“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

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At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.

Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

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Introduction

1990s 3-D platforming games were relatively difficult games, especially for my 3-year-old self. I distinctly remember playing Banjo Kazooie back in 1998. With my young, untrained fingers, it was simply impossible to walk across one of the many absurdly thin bridges spanning a dangerous gap without falling. But at that age my will was indomitable, and through countless hours of training, I became a master at crossing thin bridges. Platforming games became unilaterally easier at that point. I could apply the same skillset to each instance.

Then in 2007 Assassin’s Creed came out. Within the first hour of the game, I ended up in the same thin bridge predicament that I remembered so fondly from my days of playing mid-90s platformers for the Nintendo 64. As I set out across the bridge, I moved very slowly, ensuring that my camera was pointed straight ahead and I maintained exactly the course that I wanted.

Then I messed up. I got distracted and my thumb twitched ever so slightly. I mentally flinched, and awaited my inevitable plunge from the bridge. But that plunge never came. Altair remained perched on the bridge as if nothing happened. I stared in disbelief. I knew that I should have fallen.

But a thought occurred to me at that moment: Altair is an expertly trained assassin, not a bear named Banjo bumbling his way through the world. Why should he ever fall unexpectedly while crossing a thin path? How would he have survived his training and his missions up to this point? Maybe it was not actually possible to jump off the bridge.

I decided to test my theory, and try to jump off the bridge. Needless to say it didn’t work. The game prevented me from jumping off the bridge. But rather than be mad at the game for not placing trust in my ability to handle the mechanical difficulty of crossing the bridge, I was pleased. I was pleased because the game really put me in the shoes of the avatar. Altair is a master assassin, and as such needs to be more skilled than the 12-year-old who was controlling his actions as an avatar. By shaping the input I gave the game, the engine preserved the character of Altair.

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Authors have a difficult task in creating a narrative for a game. While the author is in command of a majority of the events in a game, there is a single variable which remains outside of their control: the player. The player’s actions are integral to the narrative of a game, and yet are by nature not within the control of the person who wrote the narrative of a game. But that does not necessarily leave the integrity of a game’s narrative to the whims of the player. In order to maintain a game’s narrative consistency, the believability of a story and the actions of the characters contained within, an author may introduce subtle nudges to the player’s actions. Not all games need to do this, however: some narratives are perfectly well maintained by a non-cooperative or incompetent player. But some narratives cannot afford the level of outside shaping to the narrative brought on by a player left entirely to their own devices.

The example I gave above is instructive because it shows how a game’s controls can be an important force in preserving, or not preserving, the narrative consistency of a game. If Altair had been able to fall, it undermines to a degree our ability as players to believe that he is an expert assassin. If Banjo never fell from ledges, maybe it would be hard to believe that we were playing as a human-like bear. By restricting (or noticeably not restricting) the ways in which the player can control the avatar, an author can maintain the consistency of the narrative being presented to the player.

There are many ways that control schemes can have an impact on the internal narrative consistency of a game. But in this and the following two articles, I would like to describe one particular concept: nudgy controls.

In the interest of defining nudges I would like to start by first defining what a game that lacks any nudges looks like. These are games in which an input X on the part of the player reliably yields an output Y within the game, so long as the physics of the engine allow it. For example, pushing left on the control stick always yields moving left, unless there is a physical wall blocking your path. There is a consistency to how the controls work. This is the example of Banjo who will reliably walk left in all situations when the player presses left, even if that results in him falling to his death.

Nudgy controls often resemble the paradigm described above, in that most of the time, an input of X yields output Y. However, in some cases, instead of input X yielding output Y, instead some other output, Z, is yielded. A nudge is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative coherence and Z preserves narrative consistency. As an example, most of the time when a player pushes left on the control stick, the avatar moves left. However, in some minority of cases the avatar instead moves forward. This is the example of Altair, who is nudged away from jumping off of the path to his death, presumably due to his training as an assassin.

Each individual instance of Y occurring instead of Z does not necessarily preserve narrative consistency. Context determines the effectiveness in this regard. The nudges in Assassin’s Creed help to preserve internal narrative consistency, while the same Y-to-Z conversions in Banjo Kazooie would actually undermine the internal narrative consistency. Thus the same mechanic used in Assassin’s Creed would that could be called a nudge would not be called a nudge in Banjo Kazooie. My definition of a nudge contains only the cases in which the instance of Y occurring instead of Z actually does preserve narrative consistency.

There are several kinds of games which maintain narrative consistency explicitly through lack of nudges. These games include:

  1. Trial-by-death games.
  2. Games with intentionally obtuse controls.
  3. Multiplayer skill tournaments

For the remainder of this article, I’ll go over these three types of games that don’t incorporate many nudges. In a follow-up article (Part II), I’ll discuss two differing models for nudgy controls.

  1. Trial-by-death games

A game’s mechanics can be described as trial-by-death if a majority of the gameplay consists of players dying at least once before success. There are a few possible reasons for the repeated player death. Through the death they could learn about a mechanic they could not have known without extra-gameworld knowledge before succeeding. In a puzzle game, there might be asymmetric information, such that the player cannot learn the solution to the puzzle without failing once at it. Or the game could just throw innovative, difficult challenges at the player that do not require a player death, but simply often result in it. These games are not simply “hard” in a conventional way; players usually cannot avoid dying entirely simply by learning some basic set of skills and mastering them. Unlike Pac-Man, which always features the same ostensive situation but with an ever-escalating degree of difficulty, a trial-by-death game will constantly change the nature of the challenges along with the difficulty.

