Agency, Interactivity, and the Implicit Contract

One extremely common area of discussion about videogames, both in what constitutes its academia and among the general public, is how the narrative of a videogame itself can be interactive. Perhaps relieving ourselves of the need to discuss the very specific, and substantively different, definition of that term used by Chris Crawford in his book on the subject, we can say broadly that people expect an interactive narrative to react, in some way, to their inputs, in a way that your average book or film (Choose-Your-Own adventure instances of those media excluded, of course) does not.

This is rightly so. You can interact with a videogame in a unique way; if there is a narrative present in the game, the result meets our broad understanding of an interactive narrative. It seems very likely that anything that might be called videogame, and that has a narrative, but that cannot be called interactive in any meaningful way (your mileage may very on what constitutes “meaningful” interactivity, but this is a discussion for another time), is not, after all, a videogame proper. Where this becomes a problematic point of discussion is when people have expectations of what the interactivity should entail that conflict with the designer’s intentions.

This is the root of all “that’s not really a game” discussions. Games like Dear Esther and To The Moon polarize people not based on their intrinsic qualities, but on their qualities as relate to games as they expect them to behave; however, this relates even more broadly to something that affects even the most conventional games.

In general, I think, most people expect games to let them “take control” over some aspects of the story. In games with very exciting gameplay, like many first-person shooters, they are usually contented with the gameplay alone, and don’t make too much of a fuss about linear stories and the like. However, in games with more cerebral gameplay, like, for instance, a big open-world RPG like Skyrim, it’s considered to be pretty important that player have a lot of agency in the experience.

There is nothing at all wrong with player agency. It’s something no other artform can deliver, and provides a brand-new way of interacting with fiction; many games, like Skyrim, really are best-suited to having a highly agency-centric format. However, the preponderance of games that value agency, at least in popularity, give many, many players the idea that it is something they can, should, and ought to expect from videogames in general.

Since I have no statistics, let’s look at an anecdotal case: my father loved Fallout 3. It’s very likely that he considers it his favorite game of all time. Just about every game he’s played since then has been compared to it. This would be totally appropriate if every game he’s played since then has also been an open-world RPG: he didn’t like New Vegas as much because it didn’t have as many sidequests, and he didn’t like Skyrim as much because he found the world of Fallout so much more personally engrossing. However, not every game is an open-world RPG.

The most recent game he played was The Last of Us. I haven’t played this, and never will (because I am morally opposed to console exclusives), but I know generally that it’s been a polarizing game, with the common opinions being either: a) it’s one of the most mature narratives ever told in a videogame, with excellent gameplay to boot, or b) the characters act so irredeemably that there is no reason for the players to be on their side when the story reaches its finish. Now, while I certainly don’t believe we need to be on the side of the protagonists to enjoy a story in traditional media, or even in videogames, from what I’ve heard of the argumentation I believe I’d side with the latter argument. However, my dad didn’t think either of these things. He said the game was graphically beautiful, and fun to a point, but mostly revolved around ‘okay, go do the next part of the story, and now the next part, et cetera, roll credits.’ This is probably an accurate representation of the game; hopefully my readers will have encountered someone’s criticism of a game along these lines before.

However, as a criticism it struck me as odd, perhaps off-base. Surely many games before have had exactly that structure for their stories, and to no ill-effect (that I know of!). Half-Life 2 is one of the most popular videogames ever made, and it certainly has a very linear story structure. Even some sandbox games like Saints’ Row 2 do not place any real emphasis on narrative agency, focusing instead on letting the player interact with the world in entertaining ways. From what I know of the The Last of Us, the game doesn’t really expect players to have a major impact on the narrative, expect at a few key points; and even then those decisions are considered to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ by the game.

This hits at a concept that Chris Bateman calls the implicit contract of playThe article in which he calls it that is quite informative, and it is not at all long (a skill I, clearly, do not possess). The basic idea, if you are disinclined to better yourself by reading the article, is that when a player begins a game, they carry with them a set of expectations about what playing the game will be like; and to a greater or lesser extent, these expectations form the basis for the criteria by which the player will evaluate their experience. The greater the deviation from their expectations (unless their expectations were negative, or indeed the deviation was quite an impressive one), the less the player will feel they liked the game. This idea is not unique to videogames; in general aesthetics this is pretty much exactly how genre is believed to work, but more on that next time.

