Chaos vs. Order: The Eternal Struggle

“You have destroyed so much– what is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.”
–Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2

Video game plots have long been accused of being the run of the mill good vs. evil stories. And for the most part that’s true, even the best game plots often feature mostly black and white characters and or morality systems with purely good and evil options. But the real underlying conflict that most gameplay features is actually not good vs. evil, but the struggle between order and chaos. This is probably, in part, due to the element of agency in gaming– unlike other mediums, the core principle of the medium is about the player having freedom in a premade world.

So in this article, we’re going to shed some light on this never ending battle and show how some of your favorite games portray this eternal conflict.

The Player as an Agent of Chaos

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

This is really the underlying conflict in the majority of video games on the market. The player controlled character invades an area controlled by the enemy with carefully laid out obstacles, traps, puzzles, enemy formations, etc. Essentially a carefully set-up environment that the player character is meant to ride roughshod through (like that time you knocked over that block tower your little brother was building). Despite what the background story may say about how the villains are invading and disrupting the status-quo (also chaos vs. order), when you take over and start actually playing through the levels, you’re wreaking havoc on the carefully arranged battlements set up by the enemy. Even something as grotesque as the R-Type series’s Bydo Empire, a strange alien army composed of machines and deformed flesh, is still an organized group that spends time building and fortifying defenses that you need to penetrate/destroy. Even more mundane gameplay activities, like smashing pots and slicing up carefully groomed bushes for cash in the Zelda series, involve messing up or destroying some other character’s hard work.

Hire at your own risk!

Hire at your own risk!

Perhaps the game series that is the most honest about this perpetual conflict is the famous Grand Theft Auto series, which might be one of the reasons we like it so much. Obviously rampaging around the city fighting the cops makes you a force of chaos, but the story missions carry out this theme just as much, especially in IV. Niko Bellic is honestly just as dangerous to his employers as he is to everyone else in the city. At least 6 (more depending on some of the choices you make) mission givers are killed by Niko himself and several more are killed or brought down by the whirlwind of danger surrounding him. He not only disrupts the order of Liberty City, but disrupts the order of its criminal underworld as well. GTA: Vice City’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, takes a slightly different approach. Anyone who’s played the game knows that Vercetti deals out as much chaos as any other GTA protagonist, but during the second half of the story Tommy does begin to restore some order to the criminal empire he just decimated. After destroying Ricardo Diaz’s organization halfway through the game, Vercetti’s focus shifts toward building up his own organization, which causes a bit of a gameplay shift. He purchases businesses around the city and builds them up as branches of his own criminal empire. Even though the missions for the businesses usually involve wreaking havoc against someone else, you still have the sense that you’re building something, which makes Vice City a little bit more toward the middle on the order/chaos spectrum.

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

It’s always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

This is the approach that most strategy games take, where your entire goal is to build your own army or settlement from resources that you collect. One of the best examples of a game in this category is the Civilization series, where you literally start off in an untamed wilderness and must build and progress your own society through the different periods of history. While you can choose to wage war against rival civilizations in order to win the game, you can also win via negotiation, science, art and other less chaotic methods, which places the Civilization games firmly on the order end of the spectrum. You even build your society’s values, transitioning from a chaotic tribe intent only on survival to a culture with a very focused and specific set of principles. Even further in the order category are titles like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the strangely popular Euro Truck Simulator, where the entire goal of the game is to manage something in an orderly fashion, whether that be a city, an amusement park, a zoo, or any of the other kinds of businesses the Tycoon games feature. While these kinds of games certainly have a dedicated following, there aren’t nearly as many titles that focus on creating order. There are probably a number of reasons for this but perhaps the main one is simply that causing chaos is just more fun. Even in SimCity, causing natural disasters and watching buildings topple is very enjoyable, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an event the player wants to avoid. Despite this, these kinds of games can provide a welcome change of pace and we may see some intresting twists on gameplay dealing with bringing order to chaos in years to come.

Surviving in a Chaotic World

Remnants of a normal life.

Remnants of a normal life.

