“What Is It Like to Be a Gamer?” A speech on the value of video games.

Regular visitors of With a Terrible Fate may recall that, last February, I delivered a speech as part of the Lowell House Speech Series at Harvard University. In it, I discussed my decision to pursue the study of video game philosophy instead of medicine. This year, on 1.26.16, I delivered another speech as part of that same Speech Series; in it, I discuss why video games are worth playing and studying at any age.

I offer the transcript below, in full:

What are video games good for? I study the stories of video games, so I worry about that question a lot. I want to share one way I think the special stories of video games, and the way we engage them, teach gamers to learn from one another.

We often try to communicate with one another by referencing our experiences. We argue about aspects of society that offend us; we talk about aspects of our identities that other people lack direct knowledge of – if you are a woman and feel that your employer treats female employees worse than men, you might want me to understand what that is like, although I am a man. We want to convey to others what it is like to be us – but how can we, when others have no way of standing in our shoes?

Video games can help us share who we are. Let me explain why.

When I was in high school, I played a little-known video game called “Nier.” The game tells the story of a man, Nier, who will stop at nothing to save his daughter, Yonah, from a deadly plague. The emotional depth and complexity of this game were what first motivated me to study and analyze video games in school. If you haven’t yet, you owe it to yourself to play it some day.

At the same time that I dove into analyzing Nier, I also felt compelled to share the game with two of my closest high school friends, Dan and Nate. Just as I wanted everyone I knew to read The Catcher in the Rye after I first encountered the classic in middle school, I now wanted Dan and Nate to experience this game. One after the other, I passed my copy of the game along to Dan and then Nate in the hall between classes.

But when I spoke with them both after they handed the game back to me, I discovered something I hadn’t expected: although they had played the same game as I had, we each made different choices in the game—something that couldn’t have happened if we’d all seen the same movie or read the same book. I had focused on exploring the secrets of the game’s world, digging through virtual basements for classified government records to learn what had caused the apocalypse. Dan focused instead on exploring the relationship between Nier—the player’s character—and Yonah. He completed quests collecting food for Yonah, and she surprised him by making him a cake to thank him. Nate found the desolate wasteland of the game depressing, so he completed it once and moved on.

As I discussed Nier with my friends over lunches and in between classes, I learned about my friends and myself through the choices that we each made. We talked about how a single story prompted us to act differently from one another, and we accounted for our actions. Through these conversations, I learned how much Dan valued the intimacy fathers share with their daughters; I learned that Nate wanted to be excited about the environments of video game worlds, so that he could jump at the opportunity to explore them. Through these conversations, I began to articulate to my friends my desire to unravel mysteries.

Video games allow players to share their experiences with one another by grounding them in a common story. Games invite players to enter a single world, chart their own course through it, and compare their journeys with their friends. By giving us a special position in an artistic world, our choices become part of the work of art—something we can discuss and make meaning out of with others.

When I think about video games’ practical value, I always reflect on the degree to which they can unify people and allow them to understand and share their way of being. This invitation to share ourselves with others is the hidden utility of the engaging, epic stories waiting in the many worlds of video games.

But be warned, it can take a lot of work to get to know someone else—so you may just need to spend many hours playing video games.

Why Booker’s Name is a Red Herring in Understanding BioShock Infinite

When I first played BioShock Infinite, I appreciated the game, but I refrained from analyzing it because it seemed like a game already buried in analyses and discussion. After all, one can hardly finish the game without wanting to analyze it in one way or another. Now, however, I want to offer readers my own discussion of the game, offering an argument that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been advanced elsewhere yet. I want to show you why you, the player, are a crucial element to understanding the narrative of the game, and why your avatar’s name leads you astray from this understanding. Ultimately, I hope to convince you that this makes BioShock Infinite one of the most cohesive and well-crafted works of modern science fiction.

(Be warned: a “spoiler alert” is in effect for the duration of this analysis. The argument probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve played the entire game, anyway.)

In order to do the game justice in this analysis, we’re going to have to start by putting two theories of quantum mechanics on the table: one called the ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, and another called ‘Many-Worlds’ quantum mechanics. If you’re already familiar with these theories, then feel free to skip the first two sections of the article.

 

A Review of Quantum Mechanics

The Double-Slit Experiment

A huge amount of today’s science fiction tosses around terms like ‘quantum physics’, ‘multiverse theory’, and so on. My contention is that BioShock Infinite succeeds in using actual quantum mechanical theory in developing an impactful and innovative narrative. To see why, we need to explore the bizarre ways in which small particles behave, and how people have tried to make sense of this behavior.[1]

Let’s suppose that we’re shooting small particles—say, electrons—from some device in the direction of a wall. Between the shooting device and the wall is another wall, with two slits in it, so that electrons can only hit the back wall by passing through one of the two slits. The dimensions of the experimental setup are such that there is a chance of the shooting device aiming the electron through either one of the slits, and the back wall has a way of recording precisely where electrons collide with it. Unsurprisingly, this is known as “the double-slit experiment.”[2]

If the electrons behaved like small particles—i.e. small discrete packets of matter, like tiny bullets fired from a gun—then we would expect to observe two discrete bands on back wall, each one corresponding with electrons that went passed through one of the slits on a straight path and collided with the back wall.

