Big text a-comin, with my humle opinions. Quotations not attributed always, so I don't claim it's my text. But I do agree with what is said!
To win is to lose, but to play is to experience an enrichment that cannot be scored.
– Patrik Dugan
This is the premise for the type of experiences I wish to see more of in video games, and RPG's especially since they are one of my favorite game genres. Following this, I hope to explain what I would sign up for in a beat on kickstarter, and I also hope to inspire to make something different with this text. I'll talk of concepts such as player privilege and power fantasies, and hope to illustrate how a game focused on different types of approaches than those that are regularly sought for and presented, could enrich my life and the life of others.
My main backdrop/comparison/scapegoat will be a contemporary experience, that of Mass Effect. I love it and count the days to the finishing installment of the series, yet I am continually disappointed by what Bioware does with the series too. What is written in this text is what I wish for in Mass Effect 3 but will probably not get, so I'm asking you to consider these ideas. The following quote will pinpoint one central theme surrounding this continual disappointment:
Some of my favorite gaming experiences have been those rare occasions where, out of nowhere, a game changes the way you see the world, or teaches you something about yourself. Recently, James told me of such an experience he had. A video game asked him a question he couldn't answer.
– Extra Credits, Enriching Lives
In games, I (my player character) ask questions to other characters even though I really shouldn't in order for the experience to have a genuine tone, compelling, and true, simply because I want info and to develop relationships. I also say things because they give me more content. Because I know that not saying anything is read by the game as not interacting with the system, as not playing. What happened to listening? Don't just do something, stand there! Like for example when refusing to enter a conflict and resolve it for two people (the hanar who needs a license to preach and a s-sec officer); no such option, no experience rewarded for that attitude, no dialogue option other then "hey, see you later". If I do not actively choose for these people, the game stays in the limbo of unresolved conflict, and the mission cluttering my journal, even though I deem myself to finished here. As has been said before:
“When discussing the issue of domestication, the posit developers have been assuming is that “any game must be manageable and should be 100% completed by anyone” and we are against that.
Basically, the domestication has to do with three things: the fear that, without direction, players will feel frustrated and abandon the game; the idea some publishers have that whatever resource used on something not discovered by the player is a waste, and the increasing desire from gamers and developers for tighter, better constructed stories.”
Even when on covert missions, I speak very openly, because games dictate me too, because somehow the directors make is so that the suspense isn't broken by my flaunting every which and where I come from and I'm going to, and because I'm scared I'm missing out on not speaking to people (meaning, I approach them), and I'm not being rewarded for actively thinking about whom to speak or not, except for in my own head where I create all sorts of theories concerning things. Too bad that when I finally approach someone or continue, it becomes all too clear that what I'm thinking is not on the minds of the developers. Being careful is seldom rewarded, or rather being open is seldom punished. Only as of late has there been some instances where you enter an apartment, take something, and then someone tells you that you shouldn't do this type of thing, it comes back to haunt you, etc. But this has become more of a running joke which may happen once or twice in a game, more than anything else... Most of the time, dialogue is unilateral, with npcs not approaching me, and I asking all the questions as if inhabitants of the world I go to are signposts or idiots, marveling at my grandeur or having nothing better to do with their time. Sometimes I imagine I'm having the experience of a cop in this aspect.
Now, punishment is a hard and perhaps misdirected word when describing what I think developers should do. Perhaps reveal, acknowledge, broaden, make deeper, are better suited words. When I know that I can approach everyone and talk to them because even if it ends up in a fight, I can beat them, suspense, and a sense of danger, of agency, of real threat, of real consequences, becomes smaller. If I get experience and items from the fight, all the better that I bad-talk people! So, all viable options to solve problems should get you experience, if not one is to be preferred over the other. But even if punishment perhaps isn't the best word, there does lie something in it, the notion of violence and how the artist can give us what we don't think we want, yet really want...
"You learn through tragedy. Perhaps Fate of the World isn't actually about figuring out how to save the world, or even about being a dark and smart strategy game. It's about getting behind the rhetoric and gaining a meaningful understanding of the many dreadful things we're doing to our home."
