How Video Games Show Us the Value of Unhappy Endings

In video games, the protagonists' success is never guaranteed.

Welcome to How We Create, a new column that will offer a regular look at how we approach the process of creating narrative art. For the past two years I’ve been writing about Chicago-area theater with Chicagoin’, but now that we have several people covering Chicago theater for the CFR I thought it was time to branch out and start dramaturgically covering other industries, too. While there will still be a lot of theater discussed in How We Create, you can also expect to find references to TV, film, books and—new for the site—video games. I’ll take apart assumptions we have about how art gets made and propose strategies for how we might do it better, often by considering how the methods of one industry might be useful to the methods of another. (I should also note that, since this is the first CFR column that will regularly contain video game references, I will be assuming some very basic literacy with them, although the general ideas should be accessible to everyone.)

Story continues below.

Speaking of which, recently I decided to revisit Batman: Arkham City on the Wii U. I was a latecomer to the game, which took a few years to reach a Nintendo console after its widely praised debut on other systems, and back then hadn’t had the time to get too far into what I could tell would be a rewarding but long endeavor. The game is huge—about fifty hours long (and more if you tend to dawdle like I do), with a large world, hundreds of collectibles, and an elaborate control system to handle the characters’ long lists of abilities and equipment. Given all this, it’s naturally not the easiest game to pick up and play again after years away, and this resulted in an awkward period of reacclimation during which my Batman was hilariously incompetent. I’d storm into rooms in full view of enemies I was supposed to sneak past, only to be mowed down in a hail of bullets seconds later. I’d mistime basic dodges, allowing low-level thugs to simply run up to Batman on the street and slug him in the face. I’d try to throw a Batarang, accidentally fire off my grapple and somehow land on a nearby fire escape in range of even more unexpected gunfire. (Bulletproofing Batman should probably have been a higher priority at WayneTech.) Needless to say, for a while I saw a lot of game over screens, and a lot of cutscenes of various villains scoffing at my failure.

During this period, however, I found that I still enjoyed the game even when I was failing, and that these mini Bat-farces were often entertaining in and of themselves. It was a natural part of the experience, and this is significant, as video games are the only storytelling medium in which we regularly get to see our protagonists truly and unceremoniously fail at what they want to accomplish.

We almost never see stories of failure.

Across other media, failure is usually a looming specter that is never allowed to materialize. The possibility of it exists to maintain a sense of conflict, but it is ultimately something to be overcome. And even if a character isn’t fully successful at getting what they want, they usually at least leave with some level of resolution and newfound insight. This is not to say that failure doesn’t occur sometimes. A character in a dramatic work may die, only to have other characters mourn the loss and carry on. A character in a comedy may blunder through a situation, in a way that entertains without a real sense of loss. And there is of course the entire genre of tragedy, which is probably the closest we get to regular depictions of failure—although even then the hero’s downfall is usually grand and meaningfully cathartic, rather than sad and lowly. We have more Hamlets and Fausts than we do Willy Lomans or Konstantin Treplevs.

Story continues below.

And this, of course, makes sense. People don’t enjoy failure, and art is, for many, an escape from the anxiety of loss and failure we live with every day. There is an unspoken contract between creators and audiences that most stories can be reasonably expected to end happily. And yet, by existing outside of this contract, video games are capable of a unique dramatic tension. While film, TV and theater sometimes struggle to establish a sense of real stakes and palpable struggle, in video games, where the threat of failure is both real and regularly realized, it develops completely organically. It is true that video games structurally tell narratives very differently from most art, with a plot that can have multiple outcomes depending on how you play. They can show failure without having to exclusively commit to it, when other forms don’t have that luxury. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that as art they offer a rare opportunity not to have a successful ending guaranteed.
Story continues below.

Video games are also the only genre in which critics, in almost complete reversal from other industries, ask for their heroes to be able to fail more, when they complain of games being overly easy. (Nintendo’s Kirby series, for example, is excellent but seldom difficult, to some critics’ frustration.) So, what would it look like to extend this philosophy to those other art forms and request a decreased likelihood of success in their stories? I’d welcome such a shift, but it would no doubt be immensely controversial, as it opens up a debate over what art is fundamentally for.

Is art there to protect us or challenge us?

Is art there to protect us or challenge us? Should we have more conflict in our lives or less? Art about difficult realities of life, delivered in uncompromising ways without clean resolutions, could be emotionally taxing. But does it not prepare us for encountering those situations in our real lives? Is it not, in a sense, allowing us to practice experiencing a fictional failure, in order to spare us from real adversity down the road?

Now, I’m not suggesting we start flooding the culture with a bunch of depressing narratives or do away with most of our happy endings. We need those, too. But what would it be like to feel a little less safe in our narratives, to have that extra tension and to know that everything might not be okay? To have more stories of dreams that are never realized, injustice that is not overcome, romantic longings that go unfulfilled or contemporary issues of the day that remain ongoing and uncertain. It might not be as uplifting as what we’re used to, but it could be like a flu vaccine, a small prick of something that actually prepares us to hold off the real, much harsher entity down the road.

With Arkham City, I had my share of grand failures. But I soon learned the ropes, things made more sense and I enjoyed the process it took to get there. So surely other media can learn from this pattern of experience, that helps us grow through the wrong endings instead of always fulfilling us with the right ones. It may sting to watch our protagonists fail sometimes, and it may violate the expectations we have for our entertainment. But we live in an unpredictable and often unjust world. If art is going to prepare us to live in that world, we have to be willing to represent it.