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Electrons are fired from a device on the left. Our intuition tells us that each electron will pass through either one slit or the other, resulting in two lines on the back wall (pictured on the right).

But when we run the experiment and then examine the back wall, we don’t see two discrete bands: instead, we see a variety of symmetrical bands, consistent with the idea that electrons are behaving like waves instead of particles: the wave-like electron passes through both slits, interferes with itself, and leaves the distinctive pattern on the back wall.[3] (If you think of each electron like a ripple in a pond, emanating from the shooting device, then you’ll have the right idea as to what this behavior is like.)

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Electrons, illustrated as horizontal waves, pass from the left through both slits at once, interfere with themselves, and generate a pattern of lines on the back wall (pictured right).

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Electrons illustrated as particles, but behaving as waves, as pictured above. You can see here the difference between the actual pattern generated on the back wall and the expected pattern from the first illustration.

So it seems as if these small particles behave more like waves than they do like particles. And in fact, it turns out that we have good empirical reason to believe that the physical properties of these particles can be completely described by functions describing waves—i.e. by ‘wave functions’. This in and of itself is already bizarre: how can a single electron somehow pass through both slits, like a wave? But when we further investigate the phenomenon, things get even more bizarre.

It seems as if a single electron should only be able to pass through one of the two slits at most. So, we could investigate this strange wave-like behavior by placing a detector by the slits, measuring which electrons pass through which slit. And now things get truly strange: when we add a detector in this way, suddenly the electrons do behave like little bullets. The wave-like interference patterns disappear from the back wall, and we see two discrete bands instead.

The baffling conclusion drawn from experiments like this is that small particles behave like waves unless we are able to measure their position, in which case they behave like particles. Particles are in a “superposition” of being in many positions simultaneously (this is the wave-like behavior), until we measure them: then, they appear to determinately be in just one position (in our example, the position of going through one slit or the other)—and it turns out that quantum mechanics can give us extremely accurate probabilities describing how likely it is that we will find a given particle a particular position.[4]

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Adding a detector to the experimental setup (labeled “Recorder” in the illustration) yields the experimental results that we expected in the first place (i.e. the results in the first illustration).

How can we make sense of this? It seems like science fiction to say that measuring particles can fundamentally change how they behave—and yet this seems to be how the world really works. And even then, there is another problem: how can we make sense of the fact that we don’t observe the strange dynamics of the double-slit experiment in everyday life? As far as we know, the macroscopic physical world is made up of a (very) large number of microscopic particles, so why doesn’t the behavior of electrons lead to, say, people behaving like waves until someone else looks at them?

There is a variety of ways to resolve these questions. As I said at the outset, we will be concerned with the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, which answer the questions at hand in different ways. To understand how these interpretations relate to one another, it will be useful to reframe the exact problem that they aim to solve.

 

The Measurement Problem and Two Potential Solutions

The above quantum mechanical behavior gives us good empirical reasons to believe the following three claims, which cannot all be true at once.[5]

  1. The physical properties of systems are completely described by their corresponding wave function.
  2. Wave functions always behave like waves.[6]
  3. We always see determinate outcomes when measuring physical systems—i.e., when we measure particles, the particles are in a single position, not wave-like superpositions.[7]

The problem that these empirically plausible three claims cannot all be true is called ‘the measurement problem’. If physical systems are all and only waves, then it makes no sense that that they sometimes act like particles instead of waves.

Various interpretations of quantum mechanics aim to resolve the measurement problem by rejecting the truth of one of the above three claims. I will explain, roughly, how the Copenhagen interpretation rejects Claim #2, and how Many-Worlds rejects Claim #3.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is what most textbooks endorse. It is the view that wave functions sometimes don’t behave like waves—i.e. Claim #2 is not true. Instead, whenever we measure a physical system, its wave function undergoes a “collapse,” resolving its bizarre wave-like superpositions into determinate, singular positions—and which positions the system ends up in are determined probabilistically. So, in the double-slit experiment, when we add the detector to the experiment, there is a 50% probability that a given electron will “collapse” to passing through Slit #1, and a 50% probability that the electron will collapse to passing through Slit #2. And according to Copenhagen, that is all we can say: there is no experimental data available to explain anything about why collapse is something that happens.

Many-Worlds, in contrast, rejects the notion that particles stop behaving like waves when we measure them—i.e. it rejects Claim #3. Instead, it says, we also start behaving like waves when we measure the system. Return to the double-slit experiment. There are two possible definite outcomes to the experiment: either the electron in question passes through Slit #1, or it passes through Slit #2. According to Many-Worlds, when we measure the particle, the particle does not “collapse.” Instead, reality “splits” into two realities: one in which we observe the electron passing through Slit #1, and one in which we observe it passing through Slit #2. Physical systems, on this view, never stop acting like waves: reality just splits at every measurement event, such that every possible outcome is represented in some reality. We never notice this weird wave-nature of the world because we only ever experience one branch of reality at a time.[8] The whole universe, in other words, is wave-like. It is crucial to note that all of these realities are discrete from one another, and it is theoretically impossible for them to ever overlap—if this were not the case, then the theory could not get off the ground in the first place.

