Escape Through the Creation of Play: Owning a Story.

[In a summer swamped with regulatory policy about telecommunications and copyright and patent law, I should have at least one blog entry that actually relates to a game.]

I’ve never felt completely comfortable with the name of one of my favorite games journalism outlets: “The Escapist.”
Shouldn’t games and entertainment be about something besides escape?
What’s so wrong with our world that we spend so much time trying to escape it? We consume so much distraction: music, movies, drugs, alcohol, sex, food, fashion, money- anything to try to get us distracted for a few minutes and put just a few more molecules of dopamine in our brains to help us (as the ballad goes) “forget about life for a while.”

I thought about all of this in a new light after I played through the Borderlands 2 Down-Loadable Content, “Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep.” It’s a very fun game- filled with lots of humor that is by Nerds, for Nerds. Especially, Nerds who have played Dungeons and Dragons (or some similar tabletop gaming). It’s what I think DLC should be: Mostly more of the same, but with a few slightly-new monsters and levels.

Borderlands is proud to be macabre—it’s filled with gore, a cartoonish disregard for life, comic over-celebration of excessive force and explosions. It’s an FPS in a long tradition of FPS games, and it recognizes what it is and celebrates that heritage. In the reflexive nature of my generation, it’s a game that recognizes it’s game-ness, and plays a game with its own recognition of itself as a game. Then it recognizes how pretentious that sounds, laughs it off, and encourages gore and explosions. But in “Assault on Dragon’s Keep,” the characters and that meta-recognition took a turn that wasn’t so much uncharacteristically dark as it was uncharacteristically sad.

The fantasy game within the game (which provides the setting for the DLC) is ultimately revealed as a coping mechanism for one character to deal with the death of her quasi-father-figure (Roland) in the main game. In the climax of the story, other characters (themselves grieving for the loss of Roland) tell the bereaved that her friend is dead and cannot be imagined back to life. Overcome with grief, she cries out, “I know,” and, through soft sobs, adds, “but it’s my story.” The other characters gently allow her to end her story happily, in the way that the world of the main game (between the fantasy world of the DLC and the world of the player at the screen where you sit reading this blog) did not.

There are 3 lessons to take away from Tina’s coping in this DLC.

1) You must recognize the difference between the game and reality. Tina knew that Roland was dead. She knew that she was trying to deal with that pain. She knew that Roland would remain dead no matter what happened in a game she created. If any of Tina’s coping is healthy, it’s because she knows the truth about what happened. I think the reason I squirm at the thought of games as “Escape” is that it can be an unhealthy effort to pretend that the world just doesn’t exist — to live in denial. I think emphasizing that distinction helps put a healthy context to what a game is and can be.

2) The storyteller tells the story. I almost wonder if this is a response by a game studio to a consumer base that often seems to think they know better. I didn’t get involved in the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle/conflagration/fiasco. I don’t know  all of the details. But I do know that gamers and fans – whether for webcomics, games, business decisions—are quick to tell artists, designers, programmers, marketing executives, etc. when they’re wrong. It’s good to have feedback. It’s good to take your customers into account. It’s good to think of the audience. But ultimately, an author must own a story (post structuralist analysis notwithstanding).

3) The game is a story, and playing is both active and passively engaging that story. I don’t really know if telling stories is useful, good psychological therapy or if it’s incredibly dangerous and unhelpful. Whether right or wrong, people often deal with their pain, grief, and stress through artistic outlets of all kinds. Creating a story to deal with pain is not uncommon. The graphic novel“The Crow,” a story about tragedy and revenge, was born out of grief for an unexpected and tragic death.

I don’t know of any instances of creating interactive entertainment as a way of coping. I’d be interested to know the opinion of clinical psychologists and therapists as to whether creating dynamic, interactive media is substantially different from the therapy of other artistic outlets. Or, for that matter, if interacting with the media is substantially different. I’ve seen a lot of uses of interactive software for physical therapy, and even some uses of basic puzzle-solving games as a way of preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease—but I am completely without bearing as to the possible emotional therapeutic potential of interactive media. I think if there is a therapeutic medicine in it, it’s related to the ability to take control of a situation— to create a result through your play.