Tag Archives: choice

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.

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.

A Whirlwind Heist

whirlwind-heist-control-roomDr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist is a weird little free game that’s a whole lot like the demo to The Stanley Parable, which was designed by the same person. No, not Davey Wreden, the creator of the original mod; his followup game is The Beginner’s Guide, a first-person experiment in form that explores the creative process as relates to video games, inspired in part by the impostor syndrome triggered by unexpected popularity. Heist is designed by William Pugh, who worked with Wreden on the standalone remastering of Stanley, and this followup is a first-person experiment in form that explores the creative process as relates to video games, inspired in part by the impostor syndrome triggered by unexpected popularity.

I need to write more about The Beginner’s Guide.

Pugh, who is probably responsible for Stanley‘s visual polish and environmental cleverness, uses the same premise here as that game’s demo, even beginning with the same joke of showing what initially seems to be a title screen but turns out to be a poster on the wall. A Whirlwind Heist follows the earlier game almost beat for beat: a narrator admits that they’re unable to let you play the game immediately, but offers you a behind-the-scenes tour, there’s jokes about video game concepts being real-world machines operated by people, and finally you never get to play the game that you were promised. They’re even roughly the same length.

The difference here is that you’re asked to be complicit in the inept “live” staging of an underfunded game, operating behind the scenes and not getting to do any of the cool stuff that the real player gets to do. The narrator is harried and unsure, unlike Stanley‘s pompous, commanding narrator. This is a funnier game than Stanley because it places you in the role of antagonist.

Most any action you choose to take contrary to instructions is met not with a tut-tut but with a shriek of frustration. The game sets up a joke for you and lets you knock it out of the park, instead of making you the butt of the laugh. The jokes in this game are like the “speak button” joke in Portal 2 or Face McShooty in Borderlands 2. You are the comic demon sent to make the narrator’s life hell, and they seem to deserve it.

I love to see games that give you a short experience, not asking for any big choices or presenting any challenge. Just giving you a little vignette of humor or pathos and then signing off. Gravity Bone, “Room of 1000 Snakes,” A Whirlwind Heist, and the like are not using the full potential of the medium; they don’t provide interactive storytelling and the joy of mastery over deep rules systems. But I love them so much.

Ludus Novus 023: Searching

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the search for the perfect game and the creation of universes.

When I search through my Steam library and I look for that game, that perfect game, the perfect experience that matches the mood that I am in right that moment, I’m playing a game with the entirety of my library: the entirety of games as a medium.

The music for this episode is “Progress” by mystified from the album Fractal Diner 3. It’s available under a ccby2.5 license.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

A map of the campaign setting I’ve been running a Dungeons and Dragons 4e game called “Urgo” for almost five years. All of my original five players have been replaced except one. It was always a high-magic, swashbuckling campaign featuring airships and demigods, and it’s escalated from there. The player characters are level 16 of 30 and we’ve reached a point in the game where it takes some effort to maintain the tone and even more effort to properly prepare. For some background, here’s the current situation:
Continue reading The Perils of a Long D&D Campaign

Convergence

I was recently linked to “Convergence,” the first game by a group called Streetlight Studios. It’s a Flash game about growing up and making choices; it could be described as a mix of “Passage,” “Pathways,” and “How to Raise a Dragon,” which is a pretty amazing combination.

The game asks you to follow a character from infancy to old age, making choices along the way. Infancy makes you crawl around your house as a baby getting toys before your sibling, in an odd exploration platformy way. Adulthood has you balancing love and work; I’m glad that they didn’t make this drag on too long. Shades of “Every Day the Same Dream” here. Old age, at least in the ending I got, was more of a little vignette to cap off the choices made in the rest of the game.

Looking up at my description, this game sounds like a mixing-together of various art games, and it’s definitely inspired by the work others have done before, but the polish and design in “Convergence” makes it feel fresh. Definitely something to check out for fans of blocky pixel games about life and choices.

Saving Professor Booster: Choice and Agency in Cave Story

Cave Story is a classic of the indie games movement. It single-handedly showed many people that a single developer could make a game with dated graphics that was as good as AAA commercial games. This was already clear to some, but Cave Story‘s prominence means that it has heavily inspired much of the work done by the modern indie games culture. There are a lot of things that Cave Story does well; its handling of mood and narrative structure are great, as well as its balancing of humor and pathos. One thing it does badly at, however, is providing the player with effective choice and agency.
Continue reading Saving Professor Booster: Choice and Agency in Cave Story

“Narthex” Released


I’ve finished up a little game that’s partially a test for a conversation engine I cooked up. It’s called “Narthex.”

After a long journey, you will reach the Narthex, the waiting place before the oracle. There you must wait until your time. Then you will be given the answer to a single question. This game has two endings. The second is not worth getting.

Play “Narthex” at Ludus Novus.

Never According to Plan

The players in a tabletop roleplaying game never do what you expect them to.

Case in point: I’ve just started up a campaign of Promethean. It opens with the player characters being drawn to a mysterious, sprawling house, where they discover an otherworldly being called a qashmal who dispenses a cryptic riddle.

This is the second time I’ve run the beginning of this campaign with different players each time. The first group did what I expected: they searched the building top to bottom for clues, then proceeded to follow up on the riddle. This latest group, however, decided against that.
Continue reading Never According to Plan

Ludus Novus 013: Over the Next Hill

In this podcast, I talk about exploration games. Exploration games, as I categorize them, are games with an open world that offer an array of paths at any one time. They’re awesome because they appeal to players’ curiosity and completionism, and they help deal with player frustration.

References:

The music for this episode is “Space Doggity” by Jonathan Coulton, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.