Games that fit into this category don’t quite belong on the order to chaos spectrum like the games mentioned above do. Instead, the locations these games take place in are designed to be chaotic and the goal is to push through and survive in a harsh environment. Many survival horror games like Silent Hill 2 and the recent indie hit Lone Survivor fit into this category. While combat is technically an option in these games, the ability to inflict chaos back against your enemies is intentionally limited to make you feel all the more helpless. In Lone Survivor’s case, the game actually rewards you for not killing enemies, despite the fact they won’t hesitate to do you in. The game also encourages you to preserve what you can of your normal, more routine life, like eating regularly (and well), limiting your intake of pills, and even adopting a cat. The emphasis here is truly on surviving while surrounded by utter chaos and even making the most out of such a situation, instead of destroying or instituting order. You win by keeping yourself under control, not the world.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Of course, like how Vice City is a partial overlap between the above two categories, there are games in this category that overlap with one of the others too. The original Half-Life takes place, for the most part, in an incredibly hostile environment where Gordon Freeman cannot fight all of his foes directly (like that obnoxious tentacle monster). The game beginning like just another day working at Black Mesa even enhances the chaos that you feel after everything goes to hell. However, your ability to fight back against the Xen aliens and the resilient commandos (who are trying to cover-up the whole affair) is substantial enough to set it apart the survival horror titles listed above, as Gordon Freeman ends up causing a fair amount of chaos himself during the course of his adventure. The protagonist’s world is being destroyed, but he can’t rebuild– only fight back.

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The Overlooked Legends of Zelda

200px-Ocarina_of_Time_poster

This is what Zelda is all about. Right?

The Legend of Zelda is easily one of the most recognizable video game franchises out there. Nearly everybody knows it and most people acknowledge it as one of the best series of all time. But recently, these games have been in a bit of a rut. Sure, most of the recent Zelda titles were still good games, but they tend to draw most of their influence from Ocarina of Time, the gold standard for the series. And when they try to add innovative new mechanics, the game usually doesn’t turn out as well *cough*Four Swords Adventures*cough*. When you think of amazing Zelda titles, most of you probably think of Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past, games that provide an epic medieval fantasy world to explore. You probably think of vanquishing Ganondorf using the Master Sword and reclaiming pieces of the Triforce. But there was always another side to the series, a stranger side that helped to keep the games fresh before they went stale. This week we’re going to talk about two of the more offbeat entries from The Legend of Zelda’s golden years, and why they were instrumental in keeping the series fresh with their unique worlds and gameplay mechanics.

Link’s Awakening (1993)

Link can never just have a peaceful journey.

This was the first installment of the series that did not take place in the land of Hyrule, instead beginning with series protagonist Link ending up shipwrecked and unconscious on the mysterious island of Koholint. He’s awakened by Marin (a young woman) and her father, Tarin. From here, Link begins his quest to leave the island and return to Hyrule,  soon learning that he must awaken the sleeping Wind Fish in order to accomplish this. Interestingly enough, this was the first Zelda game to use music as a key plot element, since in order to awaken the Wind Fish, Link must collect (okay, so it’s not totally different) the eight Siren’s Instruments. There’s also an ocarina item in the game which Link can learn three songs for, each with a unique purpose. Surreal elements start popping up right away and continue to do so. A man warns you to watch out for him later because he knows he’s going to get lost in the mountains later.  Right off the bat, the game has a different tone from it’s predecessors. A strange raccoon monster who halts your progress turns out to be a transformed Tarin when you defeat him. Character’s from other Nintendo franchises make cameos (like a Yoshi doll you can win at a crane game, or a Chain Chomp you can take for a walk). Clearly, the game has a very different feel from any other Zelda title.

Link'sAwakeningBowWow

Da Da Da Daaa! You got the Chain Chomp! What could be cooler than this?

