The motifs of imprisonment and freedom are seemingly ubiquitous in video games.
I recently started playing Final Fantasy IX. I’m at the part where Steiner, Garnet, and Marcus are imprisoned upon their return to Alexandria. (Zorn and Thorn leave Garnet for dead after extracting her eidolons, and they lock up Steiner and Marcus in an iron cage suspended in midair.)
That cutscene wasn’t even over before I drew other parallels. There’s a near-identical situation in Final Fantasy VIII when Disc 2 starts; having failed to assassinate Edea, Squall and co. are locked up in the Galbadia prison. Squall is pulled aside for Seifer’s sadistic torture, while Zell escapes his cell, retrieves everyone’s weapons, and then stages a jailbreak. Transplant the characters from Alexandria to Galbadia and switch up the names, and the situations are the same.
Then, of course, there is Final Fantasy VII. From the failed rescue attempt for Aerith at ShinRa tower, to getting trapped beneath the Golden Saucer in the desert, to Tifa’s near-death experience at Scarlett’s hands in Junon, VII’s plot wouldn’t survive without jails and abduction. Captivity is omnipresent in characters’ backstory. Red XIII was kidnapped from Cosmo Canyon by Hojo, subject to experimentation. Vincent was locked in a coffin for 30 years. Aerith lived with the fear of getting taken by ShinRa (and was held by Hojo before Ifalna broke them out). Cloud and Zack were prisoners in ShinRa mansion for five years.
Yet this isn’t just a Final Fantasy trademark. In Eternal Sonata, a jRPG developed by Tri-Crescendo, the troupe gets imprisoned upon their arrival at Forte Castle. Zael gets jailed on two separate occasions in The Last Story. In Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Maleficent traps Aqua in the dungeon with Prince Philip.
Then you have games where captivity is a starting condition. In both Oblivion and Skyrim from the Elder Scrolls series, you start out as a prisoner.
Is the motif of imprisonment even unique to RPGs? No. Look at the Super Mario Bros from the NES. What is the story if not Mario’s attempt to free Princess Peach from Bowser’s clutches?
There’s a reason why you start the game in horrible situations: the game wants you to feel inordinately free when the opening cutscene ends, and you finally have control.
Games empower us as players to do things we are otherwise incapable of. We can slay the Big Bad villain; we can have supernatural strength and ability. Many games involve the protagonist struggling for his/her own freedom, as is the case with Chell in Portal and Portal 2, or about rescuing someone else, like Zelda or Peach. Bioshock 2 combines these motivations; subject Delta must safeguard his freedom while rescuing Eleanor.
Imprisonment and empowerment have become central to not just the finer points of video game storylines, but to our social understanding of what games do. Video games allow you to be someone or something that is impossible in real-life. A normal person can’t embark on a quest to rid the world of a terrible evil, traveling throughout the world like a nomad. It’s a fantasy, because until technological advances and 3D graphics made realism an attainable ideal, fantasy was the norm in video games. Only in a fantasy could players feel powerful.
However, there’s an intrinsic problem: the average man doesn’t consider himself constrained, so how can he suddenly feel a sense of empowerment? The answer in all the aforementioned games (Final Fantasy, Zelda, Eternal Sonata, etc.) is to artificially imprison the protagonist.
There is a suspension of disbelief; the protagonist is never actually defeated in combat, but gets trapped in a cutscene. We watch helplessly as our playable character gets caught, the screen goes black, and we next see the bars of a jail cell. The player then strives to reclaim his prior freedom by breaking out.
Eternal Sonata – the holding cells in Forte Castle’s dungeon
Cutscenes have a unique position in games. They are the one time when the player has zero control, and thus they present the ultimate juxtaposition for empowerment. They have an archetypal relationship with imprisonment.
The following sequence exists in Final Fantasy VIII, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and Eternal Sonata:
1) You get in a fight, typically a boss battle
2) You win the boss battle, which is followed by a cutscene
3) In the cutscene, something goes wrong. Your character is arrested/defeated.
4) When you next gain control over the character, you’re in a prison
5) You struggle to break out and defeat the one that imprisoned you in the first place
Some variation of this formula exists in every game I know of that features imprisonment or captivity, whether explicit or subtle. It might not come on the heels of a battle, or you might start out the game as a captive, but the end result is the same: you’re held captive and must find a way out.
Many amazing games, like Portal, are fundamentally about freedom and breaking out of captivity. In the opening scene, you wake up trapped in the “relaxation vault”. You have no idea how long you’ve been asleep, where you are, who you are, or just about anything else. When the blue portal comes and you step out, you’re led through straightforward halls. You are left to bring the safety cube onto the button, and you get into the elevator. Again, you have no flexibility or leeway. You’re just following directions from a voice.
