Nightmare Mode [Archived] Nightmare Mode Archive Fri, 24 Jan 2014 06:23:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 64551392 This is the Basic Archive Fri, 24 Jan 2014 06:18:49 +0000 Though it currently lacks images, this is the latest content backup from This site contains all the words from the old (now offline) site and most of the metadata. I’ll work on getting the images and other features working as close to the originals as possible, but they are not online right now.

I was hoping to put up a more complete archive, but some of the files I thought I had I can’t seem to find. Considering some interest in the old articles recently, I’ve decided better to put up what I’ve got now and improve it later.

-Aram Zucker-Scharff

Player-Character Dynamics, Identity, and Sexuality in Video Games Sat, 13 Jul 2013 15:00:27 +0000 The relationship between the creator, the product, and the audience, are all important contexts to consider during media analysis, especially with games. This is because the audience is an active participant in the media. So if you are creating a game you always have to keep in mind the audience. Even if you say the audience doesn’t matter to you, it won’t cease to exist, and it does not erase the impact your game will have.

Similarly, if you are critiquing or analyzing any media, you can’t ignore the creator and the creator’s intentions. Despite those who claim the “death of the author,” if the audience is aware of the creator’s intentions, it can affect how they perceive the game. Particularly, if you consider the ease in which creators can release statements talking about their work, you’ll have an audience with varying levels of awareness about the creator’s intentions. These factors all play off of each other–they do not exist in a vacuum.


Unfortunately, most people, including many feminists, do not know what the term “Male Gaze” actually means. A lot of people think it has to do with men literally looking at women, or that it’s synonymous with the objectification of women–that’s not what the Male Gaze is.

The Male Gaze is the idea that the audience for some piece of media is, by default, assumed to be male. If you are already aware of this definition, you can just skip to the next section here. If you are looking at that definition and thinking, “What the fuck are you talking about?” then I’ll give a primer on the topic so we are all on the same page.

Here is a simple example of the Male Gaze. I’ve yet to see anyone fail to understand what the Male Gaze is after considering this example:

If you think this picture is gay, then you are probably operating under a Male Gaze.

Imagine you’re watching a music video of a male performer. Someone similar to Justin Timberlake or 50 Cent or some other presumably straight male. In the music video, he’s dancing in a sexy, skimpy outfit with a bunch of other sexy, scantily clad male backup dancers. They’re not, you know, doing anything to each other, they’re just dancing and looking sexy. The average viewer would probably look at this and think “Woah, that is really gay. Is he gay?” despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing homoerotic going on in the video.

Now let’s say you’re watching a music video of a female performer, like Beyoncé or Britney Spears. And let’s say she’s looking sexy and dancing with a bunch of other sexy female backup dancers. Oh, well that’s not gay! No, that’s totally normal. In fact, this is something we see all the time and nobody questions if the performer is secretly a lesbian.

Why would an MV with sexy men be considered “gay,” but an MV with sexy women be considered “not gay?” It’s because the presumed audience is male. And a male audience looking at a sexy man is “gay” but a male audience looking at a sexy woman is not. This is an unwritten, unspoken assumption which we ALL make, no matter our gender. We make this assumption often without realizing it, despite knowing the reality that most audiences do contain women. Even women themselves have grown up saturated in this type of media culture, and thus grow accustomed to viewing, evaluating, and judging female figures through a Male Gaze as well. A typical example is the use of attractive women to advertise products for both men and women. For a men’s product, attractive women can be used as an example of someone who you can have once buying the product. For a woman’s product, attractive women are used an example of who you can become in the eyes of men. Rarely are attractive men ever used to sell women’s products.

The Male Gaze is also the reason why, when there is media which attempts to create a Female Gaze, it is often labeled as being “gay.” This is a pattern which repeats over and over. Every time there is some sexy dude that girls go crazy over, they’re labeled as “gay.” Justin Bieber, Robert Pattinson, One Direction, The Jonas Bros, they’re all called “faggy” and unmanly. Their female counterparts–women whose celebrity status rides primarily on their sex appeal–may be called talentless or fake, but they’re never insulted as “dykes” by either men or women.
If you look back in time, you can even see sexy male celebrities evolving from “fags” into something else depending on who they’re being marketed to. Leonardo Di’Caprio back in the 90’s when he starred in Titanic, Justin Timberlake when he was part of N*Sync, Ashton Kutcher in the early 2000’s–all of these men were labeled as faggy pretty boys while simultaneously adored by women. Today, no such labels are given to them after shifting towards different audiences. Just wait another 5 years for the next sexy guy to make his appearance–he’ll be called a talentless fag too.

The irony, of course, is that all of these guys were specifically marketed to be sexy for heterosexual girls. The media they star in is created with a Female Gaze, but the audience is still operating under a Male Gaze. The mismatch causes their sexiness to be perceived as gay rather than for a straight female audience. This is just one of the many crossroads between sexism and homophobia.



Usually the Male Gaze is brought up when analyzing film and advertisements. There is quite a lot of extensive literature on this topic. However, not much has been said yet about the Male Gaze in gaming.

Video games often encourage the player to identify with a playable character more intimately than one would with the main character of a movie or book. Many character-driven games attempt to create an immersive environment for the player, where it feels like you are really exploring the world and experiencing the plot. For example, the Half Life series forces the player to take on the identity of Gordon Freeman. You’re not just passively watching Freeman, you are Freeman. Of course, it is possible for a game to facilitate different levels of player-character projection. Half Life has a first-person POV, which greatly contributes to the player’s projection onto Freeman. In contrast, an RPG like Final Fantasy VI has the player control multiple characters at a time while viewing them from afar; this facilitates player-character separation. Even still, one can construct the lore of a game so that the player does not project onto playable characters at all. The game League of Legends is one in which you are really playing as an unseen summoner controlling a champion, and also one in which you engage in immersion-breaking communication with other live players throughout the game.

This wide range of variability in player-character projections can affect the importance of the game’s Gaze, and thus affect how the game is constructed and how the audience responds to the game. Most creators and publishers are indeed aware of this dynamic, particularly when it comes to mainstream developers out to make a buck. They know that most of their audience is male, they know that their audience operates under a Male Gaze, and they tend to make games which reinforce, rather than break, the assumption that men cannot adopt a feminine point of view, and that any women playing the game should be capable of adopting a masculine point of view.

An example from early 2013 is when the game Remember Me had trouble finding a publisher for containing a female protagonist. It wasn’t just that the protagonist was a woman, but that the game explores this woman’s romantic life and includes a part where she kisses a man. Creative director Jean-Maxime Moris recalls publishers saying, “You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.” In other words, they are skeptical that the phantom male player will be able to fully take on the identity of a heterosexual woman and operate through a Female Gaze.

In 2012, during the hype for the 2013 release of Tomb Raider, creator Ron Rosenberg explains how you’re not supposed to identify with Lara, you’re supposed to want to protect her. Rosenberg states, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…She’s definitely the hero but—you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” This attempt at creating a separation between the player and the character is consistent with how the developers approached previous Tomb Raider games. You were never supposed to identify with a sexy, busty woman; instead you were supposed to look at her and be titillated by her image. This more recent incarnation of Lara attempts to replace titillation and sexualiztion with a more paternal feeling of protection, but keeps the player-character separation and Male Gaze in place.

Another example: the 2007 release of the game Mass Effect allowed an option to play as either a male or female character. The fact that the player has options, rather than being forced to conform to one gender or sexuality, allowed room for various romantic experiences. However, the player could only engage in heterosexual or lesbian relationships, not gay male relationships. Interestingly, hidden dialogue shows that one of the characters, Kaidan, was intended to be a potential romance option for male Shepard, but was later removed. Gay male options were not introduced at all until Mass Effect 3 in 2012. It begs the question, why did Bioware give preference to lesbians over gay men? They weren’t; they were giving preference to men over women. Mass Effect’s brand of lesbian relationships, much like portrayal of lesbians in most mainstream media, is not made for a lesbian audience in mind. It’s made to be sexy for the presumed heterosexual male audience.

Going back further in time, even the original Metroid plays on this topic. The game’s impact is entirely dependent on the fact that the audience is operating with a Male Gaze. The game’s creators relied on the player’s perception of Samus as a man, and thus invited the player to identify with Samus. Then at the end of the game, when Samus takes off her armor (the amount removed depending on how fast you get through the game), it is revealed that you had been playing as a woman all along. The “competent male character is really a woman!” trope is not unique. But, sometimes the opposite is employed to create a completely different effect. Bridget from Guilty Gear is one well-known example, in which the player and the other characters assume Bridget is female. Bridget’s design and the game dialogue encourages the viewer to find Bridget cute and attractive. When it is revealed that Bridget is male and identifies as a boy, the resulting impact is supposed to be one of embarrassment and disgust.


Note that whether the game includes a Samus or Bridget-style trope, both examples revolve around the Male Gaze and playing off the expectations of a male audience and heterosexual orientation. If the creators, the game, and the audience employed a Female Gaze, the impacts of these gender revelations would not be the same. But, more on that later.

These are all very visible examples, but they are not the only examples. The Male Gaze is something which subtly permeates nearly every game with a “general” audience. Put simply, most games feature male characters who you are supposed to identify with, and many such games involve female romantic interests who you, the player, are supposed to feel attraction to. When a game does involve a female protagonist, often the case is that you can look at her, watch her do things, and control her actions, but not BE her. It is telling that, among the few games with female-only protagonists, they rarely feature male love interests.

Before continuing, I’d like to remind you about the various factors in play here–it isn’t so much that 100% of the audience will conform to the Male Gaze, but many creators create a media culture which encourages and perpetuates the Male Gaze. You, as an individual, are perfectly welcome to identify with female characters or gaze at male characters, but it doesn’t change the fact that these games were probably not made for you.



Straight Female Gaze

Are there games which attempt a Straight Female Gaze? Such games do exist, but are rare. Among mainstream games, this sort of thing is especially rare. Here are some examples from Portal 2:



In the first Portal 2 dialogue, Wheatley tries to get Chell to jump into a deep pit. You only run into this dialogue if you bother to stick around long enough, which most players probably don’t given the urgency to escape. In this game, there isn’t much that Wheatley knows about Chell. After enticing you with character-specific things, he resorts to making assumptions and stereotypes about your femaleness. You could have a lovely handbag, a nice new tailored jumpsuit, hot boys who don’t care if you’re kind of frumpy, and a pony farm!
The second video contains the lines from the Adventure Core (“Rick”), who flirts to you as you hold him during the final boss fight.
It is during these instances that the game is encouraging a level of immersion and projection where you know you are supposed to be a woman and the NPC’s are interacting with you as though you are really a woman. Of course, this is done in a very subtle, non-visual way.

On the more extreme end of the spectrum are “otome games,” a very small but nevertheless existing genre of Japanese romance/sex games made by and for straight women. Otome games often take the form of visual novels and dating sims where you play as a woman who can romance one or more men. The available men often come in a range of personalities, body types, and ages to increase the probability that the player will be attracted to at least one of them.

