE made it happen, is exactly what I think is at the root of all the narrative examples cited in this article and the article on Evil. We have difficulty relinquishing the idea of control. And, we have difficulty accepting the cluelessness, or worse the corruption, of our figures of authority. Psychology tells us, through empirical studies, that children have an extremely difficult time accepting the fallibility of their parents. Parents are usually the ultimate examples of authority in most people’s lives but as adults the fears of parental inadequacy as authority figures transfers to other more social forms of authority, like the government. The idea that no one is in charge is traumatic. It is comforting to think that someone, somewhere, knows what’s going on and is in control of things. This is how a lot of conspiracy theories emerge.

For example, the obviously insane idea that there are seven Jew bankers controlling the world from their bunker in Zurich through a secret global Jew network is indeed blatantly anti-Semitic. (And don’t tell me people don’t think that way, I’m from the former Soviet Union, I’ve had the misfortune of meeting scores of these people.) The superficial implication is that they hate Jews and wish that they were not in control. But if we examine this thought closely we can see that prior to the idea of anti-Semitism we are confronted by an assumption about control. What is implied and assumed unquestioningly is that there is control to be had at all: ‘Sure the Jews are in charge but if we only killed them all, then we could be the ones controlling things.’ To put this in the terms of the abovementioned narrative issues: ‘sure the people behind that all-seeing monitor are corrupt government officials, but if we only replaced them with Joan Allen life would be all scones and tea. No one wants to confront the fact that life may indeed be random and control could just be an illusion. There is great comfort to be had in the struggle between Good and Evil. After all, if the leaves rustle it must have been a tiger.

People would rather confront evil then nothingness. And it’s ruining my videogames.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: I’m so sick of Evil, I could murder an innocent child! – Part Un | videolamer.com on May 27, 2008
  2. Pingback: Murdering children does not grant you magical powers - More thoughts on good and evil in games | videolamer.com on June 2, 2008

10 Comments

  1. jay said on May 14, 2008:

    Shota, I am working on something that strikes some similar notes and I have trouble figuring out exactly what to take away from the idea that art overdoes the idea of control. Without clear cause and effect in art it is possibly impossible to create meaning, unless the meaning is something existential about control and cause and effect.

    I hope I am looking at these ideas too narrowly, but if not I am afraid control and the topic of my next article, meaningful death, are necessary in art. Of course there are degrees of this and that’s what your complaining about. It’s not just that there is always a clear cause and effect in a movie or game but also that absurd reenforcement of authorities having control that bothers you.

    It’s possible I am being too liberal with equating cause and effect and control. Cause and effect don’t have to imply agency, so while gravity may control objects in space there is clearly not intelligence behind it. Control does imply a clear cause and effect, though…

    I’m going to go get lost in these ideas some more.

  2. shota said on May 14, 2008:

    Jay, I think you answered yourself, demonstrating cause and effect is indeed often an essential component in art, but cause and effect are not the same as agency. And yet people get this wrong all the time. That earthquake that killed people in china had no motivation.

  3. jay said on May 14, 2008:

    But what is the meaning behind cause and effect? If the culprit in a story is gravity then the point the author is making is likely “gee isn’t life absurd?” Without agency how can you have meaning (that isn’t the previously mentioned “lack of meaning meaning”)?

  4. chris said on May 14, 2008:

    I’ve actually been thinking about something somewhat tangential to this myself. Games tend to ascribe “meaning” in some sense to things that don’t really have any. If you find a room that’s empty, you know to look for a hidden treasure chest. After all, it had to be there for some reason. If there’s an area that isn’t part of the main plot, it’s always going to be a bonus dungeon. You never hear about a place you can’t go. If a prophecy is mentioned, it always has or will come true.

    This may be cool and all, since so much of the real world doesn’t have meaning… but it gets old after a while.

  5. jay said on May 14, 2008:

    You’re right Chris. Because 99% of games fulfill all prophecy, hide a chest in every hidden room, etc the few times that these things don’t happen come off as purposefully done in order to turn that tradition on its head. Either way, hidden chest or not, it’s still the designer adding meaning to that room he created.

  6. Neil said on May 15, 2008:

    “Evil” has the desire to control everything. The “Good” exists as an agent of the intangible body that is to be controlled. “Good” represents the inability of “Evil” to have control regardless if it’s an individual, group, or even government that is attempting to take it. And we have just described every epic, and action movie ever created and even a romantic comedy or two.

    And I have to thank you Shota, after reading one of your older articles, my wife and I went out and bought Zack and Wiki, that is the most hilarious game I have ever played….and I’ve played a lot of games.

  7. Stefan said on May 20, 2008:

    I’m trying to think of how to apply this to games, and I keep hitting a stumbling block. I think it’d be very hard to make an interesting game where the hero (no matter how idealistic) can’t actually change anything important, and where in fact there are no real villains, because things just suck on their own without anyone in power intentionally making them that way.

    Actually, that reminds me a bit of World of Warcraft. :)

  8. shota said on May 20, 2008:

    “can’t actually change anything important…”

    You could easily write a story or create a game where the “important” event is personal. I never finished Shenmue but from what i saw the story was highly local to the main character. What’s important to one person may not even be a drop in the bucket of history, (Again, think along the lines of the archetype of Faust) but that does not invalidate it. I refuse to believe that games don’t have the power to make me involved in a characters fate without juxtaposing him with specifically a globally destructive villain.

  9. Stefan said on May 22, 2008:

    That’s a really good point, and one I should have taken from the bad guy discussion.

  10. Neil said on May 27, 2008:

    In some ways, Bioshock could be considered to fit those criteria. The battle took place long before your character appears on the screen, in all comes down to survival, and if you chose to be kind, saving afew little girls. The goal of the villains was to control the city, which had very little left to offer. The only reason to even battle the final boss (or anyone for that matter) is that he was standing between you and your way out.

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