High Stakes – Always a Needed Plot Device?

High Stakes – Always a Needed Plot Device?


If you look at many of the games that come out today, you’ll notice a common theme throughout a good portion of them – somehow the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Whether you’re trying to stop the Cintamani Stone from falling into the wrong hands in Uncharted 2 or saving the galaxy from an invading swarm of Reapers that are intent on harvesting all life in Mass Effect 2, you’re saving the world/galaxy/universe/continent/life from destruction in some way, shape or form. While there is nothing wrong with this, per se, is a “high stakes” plot device like that really needed to enjoy a game? Why do so many games seem to have your character carry the weight of the world on their shoulders in this manner?

First off, let’s discuss why games tend to have these ultra-critical plots that tend to force the protagonist into a situation where they have to “save the world”. There tend to be a couple reasons behind this idea of “high stakes” plot devices, and they both stem from the same thought – we want to be important. The players themselves want to feel like they are important in the world they’re playing within, which is understandable. Also, the writers behind the game want the plot to be interesting and to carry that high sense of crucial awareness, so that the player doesn’t lose interest. This, also, is admirable.

We all have dreams of playing the hero, this is why, generally speaking, we want to play as these protagonists that are tasked with saving the world or galaxy or whatever – these large-scale endeavors. Perhaps, to some degree, we all have a hero complex and need to express that in some manner. What better way to do so than through the medium of video games, right?

There is nothing wrong with that.

However, sometimes these extraordinary plots wear thin, especially when they are just rehashed ad infinitum in the stories we play through. Sure, the characters may change or the specifics of what is at stake may change, but for all intents and purposes, many of these games have the same basic premise. Like I mentioned, there is nothing wrong with this hero complex mentality or saving the world in video games, but one question remains in my mind – why do you have to save the world/galaxy/universe/continent/life to feel like a hero?


The definition of hero is this: “A man (or woman) of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities,” and “A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal.” Taking that definition into consideration, if you save a cat from a tree, you can be considered a hero. While that may be going to the extreme, you get my point.

Assuming a game can still have an interesting goal and interesting narrative to keep the player awed by what is going on to reach that goal, it need not have a “high stakes” plot device to pull players into that narrative. Movies and TV shows do this all the time – make the end goal of the protagonist something non-crucial and create an interesting narrative for the viewer to follow along the way. In game design, there is even the possibility of creating several smaller goals (or even dozens or hundreds) to reach within a world, aside from or instead of any ultimate destination for the protagonist.

I’ve spoken about this numerous times before, but I have spent hundreds of hours over the years playing Oblivion, yet I have never once completed the main story. Why? The smaller, more individualistic goals were more interesting to me than the ultimate goal the game attempted to provide. Why not throw someone into a similar world without a tried-and-true “end of the world” scenario an arm’s length away? This would be of benefit in more ways than one, within the right game structure, of course. The same can be said of many Western-style RPGs, including Fallout 3, Diablo II and the like.


One genre that seems to take this concept to the extreme is MMORPGs, with their hundreds of nonsensical quests to save that proverbial cat from a tree, to be the hero, if not on a large scale. Still, you’re the hero to the person who owns and loves that cat, right?

I’ve recently been playing through Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland and, much like other games of its type, there is no “save the world” plot device. Instead, the plot is much more down to earth – saving an alchemy shop from being closed. Yet, the protagonist – Rorona herself – can still be considered the hero of the story, simply because she fits the definition I mentioned above, being of “distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities.”

To drive this point home, how about a real life example, of which there are too many to count. Still, this one is most recent. Just last week, there was a tragedy that struck the gaming world, more specifically Relic Entertainment. One of their lead designers, Brian Woods, was killed in a car accident in Washington State. When he saw that an accident was inevitable, he apparently took actions to lessen the impact to his pregnant wife, which ultimately resulted in his death, as he maneuvered their vehicle so he would take the brunt of the impact. His wife stated this after the fact:

“All the policeman say that if we had hit the car head-on all of us would be dead. At the very last second [Brian] braked really hard and turned right so that he would be put in the path of the [oncoming] SUV and not me and the baby, and that is the only thing that saved us both. I am not going to waste the gift he gave us.”

Was Brian a hero? Most definitely. Did he have to save the world to be that hero? Absolutely not – he saved his wife and unborn child which is arguably just as important. If we have such heart-wrenching real-life examples like this all around us, why are we so fixated on being the savior of the universe – or any other superlative goal – in the games we play? Why can’t we make being an ordinary hero engaging and entertaining? Is this an issue with the writing or with the gamers themselves? Are we so haughty that we demand to have these excessively complex and burdensome goals in our games, almost requiring the writers and developers to integrate them?

All good questions, and I’m not sure we’ll find an answer here, regardless how deep we attempt to dig into the subject. What do you think? Should games focus more on the mundane, the down-to-earth, the individualistic, and strive to make that heroism interesting? Or is there a reason we stick to such otherworldly plots – things we could never dream of achieving in the real world?