For its short life, this blog has focused on how the experienced play of a game does more to create a meaningful player narrative than a fictional narrative used to frame otherwise meaningless play. Papers Please succeeds only because the experience of playing the game accurately reflects the experience of the player’s avatar in game. The Stanley Parable made the paradox of player choice and agency its sole mechanic to better serve its thematic exploration of player choice and agency. Dark Souls leads players on a Joseph Campbell style hero’s journey, but it’s the gruelling gameplay that players must overcome that powers its feeling of heroic accomplishment.
These are all examples of games where the Ludological elements (gameplay mechanics) and narrative elements are in sync. That makes sense. But what about when these two elements conflict?
Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed: Freedom Cry is set in the 18th century Caribbean, full of pirates and slave plantations. The game involves the player freeing slaves. The narrative explanation for what happens to them afterward is that they go to live in settlements with other escaped slaves; however, the player is rewarded in mechanical terms for freeing slaves. Slaves to be freed can be found only in a set amount in predetermined locations. This mirrors any number of other optional collectables left for players to gather around the game-world. In gameplay terms, these slaves are just another collectable trinket, a commodity that nets rewards when diligently collected.
In terms of narrative, players are liberating people from being commodities, but in terms of gameplay, they’re just participating in a meta-commodity economy. So what do we make of that?
While Demon’s Souls (2009) served as a proof of concept for a new genre of RPG, it was From Software’s spiritual sequel Dark Souls (2011) that established the Souls brand and the Souls-like subgenre of RPGs. As the name may have given away though, the defining features of the “Souls-like” genre is based on similarity to the From Software Souls games. The term is as nebulous as the rogue-like genre, based on Rogue (1988), and while there are certain specific mechanical similarities players of souls-like games expect, the genre is rather defined by how these mechanics come together to create a specific emotional arc of player experience.
So what is it that defines a Souls game; what is the soul of a souls-like? The first word you’ll hear from ten thousand mouths is difficulty—Souls games have a reputation for being extremely punishing or difficult. Players tend to be fragile and often have limited means to defend against attacks that can kill them in a single hit. Sometimes enemies are hidden around corners or positioned to fatally ambush players. As a result, the Dark Souls lived up to its “Prepare to Die” advertising tagline. However, that isn’t to say that the difficulty isn’t fair.
There is a palpable sense of fair play in all Souls games. Death is handled in a very particular way in Souls-like games. Many games require players to start over from a previous save when they die. Death is considered a failure state in the game. In a souls-like, death is little more than a setback. Players are returned to the last bonfire they rested at (a form of checkpoint) with all of their equipment and possessions. They don’t get to keep the treasure/currency they collected from the enemies they killed before dying. In order to get those resources back, the player must return to the location the last died and recover the treasure from their own bloodstain. All the enemies they fought are reset to their original locations. So enemies are extremely powerful, but their attacks are limited and predictable. Players frequently die in ambushes, but they’ll be ready for them when they come back for their bloodstain.
So the play loop consists of slowly dying your way through the level, slowly learning its layout and learning how to survive its monsters. Each failure, each death, is a learning experience. It places players back a few steps and says, “try again.” The only way to lose a Souls-like is stop playing. This makes up the core emotional loop in playing a Souls-like game, however, they further elaborate on this loop by distilling a version of these loops into concentrated forms with boss fights.
Boss fights in a souls-like are defined by the same features as the rest of the game, but bigger, unique, and more powerful. Players must learn the behavior of each boss enemy, their attack patterns, how they telegraph certain attacks, when to time dodges, and generally how to defeat them… usually while dying over and over again. This is the same process of dying over and over before overcoming a significantly more powerful foe.
These are the mechanical features of a souls-like, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s more important to the genre what effect these features have on player experience. What is that effect? Players with the determination to navigate to the end of an area and defeat the boss enemy there, they’re left with a massive sense of accomplishment. They managed to make it to this point alone, unaided except by their own wit, grit, and fast reflexes.