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We can understand Copenhagen graphically by supposing that the universe really works the way it appears to in the double-slit experiment: measurement causes wave functions to collapse, yielding singular determinate outcomes.

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We can represent Many-Worlds graphically, in contrast, by imagining the entire universe as the wave-model of the double-slit experiment. The universe’s evolving wave function leads to a proliferation of realities at each measurement event.

We now have a rough idea of two theories explaining the bizarre quantum behavior of the universe. It is time to see how these theories relate to BioShock Infinite.

 

Booker DeWitt as a Red Herring

With an understanding of Copenhagen and Many-Worlds in hand, I want to show you why Booker, the avatar and main character of BioShock Infinite, is a red herring in understanding the dynamics of the game’s narrative. I will then show what we gain by moving beyond this red herring and understanding the player as crucial to the game’s narrative.

One thing I neglected to mention above was the history of Many-Worlds as a theory. In 1957, Hugh Everett developed the foundational work that made it possible; however, Many-Worlds itself did not come along until another theorist interpreted Everett’s work as describing a multiplicity of realities. That man’s name was Bryce DeWitt.

Elizabeth Opening a Tear

When you’re dropped into a game whose narrative centers on multiple realities, and your avatar is named Booker DeWitt, it should now seem obvious that there’s homage to Many-Worlds at work. I’m nowhere near the first to notice this, to say nothing of the fact that BioShock creator Ken Levine has confirmed it in interviews. So I initially imagined that BioShock Infinite was just very smart, creative science fiction: it’s a period piece in the sense that everything, including the intellectual history, is set in 1912 (this was when the first discoveries in quantum mechanics were happening), and it explores what the universe would be like if Many-Worlds were true and various realities could somehow bleed together.

Of course, there’s a problem with this understanding of the game: as I noted above, it must be the case that each and every reality is non-overlapping in order for Many-Worlds to get off the ground in the first place. If the realities could interact, then the theory could not be tractable at all. So if we look at BioShock Infinite in this way, then we have to accept that its science fiction, period-piece accurate though it may be, is much more fiction than science—and it becomes obvious why it is so difficult to make sense of sequences of events and causation between different realities. I would go so far as to say that the game, in this context, ends up being more fantasy than science fiction.

However, I realized that there’s another way to view the dynamics of the game’s science that makes its science fiction much more science than fiction—it just requires moving beyond Booker’s last name, and recognizing the role of the player in the game’s story.

 

Collapse in Video Games

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate will be familiar with my argument that we often need to recognize the player of a video game as an element of the game’s narrative in order to adequately understand the game. I originally called this thesis the ‘Majoran Critique’ because I first discussed it in my analyses of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask; I later argued that we also need this thesis to make sense of Xenoblade Chronicles, because the player’s agency is the only way to make sense of the main character killing an omniscient god. Once we apply this thesis to BioShock Infinite, we can see that the Copenhagen interpretation is actually just as relevant to the game as Many-Worlds is—and this reformulation of the game renders it one of the most cohesive and well-crafted works of modern science fiction.

What would happen to the universe if someone observed it from the outside? In our own world, from a scientific perspective, this is practically a nonsense question: if we conceive of the universe as all time and space, then it doesn’t seem as if anything can be meaningfully “outside” of it. But we can easily explore this sort of question in video games, because video games present discrete worlds and universes—the player looks on these worlds and engages them from the outside. The world of a game is confined to a computer system, which the player can engage and influence. And so they present an opportunity to talk meaningfully about someone observing a universe.

If we think of the player as an observer of the universe of a video game, then we can think of the video game’s universe as analogous to the double-slit experiment: the contents of the universe are in superposition of many different outcomes until the player engages the game, thereby “measuring” the system. And when measurement happens, we have the same choice of theories by which to make sense of what happens.

I think that a standard Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is especially useful for making sense of video games as a medium in this regard. This is a useful interpretation to choose because it reflects how players actually engage video games. Prior to player input, the worlds of video games are mere potentialities, a variety of disparate outcomes encoded by the game’s program; but when the player engages the game “from the outside,” a single, determinate series of events emerges as output, which the player observes as the game’s narrative. Out of superposed potentials, one coherent world emerges—a phenomenon very similar to collapse. Of course, there are obvious differences between this phenomenon and collapse—in particular, it is not clear how probabilities figure into the engagement of players with video games—but for aesthetic purposes, this is sufficient to make video games a uniquely well-suited medium for quantum-mechanical science fiction. This, we will see, is the grounding for why BioShock Infinite is a remarkable work of art.

 

Understanding BioShock Infinite as a Metaphor for Collapse

BioShock Infinite’s story is difficult to understand because, as Ken Levine himself has noted in an interview with Forbes, “Our brains are not really designed to understand [quantum mechanics], and even having gone through a game where I’ve researched this […] it’s still something that challenges your brain in a way that few scientific notions can.” The story is derived from a conflict between Booker DeWitt and Zachary Hale Comstock, two different versions of Booker derived from whether or not Booker chose to be baptized in a quest for redemption for his actions at The Battle of Wounded Knee; using technology that allows for communication and travel between realities (developed by the Luteces), various versions of Comstock seek world domination and kidnap the daughters of various Bookers to serve as their heirs (Comstocks are sterile due to overuse of reality-traversing technologies). Ultimately, the only way for the struggle across infinite realities to end is for Booker to be annihilated at the moment of his choice to be baptized or not: Elizabeth, his/Comstock’s daughter with the capacity to traverse realities, drowns him in the baptismal waters, effectively preventing him from bifurcating into infinite Bookers and infinite Comstocks. After Booker drowns and the game’s credits roll, a scene plays of Booker waking up in his office in 1893, calling out to Anna (his daughter), and walking into a room with a crib before the screen fades to black.

