Only You Can Save Us 4

I have become roy­al­ty, but all I feel is lone­ly.

In Kingdoms of Amalur, I have been returned from death, with no mem­o­ry of my past life. I named myself – Corintha, a pret­ty name, I think, not that any­one will ever know it — and designed my own face. Again, for my own ben­e­fit, since every­body in the world will think I am beau­ti­ful regard­less. You see, I am excep­tion­al, and it soon becomes evi­dent that I’m the most inter­est­ing per­son in the world; I’m not bound by some exter­nal, unavoid­able fate like every other being in this world. But then I’ve changed that rule – not by choice, mind you. My exis­tence bends fate, and so by my deci­sions peo­ple will live or die, and the future of this world to which I don’t belong is mine to shape.

Despite all that, I’m suf­fer­ing from total amne­sia, mak­ing me a moral blank slate. Which makes me, me. A gamer resid­ing in a female rogue’s body, my nar­ra­tive impor­tance a gift from a god to the east. Given the east­ern deity’s mys­te­ri­ous iden­ti­ty, and that the plot is spurred on by the second-hand effect this thing has had on my avatar, I can only real­ly imag­ine it as the game’s lead devel­op­er, sit­ting behind the throne of the game’s major antag­o­nist, pulling the strings of fate both for those who are sup­posed to be its vic­tims and for me, too.

My every moment in the game world is iso­lat­ing. I am exempt from fate, I am told. And yet I am removed from strug­gle, from fail­ure, from death and any sort of depend­abil­i­ty on any­body else. I move among humans who live their fated lives, trav­el­ing down pre-ordained paths – com­plain­ing about their needs, admit­ting their moral fail­ures, talk­ing about dreams born of their fleet­ing, over-drawn pas­sions. They don’t seem very real, but they seem more real than me – I can’t even die. Occasionally, I am struck down by a very deter­mined bog­gart, and then I rise again, five min­utes younger. I’m bored by the shal­low­ness of the world, and the result­ing empti­ness of my own self.

And then I meet the fae. They are crea­tures of sto­ries told and re-told, lived and re-lived. They inhab­it sto­ries; they draw their being and pur­pose from it, but they also can’t escape this com­bi­na­tion of oral tra­di­tion and lived expe­ri­ence. They accept their prison, and know their tales per­fect­ly. They know what is to come in every moment of their lives, yet para­dox­i­cal­ly can’t do any­thing to alter that course. I’m entranced by these crea­tures, each appar­ent­ly a pro­tag­o­nist in their own story.

But they all look the same. They are all thin knights that approach the chopping-block of their fates with apa­thy.

I am prompt­ed to ask: How many times have I saved the world from an army of ghouls? How many deter­mined heroes have I inhab­it­ed, even though I knew the beats of their story by heart? How many times have I been the Jokester, the Cynic, the Tough Guy – how many Romantic Interests have I res­cued, and how many Loyal Friends have res­cued me at the cost of their own lives? How many Villains have I put down for attempt­ing the crime of Changing the World in Their Image?

I fought for the chance to be includ­ed in this House of Ballads, because I was not them, and because they were so like me. At first they told me that I could not be a part of their num­ber since I was an out­sider. They had­n’t received the memo: I’m excep­tion­al, so I do what I want, and right then I want­ed con­tem­po­raries. Since I was a blank slate, devoid of an inter­est­ing story, then per­haps I would expe­ri­ence theirs. I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to play the side­kick, to live vic­ar­i­ous­ly through them, to care. My own story was just pro­ce­dure, a litany of close vic­to­ries and nar­row scrapes with all the form of drama and none of the con­tent.

But they did­n’t have sto­ries; they lied. Or, to be fair, I crashed through their sto­ries, usurp­ing them from the role of pro­tag­o­nist in each instance; even their King is fright­ened off, and so gives up his role in the sto­ries so that I am the one who faces their great­est foe. It’s hard not to feel like a thief as I turn all these heroes into bit play­ers. Most of them are repelled by me, and fair­ly so; they know I don’t belong here, that my pres­ence makes me Protagonist Prime, that I will casu­al­ly rip through their lives and assume what lit­tle pur­pose they might have gained from fight­ing and lov­ing and dying.

I am unsur­prised when the fate of the fae is final­ly placed in my hands. It ini­tial­ly invig­o­rates me, unlike the vil­lage of peo­ple dying (but never dead) from blood plague in the town scant min­utes away. I have a chance to free these crea­tures from their beau­ti­ful, stag­nant, end­less­ly repeat­ing lives and give them new sto­ries. I even start to feel sym­pa­thy for this vil­lain, the Maid of Windemere, long before I meet her. Her aim is also to change these silly sto­ries. She seems to me like a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ing with­in the old model, and I have the power – an out­side per­spec­tive! — to make the changes she seems eager to real­ize.

But she is cal­cu­lat­ing and manip­u­la­tive, just tak­ing advan­tage of my rock­ing the boat for her own self­ish advan­tage. She is no rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but rather a tyrant, eager to secure power and domin­ion, to reverse the los­ing role she inhab­its at the end of this cycle of sto­ries. I feel lone­ly again, but this time its because the writ­ers of this game clear­ly don’t under­stand.

