The other day I posted some thoughts inspired by the Beowulf movie’s decidedly video game-esque animation and action scenes. Today I turn my attention to Beowulf’s story. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Beowulf’s story is only similar to most video game stories because it sucks. By certain standards, it’s definitely not that interesting. Just a few major plot points. Not many twists and turns. Pretty clear roles for the major characters.
A brief interpretation of Beowulf
On the other hand, I think the movie can be “read” not so much as an epic action movie but as an allegory or cautionary tale. I have to credit Roger Ebert at least partially for leading me to this interpretation. His somewhat disjointed review suggests an element of irony and satire in the film. I didn’t really find either of those, but he did get me looking for a deeper layer of meaning.
Without giving any big spoilers, I think Beowulf is a story about the price of arrogance, greed, and lust. Ok, this isn’t a big stretch — our hero arrives at Hrothgar’s hall boasting of his accomplishments, in search of riches, and not at all hesitant to ogle Hrothgar’s wife in that ridiculous way macho protagonists always seem to do (as if to say, “You will be mine, oh yes, you will be mine”).
The film’s major symbolism, though, can be found in its antagonists. Grendel’s mother, in her golden nude-glory, represents the seductive promise of wealth and power. Grendel himself represents the isolation and violent sensitivity born from a society built on greed (he made me think of the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters). Beowulf’s final foe is a physical manifestation of Beowulf’s mistakes, a brutal (and large) reminder that leaders’ mistakes beget very destructive forces.
Allegory and games
Ok, now the point. For all the discussion about stories in games (particularly the argument about whether they can ever be good), I find myself thinking that allegory could be a particularly rich device to use in game stories (no doubt it has been used before). There are a couple reasons why allegory seems to have a lot of potential for games.
- First, allegory is well suited for the kinds of stories and worlds that are often found in games. Science fiction and fantasy worlds in particular often deal in larger-than-life situations ripe for symbolism.
- Second, and more importantly, allegory can function even in an open-ended narrative situation. Symbolism can be established through visuals (like color or costumes) and sounds (musical themes) without requiring a particular order of events. Additionally, as Beowulf demonstrates, allegorical tales often work best when stories are simple, since there isn’t as much plot to distract from the underlying meaning.
Should every video game be an allegory? Of course not. But as the debate over game narrative continues, allegory, as a time-honored form, seems like a good option for developers interested in telling stories of some depth without the pressure of coming up with a brand new narrative mechanic for games.
Is my game going to be an allegory? You’ll have to wait and see.