Arena fights were everywhere in 2019.
I don’t mean “arena shooters.” The style of FPS gameplay popularized by Quake is still alive and well, but I’m talking about a more specific trend. In 2019, video games made you fight for your life while an audience watched, clapped, gasped and applauded.
In Borderlands 3, your Vault Hunter, on a mission from series regular Moxxi, participates in a televised fight to get an audience with her skeezy ex-boyfriend, then takes him on in an arena wired with shock trap floor tiles. In Rage 2, protagonist Walker blasts irradiated monsters and mutated humans on Mutant Bash TV, a lowest-common-denominator reality show broadcast to the remaining couch potatoes of the waste. In the pink-and-purple apocalypse of Far Cry New Dawn, you race and shoot your way to the top of a demolition derby and arena brawl in order to ingratiate yourself with a nearby faction.
So far, so Mad Max. This recurring theme in 2019’s games is, to some extent, one outcome of a more general trend. This year saw the release of a raft of post-apocalyptic shooters flooding the market. In addition to the games mentioned above, Metro Exodus, Rad, Days Gone, Anthem, The Division 2, Generation Zero and Remnant: From the Ashes gave players a gun (or, more often, many, many guns) and tasked them with bringing order to a ruined world — or, at least, using violence to compel a world on the brink back from the edge. The arena fight to the death is a popular trope in post-apocalyptic fiction; it was only natural that some of these games would bring it along for the ride along Fury Road.
Heck in a Ceck
The fight to the death in a cage is post-apocalyptic shorthand, a way of signifying a culture that has been forced to start again. The Ancient Roman practice of sentencing prisoners to die before an enthusiastic crowd in the Colosseum lives in our minds as an almost impossibly barbaric ghost of humanity’s past. Reviving the arena fight after a cataclysmic event illustrates a society in the process of rebuilding. It takes Albert Einstein’s (possibly apocryphal) quote as a vision statement: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
It’s worth noting, though, that games outside of the post-apocalyptic genre included cage matches this year, as well. At one point in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, forgettable Weasley child Cal Kestis is captured and forced to fight waves of monsters. There’s little else in the game to provide context for this moment, but it does have historical precedent within the Star Wars franchise. The flashiest set-piece in Attack of the Clones pits Anakin, Padme and Obi-Wan against a trio of hulking beasts on the desert planet, Geonosis. They are chained to pillars in the center of a dusty arena as the winged denizens of the planet look on. The presence of those chains is key to understanding the role that arena battles may be playing in our current gaming discourse, beyond Thunderdome.
Back in 2007, Clint Hocking, lead designer of Far Cry 2 and creative director of the upcoming Watch Dogs: Legion, ignited a decade’s worth of gaming discourse with his innocuously titled blog post, “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock.” In it, Hocking argued that the game’s themes as expressed in its narrative are at odds with its mechanics. See, the game tells you that Randian Objectivism, which holds up selfish individualism as a moral good, is bad, actually. But its mechanics, in true video game fashion, are built to empower the player at every turn and at all costs. Hocking argued that the game’s twist — “You were doing as you were told all along and that’s bad!” — was at odds with the nature of video games as a medium, which rely on the player’s generous willingness to suspend disbelief and do as they’re told to progress.
This essay has loomed large over the past decade and change of game criticism. The question of ludonarrative dissonance has been analyzed from every angle, through the prism of just about every serious (or, at least, self-serious) AAA game. If you’ve paid attention to games writing at all in the last decade, you’ve heard these arguments, reframed to analyze the morality of Nathan Drake, and Kratos and even Mario. They’re exhausting, and yet, their logic is inescapable.
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Restaging the Debate
The two halves of video game storytelling — what is expressed through the mechanics and what is expressed through the authored narrative — are almost always at odds with each other. Walt Wiliams, the lead writer on Spec Ops: The Line, framed the problem most succinctly in a 2012 GDC talk: “Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands.” And, most games demand that you shoot a lot of people. That was and remains a problem for critics who want to think and write about games as serious pieces of art.
Enter the coliseum. Intellectually engaged players don’t need games to completely eradicate feelings of ludonarrative dissonance so much as they need them to make them feel justified in their use of violence. Hence why robots and Nazis make great enemies — one doesn’t feel pain and the other deserves to.
Placing an enemy in an arena doesn’t suddenly make them a Nazi or mechanical killing machine. But the kill-or-be-killed set up ensures that we are justified in our use of force. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Borderlands 3, Rage 2 and Far Cry New Dawn, by trapping the player in a confined space with opponents intent on killing them, are simply restaging the ludonarrative dissonance debate. Would you kindly, they ask, defend yourself?