Feedback Loop: Why video games should drag us kicking and screaming

Two weeks ago I went to a panel with Warren Spector at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. The conversation between Spector and Paul Callaghan, director of Melbourne’s Freeplay festival, was a fascinating look into the creative process of one of gaming’s oldest luminaries. It was my first encounter with someone entrenched in the medium and I loved it. I was over the moon.

With so much of Spector’s work concerned with player agency, it was inevitable the talk would eventually settle on choice and consequence in video games. Spector touched on the struggles some players had when they first experienced Deus Ex and of his frustration when people would save and reload at pivotal moments of the story to see everything the game had to offer. He mentioned that some players, raised on the more directed experiences of early video games, couldn’t even comprehend the freedom they had. They were “paralyzed by choice”.

Spector was talking to me that night. He just didn’t know it.

Richard Cobbett’s Saturday Soapbox: Guilt by Association sparked a similar feeling of anxiety two weeks later. While dissimilar in content, both Cobbett and Spector advocate that the player is more personally invested in a game when they can affect the outcome of events. Cobbett specifically highlights the opportunities games have in subverting our desire to do the right thing. When faced with a particularly gruesome sequence in Spec Ops: The Line where no “right” decision exists, Cobbett argues that the game needed a choice to weasel out of doing your duty, however empty that choice may be. Any guilt he could have felt about his decision was lost because it never was his decision.

I struggle with this line of reasoning because narrative choice in games doesn’t affect me. It most likely never will. I want games to tell me how to feel otherwise I’ll approach narrative choice like I do all other choices in video games: a mechanical to-do list.

Part of this comes from how I understand video games. They’re an experiential medium that encourage you to think in the moment, much like life. And, much like life, I’m not really cognisant of the majority of decisions I make. My decisions come about more from how I want to do things. How do I write this? How do I apply for a university? I don’t see a story in these decisions, I just see things that need to be done. Life already feels like a video game because so much of it is concerned with how I’m going to do things.

Player agency feels too familiar to real life. Cobbett wants me to think that I have some omniscient understanding of the shit that’s happening in games. I don’t. If I was placed in a war zone, I doubt I’d even consider anything but how to get out of there and make sure I’m okay. What I’m thinking about when I play games is how to make everything fall into the right place, how to use this item to clamber up that tree, and how to get to the next bit of the level to see the next big thing. I’m too concerned with the menial to focus on the meaningful unless it yells at me.

It’s why that one instance in Spec Ops: The Line as described by Cobbett sounds so interesting to me. Remove that decision from me, force me to adjust to the fabrication of the world, and then I’ll be in the right mind set to process guilt. I could even learn something from it to apply to my own life.

I need games to punch me in the gut if they want me to feel something as heavy as guilt and responsibility. Choice will distract me. I’ll only turn choice into a series of chores like everything else I do in life. I need to be separated from myself otherwise I’ll turn into an adult, quickly.

It’s why Final Fantasy 4’s opening remains so powerful. The game opens with an elite group of soldiers called the Red Wings attacking the peaceful city of Mysidia to steal a Crystal. You have no choice in the matter and it’s clearly depicted as the wrong thing to do. When the protagonist Cecil confronts the King and questions his motives, he’s quickly demoted and sent out on another mission to deliver a parcel to a nearby village. The parcel turns out to be weapon that decimates the entire village and you unlucky bastard get to see the lone child who lost her mother in the aftermath. She even joins your party.

The absence of choice lets me recognise Cecil as someone separate from myself. I’m an enabler. This is devastating. I’m not fucking up my life here, I’m fucking up someone else’s.

Even subverting our desire to do good is more effective when presented with little leeway. Nier rendered all your actions to save your daughter completely meaningless when you realised you committed mass genocide. The twist came right at the end only after all the damage had been done. New Game + was reworked into a terrifying game of player implication far more effectively than a binary yes/no choice. You either continued to play the game and slaughtered hundreds, or put the controller down and walked away.

That’s a choice both Cobbett and Spector seem to ignore. You can refuse to engage in any game. You can assuage your guilt by avoiding the situation entirely. But what do we learn from games that are so effective at rendering guilt (or any emotion, really) that we can no longer play them? It’s the sort of thing that’s impressive in an artistic sense but grossly unappealing to the average player. You learn by repulsion.

On the other hand, what do we learn from a game that can transform feelings of guilt into something else entirely depending on our choices? What is a game telling us when we can select many different emotional mindsets? Is it telling us anything?

At the end of his piece, Cobbett touches on Bioshock as a game that went a bit off the rails when it came to instilling guilt in players, and I agree. But the issues I see are more indicative of someone who didn’t know what to say rather than a game that failed to offer reasonable outcomes for every situation. If Bioshock removed the option to Save Little Sisters and only offered the Harvest/ignore option, we would have had a very different game at the end of it all, something more coherent.

Cobbett’s right, though. Video games do let us off the hook pretty easily. It doesn’t have to be like this. Games are more than capable of tapping into the “harder” emotions like guilt, sadness, and even love. Be warned: they’re not pleasant feelings and we’ll try and worm away from them. Don’t think it’ll be easy. Force us into something that can’t be ignored and maybe we’ll learn something along the way. Because we already have a lot of freedom in games, much more than we realize. It’s alright to restrict our options.

Maybe then I’ll be able to play your games, Spector.


  1. SinclairVox

    Player agency is a tricky issue, because games can succeed brilliantly at either end of the spectrum (great agency versus minimal agency) depending on the other design decisions that are implemented. 
    I just wish games journalists would stop treating lack of agency as necessarily a bad thing. Look at Final Fantasy! The series has always had only the bare minimum of player agency, and we’ve gotten stirring, compelling narratives out of it for a quarter of a century. 
    Surely it can be a risk to limit our options as players–but the opposite can be a risk, too.

    • TB_Love

       @SinclairVox I’ve quickly realised that I’m quite contradictory in my position here :p .
      I can only write about games from a subjective view but I adore games that limit my degree of self-expression. I like to think I can find my own story and perspective even in the most narrow video game.
      But, yep, tricky issue. Ho hum.

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