Wednesday, June 1, 2016


“The fate of the world hangs in the balance!”  It’s a common theme in video games.  So much so, it can feel a bit stale.  That said, some developers exercise a degree of restraint and opt for a more personal approach.  In some cases this can lead to a more relatable conflict, or even amusing circumstances.  Let’s look at a few examples from the distant past, shall we?

The Wing Commander franchise eventually turned into a poor-man’s Star Wars, but early on it actually had a much more grounded approach.  The outcome of the overarching conflict didn’t rest in the player’s hands.  Rather, the overall prosecution of the war is pushed to the background in favor of the exploits of a single warship, the Tiger’s Claw.  Its struggle to hold the line in the Vega Sector is important (but not vital) in the grand scheme of things.  Depending on the player’s performance in the cockpit, the Tiger’s Claw might secure the sector or be forced to abandon it.  Either way the war isn’t won or lost.  It’s strongly implied that there are many other sectors and at least a half-dozen other warships like the Tiger’s Claw.  However, this doesn’t mean the player is unimportant.  Far from it, Wing Commander will periodically cut to other places in the Vega Sector to show how the player’s actions have indirectly affected the well being of people far and wide.  More personally, the lives of fellow pilots can be saved or lost based entirely on how well the player does.  Ultimately, it’s about the low ranking men and women serving aboard one warship in a time of interstellar conflict.

A point-and-click adventure game about a biker gang might seem like a hard premise to make interesting, but the now defunct Lucas Art’s Studios did an admirable job with Full Throttle.  In the near future Corley Motors is the last combustion engine bike manufacturer in the world.  The CEO has just been murdered and the player’s gang has been framed for it.  As it turns out, the number two guy at Corley is really responsible.  What was his motivation for this heinous crime?  To switch the company over to selling minivans, of course!  Shifting from classic motorcycles to ultramodern minivans might not seem particularly important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s very much a personal tale.  To the subculture that is classic motor enthusiasts a worst case scenario would be the systematic obliteration of their hobby by a soulless corporate mandate.  That might sound bizarre to a lot of folks, but, as someone who used to ride dirt bikes in their youth, I can relate.

Last up is a real oldie, Space Quest II.  No point-and-click adventuring here.  This is one of those ancient text-parser games.  You literally have to type in commands like “open door,” “pick up bucket,” and “use stone with athletic supporter.” I’m not even making up that last one.  The gameplay in Space Quest II is fairly similar to the original which is unsurprising considering that it was made by two guys (from Andromeda) about six months after the original came out.  The story, on the other hand, is considerably different.  In the original, the player was tasked with saving an utopian planet from certain doom, but in the sequel said planet is in danger from a very different kind of threat.  The inhabitants don’t face annihilation.  Instead they are at risk of constant, unabating heckling from an army of door-to-door salesmen.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The main villain’s nefarious plan is to release a legion of clean-shaven, suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying clones, who will try to sell anyone and everyone useless insurance policies 24-7.  To me, that sounds like a complete nightmare.  I would definitely want to put a stop to it, which is exactly what the player has to do…after first dealing with guards from Planet of the Apes, a big-lipped xenomorph from Aliens and a reptilian knock-off of that spinning Tasmanian devil from Bugs Bunny.  I swear this is all true!

Anyway, old referential video game humor aside, I kind of feel like the attempt to make things feel epic by putting everything at stake is severally misplaced.  When it comes to Epics in the traditional sense the heroes don’t save the world.  Take Beowulf, for example.  All he did was avail two small communities in Northern Europe from the ravages of a troll, a witch and (much later in the story) a dragon, yet his name has endured for over a millennium. Why does every hero these days have to save the entire planet/galaxy/universe from destruction?  Isn’t it enough to save a city, or a village, or dare I say the life of one person? I’d like to think so. Bonus points if they do it without using any super powers.

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