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The work of video games

December 12, 2013

Overthinkingit.com has been dull for the last few months, but yesterday and today it published two thought-provoking articles about video games. Since I’ve been busy for the last week writing a paper (hence the unusually long gap between this post and the previous one), and my end-of-quarter madness is winding to a close but not quite there yet, I’m not going to write a massive tome about these, just link, quote, and make a few (hopefully brief) observations about what games can do.

Tiny Death Star and Operant Conditioning. The author of this article focuses on “resource-management”-centered mobile games and how they does not even pretend to pose the player a challenge; they just allow you to spend time making guaranteed but painfully slow progress, and then give you the option of paying to make progress faster. The putative point is disturbing, but not that surprising: “The future of 2004 was a game that would play itself and charge us for the privilege.” I found more interesting the description of “The Linear RPG,” a flash game (you can play it online) that’s not so much a game as a deconstruction of the JRPG genre.

Where JRPGs make combat more interesting is by injecting some tactical choices within each battle. Your character may choose to FIGHT or use MAGIC. They may have ITEMS that boost their abilities or can restore their hp while in the field. But ultimately, every battle has the same goal: whittle down the enemy’s hp before they do the same to you. Since the enemies are uniformly weaker than you are, the greater strategic question is how many enemies you want to tackle before retiring to the inn.

The Linear RPG abstracts all those choices to one choice: advance or retreat.

P-Zombies, Zero-Sum Videogames, and the Problem of Free Will. Video game writers and designers have a problem: how to tell a story while giving the player the feeling that the choices he makes actually matter? Some games, of course, don’t try to do either; PacMan isn’t about story or choice, it’s about mastering the game mechanics. Lots of games are still just this, but the more ambitious try to tell an intriguing story as well. Unfortunately, they still haven’t quite figured out how to meaningfully relate the story they tell to the game mechanics–and if they can’t do that, what’s the point of telling the story in game form at all? Incidentally, I have personal experience trying, and failing, to solve this problem back when I wrote campaigns for Wesnoth. I’ve played games that I thought made decent attempts (though not many, mostly because I don’t play games very often), but none that really solved the problem. Now, the author of this article claims, has come along a game that has: the official video-game adaptation of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead presents you with numerous situations where you must decide between doing what will benefit you and what some universal, impartially rational arbiter would require. If someone stole your food, you’d think that was wrong – so why is it okay to steal someone else’s? And the answer is, well, because you’re you, so your own welfare is more important to you than another person’s is. You are the exception. Or the answer is: the food’s owner might be dead, and there are more of us than there are of them, so by saving our own lives instead of theirs we’re doing the right thing.

The game forces you to make this decision, and gives you a very short amount of time to choose – if you say nothing, the rest of your group will vote and do whatever they want whether you like it or not. The choice is less between taking the food or not taking it as it is about how you make decisions in the first place, what are your criteria for deciding whether a certain action is morally right or wrong. And you have to decide now.

What place does narrative have in games that strive to be artistic? This may be a bit like asking, what place does narrative have in great sculpture, or great painting, or great music? Perhaps some place, but it’s unlikely to involve telling stories in a straightforward sense. We ought to ask: how does the medium of video game work?

Often, video games are about giving us an opportunity to learn a skill. Most genres of video game require us to learn a craft, in the sense that medicine and carpentry are crafts; in normal games (those neither ambitious nor cynical), the craft usually relates either to hand-eye coordination, strategic choice, or both. Failure and success are well-defined.

There are also games that let us do housework, with little challenge, but much work to be done. This seems to be what happens when the rules become streamlined, when the host of possibilities presented in the craft-game are reduced to two, or even to one. If we sometimes enjoy games like those described in the first article, it’s because they’ve been radically simplified, whether as a deconstruction (The Linear RPG) or as a crude money-making scheme (Tiny Death Star), and we often enjoy simplicity, and even boredom.

The The Walking Dead game described by the second article sounds intriguing, but really not that different from other narrative-based games that try to give the player “freedom” that actually relates to the narrative. The problem is that, to do so, the “freedom” usually has to be of an ethical variety: the freedom to harm X or not, to help Y or not, to follow the law or not, etc; and such choices are a perverse aestheticizing of ethics: we are asked to choose, not to decide what is right, but to see what will happen. This applies whether or not there is an explicit “good/bad meter” (though having such meters surely exacerbates the problem).

Then there are games that seem like they’re not work because they don’t give us a goal at all; sandbox games, they’re called. That name evokes aesthetic creation, a child building sandcastles: the game will not tell us what constitutes success, we must decide for ourselves. Sounds wonderful, at first, but I’m not sure it is. That’s asking us to be artists, but being an artist is damn hard. Most people aren’t up to the challenge. They can accessorize their avatar to look “cool,” but probably can’t tell a worthwhile story, at least not without assistance.

In another sense, though, sandbox games aren’t about creativity, they’re about discovery; they let us explore the contours of imaginary objects and spaces. That’s what a sandbox is too, really: a sculptural revelation of the contours of sand. For good examples, see the art-game Flow, or the old classic Myst, or the more recent Portal; these games succeed not because they tell great stories, but because they give us a space through which we have to learn to maneuver.

Flow does little more than let us live the life of a microscopic organism, but Myst and Portal do both tell pretty good stories. In fact, they both tell the story of how the environment we explore came to have the strange properties that it has. Perhaps that offers a model for storytelling in video games: tell a story that transforms the game-world from a system of arbitrary rules to be exploited into a contingent historical reality to be both lived within and questioned.

If that’s the only model, though, it’s hard to see how the stories told could ever be very complex in human terms. Both Myst and Portal give us sculpted environments strangely devoid of human life; there is only the protagonist and the hidden persons responsible for his situation. Could games like these ever populate their worlds without throwing us back into the trap of aestheticizing ethics?

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