One of the oldest and most successful series of otome games is Angelique.

Interestingly, a subset of otome games known as Boy’s Love games don’t feature female protagonists. Rather, you play as a young man who pursues or is pursued by other men. Similar to the case with Mass Effect, the use of gay male relationships is not meant for a homosexual male audience; it is explicitly meant for a heterosexual female audience.

In the first few minutes of this video from Togainu no Chi, we see the familiar “Bridget” style trope of an effeminate boy being mistaken for a girl:


As I wrote earlier, the use of this trope doesn’t work the same way with a Female Gaze. The revealing of Rin’s sex and gender and his androgynous appearance is meant to encourage the player’s interest in him, and Rin is in fact one of the game’s romance options. The narration reads, “Indeed, upon further scrutiny, his bony fingers and knees were indicative of a male physique. It was nevertheless hard not to mistake him for a girl – the smoothness of his skin all but invited one to unconsciously touch him.”

Likely there are gamers who wish to see a middle ground between these examples I’ve given. Otome games and other romance-based *~Games for Girls~* cater to an extremely specific subset of women who seek out such games. Unsurprisingly there is a demand among many women for games similar to typical mainstream games but which include relatable female characters and other aspects catered to their interests. In March 2013, game developer Mike Mika modified a copy of Donkey Kong for his daughter, so that she could play the game as Pauline and save Mario.


Later that month, Kenna W., who was inspired by this, did a similar modification of the Legend of Zelda, so that the player can play as Zelda and save Link.


Gender-Neutral Gaze & Multi-Gender Gaze

The game Legend of Dungeon generates a male or female character depending on which bathroom the player enters

Probably more common than a compulsory Female Gaze are games which employ multiple or gender-neutral character identities. Many games now include the option of choosing one’s gender. Though as was described in the previous sections, such games may still be subject to the Male Gaze anyway. A common complaint is that playable female characters tend to have skimpier clothing and less practical armor than male characters, and are sometimes less customizable with regards to body type, thus implying that the audience is male and heterosexual even while playing as a woman. Still, many games avoid this, such as the Pokémon franchise, Left 4 Dead, The Elder Srolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series, all of which present relatively equal experiences for both male and female characters. Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls is also a notable example, which provides masculine/feminine sliders in addition to choosing sex. Though, there does remain the issue that often these games are written for a male character at first, with female options tacked on later as a sort of afterthought. Occasionally, these tendencies can result in script errors where NPC’s refer to female protagonists with male pronouns, and advertisements and promotional art will tend to feature men more than women.

A different approach to multi-gender character identities is to forcibly assign a random gender to the player, thus providing variability but without option. One might wonder why such a game would ever be desired, but is this not more true to our real life experience? In fact, the miniscule number of games that do this are actually related to simulating life from start to finish.

The game Real Lives by Educational Simulations is a game meant to do exactly what it sounds like. You are assigned a sex, ethnicity, location, and various socioeconomic factors based on statistical probability. The events which happen to you and your available resources are determined based on real sociological data.

In the game LIVE FOREVER by Hubol, you play as an abstract blob, and the purpose of the game is to avoid death for as long as possible. Upon birth, you are randomly assigned a gender and sexuality. Depending on your specific combination of gender and sexual orientation, you will react differently to the consumption of porn featuring men or women.


For those seeking a gender-neutral experience, the indie game scene is for you. Diverging from the mainstream formats for character-driven pieces, games with more abstract environments and characters allow for a more inclusive and unified experience.

In the game Journey, the player takes the form of a Robed Figure with no known gender, race, or species. All other bipedal NPC’s and in-game players are Robed Figures as well.

Lim by Meritt Kopas is a game meant to represent the exploration of transitionary and liminal states. You play as a color-changing block which must match the color of other blocks as you traverse the area. The longer you stay as one color, the more difficult it becomes to move. However, if you do not conform, you will be bullied and prevented from proceeding.

In 100th by Droqen, you must traverse the area with the help of a balloon. The player character and NPC’s are of ambiguous gender.

This game, Within a Deep Forest by Nifflas, is a 2D platformer where you play as various sentient, bouncing balls.

You may notice here that one of the limitations to facilitating a gender-neutral identity is that although the game is now equally relatable to all genders, there is a risk of diminishing player-character projection as the character design becomes more abstract. There are ways of counteracting this–for example, in the aforementioned game Lim, I explicitely mentioned the meaning of the game. The willingness of the audience to accept this meaning is what prevents it from being interpreted simply as a game about moving a block from point A to point B. Another solution is to create a first-person POV game where you are unable to see yourself. The game Digital: A Love Story by Christine Love is one in which you play as someone using a computer and having online interactions with fictional characters. The game avoids mentioning the player’s pronouns, thereby allowing for an experience that is both gender-neutral and intimately human.

Creating games with multiple gender options can also have its restrictions during development. The game must either be constructed so that there are little to no gender-based differences during gameplay, or an immense amount of work and resources must be used to create a separate and distinct experience. Often times the latter is not cost-effective, as is with the case with many open-world RPG’s like Skyrim and Dragon Age. This results in games with poor/shallow social interactions and minimal character development, which reduce emotional investment and, ironically, empathy for one’s character.


Sexual Orientation and Gaze

It is probably apparent to you that both Male and Female Gaze come with the assumption of heterosexuality. Generally, if a game features a compulsory relationship, that relationship is usually heterosexual and from the POV of a man, and thus unambiguously employs a Straight Male Gaze. Sometimes, even when there are homosexual relationships in a game, they are there as an addition tacked onto a game that is in other respects heteronormative, in the same way that female options are added into a game initially written for a male character. For example, Star Wars: The Old Republic added homosexual relationships as a DLC. In this case, we know that the game’s characters, designs, and interactions had all been made with a heterosexual audience in mind long before homosexual relationships were shoehorned in. Contrast this with a game like Fleshcult, which was written from the start as a literotica/RPG hybrid that lets the player choose their sexuality as they play either a succubus or incubus seducing various humans.

Consider also games with compulsory homosexual relationships built into the core of the game:

In the text-based Twine game Even Cowgirls Bleed by Christine Love, the player takes the role of a cowgirl flirting with another cowgirl.

The game Mighty Jill-Off is just one of many games by Anna Anthropy involving queer themes. Here you play as Jill, who must make it to the top of her beloved Queen’s tower.

In Kindness Coins, you play as a lesbian demon girl figuring out her sexuality as she is being pursued by the protagonist of a dating sim. The game purposefully turns the object of a dating sim into the subject, and seeks to criticize other dating sims for their often unrealistic portrayal of interaction with women.


Of course, the mere presence of a homosexual relationship, even one central to the game’s objective, doesn’t necessarily translate into a Queer Gaze. We saw earlier that games like Mass Effect and Togainu no Chi have homosexual relationships, but they serve the purpose of being watched by a heterosexual audience rather than facilitate player-character projection. Such fetishization of homoeroticism can be seen in other forms of media. In fact, I would argue that the dominance of the Male Gaze makes it difficult for lesbian artists to create a true Lesbian Gaze. Often times, a Lesbian Gaze must be constructed by explicitely stating the product’s intended audience so we get things like “ACTUAL lesbian porn,” The L Word, etc.

This brings me to my next subject: games which have no relationships, and little player-character projection, but which still objectify characters for the benefit of the audience. In such a case, is there a difference between the Straight Male Gaze and the Lesbian Gaze if one is simply viewing an objectified woman? Do such games automatically cater to a lesbian audience simply by virtue of lesbians being gynephilic? For example, are Scarlet Blade and Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball facilitating a Lesbian Gaze as much as a Straight Male Gaze?

I would argue that no, there is actually a difference. The distinction lies in the dynamics between the creator, the game, and the audience. The difference between “actual lesbian porn” and “lesbian porn for men” is primarily mediated by how the porn is being marketed. Similarly, there is a difference between “general” games that contain the objectification of women vs. games specifically intended for a queer audience. And, it isn’t just the identity of the creator, but how the creator presents the game and how it is received by the audience.

Take the game, Skullgirls, for example. In response to claims that the game is sexist for containing gratuitous fanservice, developer Peter Bartholow said that such claims were unwarranted because their lead animator is a woman. More specifically, she’s a queer woman who likes to draw sexy women of her own volition. Of course, it should be noted that she didn’t do the actual character designs–those are a product of Alex Ahad. But does the fact that a queer woman had a hand in this game mean the game now has a Lesbian Gaze? Not necessarily, because in the end she was still being hired by men to make a game that is marketed to a male audience. There were no attempts at portraying this as a Queer Game for Women, so naturally the audience assumes a male identity. To reiterate what I had said earlier in my Male Gaze primer, even if you try to create a Female Gaze, it doesn’t mean the audience won’t operate under a Male Gaze anyway. On the creator’s part, presentation is an important part of establishing how the audience receives a game.



With this all being said, I like to be optimistic about gamers. I think that developers don’t have much faith in men’s ability to fully relate and identify with female characters, and that this assumption perpetuates a toxic and sexist attitude about men and their ability to empathize. An increase in the acceptance and encouragement of male-on-female, female-on-female, and other variations of character projection could potentially dismantle the Male Gaze as a default form of projection, reduce the need to establish a game as being “for [non-men],” and allow a greater variety of products. More importantly, I would vouch for gaming as a great platform to encourage empathy with others via experimentation with identities different from one’s own.


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The challenge of the virtual value code Mon, 10 Jun 2013 15:11:09 +0000 don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story

I often think about the challenge of transmitting values through games. I mean, how to make a player act according to the moral code held by its protagonist voluntarily? Or perhaps the other way around: how do I, the player, can make my moral code to be enforced by the mechanics available to the protagonist. In other words: if I believe killing is wrong, how would I transmit that belief to the avatar I’m controlling on a first-person game? Should I even try that?

Since we are talking about moral codes, creeds and malleable ethics, let’ start with the one from the center of the Assassin’s Creed series: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. Taken from the novel Alamut, this is creed is useful for the Assassins: it is vague enough to be interpreted in a way that justifies whatever morally ambiguous – and, sometimes, downright hypocritical – action the Assassins may need.

So here is a more useful, less cynical creed: Everything is permissible for me–but not everything is beneficial

This one is from the Bible. ICor 6,12. It’s one of those phrases that distinguish the civilization from the anarchy. It is also (and Objectivists, please don’t abandon this article just yet) purely Kantian.

Essentially, it says that, it’s not because we can do something that we should do that. It’s what sets apart the man who doesn’t kill because he thinks that’s wrong from the man who doesn’t kill for fear of being arrested. Though neither man actually kills, the first man is inherently more valuable than the second, who needs a system of laws to prevent him from unsettling the society all the time.

In other words, there are two major concepts that shape our decisions: the values we follow and the law enforced upon us.

