I just suffered my first real ‘bad end’ in X-COM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Brainwashed comm operators sabotaged my base and, having just come off a string of terror missions leaving most of my top-ranked soldiers KIA and my high-end MECs in for repairs, I didn’t stand much of a chance against the ensuing alien horde. So it goes.
Starting off on a fresh file with the Enemy Within expansion appears to have been a big mistake, as there are a lot of balance issues and weird staggering of events that make it difficult to proceed conservatively, even if I felt like it. As it is, I’m playing chiefly to have something to play. There are few enough games that can be played one-handed (my dominant hand is still, unfortunately, too injured to do much more than press Enter occasionally), and fewer still that don’t seem to fall into the trough of either puzzle games or sims, and better the devil that you know, I guess.
Still, something’s been rolling around in my head since I read Michael Lutz’s piece on First-Person Scholar about “replay value” as a quality of performance art. In it, Lutz suggests that the reason Spelunky expresses (that ol’ canard) “replayability” for him is not just the emergent dungeon design, but the particulars of its interlocking parts.
A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, [Peggy] Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance”. According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced [...]
I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience. Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay. The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths -– but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured.
I’d like to dispense with the idea of “future accomplishment” here — I only include the end of the quote so as not to change Lutz’s meaning — and focus, really, on the performance of loss. Because I like the idea of playing through doomed scenarios, not in anticipation of some 11th hour Hollywood cliche, but to see it all crumble as well it must.
Too dark? I don’t know. I remain convinced that a major issue many people had with the original Mass Effect 3 ending was that you couldn’t really save the day. Not how you wanted. Not how the series had set you up to believe you could. And I actually rather liked that the game pulled the rug out from underneath you like that. It changed the rules and made every win state horribly unacceptable. Love it. Give me more.
Another game I managed to play recently was Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. It’s a damned triggering game and I needed a lot of self-care afterwards because — spoiler — the protagonist almost surely kills himself at the end, no matter what you do. But I suppose I’m glad I played it because that’s the point of the game, to reveal in the harshest terms the raw brutality of this man’s depression. Or, as someone suggested to me when I discussed it with them afterwards:
I feel like [Actual Sunlight] is a game about using the hopelessness of the worst case scenario to make the possibility of hope more apparent.
You can’t “win” Actual Sunlight. You can only participate in a doomed situation. If I replayed the base defense mission in Enemy Within a hundred times I’d probably get no closer to completing it, simply by virtue of how poorly equipped my remaining units are (the same way Evan, we might say, was not adequately equipped to combat his suicidality). No, it’s not about the “specter of future accomplishment” here, not within the context of these units or these representations. It’s more about that certain poetic catharsis gained from bringing something to the only end available to us.
Put another way, my Enemy Within squad, my Commander Shepard, and Actual Sunlight‘s protagonist are each headed toward death (unless you take the interpretation that Evan doesn’t die at the end — not a reading I hold to, personally), but the particulars of getting there make up the actual performance. The real disappearing act, you could say.
(See also: Lee’s demise in The Walking Dead; most samurai films; nearly any classic arcade game; Super Hexagon except for a few skilled individuals.)