Sometimes you know something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s not like standing at the box office of a seedy theatre in Tijuana, crumpled bills clenched in your sinful hands as a deluge of guilty sweat runs from your forehead to your unshaven face; you know what you’re about to do is wrong and you can pinpoint exactly the reasons why.
No, this sort of wrong is a bit more elusive, something more akin to a cognitive dissonance that takes you days or weeks to reconcile. Suddenly, though, it clicks and you realize what made you feel so off, why it’s as if you’d been wearing your pants backwards all day and just now noticed.
This happened while I was playing Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the debut title from Ken Rolston & co. at Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios and its subsidiary Big Huge Games. It’s an action RPG that features you as a mortal who has broken free from the bonds of fate (and is thenceforth creatively referred to as the “Fateless One”). This really wouldn’t be all that big of a deal except fate actually turns out to be a pretty big deal in the world of Amalur.
Everyone has a predetermined destiny spun by the Fateweavers and you had just recently fulfilled yours by dying. However, you are resurrected by the Travelocity gnome’s big brother and have fallen from the path previously set before you. This, as it turns out, has some pretty nice perks, such as being able to change the fates of anyone around you and getting discounts at the corner store.
And here is where the dissonance begins. The entire game is based on the concept of fate and it continually hammers into your gamer-sized brain (lest it leaks out while you petition to change the ending of Super Mario World for not having enough Yoshis) that the destiny laid at your feet prior no longer exists. Your path had ended but your journey did not.
You are free.
The problem is that I am still playing a game with a predetermined ending and predetermined plot. Worse yet, there is a single ending that bursts forth with the uplifting revelation that we are all unfettered by fate and have been granted full agency of our own lives by way of simply existing. How am I supposed to feel free when I know the hundreds of thousands of other players are plodding along the exact same path as me?
It’s an odd concession you make when you play video games, more so than when you watch movies or read books; you are participating in an interactive medium. Films and novels are wholly presented to you as a story and you are never once put in a product designed to make you connect with a fictional world through a controllable conduit. In games, the immersion provided is just as important as how the game plays and how it looks. In the moments you are playing, you should lose yourself as the character and not simply watch or read a story. You should believe you are this man destined for death but living in defiance.
You are fateless.
That, unfortunately, is not the case. In fact, you are operating in a reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. There is only one path and only one way this game will end and that is the way 38 Studios has deemed fit. Being freed from a destiny that has already been fulfilled only to be put on the road towards another one? The contrast is stark and highlights this unfortunate dichotomy in an otherwise excellent game.
This isn’t a problem that is unique to Reckoning, but it’s easier to sweep under the rug when every other game isn’t focused on the importance of free will and the power in recognizing your ability to not lie down and die. This is only the story of a man who is unshackled, unrestrained, and unequivocally autonomous in a kingdom of marching ants, but you are not him.
You are not free. You are not fateless.
You are bound.