Hey BabyIn video games, however, mostly second concept applies: the enforced law a.k.a. the limits of the game. Since, in the game, nothing is true, everything is indeed permitted. If a game allows us to act like assholes, we shall act like assholes – which is great fun, by the way. It does, however, often come into clash with the avatar’s characterization. That’s when player agency becomes a problem. Rare and praiseworthy are the games that manage to achieve such a deep level of characterization that it’s able to influence that agency. In an extreme situation, the player actually cease to act a certain way because the game truly convinced that such act is “wrong”.

Let’s be realistic though: expecting that level of “conversion” in every game is just as hopeful as waiting for Godot.

The remaining option is to design game for the second kind of man, the one that requires rules. Not an elegant solution, I know, but we take what we can get:

  • Officer Cole (L.A. Noire) believes citizens must be protected, so the game doesn’t allow him to take his weapon out in the open unless there is a reason for it;
  • Link does not believe in privacy and that the ends justify the means, so the game allows for him to break into/invite himself homes to collect/steal items;
  • Booker DeWitt (Bioshock Infinite) believes it is okay to sadistically threaten anyone with his guns, which is why the game forces him to point it at a mother and daughter.

But it could be more than that. In the future, we could ditch the current and innocuous customizations options such as determining how high the avatars’ cheekbones should be, for the possibility customizing the avatar’ values as well.

Silent Hill Shattered Memories Dr KaufmannNot unlike the role of Dr. Kaufmann in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, instead of a face-generator tool, games could present us with a psychoanalyst asking us probing questions that would shape the avatar’s moral code. If the result is that “the protagonist is strongly against killings of any kind”, the game should then prevent that from happening: if that character ever comes to hold a gun, pressing the ‘fire’ button would be fruitless for it would either flat out refuse to shoot (a la Solid Snake when Gray Fox asks him to fire a missile in Metal Gear Solid) or misfire. If the protagonist is sexually immature, its interactions with the opposite gender would take a turn towards the awkward and brass – and no other dialog options would be shown.

Naturally, the game cannot directly communicate what set of values the character believes in directly to the player. That must be only inferred by actions available to the avatar. Otherwise it becomes like an Elder Scrolls game: where the illusion of making a decision is always trumped by the over-exposition of the game’s structure.

It would be interesting to see what gamers would find out about themselves with these restrictions. The implication is that developers would also be forced to assess the values their game characters are transmitting. Odd situations such as the only lived by Connor in Assassin’s Creed III would become rarer. In it, we see that Connor’s ideals slowly crumble… and he isn’t able to find a suitable replacement in time. There was a plot twist, the situation has changed, and yet he carries on the same, only slightly aware. He just carries on with his butchering, willingly ignoring whether or not his actions continue to be ethic in this new scenario. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he was so reviled by gamers: he had become a monster, but the game never assessed nor became aware of that.

In the Dr. Kaufmann example, the decisions players make at the beginning will shape the protagonist’s values and may even bite them back in the ass as the game reflects these values by limiting the mechanics available. Maybe then the realization of the monster the avatar ends up becoming would make gamers question themselves.

Or maybe they would reevaluate what a “monster” is.

There are lots of actions society deem as “monstrous” being filtered out of the gamer’s gaze. More and more we talk about them. Yet, they linger. That’s despite the fact we already have the worst kind of monsters there could be in our games. We have the killers.

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The Ancient Roots of Role-Playing: Edward III's Medieval LARP Wed, 20 Mar 2013 15:21:27 +0000 Today, everyone knows someone who’s played Humans versus Zombies. You, dear reader, have probably played it yourself. But did you know that when you run around your college campus with a yellow bandana and a Nerf gun, you are participating in a centuries-old tradition that an English king once used to start a war?

The term “Live-Action Role-Play,” or LARP, was coined some time in the 20th century to describe a form of play that combines childlike make-believe with increasingly rigid and stylized rules. Alongside tabletop games, LARPs are considered the analogue predecessors of the first rudimentary videogames, and were also heavily influenced by the concurrent popularity of Lord of the Rings and other contemporary medieval-themed fantasy. Hence LARP participants’ proclivity for incorporating foam swords and cardboard armor into their play.

In 1344, King Edward III of England held an event that a 21st-century LARPer would find more than a little familiar.  He held a tournament, a common enough event in the later years of the Middle Ages. But at this one, the participating knights and ladies all role played as characters from the stories of King Arthur.

Edward surely grew up listening to the ever-growing canon of stories surrounding King Arthur. Evidence suggests that he was literate, as was expected of kings by then, and according to the royal library’s records he had a thick tome full of Arthur and his knights’ chivalrous exploits. Edward III’s love of jousting is also well-documented; apparently there was no occasion too small to commemorate with a tournament, because in February 1342 he held one for betrothal of his three-year-old son.

Edward surely wasn’t the first to fit the trappings of the King Arthur stories over a war game; he’s just the best recorded. But Edward was doing more than playing a boyish fantasy when he commissioned the Round Table at Windsor and held his joust in 1344. He was also making a calculated political move. In their scrupulously researched book Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor by Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown, the authors write:

Enthusiast for chivalry though he was, [Edward III’s] enjoyment of jousting was subordinated to much more ambitious schemes. It is the mixture of high politics and personal relationships that makes the event with which Edward brought his series of tournaments to a climax, the Round Table festival of January 1344, such a fascinating moment in his career. (37)

Let’s look at the game itself. As with most of medieval storytelling, it was almost entirely performative, so what records we have of it were made after the fact, probably by scribes or historians who didn’t participate in the festivities themselves, who may not even have witnessed them. Surely the players and designers had little to no thought of recording their rules and deeds, as oral storytelling and memory was the popular mode of communication. Besides, the rules of one game didn’t have to hold for the next, so long as the basic idea held,  just as Lancelot could go on nearly any adventure in any story so long as he always made it back in time to rescue Guinevere from the fire.

That’s what made medieval conceptions of narrative and storytelling so easily adaptable into games: just as with today’s RPGs, there was no single fixed storyline. Instead, stories passed from person to person in the form of character archetypes, chivalrous codes, themes and places. There was always a man named Arthur, and he always became a king, but the manner of his ascent, his personality and his friends changed with each retelling, just as every playthrough of Mass Effect will see Commander Shepard saving the galaxy in a different way.

In other words, the medieval conception of storytelling was not unlike playing a game, or at least an interactive narrative. Just take away the virtual interface and replace it with the slower but just as powerful network called collective memory and word-of-mouth.

The narratives were unfixed, often literally unwritten (for a few decades more, at least), and that left the possibility for play. The imagery of Johan Huizinga’s “Magic Circle” of gamespace is rarely more apt than in Edward III’s grand LARP about the Arthurian Round Table. By combining story and sport into the image of the legendary Round Table, Edward inscribed a literal Magic Circle in which he and his knights could play. But Edward didn’t want the game to end with the joust. To borrow Johan Huizinga’s term again, the King needed an imperfect magic circle to make a real one: a real-life Round Table.

What makes Edward’s round table at Windsor so interesting isn’t just that it’s the best-recorded instance of medieval LARPing. Edward’s purpose in holding it was more than just to have fun. The king wanted to recommence that favorite royal pastime: war with France.  But after several years of unsuccessful conflict–a period that would later be known as the start of the Hundred Years’ War–Edward III didn’t have the money or the support of Parliament. So he decided to appeal to the people. The Windsor festivities were intended to inspire the kingdom’s would-be knights.  In 1344, the concepts of nationalism or patriotism were still half-formed or nonexistent, but the identity of the British isles as “England,” as one country and one people with a shared history and a shared pride, was beginning to emerge over the old medieval loyalties to fief and tribe. By evoking King Arthur,  a figure that every inhabitant of the British Isles had claimed as a predecessor since the Dark Ages, Edward III was trying to appeal to a national English identity.

You’ve probably heard of the Knights of the Garter. The order was born from Edward III’s King Arthur games in 1344. Edward was trying to cultivate a community, a medieval “it-crowd” that would attract foreign knights as well as British ones to his banner and his battles. And it worked. In 1346 Edward invaded France again. In what is considered the greatest offensive of the Hundred Years’ War, his troops landed in Normandy and marched across France to take the cities of Caen, Crécy and Calais.

Using games to stir patriotic fervor, to recruit for a war…It sounds so medieval, doesn’t it? We like to think of games as separate from reality, as a means of escaping the ambiguous rules and goals of “real life” for the ordered and tangible ones of a play-space. But modern parallels to Edward III’s game are not impossible to find. In 2002 the U.S. government released an online FPS called America’s Army, a game that they hoped would increase recruitment levels as well as general enthusiasm for American military exploits.

Live Action Role Play is not a twentieth century invention. And games are rarely just games–fiction and shared play have a powerful effect on players’ real world identities. The Magic Circle is never leak-proof, and some people have taken advantage of its porousness to effect political and social change. In 1344, Edward III of England took the story of King Arthur and fashioned rules from it. From those rules, he then created a space for play. And in that play-space, he cultivated a movement that resulted in a war, and stoked the flames of a national British identity.


Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor by Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007.

Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture by Johan Huizinga. London: Roy Publishers, 1950.

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Pretend friends, anxiety & real connections Tue, 19 Mar 2013 15:43:33 +0000 I pause briefly at the inn to get all my equipment back but nothing slows me down after that. I skip through the scenes at the town gates, sprint along the seaside trail and into the stockade. Button through dialogue, chop the head off a hydra, and smile to finally see my friend Keelah again.



Keelah is my pawn in Dragon’s Dogma – a computer-controlled companion created alongside the main character. Here we are together look, the best of pals:

Ever since I finished the game it has tickled at my brain parts now and then. Occasionally stroking a finger along my dusty heartstrings, gently reminding me of its existence, trying to call me back. That in itself is a rare feeling for me. Usually once I’ve finished a game that is the end of it and even extra downloadable content can’t tempt me to return once the credits have rolled, no matter how much I enjoyed the experience. Dragon’s Dogma drew me in again – and not even to really play it, as much as I love the combat and everything else besides – just to see Keelah again, see how she was getting on, see how many adventures she’d had without me. Because pawns don’t stop playing when their players do.

Making game friends is one of my absolute favourite things. Perhaps not as favourite as robots and jumping, but definitely more favourite than throwing knives and climbing ladders really quickly. I just love spending time with a character, learning their personalities and their stories. Building bonds, seeing how they react to victories and defeats and all the quiet moments in between – seeing how they react to me as player and character both. It’s a little journey within the journey of the overarching plot, and one that can potentially touch deeper and become more meaningful to me than the grand sweeps of the story.

Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns are slightly different than usual though, because the game never tries to convince the player that they are really people. They are “… not human quite. They look the part sure enough, but they lack the will… the spark what drives us” – shells, to be directed and controlled. In a lot of games helpers described like this are positioned as mere resources, to be used and discarded without concern. But despite Dragon Dogma’s insistence, despite lacking back-story and supposedly a soul, the pawns occupy a higher level – they are definitely characters and not just walking assets.