Perhaps a game with the concept of wabi-sabi as inspiration then? Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". For Campbell, the function of myth is to invoke a sense of wonder, majesty, of life. Death can so do, can give hope, be inspiring, and lead to rebirth, but this is not often the case in video games sadly. There, death is not even canon fodder for the progress of story, but a skill check for the player avatar or the player. And though not necessarily problematic, and I'm not arguing it leads to more violent behavior or something, it has been done over and over again.
This is our world, surely! And some games should reflect that, because it would give a richer emotional experience. Planescape Torment had this, and KOTOR2 too, both some of my absolute favorite games. Both of those were quite text heavy, had a lot of depth to their characters, but also gave me an awareness that there was much more beyond that which was seen. I couldn't trust those who were my team members, doubts ensued as to my moral choices, and I struggled with who I was, and perhaps also becoming. And death, though for some people uninspiring but neat in Planescape, invoked a larger sense of mystery of life, of grandeur. I did not find it cheap, as if I'm being manipulated, but made with love.
What lies at the other range of this wabi-sabi, in a sense, is the aesthetic which invokes power fantasies. "Power fantasy is the thing we do best in games. We excel at giving players a feeling of power over their surroundings, at letting them feel the satisfaction of starting out weak and becoming invincible, until they are the kings of the world, the rulers the universe, they have vanquished evil, saved the girl, and finally gotten to that really high ledge by exploding a rocket at their feet."
Well, I'd like for gamers to know what it’s like to be weak because it’s in times of hopelessness and darkness that people have struggled and overcome adversity. The whole point of introducing peril, fear and weakness in games is so that players may overcome them through their own ability, simultaneously improving their skills and building the good kind of confidence, the kind that is aware of its faults but overcomes them, instead of the kind that thinks it’s invincible and invulnerable. Almost without fault, in games I end up feeling invincible, or not aware of my weaknesses. Where are the things that haunt is? In my life, it's the same thing coming back again and again, similar emotional turmoils connected to my upbringing, or problems in relationships. Where are these in games? Yes, we control the player character Everyman in medias res, but perhaps a "fully portrayed" character is the way to go sometimes? A character we wish to control, or perhaps sometimes do not wish to control, yet relish, in horror sometimes, in figuring out how to "play that character well" in a way that contributes to the story as whole, to the development of other characters, or to a sense of majesty. Sort of like in Adam Cadres Varicella, or Stephen Bonds Rameses, where the player character has a very fleshed out personality. One could claim that if done this way, the game would no longer be an rpg, and I will not argue... But right now I'm struggling most of the time with my Shephard in Mass Effect simply because my thoughts concerning the direction that Shephard wants to go are different than that of Bioware. Since I'm working with aliens, spared the rachni queen, and have a generally post-humanist approach to things, why this complete nonsense of "saving humanity", "working for humanity" that my Shephard spews around all the time? I get not specific context, to I try to create my own character. Yet the dialogue options lock me in something which I cannot specifically pinpoint, and is dissonant with some of the other game/narrative elements. Yes I sacrificed the council at the end of Mass Effect, but not to install humanity as the primary species! It was for the good of the galaxy for fucks sake!
End of rant one. Ok, so a combat system/main mechanic or something similar which lets you know you weaknesses then, more. Because what happens when we play too much combat, put games in the hands of men and their fantasies? Perhaps Fight Club? Quote:
“I believe we are witnessing a two-fold process that consists, on one hand, in the separation of civilians and soldiers from the reality and the consequences of the war through technology and secrecy such as the myriad of undercover drone operations around the world. And, on the other hand, in the pervasion of stylized, sanitized or redacted depictions of war in news and entertainment. I’m sure older gamers are aware that the real war doesn’t look like Modern Warfare, but I fear that the proliferation of these cool, sexy representations has a overall soothing effect. This reinforces the doctrine of the endless global war, it turns what is supposed to be an exception, the last resort in conflict resolution, into something normal, a little thought in the back of our minds, a low intensity buzz that accompanies our everyday life.”
Winter Voices may not be a good game, but hear this:
"Easily the most impressive aspect of Winter Voices is how it manages to gracefully transport the framework of a tactical RPG – classes, experience points, skills, quests and battles – into a stark and comparatively realistic setting. As I mentioned above, the game is about getting over the death of your father. Winter Voices: Avalanche opens with you paying your last respects to his body, quickly moves on to his rustic cremation, and from then on you’re free to wander and talk to the simple folk of the sad, snowbound community in which you live, and engage in pitched battles.
