With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX Australia 2016 entitled “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games.” In the months since our presentation, we’ve been publishing our work from the panel in argument form, for the benefit of those viewers who were unable to attend. Now that all of the PAX Aus content has been published, we’ve aggregated it all in once place so that you can experience our entire presentation in written form.
-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.
In Part I of this series, I discussed some examples of types of games that benefit from the lack of what I’ve termed “nudges,” which is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z preserves narrative consistency. For clarification on this term’s formal definition I would suggest reading the introduction to Part I before reading this article. And I would definitely suggest reading Part I before reading this article if you have yet to do so, as this article will assume knowledge of the ideas covered in Part I.
In Part II I will discuss games that have narratives that benefit from nudgy gameplay. There are two principal ways to think about how a game’s narrative may incorporate nudges. First, it may incorporate nudges that help the player, allowing them to perform feats that are potentially outside of their skillset without the helpful nudge. I will term these sorts of nudges “player aids.”
Second, a game may incorporate nudges that cause the player to perform worse than they would on their own. I will term these sorts of nudges “player hindrances.” Importantly, a player hindrance is not simply a lack of a nudge. It is an active change in output from what the player expects that makes the player perform worse. It is not like the examples of Banjo Kazooie or Dark Souls given in the previous article, in which the player likely fails frequently exclusively as a result of their actions, rather than the corrective measures of the game engine.
A nudge can be either a player aid or a player hindrance. I’ll start with a discussion of games with player aids and then move on to a discussion of games with player hindrances.
Games with Player Aids
Player aids exist to make certain potentially difficult aspects or portions of a game easier for the player to accomplish. They are most effective when a task that might be difficult for the average player is not difficult for the avatar the player is controlling. The player aid turns this task into something trivial to accomplish, maintaining the narrative consistency of a game by continually establishing the competency of the character. There are many games that have done this over the past years, notably the Batman Arkham games as well as the Assassin’s Creed games, so many readers are likely familiar with the gameplay I’ll be describing. I will go over two examples of player aids, and then discuss an example of something that potentially looks like a player aid, but is not.
The first example of a player aid hearkens back to the introduction of Part I, discussing the antics of bridge-crossing between Banjo Kazooie and Assassin’s Creed. I’d like to take a moment to look at a related set of circumstances in Assassin’s Creed: whenever the player is making Altair jump off of a building. Usually, the city of an Assassin’s Creed game is such that there is a convenient building to jump onto, or an even more convenient cart full of hay to dive into (and somehow stay completely uninjured, but we’ll ignore that complaint for now). For the sake of example, let’s imagine that the only safe landing space when jumping off a building is one cart full of hay on the ground. If the player runs directly toward the cart, Altair will reliably jump off of the building and land in the cart. However, if the player misses the mark slightly, Altair will jump off of the building and somehow steer his course, mid-fall, toward the cart, even though by the laws of physics in the real world he should have missed and landed with a nice splat on the hard ground. Each of these instances in which the player misses the path toward the cart of hay is a player aid: an enforcement on the part of the game mechanics of Altair’s status as an expert assassin who could not have made such silly mistakes—otherwise, he would have been dead long ago.
One will note that the pattern I described in the previous paragraph holds for an uncooperative player as well as for a less-than-competent player. If the player intentionally attempts to miss the safe landing, the game’s engine corrects the player’s actions to be more narratively consistent. I have personally attempted to cause disasters in Assassin’s Creed, and can note from experience that one must actively attempt to cause harm to Altair in order to do so, as the game liberally aids an uncooperative player to a safer output than the one she was attempting to incur. In this case, input X is forcibly shifted from output Y, the output in which Altair is hurt, to output Z, in which Altair is not injured, even though the player did not want this to occur.
Another example of a player aid is seen frequently across shooters on consoles: aim assist, which is any instance of a game engine helping the player to shoot at enemies, rather than shooting into thin air. While aim assist often exists simply for the purposes of making multiplayer shooting games balanced across skill levels, or just making a shooter game more approachable for beginners, aim assist (lack thereof) often serves an important purpose in narrative consistency as well.
To see how aim assist can act as a player aid, first note that it fits the mechanical model described in Part I. The player can try to move her targeting in any particular direction, and when an enemy target is not on screen, the engine consistently moves the targeting in the direction of the player’s input. However, when an enemy target is onscreen, the game engine aids the player by making an output that differs from the direction of the player’s input, so as to make the player aim at the enemy target. In this way, in some circumstances input X, which often yields output Y, yields output Z instead.
What we need now to see how aim assist can be a player aid is motivation for why aim assist may preserve narrative consistency. Rather than point out a particular game for which this is the case, I will construct a category of games in which aim assist preserves narrative consistency. Imagine any game in which the protagonist is a well trained, expert marksman. For any game in which this is the case, aim assist will preserve narrative consistency, because expert marksmen rarely, if ever, miss. Aim assist works to prevent, to a degree, an incompetent or uncooperative player from undermining the expert status of the marksman.
In contrast, if a game features a protagonist with little-to-no training with guns, it would not make sense narratively to include aim assist. Aim assist would actually make the protagonist too competent, and would thereby undermine narrative consistency.
To further understand what player aids are, it will help to see an example of something that one might initially think is a player aid, but actually is not. Many games with action-filled cutscenes, such as Resident Evil 4, Uncharted, and even Final Fantasy XIII-2, have sections that demand user input in the form of action commands. These are sections of gameplay in which the player acts by pressing a button in response to a visual input on-screen. In response to a single button press, a player may run up the arm of a goliath while dodging bullets, do a backflip over an Indiana-Jones-style boulder rolling down a hill, or deliver a finishing blow to an enemy. These sections are usually designed to allow for player involvement during sections of gameplay in which the actions being performed by the protagonist are too actiony and cinematic for normal gameplay. Initially these seem like they may be player aids, in the sense that the game engine is making it almost atrociously easy for the player to perform incredible feats.
However, cutscenes with action commands do not thereby contain player aids, because these sections always have one specific output for the player’s input. If a player presses ‘B’ in response to some prompt, for instance, this button press is mapped to a specific output, there is no potential other output that might occur. Because of the one-to-one mapping of player input to game output, there is no nudge taking place. A nudge requires a shifting of output that is not occurring in this case. Simply making some complicated avatar action easier for a player to accomplish is not equivalent to a player aid. A player aid fundamentally changes how a player controls her avatar by shifting the output of some input to something that better fits the narrative than the usual output. To use an analogy, one could think of player aids as a proofreading system akin to error-correcting on a smartphone. A game with player aids corrects the player’s output to what is more correct for the story, rather than simply making it easier to give the correct input to yield said output.
Games with Player Hindrances
A player hindrance exists to disrupt a player’s actions, making simpler tasks more difficult to complete. A game may include a player hindrance to show that a character has difficulty with or is unable to do something, regardless of player ability. They are most effective when the player is controlling a character who is in some way less able than some standard (as defined by the game) regardless of player ability. There is a variety of potential reasons for the gap in ability, usually having to do the current bodily status of the avatar—in particular, when a character is inebriated, in some way physically injured, or close to death. The difficulty in diagnosing a player hindrance, then, comes in correctly identifying what standard it is that the character is failing to live up to. I will go over two examples of a player hindrance, both from NieR: Automata, in which the standard being compared to is the normal functioning state of the avatar. Then I will go over one example from Resident Evil 4 that is more difficult to diagnose. Finally, I’ll discuss one crucial example of a situation that initially appears to be a player hindrance, but actually is not.
At several points in NieR: Automata (a game with multiple avatars), the player’s avatar, an android, is hacked, EMP’d, or injected with a computer virus. When these events occur, various capacities of the avatar get removed, from the ability to attack, to the ability to jump, to the ability to see shapes with edge detection. While there are several instances of this throughout the game, I will focus on one in particular: when 2B, one of the avatars in the game, is infected by a virus that is threatening to control her entirely, leaving her unable to operate normally, on the verge of death. Thus player hindrances are warranted in order to make clear that 2B is no longer able to control her own body sufficiently, regardless of the actions of the player.
In particular, when attempting to walk in a straight line, 2B will suddenly stop in her tracks, and sometimes when attempting to stop, 2B instead just keeps running forward. In this way, the player’s usual input can yield one of two outputs, either stopping or continuing moving forward, in a way that is not predictable to the player. The simple task of moving from one spot on the map to another becomes significantly more difficult, regardless of player ability, and so we can say that this section of the game contains player hindrances so as to preserve the narrative of 2B losing control of her body.
Again in NieR: Automata, the avatar is at times a robot with only very limited maneuverability, in contrast to the usual android avatar, who is very agile. The agency of the robot is much less than that of the android, evidenced by the robots’ slow movement speed, simple attack patterns, and a camera angle close to the robot that doesn’t allow for much peripheral vision. While the player is “hindered” in that she is less able to act through the avatar than before, these are not player hindrances: they are simply instances of the player being given fewer options, or simply fewer effective options, in accomplishing any particular task. They are akin to an avatar getting into a car: the control scheme and abilities of the avatar change, but that does not constitute a nudge in the gameplay. Changes in control scheme are not instances of player hindrance.
One particular way in which the player will be hindered by the gameplay when playing as the robot is when attempting to carry a bucket of oil. Usually, the robot can walk over pipes on the ground without falling over, but this action causes the robot to fall over when carrying a bucket full of oil on its head. In this way the output for the player’s input has shifted, meeting the first requirement to call this gameplay a player hindrance. Initially, the shifting output is surprising for players, who do not expect carrying a bucket of oil to be sufficient reason for tripping and falling over a pipe. But, the gameplay reinforces the narrative conceit that many of the robots are weak and relatively incapable individually. In this way the shift in output is narratively impactful: it shows that carrying a bucket of oil is a sufficient hindrance for the robot that even skilled player inputs cannot lead to success at walking over a pipe. The robot’s status as a pathetic being is at least maintained, if not more forcefully asserted, by this moment.
In both of the examples given above, the avatar is not able to operate at their usual standard, in the case of 2B because of her near-death state, and in the case of the robot because of carrying a bucket on its head. But the “standard” that a character is not living up to does not actually have to be inherent to the character themselves. To see this let’s consider another example. Those who have played Resident Evil 4 may remember that the protagonist Leon Kennedy’s aim with a gun is often not great. When the player pulls out a firearm, even when giving no input, the location that Leon is aiming can move in any direction: up, down, left, right, and any diagonal mixture of these. So one can see that the first part of the definition of a nudge has been met: when the user is giving an input (in the form of no input), any of many directional movements of the gun is possible.
There are three potential ways in which this gameplay could maintain narrative consistency. One might initially think that perhaps Leon is not trained in using a firearm, and thus it would not make sense for him to have rock-steady aim. But this theory does not seem correct, since Leon was trained first as a police officer and then as a special forces agent. So his aim should in theory be very good. One might then be tempted to think that the explanation for his terrible aim is the frightening situation that he is in, fighting for his life against parasitically controlled people and monstrosities wielding chainsaws. But again, this theory isn’t coherent plotwise, as Leon must have been trained to manage his fear in combat situations as part of his training as a special forces agent.