Where am I going with this? There is a school of thought to which every game designer more or less subscribes that says we should make videogames that really “take advantage” of our medium. I will not argue that player agency in narrative does not take such advantage: it obviously does. However, I think many gamers, players and designers alike, think that it’s the only way in which we can take that advantage; I think that’s mistaking one prevalent implicit contract for an entire medium. Videogames are an interactive medium, it is true; however, I don’t think we ought to confuse interactivity and agency. Interactivity means so much more than narrative agency (see, for instance, Thomas Grip’s paper, “The Self, Presence, and Storytelling”); all we need is to adjust our understanding of our implicit contracts. As designers, that’s a sheer act of will. How to do that with players is what I’ll talk about next time.


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Reward, Challenge, and the Truth about Replay Value

Replay value is a sorely misunderstood concept in game design. Designers and players tend to feel that replay value is a function of new content or challenge. Often a game with a linear story with no branching options, only one ending, and no advanced difficulty settings will be criticized for having low replay value, almost based solely on those facts. The perceived benefit of a higher replay value is that of economy: games are expensive, and the more entertainment you get out of them the better. Replay value is rather highly prized, to the extent that many games that would not generally be perceived as having high replay value (for instance, Batman: Arkham &c) come with dumb unlockable short missions to keep you appeased when you’ve finished the narrative. While there is nothing wrong with having such extra content, I’d like to talk about how they, along with much thinking to do with replay value, are quite misguided for this cause.

As a jumping off point, I refer the reader to Yahtzee Croshaw’s recent Extra Punctuation column about replay value. I remember reading it the first time with considerable surprise, as only two days before I had been discussing replay value with a friend and also brought up The Secret of Monkey Island. I disagree with a lot of his detailed analysis, but I agree with this basic statement:

What I’m saying is, don’t worry too much about chocolate sauce because a truly good game makes its own chocolate sauce

A novel idea! Perhaps a videogame has replay value simply because it is good, and you want to do the good thing that you did again. This perspective has its drawbacks, however: it’s consistent with how we experience other artforms (people are well-known to rewatch films they’ve already seen, read books they’ve already read, and even own and display paintings so that they can look at them whenever they want); it explains why games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Portal are so replayable even though they don’t change meaningfully between playthroughs; and it explains why nobody ever replays a game they dislike just because it has replay value, even if they strove to complete it the first time. Actually, those things are all good reasons to believe that.

Now, this could be a perfect time for me to proselytize my artsy-fartsy videogames perspective, but I will not. I could refer to how I don’t think challenge is important to videogames at all (inherently) or how the best parts of games we like are not the hardest parts. But now is not the time; this article will apply also to conventional games. At time of writing, I haven’t added enough of that notgames content to this blog to make a convincing argument of these things. So we will focus on how replay value affects  all games.

First, let’s talk about why replay value is such a big concern:

  • Games are too expensive: This is the big one. If you’ve paid $60 for a game, you want as much value for the money as possible. If choosing between a game with high replay value and a game with low, the economist tells us to go with the former (at least, given what terrible ideas of economics people tend to have). Games are expensive because a) the demands of 3D technology are currently very high and b)
  • Games are too long: That is to say, many games are too long for their own good. Many games, driven by the same concerns as drive their attempts at replay value, will pad their gameplay out unnecessarily in the name of good value. Now, months after completing the game, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, a gamer seriously considers whether they want to sink another 40 hours into the Witcher; the answer is probably ‘no’. Now of course in these days of pricey AAA development, many games actually surprise us by being too short, but this is generally because games focusing on gameplay fail to fully satisfy before ending; that is,
  • People don’t want fun experiences to end: If a person is enjoying a game, they probably don’t want that game to end before they are ready. People are known for not wanting anything the enjoy to end; but sex and good stories long ago figured out the solution: the climax. The climax is a moment so good in the process that it satisfies the seemingly unquenchable desire for more. Here enters the boss fight: usually a fitting narrative climax, few boss fights are well-designed enough to be good gameplay climaxes. Many, like in Batman: Arkham Asylum, were not well-suited to the difficulty curve. Some, like Painkiller, succeed in quenching the player’s desire to play by being so difficult as to inpsire a final, unrecoverable ragequit. But a sacred few, like the end of Half-Life 2, are so well-orchestrated, so tuned in to the essence of the gameplay and narrative, that they actually satisfy well. Sure, when I finished Half-Life 2, I wanted more; but I didn’t feel gypped. I went over to the Combine Overwiki and nerded out for a while. I was cuddling with Half-Life 2.

