Your Only True Choice – Complicity in Unavoidable Tragedy

Complicity is the most important distinguishing feature of games.

Other media still requires your interaction. You choose the order in which to experience a series (broadcast or DVD order of Firefly? publication or chronological order of Narnia?), the way in which you experience a painting or sculpture (from a distance? different angles? different lighting?), or how you experience a play (what cast? what seat? do you read it first? do you watch it staged at all?).

However, only in games do your actions involve a complicity with the diegetic1 events of the game. When you choose not to watch an episode of Supernatural, you do not absolve yourself of the injuries the Winchesters experience. There is no way to examine Guernica which makes you responsible for the depicted atrocity. Listening to the 1812 Overture on MP3 rather than live may save on real-world gunpowder but does not inform your relationship to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, fictional or historic.

However, when you choose to punch a reporter in the Mass Effect series, your action (with the assistance of the games’ developers) causes an assault on a (fictional) civilian member of the press. You probably feel emotions as a result of this that are related to that complicity: “personal pride” or “embarrassment”, not simply “just satisfaction” or “disappointment.” The experience of consuming this work is different because it requires your active participation: pressing a button to trigger an action, not just turning a page to advance the narration.

This responsibility the player bears for the events of the game is what I’m calling complicity.

But what about when a game makes you complicit in something that you do not want, where you do not have a choice in the matter? I’ve written before about the tragedy in the ending of Prince of Persia (2008), but the most apropos in-game examination of this is the “Museum Ending” of The Stanley Parable.

Created For You Long in Advance

The Stanley Parable2 features the titular player character being guided by an unseen Narrator through a physically- and narratively-branching absurdist story, steered by more-or-less blatant binary player choices. In one ending3, Stanley is given a respite from certain death when a meta-Narrator takes over, commenting on the illusion of control the game presents and showing “behind-the-scenes” material, before returning Stanley to the previous deathtrap and entreating:

But listen to me. You can still save these two. You can stop the program before they both fail.
Press “escape” and press “quit.” There’s no other way to beat this game.
As long as you move forward, you’ll be walking someone else’s path. Stop now, and it’ll be your only true choice.
Whatever you do, choose it! Don’t let time choose for you! Don’t let time choose for you!

And if you don’t quit before the end of her narration, Stanley is killed.

This ending frames all other choices in the game as “false,” saying, “When every path you can walk has been created for you long in advance, death becomes meaningless, making life the same. ” In this view, you are complicit in the choices Stanley makes, but you have no agency in them. You are only selecting from a menu of actions not of your own creation… but this, paradoxically, makes you responsible for interacting at all with this broken system.

Is the choice to end the game at any time a “true” choice? Is it a choice that you are complicit in, within the “magic circle” that circumscribes the play space, or is it a choice akin to closing a book before the end and imagining that it preserves the fictional world in stasis?4

The Stories Themselves Might Be the Problem

What Remains of Edith Finch, by Giant Sparrow, has the player embody Edith, the youngest of a family that suffers from a “curse” that purportedly causes the dramatic death of every member. You explore the now-abandoned and implausibly-architected Finch home, uncovering accounts of these deaths. Each time you find one, you then reenact the final moments of each character.

These reenactments are tragic and brutal. Many of them involve children and require you to take action that you know will lead to their deaths. While this is thematically consistent — the game explores concepts of fatalism, death-seeking, and self-defeating self-narratives — it is a traumatic experience for many players. The game arguably avoids becoming exploitative by couching the reenactments in fantasy, but the fact remains that the player must become repeatedly and deliberately complicit in the death of a child and experience what is, on its surface, their ensuing dying fantasy.

This is a story in which the player is the villain. In any interpretation, you are repeatedly taking on the role of the cause of the characters’ demise, whether that is a literal curse, a familial disposition toward risk, or just a dangerous framing of the family’s narrative. There is no opportunity to continue experiencing the game’s story without being complicit in death.

