Overcooked Stakes

JOSHUA LUNDBERG is the last, best hope for humanity


The trailers will slam you with them. The posters will remind you of them. The products themselves will jam them down your throat and explode your eyeballs with them. If they’re not bigger and broader next time it just won’t do, and next time they’ll make your heart explode. They’re stakes. And film franchises are trending toward raising them again and again. What’s interesting to me is the interactive medium of video games is broadening them – without necessarily raising them. In recent years I’ve found myself increasingly detached from the most popular films that are released, and although I most certainly suffer from superhero fatigue, the common factor in the films I’ve loved has been low stakes. What are low stakes? This question depends on the perspective of the drama. The highest stake for a single human being is their life or those of loved ones; in another narrative the lives of a thousand people may seem expendable next to the prospect of planetary annihilation.

So, even when comparing the cost of failure in Portal to the consequences of failure in Mass Effect, the stakes feel incredibly high; it’s how developers make us care that influences how much tension we feel when faced with what lies at stake. Although many video games revolve around saving a city, country, world, galaxy or universe, many great games of late have been about smaller, personal stories. Interestingly, stakes in video games aren’t always based in the narrative. With the big hitters, however, they often are. Franchises like Call of Duty are consumed by the very one-upmanship the Marvel franchise suffers, and Activision clearly have no interest in a release that could act as a circuit breaker. It’s easy to take this route, because video games provide limitless possibilities, just as Anime does – neither are bound by challenging requirements to suspend our disbelief. Certainly not in the same way as mainstream cinema. Gameplay can also create stakes for a player without a structured, linear narrative.

Let’s use Seven Days to Die as an example; in a game where the player joins a server without any story and fights to survive the stakes are generate by the gameplay mechanics. The game responds to death by stripping the player of all their items and gear and leaving them in a backpack that can be stolen or destroyed. For a player in this situation these stakes are phenomenally high – for the player raiding their backpack they’re virtually non-existant. The same moment. Vastly different stakes. This is why I am fascinated by stakes in non-narrative, non-linear gaming. In a film or a heavily restrictive game narrative the stakes will be the same for every player; the outcome of each event will have the same response across the board. For me the risk of a single Kerbalnaut dying in Kerbal Space Program is terrifying. I can’t let a Kerbal die in space, as Ed Harris says in Apollo13,“onmywatch.”

I’ve written numerous times before about my relationship with KSP; I make up back stories for every Kerbal, I ‘play’ as a child does with their toys by creating my own narrative for the program. These are features of my imagination – the game offers nothing like it at all. In career it offers progression, but it is limited strictly to gameplay progression. In Kerbal I make my own stakes – deep, emotional – entirely in my own mind. There are numerous examples and many of them are very simple human interactions within competitive environments; the emotional consequences of losing a round of League of Legends to some people are as deep and visceral as me losing a Kerbal. It’s unique, this medium that can have two hugely differing approaches to creating stakes for consumers – it is by virtue of interaction that it is possible.

For gameplay-generated stakes there is nothing but the player’s feeling about their relationship with the game that make them stakes at all. For narrative-generated stakes it is the player’s perception that the outcome of failure will result in, say, the end of the world that makes the player care enough to continue. The latter is a very traditional approach to storytelling that requires basic tropes of narrative such as an inciting incident and compelling characters with clear objectives and obstacles both internal and external. It appears irregular to execute both means for creating tension, although I am sure players of brutally difficult games like Dark Souls would disagree. Then again, it is an irregular game. It’s difficult to develop narrative-driven games with low stakes that are incredibly involving, but Rockstar is adept and doing just that. It’s sad that possibly the greatest game I’ve played featuring solely personal stakes isnt available on PC; hopefully Red Dead Redemption will one day grace our computers with its presence.