The battles are – wait for it – entirely metaphorical. If you approach a building that featured prominently in your childhood, or for whatever narrative reason your character is overcome by despair, a fight starts as you’re assaulted by spirits and memories which chase your character around the map in a fairly straight tactical style."
I get that games are compelling because they are simpler, fairer and more empowering than real life. They are simpler because the levers for succeeding are more immediate to understand. This is what art is about; managing economies of space and time to pinpoint certain things and juxtapose them with situations that would not occur spatio-temporally outside the world of art, yet has similarities and approaches that enrich each-other. Games are fairer because the results from manipulating those levers (taking action) are clear and predictable, and they are more empowering because the player is able to effect significant change in the game world. So the immediate appeal to be swept up in the fantasy of the game is there (you can win), and players dive in. But power fantasies tend to revolve around dominating one's opponents, and genres typically invested in domination revolve around combat of some sort or another, about having a growing sense of superiority. Mark these tendencies, call out the player when zie treats others bad or deems hirself the most important person in the plot!
One remedy to the simplified world views and safe escapism/empowerment of games would be that the protagonist character is someone the player is intended to feel for rather than envy, or feel threatened by which leads to idealization and hope that some star dust will fall off this person and onto you. You lose empathy for your character because you never experience having to go through what zie went through in order to be good at hir job. You get the double of the envy of those in a lower position, which if one would have a marxist approach would lead to a false consciousness; admiration on one hand, and rebellion on one.
Now, again: punishment is not the best word, and likewise isn't describing empowerment as only bad. But think about what sorts of empowerments there are instead, and what is the typical experience, what can be done more. I crave a different type of experience anyway. Just look at commercials for Mass Effect 3, for example. "Decide how it ends". Why do we have this choice? Isn't it a spoiler of tremendous proportions to put this in a trailer, I mean really? How come nobody notices? Because choice is immanent, taken for granted, in games. And being a co-author is something to be excited about when playing games, and even when reading a book and being a co-author in the sense of interpreting and making out meaning for oneself, but when Bioware puts it this way, I get disappointed. Once again I will struggle with knowing how things can turn out, but not wanting to know, or not feeling heard, disrespected, that my type of experience (not reloading with failing a loyalty mission) will not be rewarded but instead will lead to less content. If a character dies, that part of the game is shut off, rather than opening up the possibilities of mourning. Or something may happen, but on a different planet, in a different galaxy. Keep it closer to the heart, even if political ramifications are interesting!
As someone wrote: Bogost describes the sequence in which Ethan makes dinner for Shaun,
“Ethan sits as Shaun eats, his pallid face staring at nothing. Time
seems to pass, but the player must end the task by pressing up on the
controller to raise Ethan from his chair. The silent time between
sitting and standing offers one of the only emotionally powerful
moments in the entire game.” (Bogost 2010) This moment of silent
contemplation only occurs because the player chooses not to act, to
ignore the prompt that appears on the screen1. It is a powerful and
meaningful moment because of all that is left unsaid. Sticking to
Shaun’s schedule is simply going through the motions, what the player
wants is for Ethan to somehow repair their relationship. To try
something. Shaun’s relationship with Ethan is so awkward and strained
that the player desperately seeks a father-and-son moment that
provides some hope for the future. “The game would clearly like the
player to believe that this chapter will allow the player to alter the
game’s narrative based on decisions made on behalf of Ethan.” (Bogost
2010) Perhaps Shaun will warm up to Ethan if he simply accompanies
him? Maybe if they both sit on the couch together watching TV? Perhaps
if Ethan cuts Shaun some slack with the strict schedule letting him
stay up later than usual? All of these moments are examples of
consciously choosing to ignore the prompts and instructions on the
screen, in order to create meaning for the player from the character’s
In Mass Effect, binary solutions circle around the notion that the player will solve things for hirself, with all that might, all that agency. I may become/get renegade/paragon points by non-choice since the game doesn't give me option of giving people over to the authorities, but instead the binary choice of killing or letting go. Why this obsession with me and just me doing all the "problem solving"? Oh yes, I'm a Spectre, and it can to some degree be explained in the grander narrative of things. But that's just part of the problem! In Mass Effect, I'm a spectre, in Dragon Age I'm a gray warden, so I am chosen ones, going beyond the law, this fantasy of being the cowboy, once again. Why not make a game about not dealing massive amounts of damage, but about dealing with shit we can't solve? Being the little man, or a tragedy where we start out great but become smaller? In video games this is only made so in order for us to regain our strength, as in Metroid games, or Symphony of the Night. Arguably, this is not the case in Majoras Mask, which has very interesting theories concerning growing up, thoughts more gamers should be acquainted with at least.
