Agency and powerlessness
One of the reasons why I believe that the gaming medium is not taken seriously is that its narratives are in most cases immature. Another one is that the gaming medium suffers from cinema envy and cannot let go of conventions that were not tailored for it, and which usually work against its individualities (interactivity being the most cited).
I will focus today on one of the aspects that makes me regard the gaming narratives as immature: misunderstood agency that derails into omnipotence.
Agency was described by Janet Murray, professor of digital media, as "the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices" (Murray, 1998, p. 126). It is your capacity as a player to affect the text of the game. It is the apex of interactivity and the miscarried goal of Bioware. But Bioware's failings have more to do with an issue of player expectation and miscalculation of their own faculties than anything else, and they are not the subject this post.
I completed NWN2 again and rejoiced in one tiny little feature of that game that is missing from more modern MMOs: Bishop. Oh, I would love to see more of him, but not because of what you may think. There is going to be major spoilers now, but I need them to construct my argument. Like Marge in the Simpsons when the Halloween episode comes: take your children to bed before it is too late! Bishop's unavoidable betrayal is what interests me.
It signifies the end of the player's omnipotence to affect everything and everybody around her. It is a "nuh-uh Shepard, you can't have the cake and eat it too". My qualms with Mass Effect were not just related to the failure on Bioware's part to deliver consequences to our choices (even the big decision at the end of ME2 was cosmetic), but also the fact that Shepard was God. Nothing was denied to her, nobody stood in her way that could not be blow away with a shotgun, and she never made any mistakes. I call it immature because it is redolent of an adolescent fantasy or a fairy tale rather than a believable hero's epic. Of course the player, being detached from an emotional investment that would allow the hero to act in an irrational way (who would act as cowardly as Hamlet if there was a video game about it?), the player is not responsible for providing this humanity that leads us down the wrong path sometimes. But NPCs and the plot should. They should remind the player that she is dealing with powerful forces that might be beyond her control, like Bishop's betrayal is.
I like how he justifies it. Even if you pursue the romantic path, which was left unfinished by the developers, by the way, he will not stick with you through the suicidal keep defence, nor through the final battle. In the end, as he gives you the longed-for explanation, he utters: "You see, for every West Harbour that gives rise to someone like you, someone great... there's a hundred of me, that end up going down the other path." That is a very insightful observation on your status as an accomplished hero. I think that it is quite clever in that it makes you realise he is more human than you are. Deeming the battle lost before its end, he escaped the castle to ensure his skin remained adhered to his bones. Plus the whole business of attachment-phobia.
Our avatars feel sometimes inhumane, despite the embodying act that we perform as we play them, because the game provides us uncontested agency, little resistance to our whims. I relished the bold decision of making Aveline unromanceable not because she is a half-orc or because of time constraints (well, perhaps this too), but because Hawke cannot have it all. But we are not quite there yet, and we seem to have taken quite a few steps backwards: enough Renegade/Paragon points, and nobody can resist you: the geth and the quarians can co-exist because you give Henry V-level orations. In NWN2, there were hidden unwinnable checks for Intimidate, Bluff, Diplomacy, etc; after all, did you really expect you could intimidate a dragon, or out-bluff a wizened politician? Or change the bad guy? ;)
I believe this is related to narrative maturity. If we want stories that can stand the test of time and can be justly compared to other works of fiction from traditional media, we need to stop building adolescent narratives and start thinking about the real struggles of humankind. I was once told by a dear friend that was once my teacher, that all the greatest stories engaged with transcendental questions. I add to that: such questions have multiple, contradictory, and ever-renewing answers, and thus humankind will never deplete the pool of themes that can be written about. Open any magnum opus and think: what question does it seek to answer? Do the same with Mass Effect - unity in the face of danger? How to deal with AI? Those are valid questions, but only touched upon very superficially (and simplistically). Read Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds; the Reapers were there (it is not such an original scenario), but they carried deeper philosophical enquiries on their motives which made you doubt the validity of your fight against them.
That is another reason why the medium is still immature narratively: it avoids profound observation of humankind. And it is such a pity, because the platform is capable of allowing a kind of exploration that novels and films could never dream of: self-exploration. What you choose now, not what the protagonist did then. And you, despite all the choices that are laid out for you, are no God, and will fail and suffer and despond. Even heroes ought to be flawed and powerless sometimes.
What question seeks Planescape:Torment to answer? What can change the nature of a man. This is the game I always turn to for inspiration, and which I believe should be -- story-wise -- emulated by modern developers.
PD: Speaking of Bishop - here's my WoW iteration of NWN2 Bishop. Just by the looks a friend of mine could tell that he was "fallen and/or evil"; working as intended.
PD2: Probably jumping on Darkfall:UW when it gets released. Anybody else will? Any suggestions or advice?