SPOILERS: Warning this blog post contains minor spoilers about Valkyria Chronicles and a Fallout 3. No giant revelations, really, just a vaguely described plot point in VC and a description of a Fallout side quest.
Last Tuesday I, as I do every day, arrived at work and opened up Gmail to idle in a chatroom with a few of my friends. Taylor went into a series of inane comments about killing rabbits. Cutting through his attempt at inciting humor, I said this,
"Screw you. People have died under my watch in the wasteland. For that, I am saddened. No justice, no recourse for them. Just a festering cesspool of the worst of human immorality. It's all i can do to hope to be a small positive force."
I know, it sounds corny. But it was all I could do to deal with a heavy sense of guilt I was feeling since the night before.
Where did this emotional outburst come from, you ask? Well, I was playing Fallout 3. My character found Big Town. The guard is a nervous 20 something called Rusty. He tells me Big Town is besieged by slavers and super mutants. Inside Big town, the few, young, defenseless and beleaguered residents asked me to save some hostages the mutants had taken to the old police station. The town's doctor, Red was among the captured. Consequently, in Red's clinic lay a severely injured man. Inspecting him gave me the option of attempting to help him or putting him out of his misery. Unfortunately, my medical skill was not high enough and had to leave him.
Heading out of town I encounter two super mutants. One of them aims a mini-gun at me and I watch my health slide steadily down. Panicking, I run back to town, hoping to get help from Dusty. It works. Except the mini-gun mutant blows poor Dusty's head off. Great. I just got the town's only guard killed. I kinda owe them now.
So off I go to the police station. Kill a few mutants here, kill a few there and I'm happily escorting Red back to Big Town. After I arrive, Red mentions she heard that the super mutants were planning another attack on the town. I decide to stay and use my Small Arms skills to teach everyone how to defend themselves.
Before the attack I decide I want to place some mines just across the bridge that is the one entrance to the town. I'm not even half way across it before the mutants launch their attack, lobbing grenades in tandem before pulling out their over sized melee weapons. The first wave is killed off without any casualties and everyone is standing around. I don't realize a second wave is coming and before I know it, more grenades land around me. In a split second I look over and Red is getting a sledgehammer to the head.
When the dust(or gibs in Fallout's case) settles I see Red's body lying next to the mutants'. I talk to the gathered survivors. "I've haven't felt this safe in a long time." When I mention Red, another survivor says "you did all you could."
No I didn't. What if I had payed more attention and put mines down after the first wave? This town would still have its doctor. I head back to Red's clinic and find the injured man still there. I still can't help him. No one can.
I know what you're thinking. Norman's going crazy over a one dimensional, throwaway character the developers were using for one measly side quest in this game. Yet I couldn't get over it. I felt like it was MY fault she died.
I had the same feeling while playing Valkyria Chronicles. The first time a member of my squad permanently died during a mission all I could do was stare at the screen. My mouth hanging open. Never mind the intentionally sad "dying moment" the developers created. The motherly Lancer who couldn't look after us anymore. The Sniper who wanted to avoid the front lines, cursing me for his death. As sad as those blurbs were, they only enhanced this heavy, almost burning feeling in my stomach. It was guilt. I put them where they were when they died. It was my brashness that killed them. Ultimately their deaths were more emotional for me than the death that occurs during a cutscene in the same game. Sure that death was sad, but it wasn't MY fault.
I've taken two things from this. First a bit of insight about myself. Part of mourning is dealing with the irreversible consequences of death.
Second what makes gaming a unique medium from music, movies, etc is its interactivity. When I feel guilt over the consequences of my actions, that is an emotion that cannot be be elicited in a linear medium such as movies. A scripted death is a scripted death. It was inevitable and the viewer played no role in it. However, when death is a consequence of a player's actions it incites more profound emotions. Ultimately, I believe as gaming matures, creators will rely less on the storytelling mechanics of linear mediums such as movies and books and we'll discover what's possible in these interactive experiences.
However, the argument could also be made that I'm just retelling what's part of my personal experience and not what the developer had in mind when they created the game. I'm sure Fallout 3's developers didn't intend to incite such ridiculous amounts of guilt while designing Big Town's quest chain. But that would be judging the experience from a narrative point of view. That Fallout's experience is a series of events plotted out and directed by the developers. There is certainly an amount of design that goes into the environment around this quest chain. However, the open world aspect of this game's "system" means the developer has limited control over what the player ultimately does. Open world games rely on the quality of their "systems" to generate a good player experience. The feature of Fallout's "system" that led to my reaction was consequence. That characters can die and that death have impact on the world.