“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.

Where are the Humans in NieR: Automata?

Introduction

Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that Nier is near and dear to my heart because it was the game that first motivated me to write analytically about video games, even before my work on Majora’s Mask. You can therefore imagine how excited I was when the game was given a sequel, NieR: Automata. While I was initially worried that it would fall short of its predecessor, I think it’s safe to say that NieR: Automata ended up being even philosophically richer than Nier. To that end, it’s time that NieR: Automata met With a Terrible Fate.

Regular readers also know that my analytic method with respect to video games typically focuses on clarifying the precise and often surprising relations in which the players of video games stand to the stories of video games. In that regard, this paper is no exception: I want to convince you that you, the player, are involved in the story of NieR: Automata in a surprising and illuminating way. But, for the sake of full transparency, I’ll start by warning you that, as you might imagine, this work contains LIBERAL SPOILERS for NieR: Automata, Nier, and Drakengard (starting in the next paragraph!). If you’re at all familiar with Nier and/or NieR: Automata, then you know that the stories of these games deeply depend on facts that are only revealed quite late in the game; so, if you haven’t yet played through the games, I wouldn’t recommend reading this yet.

With that in mind, let me offer a roadmap of the paper. I frame this analysis as the attempt to answer a seemingly simple question: “Where are the humans in NieR: Automata?” Now, if you’ve only just started the game, you’d probably say, “They’re on the moon, obviously”; if instead you’ve played through the whole game, you’d probably say that this is an ill-posed question because, at the time of NieR: Automata’s events, humans are long-extinct—there are only machines lifeforms, androids, animals, plants, and pods. Fair enough; however, it’s undeniable that the presence of humanity is virtually ubiquitous in the world of the game. Machine lifeforms slowly recover human culture and become sentient; androids identify themselves as sentient even before machine lifeforms do; by the end of Ending E, even the simple pods that accompany androids are beginning to exhibit “human” traits like compassion and attachment. So when I ask where the humans are in the game, what I’m really asking is what the origin is of all these specifically human properties that the various organisms in the game eventually instantiate—especially the property of sentience, or self-awareness. You might think the answer is simply that these human properties originated in the humans that went extinct long ago in the game’s world; after all, the game mentions that the human characteristics of the androids are the result of their human creators.

It’s this second response that I want to challenge: I think that the player, rather than the extinct humans of the game’s world, are the source of the sentience that emerges in androids, machine lifeforms, and pods throughout the course of the game. I begin by clarifying the scope of my thesis, in an effort to show that, so far as I can see, my claims don’t threaten what one might call “canonical” interpretations of the game’s story. Then, I use an analysis of player-avatar relations to argue that the player is the origin of sentience and humanity in Nier and NieR: Automata. This, I think, is a fairly easy thesis to endorse. After this is established, I argue for the significantly more controversial thesis that the fictional world of NieR: Automata is actually nothing more than a data structure; that is to say, it is true within the fiction of the game that the world is just a computer simulation being manipulated by a real player. Finally, I conclude by explaining why these theses matter for understanding NieR: Automata: the game’s metaphysics, I argue, establishes unexpected, fictional, ethical mandates that bind the player as they engage the game.

1. Preliminaries

In the past—especially in my initial, four-year-old work on Nier—I have sometimes failed to be sufficiently clear about the scope and level on which my analyses of video games have applied, which has led to some confusion about how my work ought to be evaluated in comparison with competing analyses or interpretations of the games in question. This is an especially acute danger when discussing NieR: Automata because there are myriad possible ways in which one could interpret “the game.” To name a few: are you analyzing the game as a stand-alone narrative, or as the third installment in the three-part narrative sequence of Drakengard, Nier, and Nier: Automata? Are you analyzing the game as a set of equally possible narratives with 26 different endings, or are you analyzing the single narrative and ending within the game that you take to constitute the “true” story? And so on. There’s no obvious reason to endorse any one such analytical approach over the others; what matters is being clear on precisely what your analytical approach is, so as to avoid having it confused with other approaches in the vicinity. By clarifying my own approach in this way, I aim to show why the claims it generates about the game are fairly compatible with a wide array of other plausible analyses of the game.