In order for trial-by-death games to function properly, the player has to be sure that they can trace the effect of their death to their own actions. That way, given the new information they get from dying, they can change the way they play to not get killed again. This is one crucial reason for trial-by-death games not to have nudges in the controls. As the game designers at “Extra Credits” put it, studios like From Software (which created Dark Souls) make a “covenant with the player.” This covenant is that the game has a consistent ruleset. So the rules will not suddenly change, even in extenuating circumstances. If the player gets killed, they can always trace it back to their own actions, rather than pointing at the game engine and saying “it changed the rules.” The flipside is also true, though: if the player succeeds they can rightly congratulate themselves. But this sort of covenant with the player requires consistency in the controls. And so it precludes nudges. There should never be a moment in which input X could spit out either Y or Z. The player should always be sure of the output (if they’ve learned the game sufficiently). If there were nudges, it would be difficult for the player to diagnose the cause of their death, because they may be unsure about whether their own action or the nudge killed them. The inability to diagnose the problem would then lead to an inability to coherently change behavior for another try.

But the lack of nudges also can preserve narrative consistency in trial-by-death games. Dark Souls is an exemplar in this regard. As an undead in a world of gods and other undead, each task requires many attempts before success. By leaving the controls unhindered by nudges, narrative is preserved, since the player inevitably must try each task multiple times before success.[1] In this way the play experience parallels the avatar’s actions. Within the context of the game world, the avatar dies repeatedly attempting to accomplish his or her goal. The player as well most likely fails and tries again many times before success.

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

Dark Souls is not unique in being a game that benefits from a non-nudgy control scheme. There are other narratives for which non-nudgy control schemes contribute to narrative consistency. In Octodad, the player controls an octopus masquerading as a normal 1950s breadwinning human father. Octodad has a control scheme which is intentionally obtuse, in that the controls are unintuitive and difficult, yet faithfully respond to player input. In particular, there is a button that lifts his “leg” (which is actually a tentacle), a control stick to move said leg, another control stick to move his “arm” (again actually a tentacle), and many objects in the game are easy to knock over. The player’s difficulty navigating the obtuse control scheme mimics the experience of an octopus attempting with only minor success imitating the normal motions of a human.

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Needless to say, it’s very difficult to do. No nudges are necessary in Octodad because either a change from output Y to output Z would help the player control the octopus better, which is antithetical to the narrative of the game, or the change from Y to Z would further inhibit the player. While initially this may seem like a choice that would further enhance the narrative consistency of Octodad, I’d argue that actually wouldn’t be the case. In order to mirror the experience of the inept octopus, the player should also feel as though their own actions are not very effective by their own nature. If the player feels they are forced to fail, they will not be in the same sort of physical situation struggling with the controller as the octopus has in struggling with his body. The introduction of nudges does nothing to further maintain narrative consistency over leaving the game non-nudgy.

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

There exist a wide variety of games that could potentially be considered multiplayer skill tournament games, and any game that fits the archetype is well suited for a control scheme that lacks nudges. I define this category by its three primary features. First, it is a multiplayer game, meaning that multiple players participate in a game. Second, it is a competition of skill, meaning that within the narrative of the game, the most skilled competitor comes out victorious, leaving nothing to chance or sabotage by another player. Third, it takes place in a tournament environment, in which the central narrative thrust is the competition itself, rather than a narrative that contains within it a competition.

A multiplayer skill tournament game doesn’t use nudges because an inclusion of nudges would undermine the narrative of the game. A nudge may cause an of imbalance in the skill levels of the competitors who are controlled by players. This imbalance potentially makes a player question the validity of the victor of the tournament, and thus the narrative itself. One will note that in the absence of any one of the three conditions—that the game is multiplayer, that the game is skill-based, and that the game is a tournament—the requirement for nudge-less gameplay vanishes. A game that is not multiplayer could include non-player characters that are simply more or less skilled than the player. A game that is not skill-based (for instance a game based on randomness) does not require an even playing field. And if the narrative is not a tournament or simply contains a tournament within it, non-tournament aspects of the tournament may require nudgy controls.

There is nothing in particular that pins the multiplayer skill tournament to a particular genre, such as racing or fighting games. Presumably any multiplayer game could have the narrative and gameplay of a multiplayer skill tournament. However, in practice, one finds that only a particular subset of games have realized the multiplayer skill tournament. Those games are 1v1 fighters. There are numerous multiplayer games that one may think are multiplayer skill tournaments, but actually aren’t. I’ll begin by explaining some examples that may seem at first glance to fit the category but actually do not. Usually this is due to the game not satisfying the second requirement: that the game is purely a competition of skill

The first example is the least related to multiplayer skill tournaments out of what I’ll discuss, but it’s still instructive to consider it. Mario Party seems to be an instance of a game that is multiplayer, where the players compete in a game of skill to determine the victor. However, a significant portion of the results of the game are blatantly based on randomness as opposed to skill (evidenced by the constant die rolls). So Mario Party fails to meet the second requirement and so should not be considered a multiplayer skill tournament.

Another example that one may consider is Call of Duty, which features a set of players competing at a skill-based game to determine the victor. Call of Duty fails to meet the requirement in two important regards, though. Firstly, there is no notion of a tournament present in the narrative. More often, Call of Duty is about a single war, or various covert operations, which have far more complicated victory conditions than a single match between players (including civilian casualties, and political stability post-war). Secondly, due to the nature of the cruelty of war, there is an awareness that sometimes even the most skilled soldier is a random casualty of war. Within the narrative of a war game such as Call of Duty, there is an awareness of the possibility of random loss, since war is too complicated and messy. Sometimes the best soldier dies. I will not be considering Call of Duty to be a multiplayer skill tournament because of the random losses and lack of a tournament narrative.

