I’m going to get this out of the way now. I’m writing this as a reaction to something a friend of mine said in a discussion of Majora’s Mask, but the whole article isn’t aimed at that one person. Instead, I’m speaking to the entire world of entitled gamers when I say:
You can’t always be happy.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a happy ending. One of my three favourite games of all time is Super Mario Galaxy because the sheer joy of bouncing through brightly coloured levels and saving the world and being told how excellent I am is a great feeling. My other two favourite games are Dark Souls and the Mass Effect trilogy because, although joy is a great emotion, it is important to feel a wide range of emotions.
Videogames are becoming, rightfully so in my opinion, a major storytelling tool. With player agency and interactivity, games can tell stories in ways no other medium has ever been able to. I’m a big believer in the importance of stories; they’re what makes us human. Using words and images to live through someone else’s life, see through someone else’s eyes makes us more empathetic. And of course, the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Some big recent games’ endings have brought back some of the tired old debates gamers have time and again. Halo 5 wasn’t “satisfying” enough, as if sitting on one’s arse and pretending to shoot aliens ought to earn a reward. Putting aside the fact that anybody who didn’t expect Halo 5 to follow Halo 2 as closely as Halo 4 followed Combat Evolved is a moron of the highest calibre, that ending was excellent. It was powerful, followed logically from what had come before and set up the inevitable sequel to be bloody excellent.
As if vaguely spoiling a game that’s just been released wasn’t bad enough, now I’m going to spoil a game you haven’t even seen yet: at the end of Halo 6, the goodies win. Sure, it might be a bittersweet deal where “victory comes at a cost” and it isn’t going to be perfect saccharine happiness, but you can bet your sweaty ballsack the Master Chief is going to shoot the appropriate baddies and save the day.
That’s one way a “dark” story can be useful; to set us up for big swing the other way. I watch Independence Day every year on July 4th because that movie is a masterclass in making the viewer feel scared for their protagonists and then delivering an air-punching victory at the end. But even in these cases, when all’s said and done, there’s a happy ending.
Life Is Strange, which finished earlier this month, had an ending which I won’t discuss in too much detail. It should suffice to say that when I completed the game, I had to turn off my computer and go for a walk so I didn’t sit in my flat crying all afternoon. While some people might complain that the “ending wasn’t a culmination of my decisions along the way”, they’re missing the point. The game wasn’t about the player creating themselves within the game, it was about playing as a character. The decisions along the way helped us get to know Max, and the ending was so heart-rending because we did.
I can’t say I “liked” the ending to Life Is Strange, but I’m glad I played it. It was the ending that made sense and suited the game that preceded it. The game was never wish fulfilment, about using superpowers to make everything go perfectly. It was about being a teenage girl; the heartbreaks, the need to fit in, the sense of futility when your decisions don’t feel like they count. I’ve never been a teenage girl, so I’m glad a game was able to help me feel some of these things.
This brings me back to Majora’s Mask. The discussion was whether that game would benefit from, after the ending, a “fourth day” without the time limit, so all the side quests could be completed in one go, as is impossible in the main game. I argued that this would be utterly inappropriate for the themes of that game.
Much has been written already about Majora’s Mask; how the game’s various areas correspond to the stages of grief, the themes of death and hopelessness, general praise for the sense of atmosphere and fear. The game was about something, and Link’s inability to solve every problem in a single timeline was a part of that.
Feeling sad isn’t nice, but it is important. There’s a reason people love listening to sad songs and watching rain fall onto the window. There’s a reason Titanic and Moulin Rouge stay in the heart longer than Australia or a romcom. Heartbreak and tragedy is real. Feeling that pain makes the good times shine a little brighter. Jack and Rose’ love feels so much more important for its’ fleeting nature.
There’s a reason casual sex is no real substitute for making love with another person. The act itself is secondary to the closeness, the emotional bond and the connection to another human being. We need the pains of life, the difficulties, the heartbreaks, to really feel love. We need to fight for it, to earn it, and to know in our hearts another human being is feeling the same thing.
Two of my favourite fictional worlds are Lordran and Westeros. I have their maps on my wall and I think about them a lot. They’re not nice places, but that’s why I can feel them so keenly, why I can close my eyes and imagine walking through their halls.
Dark Souls is a hopeless, dark game set in a world of death and decay teetering on the brink of apocalypse. That holistic sensation is part of the game’s beauty; it permeates the locations, the creatures, the music, the story and makes the game memorable. It also makes the characters’ indomitable spirits shine even brighter. For all the talk of how grim Dark Souls’ story is, what it’s really about is hope in the face of hopelessness. The spirit of jolly co-operation, adventure and friendship lives on even as the last light goes out. Magical.
Just as Dark Souls’ was never really as hard as the internet liked to make out, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t anywhere near as grim and unforgiving as its’ reputation suggests. Characters die, but even an event as shocking as the Red Wedding seems inevitable and logical in retrospect. There is a constant sense of the world being rather bleak, but that’s because it’s about something. The books and the series constantly try to tell you how wrong it is to worship the heroics of lords and kings who trod on the common people for hundreds of years. The world is bleak because medieval Europe was bleak. It’s tragic because it wants to teach you something.
That something only becomes more relevant every day you ignore it. In season 5, with both Danearys and the High Sparrow’s plots starting to touch on it, the plight of the common folk is pulled closer and closer to the fore. At the same time, in the real England Westeros is unsubtly based on, leaders who achieved their position off the back of inherited money, back-door deals and a disregard for the working classes work to keep their estates rich and to push the poorest of the poor back to serdom.
One might argue that “there’s enough realism outside fiction” but a grounding in the real world is important. The best fantasy works when it follows its own rules. Beyond that, stories that capture the tragedy and heartbreak of the real world can have a beauty that wouldn’t be there otherwise and can make us look at ourselves and the world we live in through a different lens. They are important.
There will always be a time and a place for pure escapism. Some days I need a videogame to tell me how cool I am when I kick a ninja right in his face. Some days, I want to rescue Princess Peach. But to be a complete human being, to continue learning and growing through our lives, to see real beauty, we also need to experience the whole wide rainbow spectrum of other emotions. There’s a reason those packs of just red Fruit Pastilles don’t sell as well as proper packets. We need to eat a few orange ones to really appreciate the black ones.