To see what my project is up to, we need to distinguish between what we might think of as two “levels” of analysis. Call the first level of analysis ‘Narrative-Event Analysis’ (or ‘NE Analysis’), and define it as follows.

NE Analysis: The analysis or interpretation of the various events of a narrative, and of how those events are interrelated.

This is what most video game theorists and art critics are up to: they take the events of a given story and try to make meaning out of those events in a particular way. When YouTube personalities analyze and explain the lore of the Dark Souls games, they’re engaged in NE Analysis; when you try to sort out where the story of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild fits into the larger set of Zelda timelines, you’re engaged in NE Analysis; when you’re explaining how on earth the Shadowlord of Nier logically fits into Ending E of Drakengard, you’re engaged in NE Analysis. This is the time-honored tradition of taking the various events of a story and seeing how they best cohere with one another to form one meaningful, comprehensible work of art.

Breath of the Wild Overview

The question of where Breath of the Wild fits into Zelda timelines is a question for NE Analysis.

Now consider an altogether different level of analysis. Call it ‘Narrative-Grounding Analysis’ (‘NG Analysis’), and define it as follows.

NG Analysis: The analysis or interpretation of the metaphysical foundation in virtue of which the various events of a narrative obtain, and how that metaphysical foundation relates to the events that it actualizes.

Put this way, NG Analysis might sound unfamiliar, but (1) I think we often ask ourselves NG-Analysis questions about stories, and (2) this is the exact sort of analysis I’ve been applying to video games for several years now on this site. When you ask yourself what makes the constant regeneration of the Chosen Undead in Dark Souls possible, you are engaging in NG Analysis; when someone explains what it is about the world of Zelda that makes time travel possible, they are engaging in NG Analysis; when I am analyzing what makes it possible for machine and Replicants to become sentient in the world of Nier and NieR: Automata, I am engaging in NG Analysis. This is also the sort of analysis I was undertaking when I claimed that: the player is the source of moral reality in Majora’s Mask; the narrative of BioShock Infinite is a universal collapse event caused by the player; and the entirety of Bloodborne is a dream.

The Blood Minister

My analysis claiming that all of Bloodborne is a dream is an example of NG Analysis.

What’s crucial to notice about these two levels of analysis is that neither level of analysis, at least in any obvious way, makes claims about the other level of analysis. Insofar as this is true, the video game theorist is licensed to engage in NE Analysis about a game without worrying about what the right NG Analysis of the game is, and vice versa. For instance, suppose that you’re trying to decide between two competing theories of how Link is able to travel through time in the Zelda games: according to one theory, this is made possible by the will of the Goddess Hylia, and according to the other theory, it is made possible because Link is some special kind of entity that can freely move through time in a way that ordinary Hylians can’t.[1] These two theories are trying to explain the same narrative events, and they can’t both be right; that means that we have to choose between them if we want to have a correct understanding of the game’s story (assuming that one of these two theories is correct, as opposed to both of them being incorrect). However, neither of these theories is going to have anything to say about how time travel in the game works: they’re only going to say what makes time travel in the game possible. So consider a question like this: in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, how do the actions of Adult Link affect the events that Young Link experiences seven years earlier? (Think of an example like the Spirit Temple, where Adult Link and Young Link are apparently “interacting” with each other across time.) This is a question about how the events of the game’s narrative relate to one another—which is to say, it’s a question for NE Analysis to resolve. Whether time travel is made possible by Hylia or by Link’s constitution isn’t going to have any direct bearing on how the events concerning Adult Link relate to the events concerning Young Link; to answer this question, we instead need an NE Analysis specific to those events (e.g., “time travel works by allowing Adult Link to rewrite events of the past”).