It’s partly down to the creation system which is one of the best I’ve ever used, allowing control over not just facial features but height and weight and musculature as well as the size and shape of limbs and torso. There’s also a wide variety of personality traits to choose from and – although Dragon’s Dogma seems to try as hard as possible to keep those options hidden and hard to understand – somehow Keelah came out with a perfect character. She is almost overly enthusiastic, very keen to pick things up and help out as best as possible in this super endearing, well-spoken way. But she’s also strong as heck, selfless and capable. My protector.

The moment I fell in love completely we were running across the top of the buildings in game’s capital city Gran Soren. Pawns can usually keep up pretty well, but Keelah managed to slip somehow and fall down onto the street below with a sickening wet crunch. Staring up from the cobbles she earnestly warns me of the rooftops, “’tis a troubling foe!”



Dragon’s Dogma allows players to trade their pawns as well, and everyone can have three at once along with them. At that point it feels like trying to herd a bunch of excitable children around. They are easily distracted and easily fixated, but seem to always be trying their very best.

Trading takes place in the Rift, an endless black plane where pawns materialise out of the void hoping to be chosen. It is a slightly strange set-up – from the buyer’s side a little transdimentional meat market, calling up a bunch of potential battle slaves to have a good look at their teeth. Dismiss the weak, the poorly equipped, and compare the strong, the cool, the brave. From the seller’s side, more like a beauty pageant, all players the fussy parents waiting in the wings.

And it did make me fuss, make me care about Keelah even more. She wasn’t just a helper, an assistant, but my envoy – speaking to the world on my behalf, representing me out there in the big wide world. So I found myself making sure she was the best she could be, ahead of even myself. The best treasure always given to her first, upgraded for her first.

This kind of sharing is my favourite form of multiplayer, an approach that is slowly worming its way into more games. Dragon’s Dogma, the Souls games, Journey, ZombiU. It complements the single-player content rather than replacing it or sitting entirely seperate alongside. It turns a static, solo adventure into something a bit more wibbly and a bit more wobbly – instances of the game all stretching out little tendrils, trying to reach each other. I love that sense of making a connection with someone, somewhere out there. A connection based around sharing, helping and co-operating rather than competing.

These connections are what really make the Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns feel more alive, in that they continue to exist, continue to adventure and grow, learn and help, even when their creator has stopped playing. A life conjured with autonomy. As much as I love someone like Garrus from Mass Effect – and that is a lot – I love him for the time we spend together, I don’t miss him when we’re apart. He doesn’t live without me, he just waits, nothing without my presence, absolutely nothing without my knowledge of him and my interactions with him.

Friendship is as much about spending time together as it is sharing what has happened while you were apart. I ran back to Keelah because I wanted to catch up, to see what she’d been up to since we last said goodbye. I missed her, because she exists without me, and will continue to do so while there’s other players out there she can adventure alongside.



I don’t play competitive multiplayer that often, anyway. It’s not out of any great dislike for the design or anything – there’s a selection of games I love dearly – just that playing online always makes me very anxious. I’m waiting in a lobby for the match to begin and nothing is even happening… but my palms are sweating and I feel distantly panicked, a frustratingly familar queasiness hating on my guts.

I know nothing serious or important is happening, but it comes on anyway. Not quite enough to put me off entirely, but bad enough that I’d very much rather do something else. Even the best times are tiring, muffled. It is difficult to explain because this anxiety is completely irrational, but I think a lot of it comes down to communication.

Conversation alone stands scarily because it is this big black hole of endless and unpredictable possibilities. Playing games online, those possibilities have a pretty high probability of being not be very nice. I never use my mic, and most often I have all voice chat muted entirely, just to try and cut all that out. It helps a little, but not that much. The threat is still there, and apparently that is enough for my body to still freak out some.

But at the same time as that, I also feel oddly compelled to try and explain myself, and slightly annoyed that I can’t adequately do so. I guess as some kind of pre-emptive counter to an anticipation that anyone might get frustrated with me, or expect me to anger if I lose or gloat if I win … but all I really want to say is: hi everyone, hi, let’s play a game and have some fun or whatever. That is kind of hard to get across when often the only means of expression available is to say something out loud, which I have no intention of doing, or to shoot a gun at something, which doesn’t exactly help to get the point across.

I’ve learnt to mitigate, but it never goes away entirely. Playing with friends helps a lot, when I feel like I can be myself and mess around a bit more. Also some competitive games don’t seem to affect me much at all – I’ve been dipping in and out of Tribes: Ascend at the moment with hardly any problem at all. There, because the competition of the game doesn’t really touch me – it’s not about that, it’s about being fast and smooth and free, about solving instinctive split-second equations whilst flying through the air. Then I see everything moving on the battlefield as targets, not as players, not as people.

I guess that’s the key, to stop worrying about other people so much – to be a little more selfish. It is easier said than done, though. But that is another reason why I love Dragon’s Dogma’s pawns so much, with their lack of story, their limited dialogue and their autonomy. Because while there’s no ‘other people’ playing with me, the way pawns behave is a close enough fit to playing co-operatively with real players that it can give enough of the pleasure without any of the anxiety.



What really suits me well are games with very limited communication options. As Oscar Strik recently wrote in his piece here not too long ago, it can be frustrating for players to try and express themselves clearly with a constricted set of options. But I actually find it freeing.

Firstly, that big scary void of pure, natural conversation is absent. There are no potential interrogations lurking, no aggression, dismissals, gloating, posturing or whatever else I am anxious about encountering. An unknown is resolved by removal, and that makes me feel safer and calmer to some extent.

But with, for example, the range of gestures in Dark Souls or Journey’s single, versatile chirp, I feel like I can say everything I want to. I have talked before about my love for extraneous actions in games, just for the simple joy of expression and adding a certain flair to created moments. It becomes more than that when other people are involved.

When someone invades my world in Dark Souls and comes running towards me all glowing red and angry, everything is okay if I give them a cheery wave or a polite bow before we fight. If they wave back then everything is just great – at that point I don’t particularly care if I win the duel or not. It’s like the terms of our relationship have been established – all in good fun, even though we’re trying to kill each other – and another element of uncertainty is somewhat resolved. It’s only afterwards in a moment of peace that I realise my hands are trembling. But that communication through gesture, connection, acknowledgement, momentarily stifles my nerves.

I think that’s all I really want from multiplayer games – just some genuine connection, however slight. Such a thing can be found in unexpected places. Battlefield 3, for example, has a timer before every match begins. Players can spawn into their base, they can jump and lie down, they can throw out equipment and supplies, but they can’t move anywhere. And as the clock ticks down, everyone is looking around and jumping madly at each other like a bunch of excited children.

Then the match starts and of course the soliders fuck off on their own in a vehicle with three empty seats, and the snipers run away up a hill to not move for half an hour, and there’s not really team any more. Just a group of players who happen to be on the same side, some of whom might happen to care about winning. But for a moment at least we were all connected. It always made me smile, that frantic moment of levity shared between everyone, and in the end the most fun I had with the game was probably there, before I even started playing.

Connections don’t have to be direct and immediate, though. Nor even acknowledged. Lana Polansky talked about these brief kind of connections in the game Glitch – where little letters could be written and left around the world. I wish I could have played the game, because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would have loved doing myself. In that case, it’s the thought that someone out there might come across a note which is important. Maybe they’ll read it and smile, maybe it’ll make their day a little brighter, and that’s enough.

Dragon’s Dogma has a similar idea. After hiring a pawn for a while, they can be sent back to their creator with extra experience, information, and also a gift. Most people send back whatever junk they had cluttering up their inventory – a chunk of rotten meat, a weedy little herb – if anything at all, but I liked to give something nice if I could. There’s no reason to do so, no mechanical reward for giving away something good, just the thought of someone out there smiling slightly at a thoughtful gift. Another little tendril extended in the dark.


It all adds up. And, somehow, Dragon’s Dogma became the perfect multiplayer game for me, without really being a multiplayer game at all. It has the sharing I love, through both the gift giving, and by sharing my pawn pal Keelah with other players. I like seeing the pawns of other players too, seeing directly what they have created and nurtured, using those creations to form a team perfectly suited to me. Then running around with three AI pawns feels close enough to co-operative play to be enough, with the slightly immature but eager play I’d like from my friends. With Keelah especially, who feels somehow alive despite everything, who stuck with me all the way. There may not be gestures, but I could pick her up whenever I felt like it. Slung over my shoulder, it might seem like a grapple, but sometimes it was a hug. Somehow, everything I want from a game, all without that draining prickle of anxiety trying to wear me down and turn me away.

We talk fairly often about games as escapism – to another world, another life, a better place perhaps. They can be social escapes, too, to allow the desired interaction with others without the pains that it can bring. It’s not ‘real’ no, I know. But in areas of safety some peace can be grown and carried fowards. Just as fake power can make us feel strong, fake friends can make us feel needed, appreciated, or simply connected. And forget, for a moment, the constant pressure of our weaknesses.


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Dwarf Fortress as Spectator Sport Mon, 18 Mar 2013 14:25:48 +0000 When the Museum of Modern Art announced it was going to be adding 14 videogames to its collection, I was startled to find Dwarf Fortress on that list.  This is not because I don’t like Dwarf Fortress, or think it’s not worthy of cultural preservation, but rather because I have no idea how a museum could ever go about exhibiting Dwarf Fortress to the public.  After some thought, I realized that while I don’t know exactly how they are going to exhibit it, exhibition seems to be a very appropriate place for Dwarf Fortress, as my relationship with the game consists almost entirely of watching it from the outside.

While exhibiting any kind of videogame in a museum will likely pose a challenge (one I’m sure the professionals at MoMA will be equal to), Dwarf Fortress might be the least museum-friendly game I can think of.  Its mechanics are impossibly complex, games take hours upon hours to play, and even trying to correctly read the screen of Dwarf Fortress is a bit like trying to read the source code of the Matrix: to the untrained eye, it looks like gibberish, garbage characters thrown together apparently at random.

I’ve been paying attention to Dwarf Fortress for about three years now, and I still have to squint to read this screen.  When I do play the game, I use a graphics tileset, a mod which replaces the ASCII characters with rudimentary sprites.  Hardcore purists will probably scoff at this, but the game is hard enough to understand even with this crutch.

Dwarf Fortress is a very weird game.  The interface is deliberately obtuse – without a guide handy it is very hard to know how to issue even the simplest orders.  The game creates an entire world for you to play in, modeled all the way down to the level of the hearts and livers of the vicious wildlife, with procedurally generated history and politics, most of which you will never need or want to interact with.  The game requires you to embrace a sort of foolhardy philosophy of play (Losing is fun!), as conservative play is dreadfully safe and, therefore, dull.  Any goals are self-set — the game has no end condition other than failure.  It is the world’s most elaborate set of tinkertoys.[1]

MoMA is going to have a rough time making Dwarf Fortress comprehensible to spectators in the museum.  They are, of course, aware of the difficulty:

“Finally, some of the games we have acquired (for instance Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online) take years and millions of people to manifest fully. To convey their experience, we will work with players and designers to create guided tours of these alternate worlds, so the visitor can begin to appreciate the extent and possibilities of the complex gameplay.”

