At least twice a year, I try to sit down and give myself a crash course in a topic I don’t know much about. The entire goal is to become conversationally fluent about whatever subject is at hand. Lately, I’ve been reading about shipwrecks and late-19th and early-20th century engineering. Engineering ships at that time, as I am learning, was all about control, but it wasn’t the architect who had the final say, it was the financier of a ship. If the person doling out the cash to build the final product didn’t like what was suggested, they could suggest something cheaper. Controlling the types of materials used meant that they kept costs down. It also upped the potential for problems.
Losing control frustrated architects, who understood the dangers of poor quality materials and insufficient designs. They could do nothing. The ones controlling the purse strings had the last word. Sadly, those same rules could apply to most aspects of our lives today, from the architectural stability of your home to the financial stability of your bank account. Whoever has control wins.
The games I’ve delved into during the past year have all dealt, on some level, with control, or, rather, the loss of it. Whether they revolve around a soldier fighting for the safety of a galaxy, or two warring groups involved in a conspiracy with its origins in history, games are, more and more, asking the player to sacrifice control.
Gamers are all about control. We control and manipulate the actions of a few characters across a battlefield, maneuver an object through a complex puzzle maze, or we decide how characters think and speak by selecting an option in a dialogue tree. And so on. Control is something players thrive on.
More and more, narratives remind me that I’m not the one ultimately in control. The character I’m playing might be the center of the story, but there is someone else making the decisions. Choices and outcomes were programmed in long before I picked up the controller and started manipulating a character’s movements. Even though some RPGs emphasize choice and the importance of the player’s decisions, those elements can be boiled down to Choice A or Choice B, pre-programmed paths that may not come close to reflecting how the player actually feels.
The Mass Effect franchise propelled itself through three games by encouraging control, choice, and manipulation of events. The final entry in the series this past March fueled a rash of controversy because its conclusion was scripted; player input had little to do with its last scenes.
Gamers had been told that their choices, their input, and their controlled actions were fuelling this game series. But they lost control, in game and on the internet. Controlling actions and choices for so long led to a final, uncontrollable outcome, one that sealed the ending of the series. Control went out the window, and the illusion of choice went with it.
The backlash against the ending suggested that a game developer would be better served asking a gamer to give up games altogether rather than ask them to sacrifice control over the story and the outcomes.
Admittedly, over the months I’ve developed mixed feelings regarding the ending of the series, but as a whole I still think it’s among the best games I’ve played. It is frustrating, however, that the outcome of Mass Effect 3 is ultimately (spoiler alert) death for the main character. There were choices and consequences for those decisions, but sometimes those decisions didn’t feel like they were mine. They felt scripted, forced, and out of my control, even when I had Option A and Option B.
I recall when playing Mass Effect 3 that when it came time to determine how the Geth and Quarian conflict would end, I was not satisfied with either choice. As a player, I had seen the truth behind the conflict, and it infuriated me that I was being asked to sympathize with a group of self-righteous hypocrites who had slaughtered their own people, and the creatures they had created, due to their own fears. As a character, I had to make a choice; I managed to choose a compromising choice, but it didn’t feel right, because the character I truly sympathized with ended up paying the price for my choice.
Once again, story control was out of my hands. I chose the outcome, but it was not the outcome I desired, nor the outcome I felt was right. As a player, I didn’t feel like I had control. The game had manipulated me into finding a solution that made everyone happy in game, but left me, the player, angry and frustrated. A button selection was all it took.
Controlling every aspect of a game through button selection and manipulation of joysticks and triggers is gameplay, by definition. Character actions are defined by the punching of a button, or the pulling of a trigger, or the gentle push of a stick. It comes down to how a controller works, and how it is programmed to interact with a system. On a technical level, it’s easily understood. It’s how we, the player, engage with our chosen system. We control the invisible strings of data that tell a character to go left or right, to fire a weapon, or to act peacefully.
Breaking it down into those terms makes gamers seem like puppeteers. In some cases, we are. Ubisoft took this notion to a logical extreme with the puppet interface in the Assassin’s Creed games, with each of the four action buttons corresponding to a major part of the body, the head, torso, arms, and legs. Players essentially are puppeteers when playing the games in this franchise.
Let’s take it a step further. Control is a vital aspect of the Assassin’s Creed master narrative. Two factions, Templars and Assassins, vie for control during historically complex times. From Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, to the Italian Renaissance, and on into the American Revolution, the games delve deeply into how people struggle to control their respective worlds.
If we think meta, the Assassin’s Creed games are games within games. Since the first outing, I’ve been a gamer controlling a character (Desmond) who is playing a video game (the Animus), and controlling the playable character within. Controlling Altair and Ezio, who are controlled by Desmond, offers a new look at the very idea of control. It begs a question: Who’s really in control of the outcomes during an Assassin’s Creed game? Is it the player? Or is it Desmond, the character who is, in essence, playing the game within the framing game?
All told, in Assassin’s Creed and so forth, the idea of control is fascinating. Narratives play out with varying degrees of our control, and characters react as they are programmed to do. But gamers respond to story and gameplay elements in ways that can’t be programmed and can’t be controlled. We are in control of what we choose to play and how we choose to play those select games.
At the same time, though, the deeper I delve into the complexity of narratives, and the more total control that programmers subtly remove, by forcing me to make decisions that I would otherwise never consider, regardless of the outcome, the more I’m reminded that while a controller might literally rest in my hands, the control of an outcome is dependent upon a data stream created by architects and money that I’ll never see.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.
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