I’ve only aimed to show here that NE Analysis and NG analysis are indeed separate levels of analysis: when you’re engaged in NG analysis, you’re analyzing something fundamentally different than what you analyze in NE Analysis: in NG Analysis you analyze the metaphysical foundation of events in a story, whereas in NE Analysis you analyze the events themselves. Why does this matter as preliminaries to my analysis of NieR: Automata? Well, there are many interesting questions about how the events of NieR: Automata relate to each other, to the events of Nier, and to the events of Drakengard. To name a few potential questions of this sort: where did the aliens in NieR: Automata come from? How, if at all, does White Chlorination Syndrome relate to the Black Scrawl? What effects does 2B’s consciousness have on A2, after A2 kills 2B? It should be clear by now, I hope, that these are all questions that NE Analysis is tasked with answering. And it bears mentioning that, typically, when people talk about “canon interpretations” of a story—roughly, the “correct” interpretation of a story’s events, often deemed correct simply because the author says it’s correct—are interpretations that similarly belong to NE Analysis. Canonical interpretations of narratives rarely have anything substantive to say about the metaphysical grounds of a narrative’s events.

Recall that what I’m interested in pursuing in this paper is a matter of NG Analysis: namely, the question of what it is in virtue of which apparently human properties obtain in the world of NieR: Automata. Given what I’ve said, it follows that my arguments in this paper won’t directly bear on “canon” issues of how to properly interpret the events of the game on the level of NE Analysis. Put differently: if you already have some favorite theory about how the events of the game are interrelated, my work here doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to that theory.[2] If, on the other hand, you have a favorite theory about the metaphysical grounds of the narrative’s events (and I frankly haven’t seen any such theories out there yet), then my theory is a competitor to that theory, and you’ll have to see which seems more plausible to you upon reflection.

2. Becoming Human

I’ve established the level on which I intend my analysis to operate: in this paper, we’re exploring the metaphysical foundations of NieR: Automata. In this section, I offer an argument to the conclusion that the humanity of the player is what metaphysically grounds an entity’s “becoming sentient” (i.e. being self-aware and instantiating human properties) in NieR: Automata and NieR. I’ll make this argument by first focusing on the nature of maso and Project Gestalt, and then by extending it to the nature of machine lifeforms, androids, and pods. This will directly lead us to the argument of the next section—that the world of NieR: Automata is a data structure.

Drakengard Giant

The Giant/Queen-beast, from which the maso originates.

‘Maso’ is a substance that originated in the ending of Drakengard that served as the impetus for Nier and (subsequently) NieR: Automata. Very roughly, in Ending E of Drakengard, the protagonists confront and destroy an otherworldly “Giant” (also known as the Queen-beast) that subsequently releases maso, an otherworldly, “multidimensional” particle. The maso induces ‘White Chlorination Syndrome’ (‘WCS), a disease that forces a choice on humans: either form a pact to become the servant of a god from another world, or perish by turning into a statue made of salt. Humans are able to avoid this disease by using maso to develop “multidimensional technology” that separates their souls from their bodies until a time at which WCS has died off, at which point humans would reunite their souls with their bodies (this plan of defense against the disease was called ‘Project Gestalt’ and was central to the plot of Nier). However, the soulless bodies preserved for humans—entities called ‘Replicants’—ended up developing “a sense of self” (i.e. sentience). This advent of self-awareness in Replicants led to a corresponding loss of sentience in the separated souls of humans, called ‘Gestalts’—this loss of sentience was known as ‘relapsing’ and caused the Gestalts to turn into aggressive, animalistic creatures (known to Replicants as ‘shades’).

Father and Daughter

Replicant Nier and his daughter, Replicant Yonah.

The protagonist and avatar of Nier—technically named by the player, but called ‘Nier’ for convenience—is the Replicant corresponding to “the Original” Gestalt, someone whose data was central to the development and sustainability of Project Gestalt. The story of Nier (again, very roughly) follows Nier’s struggle to save his daughter—also a Replicant—from “the Shadowlord”—an entity that Nier sees as an enemy, but who is actually his own Gestalt (“the Original”) trying to reclaim his daughter’s Replicant. When Nier kills his Gestalt, he effectively derails Project Gestalt, which leads to the eventual extinction of humanity.