One example that may initially seem to be a multiplayer skill tournament is a racing game. In principle, there is nothing preventing a racing game from fitting the category. If the game is multiplayer, the vehicles are roughly equal in power (however this is defined for a particular vehicle), and the narrative is that of a tournament, the game would fit the category quite nicely. However, this is not what you tend to see in practice. In racing games one tends to see one of two things: sabotage, or unequal vehicles. In the instance of sabotage, one character has somehow tampered with another character’s vehicle, skewing the results of the tournament. In this case, an author should probably introduce nudges to the gameplay to make clear that there is something preventing the player from fully realizing their skill. Often, as well, the different characters have clearly unequal vehicles, making it not the case that skill specifically is what determines the victor. If a racing game avoids these two problems, it would be a good candidate for a multiplayer skill tournament.

From these examples one can see how fitting the mould of a multiplayer skill tournament is a case-by-case basis. From here I will consider a set of games which nicely fit the category.

1v1 fighters are a paradigmatic example of a multiplayer skill tournament. There are many games that fit the 1v1 fighting game paradigm. A few notable examples include Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Although the category cannot be pinned down entirely, a majority of these games feature two players fighting against each other in two dimensions. There exist a wide variety of moves available to the player, some of which are activated by button combinations, or a specific sequence of button presses. These moves tend to be more powerful. In order to be successful at a 1v1 fighter game, a player must know three things: the powerful button combos, when it’s best to use any particular move, and how their opponent will likely play.

Most 1v1 fighters tend to share a similar narrative basis: a collection of fighters come together to compete in a tournament, where the winner takes all. A prototypical example of this would be the original Tekken, which features no overt story other than the existence of a tournament. While some of these games take characters from other stories, the narrative is more often than not framed in the fighting tournament schema, in which the strongest, most highly skilled fighter is the winner. And since the players are the participants of the tournament, acting as the fighters themselves, the most highly skilled player should always come out victorious. 1v1 fighting games realize this narrative by creating a cast of fighters who all have roughly equal potential for victory, and keeping the game as close to nudge-free as possible.

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All of these games share one key common feature: they are all designed to have a cast of roughly equally strong fighters. Due to the difficulty of that task, there is no 1v1 fighting game that is actually perfectly balanced between all the characters, but having a cast of equally powerful fighters is the end goal of the design of these games. Evidence of the goal is the constant “nerfing” of powerful characters, who are made a little weaker, and “buffing” of weaker characters to bring them up to par. The unachievable end state of fighting games is a set of characters all on a par with each other.

We can thus see that 1v1 fighters meet the essential requirements for a multiplayer skill tournament. Multiple players square off against each other, the victor is the one who is most skilled (given that the fighters are equally strong and/or fast), and the central thrust of the narrative is a tournament.

So why does a multiplayer skill tournament require nudge-less gameplay? What differentiates the winner from the loser is supposed to be the better player. Skill is what determines the winner. Let’s consider what happens when a developer introduces nudges that further hinder the player. In this case, the players can tell that they are being hindered from performing at the level they desire, similar to the case of an opponent sabotaging them. The players will feel less like skill is determining the outcome, and so the tournament no longer will feel like a competition of skill. In the case that the developers introduce nudges that actually help the player, then those players who are less skilled will have an artificial boost in skill. This is a problem because if these players should win, it would not be through skill, but rather through the benefit of nudgy controls, similar to the instance in the racing game of one character simply having the best car. Less experienced players will be able to achieve success without skill, to the detriment of the more skilled players. In both the instances of hindering and helpful nudges, introducing nudges into multiplayer skill tournaments is problematic. In order to maintain the narrative consistency of the worlds of multiplayer skill tournaments, in which the more skilled competitor is the winner, the game needs to be unhindered by nudges.

Conclusion

All three of the kinds of games I mentioned share one fundamental feature: they are all games in which the level of competence of the player is a necessary element in the narrative of the game. In trial-by-death games such as Dark Souls, the narrative of the game contains several instances of failed attempts by the player, and so narrative consistency is preserved by having a player transition from being incompetent at a task to be competent and then succeeding at that task. In Octodad, the controls are obtuse enough that a majority of players will be incompetent at the game in the same way as the octopus is incompetent at being a father. No nudges are necessary to realize this narrative. In multiplayer skill tournaments, the differentiator between fighters is supposed to be skill. By introducing nudges, a designer undermines the extent to which skill feels like the determinant of the course of the narrative. So introducing nudges would be counterproductive.

That does it for my discussion on games that are unhindered by nudges. In Part II I will discuss some examples of games that use nudgy gameplay to preserve their internal narrative structure.

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


[1] I prescind here from the obvious counterexample of people who have played Dark Souls many times, and so rarely die.

A New Theory of Video Games

With a Terrible Fate has been quieter than usual lately because, for the past few months, I have been working on a thesis to fulfill part of the requirements for my degree in philosophy. I am now pleased to say that this project is complete, and the result is a new theory of the ontology and metaphysics of video games. The theory comes with some surprising results—for instance, I don’t think there’s any deep sense in which the players of video games actually control or embody avatars.