The fact that the deaths have “already occurred” in the past of the game’s central narrative thread is immaterial, as is the fact that the player, after the first death or two, is sufficiently warned what they’re getting into. These facts don’t change the traumatic experience of embodying and enabling each death.

When I played Edith Finch, I found the experience tragic and harrowing but ultimately cathartic; my complicity in death felt worth it given the concepts and aesthetic journey it allowed me to explore. However, this experience is (of course) not universal.

Writer and sustainable technologist Aurynn Shaw writes about Edith Finch in her piece “On Forced Complicity in Games.”

What Remains of Edith Finch was rated as one of the best games of 2017… but I’m not going to remember the story or the themes or the writing. None of that touched me, because of the alienation of discomfort. All I remember is that discomfort. All I will remember is that discomfort.

Chances are, if you create works, you want those works to be read, understood, and retained by others. Traumatic emotional experiences, such as being complicit in the death of a (fictional) child, tend to override memory and perspective. To require a player be complicit in deliberately uncomfortable acts in order to experience your game is to alienate and exclude a player that might otherwise be a prime audience for your work.

There will always be (and should always be!) games which challenge the player emotionally and force them to be complicit in tragedy. However, doing so not only gives players a deeply unpleasant experience, but also undermines the retention of that experience by those most affected. The people who most strongly feel their own complicity in the tragedy of the game are those most likely to only remember that unpleasantness instead of the underlying message or story of the work.

This is yet another reason why considering choice, agency, and accessibility is vital to the game design process. If Edith Finch had allowed me to skip the reminiscence of the tragic death of children, it would have been less effective for me; that discomfort was acceptable and essential to my appreciation of the work. However, it was actively disruptive to Shaw’s appreciation of the game.

Design is always a task of considering a diverse audience and making tradeoffs. Designers must consider how they force their players to be complicit in the events of the game.

Because the designer is complicit in however the game affects those who play it.

  1. Diegetic: within the game’s fiction or world, as opposed to part of the way that world is translated into a work
  2. I’ve written about The Stanley Parable previously, discussing its paradoxical lack of agency and its unsettling uncertainty.
  3. Arguably the second most “obvious” ending, as it requires doing everything you’re told until you see a large “escape” sign
  4. Spoiler: as I discuss in “Candyland: Game as Critical Lens,” this sort of choice doesn’t count and is often a cop-out.

Actual Play Podcasts Do Not Portray Actual Play, Actually

Actual play podcasts are not what the name suggests. They’re a form of podcast that purportedly serializes a recording of a group playing a tabletop roleplaying game. The listener hears the dice rolls, the out-of-character discussions, and the social interaction that surrounds the in-character story being told at the table. The apparent appeal is the fun of hearing the “actual play” occurring when creating an interesting story.

But actual play podcasts are a lie.

Actual Play

Roleplaying game systems (tabletop or otherwise) are more complex to examine than other games. I’ve written about their oddnesses over the course of years, but here is a summary1:

  • Unlike most games, what you purchase when you buy a traditional RPG is a ruleset, not a potential narrative. When you buy Arkham Horror or DUSK, you can immediately begin playing without doing much creative work of your own. With RPG systems, on the other hand, one or more players must create characters, settings, and/or conflicts, depending on the game2.
  • Once this “campaign material” has been created (or purchased as a separate supplement), then you have a potential narrative: a set of rules for simulation plus an initial world state (and potential future events).
  • Playing through the campaign concretizes this potential narrative into an actual one. The campaign material is transformed by the rules and the player choices into the actual events that occur in the narrative and can later be breathlessly related to a gracious and patient third party.

Actual play podcasts add an additional layer to this matryoshka of potentiality:

Notional Play

Games already involve a chain of fake people, and actual play podcasts add an extra few, including the editor and the listener. They also flavor the whole endeavor with the feeling of performance. A roleplaying game played with the intent to present it to a listener is different than one played “just for fun.” There can’t help but be a pressure to produce something consumable. To do what is interesting to hear rather than what is wise or fun or interesting to play. To ignore rules to avoid them bogging down the story, or to enforce rules just so you don’t get irate responses about your laxness.

