Tragedy in Gaming

Brian “Psychochild” Green posts a weekly design challenge on his blog, going forward I’m going to try to post my thoughts on his challenges here.

This week he asks about tragedy in games:

Unfortunately, the common cry when trying to discuss a topic like this is, “but, we want games that are entertaining!” It’s that dreaded “art” issue again, where people who talk about literature want to make games that aren’t fun for some stupid academic reason like “evaluating man’s inhumanity to man.” But, some people may want more.

What do you think? Is tragedy an appropriate topic for a game? If so, how would you implement it in to a game? What about into an MMO?

Back before the dawn of time… okay, so it was like 1980-something… when I got my first computer, one of the first games I played (and also one of the first games I actually looked at the code for) was a little thing called Hamurabi.  If you are unfamiliar with the game, essentially you have land, grain, and people.  You must feed the people and make them work the land.  If you rule well, your people thrive.  If you rule poorly, your people starve to death (among other things).  It is a very simple game, and yet as a kid with an incredibly overactive imagination it was tragic for me to play.  I would get so very upset when I couldn’t manage to keep my people alive.  And not “smashing a fist on the table” upset, but like torn up with worry upset.  My people, my poor starving people!

Later games, like Civilization or even SimCity would follow some of the same themes.  Of course, in today’s gaming space, like any industry on the rise, the focus seems to be on profits, and while tragedy is good, and can even be fun, in the marketplace people are more willing to buy action and adventure over tragedy.  However, I absolutely think that a “tragic” game can work, but as with anything you have to be willing to manage your expectations.  And I mean that as a developer.  If you make a game that isn’t your typical “fun” (blowing things up, crafting items, killing hookers, eating power pellets, etc) you’d best make sure to not spend too much money on it unless you really want to lose money.

As for how I would implement it… lets just skip right to the MMO.  In order to get the “tragic” elements properly, the game would need to be huge in scope, and in fact would be more than one game working together.  I’d build a game with a “ground level” which would be a first person shooter or traditional MMO style game.  You could be a soldier and participate in conflict battlegrounds, or you can take a job in the city playing mini-games to craft items and fill orders or work at the bar or whatever.  A step up would be people playing an RTS like game.  In the city they’d be commissioning buildings and setting up businesses, the jobs that other people are working, or on the military side they’d be designating battle zones and rules of engagement.  A step up from that would be a similar RTS but with more “empire building” elements, setting up trade agreements with other empires, giving direction to the city planners and the military, resource management at a higher level.  From the top down, your empire builder would say he needs more people, the city planners would determine that certain businesses are needed, contractors would bid construction, once accepted players would play games to facilitate the construction, they would also play games to run the businesses and they would partake of the “goods” the businesses provide.  In the other silo, building a larger city means you might need more land, so the city planners put in a directive that land is needed, the military higher-ups would select the desired land and ask for surveys, which bottom level players would do, once surveyed if determined hostile a battleground would be set up and players would play FPS/RTS style fights, and over a given period the side that wins the “map” the most is awarded the victory, opening the land for use by the city planners of their side.  All players would be allowed to “defect” to another empire if they become unhappy with the current regime.

Essentially, the game would have to have many levels and be very complex, because in order for a player to be in and understand their place in the world there needs to be places in the world for them to be.  In a way, these elements already exist in some games, though they are mostly web games like MafiaMatrix, and mostly very simplistic.  The best part about it, in my opinion, is the amount of social interaction it encourages.  A single player can do some elements of the game alone, but they can’t do everything themselves and in order to advance or move around in the social structure one must, in fact, be social.

One comment

  1. Oh, man, that game brought back some memories! I had a very similar experience, where I found the game Hamurabi and became fascinated by it. I spent time trying to clone it and improve it.

    A very interesting example of how a game can be really tragic if it affects you on an emotional level.

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