Thank you to all those who have found this site and engaged me in conversation about video games, whether online or in person. Those conversations are a huge part of how my thinking on video games has evolved over the years. And, now that this project is complete, stay tuned for more new work coming soon (I heard, for instance, that a new Zelda game and Nier game might have been released recently?).

You can read the full thesis here.

The Tragic Irony of Final Fantasy XIII-2

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.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

I’m still waiting for a justification of why this Moogle was so crucial to the plot of XIII-2.

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.

historia-crux

The Historia Crux matrix of gates to locations throughout time and timelines.

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.

traversing-time-in-chrono-trigger

The Epoch’s time-traveling interface in 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.

caius-and-yeul

Caius with one of many ill-fated Yeuls.

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.

yeul-and-noel

Noel and a dying Yeul.

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-and-company

Note here that Noel is backgrounded relative to Serah and Mog the Moogle, and that Serah is the one deciding that the party is ready to go. In these respects, this picture symbolizes pretty much every aspect of the problems I’m pointing out for the game.

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.

The Animus

Desmond and the Animus of Assassin’s Creed.

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.

FFXV Art.jpg

 

The Philosophical Justification for FromSoftware’s DLC

Regulars to With a Terrible Fate know that I tend to be skeptical of the potential for justifying add-on video game content as artistically valuable to the video game experience. For example, even though I ultimately argued that Nintendo’s amiibo are philosophically justifiable, I rejected many of the typical reasons why someone might think amiibo are valuable. So, when it comes to DLC (“downloadable content”), you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve historically been extremely skeptical of its value as well. Like many others, I’ve feared that DLC makes it all too easy for developers to release games that are, in one way or another, incomplete, and then compel the player to complete the game by paying for additional content later on.

However, as is often the case, FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne (among other games), has challenged my assumptions about game development. In this article, I’m going to discuss two cases of FromSoftware’s DLC that I take to be imminently justified as aesthetically valuable additions to their parent games: Dark Souls 3‘s “Ashes of Ariandel” and Bloodborne‘s “The Old Hunters.” First, I’ll outline what I take to be the general dilemma that makes DLC so difficult to justify as a supplementary work of art. I’ll apply this dilemma to System Rift, the recent DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, to show how it helps to explain why DLC fails when it does. Then, I’ll argue that our two test cases solve the dilemma facing DLC in surprising and informative ways.

DLC and The Completeness Dilemma

To begin, we need to be more precise with how we’re defining ‘DLC’. After all, all sorts of material could potentially fit the broad label of “downloadable content”–for example, extra weaponry, bonus outfits for avatars, extra songs for a game’s soundtrack, and so on. In this article, I’m only concerned with DLC that purports to extend the narrative of a video game. Granted, that’s a rather broad definition, and I’m not going to try to provide a full analysis of ‘narrative’ for the purposes of this article. However, our intuitions should give us a good idea of what I’m talking about here: these days, many story-rich games feature DLC that “adds on” to the story of the main game by adding a new plot line, either in an old area of the game’s world or in a new area of the game’s world created just for that DLC. Think of DLCs like Skyrim‘s Dawnguard and Dragonborn, or Dishonored‘s The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches. These are all examples of the type of DLC I have in mind.

Why focus this particular type of DLC? As I’ve argued from the start of With a Terrible Fate onward, I believe that video games as a medium facilitate new, robust forms of narrative that wouldn’t be possible in other media. In light of this, I think it’s especially interesting to see what implications DLC has for video games specifically as a vehicle for storytelling. And indeed, I will aim to show here that DLC does have interesting implications and insights regarding the nature of storytelling in video games.

Before we dive into any concrete examples of DLC, I think it’s fairly easy to notice a problem for DLC on the level of pure theory. I call this problem ‘the completeness dilemma’, and the dilemma goes like this: for DLC to be possible, it must be possible to extend the narrative of the main video game to which the DLC is appended. However, video games, as a narrative art form, already have a complete world with a full story that has a beginning, middle, and end. So, for the narrative of a video game to be “extendable,” it stands to reason that the original game’s narrative must, in some sense, be incomplete. And so the completeness dilemma is that either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete.

There are two qualifications I have to make immediately about this dilemma, both of which have to do with exactly what I mean by “complete” and “incomplete.” As written, the dilemma might strike readers as wildly implausible. After all, you might say, countless narratives, in video games and in other media, have sequels, which would also seem theoretically impossible by the above logic. So something must be wrong with the above analysis.

I actually think there probably are substantive theoretical problems for sequels/prequels/etc. based on the above logic, but I’ll set those aside for now because I do think the completeness dilemma for DLC is a different issue than any problems that arise for sequels. The key is that DLC “extends” the narrative of a video game in a different way than a sequel “extends” the narrative. Broadly speaking, sequels tend to tell an entirely new narrative that takes the former game’s narrative as a starting point, whereas DLC tries to enrich a game’s narrative by adding other events that are coextensive with and subordinate to that game’s narrative. This makes sense when you think of DLC as “add-on content”: rather than telling a whole new story, like a sequel would, DLC “adds on” to a game’s narrative, aiming to supplement it with “more” story. So, for example, a DLC might add a storyline that happens during the events of a game’s main story, but that involves different characters than the main game’s avatar. This was the case with Dishonored‘s DLC, which had its own problems as a result. Or, alternatively, DLC might add a new episode that doesn’t strictly speaking occur at the same time as the events of the main game, but that nonetheless coherently fits as a constituent of the main game’s narrative. This is something like what Deus Ex: Mankind Divided just did with their System Rift DLC, which effectively folds a new “chapter” into the main game’s narrative of Adam Jensen trying to uncover details of a global, augmentation-related conspiracy. So the first crucial qualification to the completeness dilemma is that I’m talking about “completeness” in the sense that the self-contained narrative of a game is internally complete: more precisely, its various narrative constituents are more-or-less coherent with one another, and adding substantially more narrative would interfere with that coherency. This measure of completeness has no bearing on the justifiability of sequels to games.

