Interactive tragedy

A century ago people didn’t take movies seriously. The view of the intelligentsia (the kind of people who took books seriously) toward films was roughly akin to the view many people now have of interactive media such as computer games. This parallel came up today in a discussion that touched on both computer games and the history of romantic tragedy.

Take, for example, Sidney Carlton, who is initially presented as a self-absorbed wastrel in “A Tale of Two Cities”, yet ends up being willing to sacrifice his own life so that another man (a man he detests) can live on happily with the woman he himself loves. It is perhaps one of the most moving examples of self-sacrifice in all of Western literature.

There are many other examples of “beautiful tragedy” — whereby the hero makes a noble decision that personally destroys him, and yet (in the mind of the reader/viewer) affirms a kind of transcendent and redemptive dignity of humanity. Many film noirs starring actors like Robert Mitchum share this quality. The hero willingly chooses death, knowing that this is the act which will redeem his/her soul. The tradition dates back to antiquity, and continues on today in films like Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”.

I participated in a discussion today about the relationship between tragedy and interactive media. At some point I raised the question of whether such scenarios of redemptive sacrifice — with their attendant echoes of emotional catharsis and existential affirmation — could exist in interactive media such as computer games.

Of course this is not a straightforward question. The agency of the player complicates things considerably. How can you truly be moved by the decisions a character makes if you yourself might be responsible for that character’s choices? Yet one could argue that there would be enormous resonance in presenting a player with a set of decisions in which the ethical or psychological “win” involves a powerful self-sacrifice for the sake of a loved one, or just for the sake of what is true and right.

I’m not sure exactly how something like this could be pulled off, but I do think that it’s a key question, if we are looking at computer games as a medium that might, at some point, take its place as a serious forum for cultural production and reflection, just as films have come to take their place alongside the novel.

One Response to “Interactive tragedy”

  1. Doug says:

    I really like this idea. The struggle isn’t just to die fighting for what you believe in– death is cheap in a game, nearly every death in Legend of Zelda does this– but a struggle to put yourself in such a situation that when you die, it will make a difference.
    Your post made me think of something else, too– How novels were treated the same way at first (as an entertaining waste of time) and how the history of art has been a history of technology. One of the main reasons the novel was invented when it was in Europe was because of the availability of paper and the press. Same with film and games.

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