We often talk of reward and challenge in videogames. I’m certain this will not be my only post on the subject. We are going here to specifically discuss reward and challenge in regards to replay value, as the astute reader may have inferred from the title. Now, a challenge is, in itself, ofttimes rewarding. This simple sentence has actually been driving play, games, and videogames since the dawn of mammals. Raph Koster explores this at length in A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Of course, the learning process suggests that once mastered, the challenge becomes rote; it loses its fun. This seems to justify our state of affairs as regards chocolate sauce replay value — add more challenge, get more satisfaction!

This would be true, no doubt, if challenge were the only thing rewarding about a videogame! But that cannot be so! Consider multiplayer games: for many players, the reward is not in the challenge at all. Ah!, you cry, but of course it is! People play against each other online because human opponents are so much more cunning than artificial intelligence. But surely if that were so, then why would the first thing a person thinks about when considering online multiplayer be pwning newbs? Newbs aren’t even as cunning as AI; that’s their whole appeal. The reward in pwning them is nothing to do with challenge. It is something else entirely.

We can look at reward in one of two senses: in the strict sense, a reward is specifically recognition of an acheivement. This is the high score, the XBL Trophy, the fear and admiration of newbs. In the broader sense, reward is feeling positive about having done something — we feel rewarded by reading good books, eating ice cream, writing blog posts, and teaching newbs who’s boss. Thus we experience artwork for the perceived rewards — for the emotional experience, for the new perspectives, for the laffs, for the thrills and chills.

In this reading of reward, one hopes there is much rewarding about videogames apart from the challenge. Multiplayer games have their social rewards: for the more sociapathic of us, there is the much-mentioned newb-pwning; for the rest of us, there’s spending quality time with our friend(s). And all games of course have some element of narrative, music, graphical quality, and other aesthetic considerations that may reward us if we play them.

Now this reading justifies our state-of-affairs even more! Here we have games that, having finished them, offer us not only more difficulty settings, but more narratives, musics, graphical qualities, and other aesthetic considerationses! When you have finished the content, they give you more! Surely they’ve solved the riddle of replay value!

But we must not forget that people still choose to re-experience art that they have already experienced. They consider some things to be rewarding, even when they are exactly the same every time. There are two instances of this, often both at play for a single artwork: a) a person may feel, as for instance with The Big Lebowski, that the artwork is so complex and sophisticated that it offers something to be noticed for the first time with each re-experience, seemingly indefinitely so; and, b) a person may feel, as I do with Seinfeld, that even being intimately familiar with a moment’s details doesn’t take anything away from — and perhaps even adds something to — the experience in question.

The games that I have replayed the most ­— the Half-Life 2 series and the Max Payne series (all two of them, there is no third game, you were having a bad dream), are utterly linear shooters. Neither is particularly challenging (although Max Payne involves a lot of dying, I’m not convinced this is the same thing); but both offer such phenomenal storytelling and visual style that I’ve been drawn back into them again and again.

Here we enter the tricky swamp. Certainly the challenge of a challenge-centric videogame is a part of the appeal. And certainly, once beaten, a game is not forever a walk in the park; the game will always present some challenge. If you can say for yourself that you replay games because and only because you feel they can challenge you again or still, I will not deny you this right. But I argue that many gamers replay a game for something else entirely; for its qualities as a work of art and a narrative.

There is no need for alternate endings; there is no need for increased difficulty modes. They may be good things in their own right, don’t get me wrong. But they do not meaningfully contribute replay value. Worst case scenario, someone replays your game to re-experience a certain moment that they failed even to access the second-time through. In most cases, though, a person will want to replay your game because it’s good, and if it is actually good, it’s very unlikely they’ll be dissuaded from doing so just because the story is the same. If you do have branching stories, they may resent you for withholding content, or they may just view it is as the icing on the…chocolate sauce.