The second qualification to make about the incompleteness dilemma is that this dilemma is largely grounded in the somewhat unintuitive way that the worlds of video games operate as narrative elements. I’ve argued previously that the worlds of video games are fundamentally designed to respond to the avatar in various ways, depending on player choices. This might seem obvious and trivial, but the result is that the ontology of video game worlds functions to create the game’s narrative. And if a designer has created a world that functions to create the narrative of a game, it isn’t at all clear how you could just “add on” more story or more world in order to extend that narrative. Indeed, doing so, one might think, would completely disrupt the ontology of the game’s world. This is the metaphysical basis for the completeness dilemma; once we see this basis, I think the dilemma itself becomes much more plausible.

Deus ExSystem Rift and The Completeness Dilemma

Beyond purely theoretical considerations, many concrete instances of DLC bear the hypothesis out: a large amount of DLC seems unsatisfying, and I think the reason for this lack of satisfaction just is the completeness dilemma in many cases. To take just one example, let’s look at System Rift, the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided DLC that I mentioned above. In broad strokes, Mankind Divided follows Adam Jensen, the protagonist of the earlier Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as he tries to mitigate rising tensions between the augmented and non-augmented in a world of human-augmentation-through-biotechnology. The main thread of the game’s plot is Jensen’s mission to uncover a secret, powerful group of people, the Illuminati, controlling and orchestrating the course of events at a global scale. At the end of the main game, while Jensen has successfully thwarted a major terrorist, he is left with most of the same questions about the shadow organization he’s been hunting for the entire game. The DLC then picks up with Jensen getting a request from an old colleague (from Human Revolution), Francis Pritchard, to help him infiltrate a major data storage bank, Palisade Blades. Though Pritchard has his own motives for wanting to infiltrate Blades, he also motivates Jensen to help him by pointing out that Jensen could well be able to uncover more information about the Illuminati while inside the facility–indeed, the DLC’s ad campaign actually motivated people to purchase the DLC for this same reason (i.e. finding out more about the Illuminati).

Without diving into too much depth about System Rift, we can pick out two overarching problems with the DLC that the completeness dilemma allows us to explain. The first problem is the selling point of the DLC’s story: uncovering more about the shadow organization that Jensen has been hunting all long. Many people reviewing the DLC have commented in one way or another that the story wasn’t especially satisfying; with our theoretical framework in the background, we can make this complaint more precise and understand just why the story isn’t satisfying. The DLC is predicated on getting answers about an organization that, throughout the first game, Jensen never really fully identified or confronted; in this respect, the main narrative force of the DLC explicitly directs players’ attention to the fact that the main game was incomplete in terms of uncovering the Illuminati. But Eidos Montreal (the developer behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mankind Divided, and the DLC) put themselves in a difficult situation, because they also couldn’t provide in the DLC the real answers about the Illuminati that were missing from the main game: to do so would be to effectively treat the DLC as a resolution to the main game’s narrative, and that would imply that the main game had been “missing” an ending all along–meaning players had to pay extra for the ending. As a result of the above theoretical constraints, Eidos Montreal was effectively forced to make the DLC’s answers to questions about the Illuminati minimal: though Jensen and Pitchard discovered a little about Stanton Dowd’s involvement in the organization, there wasn’t much substantive information to be had.

Of course, if a player is familiar with the broader Deus Ex series, she will know more about the Illuminati based on the earlier Deus Ex games that (confusingly enough) take place in the future relative to Mankind Divided, but this doesn’t change the facts-of-the-matter in terms of what information Mankind Divided and its DLC promise and come short of delivering. The upshot here, I think, is that Eidos Montreal probably intends to make another full Deus Ex game more directly confronting the Illuminati–as we saw above, to have any such direct confrontation in any Mankind Divided DLC would just further compromise the completeness of the main game. But the result is that the DLC feels unsatisfying and unjustified.

I said above that there were two overarching problems with System Rift that the completeness dilemma could help us explain. The first, then, was simply that the story is unsatisfying; the second is that there are continuity problems owing to the fact that the DLC is more of a stand-alone mini-game than it is an add-on to Mankind Divided. By this I mean that none of the actions of the player in the main game has any impact on System Rift–in fact, you can even play System Rift before playing Mankind Divided, though the game warns you that you may spoil some of the main game by doing so. So, despite the game being billed as Mankind Divided DLC, it really ends up being a separable narrative. The most compelling way to recognize this is to notice that none of Jensen’s augmentations carries over from the main game to the DLC: this implies that you’re playing two different versions of Jensen, meaning that the main game and DLC actually can’t exist as part of the same reality (unless you hold a view claiming something like multiple iterations of Jensen exist in the same world and have the same relationships with other people, which strikes me as wildly implausible).

