Sunday, January 2, 2011

Selective memory: Amnesia in video games

Judged from the outside, my New Year's Eve was dreary. With a four-year-old to watch and wife mired in a funky work schedule, I didn't even entertain the thought of celebrating. Instead, I spent the evening trying to fix a bug in my Dragon Age module and surfing tv tropes, all while the Twilight Zone marathon played in the background.

Some might even call that "lame." If so, perhaps it was a fitting end to what was, overall, a pretty lame year. But for me, it was actually a fascinating evening. I'd just discovered tv tropes, a wiki devoted to cataloging the various cliches and crutches used by writers in various media (despite the title, it covers all media - including video games). It may not be a worthy way to spend your New Year's Eve, but it's definitely worth a Tuesday afternoon. If you're a writer, or just a jaded pop culture consumer, you might want to check it out.

At the end of each trope's entry, there's a list of examples. On a lark, I typed in "Mysteries of Westgate" and learned that it is an example of a Thirty Xanatos Pileup. I'd quote the definition of a Thirty Xanatos Pileup, but it's thoroughly entangled with other tropes - you really have to go to the site and link your way through it. Basically, it's a twist ending that's hopelessly convoluted, with various characters claiming to have manipulated things to their advantage. As someone who worked on MoW, my reaction to reading this was to LMAO. Yes, this is an accurate way to describe the ending.

Anyway, my real reason for visiting the site was to satisfy my curiosity about the use of amnesia as a plot device in video games. If you've read the description of my Dragon Age mod, or clicked on the screenshot at the top of this post, you know that it contains an amnesia element. I knew when I outlined the plot that this was one of the biggest cliches in video games (if not the biggest). But after wrestling with various alternatives, I decided to go with it anyway. Why?

Because it's just so damn useful.

For one thing, it's an easy way to kick off a mystery. Even though amnesia as a (very rare) medical condition has lost its novelty by now, a case of amnesia can still be fascinating in its particulars. It all depends on the amnesiac - how interesting his past is (or seems to be), and how well the revelations about that past are carried off in the narrative.

Still, there are plenty of ways to create a mystery. If this were the only thing amnesia had going for it, I'd say forget it (har har). However, it has a second virtue that makes it particularly potent as a device in RPGs. And that is that it creates a logical jumping off point for the player to take control of the PC, a border of sorts between the PC's past (dictated, in most cases, by the writer/game designer) and PC's future (controlled by the player).

A common type of amnesia used at the start of games is what tv tropes calls Easy Amnesia. It's a throwaway device to get things started quickly and feed the player some of the backstory. Typically the PC has undergone some trauma or is otherwise disoriented, with no memory of arriving at the current location. Eventually, perhaps after a battle (always good to start things with some action), an NPC steps forward to fill the PC in on recent events. After that, the amnesia device is dropped and the PC is presumed to remember everything. Or not. It's not really important, because the events the PC forgot are usually trivial.

A more prominent amnesia trope is Identity Amnesia. That's when the PC cannot remember who he or she is, and spends much of the game trying to find out. The ultimate example of this is Planescape: Torment, in which the entire plot revolves around the Nameless One's quest to regain his lost memories and figure out the nature of his existence. Another, slightly more recent example is the Neverwinter Nights Premium Module Witch's Wake, in which the player memorably begins the game literally in the middle of a battle.

The chief advantage of this kind of plotline is that it allows the PC to have a history without saddling the player with responsibility for the character's past actions. Regardless of what the PC may have done in the past, the player controls who he or she is now. The PC may have been a villain, but under the control of the player, has "seen the light" and seeks to atone for past crimes. Or the reverse may be true, and the PC was a goody-goody who has now become cynical. Or, perhaps, the game works backwards, using the PC's current actions to arrive at an appropriate history (the approach I use in my mod).

While I still have some reservations about using the amnesia trope, my research makes me feel a little better about it. It's not the realization that everyone does it - we already knew that, otherwise it wouldn't be a cliche! It's more of a reminder that everything has been done. There's not a game out there that doesn't employ common tropes. It's true that not all tropes reach the level of cliche that the amnesia device has, and some are to be avoided more than others. Still, some of the best games get away with using some of the most overused devices (Planescape: Torment is, after all, probably the most highly acclaimed CRPG ever).

I think all RPGs have to use plot devices to some extent, because of the narrative challenges that arise from giving the player control of the protagonist. My takeaway from all this is not to worry too much about which devices you use. They're called plot devices for a reason - they're not to be admired for their originality, but used to accomplish the writer's larger goals.


  1. I came across this article after reading another article on Game Informer's site on the same topic. I never payed much attention to the use of amnesia in video games, but as chance would have it, I'm writing one with the same element. I had no idea it'd been so overused in games. Still, I think my team's twist is unique. I guess I have to think that way if I want to finish it.