EDT791: Death, Betrayal and Redemption

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Sat, 03/01/2008 - 15:53

"I'm much better. Yes, I'm going to make it and you will, too. Just do what you think is right."
- Paul Denton, Deus Ex

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers of key moments in Deus Ex, Baldur's Gate II, Jeanne d'Arc and BioShock.

In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee discusses situated meaning and learning in the context of Deus Ex, and he touches on some important aspects of narrative that I think are relevant to the discussion of identity. Earlier in the text, Gee describes Identity Principal, which he cites as being a key to effective learning. When learners identify with the role that the skills they are learning will apply to (i.e. identifying oneself as a scientist when dissecting a toad), the "learner has real choices... and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones."

Deus ExOne of the most memorable events of Deus Ex, was the point when I, as JC Denton, was faced with the decision to save my brother Paul from death or escape with my life to continue my mission. In that moment, Paul, playing the brave and valiant brother-figure, pushed me to go on without him so that he could slow down the enemy, assisting my escape. Up to this point in the narrative, Ion Storm (the game's developer) have presented Paul in such a way that I genuinely cared about his fate and was distraught at having to make that decision. In that moment, I identified myself as JC, Paul's blood relative, and cared about his well-being. I saved the game right before the encounter that followed, and tried several times to save Paul from his valiant death.

Preventing Paul's demise was important to me on several levels. My identity as his brother wanted to save him because of our bond as family. My identity as a gamer wanted him to live so that I could feel the satisfaction of having done so. At the time, I had a friend who was also playing through the game, so my identity as a social gamer wanted to succeed in the challenge presented to me so that I could have the associated bragging rights, of a sort. Gee's experience was a bit different that mine, in that he was fairly new to gaming at the time and didn't feel like he "had the requisite game-playing skills to save him." I, on the other hand, had been playing games for as long as I could remember, and the situation I was presented with wasn't simply a matter of narrative and emotion, but one of pride. In spite of all this motivation, I couldn't succeed. I must have spent several hours attempting to save him, but I eventually had to give up. The part of me that identified myself as JC genuinely felt that, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn't save my brother from death. This experience was incredibly powerful and has stuck with me since I first played the game, eight years ago.

"I could dance on the head of a pin, as well."
- Yoshimo, Baldur's Gate II

YoshimoSeveral games have mustered weak attempts at conveying the raw emotions of anger, frustration and disappointment that come with an act of betrayal. Most recent in my memory is Roger's (unwilling) betrayal of his comrades in Jeanne d'Arc - an event in which I felt... something, but only because he was one of my strongest characters and he leaves the party as a result. I happen to remember this moment simply because I've recently played the game. Other attempts were so unfortunate and forgettable that I can't think of them now... except for Yoshimo's betrayal in Baldur's Gate II. While Bioware's Baldur's Gate series, as a whole, is arguably the pinnacle of a PC role-playing game "golden age," this singular moment stands out as one of the most defining gaming events I've had the fortune to experience.

Upon entering Spellhold, it is revealed that Yoshimo is working for the uber-villain Irenicus. It's further explained that he is doing so against his will, under a geas. Yet, I was forced to fight him to death. He asks that, when he dies, I take his heart to a temple so that his soul may be cleansed and rest in peace. Until this point, Yoshimo had helped me escape imprisonment, bantered with me and my friends on our journeys, and become a friend and trusted ally. I'm certain I was naive at the time, and wasn't able to see hints of his eventual treachery, but it only made that pivotal moment carry more weight. Within the span of a relatively brief few moments, I had experienced a rush of emotions: betrayal and anger at Yoshimo's treachery, pity and compassion at his frustrated explanation of his uncontrollable actions, and sorrow over his death... at my hands.

BioShockMy experience with Irrational's BioShock featured an equally memorable moment of betrayal. From the opening moments the game, the character Atlas played the role of both guide and friend as I made my way through the ruined city of Rapture. Eventually, it was revealed that Atlas is actually mobster Frank Fontaine, and had been using me as a simple tool to kill Andrew Ryan. I had been brain-washed to obey orders using the trigger phrase, "Would you kindly..." and had been manipulated throughout my journey. The key difference between Fontaine's act of betrayal and Yoshimo's, though, is that there is no redemption for Fontaine. In fact, his treachery puts me in the position of Yoshimo: an unwilling traitor. While both characters were aware that their actions were treacherous, Yoshimo had acted against his will.

What's so important about each of these experiences is that they are mine. I experienced these powerful emotions, not as a third-party observer, but as the focus and target of the actions of others. In It's All About Me, Julian Murdoch says, "It's... because games are about me that I care so much about them." As a casual, external observer of Paul Denton's death or Yoshimo's betrayal, my interest would have been that of the historically-minded archeologist. Instead, I experienced the death of my brother. I had to deal with the treachery of a close friend. I was manipulated and used by the only person I thought I could trust.

These moments are critical to the understanding of why games can be such effective teaching tools. If I can so easily take on the identity of Deus Ex's JC Denton, or BioShock's Jack, I see no reason I couldn't assume the identity of civil engineer, barista, congressman, surgeon or artist with little additional effort and, in doing so, more effectively experience and learn each profession's associated skills.