But difficulty remains.  Yet the more I think of the game’s selection, the more I approve of it.  While there are other games which might be more obviously comprehensible in a museum setting, there are very few games which are quite as geared towards being enjoyed from a position outside the player’s chair.

Dwarf Fortress is one of my favorite games.  I love reading about it.  I love talking about it.  I love reading Let’s Plays and listening to stories generated by that magical point where the player’s choices and self-selected objectives meet the uncompromising nature of the game’s rules.  I love the weird AI, the patently absurd level of detail, the bizarre glitches which render trout incredibly dangerous.

I do not, however, love actually playing the game.  It makes me want to pull out my teeth.  I do not regret having played it – I expect you have to play it at least a little in order to understand what other people are talking about – but I do not imagine I will ever play it again.  I do keep it fully updated, just in case, but haven’t started a fortress in years.

I am terrible at setting my own goals in games.  Give me a large sandbox to play in without any direction and I become paralyzed and self-conscious.  I have never been able to play Minecraft for more than ten minutes.  For this reason, I’ve never hated linear games — the much-reviled corridor shooter doesn’t inherently bother me.  I like always knowing what I’m supposed to be doing.  I’m sure a therapist could make much of this trait.

I am also incredibly conservative in strategy games.  I’m often beaten in RTSs due to my obsession with losing the smallest number of units possible.  When I win in Starcraft, it’s through one single overwhelming attack with extremely careful micromanagement (I don’t win in Starcraft very often against very good players).  In these games I either lose, or win with a 10:1 killed/lost ratio. I play Civilization as an imperialist, warmongering menace, but only attack if I’m at least one tech level above my target and move with methodical slowness so as to lose the minimum number of soldiers.  This innate conservatism carries over into other genres, as well: I’m good at Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is all about hiding in corners and memorizing escape routes, and terrible at Max Payne 3, which is all about jumping out of windows and shooting seventeen people before you hit the ground.

This conservatism, when combined with the aforementioned paralyzation when faced with an open world, makes the actual act of playing Dwarf Fortress very similar to torture.  There is no game without risky, self-selected goals.  Conservative play is boring and uneventful, eventually devolving into a sort of construction site foreman simulator with obdurate workers and no pay.  The mantra “losing is fun!” is not just a way to keep up the spirits of those players whose dwarves have fallen to rampaging elephant hordes or accidental magma floods, it’s a statement of identity.  Basic logic: losing = fun, fun = losing.  In Dwarf Fortress, you play to lose.  I don’t know how to do that.  By rights, I should not enjoy this game.

Everything about playing Dwarf Fortress is alien to how and why I play games, but everything in the game is engineered to make me want to read about it.  The game’s complex mechanics and player-generated goals combine to create some wonderful stories and strategies: the rise and fiery fall of Boatmurdered, or what happened to the dwarves of Bronzemurder when they dug too greedily and too deep.  Or how about a (now-fixed) exploit wherein anything underneath a drawbridge when it closes is utterly annihilated, whether dwarf, garbage, or horrible monster from the bowels of the earth.  Players called this the “Dwarven Atom Smasher,” and used it for everything from a garbage disposal to a weapon of war to a technique for assassinating recalcitrant nobles.  There are many such assassination methods, as nobles are worse than useless, but you can’t actually order one dwarf to kill another.  So you build them fancy quarters which periodically fill with water, drowning anything inside, or perhaps just oubliette them deep beneath the earth and listen to them starve.  Dwarves which spend too much time underground develop an aversion to the sun, and will spontaneously vomit if forced to go aboveground.  At one point, Boatmurdered suffered a vicious attack because it couldn’t close its main gate since a monarch butterfly had spontaneously gotten jammed in the mechanism.  Sufficiently motivated players can literally burrow down in the caverns of hell.

The game is designed to produce memorable and hilarious situations, but the catalyst for this reaction is a certain amount of patience and dedication which I seem to lack.  You can make stories with Dwarf Fortress that are more interesting than most feature films, but only if you have spent an inordinate amount of time learning the game, and know how to take the right kind of risks.

In this way, reading about a neat game of Dwarf Fortress feels very similar to looking at a completed sculpture – you know someone started with just a block of marble, and applied skill and talent and vision and just absurd amounts of work until he or she produced something beautiful.  The actual mechanics and rules of Dwarf Fortress become a platform on which art is made in addition to being art themselves.  Dwarf Fortress becomes a medium as well as a work of art.

Most games are like this to some extent, and there are some obvious examples of games which are particularly so: Minecraft, Civilization, Far Cry 2&3.  But something in the inherent difficulty of playing Dwarf Fortress holds my attention more than similar stories in these other games.  Perhaps there is no accounting for taste, but it seems to me that Dwarf Fortress isn’t just sculpture, it’s sculpture performed with a toothbrush and one hand tied beyond your back.  Less facetiously, it’s not just poetry, it’s a strict Petrachan sonnet.

Does the rigidity of the form make Dwarf Fortress games better art or better stories?  Probably not, any more than Mozart’s strict sonata-allegro symphonies are necessarily better than Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos.  But it’s appealing to watch someone struggle with tremendously restrictive rules and make something beautiful out of them, and that’s what grabs me.  I enjoy my friends’ water-cooler stories from Far Cry 3, but I don’t hunt them out on the Internet.  I’d rather just play the game and make my own.  But I can’t (or won’t) make my own Dwarf Fortress stories.

I’ll say again that I’m not sure how a museum can exhibit Dwarf Fortress in a way which does it justice.  But I hope they can figure it out, because the beauty of this game is something special, something unique, and I want more people to be able to appreciate it.   Some games can foster creativity in their players in a way most other media don’t, and any exhibit on videogames will need to acknowledge and celebrate this fact.  I can think of no better example than Dwarf Fortress.

[1] Technically, Dwarf Fortress is actually two games packaged together – Fortress Mode is what I’m talking about, where you build a fortress from scratch and keep it going as long as you can.  Fortress Mode is the more popular mode, and is what people usually mean by Dwarf Fortress, but Adventurer Mode is just as absurdly detailed.  It’s also a completely different game, more like an old roguelike than Fortress Mode’s Sim City on steroids.  I mean, I think.  I’ve never actually played Adventurer Mode.

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Esther and Stanley and Fate Sun, 17 Mar 2013 20:59:29 +0000 Often we talk about narrative logic when we talk about stories. Does a thing hang together, make sense? Does it have plot holes? How shall we plug them? How can we make it all correct? The metaphor suggests an orderly process, like solving an engineering problem. It implies that there’s some objective physics of how storytelling works, and stories fail when they violate those physics.

It’s a limited metaphor. You can talk about stories in terms of logical chains of cause and effect, but to think of this as an objective measurement is misleading. We complain about minor engineering decisions made in a weapon the size of a moon, in another galaxy filled inexplicably with humans. Logic isn’t what we’re really talking about here. Narrative logic just means whether a thing satisfies you or not. It’s about comfort. And we tend to find effects clearly linked to causes comforting. We want to live in a deterministic universe.

Dan Pinchbeck’s Dear Esther and Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable have a lot in common. They both use the Source engine and share a mechanic of walking around a space and triggering voiceover snippets. They also share a concern with stories and how they satisfy, or fail to.

While both games are about storytelling, they approach the theme from opposite directions. A story, traditionally, is a sequence of events that follows a chain of cause and effect. The Stanley Parable is about how story structures mock the idea of free will. Dear Esther is about how people force incomplete and untrustworthy information into story structures. One features a protagonist trapped in a deterministic world, and the other a protagonist trapped in a non-deterministic one. One of these turns out to unsettle players much more than the other.

Shot from Dear Esther: a surreal underwater scene of a car crash on a highway.

In Esther, the player explores an island, listening to a voice, and tries to piece together what happened there. Much of the narration concerns a similar trip across the island. The narration itself concerns someone trying to make sense of a tragic event. The narrator wants to understand why Esther died. He visits someone named Paul, supposedly the drunk driver of the car that killed her. Paul caused this event, so the narrator tries to resolve matters with him. This is narrative logic, looking for a comforting collapse of the causal chain. The resolution is not reached, or at least, it wasn’t any of the times I played the game. Later the narration questions whether Paul was even drunk. Maybe the whole event happened for no reason at all.

Similar underwater scene, but with an operating table in the middle of the road.

The game itself shares this lack of predictable logic. At each triggering point, the game randomly selects snippets of voiceover from a few possibilities. The variations are often subtle, but they can introduce different or conflicting pieces of information. Other objects in the world change between playthroughs. Ghosts appear or don’t; streams run in opposing directions; revelations change. The game doesn’t signal these changes, so they remain invisible on a first playthrough. After playing it twice, they are mostly subtle enough to be put down to tricks of the memory. You try to reconstruct a story, but the material you have to work with is inconsistent and ambiguous.

Stanley isn’t interested in how people make stories out of chance events. Rather, it’s concerned with how events define types of stories. Stanley makes use of branching paths, a much more familiar structure in videogame narrative. You walk through one door or another, go up or down in an elevator, and so on, and are rewarded with different endings. Like some other games that deal with player choice, it also takes the time to mock the illusion of free will this creates. If you follow the narrator’s instructions, you end up with a meaningless happy ending with a sarcastic “My Way” playing over the credits. If you disobey him at every turn, he dumps you in a broken Half-Life 2 level and yells at you until you quit.

Choices in between these two extremes produce different outcomes, all of which are unsatisfying in different ways. There’s an “it was all a dream” ending, an ending where nothing happens, an ending where a bomb ticks down and you – a game hero! – are helpless to stop it, one where Stanley is killed by some random death machine, and one where you quit the game before dying. It’s a pretty good taxonomy of terrible endings. Unlike most games with branching narratives, Stanley isn’t trying to give you the ending you want or punish you for being bad. Your choices don’t define your character, they define the kind of story being told.
In many ways, Stanley and Esther are about different things: sorrow versus frustration, people versus abstract structures. But in the end they both deal with how and why people interpret a chain of events as something meaningful. The difference is that Esther is about chance and Stanley is about fate.

Stanley represents the old philosophical debate of whether free will is possible in a deterministic universe. If an omniscient viewer can in theory predict all outcomes based on the trajectories of particles, is free will just an illusion produced by the predictable particles that make up brains? Similarly, if you’re in a game system with a predetermined set of paths to finish, what does choice really mean? Stanley’s world makes a perfect graph: see, you can map it succinctly in Twine. (Playable demake here.) From any given game state, you can know what other states you can reach and how. Not all games make this possible.

A graph of the passages and links in the Stanley Parable Twine demake. It's pretty small and organized.