Majoras Mask is a nice place to go from here, because there the world is static, in the sense that it's the same pattern occurring over and over again, yet the experience is so different from other zelda games, that the inner movements of the player strike different tones. The inhabitants of the game are all about not changing, and about helping them across that threshold. The world of Mass Effect is static, but is only lazily so, in a way. I can most of the time go back and say things, resolve a case, or take up someone on their offer, because time stands still. In the second installation, quick time events were introduced, which had their fair share of problems, but were interesting nonetheless. When things disappear from conversation wheels though, because the kairos/moment is behind us, I get mad at the game because I am denied player privilege, but also because I have a sensation of being cheated, because it is not consistent with my relaxed approach to the game. Sure there are hints, and static conversations/dialogue wheels are on the left side, paragon is up, renegade is down, etc, but still. It's ironic then, because I want more of that, but also want more clarity concerning the rules, because there is a dissonance there which isn't explored in any way I find meaningful, but rather gives the feeling of beings haphazard and mistakenly a dissonance.
There is much interesting to be said concerning agency, and whether one can claim to have agency in a have where one does not know the consequences of ones actions, but there are also some things to be said for subverting expectations, surprising people. I thought The Witcher was the RPG (of those I played the last years) with most interesting moral choices and effects springing from these. But both there, and in Mass Effect, one can speak of another kind of "player" privilege, namely that of the one who "games the dames" and collects them as trophies, as was the case in Witcher. Why is it that I in RPG's almost unequivocally can "romance people who are meant to be romanced", ie people whom I can approach to romance, and never get turned down by anyone? It becomes a matter of playing "the game" well, instead of dealing with rejection, building a relationship on frail grounds, emotional turmoil or something else. Why seldom problematic romantic relationships in games? I felt there was something going on just there with Liara in Shadow Broker DLC, but then it fell flat sort of. As a good remedy to conquests and achievements, I would claim that Braid and the philosophy of Jonathan Blow is a good starting point, where zie stresses the importance of intrinsic vs external reward schemes.
I would claim it's not a very meaningful agency one has when one can approach many databases at same time, choose to go to a certain planet over another. Sure, sometimes a small difference can be seen, as when Liara becomes half out of hir mind when saved if one waits with saving Liara until the end. But is it all that interesting, and what are we missing out on? Perhaps a more linear story with more npcs integrated in the main story, and not just spread around, more loosely connected to the common cause. Weird thing is, I'm saving the world yet have time to help old ladies cross streets, or help out people with their loyalty missions. Perhaps this game design does work in a sense, because my approach to the game is relaxed to the extent that I do not play straight for 30 hours but come back to it from time to time, but the question is then if I couldn't get into the state of suspense and belief in the illusion that "time-is-running-out" quite quickly anyway, whence it would make sense to have a more linear story with an added time element, where we even would have to choose what to do, instead of when doing it? Damn it, I wish to contemplate over loss, that I cannot save the whole world, or sometimes cannot even choose which person to sacrifice! Planescape was about myself/The Nameless One (and those I affected), about the journey, and not about saving the world, and for that I'm eternally grateful. :)
Another problem with npcs is that what I recommend to my npcs becomes law very often, even if it isn't a response that is grounded in the persuasion- or threat-mechanic (also this being questionable to me, as it attunes players to gaming instead of playing, and in allocating stats rather than empathizing and listening to what makes the characters tick). Should Mordin destroy the research stations possibly unethical findings, in Mass Effect 2? Zie asks me, and for me it comes across as a choice, with the same considerations as for Mordin, instead of my voicing an opinion, because I believe that what I'll say will become law, for Mordin, for me, for the galaxy at whole. And what if I just want to say something, but don't even believe it, or want my player character believe it? Except for the occasional indicated "I promise (lie) ", I get no choice of doing this. And when I have, it barely matters because my player character doesn't change anyway: the future dialogue options aren't affected by what my character has said before, except for when it's connected to gaming (persuasion, and getting points in persuasion by persuading), or if it's about gaining information before and now being able to continue that specific thread. And even if I choose the option of lying about saving someone at the beginning of the mission, I never get the option of changing my position at the end of the mission and what I lied about is about the be set into action. Why take away control from me there because I made a choice before? Isn't it more powerful to let me decide once more if I'm on the same track now after the mission, if something has affected me? Perhaps even give me the option to come clean and say to the person it concerns that I was planning on cheating them?