There are few other artistic forms in which the process of making the final work is immortalized as part of the work. Actual play presents both in-character and out-of-character as essential. Reality television revels in presenting the process of its own creation, but generally doesn’t have an inner narrative; the story of the show is the story of the creation of the show only. Professional wrestling presents a fictional narrative partially improvised live, but it keeps the out-of-character bits blurry through the doctrine of kayfabe4.

But actual play podcasts give similar weight to the inner narrative of the game’s characters as they do to the “backstage” process of the players collaborating to construct that narrative. The closest thing I can think of is The Great British Bake Off and similar cooking competition shows, where the viewer both admires the aesthetics of the dishes being cooked and also enjoys the drama of the kitchen process.

Artificial Play

Actual play podcasts seek to provide listeners with an experience that evokes actual play, not one which documents it. Spectating tabletop roleplaying in life (not on stage) is uncommon, perhaps because it can be unsatisfying to sit passively through such a participatory experience, complete with its pauses for inside jokes and snacks and bathroom breaks.

Instead, these podcasts represent their play in a way that provides a hyperreal5 experience, one in which the listener feels like they are listening to a roleplaying game, despite this feeling resulting from the experience being an inaccurate representation of typical home play.

This dishonesty may not be intentional on the part of the show creators, but that doesn’t matter. The act of recording a play session, editing it, and presenting it to an audience unavoidably transforms it, affecting both the moment-to-moment actions of the players and the shape of the final product.

The lies that are being told varies from show to show. When you listen to The Adventure Zone, you are shown a version of play that is ridiculous and informal yet transcends this mood to be deeply emotional. When you listen to Friends at the Table, you see complex worlds emerging from casual interplay between friends. When you listen to Tabletop Garden, you (hopefully) see rich characters emerging as the result of intentional play practices.

The lies told by these shows may be true of some games, some of the time. However, by presenting their curated, edited view of play experience, the shows craft a subtle argument about how roleplaying games are, or should be. The listener is complicit in their own deception, enjoying this manufactured version of play and unavoidably allowing it to shape their future views and play practices.

Actual play podcasts do not portray actual play, but an ideal that the creator has chosen to present. Keeping this distinction in mind will help a creator make sure to convey an ideal they embrace, and will help a listener to recognize how this ideal is being presented to them.

  1. Throughout this piece, I’ll use the word “players” in a way that includes the possible Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.
  2. “No-prep” games like Fiasco or Lady Blackbird are weird edge-cases where the setting seems very entangled with the rules, but these still tend to require detailing and/or interpretation that happens before play proper begins.
  3. From the transcript: “They all destroyed the world and then flew away and then that was the ending and we finished recording and then almost like we hung up on the Skype call, and then like a minute later we started texting like ‘That sucked.'”
  4. In which wrestlers pretend, even outside of an event, that they are engaging in honest athletic competition rather than the partially pre-scripted acrobatic performance everyone knows they’re doing
  5. The hyperreal is an imitation of something which does not exist.

Ludus Novus 030 – Transcendentalism, Gentrification, and the Procedural Rhetoric of Stardew Valley

What does Stardew Valley say about the world with the rules of its simulation, and how does it compare to another Transcendentalist game, Walden, a game?

Transcript: Transcript for this episode

If you like this episode, check out the other podcasts I’m involved in: Audacious Compassion, The Future Proof Podcast, and Tabletop Garden.

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.

The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.

REFERENCES
Barone, Eric. Stardew Valley. Chucklefish, 22 February 2016. https://stardewvalley.net/

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press, 2010.