Now, there are real issues with continuity across multiple games in the same series more generally, and it might sound like those are the issues I’m talking about in this case. But again, I’m containing my critique here to focus solely on DLC. There may well be a way to make reasonable sense of multiple games in a series even if a player’s choices don’t carry over between subsequent entries in the series (but see this article on Final Fantasy VII for the serious theoretical challenges that such an explanation would need to overcome), but the problem for DLCs would remain as a result of the completion dilemma. Recall that the whole thrust of DLC is that it extends a game’s narrative; in order to do this, it seems to be a minimal prerequisite that the DLC and main game occur in the same reality, unless there are compelling science-fiction reasons why they don’t (e.g., BioShock Infinite and its Buried at Sea DLC). This might seem obvious, but it points to the heart of what makes crafting effective DLC so difficult: DLC bears the burden of staying in the same reality as the main game while also justifying why its narrative content did not exist as a part of the main game. This is just another formulation of the completeness dilemma.

I should say in closing here that I quite enjoyed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and there are plenty of theoretically interesting things to say about the game in a positive light–indeed, I plan to write more on it in the future (and you can read my work on Human Revolution here). My aim here was just to show that the completeness dilemma allows us to understand many of the reasons why DLC tends to fail, along with why it’s so hard for them to succeed in the first place. I encourage readers to take their own least-favorite DLC and see whether this framework can shed light on why it doesn’t work.

The other reason why I dwelled so long on how and why DLC fails is because I think appreciating the extent of the difficulties facing DLC makes us that much more impressed when DLC manages to succeed. I turn to two such examples, Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters, next.

FromSoftware and Ontologically Sound DLC

We’ve seen that DLC, in order to be justified as part of a game’s narrative, must somehow find a way to overcome the completeness dilemma: either a video game’s narrative is complete, in which case DLC for the game is impossible, or else DLC for the video game is possible, but the original video game’s narrative was incomplete. I argue here that FromSoftware has recently released two pieces of DLC that found ways to avoid this dilemma, and that the ways these DLCs avoid the dilemma give us insight into what makes for a sound ontology for DLC and its world. I’ll first look at narrative of imposition found in the recently released Dark Souls 3 DLC, Ashes of Ariandel, and then I’ll go a bit further back in time to discuss the narrative of curiosity found in Bloodborne‘s DLC, The Old Hunters. What we’ll ultimately see is that the key to these DLCs avoiding the completeness dilemma is that they make their status as DLC, along with the player’s choice to purchase and play the DLC, narratively significant.

Ashes of Ariandel begins with an invitation for the player and her avatar to enter a new world and take on a new mission: Slave Knight Gael, prostrate on the ground of the Cleansing Chapel, enjoins you to show the Painted World of Ariandel flame in order to cleanse away its rot. The player is given the choice to either accept or reject this request; only once you accept will your avatar touch a scrap of painting and be sucked into Ariandel.

sister-friede-dark-souls-dlc

Sister Friede warns you to turn back.

This opening interaction with Gael sets the tone for the entire narrative of the DLC: the game constantly requires the player to reaffirm her choice to take on this alternative mission in Ariandel. When the player and her character first meet Sister Friede, who presides over the Forlorn members of the world (and thus, in one sense at least, presides over the world), she asks the player’s character to leave Ariandel, explicitly pointing out the bonfire next to her as a method of doing so: “Lord of Hollows,” she says, “I know not the missteps which led thee to this painted world. But thy duty is all, and thy duty lieth elsewhere. Return from whence thou cam’st. I presume it is visible to thee? The bonfire here, in this room. A meek and faded thing, but ’twill guide thee nonetheless.” Sir Vilhelm, a knight apparently in Sister Friede’s service, warns the player’s character to heed Friede’s words as well. If the

Sir Vilhelm.jpg

Sir Vilhelm warns you to turn back.

player instead chooses to press onward in the world of Ariandel, Vilhelm eventually confronts and attempts to kill the player’s character, deriding the character as he attacks: “I’ve seen your kind,” he says, “time and time again. Every fleeing man must be caught. Every secret must be unearthed. Such is the conceit of the self-proclaimed seeker of truth.” If the player goes still further, she ultimately returns to the Ariandel Chapel where Sister Friede sits; Friede speaks to the player’s character again: “Be forewarned, eager Ash,” she says, “Should this world wither and rot, even then would Ariandel remain our home. Leave us be, Ashen One. Thou’rt the Lord of Londor, and have thine own subjects to guide.” Ultimately, if the player chooses to continue, she encounters Father Ariandel, in chains in a vast room with vaulted ceilings just beyond Sister Friede. Entering the room does not trigger a cutscene or a battle. Instead, the player must walk her character all the way across the room to Father Ariandel and speak to him; only then does a cutscene initiate, followed by a battle (actually, several) against him and Sister Friede. If Sister Friede kills the player’s character during the fight, she tells the character to “Return from whence thou cam’st, for that is thy place of belonging.”

approaching-father-ariandel

The approach to Father Ariandel. You can still avoid fighting him at this point.

I describe all these moments from the DLC in such detail simply to make the point that the DLC figuratively beats the player over the head with the theme that she doesn’t belong in this world, this isn’t the proper quest or duty of the player’s character, and she should leave. The theme of this DLC’s narrative, if you do choose to play it all the way through, is that you are imposing yourself and your character upon a world and mission that don’t rightfully belong to you. The player cannot credibly claim that she just stumbled into the storyline, or that she just had to go along with the plot line: the DLC begins with a conscious choice to take up a new mission in a new world, and you have to constantly ignore and kill NPCs in order to finish the DLC.