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The Videogame Misnomer, Part 1

Definition and categorization have got to be some of the most-discussed issues that fall under the umbrella of aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, in regards to videogames. On the one side, we have gamers defending against allegations from folks like Roger Ebert that videogames aren’t art; on the other, we have gamers declaring (often without support) that videogames like Dear Esther and Bientot L’ete aren’t “games” at all. While dot Game doesn’t believe the former question is worth your attention, we find the latter question of considerable interest. Is Dear Esther a videogame? If it is, what does that say about the medium? If it is not, what does that say? If it isn’t, what is it? Is that distinction meaningful?

These questions span far more than a single post. The question of definition in videogames is, as in all art, expansive enough that it might be considered open-ended for the time-being. For our purposes right now, we only seek to establish one thing.

The most commonly cited reason – probably the only reason – used to indict (or perhaps elevate) Dear Esther and its ilk (referred to by many, perhaps problematically, as notgames) as “not videogames” is that, strictly speaking, there is no way to lose. Granted, in Dear Esther there are certain ways to get more out of the experience, but let’s say for the purposes of this argument, they are correct. You have to be able to lose a game, or it isn’t a game, and videogames are games, right? It’s right there in the name.

Unfortunately, as I shall argue, the only evidence we have that videogames have to be games is in the word videogames. Furthermore, this post seeks to establish that it is at least plausible that the name “videogames” is, and always has been, a misnomer. To prove that it is will be a grander task, for the subject of a later article; one step at a time is good walking.

The first, most obvious, and in many ways most persuasive argument that it is possible or plausible that videogames is a misnomer is that of precedent. Many other media in art have misleading, incomplete, inaccurate, or blatantly false names. In fact, in this optional sidequest I demonstrate how the name of almost every artform is lacking in some way.

The point of that article is, briefly, that the name of an artform is not equivalent to its definition. To view it as such is to invite disaster. Such a line of reasoning fails trivially against well-defined artforms like film (digital?) and theater (Shakespeare in the Park?); do not attempt to use it on games, a medium still struggling for cohesion. It will only confuse matters.

But the precedent argument is only the first half: even if other media have had ill-fitting names, it need not be plausible for videogames to have had one. It is not enough to instill doubt on the naming scheme in general; I must instill doubt on this name in specific, as I have done with the others. I must demonstrate that the medium discovered at the dawn of computing may not be inherently playful, even if its examples always were so.

My work is cut out for me: the name videogames, as descriptive instead of prescriptive, seemed apt enough for 50 years of the medium. The very earliest videogames, from Tennis for Two and Spacewar! up to Colossal Cave Adventure (which challenges the designation “video”, if not “game”) were explicit in their gameplay structure. Points, failure, competition, and rules were a major factor in their design. Respected visionaries in the artistic possibilities of the medium, such as Chris Crawford and Raph Koster, have touted the fundamental nature of play to the human experience as the key to the artistic power of videogames. This is a dense jungle; I’ll need my sharpest machete.

I would be remiss at this point not to mention this insightful post by Chris DeLeon. Its argument is essentially that videogames don’t truly fit with our understanding of games in the real world. No videogames are inherently games; any games we play with them are artifical rules imposed on extremely sophisticated electronic toys. This distinction is subtle, but meaningful to consider. However, it will not be the thrust of my argument.

My argument is based on a single premise — that videogames represent a distinct artistic medium due to certain formal characteristics (a fairly uncontroversial premise, I should hope) — and explores two questions: a) what are these characteristics? and b) is gameplay a necessary characteristic for the medium?

Now, the use of so-called necessary and sufficient characteristics as definitional sets has fallen into disfavor in analytic philosophy; and perhaps rightly so. I reiterate my goal here is not to define videogames, or to demonstrate positively that their definition does not involve playing a game — it is only to demonstrate that there are other potentially viable factors that can define the genre.

But first, a  few words on the concept in aesthetics known as “the proliferation of artforms.”  The idea here is that we want be liberal in our definitions so as to be conservative with the number of artforms defined. It is meaningful, for instance, to distinguish motion pictures from still photography, and, many would argue, still photography from hand-created visual art; it is doubtful, however, many would want to consider live-action and animated films truly distinct artforms. Sure, they are different modes of creation; the Academy Awards offers animated films an award to themselves, distinct from Best Picture; but Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents them both, and occasionally an animated film is nominated for Best Picture (as in Toy Story 3). Yet there is no videogame nominated for Best Picture. Thus it seems safe to say that the various artforms have diversity within them. The idea here is to forestall objections that notgames rightly represented a similar, but distinct medium. If film can be so versatile in its members, then why not also videogames?  Again, a common response is to point to its name; the rebuttal thereto is the thrust of this article.