Elizabeth and the Sea of Doors

There are myriad problems with understanding the whole of this narrative in a purely Many-Worlds context. First, as I mentioned earlier, the very notion of disjunctive realities existing as a result of quantum mechanics can only get off the ground if those realities never overlap or intersect. But even if we allow for communication between realities, narrative issues remain. How can we make sense of the passage of time and events within a single reality if they are coextensive with time and events from another reality? And, similarly, how are we to make sense of causation in this context? It is hard to make sense of questions such as these, let alone answer them, because it is not obvious how to parse time-dependent claims when they involve the fundamental constituents of reality being modified. And this is to say nothing of the fact that, if Elizabeth was successful at the end of the game and truly annihilated Booker at the moment of potential baptism, then the entirety of the game narrative that the player just completed would never have existed. This is not to say it would have simply been “just a dream,” or an illusion—it literally would never have obtained within the game’s universe, by stipulation of the game itself. To paraphrase Levine, our brains are not designed to think about things in this way.

Booker, Comstock, and Anna

You might object that I am being obtuse and not playing the game by its own rules; it is, after all, science fiction, and you can question its scientific dynamics just as much as you can question those of any time-travel story or multiverse story. It is better, you might argue, to appreciate the tremendous artistic merit of the game’s world, characters, and story, without pressing its overall coherence. But the only point I am driving at here is that it is extremely difficult to make sense of the entirety of BioShock Infinite’s narrative if we understand it, as people typically have, in terms of Many-Worlds. Praising how much the game makes us contemplate questions of free will and choice will do nothing for us here: the problem is our basic conception of its universe, on the level of scientific law. So if there is an alternate interpretation available to us that allows us to make better sense of what is going on, then we ought at least to seriously consider the merits of that interpretation. I contend that a collapse theory is just such an alternate interpretation: in particular, I think that we ought to conceive of BioShock Infinite’s narrative as a metaphor for quantum collapse, in the Copenhagen sense of ‘collapse’.

On the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, collapse of wave functions happens when measurement occurs—and that’s all that we can say about it. But what if we could tell a story about this phenomenon? What if we put characters and events to the notion of a system being in many different positions collapsing into a single, determinate position? This would be an artistic exploration of a real, scientific process—collapse—and it would also defy our traditional notions of narrative because the scientific process being explored has yet to actually be explained. This is precisely what we see in BioShock Infinite. The player encounters a universe with many possible series of events—many possible realities—and by engaging that universe—by playing the game—the player causes the universe to collapse from a superposition of realities into a singular, determinate reality: the scene presented at the end of the game. Recall that the question of which position a system in superposition will collapse to is probabilistic. This, on my interpretation, is why the last scene is so vague as to which reality it is: the game itself reflects the fact that the final, determinate reality could be an infinite number of the prior superposed realities, and which particular reality has been made determinate is fundamentally a matter of chance. The game’s narrative, beautiful as it is, puts a story to the confused, inexplicable collapse of disjunctive, entangled realities into one determinate reality: we do not need to make sense of things like time or causation within the story because the story is a metaphor for the instantaneous annihilation of all but one component of the universe’s superposition.

This analysis allows appreciators of BioShock Infinite to engage the story while also making sense of its world’s scientific dynamics. In so doing, we can avoid the analytic pitfalls of the approach that ignores the player and instead conceives of the game’s universe using a Many-Worlds interpretation alone. But the analysis has another benefit beyond this: it allows us to see clearly a special insight that BioShock Infinite provides into the aesthetics of quantum mechanics.

Elizabeths Confront Booker

Now that we have moved beyond the red herring of Booker’s last name, it is time to return to it. There is something very Many-Worlds-esque about BioShock Infinite, although we cannot make sense of its universe using Many-Worlds alone. Until collapse happens, its universe is in a superposition of multiple, discrete realities—and this could be likened to a Many-Worlds universe. Note that we never see this universe in the game: by stipulation, this is impossible, because our engaging the game’s universe causes it to collapse. This universe would not feature an Elizabeth who crossed over realities, since each reality is discrete, but it would presumably be populated by a variety of Comstocks and Bookers in various realities. And this allows us to notice something illuminating: if we consider a universe in conjunction with an observer external to that universe, then there is a way in which we can contemplate a combination of Many-Worlds and collapse dynamics: the universe alone, in superposition, can look like a collection of disjunctive realities—but, in virtue of the outside observer, we could imagine there being collapse dynamics such that the observer causes all but one of those realities to vanish by measuring the universe. When the subject of inquiry is our actual universe, this notion makes little sense; yet BioShock Infinite shows that exploring conjunctions of quantum theories such as this is both possible and compelling in the arts.