Many players do not consider the third potential reason for Leon’s terrible aim, which I will explain in the following paragraph; as a result, these people believe that either Leon must be either a terrible shot or a coward. The lack of explanation for Leon’s terrible aim has plagued the impression that people have of him since the game’s release. Many people explain the existence of the nudge as being indicative of Leon’s actual incompetence, even though his attitude and demeanor appear competent. I recognize this as a weakness for the game: it’s easier to embrace the idea that Leon is incompetent than to recognize the larger theme that Leon’s shaky hand speaks to.
In the Resident Evil series as a whole, there is an idea that, in order to improve humanity and win wars, one must create biological enhancements for people as well as biological weapons. Many of the game’s villains describe normal humans as inept and/or weak. Leon’s shaky hand speaks directly to this theme, and grounds the player in the body of a human person (albeit a very well trained human person), who is subject to imperfections and up against biologically enhanced enemies. The fact that Leon’s aim is bad maintains the consistency of the idea that Leon is physically inferior in various ways to his enemies, and only stays alive through clever use of weapons, supplies, and his own smarts. The gameplay has less to do with Leon as a person, and speaks more to the world in which he is embedded. The standard that Leon does not live up to ends up being the standard of the ideal military combatant, which in the world of Resident Evil must be biologically mutated/enhanced.
One may worry that this analysis is problematic in that presumably every character in a story has uncountably many arbitrary standards to live up to, and since these standards don’t all align, the character must be failing to meet at least one of these standards. In this way it would appear that all gameplay should be instances of player hindrances. But this is clearly not the case, since intuition tells us that most gameplay is not a player hindrance. This is where narrative consistency comes into play. The narrative should define the specific standard out of the uncountably many out there that the character is not meeting, so as to justify the use of a player hindrance.
In the case of Resident Evil 4, this standard is created through dialogue with a character named Lord Saddler in particular. At one point Saddler shoots down a helicopter arriving to rescue Leon and says “Don’t tell me you’ve never swatted a bothersome fly! In essence, it’s the same thing… When you’ve acquired this power, you too will understand.” Through this line, Saddler communicates to Leon that humans are no better than insects, and that there is a power greater than humanity out there to subscribe to. Leon does not meet the standard of this greater power. Leon’s shaky hand keeps this narrative consistent to make it believable that a power greater than humans—greater than Leon—could conceivably exist out there.
As evidenced by the example of Resident Evil 4, player hindrances can be tricky to diagnose, for it isn’t always clear whether there is a standard within a narrative that an avatar is failing to meet. Further, player hindrances are uncommon: outside of characters who are in some way gravely injured, intoxicated, or afraid, or simply incompetent, it is difficult to imagine when a player hindrance might be used. This is especially true since players tend to find player hindrances frustrating, and so developers have a tendency not to design them, as evidenced by the number of players who bitterly complained about Leon’s aiming in Resident Evil 4, followed by the subsequent removal of this feature from the studio’s future games.
Now that we’ve considered some games that incorporate player hindrances, let’s nail down exactly what player hindrances are by considering a game that initially might appear to be one in which player hindrances are warranted, but actually is not. One may be tempted to think that the example of Octodad, from Part I of this series, may be a game that would benefit from player hindrances. As a reminder to the reader, Octodad is a game about an octopus masquerading as a normal human suburban father and somehow succeeding. The game has intentionally very difficult controls, so as to put the player in the shoes of the octopus. The player’s experience navigating the difficult controls mirrors that of an octopus trying with only minimal success to be a human father. However, there is a crucial reason that Octodad does not fit in the schema of games that benefit from player hindrances.
The games with player hindrances discussed above all drive home that the avatar is unable to perform some particular action regardless of the input of the player. In the case of Octodad, however, a key part of the narrative is that somehow the octopus manages to successfully act in the role of the human father, even though there are numerous physical difficulties present in doing so. Unlike the example of 2B given above, the octopus father actually does manage to accomplish his goals so long as the player succeeds, even with all of the obvious obstacles in his way.
The intrigue comes from the hilarious attempt of the player to succeed at being a normal human father even with the intentionally difficult controls. As mentioned in Part I, to introduce nudges into this gameplay would take the player out of the shoes of the octopus. Like the octopus, the player must fail of their own merit, rather than being forced to fail by a player hindrance. If the player were forced to fail, the nature of the story would be very different.
A Non-Obvious Similarity Between Player Aids and Player Hindrances
The reader may notice an apparent discrepancy between player hindrances and player aids. It initially appears as though player hindrances are always relative to some standard, whereas player aids are more “absolute” in that they do not seem to be tied to any particular standard. This is actually not the case. Both player aids and player hindrances are relative to standards. But with player aids there is not much need to specify the standard in question, since it is relatively easy for most people to recognize an avatar with superhuman capabilities (notice the implicit standard of “human” in the word “superhuman”). In contrast, in order to understand a player hindrance, especially those similar to the Resident Evil 4 example where the standard is something the character ought to meet, it tends to be necessary to more explicitly identify the standard. So while identifying a standard seems to be less pertinent in analyzing a player aid than a player hindrance, the difference does not arise out of the theoretical grounding of these terms, but rather just the process of analysis.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve defined nudgy controls, considered games that importantly do not use nudges, and considered how some games use nudges in one of two forms, player aids and player hindrances. In Part III, we will explore how this paradigm of game controls allows us to better understand the challenging control scheme of The Last Guardian.
Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.
 Thank you to my good friend Luke Wellington for the suggestion of this term as it applies to helpful nudges, as well as providing criticism to my first article which led to its theoretical grounding.
 As an aside, from a game design perspective, this particular choice is designed to be frustrating. The designers know that the player has no way within the game itself of knowing that the robot will trip in these contexts. When the player takes these actions to save time (as the environment is set up in a way that encourages these actions to make traversal faster), the player will spill the oil and waste time. This sort of design decision is frustrating for players, and many developers avoid it so as to keep their players from quitting playing the game. The designers of NieR: Automata likely designed this section intentionally with the goal of frustrating the player in mind so as to put the player in the shoes of the robot.
 Thanks to Brendan Gallagher for pointing out that this analysis is not canonical or based on the author’s intent. My analysis is agnostic to author intent, and with that disclaimer the argument presented should hold.
Since the beginning of With a Terrible Fate, I’ve made passing comments about how deeply the storytelling of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy offended my sensibilities, both as a player and analyst of video games. On the first day of my three months analyzing Majora’s Mask, I discussed the Zelda game’s value by showing how it succeeded where Lightning Returns failed; when I discussed my fears about Square Enix dividing the Final Fantasy VII remake into multiple games, I cited the weak episodic storytelling of the XIII saga as prima facie reasons to worry about Square’s ability to tell one story across multiple games. Yet despite constantly using the XIII trilogy as fodder for broader critiques, I have never yet devoted an article to tackling the problems of the series head-on.
Well, with today at last marking the release of Final Fantasy XV, I found it a fitting occasion to turn my full attention to Final Fantasy XIII, as something of a personal reflection on why I was so let down by the trilogy. I do view the trilogy as a fantastic failure in storytelling, but the undertone of this critique is the quiet hope that Square learned its lesson and remembered how to tell stories. This, I think, is the core issue to keep in mind as FFXV finally enters the universe of game criticism in the coming weeks: remember that FFXIII also “looked pretty” and had a decent enough battle system; its colossal failure was one of storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is the measure by which FFXV will stand as a masterpiece or fall as an epic waste of time and resources.
Sadly, I could probably spend as long picking apart the FFXIII trilogy’s problems as I spent analyzing Majora’s Mask (but don’t challenge me on that–it wouldn’t be fun for anyone). So today, I’m just going to focus on Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve long thought that, of the three games in the trilogy, FFXIII-2 was the one with the most redeeming features and the greatest narrative potential. The problem is that FFXIII-2 is, in a surprising and sad sense, a very poignant story trapped inside of a very poorly composed story. The project of this article is to explain what I mean by that claim; in particular, I want to show you how the very structure of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s universe renders its narrative shortcomings tragically ironic, perhaps even in a way that can give disappointed players a new appreciation for a game that fails in an almost beautiful way. I’ll first argue that, sacrilegious though it may sound to say so, FFXIII-2 was poised to be the spiritual successor of the classic Chrono Trigger. After that, I’ll show how the overall framing of FFXIII-2‘s story destroyed what initial potential the game had–in fact, I’ll argue that it suffers from failures similar to those of Assassin’s Creed III, but suffers from those failures to an even greater extent than ACIII does. Lastly, I’ll combine these two strands of analysis to show how the game becomes a tragically ironic narrative failure. In the end, we’ll walk away with some lessons in how stories can fail–and, hopefully, how stories can succeed.
Not a Hallway Anymore: Temporal Overworlds
One of the most common criticisms of the first entry in the FFXIII trilogy–named simply Final Fantasy XIII–was that its world and story were overly linear, meaning that the game consisted in a singular path from the beginning to the end of its narrative with very little by way of exploration or divergence from that path. One of JonTron’s most popular video’s, criticizing precisely this aspect of the game, bore the fitting title “Final Hallway XIII” in reference to the game’s severe linearity. So, you might expect that the developers, in crafting a sequel to FFXIII, might compensate for this aspect of the original game by making the sequel substantially less linear, with a variety of different paths and narrative outcomes to explore.
And indeed, less linearity is exactly what we see in FFXIII-2; in fact, the structure of the game’s world and narrative is radically non-linear. What I mean by ‘radically non-linear’ is that, where the worlds of most games tend to be spatially organized, the world of FFXIII-2, at its highest level, is actually structured in terms of time. The player’s main interface with the game is the Historia Crux, a metaphysical space that allows them to access various moments across time–some of which occur in alternate timelines. The Historia Crux is analogous to the ‘world map’, or ‘overworld’, of many other games: the global space that contains all of the various locations to which the player can travel over the course of a game’s narrative. Yet instead of being a broad swath of space, the Historia Crux is a broad swath of time: we could justly call it a temporal overworld in the sense that it fundamentally structures the game’s narrative and locations based on time rather than on space.
One might even say that the story of FFXIII is about linearity and non-linearity in narrative. The Historia Crux is made possible by a variety of paradoxes that corrupt time with impossible events following the end of FFXIII‘s narrative, when the goddess Etro intervened to save the player’s party of characters, thereby distorting the flow of history. One way of viewing the goal of FFXIII-2, then, is to travel through time resolving these paradoxes, trying to restore order to the timeline. One might actually see this as a clever response on the part of Square to the linearity criticisms about FFXIII: by resolving paradoxes in FFXIII-2, the player is able to travel to a variety of potential timelines and witness several paradoxical outcomes to the game’s history–yet all of this is done in service of restoring order and linearity to the storyline, ultimately reaching the game’s singular, canonical ending. It’s easy to interpret this as a metaphor for the tension in games between the need for games to present multiple possibilities on the one hand, and the need for games to tell a coherent story on the other hand: for players’ choices to matter in game narrative, multiple outcomes to events must be possible, and yet this increasing variability in the game seems to cut against the grain of a well-articulated story with fixed, carefully arranged events.