Now if you happen to hear about the big twist in the game without playing through first, you’ll probably think it’s a cop out. As it turns out, this is yet another “it was all just a dream” story. Well, that’s not entirely true, Link is really trapped on the island because it, and all it’s inhabitants are part of the Wind Fish’s dream. Link’s shipwreck sent him into this deity’s dream…somehow. In spite of the potential problems this kind of plot twist can have, the game really makes it work. The strangeness that is present from the beginning of the game helps makes the twist seem believable when the revelation finally occurs. Many of the later bosses (or Nightmares) will even try and warn you about the island’s true nature, pleading with you not to wake the Wind Fish with their dying breaths. The Nightmares even suggest that since you are in the dream, you too will vanish once the Wink Fish awakens, building a great sense of tension as you get closer to your goal. All of this builds up beautifully to one of the most bitter sweet endings we’ve ever seen in a game. After defeating the final Nightmares inside the Wind Fish’s egg, you do finally manage to wake the god and escape, but only after watching the entire island, including all the friends you made along your journey (including Marin, the woman who saved you at the beginning of the game), vanish into nothingness. It’s one of the few endings that captures some of the sadness you have when you finish a really great game, that despite your accomplishment, it’s all over now. And the ending has so much weight behind it because you were the one that made it happen, destroying the island was really what you had been working towards from the beginning of the game. In short, it’s some of the best storytelling The Legend of Zelda series has ever done.

Majora’s Mask (2000)

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

Not your typical fantasy adventure.

How on earth do you follow up such a monumental success like Ocarina of Time? You go off in a totally new direction. Miyamoto and Nintendo wisely decided not to try and one-up their magnum-opus and instead create a sequel with a completely different feel and some startlingly different gameplay mechanics, Majora’s Mask. Right from the beginning of the game, you know the Zelda formula is going to be shaken up, as the story begins with a strange imp known as the Skull Kid turning Link into a weak and seemingly powerless Deku Scrub while stealing his horse, ocarina, and trapping him in a strange new world eerily similar to Hyrule, except that it’s own moon is going to crash into it in three short days. The most obvious new gameplay mechanic is that you keep replaying the same three days over and over again, until you stop this impending disaster. It’s an interesting spin on the switching between present and future time travel mechanic in Ocarina of Time, and is even more original and central to the game. Many of the NPCs have very detailed routines throughout this three day period, which makes the side quests some of the most detailed within the series. Timing becomes a big deal, as you’ll have to approach people at a certain time during the three days to start a side quest and also usually have to finish by a particular time. While this sounds annoying on paper it actually works very well in practice, since you can speed up and slow down the three day cycle via songs on your ocarina, as well as going back to the beginning of the three day cycle at any point. These abilities give you a sense of control over time that has never really been replicated in any other game, making these very time specific quests of Majora’s Mask work. The only parts of the game that suffer because of the three day mechanic are the dungeons, since they follow the standard Zelda formula (which allows you to take your time) and have not been altered to fit the more time specific gameplay of Majora’s Mask. However, even if you fail to complete the dungeon within a three day cycle, it still won’t set you back that far, since you still retain most important items while traveling back.

Enjoy looking at this the entire game.

Enjoy looking at this face the entire game.

Another unique gameplay mechanic to Majora is Link’s ability to transform. At the beginning of the game you’re trapped in the form of a tiny Deku Scrub, but once you reclaim your ocarina, you’ll be able to learn a song that will let you swap forms, by turning your Deku Scrub form into a mask that you can put on and take off at will. As the game progresses, you’ll acquire Goron and Zora masks (the other two main races from Ocarina) through two tragic incidents, which will give you a total of four different forms (including your normal form), all with their own unique abilities. All of these forms are useful throughout the entire game, which is one of the design areas that some of the more recent Zeldas are lacking in (the wolf form in Twilight Princess for instance becomes much less useful beyond the halfway point of that game). This is probably one of the reasons Majora’s Mask was one of the few post Ocarina of Time games in the series that managed to innovate successfully, both the mask transformations and the three day time mechanic are completely inseparable from the game, so much so that they really define it. And of course, the mechanics are fun too.

So while setting a Zelda game in an epic fantasy world has certainly made for some great entries to the series in the past, it would be nice to see Nintendo revisit the more surreal and strange tone that the above two games had. If nothing else, it would add some variety to a series that’s becoming in desperate need of it. Oh, and they should bring back Tingle. Everybody likes him, right?