This sense of accomplishment is especially heightened by the fantastic nature and scale of boss enemies. The game rewards persistence and simple memorization, even if players aren’t particularly skilled. Remember that souls-likes are a subgenre of the RPG, the Role Playing Game. This emotional loop rewarding persistence with the feeling of accomplishment is perfectly situated by From Software’s minimalistic story in Dark Souls. The player character is a hero fulfilling an ancient prophecy—so the gameplay should make the player go through the emotional journey of becoming that hero. And it does through the sense of accomplishment, finally succeeding where no mortal could have.
Perhaps the genius of this move in Dark Souls specifically, however, is that while the game does not technically punish the player for abandoning it (leaving it unbeaten, and reaching the closest thing to a lose state) it does contextualize that player choice in the world of the videogame. The reason the player can be killed over and over again without serious issue is because they are undead—which is nothing special because everyone in the world is cursed with being undead. All of the otherwise ordinary fantasy heroes the player meets in game are undead too. The undead flock to the game’s setting in the hope that they are the “chosen undead.” But the undead characters are always talking about “hollowing.” While the undead cannot truly die, they can still “give up” and go hollow. They let go of everything that made them motivated, caring, rational beings with identities. They warn the player repeatedly not to “go hollow” on them. The player even gets to see some of these characters go hollow themselves, slowly losing hope in their various personal quests. The implication seems to be that if they player does abandon the game, their player-character simply went hollow like so many other unfortunate undead.
We like to think that we are the ones who dictate the way we play a game, and to a certain extent there’s truth in this. However, just because there’s some truth to this doesn’t make the sentiment true. Indeed, the things which make the greatest impact on how we play games are the rules of those very games themselves.
Unless we’re actively deciding to play a game in a particular way, players will try to find a way to achieve the ends they seek within a game’s context. Where one game may reward a particular behaviour or attention to detail, that same behaviour can be punished in another game. These could be things like encouraging/discouraging players from exploring the environment, or giving players incentives for playing a particular way.
This is interesting, because it means that game developers are deciding how they want to make players to act. A particularly good example of this conscious manipulation can be found in interviews with the people who write the rules for HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) tournament matches. They’re constantly experimenting with different match and scoring rules in an attempt to cajole more historically accurate behaviour from tournament participants. The problem is that these fighters are looking for every way they can to game the rules and win. For example, some rulesets can reward crafty fighters for delivering afterblows in matches—this means to attack your opponent instead of defending yourself, even though your attack will hit after theirs does. So matches that follow those particular tournament rules tend to end a lot with both players being hypothetically killed.
This can even be seen in the wider combat sport scene, like in the UFC or boxing. Both of these sports have shown their impact less from a rule change, but rather from an equipment change. You see, both these combat sports were originally practiced with bare knuckles. If you look at early UFC matches, most winners tended to be grapplers rather than strikers. This is no longer true today, but how can this be chalked up to gloves?
The short answer is simply that you can’t punch somebody as hard when you have to worry about shattering your fist. The introduction of light padded gloves was enough to allow strikers to throw punches hard enough to consistently and safely achieve KOs. The introduction of lightweight padded gloves meant that strikers now had an effective way to win with the UFC scoring rules.
In boxing the gloves grew even bigger and heavier, drastically increasing the chances of concussion and TBI. In addition to making the sport more dangerous, it also heavily changed the way boxing was practiced. Post-Queensbury boxing guards are higher and tighter because of the added bulk of the gloves—they allow the boxer to shield their face far more easily with their hands. Bare-knuckle guards instead are lower and more extended in order to achieve an effective defence.
