The Future of Interactive Fiction, Part Three: Why so Dystopian?

(This is an ongoing post in my Future of Interactive Fiction series, which is a fancy name I made up for rambling about stories, games, and other interactive media. As I move further in the series, I will try to address more specific topics like genre and theme. You can find previous posts in the series here)

Lately, I’ve completed the wonderful video game Portal 2 (no spoilers, I promise), and really enjoyed it. However, as I finished the game and the credits rolled, I struggled to put my finger on what it was I most enjoyed about the game. Was it the plot? The plot was solid, but by no means mind-blowing. Was it the characters? Some great voice acting, yes, but it’s a little hard to get attached to voice acting in an action / puzzle game. It was, I decided, the atmosphere. That wonderful, insane, dystopian-to-its-logical-conclusion atmosphere:

Portal 2 (again, without revealing anything that isn’t obvious after 5 minutes of play) takes place inside a mind-bogglingly large “test facility” of indeterminate age. The tests are constructed by machines, so the place is less lab and more factory, and one of the ingenious things both Portal 1 and Portal 2 do is let you, the main character, go “behind the scenes” and look at all the guts of the factory, the scurrying robots that navigate cyclopean towers and the catwalks that plunge into abysses unmeasurable to humans but quite navigable by a machine. The sheer alien-ness of it all creates a fabulous mood that complements the puzzle nature of the game, and makes you, the main character, feel very much like the test subject you are supposed to be, powerless and weak and tiny in the face of Science. The reason I call this setting dystopian is that the writers do a wonderful job of juxtaposing the intended result – promotional posters and videos, showing off the power of Science and your value to the world as a test subject, abound – with the jarring reality. Science may help make the world a better place, but if left unchecked, it will make the world utterly unlivable, for humans anyway.

Portal 2 is far from the only game that harps on dystopia. The Bioshock series and Deus Ex are two other examples, and a number of recent high-production RPG and shooter titles have all featured dystopia to one degree or another. So what is it that makes the dystopian setting so attractive to video game writers? The answer is far too complex to cover in its entirety in one blog post (one can readily think of cultural and social reasons for why writers in general may be more interested in dystopias these days), but I want to concentrate on the part of the answer that has to do with storytelling mechanics in video games. Simply put, the dystopian video game is a counterpoint to the hero’s journey, that most common trope of fiction, interactive and otherwise.

To unpack: the hero’s journey is about the hero – a special person. The hero may start from humble beginnings, but in the course of the story, through a combination of skill, charisma, or just plain old luck, the hero rises dramatically and often changes the very shape of her world. The laws of fictional reality bend subtly to her will, and we never have to worry about the hero falling asleep in the wrong place and being eaten by wolves (at worst, the hero will be confronted by an intelligent talking helpful wolf). Video games have taken advantage of this tacit understanding by giving the role of the hero to the player. The hero’s character in the game often possesses special powers; and even if he does not, the sheer combination of the player’s determination, higher intelligence (relative to the AI), and ability to save and reload act naturally as reality-bending devices that allow the hero to prevail against all odds.

But the real world is patently unlike hero’s journey. In the real world, failure is ubiquitous, and the laws of reality do not bend to our will. The dystopian video game attempts to remind us of this fact by taking away some of the player’s “specialness” in the video game world. Doing so is an extremely difficult task, as it is unfeasible to offer the player a sufficiently smart AI opponent, nor to limit her determination, and nobody wants a game where they can’t save and reload. But Bioshock and Portal are two examples of success, and brilliant success, at *tricking* the player into believing she is no longer special without placing artificial limits on her power. In both cases, the atmosphere acts as a subtle but constant reminder of just how very, very un-special you are. You’re not the hero who means to save the world, Portal tells you; you are a test subject, a toy for forces you can’t comprehend, and your success is far from guaranteed. The resolution of the game does not feel like the end of a hero’s journey. And the whole experience, despite the oppressive atmosphere, is so refreshingly different from leveling up and slaying dragons, that the game achieves its narrative goal – of impressing and delighting you almost on the strength of the dystopia alone. It’s a subtle and wonderful interaction between game mechanics, storytelling, and the relationship between game player and game writer that changes the way I think about stories. And that’s really the most a storyteller can hope for – to weave a tale that will stick with her listeners long after they’ve left the campfire.

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