Living forever through video games

I’ve always preferred video games to films. The latter present a plot which can’t be changed but with the former, there’s always that feeling of being able to affect the outcome even if it’s just an illusion of choice. We may ultimately arrive at set-points determined by the developer but those choices we’re presented with along the way change it into our own story.

Narrative in gaming has come on a long way since the days of rescuing princesses from castles. And we now have access to a wide range of protagonists which aren’t always the stereotypical white male hero, and it’s far easier to find one we can relate to and admire. Each character is fully developed with their own backstories, intentions, strengths and weaknesses, and the conflict they encounter drives the story forward in a way which makes the player care about their journey.

Think of all the protagonists you’ve stepped into the shoes of in all your years of gaming; how many have there been? I’ve broken all the rules and battled mechanical beasts throughout Mother’s Heart as Aloy. Taken on zombie-ghost-pirates with nothing more than a bottle of root beer as Guybrush Threepwood. Struggled with depression and been helped by good friends (as well as getting up to mischief with them) as Mae Borowski. And that’s just the start of a very long list.

I’ve been on adventures both big and small with so many digital people and although their story has become my own, it’s also become that for so many other gamers around the world. Thousands of other players have taken on the role of the same character and walked those same steps. Each of us may have experienced their tale in a different way, been affected by different elements or learnt different lessons from the encounter, but we’ve all felt what it’s like to be that protagonist and live in their world.

Video games give us the chance to live multiple lives in hundreds of ways. One day you can be a Dragonborn, going up against Alduin and an army of flying beasts raised from the dead; the next you can inherit your grandfather’s old farm and spend your time peacefully tending to crops and livestock. You might vow to end the Reaper threat, sailing through the stars and visiting distant planets. Or you might decide to go home after being away from your family for a time and find out what’s happened to your sister.

You could almost say that games can grant us a certain kind of ‘immortality’ when you think about it in this way. Although our time here is limited, the characters we’ve played as throughout our years never really die and their influence is felt in future releases and narratives, and even in the lessons they’ve taught each player. A protagonist’s tale becomes our own during those hours we spend alongside them; and as soon as another person picks up a controller, it becomes their story too.

Of course, it’s possible that at some point a game may be forgotten or the servers might be switched off once popularity wanes. But each character is never truly gone. They will always remain a digital possibility somewhere, waiting for someone to relive their tale – and ours – once again.

SOMA: the real monster in the dark

Horror games are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. There are plenty of gamers who can’t wait to step across the threshold to an abandoned mansion, hiding in terror from the demons that stalk them in the darkness while they search for inhabitants’ secrets.

Then there are others like myself who transform into a quivering mess as soon as they pick up the controller and start imagining all sorts of monsters once the lights go out. What can I say, I have an overactive imagination.

It’s therefore somewhat strange that I suggested SOMA when my other-half and I were looking for something to play recently. This 2015 release from Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is advertised on its Steam page as a ‘science-fiction horror’ in which the player ‘faces horrors buried deep beneath the ocean waves’. It’s one of those titles I’d heard a lot of good things about from friends and thought we should finally get around to checking out… although I did make it clear to Pete he’d owning the controls for this one.

The following post contains some major spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on otherwise you’ll ruin the experience for yourself!

During the 11 hours it took us to fully explore the underwater research facility known as PATHOS-II, we encountered all manner of threats while trying to figure out how protagonist Simon Jarrett ended up there and his method of escape. A variety of enemies were on standby including corrupted humans, deranged robots and angry fish who wanted nothing more than to rip off our head; and many typical horror elements including isolation, tension and uncertainty were present.

But would I say that SOMA as a video game was scary? Ultimately, no. Although there were a few freaky moments and some yelp-inducing jump-scares, it didn’t leave me diving for the nearest cushion on the sofa so I could hide. However, its themes are a different matter altogether; they’ve left an uneasy, anxious sensation in the Later Levels household and have been the case of several interesting philosophical conversations in the fortnight since we reached the end credits.

SOMA leaves the player questioning what it is that makes us human through a storyline based on the idea of scanning human intelligence. In its world of 2104, scientists can use advanced technology to take an exact copy of your personality and then upload this into a robot or simulation to give it your memories and experiences. This being then goes on to live a version of your life from that point forward with your beliefs and feelings to guide it through its new existence.

Does this mean you’re still you? And if so, are these copies something less than you with a reduced right to life? Situations thrown at Simon throughout his journey poke holes in our answers to these conundrums. For example, take the point in the game where it’s necessary to obtain a chip from a robot using force. Are you simply taking a part you need from a machine; or does the fact that it has the personality of a real person and therefore considers itself to be human make it more than that?

These questions become even more complex when it’s your own personality which is at stake. For instance, say the body you’re currently in is failing in some way and you’re offered the opportunity to be copied over into a new one. Which version of you then takes precedence? Should the old version be terminated? And if both copies should be allowed to live for however long they have left, how do you come to terms with there being multiple versions of yourself in the same space?

More importantly: how would you feel if you found out that you were the copy?

The things we discovered in SOMA and its questions around what it really means to be human were far scarier than any of the monsters encountered in the corridors of PATHOS-II. Instead of being just another release about demons chasing us in the dark, Frictional Games have given us something infinitely more terrifying.