So far, so interesting. While I haven’t yet said much at all about the particular content of FFXIII-2‘s story, the form of its world certainly seems like an interesting basis for telling a tale that plays on the special features and constraints of video games as a medium. And it’s worth noting at this juncture that this isn’t a radically new idea: in fact, it picks up on some of the central mechanics and themes of a much older game of Square’s: Chrono Trigger.
Though it wasn’t structured around paradoxes, Chrono Trigger did gain fame for its time-travel narrative structure, complete with a wide variety of potential game outcomes depending on choices the player made, when the game’s ultimate enemy (Lavos) was defeated, and so on. Released in 1995, the game was ahead of its time–no pun intended–in the way it built a robust game narrative out of multiple possibilities and timelines for the player to explore. This is the tradition in which FFXIII-2 followed; you can even see echoes of the time-hopping interface of Chrono Trigger’s time machine, the Epoch, in the design of the Historia Crux.
But FFXIII-2 goes beyond merely elaborating the structure of Chrono Trigger: in the details of its story–or rather, one of its storylines–it makes the game’s time-based narrative deeply poignant in a surprising way. The central antagonist of the game is Caius Ballad, a man who has been made immortal by being endowed with the heart of the goddess Etro–the Heart of Chaos. He is the designated guardian of Yeul, a Seeress with a double-edged gift: the young girl can see the future, but her lifespan shortens each time she does so, causing her to die young, only to be reincarnated thereafter. Thus the immortal Caius, knowledgeable of all time thanks to Yeul’s visions, has also had to watch countless Yeul’s die in his arms, “carving their pain on his heart” every time. Caius’ mission in the game is to kill the goddess Etro, from which time and history flow, in order to end time itself: he only wants to do this in order to end Yeul’s suffering by putting a stop to the cycle of her dying by degrees every time she sees the future.
On the other hand, we have the protagonist Noel: one of the player’s two characters, who gets wrapped up in a quest to change the future and resolve the timeline. Growing up, he knew both Caius and one incarnation of Yeul; he refused to become Yeul’s guardian when he learned that he had to kill Caius in order to do so. As he travels throughout time, he clashes with Caius and meets numerous other incarnations of Yeul; thus he comes to understand both the fate of Yeul and the pain endured by Caius as Yeul’s companion and protector. In the game’s final battle, Noel confronts Caius and challenges his views about Yeul: though Caius believes Yeul to have been cursed by Etro to die and be reborn countless times, always living a short life, Noel tells Caius that he knows Yeul wanted to come back because she loved Caius and wanted to be with him, time and again.
The closer you look at the story of Noel, Caius, and Yeul in relation to the overall architecture of FFXIII-2‘s narrative and world, the more poignant the story becomes. The very act of the player and Noel progressing through the story and constantly changing the future causes Yeul to have more visions, thereby shortening her life and killing her more quickly; Caius, the game’s final villain, wants Noel to be strong enough to kill him so that, by Caius dying, Etro will die too (since his heart is her heart) and Yeul will be free from seeing history. And as Noel continues in his journey, he comes to understand both Caius and Yeul, all the while unknowingly unwinding the coil of fate to the point where he is strong enough to kill Caius, and Caius forces him to do so. And on top of all this, perhaps most impressively, this narrative perfectly mirrors the act of playing the game: as the player explores and exhausts all the game’s narrative possibilities, she becomes more invested in and knowledgeable about the characters, all the while progressing the story to the point where the game reaches its conclusion, effectively ending the timeline of the game’s world and terminating the player’s interaction with the various timelines. This is a story shockingly rich with layered conceptions of time, sympathy, pathos, and the tension between possibility and fate.
I started out this article by claiming that FFXIII-2 was a game with tragically ironic narrative shortcomings, but thus far I seem to have been describing an incisive, acutely self-aware game with a moving narrative. So where’s the problem? Well, you might have noticed that I said above that Noel is one of the player’s two characters–and it’s the other one of these characters that makes trouble for the game.
Tragedy and Time
In a nutshell, the problem for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that the story I just related to you above is relegated to the status of a sub-plot: Noel and his cohort are effectively supporting characters in service of the player’s other controllable character, Serah Farron. The game is principally conveyed through her perspective, and her goal–the primary impetus for the game’s overall narrative–is to effectively undo the world and story of Noel, Yeul, and Caius.
Serah is the sister of Lightning, who was a major character in FFXIII and the primary protagonist (and only player character) of Lightning Returns, the last entry in the trilogy. She is engaged to Snow, another key character from the first game that gets downgraded to little more than “Serah’s fiancée” in FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns. The overarching narrative of FFXIII-2 is that, as the time paradoxes began (following the events of FFXIII), Lightning was effectively erased from history, trapped in Valhalla, the realm where the goddess Etro dwells beyond time. Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning’s presence after the events of XIII-2, due to the paradoxes; Lightning, from Valhalla, sends Noel to join Serah on a journey to fix time, along with Mog, a Moogle who guides Noel and Serah through the world and time.
Personally, Serah doesn’t strike me as a very interesting character–she seems to, for most of the game, have a generally bad time in the style of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and to be generally two-dimensional besides this–but it’s not especially insightful to critique a character by saying tit isn’t one’s personal cup of tea. I think the more interesting problem with Serah is actually much deeper and harder to forgive than anything like her likability: the problem is that Serah’s epistemic perspective is directed outside of the game’s universe. The entire thrust of Serah’s storyline is that she remembers her sister when no one else does, and wants to restore time to the way she remembers it; in other words, she remembers the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and is trying to reestablish them in a world that is radically different. (Note, as an aside, that this is one of the reasons why it’s so challenging to make sense of the series’ overall consistency: the very premise of time paradoxes in FFXIII-2 effectively undoes many narratively central elements of FFXIII, and similar anti-plot devices bridge the gap between FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns.) So the primary objective of the game’s narrative, as presented through the lens of its focal character, Serah, is to undo the world of the game by changing history to reinstate the world of the previous game. So Serah’s narrative isn’t simply a “distraction” from Noel, Caius, and Yeul’s narrative: it actually actively disqualifies it as relevant, since that narrative constitutes part of the world that Serah is aiming to undo. Indeed, even when Serah is identified as a Seeress who, like Yeul, can see the future at the cost of her life, this fact that could potentially unify the two narratives seems nevertheless to be something that Serah’s narrative tries to overpower and disqualify: she decides to continue trying to change the future despite the fact that it may cost her life. Thus when Serah does die at the end of the game as a cost of her visions, the death doesn’t beautifully tie her story and fate together with Noel’s–rather, it just puts a final emphasis on the bizarre fact that the game you just played forced you to focus on a player who never wanted to be in the world of the game.
This problem is deep and inescapable because the narrative of FFXIII-2 virtually always focuses on events through Serah’s perspective. This is important to note because there are multiple ways in which games can intermingle good and bad narratives, and these ways bring about different effects in the overall narrative. It’s useful in this regard to contrast FFXIII-2 with the case of Assassin’s Creed III.
Again, regulars to the site will know I’ve been harshly critical of ACIII in the past, mostly in virtue of what I see as a baseless use of an alien-like First Civilization dominating and confusing a narrative about Templars fighting with Assassins; I first detailed this in an article comparing the “aliens” of Assassin’s Creed to the “aliens” of Majora’s Mask. Roughly, my gripe against the game is that the imposition of the First Civilization discounts the value of any agency the player appeared to have within the world of the game, thereby undercutting the entire point of having played the game; this is especially clear when Desmond killed with little narrative justification or explanation at the end of ACIII. But it’s crucial in understanding ACIII to note that there are two layers to the narrative: we have Desmond working as an assassin in present time, and we also have him accessing and living out the memories of his ancestors in the past via the Animus. When engaged in the Animus, the broader storyline of Desmond, the First Civilization, etc., largely fade away: instead, we are left with a compelling narrative about a Native American ancestor, Ratonhnhaké:ton, taking part in the American Revolution, becoming an assassin, and undertaking a deeply personal quest for justice.
The key thing to notice about the above ACIII example is that the layered aspect of the narrative, with the Animus interface serving as a barrier between Desmond’s story and Connor’s story, allows us to effectively consider each narrative independently of the other, while still being able to consider them compositely if we so choose. Despite my qualms about the overall game and series, I quite enjoyed Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story in Assassin’s Creed, and the overall narrative structure allowed me to enjoy it without the overarching Desmond narrative severely impeding it. But this isn’t the case in FFXIII, because there is no Animus-like interface between Serah and Noel’s narratives: Serah is the player’s primary conduit to the entirety of the game’s world–the world she wants to undo. Even in the momentous final confrontation between Noel and Caius that I described above, we find Serah collapsed a few yards from them on the beach of Valhalla, being sad and generally having a bad time. We’re trapped in the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong or want to participate in the world in which we as players as participating, and that is the crux of FFXIII‘s failure.
Conclusion: A Tale of Tragic Irony
If you like irony, then there’s a silver lining for you in all this: even though the overall architecture of FFXIII-2 spoiled what could have been a moving and cerebral story, it does leave us with some tragic, dramatic irony in the way that Serah’s narrative interacts with the narrative of Noel, Caius and Yeul. Noel, Caius, and Yeul are deeply enmeshed in a universe rife with paradoxical possibilities and timelines, trying understand the best way to shape their world and each other as they grapple with the complex perspective and sympathies that come with witness life, death, and pain across countless generations and potential timelines; yet all of their struggles to understand and make meaning ultimately depend on the whim of a player whose actions are being filtered through the lens of a girl who has no intrinsic stake in the events or native inhabitants of the world in which she finds herself. This almost recalls classic Greek tragedy in how laughably ironic it is: as characters wrestle with their humanity and universe, their fate rests in the hands of someone whose priorities are entirely elsewhere–literally in a different game.
If there’s any larger takeaway here, I think it’s this: the worlds and metaphysics of video game worlds are integral to the stories of video games, and the characters of games oftentimes relate to the game’s world in different ways. If the characters have different stakes in the world, then the relations between those stakes, along with the weight given to each of those stakes, must be mindfully architected, or else the whole narrative could be thrown out of balance. And, although we might think it obvious, FFXIII-2 shows us how crucial it is that the principal avatar in a game is actually invested in the world of that game. After all, what incentive does a player have to act as an avatar that does not wish to participate in the game’s world?
But, with that, a new chapter is beginning. Here’s hoping that Square learned from its mistakes, and that Final Fantasy XV has a story worth telling. The only way to know for sure is to dive into its world and find out. Or, you could head back here in a few weeks and see what I think of it.
Or both. Both is good.
-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.
I spend a lot of time introducing non-gamers to video games I like. A majority of the time the non-gamer’s reaction is mixed. Amidst moments of excitement and comments about the beauty of the graphics, there are inevitable complaints about lack of clarity in the in-game systems and control scheme of the game. Some of the complaints are completely reasonable, and I agree with them entirely; understanding the implications of the Final Fantasy VIII junction system, or how to jump in Dark Souls without helpful explanation from a friend, seems to me to be a miracle. I quickly forgive these complaints because they are complaints about overly complicated systems.
