We Need More Pessimistic Games
Video games, for whatever reason, have a hard time committing to the hell of life.
Image courtesy Sony
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
It is possible that we do not have pessimistic video games. I do not mean that we don’t have games with a down tone or with a general sense of negativity. I mean that video games, for whatever reason, have a hard time committing to the hell of life. They can be depressive, but they have a hard time letting go of the thought that there might be something good at the end of all this difficult. The vast majority of our games produce heroes; the heroes have stories fit for heroes; the world changes in response to the player’s tectonic actions. Our blockbuster video games are plagued with the optimism of gameplay.
I came to this conclusion while reading Eugene Thacker’s newest: Infinite Resignation. It’s an aphoristic, compelling, and depressing book on the nature of pessimism. And while philosophical writing, poetry, and novels show up throughout, it doesn’t have much to say about the power of the pessimistic video game. There’s no games at all, in fact. And I wonder if it has to do with what video games are.
I want to consider the latter. Like Thacker, I think there’s value in pessimism. I think there is value in thinking of the world as a rotting thing that we’re trapped inside. Pessimism is the act of being sad and thinking about that sadness, dwelling on it, and interpreting the world through that sadness. Pessimism is, as Thacker says early in his book, “the crime of not pretending it’s all for a reason.”
After all, the reason for existing in many videos games is to make your mark on the world. Like an advertisement for a for-profit university or the military, the pitch of the contemporary blockbuster game is all about blowing through the roof of your potential. All that you can be, and more. There’s a universe out there just waiting for you to discover it; there’s a billion enemies that need to be killed; there are science fiction tombs on the moon that need to be raided. The sheer optimism and projection of will that emits out from the player into these finely honed worlds is like a laser beam. Or maybe it is more like that ray that cracks out from the Death Star—whatever passes through the player’s sight does not emerge unchanged.
But Master Chief doesn’t feed the starving. Chainsaw assault rifles don’t liberate countries from corrupt governments. City builders can’t even think mixed zoning, let alone structural ways of shifting our culture. Uncharted models the psychology of the plundering villain, too self-centered to recognize that his impact on the hidden cultures and the people around him are almost certainly a net negative. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to produce unbelievable playgrounds that, in their best moments, still succumb to the black-and-while Manichaeism of good-and-evil that plays with grey before resolving it.
Experiencing the world of the blockbuster video game character unweighted by reality, who starts out from their home and crushes the world beneath their heel, has made me more of a pessimist. Years ago I was asked to be on a panel that would argue that games could save the world, and I responded that I didn’t think that was true, that games might not save us. In my best moments, the ones where the pessimism gets overwritten by hope, I think that games might give us the tools to save ourselves. But they don’t do the liberating, and sinking 200 hours into World of Warcraft isn’t going to do anything other than entertain me and make Blizzard Activision’s pockets one one billionth of a percentile deeper.
If it is all entertainment, fine. Follies and laughs. But the language of the role of the player in all of this is presented to us such a way that the individual hero becomes the most important person in the universe. Go look at any video game advertisement. You’re never just a hero; you’re Spider-Man, traveling through the world and writing wrongs minor and major with your fists and webs. You’re the center of this small cosmos, and where you choose to intervene is the only possible intervention.
The optimism of video games, the absolute blue skies dream world of them, is delivered through the absolute certainty that your fist, your bullet, or your sword is going to make the world more just, more right, more good than it was before.
And in my worst moments, my most unpleasant moments, I feel defeated by this fact. As Thacker puts it, “the pessimist can never live up to the political.” My being defeated defeats my belief that I can do anything at all against the steamroller of the cultural assumptions built into these stories we tell inside of the worlds built for us.
In my worst moments, my most unpleasant moments, I feel defeated by this fact.
Maybe this is why I yearn for the pessimistic game. I don’t mean the grimdark game, or the antiheroic game. I’m not talking about Batman crunching spines for 40 hours or Mad Max crashing his way through a dozen small communities. The “realistic” hero who “just does what needs to be done” is often a narrative excuse for justifying cruelty and extremism. In video games, being a badass just generally means being a bad person doing bad things but who is impossibly smug about it.
The pessimistic game could be something like Andi McClure’s bleak He Never Showed Up, which places players in the context of someone who was stood up on a date. Just like real life, you can’t really do much about that. Being stood up is a kind of emotional unmooring where you, ready to have a good time and with the jitters of trying to see if you will enjoy someone, have the rug pulled out from you. It is a way of crumpling, and McClure pushes on the bounds of this experience by giving the player a way of reducing the world around them. In a very real way, your only action is to despair, and He Never Showed Up is a game that asks us to actively despair with the tools that are given to us.
Smaller, more independent games might be our best access to pessimism in games simply because they are not tasked with making people want a sequel. They do not need the word of mouth about how cool an experience it is to play. They do not need anyone to feel good about spending $60 on them. If pessimism is repellant “take it or leave it” behavior, then small games released into the world without the expectation of return or investment are probably our best bet.
Molleindustria’s Every day the same dream approaches from this angle, asking us to consider our role in an economic machine that demands very specific things from us. We wear certain clothes, perform routines, and we play our role in society until we die. On face, this social conservatism is exactly what our blockbuster games are against. We need a Batman, after all, to put the world right side up again. However, as Every day the same dream demonstrates, even escaping from that cycle puts you in a predefined relationship. You’re a rebel, and at best, you’re searching for self-destruction.
Pessimism, crucially, does not see a way out.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture recently. It puts you inside a quaint English village, and you slowly walk around it and the countryside in order to figure out where the hell everyone went. What you learn is that something scientific went wrong. Wherever the people went, they’re not here anymore, and they’ve left echoes of themselves imprinted on the world.
It is a game about discovery where you discover nothing at all; it is a game about finding things, but you find nothing; in the end, it is a game about accepting the limits of yourself and of humans. Face with obliteration, the people who once lived in that world just kept living their lives up to the last moment. The player, like them, keeps looking for clues and essentially finds nothing.
And there are other games, too, that get us close. Silent Hill 2 or Paratopic, for instance, are both broader games that reach for something beyond the pessimistic safety of self reflection while also being fundamentally negative in their appraisal of the world.
These pessimistic games are something I crave, especially in the player-centered heroics video game release season. In the autumn, as the leaves fall, I yearn for games that ask me to consider what I can’t do. I want games that give me the old gut check and say “hey, you’re just a human, and this is all that humans can do.” Because that’s the antidote to the bullet and the fist solving the plot problems. The place we have to start is recognizing that we’re all the same, that no one has special access to making the world good again, and that we can all be crushed under the bootheels of injustice, pain, and misery. And maybe this lets us learn to be okay with feeling defeated, with recognizing that being defeated is alright, because it can happen to anyone. Pessimistic games let us feel bad without feeling weak; they engage defeat without demanding revenge.
And this is what I crave in the world of games. Not heroics or the parody of antihero (the grim Batman; the zombie survivor who does what he must), but instead games that take seriously the drama and trauma of feeling like you’re living underwater. Games that ask us to navigate inescapable human life. I want more pessimistic games.