The lure of power over these beings does­n’t entice me – would it entice any­body? You can’t har­ness a story like that, not with­out killing it, and a story of absolute con­trol is dull, with­out drama. It’s a human­i­ty with­out the Fall; it’s a world of order where no chaos is there to threat­en. The game offers to replace one series of bor­ing sto­ries with dead sto­ries, with the illu­sion of con­trol, in a clas­si­cal but fool­ish offer that I guess they thought would appeal to me. Power over what, exact­ly?

I kill the Maid. I want no part in this any more; I give them back their old sto­ries, it seems to be what the major­i­ty of them want­ed. They return to their bor­ing, fated lives, and I feel sick­ened. I’m told I am now the Queen of their lit­tle story com­mu­ni­ty, since I so total­ly emas­cu­lat­ed the King. Am I not already impor­tant and iso­lat­ed enough? I walk away, back over the pret­ty fairy bridge and away from this dis­ap­point­ment, back out into the open world that seems, to me, sud­den­ly very closed.

Why fate? Why was that get­ting me? There’s that old rule – des­tiny does­n’t mat­ter if you don’t know where you’re head­ed. Where it has impact is in cycles – cycles of vio­lence, of behav­ior. Fate is short­hand for the sto­ries that, in our expe­ri­ence, we can’t break free from. The fae depressed me. There was no place for nov­el­ty in their world. I was explic­it­ly told that I could change noth­ing; the best I could do was take advan­tage of their unchang­ing nature. And they were doing this with sto­ries, just about the only thing I have faith in. But sto­ries are impor­tant because of the trans­for­ma­tion that occurs in them and, won­der­ful­ly, in us, as we expe­ri­ence them. Stories are incred­i­ble because they inspire us to tell new, dif­fer­ent sto­ries, because they house mean­ing and inspire us to gen­er­ate new mean­ing. And there’s noth­ing pla­ton­ic or eter­nal about them.

The game was focused on mak­ing me feel excep­tion­al – like every­thing in the world revolved around me. But I don’t want that in a game. People who think that they are so ridicu­lous­ly cen­tral are usu­al­ly pret­ty bor­ing. What is true, and what makes a story inter­est­ing, is strug­gle, and com­pro­mise, and the move­ment of the pro­tag­o­nist from one state to anoth­er. Such extreme excep­tion­al­ism also dis­counts the very social aspects of a single-player expe­ri­ence. I’m done with Ubermensch sim­u­la­tors; I want to feel like I’m part of a com­mu­ni­ty again. It real­ly comes down to this: just because I’m play­ing alone does­n’t mean that I am alone, and it real­ly does­n’t mean that I want to feel alone. That’s not what makes a good story.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

4 thoughts on “Only You Can Save Us

  • Kcross

    That’s exact­ly how I felt fin­ish­ing off the House of Ballads quest chain and it put me off doing any of the other side quests, in the end I sim­ply rushed through the main sto­ry­line to get it fin­ished because noth­ing and no-one in the world made me feel ground­ed and part of what was hap­pen­ing.

    • Matthew Schanuel
      Matthew Schanuel Post author

      I hon­est­ly did­n’t make it much fur­ther than that quest-line. The giant talk­ing world-tree was a cool idea, but it’s appear­ance and sud­den removal made me sad — just a plot device, huh? I gave up on it after that.

  • WCG

    Nice post! Admittedly, I’m not famil­iar with Kingdoms of Amalur, so I might mis­in­ter­pret your point.

    But I pre­fer games (like Dwarf Fortress, for exam­ple) where we cre­ate our own sto­ries through our deci­sions and other game­play. Every play is dif­fer­ent, just like every per­son­’s story in RL is dif­fer­ent. Well, some­thing like that, at least. :)

    Planescape: Torment kept me involved, too, since my own char­ac­ter was the cen­tral puz­zle. And res­ur­rec­tion after death was not just a game­play mechan­ic, but cen­tral to the story.

    But I would love to play a game where the world would go on with OR with­out me, where I could only be an influ­ence over part of it — and my own choic­es about WHICH part, and what kind of influ­ence, would clear­ly affect not just the NPCs of the world but me, too (me, the play­er, even more than me, the char­ac­ter).

    Perhaps that’s too much to expect? Oddly enough, mul­ti­play­er games are even worse at this than single-player games. After all, at least NPCs can be pro­gramed to behave like peo­ple WOULD behave, while gamers almost always act like gamers.

  • Matthew Schanuel
    Matthew Schanuel Post author


    I find a lot to like in games that pro­duce a “pro­ce­dur­al nar­ra­tive,” but there are def­i­nite­ly expe­ri­ences that they can’t gen­er­ate, themes that aren’t suit­able for the form.

    I’ve spo­ken a fair bit about how I want a game that responds to play­er suc­cess­es and fail­ure organ­i­cal­ly, not with death and nar­ra­tive reset but rather a con­tin­u­ance, an accep­tance of a play­er’s actions. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for our games to be emo­tion­al­ly ful­fill­ing and com­pelling, but it does require chal­leng­ing the forms we’ve come to know.

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