So as for the first question: what are the fundamental characteristics in videogames as we see them? Certainly the game structure is present; it is foolish to ignore or deny it. Graphics, however they may be defined, are not such a characteristic: few would deny that interactive fiction is a type of videogame. It seems compelling to suppose that all videogames are programmed on computers and computed dynamically each time the game is run; but I believe South Park is animated this way, and it seems to much to suppose that South Park is secretly a videogame. This suggests another characteristic: interactivity. It does not, I believe, stretch the imagination to suggest that videogames are unique among the arts in their interactivty (Chris Bateman’s opinion notwithstanding). One might bring up examples of certain interactive theater performances (such as improvisational comedy); it is simple to add that videogames are computerized interactive artworks.

It seems therefore plausible to me to suggest that an interactive, computerized artwork would be, uniquely, a videogame.

This of course requires a definition of interactive. There are certain shallow definitions of interactive that do not hold; we would not want a hypertext novel to be a videogame, nor a DVD, which, with most software, can be paused, played, and rewound at will. In The Art of Interactivity Design, Chris Crawford suggests a conversation as a definitive model for “interactivity”; that it must involve thinking between stages of input and reaction; of course he leaves the definition of “thinking” up to the reader; but surely it is to be understood that videogames have a deeper level of interaction than normal software for experiencing other kinds of art; furthermore, it may be supposed that while such software as a DVD player facilitates experiencing art, a videogame cannot exist separate from the software; it is equivalent to the software itself.

Therefore it seems that interactivity might be considered a unifying condition of videogames, a possible alternative to the game structure. This is consistent with all extant videogames: everything considered videogames already is interactive; but there still remains the question of whether gameplay need be considered necessary for the medium. There are two relevant considerations: if it is, then how shall we classify so-called notgames, and how do we resolve the proliferation of artforms conflict? and if it is not, then why have so many videogames focused on this aspect?

As for the former consideration, I don’t think there is a good resolution, and I think this is a strong point in favor of considering notgames videogames.

As for the latter, one can only speculate. Certainly there is a cultural expectation, at this point in videogames’ development, that they will have a win/lose game structure. This arose from a broad base of games developed along these lines. As to why all the earliest games were of this form, there are many possibilities. The earliest experimenters with videogames were computer programmers; these people had more logical than artistic sensibilities; when given a chance to create a simulation, it seems reasonable that they would create formal games. The barrier to entry for computer games was too high for artists. Consider how quickly hypertext novels arose after their creation; hypertext is a far simpler technology than computer programming. Furthermore, computer games were marketed to the same kind of logical, right-brained personal computer owners for the longest time. Then, they were marketed to children, who, of course, as growing mammals, are genetically predisposed to enjoying structured games. This created a market of videogames, designed by and targeted at people who enjoyed the extant game structure.

But it is dangerous to spend too much time on this kind of speculation; it is at best unreliable, and at worst stereotyped. I do not believe it necessary to prove that the development of videogames continued along this path; I think it is sufficient to suggest that it might have developed differently.

And thus I have established it plausible that something very much like videogames but without a win/lose game structure might exist; that it might even fit under the umbrella of videogames; and that it is not worthwhile to cite the word videogames as an objection to that categorization. The task of demonstrating positively that videogames actually do live up to this plausibility is still ahead of me.

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Procedural Diegesis in Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia

We’re going to take a whack at so-called criticism here on dot game, and we’re going to start with Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia. It’s a five-minute flash game on newgrounds. Go play the game before you read this. Please and thank you. Even if you don’t read the rest of this critique, it’s a great game that you should play.