Nier killing the Shadowlord

Replicant Nier killing the Shadowlord, his own Gestalt.

That’s a far-too-condensed reconstruction of what I take to be the key and relatively uncontroversial elements of the narrative than begins with Ending E of Drakengard and proceeds through the conclusion of Nier. The key points to notice for my purposes are: (1) maso is a multidimensional substance that binds humans to gods from other worlds, (2) the avatar of Nier is the Replicant that corresponds to Project Gestalt’s Original, and (3) sentience is more-or-less zero sum between a given Gestalt-Replicant pair: if the Replicant gains it, then the Gestalt starts down the road to losing it (and metaphysically, this seems reasonable: if a Gestalt-Replicant pair is supposed to be just one conscious entity, split into body and soul, presumably it would be able to sustain just one consciousness).

I think that, merely from the fairly uncontroversial facts I’ve highlighted about the story, a surprising but intuitive thesis about the source of sentience in Nier presents itself: namely, the player of the game is the source of sentience in Nier (the avatar) and other Replicants. Notice again that maso, according to Drakengard, is a substance that straddles dimensions and binds people to the gods of other worlds. It seems appropriate and explanatorily powerful to say that, as an avatar, Nier—again, the Replicant corresponding to the Original—is importantly bound to the player of the game, an extra-dimensional entity that determines Nier’s actions and choices throughout the game’s story. Given that we know maso renders humans the servants of gods, and Gestalt technology is derived from maso, we can explain Nier’s sentience by saying that he inherits it from the extra-dimensional entity to which he is bound: a sentient, human player.[3]

A potential objection: what about the fact that other Replicants gain sentience in Nier? These other Replicants are clearly not avatars, and so it can’t be the case that sentience in Nier is categorically derived from the player’s sentience.

My response: recall that Nier’s Gestalt has the special status of being “the Original” in Project Gestalt. To my knowledge, this status is never given a full and precise explanation, except to say that this Gestalt uniquely makes Project Gestalt possible, and that Project Gestalt is irreparably derailed when Nier kills his Gestalt. Given this special priority that Nier and his Gestalt have in the efficacy and progress of Project Gestalt, it strikes me as plausible to suppose that Nier’s sentience would play a causally decisive role in the emergent sentience of other Replicants. That is to say, Nier’s status as the Original’s Replicant makes it the case that his acquired sentience—which, again, he inherits from the player—subsequently induces sentience in other Replicants. So, even while the other Replicants don’t directly inherit sentience from the player, their sentience is still derived from the player, given the causally decisive role of Nier’s sentience.

Another potential objection: the player of a video game is a real person, not a fictional entity. So they simply couldn’t be part of the game’s narrative: real things can’t causally interact with fictional things in that way (e.g., I, a real person, can’t stop Tom Sawyer from painting a fence in the fiction of Mark Twain).

My reply: no doubt this is true, but fictions give real people fictional roles to play all the time. Think, for example, of second-person novels, which put the reader in the fictional role of whomever the narrative is addressing. And even though it might seem unintuitive or metaphysically unhappy to say that the player, from “another dimension,” is influencing the actions of Nier in his dimension, recall that the narrative already allows for this kind of influence even prior to my interpretation: again, WCS induces pacts between humans and gods from other worlds. So my analysis is metaphysically of a piece with the rest of Nier’s narrative.

I think my analysis is illuminating here because it links the rise of sentience in Replicants to Project Gestalt’s origins in maso; it also gives explanatory and metaphysical force to Nier’s status as an avatar (that is to say, Nier is an avatar because his maso-derived connection to the player allows the player to determine his actions). The analysis also strikes me as better than saying that Replicants “simply became sentient,” because, by linking sentience in Nier to the human playing the game, we are able to identify the sentience of Replicants as derived from a real source of sentience (i.e. an actual human).

