The Individual vs. the Collective

Imagine a great country. Is it a land of great individuals, who do great things individually, or a land of a harmonious people, who work in concert?

In my mind, the answer is the former. My roommate – technically an immigrant, but hard to distinguish from the genuine article – would probably call this a very American way of thinking. We believe in a fundamentally meritocratic system in which the people who work the hardest or come up with the idea that changes everything rise to the top and become fabulously wealthy. I don’t think America really works that way in practice, but I value the concept at least.

When I lived in China, I was struck with a sharply contrasting philosophy. In China, no one can become a hero. Both victories and defeats are shared by the group (although serious mistakes call for scapegoats), and all decisions must be contextualized within the needs of the group. “Me” is a part, not a whole.

China isn’t really the gold standard here though. It’s westernizing, it’s transitioning, it’s not going to be a model of anything, because it’s in between so many different things. It can’t really be generalized either for the same reasons. If there is a gold standard for the land of the harmonious people, it’s probably in something like Marxist or anarchist theory.

I don’t know if the contrast I see is “real”, or worth discussing, but I’m interested in an opposition between cultures which emphasize the individual and cultures which emphasize the collective. I think a question like “which is better?” is a waste of time because it requires that we first lay out arbitrary metrics by which to make that judgment, but I think a question like “what effects do these cultures have on their people?” is a question that can be answered, and would be worthwhile to explore, although we would first have to hypothesize what effects there might be before we could verify them.

Now, if you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you might recall that I’ve asked the question of what story does the game want to tell before, and that to answer the question, I’ve been thinking about what is it like to learn a language, and play this game. Last time I wrote on this, I was thinking about assimilation, and understanding new ways of thinking. Now I’m thinking about placing that within the context of a society that emphasizes conformity, that is, assimilating to a culture that demands assimilation. That sounds like I’m giving away a lot, but trust me, I’m not writing a Borg knock-off.

This will give away quite a bit though: I originally imagined that the game would have a separate new game+ mode, which would emphasize individuality, as opposed to assimilation. But I don’t think these need to be separate game modes anymore, they can simply be separate endings. I’m a little wary of multiple game endings though. Funneling the player into either a “good” ending or a “bad” ending seems forced. It seems like what someone would do if they want to make an artsy game, but just don’t have enough to say on their subject to make their choice interesting, or at least, to show why both endings would make sense to certain people.

The only game I can think of that pulled this off with any finesse is Deus Ex (the original, not Human Revolution). Deus Ex certainly had a “good” ending, as well as two “bad” ones, but it explained extensively throughout its sprawling storyline why that ending was the good ending, and offered plenty of counterarguments along the way, many of them coming from the player character himself early on.

That said, I think the most graceful handling of multiple endings, at least of the games I’ve played, comes from Bastion, which asks an incredibly interesting question without explicitly marking one as “good” and one as “bad”. When I first played the game, I had to stop and think for a while about what I wanted, but in the end, I picked the answer that I’m confident is right, even now, years after playing it. And that’s the fundamental difference between Bastion and pretty much everyone else: when Bastion ends, you tell the game which ending is the good one, but the other games are trying to tell you which ending is good.

I don’t know if the question I posed at the beginning of my post is the most interesting one my game has to ask – hopefully not – but I hope it’s one you might have convictions about by the time you beat my game.

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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: Facebook: Twitter:

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