Now, there are many things about dys4ia that contribute to its high quality: its subtle, sweet sense of humor; its simple graphical style, which lets the player focus on other content in the game; and the music,  by Liz Ryerson, makes the final level all-the-more touching. But this is not what this critique shall focus on; to frame exactly what is the focus of this critique, we’ll look at a quote from this interesting First Person Scholar article (also worth your time):

Dys4ia is inextricable from its play. As a critic and a gamer, I’m far more interested in the process of feeling something new, like gender dysphoria, than being told about an assassin that cuts throats at the press of a button.

Here the author uses dys4ia to illustrate his concept of procedural diegesis. The idea behind this terminology is rather simple: the actions involved in playing the game should represent experiences involved in the story the game represents. That is, the procedures of the game should be diegetic to the story, in the sense similar to film’s diegetic sound. It is not quite a perfect analogy. Many of the actions taken Dishonored (the game to which he refers in the quote) are perfectly diegetic to the story – for instance, walking ; conversely, many (if not most, or perhaps even all)  of the actions taken in dys4ia are highly symbolic. Instead, he is referring to the classical use of diegesis, and is advocating a reversal of the general advice “show, don’t tell.” In film and literature, the advice means this: instead of simply telling us that the character is upset, show them being upset. In videogames, our reversal is this: instead of showing us through their action that the character is upset, make the player upset by making them take those actions.

This, indeed, was Anna Anthropy’s stated intention. The gameplay is intended to evoke, intrinsically, the feelings associated with her own experience. Given this information, it seems fruitful to examine how this has contributed to the game’s artistic success, and, sadly, where the concept seems to have been overlooked.

The game, if you have belligerently declined to play it, is comprised of four levels, each of which is comprised of many screens, which (apparently in the style of WarioWare, which I have never played) each have their own extremely simple gameplay mechanics, and illustrate vignettes from her process of deciding to go on hormone therapy to finally beginning to feel at home in her body. In regards to procedural diegesis, these vignettes can be broken roughly into three categories:

  • those which embrace the concept of procedural diegesis, and meaningfully evoke a certain experience; e.g. the shape trying to fit through the brick wall, trying to put on the tight shirt
  • those which are neutral or agnostic towards procedural diegesis, which require minimal player interaction, are quite short, and let some other aspect of the content take over; e.g. controlling the sun to disperse the clouds over the word “hormones”, controlling the butterfly at the end
  • those which seem entirely to ignore the ideas of procedural diegesis, which require substantial (relatively) control from the player but do not meaningfully evoke experiences; e.g. controlling the razor blade, swallowing the pills ejected from the moving pill bottle

The vignettes from the second category are nice touches; they serve to provide procedural and emotional variety in the game, the equivalent, perhaps, of comic relief. We will not examine them closely here. We will instead focus on the resounding success of the first category, and the disappointments of the third category.

The first level, “Gender Bullshit”, has three strong vignettes from the first category. Attempting navigate the hole in the wall, attempting to pull on the tight shirt, and stealthing through the women’s restroom are excellent examples of procedural diegesis in action. Whenever I hit the shirt scene, my first instinct is to press the down button as often as I can, in an ever more fervent attempt to put on the shirt; of course, it is a fruitless effort. In the bathroom, too, you can sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, and this is a perfect demonstration of how going to bathroom felt like a crapshoot.

It also has two vignettes from the third category. The first may seem at first as though it is from the second; I refer to the walk home, which takes you past three persons who fail to call you ma’am. Our heroine meekly corrects them, seemingly to no avail. While I might argue it would be more effective to let the player deploy the “ma’am” balloons at will, and watch them disappear or pile-up futilely on the ground, it hardly seems a point against it that it does not do this. But I will later explain why I feel this belongs in the third category. The second vignette from the third category is the shaving scene: it claims that “shaving is humiliating” (which, no doubt, it absolutely was), but it does not provide the player with this humiliation. Perhaps, instead of the shaving sound effect, the sound of children’s laughter played instead; or perhaps the hair regrew immediately after being shaved away. These are merely possibilities; any number of decisions might lead to the shaving sequence being more representative of the experience than it currently is; suffice it so say, the shaving sequence did not feel even remotely humiliating, though nicking yourself at the end is a nice touch.

The second level has one of my favorite first-category moments: the waiting room at the clinic. Here, the players moves the character around, striving for something to do. The counter on the wall clicks impassively down. The player finds themself anxious to continue playing the game, but it won’t let them! The player is impatient! Hurry up, let me through! Then, one hopes, the player realizes what it must be like to wait for this appointment. How brilliant!

