Literature in Gaming: Deus Ex Machina
Written By: Michael James
Edited By: Shania Kuo
Imagine, for a second, an impossible situation. Let’s say that both of your hands are tied. Ahead of you, there is a boulder easily the size of a truck rolling down a hill towards you. You want to move, but your feet are tied too, and there isn’t enough time to inchworm your way to safety.
The crackling sound of rock-related death gets louder every second. Soon, it’s so close that you swear you can feel it crushing your bones to dust. You close your eyes before impact because there is no possible way out of this situation.
Only, you don’t die. You open your eyes, and in front of you is that paper clip you had in your pocket. During your struggle it slipped out, right in the boulder's way . That was just enough leverage to bounce the death-pebble out of the way, and you live to see another day. A piece of the rock, sharp and small, falls mere feet from you, and you use it to escape.
Sounds convenient, right? Well, that’s because it is. That paper clip was an example of what is called a deus ex machina, or, a god in the machine. As fantastical as the name sounds, it is quite ridiculous in practice. The deus ex machina is little more than an asspull, and this holds true even in video games.
In this rendition of Literature in Gaming, we explore the incredibly convenient literary device of godly intervention.
The first thing that needs to be explored, before we touch on today’s topic, is the idea of convenience. Convenience exists in just about every story and is a necessary topic for most. It sure is convenient that Cloud was able to defeat Sephiroth when the latter went insane in the Nibelheim reactor in Final Fantasy 7. Likewise, it is convenient that the World Eater Alduin swooped in to save the Dragonborn in the first five (or thirty, depending on how long you take to make a character) minutes of The Elder Scolls V: Skyrim.
But those conveniences can be allowed. While definitely out of sorts, they don’t stretch the boundaries of what the player believe. Stories, and therefore video games, stretch the suspension of disbelief to varying degrees. Dropped into a world of magic and monsters, you don’t question when your RPG character shrugs off a swipe from a bear. You just note the HP you’ve lost and calculate how much more you can withstand.
The deus ex machina, however, does not simply stretch your suspension of disbelief. It breaks it to pieces for a single moment to bask at the shattered remains. Oftentimes, a deus ex machina will make very little sense. When used in a story, it tends to have no precedence—no mention at all prior to its introduction, and sometimes no usage afterwards. It is literally a miracle occurrence, hence the name.
So what makes the deus ex machina so bad? Well, simply put, it’s often very jarring. Good video games pull you from the realm of possibility and make you explore different environments while making you believe it is essential to the world and worldbuilding. For instance, in Horizon: Zero Dawn, when the Focus is introduced, the player isn’t pulled from their understanding of what they’ve seen so far. While it is extremely convenient for the player to use, allowing the main character Aloy to identify weak spots on the machine enemies and see through walls, its inclusion is analogous to what the player knows about the world. Later in the story, the player even gets to explore the background and usage of said power.
In contrast, we have things like plasmids in Bioshock 2. They provide an insane power-up to the player at the cost of irreparably damaging the user’s biology, and yet, after using several of them, the player character seems fine. Able to switch between several gene splicing abilities in the span of a few seconds with no drawback, the player character, an Alpha series “Big Daddy,” seems no worse for the wear. The main character can find these highly sought after abilities simply lying around in the exact spots you need them, which adds a feeling of cheapness to what would normally be an atmospheric game.
The many downsides of Bioshock 2 aside, it perfectly encapsulates what an improper usage of a deus ex machina can do to a video game: it cheapens the experience . If used in what is otherwise a serious and plot-driven game, this literary device can literally break a player’s enjoyment. While most can recover from such a thing, there have been many players who quit a game completely from a single misplaced convenience.
But, as we’ve said before, a deus ex machina is more than just a mere convenience. It is a staged convenience. One that, when used correctly, can add an immense amount of enjoyment to a video game.
Let’s take, for example, a game like Banjo and Kazooie. Rare Studio’s pivotal “collect-em-up” boasted zany, exaggerated characters and motions, as well as cartoonish graphics and wondrous worlds and scenarios. Deus ex machinas run wild in this game, though you wouldn’t piece it together on any given playthrough.
For instance, why are these boots here?
In this picture you see a power-up of sorts, provided to Banjo and Kazooie because… reasons? There is no explanation for why they are in the middle of a piranha infested swamp other than the fact that our player character would need them to continue collecting items. They fulfill every rule that a deus ex machina would need to: they are conveniently placed in an area where the main characters would need them, with no explanation provided on who put them there or why they continue to be used. They should feel like a cop-out, and yet, they don’t. The player’s suspension of disbelief isn’t irreparably broken when they encounter these boots for the first time. So what sets them apart?
Intention. I know I’ve used this word before in my Anti-Hero article, and that’s because it is so very important. Intention rules the success of a video game world, and if you can make your game work as intended, then you will most likely achieve success. Banjo and Kazooie, unlike Bioshock 2, does not intend to tell a serious story. From the very beginning, the game introduces you to a bear with a bird in his backpack. Your best friend is a talking mole and a skull shaman. Your first enemies are giant, googly-eyed vegetables and you can break entire houses apart with your butt.
Banjo and Kazooie doesn’t set limits on what is possible in this world, so when introduced to mechanics of pure convenience the player doesn’t question it. That then begs the metaphorical question of, “if it’s in line with what is expected of the world, is it a deus ex machina?”
And the answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Like I said before, convenience must be present in most instances for stories to progress. It is convenient that Link keeps finding the exact item he needs in every dungeon he encounters to defeat the final boss. It is convenient that Aloy stumbles across a focus as a child when the device is so incredibly rare. Along those same lines, it is convenient that enemies drop either useful items or health drops.
But these conveniences can occur, as they are typically at least somewhat explainable and/or analogous with the game’s theme. They help progress the game and keep the player entertained. In Banjo and Kazooie, these items of convenience include things like music notes, red feathers, and eggs. Their existence isn’t explainable, but their exclusion doesn’t break our immersion. Stuff lies around in the game, and these collectable stuffs are everywhere, even in places where you don’t need them.
A deus ex machina only serves to enhance the properties of the game, rather than destroy it. This technique is oftentimes used in many “collect-them-up” games in order to cleanly keep the flow of the game moving where it would otherwise stall.
Which is a far cry from, say, Sora just happening to rediscover the power of waking at the very end of the game for absolutely no reason at all.
A deus ex machina is, ultimately, a double edged sword. When planned for and used properly, it can efficiently marry a video game’s mechanics to it’s story. When used incorrectly, however, you are led to one of the worst outcomes: a break in immersion. Once the player stops believing in the world that they are in, the game becomes silly, forced, and unbearable.
Err on the side of caution and planning, readers. Don’t break world immersion and use deus ex machinas wisely.
Next on Literature in Gaming: Immersion.
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