Grilling up the Small Stakes

Grilling up the Small Stakes

There’s a point of escalation to where it doesn’t even feel like you’re going up anymore. Once the space elevator gets built, I’m sure it will prove this notion; somewhere around the 200th mile or so and the thrill of traveling up a ribbon of carbon nanotubes up into the thermosphere becomes the same droll of any other elevator. But until then, think of it like a roller coaster. On that main ascent, what are the most exciting parts of it?

The two answers easily offered up are the beginning and the end. What of the middle? Well, what about it? The middle is a homogenized slog of indifference. It is a necessary step for a top or turning point to exist and nothing more. When you first start out and the cars shake and rattle as the chain catches the underside, you are filled with pure excitement, pure elation. All you can think about how fun this is going to be, your bones rattling in that very particular way old timey roller coasters rattle bones.

As you begin to crest the first and largest of the hills, the genesis of the rest of the ride, anxiety builds. It’s a certain nervousness of fear and rationalization that there’s nothing to fear. These things are, after all, pretty safe.

And then there’s the drop and the loops and the dragons and whatever: the payoff for the wait and that hot little turnip of nerves all that contemplating of your own mortality has turned you into. But what about the parts of the ascent that don’t involve turning towards the heavens or down towards an earthly tomb? That part, to an extent, doesn’t matter. Past a sufficient height, it all becomes a single note in an operatic trill held too long. Worse than that, you lose the relative scope of it all and that buildup of anticipation fades away and turns into boredom.

This, if you’ll take it, is a metaphor for stories in video games. This is a parable for the direction that many narratives in our digital entertainment have gone. But it is also merely a symptom for a root cause that many have identified but few have fixed.

If I could boil it all down to a single statement, it would be that our virtual storytellers are confusing meaning with scope, that bigger stakes are better stakes. They want to build the world’s tallest roller coaster but not the best roller coaster. Even though the best may also be the tallest in the world, they don’t forget the small stakes: a vertical corkscrew ascent that results in a mirrored descent, a sharp 90-degree twist after a four-second, 0-to-120mph drop, and an 85-degree plunge back down to Earth.

But those crafting the stories we revel in through our tablets and our controllers seem content at keeping you up at those stratospheric heights, failing to utilize all of that potential energy we just spent nearly half of the ride gaining. Though not purely an indictment of blockbuster hits, many triple-A games seem emblematic of this problem, that we turn the knob up to 11 and leave it there.

This was actually a lingering critique of many (all?) post-Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare entries into the storied first-person franchise. Where do you go after you threaten the world with nukes? What about after you actually blow one up? Two nukes? Twenty nukes? It’s a rising escalation that has lost its footing, to where you lose the relative scale of the implications of these actions.

That bar keeps getting raised, but now there seems to be less space at the top. Mass Effect was a trilogy built on the premise of saving the entire known universe. Halo went from saving our little rinky-dink planet Earth to also saving the whole universe. Assassin’s Creed went from Desmond Miles trying to learn about his family to, once again, preventing the mass eradication of everything everywhere. You can only save the world so many times from certain annihilation at the hands of Locusts or Necromorphs or Helghast or Chimera before you just become numb to the whole “being a hero” thing.

Of course, being a hero doesn’t necessarily have to mean preventing humanity’s extinction, nor is this a put-down or categorical admonition of the entire triple-A gaming sector, but it does make you consider where that switch flips from quantity to quality, so to speak. There is no minimum size for these stakes.

There is a game that a lot of people have been talking about lately called Papers Please. Described as a “dystopian document thriller,” it’s a game made by Lucas Pope that requires you to play the role of an immigration inspector at a border town in the middle of a raging war. You, however, take no part in this war between Arstotzka and Kolechia and instead just stamp passports. You’ll check names, look up rules, interrogate people, and try to earn money so your family doesn’t die. It reminds me an awful lot of Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life except with a lot more of that hot stamping action.

And just like the recent IGF winner in Cart Life, Papers Please specializes in those small scale dramas. My actions, for the most part, have no direct impact on the war, let alone the rest of the world. I am not a single superpowered soldier that will solely determine the outcome of the galaxy; I am just a man trying to make a living. And when my son gets sick, I worry. When I have to reject a mother trying to see her son for having late papers, my heart breaks. Every little thing is so small and means so little to everyone else, but they are the only things that exist in my world.

It’s this economy of scale that is important, not the actual size of your measuring stick. Not only can I relate to trying to do a good job and failing, but it is all this character has and he is failing at it. In Cart Life, getting custody of my daughter may not mean anything to anyone else, but showing up late to pick her up from school is more devastating that if a hundred nukes go off in the next Call of Duty.

Pope actually seems to specialize in these sorts of games, these singular experiences where he maximizes his component utilities. 6 Degrees of Sabotage is about determining the network of ne’er-do-wells surrounding a bomb that went off an hour ago. The bomb has already detonated, the damage has been done, and you are simply figuring out a mystery. If Modern Warfare covers the action-packed attempt to prevent the bomb from going off, 6 Degrees of Sabotage is about the aftermath where you review security tapes, and it is gripping.

Pope’s The Republia Times has you as an editor-in-chief trying to steer public opinions of your nation with your editorial oversight, and it, too, is gripping (if a bit rudimentary). There are plenty of these smaller games that are diminutive in both production and narrative scope. You aren’t preventing the destruction of any planets or ensuring the longevity of the human race, but you are doing things that matter wholly and completely to the character at hand, and that is what is important.

Getting the right amount of homogenization is important. Riding that space elevator will be a technological achievement and insanely useful, but it won’t be much fun on your fourth day of your trip up. There’s a new roller coaster opening up this month at Alton Towers in the United Kingdom called The Smiler. It features not one or two but fourteen loops. It is nothing but after a paltry 98-foot drop reaching 52 MPH. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth loop, I’m guessing you won’t but much into loops anymore. And after the fourth or fifth time you save the world, you get kind of numb to the idea of being humanity’s last chance.

So who’s up for some grilling?

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