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 http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

  • 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

      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.

  • http://garthright.blogspot.com/ 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


    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.