Esther, for example, can’t be mapped as a deterministic graph like that*. Because of the randomly selected elements, you can’t predict future game states based on the current state. Your actions don’t seem to affect outcomes at all, so even having a (necessarily gigantic) graph of the possible random outcomes wouldn’t help you get where you want. If Stanley shows how determinism makes free will meaningless, Esther shows how nondeterminism makes free will impossible.

Both games reflect their mechanical approach to determinism in their fiction. Stanley’s narration explicitly calls out the illusion of free will. Each path you head down has something to say about how your deterministic game world undermines your supposed choices. It’s most direct in the fully disobedient ending, where the narrator angrily points out that complete freedom means ending up in a part of the game with no content. You follow the linear paths because that’s where the stuff is. Players want stuff, yes?

Esther’s story likewise keeps coming back to random chance. Everything started with a car accident. The game repeats a motif of falling (a fall breaks each chapter, and relates to Paul’s ride to Damascus, referenced throughout). Illness afflicts the characters. As in the game itself, random happenings fill the story. Like the player, the narrator tries to string these chance events together into a coherent sequence, pulling themes from biblical sources, coincidence, and the island’s geography. Esther doesn’t address free will at all: in a truly nondeterministic universe, will isn’t useful, because people can’t affect things predictably.

This gets reflected in how interactivity is perceived in the two games. Stanley and Esther use pretty much the same mechanic: you walk around and trigger events. But several reviews of Esther describe it as non-interactive (for example, Tommy Rousse’s “On Ruining Dear Esther”), while Stanley mostly avoids that mess. “Interactivity” is an overloaded term in games writing, but here its use seems to reflect a difference not in what actions you can take but in the feedback you get from those actions. In Stanley, the narrator clearly marks and explains the results of each significant movement. Esther never tells you if any of your actions have an effect on the game system. Indeed, they probably don’t.

One of the ways people use the term “interactive” as in “more or less interactive” is to say: do my actions feel meaningful? Do they seem to determine outcomes in a way I can predict in advance and/or explain in retrospect? Esther doesn’t feel interactive to some players because actions don’t seem to do anything. A branching narrative like Stanley’s automatically feels more like “I’m doing something” just because the path can be traced backwards: I did this, then this happened, then I did this… and so on. Stanley’s use of clear thresholds, like doorways, stairs, and elevators, further marks its pieces of narrative as branching points. You cross a threshold, the rules change: this is a familiar metaphor. A game where those chains aren’t so easy to trace feels more like it’s pulling you along, which is part of the emotional arc of Esther. Out in the open space of the island, thresholds are harder to see and expect. Esther playthroughs technically exist in a bigger possibility space than Stanley’s, but it doesn’t feel that way for many players.

Storytelling always gets wound up in ideas about determinism. Believing in the logic of stories is a lot like believing in fate. There’s an explanation for everything. God has a plan for us all. This plot hole is unacceptable. People like to see the logic chains of messy experience collapse into a neat, tidy graph. We are animals optimized for making plans, which means we must be able to predict the effects of actions we perform. Looking back at things that happened and analyzing cause and effect can exercise this cognitive skill. Stories comfort because they display causes and effects in a sequence that can be analyzed. A prettily designed display of a deterministic universe reassures the audience that they can predict the outcome of their own actions.

Shot from Stanley Parable: a large 3D room without wall textures. Subtitle reads: "It's nothing. "No one's even built this section of the map because you were never supposed to be here in the first place."

I think this helps explain the differing reactions to Esther and Stanley. People found Esther unsettling; much more was written about it, and more involved hand-wringing about “is it a game?” This question is ridiculous, but it usually stands in for “how should I react to this?” Esther’s random mechanics and nondeterministic view of storytelling can disrupt normal story enjoyment. By contrast, critics received Stanley more or less as a joke. Its point seems more obvious. Stanley wrestles with the free will vs. determinism debate, but that’s old news.

How the two games approach their narrators reflects their differences in philosophy. In Esther, the narrator and the protagonist are sometimes hard to tell apart. Players often assume the narration is their avatar’s internal monologue, at least at first. This becomes less clear as you go along, but by the very end the game seems to bind you together again. Stanley explicitly presents the narrator as an antagonist on many paths, and implicitly does so on all of them. In one path, another narrator appears to question the first’s omniscient status.

This difference compliments the cosmology of the two games. In a deterministic universe, individuals might not know where they’re headed, but an omniscient being would. For that reason, determinism evokes heavy-handed god figures, fate, premonitions, and all that. While Stanley lightly references such theological debates, Esther has all the explicit religious imagery. But its driving parable, Paul on the road to Damascus, is appropriately ambiguous. A man is stricken down by something, sees a vision, and everything changes. It’s the kind of story into which nonreligious people can read the desire to attribute miraculous meaning to random events. Maybe Paul had a migraine. It depends on how you interpret it. In a deterministic universe, fate is the very existence of knowable paths. In a nondeterministic universe, fate is a choice people make, among others, to explain events. I think you could sub “god” in for “fate” in those sentences and say pretty much the same thing.

Shot from Stanley Parable: a man lies dead on the ground while a woman looks down at him.Related to this, both games have faced the charge that they lack coherent universes. Stanley’s endings do not all exist within the same logical story space, as Davey Wreden admits in an interview by Kirk Hamilton. Stanley can’t both be a feverish dream of a man dying in the street and the metafictional hero wandering a Half-Life level. The choices you make within the game don’t just decide what happens to your character, but what kind of universe he lives in. In a way, this takes a more honest view of interactive storytelling than you see in more traditional branchy games like Mass Effect. In other kinds of fiction, the choices a protagonist makes are determined by the kind of story he’s in. If a Shakespearean character chooses whether to humble themselves or persist on a prideful path, they decide whether their story is a comedy or a tragedy. That in turn determines more about the story than its ending. Choices in a story don’t naturally exist in a vacuum. What a character does is linked to what their world is.

In the case of Esther, incoherence comes from random dice rolls. When a story can play out in arbitrary ways, how can it represent the same world every time? The Esther I see differs from the Esther you see, and discussing the game can be frustrating when it feels like you experienced different objects (as Katie Williams describes eloquently). Yet because of the ambiguity in the telling, it’s easier to ignore or resolve this incoherence than in Stanley’s case.

Here’s an example: the nature of Esther and the narrator’s relationship. I’ve read about twenty articles and reviews on Dear Esther. Not all of them name the relationship between the narrator and Esther. Of those that did (for example, Cameron Kunzelman’s close reading), every one labels her the narrator’s wife. I was surprised the first time I read this and fascinated by the fifth time. It stood out to me because I had read Esther as the narrator’s daughter. I think this is because one of the artifacts I found was an ultrasound next to a bird’s nest filled with eggs.

Shot from Dear Esther: an ultrasound lying on the cave floor.The nest and the ultrasound don’t mean anything, of course. Maybe Esther was pregnant. Maybe those things never appear in your playthrough at all, or you don’t notice them, or you see them as a red herring or a rebirth motif or a reference to a biblical passage I know nothing about. To my knowledge, the text of the game does nothing to clearly mark the relationship either way. As with those who read Esther as a wife, I made the best of deliberately ambiguous information, coupled with whatever was going on in my head.

I think the stability of the wife reading points to something important about how people approach ambiguous information in stories. When not told otherwise, we have a tendency to revert to cliché. Men fall apart when their wives die, and must be redeemed by accepting the loss. That’s a story we tell about men. My version is nearly as stereotypical. Stanley explores how controlling outcomes through design leaves players unsatisfied. But Esther’s ambiguous approach doesn’t solve the basic problem of satisfaction. In the absence of information, we default to the stories we’ve heard before.

Determinism comforts, and nondeterminism unsettles. But there’s something frustrating and unsatisfying about living in a universe that’s entirely mapped. When a universe can’t be mapped at all, it frustrates in a different way. This tension lies at the center of much videogame story design. Is there a sweet spot somewhere in the middle of the deterministic and nondeterministic worlds? Some fans of emergent narrative argue as much, but there’s still a lot of unexplored territory there.

Esther and Stanley make a useful pair because they focus intently on two opposing poles in this design space. They also point to strengths and weaknesses of their approaches. Esther’s nondeterminism creates more possibilities, without needing a designer to define them in detail. At the same time, the information gaps it leaves are, on average, going to be filled with things of average quality. Stanley’s deterministic branching lets the player feel in control, but also makes that control feel pointless. Taken together, these sum up a lot of the current tradeoffs in interactive storytelling.

* Okay, it can, but not in a way that matters.

]]> 4 24528
Looking past the structure Sat, 16 Mar 2013 13:19:54 +0000 Achtung, baby: this article has spoilers on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

There is a difference between “that game I like” and “that game that is great”.  As we review, it’s easy confuse the two because of the things extraneous to the game we carry: our values, biases, experiences, etc. The (harsh) reality is that these are all whimsical curiosities and can change in a long-term future.  Great art, however, will endure.

I believe there are standards to which we should try to measure the games we play. If great art will endure, there must be certain elements that make it great which also endure: technical excellent of craft, a deeper emotional, or an intellectual understanding of human nature.

One of these rules is the harmonization between the structure, or simply the plot, of a game and the story it’s aiming to tell. By structure, I mean how the game has breaks its overall objective (e.g. “Discover what’s up in Arkham City”) into smaller tasks (e.g. “Investigate the church”, “Save Vicky Vale”, etc). The structure is the “what you do” rather than the “how you do it”,

L.A. Noire is a good example and one that I have already have extensively covered in here once. Basically, whereas the story in L.A. Noire tries to tell the tale of “The Fall and Redemption of Cole Phelps” the plot is concerned with his daily chronicles. The game is structured as a series of cases Phelps must solve, but the important things – what Phelps lost when he fell from grace, how the decision he made to ditch his family for his lover allowed him to survive, the elements that prompted his redemption – are only indirectly and very slightly conveyed in those missions.

Note that, though related, this is not the same issue as the domestication of video games: which happens when games overexpose such structure and all related information it can find in order to assure that no gamer will ever grow frustrated or lost… which is very frustrating.

It’s a somewhat more recent problem. Before the rise of non-linear games or even the rise of games whose primary goal was to tell a story, it was an issue of little concern. Now we can see it often – particularly on sequels. The story changed, the context is another, but the game still asks our heroes to do the same kind of missions they’ve done before.

Here I wanted to cover how the three games I’ve recently finished dealt with this issue.


The imprisoned – The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword

Skyward Sword was perhaps the most tragic game I’ve played last year.  This was a Zelda game ready to burst with the sort of energy  last time I’ve seen in a Zelda game was 13 years ago when Majora’s Mask was released. The game struggled to reach new grounds both mechanically-wise (by offering the 4th of the very few arguments Nintendo has for its motion control proposal (arguments number 1, 2 and 3 were, respectively, Wii Sports, Metroid Prime 3 and No More Heroes)) but more importantly, story-wise.

