Killing the six-fingered man
My favorite story about The Princess Bride is Mandy Patinkin talking about Inigo’s moment of triumph. Because I’ve totally been there.
Patinkin’s story, in brief, is that his father had recently died after a long struggle with cancer. There isn’t a whole hell of a lot you can do in a situation like that, obviously; you love your family member and try to give them strength until the end. But when he was filming Inigo’s confrontation with Rugen, suddenly he didn’t have an abstract concept to wrestle with. Here he was, in character, taking out the man responsible for killing his father. He’s said that it was a little bit like being able to avenge his father.
I know how that feels. Sure, I lost my father to alcoholism, not cancer, and I wasn’t in a movie that allowed me to externalize all of that. But I had my video games, and in places, that was enough. Hell, that’s half of the point of video games, to deal with problems that never get a truly satisfying conclusion any other way.
We do not live in a world of easy narrative conclusions. For whatever reasons, human beings are set up to like narratives, maybe because learning about why the leopard ate all of your friends last week is easier to endure if you have a feeling that the whole thing happened as part of a larger design. But the real world doesn’t provide those sorts of stories on demand, if indeed it provides them at all. We require retellings, we require filtering, we require people able and willing to impose narratives after the fact.
Even that ignores the fact that there are a lot of would-be narratives that end without the satisfying point. I mean, if all of your friends died to the leopard, you want to feel like it’s not your job to get out there and kill that leopard. Even if you know it’s just a story, you want to get revenge on the leopard. You want the leopard to be a villain.
In reality, the leopard’s a big cat, your friends were in her territory, and it killed them because that’s what it figured was the safest course of action. Killing the leopard does not fix the world or give your dead friends peace, it just means that now there’s a dead leopard where there was once an alive leopard. And that’s in a narrative for primitive humanity wherein the cause and effect are easy to understand. If your business goes under, you can’t solve the problem by going out and killing a leopard. Unless your business failed because it was in an intensely leopard-filled portion of town and most customers avoided it due to the imminent threat of death by leopard, but even then a single leopard isn’t going to make or break your business model.
My father’s death wasn’t due to liquor companies who didn’t care if he drank himself to death, it wasn’t the fault of family members who offered him all the help they could give, and it wasn’t due to a world that he wasn’t able to fit into properly. I could blame his father for not having been a good dad, but he died when I was three, not to mention that killing my grandfather to avenge my father wouldn’t be productive anyway. There were no villains. It was just a horrible situation.
But in a video game, I can play a character with a lost father. I could curl my hands around a controller and step into the shoes of a character who lost so much, denied the father and the life he wanted. Fei Fong Wong from Xenogears, for example. And I could avenge my father.
One of the elements of games that isn’t really duplicated in any other media is the sense of agency. You don’t just lose yourself in the narrative, you have a sense of immediacy. I am Commander Shepard, I am Dante, I am Gordon Freeman. These characters exist outside of me, but also with me. The story in Pacific Rim unfolds the same way every time no matter how much attention I’m paying to the film, but the story in DmC requires me to act if I want it to reach a satisfying conclusion. I get the sense of being a participant.
That’s what Patinkin was touching upon. Oh, sure, the details are different between the character’s circumstances and your own, but you can wash that down. You can make life more simple. Dante is punching Mundus in the face, but in a more archetypical sense it’s a son confronting the killer of his father. I had a father, I am his son, and he had a killer.
That killer was an abstract concept, sure. But the narrative works the same.
Games can give you a situation that has enough narrative parallels to your real life and then let you face them on terms wherein you can do something. You can’t bring back someone you once loved, but you can play a game like Braid and really externalize your regret, feel yourself examining the past while simultaneously realizing how fruitless that endless examination really is. None of the problems in your world can be solved by shooting something, but in Mass Effect 3 shooting things is how you reassemble a galaxy that’s falling apart. Having faraway friends is painful, but games like Persona 4 let you touch on some of the same issues, breaking through boundaries and feeling others open up to you.
Not every game is meant to work this way. But part of the brilliance is that they don’t need to be built any specific way. All you require, ultimately, is a game with a conflict, one that you can gloss as being close enough to the problems you face in the real world. You know it’s not the same, you know that punching the villain doesn’t bring your father back or find the money you need to make your life better or fix your ailing relationship caused by years of growing apart.
Yet it’s at least something. You can feel some small sense of narrative closure there. You’re powerless in the real world, but in fiction, you can have that closure. You can kill your own six-fingered man.