But the really interesting thing is that in the realm of video games, these rules players will try to game can become increasingly strange or obscure. Quake and other early Id Software arena shooter games accidentally created the tactic of “rocket-jumping.” Developers had no idea players would try to use explosion splash damage to help propel their jumps further and higher… But players did. The same can be said for the equally iconic emergent mechanic of bunny-hopping—due to a physics programming oversight, players could repeatedly jump during movement to bypass their movement speed limits and gain an advantage over players who didn’t know how to “bunny-hop.” Sometimes these sorts of accidental oversights became features, like in the case of skiing in the Tribes games.
So the next time you’re playing a game, think about how it might be programming your behavior, intentionally or not. How do these systems want you to interact with them? How does the game want you to approach the situations it presents you with?
Player choice is one of the most frequently cited aspects of value to the videogame medium. Since interactivity is the core component to any game, developers and players have been fascinated with making the choices players make interesting and meaningful. Often this can take the form of a branching storyline or multiple ways of completing game objectives. But how do successful developers actually create compelling choices for players to make?
For a long time, branching stories generally involved just two separate endings, based on a binary choice or series of binary choices. For example, Bioshock offered players a Good and Evil ending based on how they chose to deal with “little sisters” in game. The problem with Bioshock, however, isn’t even that its storytelling is simplistic (either ending feels didactic), but rather that the choices that accumulate to either ending are barely meaningful in terms of the actual gameplay for the player. Most of Bioshock’s play mechanics deal with exploring and fighting in the game. That is the primary way the player interacts with the game. The “little sister” choice mechanic is a secondary feature—in fact it’s actually tertiary, since it simply feeds into a secondary player resource economy—and the difference between the two player options is minimal anyway (besides the endings).
The Stanley Parable is perhaps one of the best examples of a branching story done well. Perhaps this is in part because it’s a work of experimental meta-fiction. Players are the eponymous Stanley, whose actions are narrated by a particularly British narrator. Player interaction with the game consists solely in obeying or disobeying the narrator in a series of binary choices. There are no other choices or considerations for the player to make, except whether they wish to comply with the narrator. These binary choices branch the game’s progress repeatedly, crossing and connecting at times so that the narrative can diverge or converge to certain scenes and moments across multiple different play-throughs. Many endings are unique, and specific to a particular path through the game.
Because of this, player choices have weight and meaning. Disobeying the narrator can lead to the reward of a new, original and probably funny scene with the narrator, and players are encouraged to try new combinations of choices to try and reach every ending. Players’ sense of discovery is rewarded by the only content the game has. There’s no getting distracted by other aspects or rules of gameplay—it’s a game all about players asking, “I wondering if the developers accounted for me doing this? Did they write a special piece of content just in case a player did this unlikely thing?”
To illustrate just how large of an impact player choice has in affecting The Stanley Parable’s storyline, here is a flowchart illustrating every single possible permutation of playing through the game.
At its heart, play is participating in an imagined reality. The key word is participating—this is what separates play from reading a book or watching a film. The player participates in the play of a game, while the reader or voyeur passively watches. However what I’m talking about is distinct in some degree from any narrative a game may try to spin—in truth, this is the reason games can achieve a powerful effect while remaining narratively minimal.
Papers Please by Lucas Pope is a perfect example of this approach. The game takes place in an imaginary totalitarian state, with the player taking the role of a newly appointed immigration officer. Beyond that are a few narrative branches and ornaments, but much of the story progression is driven for gameplay design. Besides the newspaper headlines suggesting the new level’s developments, content resembling a story is a reward for playing the game.
So what does the gameplay consist of?
Checking immigration papers and stamping passports, doing the bureaucratic legwork of checking papers and denying entry to anybody who doesn’t check out. After a series of terrorist attacks, duties expand to scanning immigrants for contraband and detaining suspicious individuals… All from the desk of your kiosk at the border.
Players are punished by the game for working slowly or imprecisely because they are paid for each person they correctly process in a day. Their pay is docked for granting immigration to people whose papers don’t check out, and as the head of a household in a poor totalitarian state like fictional Arstotzka? It means you have to work as fast as you can to make ends meet.