But there is another set of complaints that are much more foundational. These are complaints about the basic systems of a game, which often aren’t that complicated, but are steeped in convention. These complaints have to do with the fact that non-gamers by definition have less experience with the conventions of gaming than a gamer. For example, some of these complaints might be:
- How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
- How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
- How do I pause?
But the following example is, I think, particularly interesting, simply because it’s a problem that every game has to deal with in some way. This is the moment when the person I’m showing a game to has just finished watching the introductory cutscene (or lack thereof), and their avatar is just standing there, gazing off into the distance, until I say, “Hey, you can move now, you know?”
Usually at this point, the person in charge of the avatar jiggles the joystick and, surprised, says, “Oh whoa, you’re right.” Even experienced gamers often get caught off guard at that moment, since they are by nature naive for any given game when they are starting it for the first time. Normally, conversation about that moment of unclear control ends on that note, and never comes up again (unless the player makes the mistake another time). One should ask, why doesn’t the game just inform the player that they’re in control using a text box? And that is one potential solution to this problem. But it’s easy to trivialize the narrative power of a moment like the one described above. The power of a moment that plays with player expectation so effectively should not be overlooked. The mechanics in a game that impact us most are the ones that play with our expectations. Rather than leave the unclear control at the start of a game as a nuisance in the gaming experience, why not use it to tell a game’s story better? There are a few games that have caught on to this narrative power. For example, in Batman: Arkham Knight, when Batman tells Alfred that he’s going to even the odds, and a text prompt appears that says “L1- Even The Odds”, the player shudders with anticipation of what powerful new ability is about to be introduced (or perhaps aware that it will undoubtedly be the Batmobile).
In a similar way, some games have played with the accidental mechanical phenomenon of unclear control in order to create experiences that range from satirical comedy to heartbreaking loss.
So what exactly is it that defines “unclear control”? To understand, I’ll propose a framework that will capture the phenomenon of unclear control so we can analyze it. The framework consists of two mechanical elements of games. We’ll then look at the phenomenology associated with the second mechanical element. I’ve created this framework with the intent of explaining unclear control, but I believe it could explain other design decisions as well.
The first mechanical element of the framework is the player’s control state. The control state is the set of ways in which the player can impact the game at any one time t (for this and following explanations I will label a moment in time as variable “t”). Control state is fluid, so it can change over time, based on in-game mechanisms and controls. At time t the control state could be one thing, but it could change to something else at time t + 1 second. But at any time t the player has a definable control state.
The second mechanical element is the actual game state. The actual game state is the collection of all aspects of the current run of the game, including the graphical systems, the music that’s playing, as well as many more internal calculations that vary depending on the game. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state, and there is only one actual game state at time t.
But many aspects of the actual game state do not present to the player’s senses, which leads to the creation of the apparent game state. Many times in a game, the player cannot distinguish between several different game states. Thus, these game states are apparently the same. These actual game states will all be grouped together into one apparent game state. Thinking about it from the other direction, one apparent game state can arise from a variety of actual game states, only one of which is active at time t.
A key aspect of this system is that a particular apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states because it can arise out of several possible actual game states. The control state in any one particular apparent game state can be ambiguous. I’ll note the key relationships between these ideas below:
- Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
- The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
- The apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states.
With this framework we can now define unclear control.
Although the classic example of unclear control is the moment at the end of a cut scene when it is unclear if the game engine is once again taking player input to control the avatar, the mechanical phenomenon is actually more general than that (I describe unclear control as a mechanical phenomenon because it is a phenomenon borne out of the mechanical systems in a game). Unclear control occurs whenever the player is experiencing an apparent game state that contains several different control states. In this way the player has no way to tell how much control they have until they try to give an input.
Unclear control is born out of an inherently frustrating aspect of video games: the question of how to communicate to the player that they are in control. And historically, games have had differing ways of dealing with this problem, including giving tutorials, and text-prompted hints. However, many game companies did not realize that this was a problem that they had to deal with in any particular way, and so when the initial dialogue ends at the start of the game, the avatar is left just standing there until the player figures out that they are in control. Thus, in its first appearances, unclear control is a frustrating, absent-minded, and accidentally created mechanical phenomenon. But, some game creators recognized that unclear control could be used to create narrative power, and so kept creating systems that utilized unclear control, even though it is frustrating for players initially, so that they can tell stories in a more intriguing way in the latter portions of the game. On that note, let’s turn to a few examples.
Final Fantasy VI makes use of unclear control frequently throughout the game. Dialogue sections (parts of the game in which the only player input possible is to click a button to make the next dialogue box appear) often have no visible or auditory transition back into player control once the dialogue box disappears, so when they end, the player’s avatar is left standing there until the player decides to move. But sometimes there are dialogue sequences in which the player’s character just stands in place, without making a sound, with no dialogue box present. Thus, the two most common ways to know whether the dialogue section has concluded are to try to move your avatar, or just to just wait for so long that the dialogue section could not reasonably still be going. I doubt that many players actually do the latter, so I will assume that in general the way of checking to see if a dialogue section is over is to press a movement button once the dialogue box has disappeared.
This brings us to an example of how unclear control can be used to forward a game’s narrative. At one point in Final Fantasy VI, Locke, one of the game’s protagonists, gets put on a mission with a previous romantic flame named Celes, who he thought had been killed earlier in the game. They bump into each other accidentally late at night outside of the inn at which they are staying. Locke attempts to apologize to her for an earlier transgression, but she won’t respond. After a moment she runs away from Locke, off-screen. Locke is left silent, staring off in the direction that she ran. At this point I impulsively tried to run after her, thinking that the dialogue section had concluded and my next goal was to find her and tell her that I didn’t hate her (chasing after characters is a recurring objective in the game). My goal at that point implicitly became to chase after Celes. But it turned out that the game hadn’t yet handed control back to me yet. The game was actually in a different control state. Instead of giving control back to me, the game slowly faded into black. But my experience should not be considered unique, because the gameplay itself is what gave me the goal to chase after her.
Through unclear control, the game gives the player a goal—to chase after Celes—that is not actually achievable based on the metaphysics of the game world. I could not act on my desire to pursue Celes, just like Locke couldn’t. The unclear control in this example potentially creates a palpable feeling in the player of the difference between what is wanted and what is done. Regardless of the amount of player emotional investment, the apparent game state creates the illusion that the in-game goal is to chase after Celes, because the dialogue section appears to have concluded and the player is given an indication of where to go to follow her. Thus in some sense the player feels they can and should chase after her. But the volition cannot turn into action. When it comes down to it, Locke doesn’t chase after her, no matter how much he might want to. And then comes the feeling of failure—the feeling of not acting on your desires and also not helping a friend. Through unclear control, the game can express to the player a feeling of knowing what you want but being unable to incite yourself to action. I challenge any medium other than games to express this feeling as eloquently as Final Fantasy VI does.
My next example, from Undertale (by the magnificent Toby Fox), is not nearly as emotionally charged: the goal is satire on JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). So in order to understand it, I’ll need to describe the trope that is being made fun of. A great example of the trope in action comes from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane, the character that the player controls through a majority of the game, walks into a room mostly filled with water, with a bridge through it. Once the player walks into the room, the player loses control of Zidane, and then a dialogue section ensues. There is a moment of pause before a serpent slides out from a hole in the wall and falls into the water. There is another pause before the serpent attacks and a battle starts.
Thus the formula is born. The player is in control, walking along, and a certain location will cause the control to be taken from the player. A monster appears and does something. Then, after a pregnant pause, the monster attacks and a battle begins. One should note that in order to use this particular series of events, generally the game must be discontinuous between the battle word and overworld, featuring a transition of some sort between the two worlds (most older JRPGs work this way).
An important detail of this particular trope is that it teaches the player something about their control state during the events leading up to the battle. When the avatar stops, they know that they are no longer in the control state that allows them to move their avatar. But after the monster appears, a naive player may try moving again, to see if they have regained control. These games have now standardized that after a monster appears and control is taken from the player, control will not be given back to them until after the ensuing battle. This is not a necessary truth, just a standardized one.
Undertale features a moment very similar to the one in Final Fantasy IX described above. One need only take a look at the two pictures below to see the similarity in the circumstances. In both cases the player is walking into a room filled with water, and there is a bridge across it. In a similar fashion, the characters both stop on the bridge only to be interrupted by a monster.
Now, Undertale is incredibly ambiguous between two of its control states in particular: walking around the world, and dialogue. The apparent game state for the two control states is the same whenever the dialogue box is absent, especially during transitions between the control states. Dialogue sections almost always start with only an abrupt change in control state (taking control away from the player), and they almost always end by returning control to the player. Often very little indication is given that a transition has been made.
So when the player is stopped on the bridge, the player immediately knows that they’ve entered a dialogue section. The monster, who we find out is named OnionSan, shows up and talks for a little while, immediately activating the conditioning any regular JRPG player has experienced. After OnionSan is done talking, all of these non-naive players are ready and waiting through the pregnant pause for the battle to start. But, little do they know, the game has actually changed the control state for the player: they are back in control. When finally they do decided to try to move, they are rewarded with watching the avatar awkwardly shuffle across the screen. With the use of an unclear control state, Undertale has fashioned a moment that is awkward both in dialogue and in the actions of the player. And since the moment repeats a few times before the player makes it to the next room (without ever fighting OnionSan), the awkwardness is effectively prolonged, leading to wonderful participatory satire.
Creating ambiguity in the amount of control the player has at any one moment can be an effective means in many occasions of tying humor or story into the very mechanics of a game—a key part of the player experience. Final Fantasy VI used unclear control to give insight into Locke’s state of mind through the implicit creation of in-game goals—to experience firsthand how multiple options appeared possible, but only one choice was made. Undertale used the unclear control to satirically challenge a common trope in the JRPG genre. And I’m sure that with more searching, other brilliant examples of narratively powerful unclear control could easily pop up. But what’s most important, I think, is that unclear control takes use of what is often a frustrating or embarrassing experience for a player (not being sure whether or not they have control of the avatar) and turns it into a tool to use to expand player experience. What other frustrating aspects of games can we hijack in a similar fashion? Games don’t have to be frustrating, even for new players. If an element of the design of a game is frustrating, it should be removed (if it can be). And if it is not removed then it should be used as part of the storytelling experience. Rather than stick like glue to our common mechanical conventions, game designers should make use of their mechanics to expand their story, or maybe at least tell a joke. Let’s make use of how the mechanics of our games make players feel to enhance the experience. Let’s shoot for the standards set by Final Fantasy VI and Undertale, and use all the tools we have available to us to tell our stories.
Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.
 If we define a phenomenon as the object of a person’s perception, unclear control would be a mechanical phenomenon because it’s something that a person notices that is based on the mechanics of the game. I describe it as accidental because, to the best of my knowledge, no one desired to create unclear control in the design for their games in its first appearances.