Character development in the Bioware formula is connected mainly to loyalty missions and Normandy/Camp area, and some characters develop even though nothing happens to them because they aren't brought along on missions and hence only sit there on deck. This is a structure that works, because it opens up content even if you decide to play with only the same two characters... But in the end, it sort of doesn't surprise much still: I complete loyalty missions, and then everyone is ok, The Illusive Man and Cerberus' mission rapports being the only flicker of doubt we get concerning the characters and their psyche and loyalties, except from other npcs. Shouldn't someone just loose it, go crazy, discover that since they now have solved their most prominent problems of family and ethics, that they have no reason to go on anymore? Why is there a catharsis, without fail, with no following resentment towards those who would make you come relax and come apart, no misplaced judgments discovered, no depressions following a longer time of extreme fatigue and goal reaching?
During main missions though, there is not as much voice/growth. Not much voicing of characters during the main mission, which is the mission that should hold very much weight and change people, their call-to-action. One could argue that we as players grow more during the loyalty missions than main missions too, but it does break the flow and sort of creates a disharmony, a split world, a disconnect. In the first Mass Effect, forget about specific character voice. To create a character dynamic during missions, Bioware set up two roles always attributed to the characters you bring along for the mission, resulting in the epiphany during replay that what one character said during a specific mission on the first play-through, another character says during the same mission if brought along. Since the dynamic is set along two axises, when bringing two characters that fall close to each-other on one of the axises, one of them has to say something non-characteristic for them, for the dynamic to work. It clings false, and leads either to this type of disharmony, or to characters says very non-specific, not committing things during missions, either option being sub par. And since one of my rules for good writing is to write character specific dialogue, which shouldn't be able to be mistaken as to whom it comes from, this becomes a problem.
In general, I would say that japanese RPG's have a very different approach and integrate main characters into the main story much more. They, on the other hand, have a tradition of not giving the player much choice of co-authoring the story, or developing/affecting the player character and what this one says as such. Japanese RPG's, more than any perhaps, invoke the power gamer within me, the one who mainly cares about numbers, breaking systems, maximizing stats, conquering the world. And this is bad, because it makes me want to game the game, which isn't emotionally satisfying, yet sucks me in. I would not be afraid to say that this is an addiction, and game design that caters do addicts of my sort. One way to alleviate this at least a bit is to always make it possible to change stats around. Why not? If the stats are connected to the narrative in a meaningful way, sure, I get why you couldn't, but if you even can change your class from one game to another, certainly it doesn't mean much. When the combat is procedurally so damn disconnected anyway from the narrative, and my team mates most of the time say so little anyway that I'd sometimes rather choose characters to bring along for a mission after their skill tree than to create a specific type of dynamic (bringing Legion, the Geth, onto the Quarian Fleet, who were driven out of their homes by the Geth, being one of the dynamical exceptions that the game registers), why not? I would say that just as I want drugs off the street in a sense because it would lead me into temptation, I don't want to have the decision/choice of gaming the game, getting more points for certain types of actions, because I am an addict and have always hitherto been tempted and to some degree gotten stuck in "that jungle where a dialogue option that is blue seemed more satisfying than one that is white" once more. Bastion was a real challenge for me because of this, since the narrative was what interested me and drove me, but kind of got harder and harder to focus on as time went on...