Brice, Mattie. “My First Year in Stardew Valley.” Alternate Ending, 29 April 2016. http://www.mattiebrice.com/my-first-year-in-stardew-valley/

Fullerton, Tracy et al. Walden: a game. USC Game Innovation Lab, 4 July 2017. https://www.waldengame.com/

La Flèche, Gersande. “The gentleman farmer, labour and land: ecocritical possibilities in Stardew Valley.” Gersande’s Blog, 3 May 2016. https://gersande.com/blog/the-gentleman-farmer-labour-and-land-ecocriticial-possibilities-in-stardew-valley/

Keegan, Brett. “Stardew Valley, Sorge, and Martin Heidegger.” Backyard Philosophy, 27 March 2018. https://backyardphilosophy.com/2018/03/27/stardew-valley-sorge-and-martin-heidegger/

Olson, Dan. “The Stanley Parable, Dark Souls, and Intended Play.” Folding Ideas, 26 July 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHmivGmkjJw

Piel, Michael. “The Video Game Based on Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ Will Bring You Closer to Nature.” Motherboard, 25 October 2017. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/7x4vmz/video-game-based-on-thoreau-walden-will-bring-you-closer-to-nature

Schultz, Kathryn. “Pond scum: Henry David Thoreau’s moral myopia.” The New Yorker, 19 October 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/pond-scum

Thoreau, Henry D. Walden; or, Life in the woods. Ticknor and Fields, 9 August 1854.

Tabletop Garden: New RPG Podcast

I’ve started a new podcast! It’s called Tabletop Garden, and it’s an “actual play” show where a rotating cast plays tabletop roleplaying games and talks about them.

Tabletop Garden is an actual-play podcast where we collaborate on short, self-contained stories about interesting characters, and we do it with an agenda. Throughout each campaign we discuss values, techniques, and how to play with intention.

Our first pilot campaign uses Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt to tell a tale of looming violence in the solarpunk postapocalypse. During each campaign, episodes will release weekly. Check out the show at tabletop.garden.

Ludus Novus 029 – The Goalless Path of Bernband

What do people actually mean when they say “walking simulator?” Bernband by Tom van den Boogaart doesn’t even seem to have a goal. But then why do you keep playing it?

Bernband: https://gamejolt.com/games/bernband/34864
Bernband Remake Twitter: https://twitter.com/bernband

Youtube (MP3 below):

Transcript: Transcript for this episode

If you like this episode, check out the other podcasts I’m involved in: Audacious Compassion and The Future Proof Podcast

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.

The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.

REFERENCES
Ashe, Pat. “Walking Simulator Simulator.” Feral Vector, 2014. https://soundcloud.com/thepatashe/walking-simulator-simulator (Transcript on The Pat Ashe, 6 July 2014. https://web.archive.org/web/20141007075156/http://thepatashe.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/walking-simulator-simulator/ )

Barlow, Sam. Her Story. 2015. http://www.herstorygame.com/

The Fullbright Company. Gone Home. 2013. https://gonehome.game/

Goodwin, Joel. “Screw Your Walking Simulators.” Electron Dance, 16 July 2014. http://www.electrondance.com/screw-your-walking-simulators/

Juul, Jesper. “Without a goal”. In Tanya Krzywinska and Barry Atkins (eds):Videogame/Player/Text. Manchester University Press, 2007.
http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/

Key, Ed and David Kanaga. Proteus. 2013. http://twistedtreegames.com/proteus/

Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. 2nd ed., O’Reilly Media, 2013.

Nygren, Nicklas. Knytt. 2006. https://web.archive.org/web/20170509070555/http://nifflas.ni2.se/?page=Knytt

Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. 2nd ed., CRC Press, 2015.

van den Boogaart, Tom. Bernband. https://gamejolt.com/games/bernband/34864

Ludus Novus 028: Candyland: Game as Critical Lens

What is a “game?” It only matters in context. When we examine things as games to learn from them, what does that mean? Any useful definition of game used as a critical lens must encompass Soccer, Candy Land, Sim City, Doom, and Gone Home. But Candy Land doesn’t have any player choice. Is it just dancing?

I’ve tried something new with this episode. I’ve put together a video version, currently hosted on YouTube, with some nonessential visual aids. For now I intend to keep the show audio-first, but having it available via YouTube may make it more accessible and attract new listeners/viewers. If you’re seeing this on my website, the normal audio player is still below.

