I suppose I’ve thought enough about this over the past two weeks to present something. First, we need to define what we mean by “Tragedy” then what we mean by “Video Game” after all, what we set out to do here is think way too much.
Let’s start with Aristotle’s definition of Tragedy and work from there. In his Poetics Ari said:
“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.”
So in short, it’s a play with a beginning, middle, and end that is big, sounds cool, has various acts, is not narrated, and achieves a catharsis, in other words one feels sad for the Tragic Hero. It has been said that the Tragic Hero is a great man who through his or her ΄αμαρτια (Hamartia) meets an end and we feel sorry for that person. Since it is absolute and irredeemable. This I believe is actually incorrect. Hamartia literally means “to miss the mark” in fact, it is the word St. Paul uses in his epistles to refer to what we call sin. Rather what we see in Greek tragedy is a hero so great, that he or she dares defy the Gods, or man. In essence what tragic plays are about is the war between human and divine order. Either/or we all lose.
But Tragedy has changed since then. Take a look at Shakespeare. Rather than in the plays of say Sophocles or Euripedes, there is hope. When Oedipus’ father let him live, their fates were sealed. Nothing could be changed. When Juliet drank the potion, there was still hope.
In modern tragedy, anyone can be a tragic hero. The Magnitude of a play need not cover whole realms, it could just be a simple household as in Death of a Salesman.
Anyway, now that I rattled on enough, I present a working definition of a tragedy. Which is: A work of narrative art depicting the fall of a character in such a manner that we feel sorry for him or her. This fall may be caused by their virtue, or vice, but it must always be the result of this virtue or vice ramming into the head of a God or Society.
Alright, got that. A Tragedy has to end bad, but what’s a video game? It’s just a game, that we play on video. So what’s a game? A game is a form of play featuring structured rules and a goal. When one reaches the goal they get rewarded, generally. At least we want something for completing a game. In fact, all video games are like that. You defeat a boss, you get a cutscene as a treat. The boss drops loot, you continue on in the game. Or if the game ends, there is a great feeling of satisfaction. On the 360 now one can unlock achievements. Blizzard is going to do the same thing in World of Warcraft.
Anyway, to put tragedy and gaming together one must merge the two definitions. A tragic game is a form of play, which is acted out by the player in a structure of rules, trying to reach the goal, to be rewarded by their downfall. The player feels sadness and pity. In other words, by this definition a game must end poorly for the player character, and the player needs to feel sorry for it happening.
The closest “tragic game” off of the top of my head is Shadow of the Colossus, but I don’t know if I would consider it one. Surely as a narrative it fits the tragic mold. If I were to tell it as a story, or have it acted out as a play, we would all agree it’s a tragedy. The hero dies at the end, at least that’s what I think. And it’s a result of his virtue smashing head on not only into society but into a God. So why don’t I consider this a “Tragic Game?”
Simply because none of the tragic elements occur as a game. Video games today are not pure video games, save perhaps puzzle games like Tetris. Halo, Legend of Zelda, Mario, ect. are not pure games. Why do I say that? Because when I hit a home run in baseball, reality doesn’t stop for a cutscene. All of the real tragic elements of Shadow of the Colossus occur in cutscenes. All of the tragic elements of Final Fantasy X occur in cutscenes. This is actually why I found Metal Gear Solid 3 to have a lot of genius in it, (SPOILER) The Boss only dies after you press the trigger button, even though it’s a cutscene.
This is the problem with tragic gaming. The tragedy must be in the gameplay. One must reach the goal, and in the heat of battle feel for the character and feel a sense of sadness and pity. Needless to say, this is difficult. What we really have is tragic “Interactive Entertainment,” and the reason we don’t see much of it is because game companies are even more Hollywood than Hollywood. There’s no reason to attempt to make a really good plot when Halo, which wouldn’t even survive as a Hollywood Blockbuster, is making more than… well…. a Hollywood Blockbuster.
I suppose what this has been an exercise in is making definitions. As far as games are today, tragedy can exist, but we only seem to do it in cutscenes. It’s impossible to put it into the part that really matters, the game, because the player doesn’t want to die. We have programmed the player to fight to live. Look at Bioshock, a game that tries to pack in meaning but it doesn’t really matter. Why add the altruism crap if the GAME PLAYS as me shooting everyone in sight in the streets? And dying is not a reward, it’s a punishment. I suppose there is a way to make this work, to play with the conceptions that gamers have of the games they play (and believe me, there are a lot of them) but there’s a fine line between doing it and making the gamer happy, and doing it and making the gamer insanely pissed off.