 It may also be interesting to consider the situation in which players have no control. Is WHETHER a player has control relevantly different from HOW MUCH control a player has in any particular way? Are there special characteristics for the “null set” within this model? I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. But if we find the answers, they may help fill out the model in a more complete way. I’m eager to hear any thoughts/examples. If I find an intriguing idea I’ll likely write about it in the future.
A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.
I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.
With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.
(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)
I. Teaser Metaphysics
The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.” In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.
- What are we talking about? (Ch. 5)
When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.
Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”
Lin: “Huh…good point.”
Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”
Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”
Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”
Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”
Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.
Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”
Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”
Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”
Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”
Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”
Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”
And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.
Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.
The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.
The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)
This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.
Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”
Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”
Lin: “I know…”
I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.
Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.
But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.
But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.
The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)
After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.
Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.
Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?
Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”
Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?
If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.
For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).
So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”
However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.
But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.
II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues
The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.
Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.
The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.
Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.
It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.
From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.
In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.
III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel
Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.
I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.
“Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).
Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.
(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)
Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]
Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”
But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.
Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.
But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.
What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.
So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.
What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.
Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.
If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.
Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”
If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.
As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.
 To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.
–by Laila Carter, Featured Author.
Equipped with her four guns and always waging war against the heavenly army, the Umbra Witch Bayonetta has become one of the most recognizable female characters in gaming. Some people have (understandable) qualms with Bayonetta as a character: they claim that her over-sexualization – making someone excessively sexual whether in looks or actions – only attracts people to look at her body for pleasure, and that viewers do not respect her as a women of agency. However, judging by the many reactions people had when she was announced as the newest character in the last Super Smash Brothers game, I do not think that this is true. People respect Bayonetta and her abilities despite her over-the-top sexuality, or, as I argue, because of it. She is one of the few women in video games who is overtly sexy yet owns her sexiness, incorporating it in her personality. She is not simply some side-girl with no purpose other than to show off her huge breasts. She is the main star of her game and kicks major butt with witch power and sexual grace, showing off a butt-shot here and there simply because she feels like it. Bayonetta has agency of her own over-sexuality; She has the ability for a character to create and change the way she presents herself, and she does so by owning her image and enjoying every minute of it.
Let me be clear about the goal of this article: I am not discussing whether or not Bayonetta is a feminist icon in gaming. That discussion is an ongoing one that will probably never be fully answered, but it has no place here. I am instead discussing how Bayonetta uses her sexuality in a different way than most women in video games.
Bayonetta, The Male Gaze, and Agency
When watching film or animation, certain topics tend to appear when analyzing how and why a scene is shot. The most relevant film term here is the term “gaze”; its definition is to “look at steadily and intently, in fixed attention.” In film studies, “the male gaze” specifically refers to when the camera positions itself so as to objectify the woman (or women) on screen. The audience does not view the woman as a person, but rather as an object, thanks to camera angles and movement, character attire, or scene setting (for a simple example, a woman lying in bed in a provocative manner). You can use these terms when talking about any visual medium, like comics, art, television, and video games. The types of art that use the “male gaze” depend on spectators’ scopophilia: deriving pleasure in looking at a woman for sexual interest. Scopophilia is what feminist film critics argue heavily against because the “male gaze” reduces women on screen to an object rather than to a character. By “object,” I mean a thing that one can own and handle as their own, and by “character” I mean an fictional entity representing an intelligent and sentient being that has its own independent existence. Critics and gamers have argued against Bayonetta’s entire character because of the “male gaze” the game’s cinematics produce; they claim that she invites spectators to look at her for her over-sexual body and not for her actual character.
While I agree that the “male gaze” is a problem in film and animation, I do not think it can fully apply to Bayonetta’s character. To demonstrate, I will compare Bayonetta to the comic heroine Power Girl of the DC Universe, and to another controversial video game heroine, Tracer from Overwatch. Through Power Girl and Tracer, I will show the inconsistency between their character design – the way they look – and their character development – the way they act, feel, and understand the world as a whole. The inconsistency between design and development is a common way to distort female characters and attract the “male gaze,” having viewers focus on appearance rather than the overall character; And yet, this flaw of design and development does not exist within Bayonetta’s character.
The comic book heroine Power Girl is a tough, short-tempered superhero who has all the superpowers of Superman, except that she as a very low tolerance of nonsense. Her outfit, though, is more suggestive. It is a leotard, but it has a huge hole at the chest, which reveals Power Girl’s unnaturally huge breasts. While Bayonetta does possess unnatural body portions, mainly in her freakishly long legs, her sexual organs – breasts and backside – are fairly normal. Power Girl’s obviously enlarged and showcased breasts attract the “male gaze,” inviting viewers to read her comic for sexual pleasure rather than for her actual story. Her sexualized character design contradicts her character development, ignoring her no-nonsense personality, making it apparent that her outfit and body were not of her own design. The only explanation for these features is that the creators wanted her to look that sexualized; nothing in her own personality and behavior suggests that she would ever wear such an outfit (especially with breasts as big as those – one jump and they are flying right out).
Another good example of character inconsistency comes from a recent controversial pose of a female character. In Blizzard’s new team-based shooter Overwatch, the most iconic character, Tracer, had a new victory pose that some people did not like. In the shot, she had an “over-the-shoulder” look, meaning her back was as the camera while her head looks over the shoulder. With her back to the camera, she shows off her orange behind, fully outlined in tight spandex. Tracer is a fun-loving, silly, and friendly character, but the pose had nothing “to do with the character [Blizzard] is creating.” The argument does not call out all female heroes in the game (such as a sniper who purposely “flaunts her sexuality” to distract her enemies, so it makes more sense for her to be showing off her behind), but does not approve of Tracer’s pose because it showed that “at any moment [the creators] are willing to reduce [female characters] to sex symbols.” The pose contradicted her personality and was very jarring in comparison to her character development. The article sparked a huge discussion to the point where Blizzard studios removed the pose altogether.
On the other hand, Bayonetta’s black, detailed body-suit establishes her as a sexy character. She is a flirtatious and dramatic dominatrix, not afraid of showing off her sexy body to anyone who is willing to watch. Her skin-tight outfit, in both games, pronounces her behind, but not so much her breasts. It creates a strange balance of sexualization, not making her too top-heavy but still allowing her to flaunt her body. It would not make sense if she wore a modest outfit, just like it does not make sense that tough and cranky Power Girl wears an overtly suggestive one. Her design works well and builds upon her character development, making her a more consistent character overall, one that does not feel like the creators wanted to give her a sexy overfit for the sake of sexiness.
The most important aspect about Bayonetta’s character design is that her sexuality does not seem out of place. Bayonetta takes full control of her sexiness and unashamedly shows it off. She is a dominatrix, sexy yet intimidating and powerful. She poses erotically as she performs killing blows on her enemies. She summons demons fully naked, making the most ridiculous and sexy stances in the game. Everything about Bayonetta reflects over-the-top female sexuality that startles, shocks, and impresses its viewers. Her hair-woven outfit and appearance in general match her abundant sexiness in her speech and actions. Unlike many other female character designs that have no business being sexual, Bayonetta’s design encompasses her sexuality in all aspects of her person: her outfit, her personality, her behavior, and her gameplay (more on that later). She has agency – the ability to create and change – over her sexuality and revels in it, using it as a means to portray who she is as a person. If you take away her sexiness, Bayonetta would cease to be Bayonetta.
In both of Bayonetta’s games, she exhibits her over-sexualization in two media: cutscenes and gameplay. Both produce different iterations of Bayonetta, as the prolonged cutscenes are more blatantly sexual than the gameplay, but the latter produces many instances of Bayonetta flaunting her body, triggered by the player’s choice in attack. I will discuss both separately in order to further argue my case that Bayonetta has the ability to create and change her own over-sexuality.
Bayonetta in Cutscenes
When you are first introduced to Bayonetta, chances are that you think she is just another over-sexualized female character in gaming. You load Bayonetta 2 and start the story by watching the first cinematic cutscene of the game. You see Bayonetta in a fancy shopping outfit strolling down the sidewalk, when a fighter jet barrels towards her. She stops it, leaps on top of another one in midair, and faces the horde of angelic monsters that confront her. They attack, she dodges; but in the process, the angels’ weapons tear away her outfit, presenting her in the middle of the sky fully naked (luckily, shading prevents the game from being pornography). She then summons her hair to wrap around her nude body, creating her outfit (yes, it is made out of her hair) as she poses dramatically. She then proceeds to destroy the angels in a series of sexy and over-the-top attacks before the game drops you into gameplay.
Bayonetta’s cutscenes are, to put it mildly, absurd.
If players manage to survive the opening cutscene, then they realize Bayonetta’s over-sexualization definitely earns the word “over.” Bayonetta performs ridiculous stunts, flying through hell on a giant demonic horse, avoiding weapons by spreading her legs, or participating in a sexy posing contest with an enemy angel. She may perform her actions in sexual ways, but everything happens so fast and so outrageously that it leaves one in utter surprise rather than in sexual pleasure. Bayonetta will summon a demon and slap an angel’s behind in the same scene, and the player can barely process all the images and what they imply. The over-sexualization of the opening scene is mainly for shock value: the combination of the presentation and subject material makes it hard for the viewer to take everything seriously. Bayonetta’s sexuality is less for visual pleasure than for people to stop and question what they just saw, to rethink the entire situation that Bayonetta is in. This is especially true if you play the game for the first time and have never seen the cutscenes. Bayonetta’s over-sexualization is so absurd and over-the-top that it becomes comical – it is nonsensical shock-value entertainment. Even when players watch the cutscenes and Bayonetta’s poses for the third or fourth time, nothing gets old; it’s still fascinating how Bayonetta creates an extravagant show out of her own sexuality.
Bayonetta in Game Design
People are sometimes rightfully frustrated with female characters in video games because of their narrative placement: that is, when a woman appears in the narrative and what she does to impact the story. Many women appear in DLC, or in no gameplay at all–they are there to help, but are never fully playable. They are in the game to be rescued, to help the main protagonist but never accomplish anything by themselves, or for the infamous factor of sex appeal. This kind of representation of women becomes more frustrating when the designers decide to sexualize female characters that are crucial to the narrative. For example, Kaine from Nier is not playable at all and shows up to assist the protagonist Nier most of the time. She is important to the story, but her apparent lack of agency over her own story (she gets possessed by a monster at one point, and it’s up to the player whether she lives or dies) can be very disheartening for people who want her to have more control in her own narrative. In addition, her skimpy outfit barely covers her body, revealing most of her behind, and greatly contradicts her cold and anger personality (much like Power Girl). Her character placement is frustrating because her lack agency over her own story and her contradictory design, which invites the “male gaze” to mostly “gaze” at her cutscenes. Kaine’s sexualized (and unnecessary) character design and placement makes it seem like she is in the story mainly for the player’s pleasure, and not for a consistent character development.