What does this narrative of imposition have to do with the problem of completeness and Ashes of Ariandel‘s success as DLC? I claim that this narrative avoids the problem of completeness by, in a certain sense, “making narrative” the fact that the story is DLC and that the player chose to purchase and play it. To understand what I mean by this, step back for a moment and consider what it means for the player of a game like Dark Souls (or any other game) to purchase DLC for the game. Regardless of the player’s more peculiar, individual motives for purchasing the DLC, it’s fair to say that anyone purchasing the DLC wants something “more” than the main game, whether that’s more plot, more characters, more world, or what have you. But there’s something not quite rational about this desire on the part of the player: certainly players want to play games that are well designed and that contain complete, coherent narratives; yet at the same time, these players are eager for “more” in the form of DLC.

Returning now to the case at hand, the crucial feature of Ashes of Ariandel is that the game’s narrative reflects the player’s decision to play it. The player is trying to take a character that was designed for a specific, internally coherent quest, one that endlessly cycles with different possible endings, and put that character in  new environment that, by definition, could not have been a part of that original quest. The avatar, mirroring the player, is leaving its preordained, destined quest as an Ashen One (Sister Friede presupposes the Ashen One’s destiny as the Lord of Hollows, but the argument holds even if the Ashen One chooses a different path through the game) to instead take on an entirely different mission in an entirely different world–a world contained within an entirely different work of art (i.e. a scrap of a painting). Many pieces of the NPCs’ dialogue could be directed to the player just as accurately as to the player’s character: the player of DLC should hear herself reflected in Vilhelm’s words that “Every fleeing man must be caught [and every] secret must be unearthed,” and should recognize that she really is, as Friede says, going out of her way to walk her character through a world not at all related to that character’s initial purpose or design. This union of player and avatar, together with the union of the narrative and its status as DLC, culminates in the long walk down the hall to Father Ariandel: if the player has all been paying attention to the game, she should be acutely aware of the fact that she is choosing, throughout the entirety of the DLC, to disregard the vast majority of voices telling her to turn back.

So FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma in Ashes of Ariandel by turning the tables on the player: recognizing the player as part of the game’s narrative (which I have argued many times is the case in all game narratives, whether or not the game is self-consciously concerned with that fact), the DLC tells the story of a world that doesn’t claim to have anything to do with the narrative of the main game, and of a character who decided to ignore their real quest to instead, for want of a better word, invade a totally different world. In other words, FromSoftware avoids the completeness dilemma by pointing out that the player has chosen to purchase and play DLC in spite of the completeness dilemma.

Moreover, FromSoftware seems to have generally recognized the above method as a reliable way to develop aesthetically justifiable DLC. Turning to Bloodborne’s DLC, The Old Hunters, we can see that same method alive and well–but, typical of an adept storyteller, FromSoftware has altered the precise execution of the method to better fit with the themes and broader metaphysics of Bloodborne.

Bloodborne DLC

 

I can’t say enough positive things about Bloodborne, and if you’ve read my earlier work on the game then you know some of the reasons why I think it’s so philosophically rich, in the sense of rigorous metaphysical and epistemic themes and explorations. If you know my earlier work on the game, then you also probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was extremely skeptical when DLC was announced for the game. I thought (and still think) that the main narrative of Bloodborne is practically perfect in terms of internal coherence as a cyclical narrative, in which, no matter which ending the player chooses, they can never truly escape the dream of Bloodborne, nor can they learn whatever truth (if any) lies outside that dream. This was the reason why I continue to hope that Bloodborne never has a sequel, and it was the reason why I doubted that any DLC for the game could truly be justified. However, much like Ashes of AriandelThe Old Hunters challenged my expectations by making narrative the facts that it was DLC and that I as a player had chosen to play it; the difference was that, whereas Ashes of Ariandel crafted this narrative in terms of imposition, invasion, and shirking duty, The Old Hunters crafted it in terms of curiosity and the limits of our understanding.

The Old Hunters takes place inside The Hunter’s Nightmare, a previously unaccessible part of Bloodborne‘s world which the player can access by acquiring an Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter from a Messenger and using it to apparently lure an Amygdala into grabbing the player’s character and transporting it to the Nightmare. Once there, the player is able to unravel a variety of secrets about the origins of the Healing Church of Bloodborne‘s world: she witnesses the hideous beast that Ludwig, the Church’s first hunter, became; she sees the results of the Church’s covert (largely failed) experiments to transform humans into Kin of the Great Ones (the ethereal beings that exist at the edge of human comprehension and are largely responsible for the madness that infects Bloodborne); and she encounters a dead Kos, a Great One whose appearance apparently mutated the inhabitants of a seaside Fishing Hamlet, destroying their sanity in the process.

The Hunter’s Nightmare is a realm for hunters who have been driven insane; the player and her avatar are guided through it by the one remaining hunter with some apparent sanity, Simon the Harrowed. At the beginning of the Nightmare, he warns the player’s character to turn back, “Unless, you’ve something of an interest in Nightmares?” The player can choose to either respond that “I’ve no interest” or else that “Nightmares are fascinating,” and it is only in the latter case that Simon continues to guide the player through the DLC (though the player can of course progress on her own). Simon thus sets the tone of the DLC, albeit perhaps more subtly than the characters of Ashes of Ariandel did: only the curious player has any purpose being here.

lady-maria

The player’s character investigates Lady Maria’s corpse.

