Every April at the Gutter we mix things up with the editors writing something outside their usual domain. This week Screen Editor alex writes about video games.
The last time I wrote about video games, I detailed my failures as a creator in the original Creatures artificial life computer game. I mocked myself for the very dubious job I did of caring for my creatures, but what I didn’t get a chance to talk about was the monster I was supposed to teach them to avoid. My job was to keep them safe and it did cause them harm, but the problem was that I empathized with it and wanted to help it. It was the first of many games where I found that my sympathies did not lie entirely with the protagonist, especially if part of the quest involved killing monsters or hurting their feelings.
Creatures was a far cry from the kind of games I’d played where you were a vaguely person-shaped group of pixels and you moved around defeating other pixels shaped like dragons, wild animals, or monsters. You could just as easily have made them carrots and clouds, but you probably wouldn’t because despite being on some level just tiles with pictures on them, they’re not arbitrary or value-neutral. They’re visual signifiers, where one image is shorthand for a whole bunch of cultural assumptions and narratives, such as People Good, Monsters Bad or Human vs. Nature. I merrily cut a swathe through them without giving that much thought, but in Creatures my relationship to the antagonist was more complicated.
The premise of the Creatures series is that an ancient race called the Shee created three species of creatures which live in the land of Albia, and the game play revolves around raising and breeding the ones called Norns. First released in 1996, it was one of the earliest artificial life games based on sophisticated neural and biochemical coding, which allowed the Norns to change and mutate in unpredictable ways through generations. Through breeding or complicated messing around with genomes, they could develop a wide range of different physical characteristics from any of the pre-programmed Norns, or learn and pass on new behaviors to their offspring. It was even possible to create Norns with digestive or immune systems that were so super-efficient they were basically immortal. (I myself had a hard time getting them to breed at all, or eat, so my knowledge of these feats is purely second hand.)
There was also a creature called a Grendel on the island, who really, really wanted to play with the Norns, but made them sick if they spent too much time with it. I wasn’t sure what the Grendel had done to deserve such a cruel fate, but I always felt sorry for it. The apparent purpose of the Grendel was to make it more difficult to raise your Norns by stealing their food and hurting them or giving them diseases, but it didn’t seem like it meant to do them harm. It made them sick by following them around and snuggling them, and sometimes it hurt them by playing too rough. It was probably hungry because no one had taught it how to get food and it lived all alone down in the lower levels of Creature Island.
The Grendels were automatically produced by a machine, which was basically a wire mother, and there could only be one Grendel alive at a time. The Shee had created the species by accident in their experiments with genetic engineering and generally considered them to be monstrous and useless, but the evil Banshee saw some potential in them and kept tinkering with them. When the Shee abandoned Albia and their creatures to go in search of a better world to live in, they left the Grendel alone with only the Norns for potential company. Poor little Frankenstein’s Grendel.
The more I learned about the Grendel’s origin story and predicament, the more I wondered how the game designers expected me to feel about it. And I wasn’t alone in that. Players began working out ways to tame the Grendels and mix their genomes with Norns, creating a hybrid species dubbed Grenorns or Grorns. I’ve even seen references to a Grendel Liberation Front, although I wasn’t able to track it down anywhere online now. I wonder if the player response came as a surprise to the game developers or if they intentionally left the possibilities open? Apparently the Grendels were originally conceptualized as giant titanium spiders with a taste for Norns, but they ended up biologically semi-compatible, which suggests to me that the thought must have crossed their minds.
Grendels were not born with the ability to reproduce, but in Creatures 3, they introduced a second male Grendel for the first one to hang out and snuggle with. Although they couldn’t mate per se, it was possible to stick the two boys together in a Gene Splicer and make a girl, which was an interesting twist. In the third game though, there was also the option to completely exterminate the species by killing both the Grendels and feeding any subsequent Grendel eggs to piranhas. There’s a practicality to Grendel genocide as a strategic approach, and plenty of games require the annihilation of some alien species, but it’s also horrifying in principle. I’ll take the gay Grendel family any day of the week.
This sheds some light on why I so often feel more empathy and connection for the monsters and beasts that are cast as the enemy than I do for the protagonist I’m supposed to identify with. I fall enough outside the definition of “normal” that I’m disinclined to automatically accept that anything defined as freakish or dangerous is necessarily something I wouldn’t like. So often humans are the ones who do truly terrible things, it’s not in any way a given for me that the monsters are wrong for attacking the heroes. The underlying values of video game quests are frequently shorthand for colonialism, fear of difference, and the subjugation of the natural world to the supremacy of human intellect and will.
I suppose it would be fair to say that as an urban apartment-dweller I’m somewhat distanced from the immediacies of survival, such as the need to recognize and kill predators rather than empathizing with them. Distressing as it was to have to shoot the wolves in Tomb Raider, I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t do my best to kill anything that was actually trying to tear my throat out. Empathy is a critical human narrative, but there are times when it’s arguably more theoretical than practical. I do think we lose some measure of our humanity though, when we fail to treat life as valuable or show respect for it even when we need to take it away.
In the case of the Grendel, I wanted to help it but the game was actually quite difficult and, as I have established before, I was not very good at it. What I had managed to do, entirely by accident, was create an extremely old, senile Norn that had been pumped so full of antioxidants and chemicals that by the time he lost his little mind the Grendel couldn’t hurt him anymore. In the end, I sent him off to play with it so it wouldn’t be lonely, and also so he’d stop teaching crazy things to generations of Norns.
alex MacFadyen and comics editor, Carol Borden, used to joke about how many players would need to check the walkthrough if we created a video game where the trick to getting past the big scary monster boss was to hug it.