One can easily joke that Papers Please is a bureaucrat simulator or an immigrations officer simulator, and in part they’re right. However it ignores the harsh conditions the player must experience and endure to win, or at least complete the game. Nor does it consider the general art style of the game.
Personally, I think playing Papers Please gives players a good idea of what it must have felt like to drive from West Germany to West Berlin before the Iron Curtain fell, for both the people travelling and the border agents. If you were making the drive, there was a period where the car was in East Germany. This period was highly monitored—you drove a particular vehicle (provided by the DDR) with proscribed directions. These included not just the route, but also how fast you drove each portion. They even timed out the whole trip with a number of checkpoints. When you arrived at the West Berlin border, they’d make a point of checking the odometer (knowing the correct reading). If you didn’t check out, you’d get detained.
The game asks your frantic eyes to flit across papers, sometimes filed in triplicate. Any inconsistencies? Does their story check out? Next. Next. Next. And by the end of the day when it’s all tallied up? You’re either wishing you hadn’t spent so much time double checking, or you’re wishing you had. So this time there’s not enough money for food.
If we strip the game to its basic mechanics, it’s a round based game of match as many as you can for points to advance to more complex levels. Each level has a steep point cost to advance, but players can pay below that cost for a short time. That’s all there is to this game, its play mechanics and punishing difficulty are what generate the play feeling that drive its visual and narrative themes. A stressful matching game dresses up in symbols that recall Soviet Russia and 1984 to resemble a kind of experience someone might have had—an imagined possibility.
“Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” —Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man
When we think of play and games we do not think about the outside world, our happening societies and bustling metropolises. Games are an escape from the reality of the work and personal stress of our lives. The whole point of games is that they exist in a realm outside of “real life.” Right?
But games are increasingly simulating regions of “real life.” This is obvious in the realm of narrative-driven video games—they can be seen as a new medium of fiction. There we expect an author to have hidden some message for the player if the story is deep enough to warrant it. Where somebody is actively telling a story, we expect a worldview.
Yet even a game stripped of any narrative element has a worldview hidden in the mechanical medium of gameplay. Even card games and board games have a worldview. Stop and consider what Monopoly tells us about business and real estate. While everyone may start equal, random chance quickly sorts out who gets the lucrative deals and who’s stuck with poor properties.
Although Tarot cards are now famous for their fortune telling tricks, they were originally playing cards. People played regional variations of the same game, tarot or tarrock or tarocco, all over Renaissance Europe. So what did the gameplay look like? Face cards like kings and queens duking it out to collect all the other cards, while trump cards named Death, the Pope, the Emperor, the Wheel of Fortune disrupt their plays. Hmm… that sounds a little like 15th century Italian history… which also happens to be when and where Tarot was invented.
You see, games bear the impression of the time and perspective they were created in. More often than not, game mechanics represent a perception of actual “real life” processes, even if only as an abstraction of those processes. Whether these gameplay mechanics accurately represent the processes they depict is only partially interesting. Let’s also ask, what do they suggest about the perspective of the development team behind the game? And what about how players interact with these mechanics, like when they try to game the rules?
This blog wants to dig into these questions and explore them using examples from real life. Can a game with a progressive narrative undermine its message with contradictory gameplay? How does a game simulate an experience using abstract mechanics? What makes Crusader Kings 2 players widely commit in-game fratricide, incest, and ethnic cleansing? And what does the answer to that question tell us about this portrayal of the medieval world?
One part game analysis and one part cultural criticism, this blog is aimed at people who are willing to temporarily abandon the idea that the play of a game happens within a magic circle where nothing is real—people who are interested in games from a cultural standpoint and as an interactive art medium.
My approach is similar to Youtubers like Errant Signal or Noah Caldwell-Gervais. Though Errant Signal does have a blog, I’ve linked to his Youtube page as well, because the blog is out of date by nearly a year.