However, it also contains a segment in which I think the game most missed the mark – when the player moves their mouth (with some kind of horribly-deformed bottom-lip?) to catch pills coming from a moving pill bottle. If this segment is meant to convey that it was difficult to take the pills, that reading is never reinforced (as one would expect it to be, given the rest of the game) through monologue. Instead, this segment seems to come off as padding, as some apologetic justification of its status as game. Far from being diegetic, this procedure seems to come off as entirely unaware of its context in the narrative, perhaps even counter to it.

The most effective use of procedural diegesis comes in the form of contrast: replaying similarly-structured in vignettes in a post-hormone avatar. The third level exploit this expertly: the last time you tried to walk home is contrasted with a new vignette in which reaching your house becomes a chore as the avatar’s walking speed is logarithmically reduced, and the nipple-minefield, effective on its own, sets us up for the second-best contrast in the game.

Then we have the triumphant final level: in which the minor annoyances of the first three are put into perspective by the joy of the fourth. The hair on your chest is gone, though you can still drive the razor around; the hair on your lip is still there, but you don’t nick yourself while shaving. Remember that brick wall you couldn’t fit through? Make your own hole with the breakout vignette! These and many other contrasts are the most powerful forces in the game.

Surely the most triumphant moment of the narrative comes when our heroine blows away a hapless strangers with an enormous pink “MA’AM” balloon. This is an effective contrast with the situation earlier; it is remarkably simple, yet speaks volumes; and it is utterly surprising, humorous, and poignant. But here, indeed, seems to be a major failing to take advantage of procedural diegesis. As the player was not in control of the ma’am balloons, they seem to come not from the player, but from the game. Deploying the balloon is not one of the player’s procedures. Controlling only our heroine’s movement, the player here, instead of feeling the triumph of her newfound confidence, watches like a Homunculus in her head. The moment, as I have stated, is profound and effective. And it uses its videogame heritage well; the concepts of ballistic word-balloons would not feel at home in another medium, but this effectiveness is skin-deep. Had it been in a very special episode of Code Monkeys (and indeed, were it to be of anywhere near this caliber of narrative, it would have needed to be a very special episode of Code Monkeys), it is likely we would have perceived the triumph of this balloon the same. To actually feel with Anthropy in this triumph – undoubtedly the very climax of the narrative – we would have needed to control the fire button.

This may seem like nit-picking. You may ask me to leave well-enough alone and trumpet the game for its successes, which, I would agree, far outweigh its shortcomings. But as Steve Wilcox claims, in his FPS article, that this game embodies procedural diegesis, it seems relevant to demonstrate where it does and where it does not – and when and why this is important. I am the first to present dys4ia as a game whose example should be followed – and as such, I am specifying which example, exactly, I believe that is.

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What is the most important thing to know about designing videogames? This is kind of an unreasonable question to ask; and yet I wanted an answer for my first post. Luckily, I found it in a quote from Blendo Games, in their informative and delightful devblog on their upcoming title Quadrilateral Cowboy.

The specific post is mildly technical, but the quote in question is quite an artistic statement:

Players have a finite amount of time and energy for you. Everything that goes into the project has to answer one question: is it respecting the player’s goodwill or squandering it?

This is, I think, a phenomenal point-of-view to have — not just as a game designer, but as an artist in general. There is a viewpoint among both game designers and many fine artists (and auteurs, &c) that they will make the product they want and they care nothing for their dirty public. This is laudable; but it is possible to make something accessible without compromising your artistic integrity. An artist is nothing without their audience; one can still challenge one’s audience in many ways without squandering their goodwill.

First, I encourage you to take up this optional sidequest about pacing and goodwill in cinema:

Optional sidequest unlocked! Read about how goodwill affects pacing in cinema for more XP!

Now, let us focus on two genres of video games, and how their very form generated trends in goodwill.