Cocktails with Red Strings attached

It’s usually obvious who the antagonist is when you play a video game. Even when there’s a plot twist at the end, they tend to make themselves known. With The Red Strings Club however, I was kept guessing every step of the way and even now am questioning who the real villain was.

The following post contains some minor spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on – going in with limited information will make for an even better experience.

This title takes place in a cyberpunk future, where the Supercontinent Ltd corporation is on the verge of releasing Social Psyche Welfare (SPW) to the population: a system that will eliminate depression, anger and fear from society enabling everyone to be their ‘better selves’. But the bartender of a clandestine club and a freelance hacker don’t regard this evolution as an improvement and instead see it as brainwashing, so together with a rogue empathy android and company employees they will pull all the strings they can bring down the scheme.

However, it’s so much more than pretty pixels on a screen and what at first appears as a typical dystopian science-fiction storyline. The Red Strings Club excels at taking a subject which seems to be crystal clear and then twisting it back on itself until you’re questioning your own beliefs and motivations. It asks difficult questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, and you’ll be left thinking about the choices you’ve made long after the credits have rolled.

Players step into the shoes of a protagonist and take on a mini-game in between dialogue trees. The first is advanced android Akara-184 who manufactures personality-changing implants to meet her clients’ needs, many of which relate to influence or power. The solution isn’t always straight-forward however; for example, for the cosplayer who wants to be more popular online, do you increase their social network charisma or remove their need to be socially-accepted altogether?

Akara is presented with characters who will go as far as installing a behaviour modifier chosen by a robot into their bodies because they’re so scared of their weaknesses, despite not knowing what effect this will have or whether it will make them happier in the long-run. There are parallels here to the products and technology we’re confronted with every day which tell us we’d be fulfilled if we were prettier, skinnier or more popular. Is it our flaws who make us who we are and are we fundamentally changing ourselves by removing them?

Next up is Donovan, the bartender and owner of The Red Strings Club itself. His speciality is mixing cocktails but they’re no ordinary drinks; they tap into the hidden parts of a patron’s psyche once consumed and allow you to subtly influence them to get the information you require. For example, a blend of absinthe and bourbon will make the madness in one character’s personality more prominent while a mix of tequila and vodka will make them lustful and forward-speaking.

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, Akara

One character here is worthy of an individual mention for several reasons. Marketing Director Larissa may appear confident, glamourous and unashamed but a deeper look into her soul reveals an awful lot of depression, showing that a bold exterior can sometimes be a mask for other emotions. Later during the title when a secret is revealed it becomes clear that there’s more to how she’s feeling. It’s worth pointing out that this is a point which gained negative criticism from some players.

While the Supercontinent supporters interviewed by Donovan at the bar say its SPW technology is no different from the mood-controlling medication taken by a lot of the population, we’re left with the question of whether his cocktails are just another form of control. The irony of him giving his customers mind-altering drinks in order to bring down a neurological manipulation scheme isn’t lost on them either. Each question you ask branches off into a different part of the story and you constantly wonder whether you’d made the right choices.

You can to chat to Akara between customers and she’ll question you on morality, humanity, technology and the relationships between them. It’s during one of these sessions that she presents you with hypothetical situations that seem almost obvious; for example, it’s hard to dispute the fact that using SPW to remove homophobia or racism from society could be a good thing. But she’s then quick to poke holes in your logic and asks who gets to make those kinds of choices.

The Red Strings Club, video game, office, telephone, man, Brandeis

This paves the way for Brandeis’s section of the game where he must sneak into Supercontinent’s headquarters undetected and bring down the technology designed to deploy SPW to the masses. As communications and access to critical systems are handled through an old-fashioned landline network, he does so using an implant which enables him to impersonate anyone’s voice providing he has enough biometric data. The hacker must use clues found in an empty office and information obtained from those he calls to sabotage the network.

But surely this is him imposing his view of the best outcome on humanity? How is that different from the corporation forcing theirs upon us? Is it moral to make a choice if it’s for the greater good; and what if your idea of ‘good’ is vastly different from somebody else’s? The Red Strings Club argues that bending society’s rules and changing the future based on the opinions of one group is hypocritical, and it calls you out for making the decisions you have.

Akara, Donovan and Brandeis all begin to doubt their motivations and purpose as the game progresses and this cleverly mimics how the player is feeling. You’ll eventually realise the consequences of your actions on the title’s world and, while you might be confident about some of the choices you took, the delayed cause-and-effect gives rise to internal questions about how you could have formed certain opinions in the first place. It makes for a uniquely personal experience which isn’t entirely a comfortable one.

The Red Strings Club, video game, photograph, selfie, men, Brandeis, Donovan, notebook, bar, drinks

The Red Strings Club is a release that asks us how far we’re willing to go to suppress the worst aspects of our personalities for the good of the population, and whether it’s worth sacrificing negative emotions such as sadness and anger. Do our feelings make us who we are, are we shaped by our suffering, and is happiness at the cost of free will ultimately worth it? Deconstructeam have managed to give us a game which makes the player consider who the real villain is.

As Akara says: “I’m programmed to make you happy, not to give you everything you want – those are two very different things.”