Managing equipment is bullshit for me, and picking up items is too. Why this micro management, all these small choices? Breaking up flow? Well, in a sense, certainly, but are there no better ways? Perhaps gazing at the surroundings, or, god forbid, take a break from playing the game, doing some gymnastics so as to not get problems with the back? It's like designers imagine us sitting there for five hours straight when playing, and therefore put in these lame mako missions, or some gattling gun sequence, parts of the games which to me most of the time come across as tacky and not very satisfying. And playing the game five hours straight? This is mostly not the case for me anymore... so even if I want a journey that would take its take, so it means also that I would want to take time with it. For me, it's kind of stressful to have all these different missions in the journal at the same time, and again there is a problem of me managing myself which ones to focus on, since I have the completionist drive, and the drive to approach npcs according to area, rather than approaching one, leaving the area, returning, getting the next mission, etc.
The problems of micromanagement I think is in many games is an experience that is beautifully illustrated in molleindustrias Unmanned, where the main premise of the game is a split screen, divided attention, and where you as a soldier for the army might be speaking to your son on one hand, and trying to win a first person shooter that the two of you are playing at the same time. How to manage? Another spin here is then that you get medals for "being a good father" instead of those more macho achievements you would expect from a game with soldiers. I think that there is then the problem of "game elements" proper/what most people perceive as the main mechanic, distracting from other gaming/narrative elements, a dissonance, but also the dissonance of integrating these two so that they make sense. Why is Drake a good guy yet leaves so many bodies behind in the Uncharted Series? Yes, it's that term ludonarrative dissonance that I'm approaching that has gained some popularity. Not more said about this though, just that it's very important for immersion.
The gamerific mission distracts from creating meaning outside the scope of win/loss conditions and how gameplay pertains to these. You game? I am. Always. Scrounging for weapons, squinting for ammo. Things that let me be at my best, complete things in the best way possible, and prepare for future showdown. Things to distract me from architecture, level design and narrative, that let me sift through what's what and create a meaning for what I am doing, create a context for my actions. Instead, I just take my fix, and on to the next, and on to another one bites the dust. Searching for objects to interact with distracts from seeing the surrounding holistically. Why not highlight the interactive elements? The search for me becomes neurotic, distancing. The issue with intermediary content is that, over time, you just stop giving a shit about what all these people are saying. The NPC might be telling the most tragic story in the world, but the player’s motivation is still disrupted because they’re likely more focused on trying to resolve a quest. You click through the dialog, follow the compass, kill whatever is there, and report back for your reward. The dialog also falls flat because most of the time is spent explaining things. Walk up to an NPC and they have to identify themselves, tell you their motivations, and eventually ask you to do something for them. Almost all of the dialog is explaining the system, whether it’s how this New California Republic base is doing or who this important figure is in the quest. What’s missing here is character development — the moments where the person talks about their past and beliefs.
There is another problem with content in video games, namely the sheer amount of it. No wonder only 1/10th of players who played Red Dead Redemption finished the game. There are narrative theorists, notably Northrop Frye, who see all classical storytelling as essentially about the conflict between a hero and the world he or she lives in. The hero wants to do something, society or natural law prevents it. The hero has to either change the world (comedy), learn to live with it after seeking adventure elsewhere (romance), be overcome by the world (tragedy), or change the world only to make things worse (satire).
All of these storytelling modes assume that the hero starts out in conflict with the world. The hero is someone who disagrees with society’s rules, or doesn’t belong, or has a goal the world can’t allow. By the end of the story this conflict is resolved one way or another. So what happens if this conflict is never there? If the hero was always an absolutely perfect fit for the world, how do you even start to tell one of these classical stories?
This is the problem most narrative games have. The cutscenes and other fixed elements might tell you that you’re a scrappy underdog, fighting against all odds. The writers may try to create a fictional world in conflict with your character. But everything else in the game tells you that, to the contrary, you are the one person most in tune with the universe of the story. You are the most competent character in the world. You understand its rules better than any of the poor little AIs you encounter. You even have the ability to go back in time and change your actions, giving you a godlike perspective on how your decisions affect the story’s events.
In most narrative games, the world and the hero aren’t in conflict. They’re soul mates. You can tell me all you want that people don’t trust me and my mission is hopeless, but at the end of the day, I will always succeed. No amount of writing can counteract this.