One does not imprison the awesomeness that is Groose

As Tom Auxier once put it, Skyward Sworwas the first Zelda game to embrace its identity as a monomyth (Joseph Campbell’s pattern for hero stories involving the Call to Adventure, the Transformation into a hero, the Atonement of the hero and, eventually, his Return). Tom noted how the game didn’t merely imply this, but outright claimed it so: all Zelda stories are part of the same cycle, repeating and reiterating itself each time Ganondorf, now revealed to be the personification of Skyward Sword‘s own villain’s hatred, is reborn.

Thus, Auxier rightly calls Skyward Sword the “mother myth”.

Admitting “this is what this series is about” isn’t easy. It took some guts. However, instead of using that admission to leverage its plot, Skyward Sword is imprisoned by it. You feel how the game doesn’t want the structure it has. You feel how the narrative struggles to present justifications for bosses and dungeons that  the plot required it to wear like a ball and chain. This is because, as soon as Skyward Sword admits it is the mother myth, two things immediately happen: (1) It justifies the structure of all Zelda that came before and the ones that will follow it; (2) it requires that the structure for this initial myth to be perfectly justifiable as it is taking place for the first time in the timeline. After this, we expect this myth to become the cycle that repeats and reiterates itself throughout the franchise.

What we see in Skyward Sword, however, is that this particular initial cycle wasn’t natural, it didn’t happen by chance; it thoroughly designed by the “Goddess Hylia”. For a game meant to be the origin of the later legends, everything already appears to be pretty much set on stone. The Master Sword, for instance, is never “forged” or made. It’s already there, as it’s always been there, in the form of the Goddess Sword, ready to be unlocked after five or six trials (or were they seven?). Meanwhile, we follow Zelda, who is on a pilgrimage throughout the dungeons – by her own free will, mind you – and who never seems in too much need of our help in the first place.

The Goddess Hylia must a very lazy proxy-developer, no doubt, as she designed the entire game as a series of identical tests before granting Link access to the Triforce. The fact the tests are identical completely empties them from their very purpose of testing. After all, what’s the use of asking someone to do the same test twice other than losing time?

Once Link touches the Triforce, he can simply wish for everything to be fixed and the game is pretty much over. Of course, the whole narrative is so restricted by its structure of facing tests and unlocking dungeons that the whole effort seems trivial. For instance, there is no reason why Link shouldn’t be able to go directly to the Triforce as soon as he’s told he’s the “chosen one”. By implication, the whole game’s justification lies in a plot hole.

Why did Hylia bother with enforcing the same trials, how the Goddess Sword came to be… These questions are left open and the possibilities for answers are to be found at earlier versions of the cycle, thus finally muting the very idea this Skyward Sword is an “origin”

So, instead of presenting the monomyth as it was happening for the first time, Skyward Sword surrenders to its series well-known sequence of dungeons and bosses. Or, as Marx would have put it, we have history repeating itself as farce.

The false prophet – Mass Effect 3

Meanwhile, in its third iteration, Mass Effect finally faced the problem that has been plaguing The Legend of Zelda series for years: a narrative cloistered by its plot structure. But instead of at least trying to break free as Skyward Sword did, Bioware’s game is much coyer.

So, quick recap: in the first game there was a Broken Map structure, where the player had to assemble all the pieces of a map in order to unlock the final stage. As each piece was hidden in a different planet, so players had the excuse to visit them in any order they wanted. It was very similar to Game Theory models where one player (in that case, Saren) makes a move, then the other player makes its move and so on.

The second game had a Dirty Dozen structure. There was a threat and you had to assemble a team to stop it. The threat wasn’t going anywhere, mind you. It waited for you. In both games the franchise’s structure made sense: it allowed you time to scour the universe, foster relationships with your squad mates, scan planets, do side-missions and even, perhaps, find love.

The conflict presented by the plot of Mass Effect 3 is of a different kind though. The Reapers, the race of sapient machines bound to destroy all advanced life, are already here. They won’t stop and wait for you. As the game starts, a Reaper attacks the building you are in, in Vancouver. Less than one minute later, another Reaper has just descended into London. The situation is dire and you can barely escape Earth.

However, as soon as you enter the Normandy, Mass Effect 3 asks you to do the same activities it asked you in Mass Effect 1 (ME1) and 2 (ME2) again: to scour the universe, foster the relationship with your squad mates, scan planets, etc.  This, mind you, despite the fact the narrative continuously tells you that no, you do not have time for those things. In fact, you don’t have time for ANYthing! Which explains why so many of these activities don’t make sense now, given the more epic – and imminent – scope. Do we really need to even consider including salvaging some piece of Batarian lore next to “Saving the bloody universe” in our to-do list? Maybe we can pick strawberries and wild flowers afterwards. Besides, it’s not like we haven’t done these sorts of activities twice, in ME1 and ME2, before. Even more baffling is how many of these missions are given to us: simply by eavesdropping on complete strangers.

Connivingly, the game names all the mandatory missions with the word “Priority” first. Here, Mr. Player, this mission is very, very important! Priority, it says. But you don’t need to do it riiiight now, you know? Lookie here all these other missions   for you to do. But yeah, “priority”. It’s trying to trick the dog: the ball has never really left Mass Effect 3‘s hand.

The entire game summoned up in one picture

I may be exaggerating, though, for the universe’s situation may not be that hopeless. In fact, the Deus Ex Machina drops in the story at 50th minute mark of the game. After that, ME3’s whole structure becomes plainly evident: the game is reduced to filling up a progression bar. The War Asset bar, supposed to represent the galaxy’s military might against the Reapers, which magically indicates a “minimum amount” above which you could proceed in the final push against the enemy.

Despite all its tricks, and certainly despite the story it is trying to tell, ME3 possesses a structure as obvious as one could get: the end goal of the game is to fulfill a bar that indicates how much into the game you are already in in the first place. The sad part is that it wasn’t even necessary. Most of the side-missions are usually there just so that you can reconnect with characters from the previous games – but you only know which after starting the mission. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the game instead poised the following dilemma: you can either help your old buddy and risk more cities being destroyed by the Reapers, or choose sacrifice them in order to save Earth in time?

The chameleon – Assassin’s Creed Revelations

Finally, we have the Assassin’s Creed games. Note that I don’t want to make a case of Revelations being a great game. It’s most certainly not. But I have to give it to the series as a whole on how well they handle the dichotomy between plot and story. As much as I dislike Assassin’s Creed II (ACII) and complain about Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s (ACB) frahmisms, we can clearly see how each new game fearlessly tries, and often succeeds, in breaking free from the structure set by its predecessor.

The original Assassin’s Creed (AC), for instance, had a very iterative structure. It made sense. The “routine” the game proposed was harmonic to what the protagonist Altair, a very disciplined man, felt comfortable with. It was also his routine. Also, as the story is about Altair’s restarting his training as a freshman, it’s not unexpected for the game to be as repetitive as training should be. As a result, the player, Altair and Desmond all learn new abilities while not forgetting the older ones.

As the series went on, the needs and the context around the new protagonist, Ezio, changed – and so did the structure. By the time we reach Revelations, not only the iterative nature of the plot is gone, after all Ezio no longer needed such training nor has he ever possessed the same level of patience Altair did, but also the very idea of target elimination – the assassination missions the first game revolved around – are de-emphasized. In turn, the game adds new missions – most of each with its own gameplay loop – in order to fit the demands of the story.

There are obvious risks however. One very valid criticism the franchise receives because of this is that it lost it “focus”, or rather, its core. Other than the arm blade and the free running, it’s becoming harder to summarize the AC games in one sentence. Another potential problem is how every obstacle presented by the story is easily solvable. This is particularly true in ACII. Can’t jump high enough to grab new ledges? Coincidentally, here comes a thief that can teach you this technique. Need to enter a house by air? Luckily there is your pal Da Vinci with a completely new – and untested – invention just for that. Ezio himself engages in new plans and machinations whenever a new obstacle arise – from dressing as a soldier to disguising as a lute player – and never do these plans fail. Personally, I still find the original AC to be more superior to its sequels thanks in large part for that cohesiveness.

Assassin’s Creed III  does a tremendous job in that department for its first half, After this, a very curious thing happens. There is a plot twist, but neither game nor protagonist seems to be aware of it. It’s the kind of issue that would warrant a whole article of its own in order to be properly analyzed.

The language of games is still limited; its criticism even more so. And as hard as it may be to reach a common ground on the elements that constitutes a good game, I’m certain that consistence between story, plot and gameplay is chief among them. Getting it right won’t make a great game – though it will certainly help – but failing to achieve that is bound to leave open that itching question of “if my character wants to do this and assuming I, the player, have already bought the importance of doing what my character wants; why is the game telling me to do this other thing instead?”

The one thing no game should do is to make its players wonder if they are wasting time.

]]> 7 24502 A Moment of Perfect Beauty Sat, 19 Jan 2013 05:00:41 +0000 A lot has been written about Adam Cadre’s seminal work of interactive fiction, Photopia (1998). A quiet, thoughtful exploration of the preciousness of human life, it remains a deeply moving example of interactive storytelling for adults and is still very much worth playing and discussing. It also contains a moment of perfect interactive storytelling – which is particularly interesting given how often it has been accused of lacking any interactivity at all.


For those who haven’t played Photopia, I will begin with a brief summary: you should play it. It’s free, it’s relatively short, and it doesn’t suffer from the usual parser-related irritations. I’m not going to explore the details of the story in this article, as you don’t need to know them to understand what I want to say, but you won’t regret the experience.


Nevertheless, let me say a few words about the game’s story, just to give a bit of context. Photopia is about the life of a girl called Alley. The player never actually plays Alley, instead it gets to see various events in her life through the eyes of other people; interspersed with these events, which are presented in black and white, is a story Alley tells to Wendy, a younger girl that she’s babysitting. This story, which is presented in a variety of colours, is actually a game-within-the-game, or an interactive-story-within-an-interactive-story if you prefer more hyphens, in which Alley acts as the equivalent of a D&D gamemaster and Wendy is the player.


The story Alley and Wendy tell together begins with an astronaut on a red planet. Eventually the astronaut crashes her ship into the ocean, explores an undersea castle, gets out of the sea on a golden beach, and finally reaches…


As you walk through the pass, you encounter first one shard of glass on the ground, then another. But it isn’t until you crest the final hill that you see what you’ve discovered.

Before the crystal labyrinth

You are standing on a ridge above the entrance to a vast crystal labyrinth. You’d be tempted to call it a city, with its haphazard collection of iridescent towers and spires and arches — “iridescent” means shimmering with rainbow colors — but from what you can see from your vantage point, there is barely enough space between the crystal walls to permit one person to pass between them. The labyrinth is ringed by steep mountains, so going around it is impossible: your only choices are to enter it to the west, or to head back the way you came.


A labyrinth. A maze. Oh dear.


Mazes, of course, are one of the most infamous puzzles that adventure games and RPGs torture their players with. Almost without exception, mazes are a tedious way of stretching out a game’s length without adding anything of substance. Nevertheless, so far everything has been quite doable and the journey itself has been full of great imagery, so why not give it a go?



You step into the crystal labyrinth and immediately get lost.

