People Live Life As a Game, But Remember It As a Novel
Ask anyone who plays video games, and they’ll tell you that the characters who populate virtual worlds are notoriously one-dimensional. In the average video game, you can find a plethora of useless, expendable persons. They are brainless configurations of code — designed to walk aimlessly from street to street, offer a line of two or dialogue, and, usually, succumb to some horrible fate at the hands of the player. NPC’s are programmed with a simulacrum of purpose, often precisely to disguise its lack. Characters are created for a single scene, often to relay a single piece of information or as a feature of some set piece, and are discarded as soon as that purpose is fulfilled. Henchmen who exist to be shot. Victims who exist to be brutalized.
Perhaps we should not expect much from a medium that invented the term NPC. But the one-dimensionality extends even to main characters, themselves often breathtakingly bland. They are hollow men: empty vessels in which the player can pour themselves, avatars acting without passion or intrigue, moving stiffly in infinite skippable cutscenes. (The fact that they’re skippable should tell us something.)The average video game protagonist is a gruff, tough macho man, one with an inverse relationship between his godlike physical prowess and ability to say or think anything remotely interesting.
It would be easy to blame the lackluster characters of video games on bad writing. Perhaps all the true writing talent works in television and movies. Perhaps they’re all too busy writing novels. But this assumption is an error. The characters in video games are constrained by the medium itself, and the writers must deftly work around these restraints: doing much with very, very little. Characters, after all, are merely a function of the plot, and the plot in any video game must be, by the nature of the medium, terribly dull.
What distinguishes a video game from say, a visual novel, is the existence of fail states and win states. Put simply, there are stakes in a video game, and the fun had as a player in feeling success at winning, in overcoming the pain of defeat, and growing ever more powerful along the way. For this to work, for the existence of fail states and win states, there must be unmissable, unmistakable cues. The player must know at all times whether they are winning or losing. In narrative driven video games, this means that plots must center around fixing a tangible problem: retrieving an item, shutting down a machine, killing a bad guy. The goal is a way to measure oneself and informs the player of where they stand. You’ll know you’ve won once you’ve saved the princess, destroyed the world-ending device, and slayed the dragon. You’ll know you’ve lost when your character dies, when the villain makes a quick escape, when the screen cuts to black.
Many lament the one-dimensionality of video game characters. Oftentimes, when a video game comes along that manages to subvert this problem, media attention is lavished. Adult consumers crave nuance and subtlety. They want the same complexity that they read in novels or watch in films to exist in video games. But the medium imposes limitations.
In a novel, you are constantly aware of a character’s subjective experience. The abstract world of the mind is made manifest, and each new detail is perceived through the character’s eyes. This allows for subtlety and depth that a video game simply cannot facilitate. There is not enough time in an interactive medium for a character to sit around and explain their deep feelings and motivations, the struggles and complexities of their mind. Thus, the typical video game character. A quip-cracking strong guy, relentlessly focused on the mission, perhaps to hide the shallowness of the writing that makes up his soul.
Novels, after all, mimic life. They reflect our interior lives. When we think of our lives, we do not often think in terms of the bare, physicalist logic of a video game. We recall our past experiences as varying shades of emotion, flickers of memories, tableaus of colorful characters. We impose narrative structure on our pasts, labelling some events as highs and some as lows. We reflect on our development throughout the years and assume that change came through our own deliberate efforts. Go to any graduation and you’ll hear mention of new chapters, closing one book and opening a new one. Life is a series of aspirational goals, of figuring out who and what we really are, of navigating the intricacies of our personhood with the ultimate goal of self-actualization.
But this poses a problem. Ask any life coach what the first step in setting a goal for yourself is and they’ll tell you two things: specificity and achievability. When we make goals, we make them like a video game character: tangible and with clear metrics. The goal is to graduate college, to lose fifteen pounds, to take more time to clean. I’ll know I’ve made it when I’m thinner, smarter, more educated. I’ll know I’ve lost if I end up alone, if I’m sad all the time, if I’m poor.
How often do you hear someone say that their goal is to experience true love? To find peace? To come to grips with their self-esteem? Our goals are tangible — to get a boyfriend, to own a car, to put more into our savings account — not aspirational.
What to make then of the difference between our goals as they truly were and how we remember them?
The difference comes down to chronology. The future is unknowable. The narrative arcs we superimpose on our pasts, which give them their shape and trajectory would likely be wrong if we extended them into the future. And so from that we abstain and wager on the tangible instead.
No such difficulties exist for out pasts. And we feel at liberty to impose whatever nuance, subtlety, and narrative structures we wish upon them, giving them meaning beyond the simplistic, video game-like progression we experienced at the time.
We live life as a game, but remember it as a novel.