First I will discuss a genre that tends to fail to respect its audience’s goodwill; and it pains me to say it, for it was in this genre that I first truly fell in love with playing (and later, making) videogames. I speak of PC gaming’s first great school: the adventure game. (Although I will speak of graphical adventure games, many of these blanket statements also often apply to the genre’s forebears in interactive fiction, a genre which I love even more dearly). Games like The Secret of Monkey Island, King’s Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and their ilk will warm the cockles of a veteran gamer’s heart. The richness of the point-and-click interface and the increased storage capacity made the PC an ideal platform for these graphically rich, story-based games, and served as an early contrast to the console-based platformers that were their most prolific contemporaries (with certain major exceptions in the forms of JRPGs). The demand for immersive storyworlds and rich interaction kept the adventure industry alive. But let’s face facts: these games hated us.

Adventure games were a combination of two appeals: imaginative stories and logical puzzles. People liked to use their brains to advance the game, and they liked to hear interesting stories. As conflict drives narrative, and puzzles were a form of conflict, the marriage seemed perfect and symbiotic. To an extent, it was. But adventure games had (and those that are still made, still have) a major flaw, almost inherent to the genre. Inevitably, more or fewer puzzles would be opaque to a player. In the days before widespread internet use (and limited discretionary income for alternative games), this often meant spending entire play sessions of many hours walking back and forth through the available rooms, talking to every NPC, and combining every inventory item in frustration. As soon as the internet became popular, an entire cottage industry was born in providing the solutions to nasty puzzles. When a player is enjoying their story and a puzzle comes along they can’t figure out, this squanders their goodwill.

Some have argued that this is a feature, not a bug, of the genre; adventure game veteran and DoubleFine founder Tim Schafer said that he missed spending weeks on a specific puzzle, only to have it come to him in a moment of euphoric epiphany. This speaks, I think, more for Mr. Schafer’s tenacity than the power of the adventure game. Many people do truly enjoy the challenge of an intellectual puzzle, and that is not in question. The great failing of the graphical adventures was that their puzzles were frequently arbitrary. Instead of training the player towards increasingly difficult but similar challenges, the “logical” puzzles of adventures would, in many-to-most cases, attempt to emulate reality. The thinking is that since the puzzle might present itself in the real world, the solution from the real world could be applied. But of course every real-world problem was multiple solutions, and multiple solutions is so rare a feature in video games it’s often featured on the box! Without a structure to their puzzles, the learning curve of any arbitrary adventure game was thrown out of whack. This squandered the player’s good will.

Meanwhile, as LucasArts was confidently twiddling their thumbs, packing all the bits into their color palette and getting Steven Spielberg involved in projects, id Studios programmer John Carmack was set to revolutionize gaming and set its tone to this very day. Carmack, in developing the famous Wolfenstein 3D engine, practically invented first-person real-time gaming. The importance of this for gaming at large and this discussion in particular cannot be understated. First-person shooters, as they came to be known when they became too prolific for “Doom Clone” to be clever or accurate, presented an entirely new challenge and, as rudimentary as it may have seemed at the time, an entirely new way to tell a story in a video game. Games as early as Duke Nukem 3D were experimenting with in-depth (ha!) character development, and games like Blood were taking mise-en-scene in gaming to a whole new level. There was a new to tell a story, and though its provisions for interacting with characters were weak, it was far stronger at making the character feel a part of the story. But that alone was not enough to unseat the throne of adventure gaming. The new challenge brought about by id’s revolution, curiously believed to be inherently violent, is the reflex-test embodied in emulated shooting. This challenge could be made to have a learning curve, just  like the console’s JRPGs and platformers. Almost any gamer could start playing a first-person-shooter and feel like they were making progress, like they were succeeding. Players did not have to invest hours in single puzzles; players did not have to consult online guides to complete the game; this was now rare. Widespread success was the norm. You might call it instant gratification, with the sting of bitterness in your tongue, but the truth is that gamers were having their goodwill respected.

That, I think, is the real reason FPSes overtook adventures as the primary export of video-game-land to PCdonia. Gamers no longer had to feel like they were fighting the games they were playing. Now the games were playing along. Even non-violent, story-focused, puzzle-based games like the Portal franchise have enjoyed critical acclaim and mainstream success because their challenges are sufficiently structured to be fit onto a learning curve. The marriage of immersion and goodwill was the secret to the FPS’s success, not violence.

So when you’re working on your game project, or indeed your film or your novel or your avant-garde song, if you seek popularity as well as acclaim (and who among does not wish for it at some level?), then ask yourself this question: Am I respecting my audience’s goodwill, or squandering it?

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