Closely connected to this, I believe is the following sentiment: “Try to remember the last time you were lost in a game. When you had to wander aimlessly, trying to find something – even if you were still unsure of what you needed to find. In fact, when was the last time you discovered something in a game? Something cool that was not already stated in your objective list? When was the last time you found something that truly surprised you, like a secret dungeon or an item whose existences wasn’t already hinted by the vacant spot in your inventory?
Back in the days of the original Zelda and Metroid we were asked to discover what we were supposed to be doing in the first place. Now, games are domesticated. Not only have we grown familiar to their bizarre lexicon (cracked walls were meant to be exploded) but we always have the information of what to do and where to go directly at our fingertips, sometimes even before we have any real use for such information. As a result, games have become to-do lists. The contemporary quintessential videogame is nothing but a laundry list of things to do in order to get the 100% complete rate.”
I think that one way to remember for me what is part of the holistic problem of how many approach games and why certain things seldom change in bigger productions, is to remember a review of Baldur's Gate 2 wrote in my early teens, a period where games had a stabilizing and identity exploring function which it hasn't in the same way anymore. When I read it a couple of years later, it was kind of embarrassing, because my notion of a good game had changed so markedly (even if I still think Baldurs Gate 2 is a very good game). What I wrote was something in the spirit of: "And this is what marks a truly great RPG: after 200 hours of playing the same character, I am still me".
Hell. If stability is what a player craves, then this is indeed a good thing. Nowadays, I just believe like I have more growing to do, and think that the lack of growth is one of the most problematic areas in design of player characters and how I myself as a player feel after having met many challenges of a game. What can change the nature of a man, eh?
I will finish this text that has been messy but hopefully inspiring anyway, with a quote from: James Paul McGee:
So what does it mean to play MGS4? What does it mean to play it “well”? These are vexed questions. MGS4, more than any game I have played, makes them vexed.
Let me start with something really simple: in MSG4 — unlike in any other game I can remember — playing well can mean playing badly. Most anyone would think, especially if they are thinking of sports, say, that to play well is to get things right and do well. But this is not always so in MGS4. One example: There is a moment in MGS4 where Snake — who in MGS4 is sick, old, and tired — has to remember a code. Surely forgetting the code is not getting things right and doing well. But when Snake (my Snake, me) forgets the code — hey, I’m 60 years old — it becomes part of the story, meaning narrative, meaning non-interactive-in-a-meaningful-way-cut-scene.
And some links:
Lack of change in video game characters:
Peter Pan complexes and what happens to the man after zie saves the world:
Critique/exploration of Mass Effect type RPG:s:
The struggle between playing well and "playing well":
Distractions and achievements contra a different approach:
On McDonald type game design:
Taking away the power of the player:
Domestication of games:
Essay, Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design, Douglas Wilson and Miguel Sicart:
"This paper explores the concept of abusive game design – an
alternative design practice that challenges conventions of
normative game design. Specifically, abusive game design
challenges the notion of “player advocacy” – an ideology that
inevitably allows the language of consumerism to outshine the
particular human beings who design and play games."
They describe and accessibility turn, which is closely connected to a kind of “player
narcissism,” a perspective on gameplay in which players stand at
the center of the gaming experience, ready and eager to be pleased
within the bounds of their established tastes, interests, and skills.
Player narcissism is an extreme but inevitable consequence of
user-centered design practices that subordinate all design concerns
to the satisfaction of an ideal player’s desires and demands.
narcissism leads to what we call “monologic play” – a one-sided
arrangement in which systems adapt to the ideal and potential
performances of players in order to satisfy them in an instrumental
fashion. Monologic play can be thought of as a conversation in
which only the player speaks, while the designer merely nods
along – hardly a conversation at all. In the monologue of player
narcissism, the player (the customer) is always right. Design
becomes a rote catering to a user, devoid of any possibility of
nurturing an open dialogue between creator and user. Players
become mere customers, and designers become mere providers. In
general, this type of monologic game design is not concerned
about play as an activity, but about how games as systems can
facilitate a form of play that is relatively constrained to formal,
predictable outcomes that can be deduced from constrained, selfcontained
systems of rules.
By arguing that game designers are first and foremost advocates
for the player, contemporary game design theory has implicitly
established that games-mediated play consists of the relation
between a player and a system. The designer becomes the odd one-
out, pressured to efface their own presence in order to ensure
that the game is optimally tailored to the player.