I agree with the popular sentiment that BioShock Infinite is one of the most compelling story-based video games in recent years; I also believe that it has set a new standard for cohesive, well-crafted science fiction. By making use of the dynamics of video games as a representational art form, the game manages to take real quantum mechanical theory and philosophy as a basis for its elaborate storyline. It allows us to imagine collapse as an emotional, human experience, in which our various identities, desires, and potentials violently resolve in an instant.

Welcome to Columbia

[1] This is a simplified explanation of quantum phenomena. For a more involved introduction to the same concepts, I recommend David Z. Albert’s Quantum Mechanics and Experience (1992), or Richard’s Feynman’s “Quantum Behavior” from his Lectures on Physics (1964).

[2] A more thorough and technical discussion of the double-slit experiment can be found in Feynman, ibid.

[3] This is an oversimplification and technically wrong. It is more accurate to say that the electron passes through Slit #1, Slit #2, both slits, and neither slit, all simultaneously—but that is beyond the scope of this article.

[4] These are the probabilities given by Born’s Rule.

[5] I borrow the general structure of this formulation of the measurement problem from Tim Maudlin’s “Three Measurement Problems,” Topoi 14: 7-15, 1995. This is what Maudlin refers to as ‘the problem of outcomes’.

[6] More precisely, wave functions always obey linear dynamics.

[7] More precisely, linear dynamics are violated when we measure physical systems.

[8] Of course, if we measure something and reality splits, then versions of us exist in both resulting realities—and so it is not obvious how to parse the meaning of “we” in this sentence or in Many-Worlds more generally. The point is simply that our conscious experience, what it may ultimately amount to, seems to only ever engage one branch of reality at a time.

On Nier: Ought a Game’s World to be Fun to Explore?

As part of With a Terrible Fate‘s ongoing one-year anniversary celebration, I promised to continue my work analyzing Nier. If you’ve read my first extended analysis of the game and its identity dynamics, then you know that I hold this game in high regards both personally and analytically. For my second article on the game, I wish to take a somewhat different approach: I’m going to take a fairly common criticism of the game, and use it as a jumping-off point to discuss the dynamics of video game narratives more generally.

Facade

The criticism about Nier is this: “Say what you will about the game’s story, but the game’s actual world design is largely stark and bland. It is therefore difficult for a player to ‘get through’ the game because the player has little desire to explore and discover more of the world; and this is a failure in game design.”

At first glance, it seems obvious that video games ought to have immersive, exciting worlds that are fun to engage–after all, you might say, why else would we be motivated to pour countless hours into exploring and virtually living in those worlds? I want to convince you that this seemingly obvious claim is not so clear-cut. In particular, the claim rests on the premise that video games ought to always be fun to play, in some sense of “fun to play” that we will need to specify.

So ultimately, this article on Nier is concerned with one foundational question about the aesthetics of video games: Should video games always be fun to play? While a comprehensive answer to this question is beyond the scope of this piece, I hope to offer readers reasons why answering “no” to this question is more plausible than they initially supposed.

First, I need to specify what I mean by a game being “fun to play.” If the question is merely whether a video game ought to be something that its players appreciate, then there is no interesting question to answer– the answer to that question, I take it, would obviously be “yes.” But there is a distinction between appreciating a work of art and having fun when engaging that work of art. For example, most people have a favorite tragic novel, film, or play–say, Shakespeare’s King Lear. A theatergoer might certainly appreciate King Lear; however, given how tragic it is, and how emotionally taxing it is on those in its audience, it seems unlikely that the theatergoer would call the act of seeing King Lear fun.

For this reason, I define a game being ‘fun to play’, roughly, as ‘the dynamics and representational content of the game being such that the player actively takes pleasure in engaging them’. This is a species of a conception of ‘fun’ that one can apply to artistic media more generally, where a work of art is ‘fun to engage’ just in case its dynamics and representational content is such that its appreciator takes pleasure in engaging it. Some examples of ways in which art can be fun in this way include: a well-written novel with rich language that the appreciator takes pleasure in reading; a film with visual detail and an immersive soundtrack in which the viewer takes pleasure; and a video game with a varied and detailed world that the player takes pleasure in exploring. Note that even famously frustrating games such as the Dark Souls series can be fun to play on this definition: aside from its difficulty, Dark Souls is known for stunning, varied, detailed environments, and a rich soundtrack accompanying boss battles.

When we think about artistic media other than video games, it seems clear enough that there are worthwhile pieces of art than are nevertheless not particularly fun in this way. Waiting for Godot is one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century, yet its setting of a lone tree is not especially pleasurable to engage. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a novel chronicling a single day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp; not only are the details of this day tedious (i.e. not fun), but it also seems that this tedium is part of what makes the novel worthwhile: that is, its form reflects the reality of generic days in a labor camp. Yet there is a question, at first glance, as to whether or not video games can be worthwhile without being fun in this way. After all, if video games are truly games, then shouldn’t some degree of fun inhere to the medium? This is what I answer “no” to, using Nier as a case study.