So, if the player chooses to continue in the DLC, it’s fair for the narrative to assume the player is curious: and indeed, the DLC punishes the player precisely for being curious, most notably in two specific instances. First, after seeing the Church’s experimentation facility, the player encounters an apparently dead hunter slumped in a chair at the far end of a clock tower: this is Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower. The introduction to this boss fight is notably similar to the introduction to the Sister Friede/Father Ariandel boss fight: in both cases, the player must approach the boss

brador

Brador, the Church’s assassin, imprisoned.

from the other side of a long room and choose to interact with the boss before the fight actually begins. In Maria’s case, the player’s character must inspect her corpse, after which she rises from the chair and says that “A corpse… should be left well alone.” She continues: “Oh, I know very well. How the secrets beckon so sweetly,” concluding to the player’s character that “Only an honest death will cure you now. Liberate you, from your wild curiosity.” Later, as the player investigates the Fishing Hamlet, an imprisoned  Church assassin named Brador periodically invades and attempts to kill her character. Whenever Brador kills the player’s character, he proclaims that “Unending death awaits those who pry into the unknown.” Both Lady Maria and Brador reinforce the narrative of the Nightmare as the player’s tortured attempt to proceed through countless deaths and eventually satisfy her curiosity for secrets that don’t want to be uncovered.

orphan-of-kos

The Orphan of Kos, having just emerged from a deceased Kos.

In a very broad sense, The Old Hunters justifies its DLC in the same way that Ashes of Ariandel does: it tells the story of the player and her avatar trying to get something out of the game that they shouldn’t rationally expect the game to provide. But, as I said before, the details of how they tell this story are different because the narratives of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne are wildly different animals. In The Old Hunters, the narrative reflects the player’s desire to answer the game’s unanswered questions, combined with the overarching Bloodborne theme that the answers you seek often lie outside of your epistemic capabilities. The DLC does this in a tricky way: it promises that the Hunter’s Nightmare holds secrets to uncover, but what little the player uncovers only leads to further questions, showing that very little of the original curiosity has actually been satisfied and very few explanations provided by the DLC have been adequate. The DLC pretty obviously shows a connection between Lady Maria and the animated Doll who guides the player through the main game: the characters look the same, have the same voice actor (Evetta Muradasilova), and, once the player kills Lady Maria, the Doll exclaims that she feels liberated in some way. Yet the exact nature of the relationships between these characters is left unexplained. The exact relationships between the various, titular “old hunters” are left unexplained. And, most pointedly, the DLC ends with a battle against a Great One, one of the beings whose very existence is beyond the pale of human comprehension. The ending in particular points to the fact that, even if the player were able to parse out the entire history of the hunters and the Healing Church from the vague hints of the DLC, they would still have gone precisely no distance towards truly understanding the otherworldly Great Ones, the ultimate grounds of Bloodborne‘s horror and narrative force. So the DLC plays on the player’s curiosity by hinting at some explanations of plot elements while also highlighting that the entire crux of Bloodborne is that some great and terrible things–e.g., the Great Ones–are entirely outside human frameworks of explanation and understanding. The player can learn that Kos cursed the hunters who investigated and mutilated the mutated villagers of the Fishing Hamlet, but she cannot learn the truth of what Kos itself truly is.

The world of the Hunter’s Nightmare is not separate from Bloodborne‘s main world in exactly the way that Ariandel is separate from Dark Souls 3, but the framework remains the same–albeit thematically transformed. The base assumption is that the player who has played Bloodborne wants more answers than the game provides, and purchases the DLC in the expectation of having that curiosity sated. Yet the DLC tells a story of explanations and forces that ultimately prove elusive, feeding the player scraps of new information while ultimately returning to the same incomprehensible plane of unknowability that grounded the main game. Just as in Ashes of Ariandel, we have a narrative grounded in the player’s choice to irrationally want more from a complete game–in this case, it’s just couched in terms of the limits of comprehensibility and the madness that follows curiosity, seamlessly marrying its themes to those of Bloodborne.

Conclusion

The completeness dilemma isn’t easily overcome, and those DLCs that simply promise additional story content face a serious challenge as a result. This makes it all the more remarkable that FromSoftware has managed to develop DLC in which not only are the narratives are interesting and engaging, but they are also narratives that would only work as DLC. The narratives overcome the completeness dilemma by inviting the player into the narrative, and telling a story of how bizarre and paradoxical it is that the player would want an extra story to extend a world and story that was already complete. The amazing result is DLC that is justified both intrinsically and also in relation to the main game. Ashes of Ariandel and The Old Hunters set a high bar in this regard, but they also show us that DLC falling short of this bar just won’t work. Try these DLCs out if you haven’t already, and, as you play, reflect on your choice to buy DLC in the first place; and the next time you buy a new DLC, ask yourself whether and how it avoids the completeness dilemma.

 

 

Unclear Control: An Intersection of Player Experience and Game Mechanics

-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.

FF Junction Screen

The Final Fantasy VIII junction screen.

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:

  1. How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
  2. How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
  3. 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.[1] 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).

Batman Calling the Batmobile

The prompt for the player to call the Batmobile in Arkham Knight.

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.[2]

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:

  1. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
  2. The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
  3. 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.[3] 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 Cover ArtFinal 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.

Locke and Celes

Locke encounters Celes outside of the inn.

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.

Zidane at the serpent encounter

The room where Zidane encounters the serpent monster.

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.

 

Zidane after defeating the serpent

Zidane stands in the room where he just defeated the serpent.

The player encountering OnionSan

The player encounters OnionSan.

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.

[1] “Game mechanics are constructs of rules and methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Teaser Metaphysics: Storytelling in Xenoblade X.

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.”[1] 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.

 

  1. 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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.30.26 AM

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.

 Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.32.14 AM

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.

Character Creation

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.

Story Mission

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 8.24.34 PM

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.

 

[1] 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.