Interactive Tragedy: The Kobayashi Maru, Storytelling, and Videogames

SPOILER WARNING: The Banner Saga, Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us.

Shakespeare is famous more for his tragedies than his comedies (or histories or poetry), but Shakespeare is far from the only tragic playwright. Aristotle believed that the purpose of tragedy is catharsis – the purging emotions like fear and anger through art. Shakespeare’s tragedies were famous for all (or nearly all) of the main characters meeting an untimely demise at some point during the story. This tradition continues in movies like The Departed and Pan’s Labyrinth, and to some extent in noir comics like Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal and Fatale .

One of the features of many of these stories is he often rapid decline and unravelling of the lives of people who would be “normal.” Tragedies are easily identified by the untimely demise of the main characters, often as a result of their own actions.

Tragic storytelling has long been a feature of art, but rarely is interactive storytelling (a-la video games) truly tragic in the Shakespearean sense. Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us, and most recently for me, The Banner Saga, are recent exceptions to this rule. These games, all of which rely on emotional investment in the primary protagonist to tell their story, are tragedies.

The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional “test” given to Starfleet cadets in the Star Trek universe. It is designed to be an unwinnable scenario – the cadet receiving the test encounters a disabled ship in the Klingon neutral zone. Rescuing the ship will violate the treaty and provoke an attack from the Klingons, but leaving the ship stranded will undoubtedly mean the death of the ship and its passengers. The test became part of the mainstream canon thanks to the 2009 Star Trek movie, in which James Tiberius Kirk cheats the test and reprograms it in order to make the scenario “winnable.”

Kirk famously insists that he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.

Interactive tragedy feels like a no-win scenario. In the realm of video games, it can be particularly frustrating. No matter how meticulously you play through each chapter, it’s often cut-scenes or non-interactive moments that snatch your beloved characters away from you. Sometimes, however, it’s a result of the choices you make that the characters you have invested in have to die.

My recent experience with The Banner Saga left me reeling a little bit. The story begins in a world already engulfed in tragedy: the gods are dead, giants and humans have been at war, mysterious creatures called Dredge are now invading the homes of both, forcing an uneasy alliance between them. Above all, the sun has stopped moving through the sky and the already-restless world is bathed in ceaseless daylight, offering the weary stragglers and survivors of two wars no night in which to find sleep.

The game centers around managing your struggling caravan of refugees as you make your way from one overcrowded stronghold to the next. The days tick by while your resources are soaked up. Many times, a week or more would go by between towns where I could restock our carts of food and supplies. Many times I was only able to buy a couple of days worth of rations on each stop.

With every day that goes by after your food runs out, your clansmen, fighters, and allied giants will die off in greater and greater numbers. Before I finally reached the final stronghold where we were forced to turn and fight the approaching Dredge, an inland sea at our backs, my caravan had gone for 4 days without food.

[Major spoilers follow for The Banner Saga] When we were making our final stand, my character’s daughter stepped forward. The party had been given a single arrow, forged from metal imbued with a dead god’s power, and it was the only weapon that could take down the large, vengeful Dredge called Bellower that had been hunting us throughout the game. She was a master archer, and I was less skilled. Despite my insistence that Bellower’s vengeful nature would make the wielder of the magic arrow his primary target, she said, “It’s time for me to decide what happens to me,” and took the arrow into battle where she would be sure to make the shot, and sure to incur Bellower’s wrath.

There was nothing I could do to stop it. We brought down the giant Dredge, but we watched the young woman crushed in his hands.

In the course of the game, I’d lost several friends to unforeseeable consequences of decisions I’d made for the good of the caravan. My most trusted friend lost his arm defending us. I was responsible for destroying a magnificent bridge, constructed by the giants, in a vain attempt to slow the advancing dredge army. Hundreds of fighters died under my “command.”

But this moment, this excruciating moment, was when I realized the tragedy of this story. As we floated her body away on a boat we’d set ablaze, I realized there was no other way it could have gone. Whoever shot that arrow was going to die, and though part of me wished that I had given it to my own character, my character’s daughter had a point: it was her turn to define what would happen to her.

The Kobayashi Maru is a simulated tragedy to teach Starfleet cadets a lesson about “real life” no-win scenarios they might encounter as the commander of a starship. It’s not real, but unprepared cadets would go into the test expecting to pass it, and would be shocked into learning a lesson that they will be making hard decisions one which lives would depend in their careers with starfleet.

Tragic plays, novels, and movies offer emotional catharsis, benefiting the viewers and readers. They’re also simulated tragedy in that they’re not “real” events. It’s not a lesson learned, like with the Kobayashi Maru, but it’s an emotional investment in art that changes you for the better.

Video games walk a line between what the (admittedly fictional) Kobayashi Maru does and what Macbeth does. They are interactive, like the Kobayashi, and decisions you make will affect the outcome of the story, the “lives” of some of the characters depend on you. Emotional investments are part of what makes these tragedies meaningful, like in other tragedies, but the impact of your own decisions on the stories gives the a different character. It’s one thing to watch Macbeth’s downward spiral into oblivion, it’s an entirely different and deeper thing to be the cause of it.

Simulated tragedy hurts. Interactive tragedy hurts worse.

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