Critical Intel

Critical Intel
D-D-D-Danger! Watch Behind You

Robert Rath | 4 Jul 2013 12:00
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When an academic begins to seriously study the narrative potential of videogames, a few titles stand out for their depth and narrative complexity: BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line, and Journey come to mind. Other titles fascinate the scholar as a result of their ludonarrative dissonance - a phenomenon where the tone of a game's cutscenes strain against the action of the gameplay. In Uncharted Drake is a charming rogue in the cinematics and a cold-blooded murderer in the gameplay, BioShock's narrative urges the player to be selfless while the game mechanics reward selfishness.

Games that combine both compelling narrative and dissonance are a rare find, and to our great fortune, one of the most respected publishers in the field is about to release a new, revised edition of interactive literature's lost masterpiece. A game that offers profound storytelling, and a tension of opposing narrative and gameplay that threatens to tear the entire game asunder. It shows us greed, fear and familial neglect, and studies the horror of capitalism taken to logical extreme. I speak, of course, of Capcom's tour-de-force: DuckTales.

In the final cutscene of the game, the Duck Press celebrates Scrooge as a hero for pillaging the world of its treasures. His great-nephews smile their happy affection toward him, and he states that their love is what makes him truly rich. However, this is where the dissonance takes hold, for the gameplay tells a different story, a narrative of greed, imperialism and child endangerment.

This is Scrooge: He dresses in the trappings of high net-worth life - a top hat, spats, an unneeded cane carried only as a status symbol. But his most gross display of wealth-hoarding is a twelve-story structure known as the Money Bin. It is vault so full of gold that it bulges near the top, threatening to burst and flood Duckberg with the capital Scrooge has withheld from the local economy. Rather than invest his holdings, Scrooge merely glories in it with daily money swims. The practice combines his miserly nature with a childlike whimsy. Amongst this multitude of riches, Scrooge covets his Number One Dime above all - a fetishistic totem of when he was poor and money was something useful and valuable, before his net worth became so immense that it lost its meaning and became little more than an old man's sandbox. Like many of the ultra-rich, Scrooge's compulsive need to accumulate capital is a symptom of fear, a deep-seeded disquiet that despite being the Richest Duck in the World he is still at heart - and may one day again become - a desperate, uneducated immigrant boy shining the shoes of richer men. His justifiable pride at rising from humble beginnings manifests itself in a cutting classism and refusal to be second to anyone. Scrooge hunts for treasures not so much to increase his Croesus-like wealth but out of the prideful need to outdo his rival Flintheart Glomgold, the Second-Richest Duck. Capcom's game rewards Scrooge for the illnesses of his soul.

Scrooge is alone. He has no friends, only business rivals, domestic staff and a tiny circle of relatives beholden to him for financial support. These people may love him, but like all those who are dependent on a rich benefactor, they fear him as well. Should Scrooge withdraw his support, they would fall to ruin. Scrooge's associates are both his beneficiaries and his prisoners. The most prominent of these are his great-nephews, three unfortunate children living amongst great fortune. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are little more than wards. After a childish prank permanently hospitalized their father and their mother disappeared, they went to live with their Uncle Donald who was himself unable to keep them due to frequent naval deployments. They are twice abandoned - once by domestic strife and again by the needs of national security. The only thing that brings structure to their chaotic lives is the soft militarism of the Junior Woodchucks Society, and they cling to its dictates as a substitute for parental guidance. Scrooge takes them - and Webby, the child of one of his domestics - along on his adventures, often to dangerous locations where the children find their lives under threat. To a normal parent this would be unthinkable, but Scrooge himself lacked parental figures, embarking on a tramp steamer for America when he was only thirteen. He thinks nothing of taking the boys to Transylvania, and when they're kidnapped, he leaves young Webby alone to fend for herself in a house full of hostiles. Scrooge needs people he can trust, even children, but more than that he is grooming the boys as his presumptive heirs, teaching them to pillage undeveloped countries and increase their own wealth.

Without a doubt, Scrooge's third world looting is imperialistic, even colonial in nature. In the Amazon, he treks through the jungle like a conquistador, slaughtering apes and anacondas, finally taking his cane to the natives themselves. Like Sir Edmund Hilary and the imperialist explorers of the British Empire, he then takes to the Himalayas to prove Western mastery over the highest peaks on earth. But the tones of colonial dominance are at their strongest when Scrooge invades an African diamond mine. It was not his first foray into African exploitation. As a young duck Scrooge once hired a militia to drive indigenous people from their village so he could establish a rubber plantation. Like the industrial imperialist he is, Scrooge kills local flora and fauna in pursuit of gold artifacts and crushes rocks to take diamonds from the earth. This assault on the environment takes on a brutal psychosexual undertone. Scrooge's main weapon is to jump in the air and use his cane as a pogo stick - feet splayed outward and the long shaft of his cane pointed downward in a suggestively Freudian manner. The intention is clear: Scrooge shows his dominance by forcefully penetrating the earth itself. Is this the hero Duck Press celebrates?

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