Bayonetta, on the other hand, is the main and most prominent character of her game (it is named after her). Her character placement is the center stage, and the player does most of the action through her character. She is playable 98% of both games, and, more importantly, she is the active character of the game. Active characters change the environment and story according to their own will. In the first Bayonetta, she decides to head to the ancient city Vigrid to figure out her past and find her lost memories. Without spoiling anything, in the end she reclaims who she is as a person and fights for both what’s right and for the safety of the world. In Bayonetta 2, she decides to venture into Inferno itself, ignoring the improbability of survival in order to save her near-dead best friend Jeanne. She rekindles relationships with many characters and saves the world in the process, again. In the first Bayonetta, the plot revolves around her self-discovery and asserting her right to live, and in the second Bayonetta, the plot follows her selfless adventure to save her one true friend. She is not a side character present in order to assist the protagonist, nor is she unessential to the plot. The narrative would not exist without her taking charge, without her deciding her own fate, and without her overcoming all obstacles with the strength and willpower of her one-woman army.
Not only does she direct the game’s story (as a well-designed character should do) by making her own decisions and changing the course of the narrative, but Bayonetta has also become one of the most powerful figures in video games. This is important because, as I have stated before, many women who are sexualized are portrayed as weak compared to other characters (protagonists especially) in the story. On the other hand, Bayonetta is ridiculously strong and is arguably the strongest character in the game. In terms of gameplay, Bayonetta has one of the most fluid and powerful combo systems containing a large variety of options that never make the gameplay dull. She acquires different weapons that can pair with other weapons to form even more combos. These weapons range from sharp and deadly swords to a giant hammer, from ice skates to whips, and from a living scythe to a bulky grenade launcher. Every weapon has a unique demon that Bayonetta can summon either if the player uses the right attack combination or if the player initiates umbra Climax, a mode in Bayonetta 2 in which Bayonetta’s attacks increase in magical strength. In this mode, Bayonetta manifests larger versions of her normal attacks and can summon her large personal demons more easily. Everything on screen explodes in purple magic with Bayonetta glowing, and the players gets a rushing sense of exhilaration. They can feel her magical power whenever they destroy a fleet of angels with her giant, demonic punches, and they can feel the true strength of an Umbra witch when they annihilate a boss as big as battleship. The player feels powerful through Bayonetta, that they, through her, can conquer any obstacle standing in the way. Cutscenes may show off some of Bayonetta’s fighting power in sexy and comical ways, but players get real understanding of her ridiculous and amazing strength through gameplay. Her combos and demonic summons demonstrate the full force of an Umbra Witch, a being who is not to be trifled with.
To top it off, Bayonetta incorporates her sexiness in all of her gameplay. Some attack combos have Bayonetta perform acrobatic stunts, which she finishes with dramatic and flirtatious poses. For example, when Bayonetta attacks with her “breakdance” move, she spins around on the ground, shooting bullets in a whirlwind that does great damage to nearby enemies. She stops this attack by lying on the ground with her behind in the air, arching her back and winking directly at the camera (breaking the 4th wall). Torture attacks are special summons that produce great damage or instantly kill enemies. When she summons them, Bayonetta usually performs another sexy pose; for example she can summon a tombstone to flatten enemies, and when the heavy stone lands, she squats with her knees spread and makes a face, all like she is posing for the camera (the flattened enemy is behind her). The funniest are the punish attacks, where she will sit on top of a fallen enemy and slap them to death, usually on their butt. It is highly sexual and creates the picture of Bayonetta as a dominatrix; yet the player prompts Bayonetta to use her punish attacks because they are incredibly efficient in dealing with enemies, not just because they are sexy.
The most sexually revealing of Bayonetta’s attacks are her demonic summons, yet they are the most spectacular parts of the game. Bayonetta summons her large inferno demons at the end of mini boss fights, boss fights, after certain attack combos, or during umbra Climax in Bayonetta 2. She can call forth beasts such as Gomorrah, a dragon, Diomedes, a Unicorn whose horn is a giant sword, and the infamous Madame Butterfly, her personal female demon whose limbs Bayonetta summons the most for fighting. The witch even uses her to fight against an equally strong opponent angel, resulting in an grand aerial battle between Bayonetta and a Lumen Sage in the foreground (the fight the player controls) and between the giants of Madame Butterfly and the angel Temperantia in the background. Demonic beasts encompass the entire screen, finishing off other large enemies with ease. In order to summon such monsters, Bayonetta uses her hair; her hair, though, is what makes up her clothing, so in order to summon demons, Bayonetta has to be naked. It is a little startling when a player first summons Madame Butterfly’s fist and Bayonetta appears nearly naked on the screen. It is not complete nudity: gray shading covers her breasts, stomach, vagina, and behind, but she still does not wear any clothes. She will appear like this in regular combat, whereas in cutscenes she will be naked, but with her hair blocking anything inappropriate. When she summons demons for a grand finisher, her nakedness is more suggestive as the gray shading is no longer present and only weaves of hair cover her private areas. It is over-sexual to the extreme: the over-the-top, ridiculous, and absurd nature of Bayonetta’s near-nudity adds even more to the shock value of game, making players ask whether if what they saw on screen really happened. Playing as Bayonetta gives the player a whirlwind of initial confusion and shock, but it never deters from the thrill of overpowering enemies by summoning a giant canine to tear them to shreds.
Bayonetta’s attacks are graceful and powerful, exhibiting the female body throughout the gameplay. Her moves mean business, and that’s what is so great about Bayonetta. She is over-sexualized, but she defeats her enemies with overwhelming strength. She fights legions of both Paradiso and Inferno, angels and demons, minions and giant bosses, and still is able to pull a dramatic pose at the end of fighting. Her prominent display of her feminine body is empowering; in art media, the female body is usually presented as sign of weakness – something undesirable for the self to become – or as sexual interest – something desirable for the self to possess. Bayonetta demonstrates through her gameplay that having a female body does not make a person any less powerful: that one can have sexy breasts or a sexy behind and still defeat any enemy that comes one’s way. She proves that the female body is not a sign of weakness but of strength, because she accepts the body she was given and is proud of it.
Bayonetta’s agency of her over-sexualization makes her a wonderful female character. Many female characters have no agency at all, making their visual design mismatch their personality and behavior, thereby creating bad character design. With many fictional female characters – whether in movies, TV shows, animation, comics, or video games – female sexuality is present for the spectators, and not for the woman herself. She is sexy for the appeal of the audience, but not for her own tastes and pleasure. Bayonetta, however, fully enjoys her over-sexualization and professes it to the world, which is apparent in both cutscenes and gameplay. Who would perform sexy poses while in the midst of battle if they did not love their own body? She has full agency over her entire character – she owns her outfit, her sexiness, her personality, her narrative actions (meaning decisions she makes within the story), and her goals, and nothing stops her from believing in herself, sexiness and all. Her sexiness does not make up her entire character, either: she is courageous, witty, commanding, headstrong, and compassionate for her friends and family. Bayonetta is not a character who only has a game to exhibit her undying sexiness: she is there to teach her enemies a lesson and display real emotions at the same time. Looking sexy while doing it is just a good bonus. Bayonetta exemplifies that it is okay for a woman to be sexy if the woman wants to be sexy; you can have characters with sexy breasts, a sexy butt, and a sexy personality, and that’s fine as long as the characters are okay with it. This applies to both fictional characters and real people, male and female. Yes, it would be outstanding to have a female character who is just as powerful, prominent, and successful as Bayonetta without the intense over-sexualization; but I, a straight woman, do enjoy Bayonetta’s abundant sexiness because, for once, she also enjoys her own sexiness and celebrates it for her own sake.
Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.
 Feminist Film Studies, to be precise.
 The original post and the huge discussion it caused: http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583. Another video explaining the pose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf5SdrJoOdc
 The only reason I had any problem with the pose is because Tracer had no butt to show off – it’s non-existent and looks weird to me.
 Kaine is a hermaphrodite, but most people use she/her pronouns to describe her.
 I understand the argument for why she reveals most her skin – that she must expose the most skin to sunlight in order to control the monster possessing her – but it’s still shady. It is also in great contrast to her cold, calm, and shy personality.
 The other 2% you play as Jeanne, her best friend, and Loki, an important side character.
 For more on active and passive characters: http://readingwithavengeance.com/post/77195680492/on-writing-active-vs-passive-characters
 As a video game avatar, Bayonetta cannot completely control her actions: her fighting and traveling is in the hands of the player. But in terms of her crucial decisions and how she responds to certain events, Bayonetta has control.
–by Richard Nguyen, Featured Author.
Video games designers engineer worlds receptive to player input. Players are empowered with the agency to make decisions that can change the course of the game’s narrative and the characters within it. This decision-making is a core, interactive tenet of video games. In emulating the experience of choice and deliberation, there are various elements that designers must consider. Key among them is morality, or the principles humans hold to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” behavior, and how it influences player choice. The mechanics of moral decision-making across video games have been diverse, and only sometimes effective. In the time I have spent playing narrative games with morality as a central component and game mechanic, I have found that the games with the most minimal and least intrusive systems better emulate not only moral decision-making, but also the emotional consequences that follow. Presenting morality as its own discrete game mechanic is counter-intuitive, because it diminishes the emotional impact and self-evaluation of moral decision-making.
To begin, I will be applying a rudimentary framework of morality to fuel this discussion because the focus is not on morality proper, but on how it influences player choice. Video games that use the moral binary framework present to the player three possible moral courses of action: good, bad, and, sometimes, neutral. For our purposes, we will assume that the majority of players are good-natured, and believe in what society deems and teaches them to be “right” or “good.” At the very least, players understand what should be done. This includes, but is not limited to, altruism and cooperation. Good moral decisions often require self-sacrifice to achieve a greater good. Your avatar will sacrifice money for the emotional satisfaction of having donated to a virtual beggar. “Wrong” or “bad” behaviors, then, violate moral laws. Such behaviors include, but are not limited to, murder, lying, cheating, and stealing. Video games present morally “wrong” or “evil” choices as temptation, the desire to make the easier, selfish choice. Of course, life is not so simple as “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” To clarify, I will be using “good” and “right” to refer to the same concept, and will be using them interchangeably. The same applies to “bad” and “wrong”. The “neutral” alternative describes behaviors with no moral value, which is often presented as inaction in gaming scenarios. A flavored subset of the “neutral” choice is the “morally gray” choice, occupying a middle area between “good” and “bad” in which the moral value of an action is unclear. For instance, a typically “wrong” behavior, such as stealing, may be inflected with the “right” intention, such as stealing medicine in order to save your dying sister. In this situation, it is difficult to value the action as fully “good” or “bad”.
I outline this moral theory under the assumption that players’ moral beliefs will extend to the decisions they make as the avatar in the game world. Of course, players often experiment with moral decision-making in games by “role-playing” the good or bad person, but such an action already makes players acknowledge their pre-existing moral beliefs. At this point, players become detached enough from the avatar, under the knowledge that the avatar’s actions do little to reflect their own moral selves, that they would care drastically less about the consequences of such actions. I will instead be examining the cases in which players seek to make decisions in games as if their avatars were a full extension of their moral selves. In other words, players make decisions as if their own moral selves were truly operating in this world. Therefore, players would care more about how their decisions accurately reflect their moral beliefs. Otherwise, there are little to no personal stakes involved in decisions when you know they say nothing about you.
