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Empires of Need: Negation as Characterization and Worldbuilding in Adventure Games

Going in and out of fashion, crowding store shelves one moment then nearly vanishing completely only to be rediscovered through the indie ecosystem, adventure games go all the way back to the start of electronic gaming. The genre's birth may be one of the medium's first Great Divides, where similar situations are approached through different mechanics, design elements, and tone. (Another would be the way space combat branched into both turn-based strategic simulation and real-time, reflex-based action early in the mainframe era.) Exploring dangerous labyrinths in search of treasure, the central activity in the newly-published "Dungeons & Dragons" tabletop game, manifested digitally in two distinct forms. Each drew from different aspects of the game: the CRPG, which focused on stat-based actions with randomized variables (primarily combat), and the adventure game, which tried to recreate the narrative component of a DM describing a game's scenario and events, and players stating their intentions verbally. (It's worth pointing out that analog equivalent appeared in the form of Choose Your Own Adventure books, whose precursor series debuted in 1976 right alongside Colossal Cave Adventure.) While modern e-store tagging modern e-store tagging may use a much broader definition (sometimes to the point where anything with a plot or named characters gets the term), the term "adventure game" generally refers to something not too far removed from the design philosophy and approach of those mainframe games in the late 70s: an interface where the player indicates their intended action by entering text or clicking an icon, and advancement that takes place through a series of these actions by the player. Generally, there are no "real-time" elements - time is frozen in the game world until the player has achieved the condition for it to advance, or has failed to do so within a certain number of turns or attempts. Failure states occur because a player has made a bad decision or has failed to carry out some series of actions, never because of slow reaction time or misjudging the precise movement of their onscreen avatar. In short, adventure games ask players to do things, which opens up requirements to do more things, and so on until the game reaches a predetermined endpoint: either an end to the story itself or an end to that player's story (a premature death or game over). And while this may seem like a series of logic puzzles (which is how the computer sees it, after all), adventure games are one of the most beloved form game narrative can take.

The space of an adventure game world is an interesting one in that it's imagined as a series of obstacles, whether they be traps to bypass, mechanisms to learn, or people to interact with. This last category, while not present in the earliest, exploration-based games, became more relevant as the genre developed over the 80s, and especially as graphic games surpassed the all-text format that we'd now call "interactive fiction." It could be hard to keep track of names and descriptions, particularly since, as opposed to a printed story, you couldn't go back and review earlier text without asking the game for it (and sometimes even then). But clear, distinct character designs and settings placement makes them instantly memorable - something very handy when you need to remember who asked you do to what where... and ask you they will. NPC requests are one of the primary ways that many adventure games advance their narratives. Some object or task is required for this character to aid you, or at least stop blocking you. Sometimes, there's no direct ask, and the player has to determine for themself what this character is missing... or will be the final push to send them over the edge. With little time to develop other details, the character then becomes this ask, the personification of a need or desire. The game's story, then, is populated by these various needs and requirements, a universe navigated through identifying people who lack, as well as the means to satisfy that lack. But what does that mean, when people are defined as gulfs waiting to be filled? Do they cease to exist? In a story sense, they very often do: the obstacle is past, the way forward opened, we will likely never see this character again unless another need opens up. While this might seem limiting, breaking down a story into a series of mere transactions, it offers storytelling potential unique to the electronic gaming medium and is something I'd love to see explored further by creators and critics.

I've long been fascinated with the idea of storytelling through negation - defining characters, setting, and details by what they're missing or have had taken from them. This goes beyond the simple "what does this character want and what's keeping them from getting it" summation. I'm referring to characters for whom a large aspect of their identity and worldview stems from a thing they're missing, were denied, or had taken from them. For an obvious example (and because, when I need an example, I'll always go to Star Wars first), Luke Skywalker, in the original 1977 film, is obsessed with his absent father. Even the possibility of meeting someone who knew his father gets the young Luke excited, and as he learns more through Obi-Wan, his hero worship takes on a specific form: his father was a Jedi and a great pilot, a man who did amazing things and was cut down before he could even meet his child. Vader, for Luke, is defined as the person who took that potential away from him, even more than his association with the Empire or the Dark Side of the Force. And this is why the reveal in The Empire Strikes Back is so significant and hits harder than any other like it, in the Star Wars franchise or any of the many it inspired: this is a reversal not only on the audience, not only on Luke, but on the audience's conception of Luke. Negation is the shadow of a man Luke drew himself with the pain of absence and the blind acceptance of what's he's been told by others. The truth hurts him and us alike, in a way that becomes all too real as we ourselves learn more about our families and they become actual, flawed people rather than semi-imagined figures we'd assumed them to be as children. The negation is a space for our stories and the ones on screen to meet, the feelings are present now as they are in the galaxy far, far away.

For an example of negation as a part of setting and worldbuilding, we can look to the Fallout franchise. Nearly every post-apocalyptic setting presents itself without showing the world predating it, of couse, but few go to the lengths Fallout does to convey what was lost when the bombs fell... good, bad, but especially human. (And robot, occasionally.) Electronic games are uniquely equipped for this kind of storytelling, especially large and freeform titles like Fallout. Every place you might possibly go presents some kind of clue as to what it once was, from layouts to bits of detritus to the types of enemies you encounter... and that's before you get into actual recordings and data logs recorded before the war. With even the names of places a mix of what they once were to that they've been made into, negation is central to Fallout in its concept and presentation.

So let's take it back to adventure games. Being linear, they can be mapped as a series of logical gates, with various breakoff points (death or other "game over" endings). But we don't play logic puzzles, at least not here, and once you go above the most fundamental basic level the program itself operates on, that's not what adventure games (or games in general) are - these are stories. Stories that follow a structure based on needs, populated by manifestations of need, in a world bounded and defined by needs. The concept can seem downright Marxist at times: "from each (player) according to their abilities, for each (NPC) according to their needs." From the player's perspective, this could be seen as a simple barter economy, but the perspective of the NPCs, who may not be aware of the protagonist's larger goals, it would be something different, almost communal. (This may apply less to characters that are scared, hurt, or otherwise incapacitated by the item or action the player provides, but in a sense, that, too, is a form of need... just not for them) And I think meeting these needs, even when the goals are ultimately selfish (we're the ones who want to finish the game, after all, we don't have to live in it), provides a kind of satisfaction unique to the genre, if also echoed in other forms of interactive narrative.

So as we engage with, and create our own, tiny empires of need, we should take some time to think about who those needs belong to, what purposes they serve, and what meanings they have to that character to the world they inhabit. What they're missing is just as important as what they have, in these cases usually more important, and the chasm defines them in a shape filled uniquely by every reader and player. Even if it's just to acknowledge that this is how we know and will interact with a character or place, it's something to be aware of and learn from. Those chasms exist in all of us as well, and if a character or story speaks to us, it may be that theirs has a similar shape to our own.

- B

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