I’ve also put together a text transcript for the episode: Transcript for this episode

If you like this episode, check out the other podcasts I’m involved in: Audacious Compassion and The Future Proof Podcast

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.

The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.

Tracery Live Released

I love the work that Kate Compton and others have done with generative/procedural art. One thing I’ve missed, though, is the ability to just link to a quickly-made thing. Specifically, I’ve done things like specify the naming structure of alien species for a roleplaying game using Kate’s tool Tracery, but there’s no easy way I’ve found to just link to an arbitrary Tracery grammar without spinning up a server or making a Twitter bot or something similar.

So I made one.

Tracery Live is an open-source Tracery front-end that stores your JSON source code in a query string, so that you can load grammars without any back-end storage needed. It supports HTML and various other supportive techs. You can paste in an arbitrary Tracery grammar or edit it directly on the page. Here’s Tracery’s Night Vale example for a sample of a lengthier end result.

This really is, like many software projects, a bunch of techs slapped together: George Buckingham’s Node version of Compton’s Tracery library, Nicholas Jitkoff’s itty.bitty.site approach using Nathan Rugg’s JS implementation of the LZMA compression algorithm, and the is.gd URL shortener, glued together with the unnecessarily-bulky-for-this-purpose Ember.js framework and hosted on GitHub Pages. My thanks to everyone involved.

Check out Tracery Live on GitHub Pages.

If you have any feature requests or bug reports, let me know in the GitHub issues or in the comments.

Rosette Diceless Released

At Future Proof Games, we just released a tabletop/live-action roleplaying game called Rosette Diceless. For those who have followed me for a while, this is a distant descendant of my 2009 beta release, LORE. We’ve been playtesting it for a year or two, and we’re looking forward to hearing what other folks use it for.

As with the rest of Rosette, Rosette Diceless has an agenda: it is dedicated to a consensus-based, story-first, and improvisational approach. We believe that this creates the best social environment for creating and expressing stories that incorporate everyone’s creativity.

You can pick up a digital copy of Rosette Diceless on itch.io, Kindle, or DriveThruRPG. We’ll have a paperback print-on-demand version on DTRPG soon; if you get the digital version before then, send us a proof of purchase to info@futureproofgames.com and you can pick up the print-on-demand at the bundle price.

Check out Rosette Diceless on its website!

“The Majesty of Colors” Remastered and Released

In 2008, I made a game called “(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors.” It got played millions of times, won awards, and is still recognized by many people I run across randomly.

In 2016, in part as a response to the impending death of Adobe Flash, we at Future Proof Games announced “The Majesty of Colors Remastered”, a rebuild of the original game in Unity with enhancements. We estimated that it would take a few months.

Today, two years later, the game is finally released on five platforms: iPhone/iPad, Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Buy The Majesty of Colors on the App Store Get it on Google Play Get it on itch.io

Every game release is scary for a different reason. One of the reasons I’m nervous about this one is that “The Majesty of Colors” is real short, and we’re asking money for it. Even on mobile. In the end, our estimate wasn’t far off; it took the two of us a few person-months of actual work, but that was spread over two years of working at day jobs. Even with the low price we’re asking, it will still take tens of thousands of sales to “break even,” making the game pay for itself. It’ll take even more to make a profit, supporting more steady work on future games and maybe even justifying further enhancements like extra interactions or (no promises!) more story.

We’re tentatively buoyed by the response to the game we’ve gotten so far today. Folks are excited, and we’ve gotten some press interest and are hopeful for more. But “The Majesty of Colors” is a work very close to my heart, and I’m still afraid that its time has entirely passed. We’ll see.

I’ve written this in various places over the last few days: thank you for dreaming with us.

Ludus Novus 027: Imposition of Order Results in Escalation of Disorder

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast: Prey 2017. The lie of a power fantasy is that power over others is something you deserve. Prey is a consequence fantasy: to take agency, you must incur risk. To escape a cage of lies, you have to open the door onto a world of new danger.

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.

The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.