Designers often abide by the convention that morally right decisions are selfless and performed for the greater good, while morally wrong decisions are selfish and performed for personal gain. Players that make the morally right decision often engage in the more difficult and complicated narrative pathway. For instance, choosing to ignore a mission directive in order to save an endangered life may lead to punishment, and requires the player to work harder make up for lost time or resources. In spite of the extra layer of difficulty, these morally right decisions are more emotionally rewarding because they preserve the player’s conscience. Again, we assume that the majority of players inherently abide by what society deems to be right and wrong. Players that make the morally wrong decisions engage in the more expedient pathway that facilitates direct personal gain. For instance, choosing to ignore endangered civilian lives in order to fulfill the mission directive leads to no direct punishments. Instead, the consequences of this morally “wrong” decision come through the emotions of guilt and disappointment due to its violation of the player’s conscience. This is not to say that players are discouraged from making morally “wrong” decisions in video games. Rather, having players choose either a “good” or “bad” decision places responsibility on their own hands, rather than the writer’s. Allowing players to explore the emotional consequences of both ends of the moral spectrum forces them to reevaluate their own beliefs. In the case of the moral binary in video games, such reevaluation turns into the reaffirmation of societal norms. Designers use this moral theory in decision-making to reinforce the conventional meaning of “right” and “wrong.”
The two primary elements of morality in a video game context are intention and behavior. The player’s intentions are enacted through the avatar’s in-game behavior. In other words, the decisions made in a video game are determined by player intention. The behavior can be objectively categorized into “right” and “wrong” according to the game’s narrative. However, the behavior carries with it the player’s intention, which cannot definitively be measured or categorized by the game itself. The player’s subjective experience is then the key factor in determining how well the video game emulates moral decision-making. What the avatar feels is independent of the player’s own feelings as a result of a moral decision. With the binary morality system, designers make a direct appeal to the player and his or her moral beliefs.
The psychological phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance,” where one’s conflicting and inconsistent behaviors and beliefs cause discomfort, drives the consequences of moral decision-making. This internal, emotional conflict compels a person to change one of those beliefs/behaviors in order to reduce such discomfort. When good-natured players make a morally “wrong” decision in a videogame, their beliefs will be inconsistent with their behavior. Even if the player unwittingly or does not believe that they made a morally “wrong” decision, the game’s systems will still punish and treat them as if they did. For example, a person playing Grand Theft Auto 5 may fire a gun in public and not believe that it is wrong or against the law. The game’s systems, in the form of police, will nevertheless respond negatively. The player is left to reconcile his moral beliefs with those of the video game. There are three likely responses when a good-natured person (as we assume the majority of us are) makes a morally wrong decision: (1) change your beliefs to be more consistent with your behavior, (2) live with and accept the discomfort and inconsistency, or (3) sublimate, and find a reason or rationale to justify your inconsistency. The idea is that cognitive dissonance creates the emotion of discomfort. The first two options are labeled as truer dissonance scenarios because they are done in response to such discomfort. Option (3), on the other hand, precludes discomfort because the sublimation will have already taken place due to a third-party influence. Thus, players are not made aware of the inconsistency and continues, unaffected by their moral decision. From my experience, the most effective moral systems have compelled me to respond with Options (1) and (2), which most align with realistic moral decision-making and the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. By provoking the visceral discomfort of making a decision you realize was inconsistent with your beliefs, you will ostensibly be more compelled to respond. When video games inspire Option (3), sublimation, the player transfers responsibility to a third party and is therefore relieved of any personal, emotional consequence. Sublimation allows players to rationalize or provide an external explanation for their behavior. Therefore, responsibility for that moral decision is displaced, which mitigates any true feelings of cognitive dissonance. This is not to say that Option (3) never occurs in realistic moral decision-making. I am arguing that the modern video game most often counter-intuitively facilitates this transfer of responsibility, even when their goal is to appeal to or challenge a player’s moral beliefs through cognitive dissonance.
Now that I have clarified both my moral framework and the role cognitive dissonance plays in moral decision-making, I will analyze how these work in popular video games that use the moral binary framework. I will examine its role and evolution in several narrative-driven open-world and role-playing games. We will start from the simplest, most direct binary systems and work our way into games that add eschew the binary for more minimalist approaches.
In the Infamous series, the player must decide whether his avatar (Cole), a super-being with electric-based powers, will be a “hero” (good) or a “villain” (bad). In order to secure the most successful playthrough, in which the player unlocks the strongest abilities and completes the narrative, players must commit to one moral path and constantly commit the deeds that earn them either good or bad karma points. Each path provides unique abilities inaccessible in the other, incentivizing commitment to one moral path rather than neutrality. As a result, players have access to only two viable playthroughs of the same story. The hero playthrough facilitates a precise and focused combat play style while keeping your electricity blue, and the villain playthrough facilitates a chaotic and destructive combat playstyle while turning your electricity red. In order to earn karma points, the player must constantly engage in activities consistent with the respective path, as demarcated by the video game itself. Good karma points are earned by helping citizens and choosing the good prompt instead of the bad during pivotal story events. Bad karma points are earned by destroying the city, murdering citizens, and choosing the bad prompt instead of the good during pivotal story events. There are no neutral or morally grey options. A player’s karma meter is plastered on the heads-up display (“HUD”) to remind the player that their actions are omnisciently tracked and scored, essentially turning morality into its own mini-game.
In spite of its blatant tracking and systematic reminders, Infamous’s binary morality system is comically shallow and ineffective in producing realistic emotional consequences. The game reduces moral decision-making to a binary, because it can only be completed upon fulfillment of either the hero or villain pathways. The narrative makes its morality clear in that heroes are “good” and villains are “bad.” For the ordinary player, the only choice then is to consider whether they want to be consistent with their own good-natured beliefs and choose the hero path, or to deviate from the norm and explore moral violations as a villain. Aside from the joys of blowing everything up, choosing the villain’s path should then inspire some amount of discomfort, which should consequently lead to either (1) a change in player attitude to coincide with the behavior, (2) an acceptance of the discomfort, or (3) sublimation. The game’s blatant morality system in all cases inspires sublimation, and therefore fails to provoke any genuine cognitive dissonance within the player for several reasons.
First of all, Infamous’s blatant tracking turns morality into a purposeful meta-game to be conquered. Therefore, the goal to reach the highest karma levels is extrinsically motivated by in-game rewards such as unlockable abilities, rather than intrinsically motivated by the game’s narrative. The sheer volume of moral decisions the player makes as Cole are driven not by how the player would act, but by what moral pathway the player committed to at the very beginning. This allows for little moral experimentation on a case-by-case basis, as the player’s goal is to globally make either good or bad decisions.
Second, the game’s design makes it so that skill progression is tied to fully achieving full hero or villain status. This makes it difficult to completely finish the game if the player does not commit to a moral pathway. Thus, game designers are obligated to provide
players with the opportunity to “farm” karma points, in the case that they have poorly leveraged the karma system, to advance in power. Scattering redundant and bountiful opportunities to advance in karma level throughout the city diminishes the emotional impact of each moral decision. For example, there will be countless civilians on the street whom you can either choose to revive (good) or bio-leech for energy (bad). This becomes mundane because (1) you have already made the same decision countless times before and (2) you do not have a choice because your decision has already been made based on your playthrough. Infamous presents morality as a game mechanic with clear, delineated consequences. Both pathways end in earning more powerful abilities. By asking the player to virtually choose a side at the beginning of the playthrough, no further thought or questioning is required because the player no longer feels any responsibility for their actions. Once players lose a
sense of responsibility for their and their avatar’s actions, it is easier to dissociate themselves from moral acts that the avatar has performed. The game itself tracks and quantifies the player’s moral choices and produces a predictable response every time. Any cognitive dissonance is displaced by how the game virtually forces the player to commit to a single moral pathway in order to succeed. In games like Infamous, we submit to the game’s predetermined, simplistic morality, and are given no chance to evaluate such decisions based on our own moral beliefs.
Granted, no one has ever expected Infamous’s binary morality system to be the paragon of moral decision-making in video games or for it to change anyone’s moral code. Yet, it is clear that binary morality systems have become the rule, not the exception to exploring morality in video games. For example, high-profile and critically acclaimed narrative games such as BioShock, the Mass Effect trilogy, and even the Fallout series all abide by similar moral mechanics.
In BioShock, the ending changes based on the player’s decisions about how to deal with its
Little Sisters. The binary morality is as follows: save the sister (good) or harvest her (bad). Harvesting a sister will kill her in order to drain her life force and reap more economic benefits. The moral dimension of this decision lies in determining the fate of this narrative entity, in choosing whether or not to kill the sister. The good and right choice is to save the sister and restore her life, which provides less Adam (in-game currency) immediately but is rewarded with gifts of gratitude later on. One of the game’s central figures, Tenenbaum, explicitly denotes this to be the narratively good moral choice, especially when the most optimistic and humanist ending can only be achieved upon saving all of the sisters in Rapture. It is only in this ending where the Sisters help the avatar escape from Rapture. The cutscene, saccharine and hopeful, is accompanied by Tenenbaum’s affirmation of the player’s “good” morality. The morally bad and “wrong” choice is to harvest the sisters and essentially take their life to receive more Adam immediately but with no long-term reward. The bad ending (accompanied by Tenenbaum’s extremely bitter and dismissive monologue if the player harvests all the sisters) depict the avatar’s brutal and power-hungry takeover of Rapture’s remains, and the splicer’s savage invasion of the world above the surface.
The narrative makes evident, through Tenenbaum’s insistence upon humanity and these dichotomous endings, that there is a clear moral binary between good and bad. Yet, by tying the moral decisions concerning the fate of these sisters to directly economic, rather than purely emotional consequences, the game pollutes any potential moments of cognitive dissonance as a result of the morally “wrong” decision. What is initially posited as a measure of the player’s moral values is transformed into an exercise in economic impulsivity: whether or not players can delay immediate gratification for longer-term rewards. This is not to say that moral decisions can never be tied to economic consequences. Choosing between stealing or donating money holds unpredictable consequences and punishments, and one can get away with morally bad economic decisions while feeling internal guilt. For BioShock, however, the endings clearly attempt to evoke emotional consequences, particularly through Tenenbaum’s shaming of the player in the bad endings with no further reference to economic rewards. The experience of cognitive dissonance would be where the morally “bad” player either (1) changes their beliefs to be more consistent with their actions (believing that they were inherently justified in or truly wanted to harvest the sisters) or (2) accepts their actions as bad and lives with the shame of having murdered little children.
Thus, it seems as though the added economic layer of Adam rewards in moral decision-making was done more out of convenience, a way to give the player Adam instead of inspiring a moral quandary. By the end of the game, players may place responsibility on economic motivations, rather than personal or internal motivations, as the driving force behind their decisions. Moral responsibility is displaced by the justifications of either achieving a certain ending cutscene or by maximizing economic gain. As a result, the player experiences no dissonance because their “bad” actions are believed to be consistent not with their moral beliefs, but rather with this other economic motivation. While BioShock does a better job of posing a more complicated moral situation than the simple choice of “being a hero” versus “being a dick,” it instead settles with the economic quandary of choosing between “being a rich hero” versus “being an impoverished dick.”