Nier's Home

Despite my appreciation of Nier, I agree with the general criticism that its world design is not especially engaging, particularly by the standards of modern video games. Compared to a game such as SkyrimFallout 4, or Xenoblade Chronicles X, the world of Nier is small and has relatively little going on in terms of optional areas and quests for the player to explore. The world’s landscape is also rather monotonous, offering few markedly distinct regions across the world map. If you buy into the game with an expectation that it will offer you an expansive world to explore, then you will be disappointed–but this is not why you should buy into Nier.

Seafront

The world of Nier is post-apocalyptic: it takes place ages after humanity was ravaged by a cursed disease–the “Black Scrawl”. As such, we would expect much of the landscape to be desolate in order to cohere with the the rest of the narrative; but of course, this in and of itself does not excuse the monotony of Nier‘s world (cf. Fallout 4Darksiders 2).

However, the narrative of Nier is more complicated than a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic scenario. It is a story steeped in mysteries and metaphysical complexities: the souls of humans are conveyed across time through countless bodily shells (Replicants) in order to escape annihilation by the pernicious Black Scrawl. And this, I contend, is what drives the poignancy of the father-daughter relationship between Nier and Yonah: across countless iterations — human, Shade, and Replicant alike — their bond remains immutably absolute. In this way, it transcends the tedium of unending cycles of renewed corporeal existence. I raise this point here not simply because it is one of the more memorable aspects of the game’s narrative, but because this is what justifies the general monotony of Nier‘s world.

Grimoire Noir

Nier has four unique endings, meaning that the player has to play through the majority of the game’s story at least four times in order to grasp the entirety of the world’s mysteries. In particular, the entire nature of Shades as once-human entities is veiled until the player makes her second journey through the game’s story. In other words, in order for the player to fully understand the nature of the game and its world, she must go through the same sort of cyclical tedium that Nier and Yonah endure.

This is not to say by any means that the entire game is tedious–the story itself, as I have discussed here and previously, is intricate and riveting. The point is merely that the act of the player repeatedly engaging a tedious world in order to uncover its secrets and the depth of the father-daughter bond recapitulates the propagation of Nier and Yonah’s complicated, mysterious journey with one another throughout a desolate expanse of space and time.

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This parallelism between the experience of the player and the experience of Nier is more than a happy side effect of game design: it is what binds the player to the game’s narrative and immerses her in Nier‘s world. Video games are an interactive medium: the relationship between the player and avatar matters; in fact, as I have discussed in the cases of Majora’s Mask and Xenoblade Chronicles, we often need to understand this relationship before we can attempt to understand the game at all. So it’s neither coincidental nor superfluous that in a game obsessed with identity and matter of who is controlling what body, the player, who controls Nier, shares experiences qualitatively similar to Nier’s. The relationship between avatar and player coheres with the metaphysics of the game’s universe, where Gestalts (the true humans) and their Replicant vessels can only recombine entirely when there are no differences between their characters: the unity of the player’s experiences and Nier’s experiences, in other words, ground the ability of the player to control Nier as an avatar within the context of the game’s narrative.

The result of this is that the cyclical monotony of the player’s engagement with the world of Nier actually forms the basis of the game’s aesthetics: the player is able to transcend the world of the game in conjunction with Nier as the secrets of the story unfold, and the depth of Nier’s bond with his daughter is revealed. It follows that the game’s narrative dynamics could not work as well, on a foundational level, if the game were “fun to play.”

Note that, although this argument endorses video games being worthwhile without being fun to play, its scope is limited. I am not endorsing every tedious video game mechanic as aesthetically worthwhile–mechanics such as the need to mindlessly play a slot machine for hours in Final Fantasy XIII-2 in order to experience a hidden extra ending to the game’s story. The reason why a monotonous world works in the aesthetics of Nier is because it fundamentally unites the experience of player and avatar in a narrative that places a premium on the value of this relationship; in the absence of such narrative integration, it is not obvious to me that any similar sort of monotony would be justifiable.

Father and Daughter

As I said at the outset, the goal of this piece was not to definitively show that video games need not always be fun to play–rather, my aim was to argue in favor of video games not needing to always be fun to play. The kind of artistic value conveyed by works like Nier would simply not work if the game’s world were fun to engage; yet the game’s narrative, in virtue of the relationship between player and avatar, allows for a special kind of transcendence than can hardly be ignored on account of its not being “fun.” I see this as evidence that video games, just as much as novels and films, can be artistically valuable without being fun to engage. And, more to the point, vast and various universes within games, when poorly executed, can sometimes end up detracting from the story and aesthetic fundamentals of a game–but that’s a discussion for another time.

The Open-House Narrative in Gone Home

by Richard Nguyen, Featured Author.

Metal Gear Solid 5. Grand Theft Auto 5. The Witcher 3. Every Assassin’s Creed since the beginning of time. The video game industry is increasingly shifting its focus towards the “open-world” genre.  “Open-world” is a buzz phrase stamped onto every marketing campaign to denote a game’s flexible, expansive scope, and maximalist vision where “more is more.” Most of the time this brings the latest visual enhancements: higher-resolution textures, anisotropic filtering, and the invaluable ambient occlusion that PC gamers value so much. The pressure is on to render the largest, busiest, prettiest gaming worlds out there, because in an industry so saturated with “open-world” games, it is clear that the pragmatic consumer values the quantity of content in a game. Less clear is whether they ought to value such quantity.  Here enters Gone Home, a first-person experience (‘FPX’) game released in 2013. Gone Home occupies a smaller space in both your hard drive and the gaming industry than most “open-world” games today. In spite of these constraints, it demonstrates that dense, rich worlds can be formed without the excessive quantity of content that bogs down the modern open-world game.  

