Everybody faces conflict. Sometimes these conflicts are mild inconveniences while other times they are unexpected, unavoidable, and life-threatening. The latter is often true in video games, which, by their nature, are filled with obstacles that will impede your progress or end your play session altogether. For decades, mindless violence has been the primary method in which conflict in games is resolved.
Video game action hero Nathan Drake is never asked to consider the thousands of lives he’s taken in pursuit of exotic treasure. At least not any more than Nintendo asks us to consider that Mario frequently jumps on a turtle so hard that its shell is ejected from its body at a velocity strong enough to decimate other creatures and blow through brick walls. These acts of violence are framed in a way that minimizes their consequences so much so that Mario games are typically marketed as family romps.
There are tons of games where it is not possible to inflict violence upon anything and the player is never in danger of having violence inflicted upon them. Tetris and other puzzle games fit this mold nicely. You’ll also find plenty of games, especially in the horror genre, where the player is powerless against deadly obstacles, sentient or otherwise, and must avoid them.
Redefining the hero
But Wandersong is a game in which the protagonists are able to perform violent acts to achieve their goals, but choose not to. When the world faces its end, a young bard sets off on an adventure to save it by learning parts of an ancient hymn from each of the mythical Overseers, which combine to create a song that will restore the planet. It is apparent to everyone, the player included, how ridiculous it is that the bard would even attempt to sing away impending doom, yet this is exactly what he chooses to do.
The bard, controlled by the player, accepts the peaceful path yet there is another character who chooses a much more violent course of action. This foil to the player character acts as a representation and criticism of what is traditionally considered “heroic” in video games, and the immense contrast between the two only endears players more to the bard’s optimism. Whenever their paths cross, the bard pleads with this “hero” character not to stop killing her foes during her quest. To his disappointment, she is adamant that killing is a necessary sacrifice to fulfill her heroic duty. She believes her path is noble just as much as the bard believes his is. But from the player’s perspective, she’s a senselessly violent villain.
Her unquestioning faithfulness to murdering these deities reminded me of games like Shadow of the Colossus where you’re tasked with killing over a dozen giant beasts who you assume are evil. Eventually, you face some who only attack when you provoke them and still others who never attack you at all while you hack away at their hides. Wandersong makes you consider the many games where you acted as the hero, but maybe, just maybe, were doing more harm than good.
Violence is not the answer
Violence is often either an act of desperation or a cowardly way of assuming power through taking somebody else’s. If you feel stuck, it is one of the easiest ways to make something happen, but that something is rarely as productive or helpful as other games or movies would have you believe.
— Host Marcus (@TopShelfMarcus) September 27, 2018
And I’m not condemning violence, especially in video games. When I wasn’t singing my way up mountain tops, I was shooting my way through the solar system in Destiny 2: Forsaken. However, Wandersong forces you to wrestle with the tension of why violence is overwhelmingly the go-to option for overcoming obstacles in games. Indie RPG Undertale addresses this in its own way by letting you complete the entire game without killing a single enemy, but the option is always there.
In Wandersong, you have no choice but to play non-violently which can admittedly be really stinkin’ annoying at times. This frustration is echoed by Miriam, the young witch who accompanies the bard on his journey. She’ll offer her power-packed sorcery when foes converge on you. With a couple of magic blasts to the enemy’s face, you could be on your way and one step closer to saving the world. She curses through her teeth when you reject her methods and becomes more impatient as the apocalypse draws nearer.
One section of the game makes you navigate through a cave without stepping on any of the bugs inside of it simply because the bard doesn’t think it would be nice. Turns out that bugs love dark and dank caves, which makes avoiding them a cumbersome affair. This section wasn’t very fun as a player, but the extra consideration proved to be worth it when the bugs showed their appreciation.
Sing a simple song
The bard is mostly unimpressive. He tries wielding a sword in the opening scene but struggles to even lift it above his head. Apart from perfect pitch, his only superpower is not being a jerk. He believes in people, forgives easily, and chooses to see past everyone’s foibles. These are great qualities, but they’re not as flashy as slashing foes with a lightning-infused sword while delivering a clever oneliner.
I’m not sure if I would consider the bard in Wandersong a pacifist as much as I would say he’s a kind-hearted person who sees the value in everyone. I think he would slap the noodles out of you if he had to, but only if there was absolutely, positively, indubitably no other option. And after going toe-to-toe with towering monsters and never lifting a finger against them, chances are he’ll always find another way.
As you might imagine in a game about singing, Wandersong draws parallels in regards to the power of music, about how it is magical and can unite people. I agree with these sentiments, but Wandersong takes these ideas even further. It postulates that in this dark and dreary world, kindness and empathy are like a beautiful song that gets stuck in your head. And when this song of love reverberates in our minds, our hearts start to turn away from sadness, bitterness, hopelessness, and narcissism and slowly reorient themselves toward compassion and selflessness. Maybe it’s not all that heroic, but it just could save the world.