This Wound Matters: Video Game Storytelling

We don’t always play the video game in front of us. Control is often wrested from us, and we are obliged to watch closely. Cutscenes and Quick Time Events interrupt the flow, to push the plot forwards or to steer us down a very specific track. When a game shifts into a lower gear, and player agency is restricted, it is hopefully for a very good reason.

One of the particular reasons a game does this is because the protagonist has suffered a severe, sometimes mortal, wound.

Lot’s of games have this moment. a dramatic scene in which the player-character is reduced to a slow, lumbering mess, desperately dragging themselves to safety or performing one last heroic deed. Sometimes, it creates a deliberately heart-wrenching moment. It’s also a very strange moment from a game logic perspective. Having walked off so many terrible, violent attacks, we are told that this wound is the one that could be our downfall.

(Minor spoilers ahead. Most are for old games, but still.)

An example of this scenario that didn’t completely stick the landing (in my opinion) was in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot. Near the very, very long end of the game, Snake is wounded. He still has a job to do, and to complete this task he needs to reach a room at the end of a corridor. It is a genuinely poignant, harrowing moment in the game. I do genuinely adore it. Yet there’s just something slightly off about it…

Snake slowly crumples to the ground, and drags his broken body, inch by inch, to the finish line. It’s meant to be a harrowing moment where the hero pushes well beyond their mortal limits to save the day, forcing themselves on through the suffering… but the game takes so long on the scene only to have Old Snake get up at the end of the corridor. I was also left wondering why the slow crawl was character controlled, whilst the lash few steps were a cutscene.

That loooong fight at the end also makes the agonizing crawl all the more confusing…

The important wound in The Last of Us is dealt with a little better. It’s also ingrained into the story. Protagonist A is broken, protagonist B takes their place for a spell. The way player agency is steadily taken away also emphasises the moment. At first Joel can still aim and shoot, then he can only hobble along, until finally he can only watch Ellie barely save the day. The black outs also prevent the scene from dragging on.

Nevertheless the moment is a little strange in the context of all the rest of the game. By this point in the game, and for a while afterwards, Joel is repeatedly wounded. The worse you are at stealth, the more damage he takes. He’s clobbered in the head, shot, bitten… at one point he is nearly drowned and is as right as rain straight afterwards. Well, he’s a bit grumpier for a second.

So it is always strange when a game says ‘this wound matters’. Of course, it’s a stomach wound, which you can argue is a different level of severity. But then, how he survives such a vicious wound is of equal issue.

The wildest, quite insincere use of the severe wound can be seen in Tomb Raider. In all three of the new wave of her games, Lara suffers a terrible, wrenching wound that takes a bafflingly small amount of time to resolve itself. Of course, Lara seems to walk off every blow like she’s Wolverine. She deals with concussion in the same way I recover from a strong sneeze. Whatever the injury, she only needs to clutch her tummy few a minute or two, and then sits by the fire for an hour.

Then there are the mortal wounds. Many games have a moment where the player is in control of the characters final moments. In Call of Duty, there have been multiple mid-game moments where we witness a characters death from their tortured perspective. The game can get away with this because you switch to a different character, but that barely detracts from the heart-breaking moment.

In Red Dead Redemption, we were forced to send John Marston out to meet the firing squad. A truly tragic end, which only falls down when you realise that if that had happened earlier in the game, we could have simply reloaded from inside the barn and tried a different strategy. Perhaps just peeking through the barn door, and not just rushing out?

I was very much impressed with the fight to the death at the end of Halo: Reach. It’s a pretty solid way to bring a story about snatching a small victory from the jaws of overwhelming defeat. Of course, the Spartans armour cracks only when the story demands it. It’s almost like someone hit self-destruct on the Plot Armour.

Final Thoughts

Engineering a poignant game moment around a broken or wounded character is hard to balance. You have to make it feel so different to every wound that comes before. If you spend too long as the injured character, you become aware of the railroading. Too little, and the point of that story-driven moment is lost.

What moments stand out to you? Which games dealt with injury effectively? Are there any times where this was enacted badly, and you wished you could carry on playing the game instead of waiting for the pain to pass?

Thank You For Reading

Author: Rufus Scott

I am a long term Gamer, a full-time History Teacher and a part-time geek. I enjoy writing about the positive aspects of gaming, especially when it comes to education. My posts are sometimes nostalgic, occasionally irrelevant, largely meant to provoke further discussion. I'll sometimes punctuate these whimsical ramblings with a random comment on gaming and/or teaching.

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