In each level, you have no control. With the portal gun, you gain the sensation of controlling where you go, but everything is in a testing environment. You can experience the thrill of dropping into a portal and flying through the air, but in the end, you must go to an elevator that GLaDOS controls. With the Companion Cube, you have no control. Sure, you can refuse to incinerate it, but GLaDOS has absolute authority over your movement within the laboratory, and you are stuck until the Companion Cube is destroyed.
Only after chamber 19, after escaping the “victory candescence”, do you truly have control. With the portal gun at your disposal, away from GLaDOS’s oversight, Chell truly becomes free. You travel wherever you want to. There is still an endpoint in mind – GLaDOS’s chamber – but it’s your decision to go there, defeat her, and escape the laboratory. Over the course of the game, you go from helpless to independent. When, in the conclusion of Portal 2, you leave the laboratory and enter a cornfield, you have finally become free. The Portal series was subtle about imprisonment, but it was simple, clear-cut, and above all, realistic.
One fatal flaw regarding FF8 and Eternal Sonata: Your imprisonment comes on the heels of winning a boss battle. It is fundamentally wrong for the game to punish you in the aftermath of victory. It would be the equivalent of getting grounded because you received straight A’s. It breaks the immersion of the game.
The Last Story, a jRPG developed by Mistwalker, strikes an interesting balance in regards to making imprisonment realistic. Zael, the protagonist, is easily capable of resisting arrest. He also could (and does, at one point) break out. To make it realistic, however, The Last Story presents the arrests as political schemes. The first instance does not occur in the aftermath of a boss battle. In fact, Zael returns to Lazulis Castle and gets accused of kidnapping. He is brought into custody while his case is debated. Despite contemplating a jailbreak, he is counseled against it due to the political consequences.
The second time he is arrested, Zael is emotionally distraught, grieving for a recently deceased mentor. Here, he does break out, but turns into a wanted fugitive. To rectify his status, he proves his innocence, clearing his name and regaining the freedom to travel as he wishes.
The motif of imprisonment and freedom is often misused in games, running counter to gameplay. Go back to the formula and check steps 2 and 3. You win the boss battle, which is followed by a cutscene. Compare Portal and The Last Story to FF8 and Eternal Sonata, and the contrast is obvious. The formula is broken, yet it’s nonetheless a common pattern.
A variation of the formula is where you start out all-powerful, but then lose your abilities and spend the entire game trying to reclaim them. This is the case in Assassin’s Creed (the first) and God of War 3. After screwing up badly, Altair gets his rank reduced and his weapons confiscated. With each subsequent successful assassination, he gets better armor, new weapons, etc. Desmond initially had a huge health bar for the animus, but Vidic reduces it, granting it back to you incrementally as you get better.
In God of War 3, you start off uber-powerful. Then Zeus tosses you off Mt. Olympus, and you have to work your way back up from scratch. The infuriating thing is that it happens in a cutscene. You had to fight to reach Zeus, yet your success means nothing, and your power is stripped away in a cutscene, when you have no control over the proceedings. Let’s call this “stripping”, in honor of the abilities that you must spend the entire game reclaiming
Imprisonment should not occur as a result of victory. It belittles the player’s success of overcoming the obstacles that the game placed before him/her.
Two good alternatives already exist. One is Portal approach: Captivity is the starting condition of the player, who then fight to regain his freedom.
The second is what I’m going to call the Banjo-Tooie approach: You walk into a trap. In every B-T boss battle, the beginning cutscene shows all the exits being sealed off. Similarly, the ending cutscene for that boss shows an exit being opened.
The variation of “stripping” is just a bad idea. It may be poetic to have a newfound appreciation of your strength at the game’s end, but it succeeds more in attracting gamers’ ire than being constructive.
Games need to rethink how they use these tools of imprisonment and freedom. Both Oblivion and Skyrim were sloppily handled. Yes, you are a prisoner at the beginning. So what? The game instantly unleashes you onto the world anyway. There was little to no emphasis on your captivity, so the token effort is wasted,
In Final Fantasy VII, you spend considerable amounts of time imprisoned. In ShinRa tower, you explicitly have the option to wonder how other party members are doing, and you can distantly see their internal struggles and worries. In the desert beneath the Golden Saucer, you have to search for and defeat Dyne before you get the chance to win back your freedom (in a Chocobo race). Each instance offers either time for self-reflection or a path of struggle before you regain independence.
The sensation of empowerment is a powerful tool in the hands of an intelligent, responsible developer. But to emphasize empowerment and freedom in a game, both social context and juxtaposition needs to be deployed effectively. A developer needs to invest resources into reinforcing the player’s powerlessness, and then offer a way to claw back his/her freedom.