While I adore the Mass Effect trilogy, I would be foolish to believe that people did not already determine to pursue a full “paragon” (good) or “renegade” (bad) playthrough within the first ten minutes. Paragon choices most often involve dealing through compassion, non-violence, and patience, whereas renegade choices are aggressive, violent, and intimidating. Narratively, paragon decisions are framed as heroic, which is met by an NPC’s openness and friendliness. On the other hand, renegade decisions are framed as apathetic and ruthless, met with an NPC’s fear and disapproval. The game’s feedback loop then reinforces the idea that paragon is conventionally good, and renegade is conventionally bad. The entire morality mechanic in this game revolves around the choices made in conversation. In fact, the game’s dynamics conversation wheel facilitates moral decision-making without the player even having to look at the dialogue options:, the upper right and left segments of the wheel are paragon choices and the lower right and left segments are renegade choices. The right middle section is reserved for neutral options, but is not a viable option for those looking to maximize their moral decision-making output. While being neutral is, in and of itself, a moral decision, the game grants little to no narrative benefits to doing so, and players are positioned to either progress to full paragon or renegade status.
Players can practically play and achieve full paragon or renegade status without even
reading or thinking about the dialogue options they choose. At this point, players have broken the moral binary system, because the player action no longer directly reflects their beliefs, eliminating the possibility for cognitive dissonance and genuine moral quandaries. Mass Effect nearly transforms moral decision-making into an automatic, thoughtless process. Instead of playing as how you deem to be the appropriate moral choice to make in different contexts, your morality is globally predetermined by the type of playthrough you wish to achieve. There are incentives and narrative rewards for committing to either paragon or renegade, and nothing is gained by choosing neutral dialogue options. For
instance, Commander Shepard begins as a neutral personality to fit the player, and is strongly characterized by moral decisions the player makes at the dialogue wheel. There is even a meter that tracks how good and bad your Shepard is on a moral spectrum. You start in the neutral gray zone in the middle, and “progression” is achieved whenever your tracker moves towards paragon’s blue side or renegade’s red side. As a player, morally
wrong acts can then be justified by playing by the game’s moral rules, and not their own. By turning morality into a game in and of itself, you undercut any emotional consequences these decisions may have on the player.
The Fallout series has done well in both perpetuating and addressing the problematic moral binary in video games. In Fallout 3, your behaviors are omnisciently tracked and
marked under a karma score, distinguishing the both the player’s and the avatar’s actions as good or evil. Good choices include granting charity to survivors in the wasteland, while evil choices include stealing, even when no one is looking and even if the object were but a mere paper clip. Again, this is another example of an unrealistic moral scenario, in which every time you steal a paper clip you receive a notification and unpleasant screech denoting that you have lost karma. It is almost as though I avoid making evil choices, not to avoid guilt or to save my karma score, but primarily to avoid that unpleasant screech. Here is yet another case in which the game’s progression system rewards committing to one moral side, and every decision you make is under scrutiny and is met with predictable consequences. Upon learning that the only penalty to pay for stealing is a bit of on-screen text and a screech, why not just steal
everything when no one is looking? Any guilt you might feel regularly is diminished by the reminder that this morality system is but a meta-game that can be exploited to increase your karma level by repeatedly donating caps to any schmuck in the wasteland. Fallout New Vegas takes measures to address this issue by incentivizing players to maintain a morally neutral playthrough via dedicated and rewarding perks for neutrality.
However, there still lies an issue in the blatant “gaminess” of its morality systems, where players feel as though their moral decisions are motivated extrinsically rather than intrinsically. In this case, players feel the need to satisfy the game’s expectation to commit to one of two (or, for New Vegas, three) moral pathways because of the various
benefits/perks that come with such a playthrough. Not only that, but the Fallout games also fail to imbue narrative consequences to a player’s morality. For the sake of preserving this open-world game’s consistency across playthroughs, the narrative is largely unaffected by player’s moral decisions. NPCs respond equally to “bad” and “good” avatars. The game’s primary response to moral decisions is merely mechanical, by the omniscient tracking meter and consequent on-screen notification of when a player has committed a moral decision. The drastic disconnect between the player’s moral decisions and the game world’s frigid indifference to such moral actions inspires little questioning or thought. Players, knowing that their actions have minimal consequence, place moral responsibility upon the game’s system rather than themselves and their own moral beliefs. By the end, the experience has boiled down to accommodating the game’s own defined sense of morality instead of exploring your own beliefs.
However, not all hope is lost! Some games come closer to emulating the experience of moral decision-making. Telltale’s The Walking Dead series remarkably captures the insecurity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that often comes with moral decision-
making. Throughout the game’s interactive cutscenes, there are often timed decisions players must make between four options. The player never knows which decisions are tracked, nor what consequences they might have, whether short-term or long-term. The only indicator players receive are a line of text that denotes “[insert character name here] will remember that.” Even in that statement, the impact is ambiguous, and the player is left to discern whether they made a good or bad decision according to their own morality, rather than that of the game’s narrative. Mechanically, The Walking Dead presents no explicit menu or HUD tracker for the player’s morality level, provides little-to-no feedback on these decisions’ narrative/gameplay impacts, and inflicts unpredictable
consequences. By contrast, the games mentioned above explicitly posited their own binary moral system: firm rules that the player must play by. In addition, the games above predictably provided information and definitive feedback to these moral decisions, lessening their emotional impact in the long run. Players, once made cognizant of the extrinsic forces that may be guiding their decisions, feel relieved of any moral responsibility for choices made in these narratives. This is because player action is driven and can be explained by a factor other than their internal beliefs. In The Walking
Dead, a minimalist morality system with no clear categorization or consequence keeps responsibility in the player’s hands. To explain, systems may still track player choices and make them instrumental to the progression of the story. However, minimalist systems do little to display or indicate to the player the value of their decisions and how they will impact the narrative, which feels more realistic. Choices made are more satisfying when the player understands or feels that they have been intrinsically motivated, and are the result of their own agency unpolluted by other incentives.
The Witcher 3 also succeeds in unpredictably imbuing morality into the seemingly mundane scenarios that occur in its world. Aside from major quest lines that also pose variable, complicated moral decisions, the decisions the player makes through Geralt’s ordinary day of work reach a sobering, disarming level of emotional realism. Geralt constantly runs across merchants, beggars, looters, and all sorts of unsavory characters throughout the game world. More often than not, the player must decide upon whether or not to
intervene, and how to resolve conflicts upon entrance. For instance, consider this example: a townsman asks me to find his missing child in the woods. Here, I have the opportunity to haggle for more pay beyond my standard fares, even though it is evident that he holds very little of value in his hut of sticks and mud. I eventually discover the son’s bones, leftover by wolves. Upon return, I am presented with two more difficult decisions. I can choose to lie about his son’s fate or to tell him the truth, which is a subjective moral quandary I will not pursue here. Either way, he refuses to pay me because I have produced no evidence, while realistically he is likely disheartened by his loss and has no money anyways. At this point, I can choose to “Witcher” mind-trick him into paying me, take it by force, or leave him in his grief.
Even if I choose to be “evil” and force him into paying me, I will be receiving so little money that it would be insignificant, and my “evil” deed will not be sufficiently justified by the economic gains. The difference between such economic decisions in The Witcher 3 and BioShock is that, while they are both tied to “bad” morality, BioShock’s immediate rewards and short-term gain rationalize the decision. Here, the economic rewards are so blatantly insignificant that the only rationale behind such a deed most likely stems from the player’s indifference to this NPC’s plight. Therefore, The Witcher 3 is more likely to provoke cognitive dissonance because morally “bad” decisions can not be rationalized or justified by any other incentives.
I will admit that I opted to mind-trick him for his money, as a spur-of-the-moment decision. I took his handful of coins and left him to grieve for his son. What is remarkable is that nothing guided me to make such a morally questionable decision. Money mattered little to me, so it must have been a matter of pride: desiring some acknowledgment for the completion of work. I would like to think of myself as a good person, and I always aspire to do so in video games. Yet, no substantial financial, mechanical, or other extrinsic factor possessed me to exploit the man. The worst part is, I got away with it, and I have to live with this decision throughout the rest of my playthrough, not to mention the chance that I may see that man again. At this moment, I felt like a bad person, and chose to live with this discomfort.
This side quest alone presents at least three moral choices that work. They work because The Witcher 3 holds no formal morality system, which means none of your actions is omnisciently tracked or denoted by the HUD. More importantly, the consequences/punishments are unpredictable and change depending on context. My interactions with the desperate townsman above may be repeated in different scenarios and stories with different effects. I found these numerous little scenarios to be the most
effective because the game appeared to be indifferent to my choices. The Witcher 3’s world of vice and monsters holds no definitive criteria to define good and evil actions, and therefore does little to mechanically address them, such as through on-screen notifications. This places all responsibility upon the player to (1) determine what is right and wrong based on his own beliefs and (2) deal with the consequences (e.g. guilt) of his own accord. Beyond crimes committed in the city, the game realistically grants you the freedom to be both the hero and the dick without formal judgment beyond your own self-evaluation and the unpredictable reactions of narrative agents. This is not to say that the game holds no morality at all, but that it does not commit to an objective, explicitly defined moral binary. The moral universe is then determined not by the game itself, but by the agents, such as NPC characters, within it that interact with the player and present their own diverse moral beliefs.
Self-contained moments in other video games also succeed in provoking realistic moral quandaries. For instance, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare has a side quest in which you hunt for a monster that is terrorizing country folk. You find that it is a peaceful sasquatch, the last of its kind. You must choose between killing it to satisfy the bounty and, in a sense, end its loneliness, or to leave it to live and die alone in solitude. Here, there is no clear good or bad, even if the choice is still binary. The choice will therefore also have no clear or predictable consequences. You will have to live with this permanent, immutable choice for the rest of the game, as the game itself will be indifferent to your decision.
Games like The Walking Dead and The Witcher 3 capture an essential component of moral decision-making: internal conflict. One’s cognitive dissonance is most active when these moral decisions have no extrinsic explanation or justification. Rather, the quandary is found within, an internal conflict propelled by self-evaluation. Discrete morality systems, such as the prominent binary system, may actually detract from the emotional impact of moral decision-making because it so readily and easily provides players with an extrinsic justification for their behaviors. By turning morality into an explicit meta-game, designers may unintentionally displace the player’s responsibility for their own actions and hinder the effects of cognitive dissonance in moral decision-making. Minimalist game design for moral decision-making better matches the moral experiences of ordinary life. Should I steal a cookie from the cookie jar? No one will know. The lines between good and bad are realistically blurred, because there exists no omniscient authority (unless you count your conscience) to denote and tally you on all the karmic decisions you have made in a day. At the end of the day, moral experiences in video games should not be determined by karma meters and reward systems.
Richard Nguyen is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.