Make the Player a Tragic Hero.

Posted: May 18, 2011 in Game Design
Tags: , ,

The interactive nature of games allows players to experience stories in ways no other medium can. The player actually gets to be the hero, rather than just watch or read what the hero does. But does a player ever get to be a tragic hero?

Some people pointed out the God of War is not just mindless violence, it is in fact a tragedy. The main character Kratos was a man in a high position who fell. He lost everything, his family, his respect and was so hated that someone said they would rather die than be rescued by him. Sounds pretty tragic.

But the problem is, that the player never experiences any of that. What happens in cut scenes is complete disconnected to what the player experiences. My experience with the game was, starting out weak but as I defeated enemies I became more and more powerful, which led to an inevitable victory. This is not at all how a tragic hero should be. The player should start the game with every ability and have them stripped away as the game progresses. It shouldn’t end in a victory over the enemy, but after every ability is stripped away, and the player has lost everything, it ends in the death of the player character.

Now an important part of tragedy is that the events are the fault of the tragic hero, most commonly due to hubris, but other tragic flaws could also be the cause. The tragic hero is supposed to be good but makes a mistake that leads to their fall.

A lot will depend a lot on the type of game, but supposing its an RPG the player starts out with all the best stats and abilities in the game, and goes on quests that are no problem. However they don’t really have a main quest exactly, like you would normally have, just a bunch of optional side quests. One of those quests promises the greatest treasure in world, but it is protected by a terrible curse.

In their pride we might expect a player to go ahead with the quest despite the obvious danger. This is the players mistake that leads to a fall. The curse is that anyone who removes the treasure from the cave will slowly lose their strength and abilities. This will not happen to the player until after they’ve sold the treasure for money, since it has no use on its own.

After the players stats begin to go down, the player can consult a wizard or something to learn that they must gather up all the treasure and return it to lift the curse. The only problem is that the shop that bought the treasure has sold pieces of it to several different people who are now in different towns. Monsters between the towns that were once easy to defeat will now become increasingly difficult to fight. Since the treasure is so valuable thugs will attack trying to steal it, after you begin to gather pieces of the treasure.

How good the player is at the game will determine how long before they die, but after the tragic hero makes a mistake, taking the cursed treasure, the fall and death are assured. There might be a couple problems with this. First is that people might be pretty pissed that there is no way to “win” the game, however I still think some people will be able to appreciate it. Second is that the first few people to play the game might ruin it for everyone, and the only solution is to hope nobody spoils it, cause otherwise it loses all its affect.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about this, so if anyone has anything thoughts about tragic heroes in games, please leave a comment.

Edit: I just remembered Yahtzee said something similar to this in one of his extra punctuations, but its not quite the same. Yahtzee wanted to add a leveling backwards mechanic, which is basically what I would require to make the tragic hero. But in addition to what Yahtzee said I require that the reason the player gets weaker is because of a mistake that the player makes. That’s what makes them a tragic hero.

  1. maxff says:

    The only thing tragic is this bl0g.

  2. Haychen says:

    There’s a lot of stuff that you can do with tragic heroes. Subtle recreations of Greek tragedies could be really interesting, but the tragedy is seen throughout history, from Sophocles and Aeschylus to Shakespeare and beyond. All of them have the key elements of a tragic hero, and to write a game as a strategy could be a very interesting idea indeed.

    • maxff says:

      Well I probably should have done this post before the one on Self fulfilling prophecies, cause this is general tragedy, while that was based on a specific story, that of Oedipus. I also considered doing a game inspired by Macbeth. And it would have to be loosely based, cause anything too close to the original probably wouldn’t work well as a game, but the general idea might. Have the player be a noble, and convince they can get away with murdering the king and take his place, the rest of the game is a futile attempt to maintain control of the kingdom, which ultimately fails.

      • Haychen says:

        Possibly, it seems like a good idea. You would want to improve on the idea of Macbeth a bit.
        Well, naturally, if you’d be making a game you’d expand on it. There were some good themes in Macbeth, but personally, I didn’t find it an overall good experience and read, and I felt like it could have been handled a lot better.

        But there’s a million ways you could go around with that kind of idea, so it would be interesting.

  3. Fang says:

    Didn’t Shamus make a post like this a while ago(months and/or years)? Or am I imagining things again? Wait. It might have been Yahtzee of the “Zero Punctuation” fame on his “Extra Punctuation” posts.

    Also that specific of a tragedy could work but spoilers would seriously hurt it a lot. It could work as long as the abilities and stats go down slow enough.

    • maxff says:

      Crap I almost forgot. Yahtzee did say something in extra punctuation about having players lose abilities rather than gain them.

      This idea is slightly different, or rather goes further than that. Yahtzee just wanted players to lose powers as a cool game mechanic to make it different than other games, but the important thing in this is that the reason the player gets weaker is because of a mistake made by the player. That’s what makes it a tragedy.

  4. Sumanai says:

    The biggest problem is, or if I were designing the game my biggest worry would be, that the player doesn’t feel the punishment is justified. After all, in most games you’re supposed to go for the cursed treasure.

    The game would have to establish to the player that his “shit won’t fly” and that there will be consequences for poorly considered actions. But that’s really difficult. And properly done would most likely make the player humble, so there’s no hubris to break In fact, they would most likely go and steal the treasure to see what the consequence is. But if there’s hubris the player will genuinely think they didn’t deserve it and load a previous save or quit playing.

    I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not certain trying to get it to be about the player’s hubris really works. And if it’s the main character’s instead, then you can make it the main story. And then the curse would work as a part of the difficulty curve of the whole game.

    Well, you got me thinking, if nothing else.

    • maxff says:

      Well at least I got you thinking, so that’s good. Honestly, I can see that making the player experience being a tragic hero could be a very difficult thing to pull off, and may very well piss off some people if it is pulled off successfully, but I still think it could be a very powerful experience. What I’ve written here are some general thoughts, but its not perfect, and needs more work to be a viable game.

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