Gone Home is set on a dark and stormy night in 1995, the year that saw the majestic entrance of yours truly into this world, as well as Kaitlin Greenbriar’s return to her home in the Pacific Northwest after some time abroad. Upon the realization that no member of her family is present, Kaitlyn must explore this home in order to discover the mystery behind their absence. The player controls Kaitlyn, with inputs limited to movement and examining objects in the environment. The world in which the player may explore is contained within this home, which covers approximately 3000 square feet when judged from the inaccurate, naked eye.

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When was the last time a video game did not ask you to kill or destroy anything in order to proceed? In Gone Home, the player does not hit, stomp, kill, or engage in any violence whatsoever, which separates it from the majority of first-person games today. This first-person experience is a refreshing return to the old-fashioned sensibilities of classic puzzle games such as Myst. The DNA of Gone Home borrows from a lineage of interactive adventure games such as Grim Fandango and, a childhood favorite of mine, “Spy Fox in Dry Cereal”. The game gives the player only one single open-ended goal, and that is to find out exactly what happened. It is a vague objective that molds itself into the player’s own subjective goals. Technically, the main goal is to reach the attic, which can only be reached after solving pseudo-puzzles in order to obtain the key to its door’s lock. The game’s challenges are not presented in the form of distinct levers and machinery to manipulate (e.g., Zelda dungeons, Riddler challenges, and Resident Evil mansion tomfoolery). Rather, developer Fullbright designed its challenges to be narratively consistent, in that finding a key to a lock should not be hidden behind 3 trap doors and a boss.

The game can be finished in a mere half-hour. It was not surprising to see that, in spite of its critical acclaim, Gone Home was maligned by many gamers for its “simplicity”, clichéd story, and a lack of clear direction (clearly in reference to its foreign, confusing mechanic of giving the player a choice of more than one direction to walk in). Some refused to even acknowledge its label as a video game, and preferred to call it a “walking simulator.” From the standpoint of the consumer, it is reasonable to feel angry, somewhat cheated by a $15, 30-minute experience. I will concede that Gone Home is not for everyone. Yet, for the gamer afflicted by the obsession of thoroughly exhausting every codex and dialogue option, Gone Home may be one of the most dense, detailed, and rewarding emergent narratives of this generation.

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At first impression, the game’s presentation resembles that of a horror game. The cover art itself features a gnarled, foreboding house engulfed by the silhouettes of pine trees and, most likely, an Indian burial ground. The game’s prevalent darkness, in combination with the eternal pitter-patter of the rain outside, transports the player back to a time when being home alone was frightening, barring the goofy cat burglars. Ignorant of my obnoxious ecological footprint and the consequences it would have on their electric bill, I found myself rushing to turn on every light and TV in the Greenbriar household during my first playthrough. The aesthetic is composed of stark contrasts, pitch darkness with warm interiors and eery silence with white noise. Gone Home is composed of the framework of the typical haunted-house game, but that framework was both reinforced and undermined throughout my thorough three-hour playthrough. That the game merely suggests the presence of the supernatural made these suspicions of the supernatural all the more unstable. Fearing for the worst, the player develops a psychological fear of losing a grip on reality as well as Kaitlyn’s family. Thankfully, there are no ghouls or monsters lurking behind the closet–only the father’s porn stash.  While Kaitlin is ostensibly familiar with the home, the player is not. Returning to a home changed by the passage of time would no doubt disarm anyone. For the player, the environment is alienating to encounter for the first time; for Kaitlyn, the environment is alienating to re-experience after such a long period away. In other words, the game’s horror stems not from pop-scares, but rather the discomfort of exploring an extremely private and unfamiliar environment. For instance, there was a moment when I discovered red stains on one of the bathtubs. Of course, I immediately suspected bloodshed, even though it only turned out to be hair dye. The player and Kaitlyn feel a mutual sense of alienation and fear in response to the game’s aesthetic. This empathy is remarkably achieved without a single explicit prompt, cinematic cutscene, or obtuse game mechanic. (Please refer to Call of Duty Advanced Warfare’s quick-time event of “Hold X to pay respects.”) The aesthetic alone speaks to the power of suggestion, evoking a deep emotional reaction through merely existing in its quiet, inert world.

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There is no conventional narrative depicted here through passive cinematic cutscenes. This is a story that can only be uncovered through player input, through the deconstruction and reconstruction of the parts that compose the house. I recall dragging my gadgets in Spy Fox and testing them on every object in the environment to see if they produced a useful effect; I similarly found myself performing such experiments in Gone Home. In order to navigate through the house’s labyrinth of corridors, locked doors, and secret passageways, the player, in Zelda-nian fashion, must solve puzzles. These puzzles, however, do not require pulling an arbitrary number of levers and pushing an arbitrary number of buttons, like the puzzles of Resident Evil infamy. In the context of this world, the player solves puzzles organically by investigating notes, cabinets, and paraphernalia littered throughout the house. Explicitly, the player’s goal is to reach the end of this “dungeon,” which can take a matter of minutes. Yet the player may, hopefully, implicitly develop the goal of discovering and caring about these characters without actually meeting them at all. In the game’s understated and suggestive fashion, the objects left behind by these characters tell a collective emergent narrative.

