The Nuke That Makes It All OK
To me, one of the most fascinating narrative things in games is the narrative justification for whatever unholy acts you have to fulfill to somehow end up on the side of good again. Where most games cater to a power fantasy, they also cater to a sense of moral justness, and to resolve the two people need a good reason for their spectacular murder sprees.
One of my favorite examples of that was very popular around 2005-2008, the peak of the FPS military single player campaign, and I have to admit I kind of miss it. It’s the third act nuke launch.
For the first two acts of the story, the game maintains a politically plausible narrative – a political faction separated itself from the forces of stability and order, but not unlike current political events. The player is sent to the Wartorn Country Du Jour, where they fight local inhabitants and their puppet masters. Players get to participate in something realistic.
While that creates a great theater for a story, games are commonly unhappy to tell a story – they’re expected to tell the story. The soldiers that breached the walls and died shortly thereafter while ensuring ultimate victory aren’t as interesting to the player’s agency as the one person that singlehandedly took down an army and the superweapon and the person that built it and also the person secretly behind all of it.
If your antagonist is a politically realistic faction, it’s unlikely you can tell that story. Reality rarely is that absolute, and few political factions are interested in triggering something of the scale that places the protagonist in the camp of Absolute Objective Good.
But we want to tell the story, the story of the hero – and as such, we need an absolute evil to the player’s rampant but absolute good. So at the start of the third act, we justify the player’s violence up to that point with a satisfying “They’re launching a nuke?!”
And it’s kind of reassuring, that nuke. We haven’t shot all these people for nothing. And everybody we shoot after that is fine too. You can have everything in your game script: realism and heroism – all you need is to launch the tired old nuke.