In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.


Fantastic. A typical maze experience, then. Let’s see, maybe you can find some sort of pattern that will help you get through this place…



You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…


In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and east. Two of the nearby walls intersect to form the base of an immense spire.


>x spire

Though the crystal sparkles in every color, the dominant note seems to be a beautiful light blue, refracted from the sky above. (“Refraction” is what happens when light passes through a medium that bends it, like water or a prism.)


Hmm, maybe you’re supposed to use these structures to orient yourself. You keep going, not really making much meaningful progress. The place itself is described quite evocatively, the writing working on more than one level, capturing both the beauty of the places described and the beauty of Alley telling Wendy about them, but the maze seems like it’s going to be somewhat irritating.




In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, south, and west.


With an audible sputter, the cooling unit of your spacesuit finally gives out.


Hmm? Oh, the spacesuit. Anyway. Let’s keep looking for the solution to this stupid puzzle…


In the crystal labyrinth

You are in a dazzling crystal maze, with passages leading out to the north, west, and east.


With its cooling unit broken, your bulky spacesuit begins to feel very uncomfortable. It’s like wearing a parka on a warm, sunny day.


Let’s get rid of it, then. Not that it will help with the maze, but at least it will prevent the game from constantly reminding you about it.


>take off suit

You take off your spacesuit and drop it on the ground.


Now, what could be the solution? Something about these larger structures? Always going in a particular direction? Or do you have to draw a map?



You wander around the maze of glass until you find yourself at another intersection…

The cool breeze ruffles the feathers of your wings.


And suddenly the realization hits you.

I have wings.

With trembling hands, you type:



You stretch your wings and soar into the sky.


It is a moment of perfect beauty.

Ironically, this moment is directly inspired by a scene in a non-interactive work of fiction. Adam Cadre writes:


The idea for the sky-blue puzzle came from Ron Hansen’s MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, in which two sisters play a little game: “You’re in a locked room. How do you get out?”  “Call for help.”  “No one hears you.”  “Look for a key.”  “There is none.”  “Dig under the walls.” “The ground is too hard.”  “I give up.”  “The room has no ceiling. And you have wings.”  I thought this would make a cool IF puzzle.


What Cadre has created is far more than just a cool puzzle, though. The concept works better in an interactive story; one could say it only works in an interactive story. “I have wings” is a moment of self-revelation, and such a moment requires a self: not an observer, but a participant.


This reveals one of the fundamental (and often misunderstood) elements of the interactive medium: it is the medium of the first person and the present tense. That the narration takes place in the second person – you do this, you see that – is secondary. The experience takes place now, through the eyes of the player.


I have wings. I am here. These are my actions. This is my story.


Consider the words with which Photopia begins:


“Will you read me a story?”

“What fun would that be? I’ve got a better idea: let’s tell a story together.”


Photopia is not a glorified short story, as some have claimed, because moments such as this one could never be as powerful as they are without interactivity, without telling a story together. And it doesn’t really matter whether the plot is linear or not, whether the world is procedurally generated or hand-crafted, whether there is one ending or twenty. It matters that there is an I and a now, and that this is a story made to be told with these things.


No other artform can make you realize that you have wings.


No other artform can let you soar into the sky.

]]> 5 24467
Communication Impossibilities Fri, 18 Jan 2013 23:36:00 +0000 Communication is the weirdest thing. It just kinda works, unless it doesn’t. In practice, it works not because the connection between thought, intention, and language is perfect. It isn’t. It works because we usually share large parts of our worldview and knowledge with the people we’re speaking with, and because our minds are really good at filling in conceptual gaps wherever we see them. In cases where there are minor hitches in communication, we’re also very good at pretending there aren’t any. We ignore them, or we aren’t even aware that someone else might not understand exactly what we’re saying in the same way that we do.

When communication breakdown reaches a certain point, though, we become painfully aware of it. We cannot express ourselves in a way that will make the other understand what we want to say. There are no words, no gestures, to bridge that chasm between us that suddenly looms very wide and deep.

Not a lot of games seem to tackle this problem head-on, and it’s perhaps easy to see why. A lot of single player games have practically no dialogue at all, and those that do have more often feature it in a straightforward manner. Sure, there’s plenty of lies and deceit in games, but the meaning of words is rarely put into question. Either someone’s telling the truth or they’re not, but it’s usually clear what they’re talking about.

However, it is certainly possible for games to shift their attention to a different level, and start to question the fabric of communication. The best way to put communication forward as subject of your game is to introduce non-standard limitations to the communication on the one hand, and to create an environment that stimulates communication on the other. A perfect example is Tale of Tales’ multiplayer title The Endless Forest.

All players in The Endless Forest incarnate as slightly anthropomorphised deer in the game’s forest. There is no chat function in the game, but instead, the deer avatars can use a range of emotes and gestures. As can be easily observed, this forces players to devise a way of communicating that uses no words as such, but that instils meaning into gestures, like a primitive sign language.

Players will eventually want to find some way of coming to grips with this form of communication, because one of the central aspects of The Endless Forest requires cooperation with others: appearance customisation. There’s a broad selection of decorations and colours for your deer’s coat and antlers, a range of masks for your face, and even a few full-body transformations. The thing is, you can only get those if another deer casts the appropriate forest magic spell on you. Consequently, a lot of deer interaction will involve getting others to cast the right spells on you, and somehow signifying to them that you’re content with the results.

Thankfully, the gestures available to the deer aren’t too difficult to link to our own conventions of communication. There are clear yes/no headshakes, you can bow or curtsy to thank someone, rub flanks to show affection, etc. Tale of Tales themselves suggest a basic vocabulary on their website, and some players, such as Flyra, have written short guides on their own deer’s language, combining individual gestures into more complex ‘phrases’ in a process that mirrors one way in which human language might have evolved at some point from one-word to multiple-word sentences.

Looking at communication in The Endless Forest, I would say that Tale of Tales have stripped down the options available to us, first of all to take us out of our comfort zone and ensure that we take relatively little of the ‘real world’ into the game, but secondly to show the possibilities of communicating using such a small set of options, and still be able to get by in the context of the game. Although I personally don’t believe the system does or is even meant to represent actual animal communication, it does show us part of such a form of communication might work.

This minimalistic approach is echoed in Thatgamecompany’s Journey, where the player is limited to ‘chirps’ and the basic movements to signal intent to other players. While this approach was inspired by The Endless Forest, Journey goes a bit further, to the point where it becomes extremely difficult to construct any form of unambiguous communication between players. In this Gamespot article, the interviewed UC Berkeley linguistics students take a look at the game, and argue that the lack of slightly more nuanced calls or gestures hampers the game’s ability to let communication grow. For example, at least a way of distinguishing positive/negative would be needed in order for players to clearly communicate their intent. That said, since Journey is more goal-oriented than The Endless Forest, players will eventually gravitate towards particular actions that further those goals, whereas in the relatively goal-less The Endless Forest, less ambiguous communication might be essential for any sort of meaningful cooperation to arise at all.


Fast forward seven years, and it seems Tale of Tales have returned to the same theme again, though from a different angle. Their latest title Bientôt l’été is about communication as much or even more than The Endless Forest is, but to me it seems it approaches the theme from a much more pessimistic and wistful angle. Instead of focusing on how we could get a workable system of communication from minimal means, the game shows us how despite our elaborate languages and other technologies, communication can still fail utterly and leave us feeling empty.

In Bientôt, the studio’s second multiplayer title, our avatars are future humans, plugged into a holodeckish system on which an abstracted representation of a North Sea beach with a French café is projected. We walk across the beach, picking up phrases that have washed ashore, and remembering them for later use. Here and there, apparitions appear: a tree, a pier, a dead dog. If we approach them, they disappear and are replaced with a chess piece. These, too, we tuck away for later use.

In the café, we meet our partner, plugged into another holodeck somewhere, but of course actually just another player behind a PC. Seated across a chess board, the players can use their pieces to bring forth the sentences found earlier on the beach. Again, there is no regular chat channel, no easy way of communicating. Just the prescribed sentences, the silences you let fall. An occasional sip of wine or drag of a cigarette. The sentences are snippets from slightly awkward café meetings taking place somewhere in the past, in Marguerite Duras novels, and they deal with love, attraction, repulsion, losing oneself.

As in The Endless Forest, Tale of Tales places us in a situation where communication is constrained. Of course, this too offers possibilities. There is potential meaning in the positioning and movement of chess pieces, and the sentences have an obvious and direct verbal meaning. The question is: can they express what I want to say to the person that is sitting opposite me?

One of the game-like possibilities in Bientot l’été is to pick the ‘right’ sentences, those that feel like logical and/or surprising replies to what your partner has just said or done. There are echoes of collaborative storytelling and poetry to be found here. However, eventually you will always run out of things to say, and this again highlights the problems inherent in communication. Ultimately, in Bientot l’été there is nothing that can be gained from a conversation except that conversation itself, which is doomed to be imprecise and imperfect.

In a way, this part of Bientot l’été is not that different from some conversations in real life. Particularly when dealing with love and relationships, it can be really difficult to even realise what exactly it is you want to say to someone, let alone find the right words. The café situation in the game is merely a dramatic exaggeration of that problem, and not really essentially different from it.

At the same time, the game also comments on the additional problems of communication over a distance, with the internet being the obvious reference point. By choosing a futuristic setting depicting a historical setting, and allowing the settings themselves to bleed into each other at some points, the game blatantly points towards its own artificiality, and that of all conversation. It says: “look at what you’re doing here: you’re having a broken conversation of borrowed sentences with someone you don’t know, probably sitting at the other end of the table/world/universe. How can you be sure the messages you send each other aren’t even more distorted than you think they are? Do you know what ends up at the other end?” No, we don’t. We can only make an educated guess, and fill in the gaps ourselves.

To make matters worse, Bientot l’été questions the reality of your conversation partner. They’re represented as ghost images, mere holograms, and there’s no sure way to tell the difference between an actual conversation partner and the computer simulation that’s also available in the game. Sure, the game says there’s a difference, and ‘talking’ to a person feels different – there’s more of a connection, especially in the way your sentences are replied to. But there’s always a distance, that nagging feeling that makes you wonder, like Joe Dassin does in the game’s spectral jukebox: “Et si tu n’existais pas”. What if you didn’t exist?

These are, on some level, silly questions. If we’d continually pose them we’d go mad, and would be unable to communicate at all. But there’s definitely something to be said for looking at them through the window of a game, to re-examine what we take for granted. The Endless Forest shows that if we really want to, we can make do with even a tiny set of linguistic tools to eke out some form of basic communication needed to cooperate. It is an ode to the pragmatism that underlies all animal and human language from the very basic to the highly complex. At the other end of the spectrum, Bientot l’été laments the absence of an essence of truth and reliability in communication. It sings wistfully about how when a bridge is built from both sides of that vast chasm, it ultimately fails to meet in the middle, crumbling at both ends, the other side always just out of reach.

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