To clarify, we are defining ‘emergent narratives’ as ‘non-linear narratives without a pre-planned structure’–a key ambition of open-world games such as those mentioned earlier. In the case of Gone Home, developer Fullbright constructs an intentional emergence of story, in contrast to unintentional emergence through funny glitches (please refer to Youtube for more of those).

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.48.04 PM.pngIn Gone Home, Kaitlyn’s mother, father, and sister have left behind a plethora of characterizing objects that the player must interpret in order to understand these people. The only technically explicit narrative device is Samantha’s (the sister) diary notes, which are told through her voiceover. The player will only later realize that Sam is the key figure to the narrative. Even if it appears to be against Fullbright’s own rules, explicitly spelling out Sam’s story is reasonable because she is the central figure to this story. Her conflict and motivations are the mystery tying the explicit narrative together. Further information in the form of diary entries is revealed to the player as explicit rewards for exploration, and are indicators of the “main story” progression. Otherwise, the player may end up truly lost, not quite sure where exactly in the house to go next.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.51.28 PMAside from the diary notes, players are left to extrapolate meaning from character’s objects on their own accord. For instance, upon scrutinizing one of Samantha’s soccer trophies, I wondered whether or not she actually liked soccer. Initially, I imagined her as being a sort of jock…until I discovered her mix tape of grunge music in her deeply private, secretive room, suggesting she was a recluse. She was now the angsty girl who rebelled against her parents’ image of her as a conformist extrovert. That the trophy was displayed in the living room, rather than kept in her room with her most treasured objects, is a testament to the level of care Fullbright took in designing this world. Players use not only objects, but also their placement, condition, color, etc. to dynamically mold their interpretations of these characters and their story. Every unchecked corner and quick glance is a missed opportunity, another hole in this home that feels inhabited by real people. One of my favorite details, which spoke to my inner 90’s kid, was discovering a television room with VHS recordings labeled “X-Files.” The couch cushions are fashioned into a fort, where we assume young Sam and company were staying up past their bedtime to indulge in Mulder and Scully’s sci-fi escapades. It is rare to see a world crafted with such care in every inch of its body. Personally, the two hours spent interacting with this world were more intellectually and emotionally rewarding to me than most 80+ hour open-world experiences available today.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.53.22 PMFullbright designed a fleshed-out world in this entity of a house, but its surface-level narrative – uncovering the reason behind the family’s absence – has been one of the game’s more contentious elements. It is difficult, and perhaps beside the point, to criticize a story such as this, especially when so much is contingent upon what the player has and has not seen in this world. Even more difficult is guiding the player to important plot points. Whether that point be a characterizing object in Gone Home or an important quest in Fallout 4, the player has free reign as to whether or not to engage it at all. This lack of narrative direction is an issue present in open-world games at large. For, mechanically, they are designed to empower the player with freedom to pursue the story however and whenever they feel. There will be stories that are not experienced at all. The larger a game becomes, as is the industry trend, the more difficult it is to actually tell emergent narratives in the vein of Gone Home, let alone a traditional, explicit narrative. In the case of Gone Home, I suspect its purely hands-off philosophy of not guiding the player in the “right” direction (lack of tutorial, objective markers, etc.) resulted in misunderstood and incomplete playthroughs. It is easy to think of these characters as shallow and the story as contrived if the player did not come across the clues that contextualized Sam’s frustrations, and her turbulent relationship with her parents. The way I see it, Fullbright either overestimated a number of gamers, or knowingly created a difficult, ambiguous world that resists full player comprehension. Perhaps Fullbright deliberately avoided explication and cinematic cutscenes in the attempt to make the story and these characters themselves the puzzles to solve. For instance, the Greenbriar parents are initially characterized as the broad archetypes of clueless father and the worrywart mother. Their belongings act as clues that suggest troubled psyches and marital strife. Yet, their motivations are only implied, and frustratingly not explicitly confirmed. Therefore, this minimalist emergent narrative leaves many unanswered questions and mysteries about the Greenbriar family to perplex players for some time.

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At their core, games present to players a goal to achieve. There are often obstacles, such as Nazis to kill and blocks to break, in order to reach that goal. On an emotional level, we implement narratives in mediums such as film and video games to provoke rewards via empathy with characters and their conflicts. Fullbright had the audacity to blend the more obscure variants of both the physiological and emotional – the puzzle/adventure game and the emergent narrative – to craft Gone Home. Creating an open-world game should not necessarily mean rendering a large plot of land and an obscene amount of side quests to run through. Player immersion need not be dependent upon graphical fidelity. Gone Home showcases its story and characters by not showing or rendering much at all. It instead suggests. The game is a shining example of how minimalist gameplay can complement storytelling, proposing new possibilities in our beloved medium. All without ambient occlusion.

 

Richard Nguyen is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.