So much for the good reasons to accept the player as the ground of sentience in Nier; the question now is, can we extend this metaphysical account of sentience to the world of NieR: Automata? Yes, but admittedly we can’t do it directly: given that YoRHa androids, machine lifeforms, and pods aren’t the direct products of Project Gestalt, we can’t simply say that maso technology allows the player to influence them all, and leave it at that. However, I think we can make an argument by inference-to-the-best-explanation that gives us good reason to believe that the metaphysical account we’ve given in Nier does extend to NieR: Automata; we’ll just have to invoke some data about machine cores and the player’s metaphysical relation to the game’s world.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 6.43.56 AM

2B and 9S with their black boxes, fashioned from recycles machine cores.

First, machine cores. These are the central components of the machine lifeforms that the YoRHa androids in NieR: Automata battle without end; it’s also revealed late in the game that these cores are also recycled and used as “black boxes” to power YoRHa androids. There are two crucial upshots about these machine cores. The first upshot is that information archives provided in the game reveal that the cores are responsible for the structure of the consciousness of whatever entity they’re powering; we know this because the archives say that, in virtue of both machine lifeforms and YoRHa androids using machine cores, “it could be said that the consciousnesses of YoRHa units and machine lifeforms share the same structure.” The second upshot is that machine cores are well-suited to represent consciousness in entities that are designed to ultimately be destroyed. We know this because archives within the game report that “black boxes were installed [in androids] after determining that it would be inhumane to install standard AI in androids that are ultimately destined for disposal.” Given that YoRHa androids are apparently sentient, and their machine-core powered black box is responsible for the structure of the androids’ consciousness, it follows that we can understand what grounds sentience and humanity in NieR: Automata by understanding how machine cores are conducive to sentience and humanity.

Now, consider the question of what sort of metaphysical relation the player stands in to the world of Nier: Automata. What, in other words, does the player’s access to the game’s world amount to, within the fiction of the game? It seems to me that players have a fairly direct form of access to and influence on the game’s world. The game’s manifold endings exemplify this: the player’s choices are often able to determine not only the actions of their avatars, but also the desires and motivations of their avatars. For example, if the player directs 9S away from his initial mission helping 2B, the game ends with text saying: “9S was last heard to say: ‘I can’t control my curiosity about machines anymore. I’m leaving so I can study them as much as I want!’ He was never heard from again” (this is Ending G). Similarly, if the player has 2B kill the machines that putatively want to establish a peace treaty with Pascal’s village, the game ends with text saying: “In a sudden fit of temper, 2B wiped out the machine lifeforms, and no peace was born that day” (this is Ending J). This tight connection between the player’s choices and the mental states attributed by the game to the avatar androids suggests that the player does have some measure of influence over not just the androids’ actions, but over their psychology as well. Even more to the point, players can alter the very constitution of their avatar androids by changing the plug-in chips that determine their various characteristics, even going so far as to remove their OS chip if they wish. In other words, players seem to have deep and pervasive control over myriad constitutive features of their avatar androids’ identities.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 6.48.27 AM

Ending G, in which the player directs 9S away from his mission supporting 2B.

In various ways, the activities of the pods that accompany avatar androids 9S, 2B, and A2 also suggest that the player enjoys a direct presence within the fiction of the game. In particular, notice that when the player uses her controls to change the “camera’s” perspective on the game, she doesn’t actually move some disembodied, third-person viewpoint: instead, as she moves the camera, the pod following her avatar moves accordingly, in such a way that the pod is always facing straight ahead from the player’s perspective. This establishes a sense in which the pod is directly connecting the player to the world of the game, thereby allowing the player to really be present within the world of the fiction rather than merely viewing the fiction from an external position in the real world.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 6.51.19 AM

Notice that even as 2B faces orthogonally to the camera view, her pod matches the direction of the camera view.

Now we have on the table all the considerations needed to argue to the conclusion that the player is the metaphysical source of sentience in NieR: Automata. First, the consciousness manifested in YoRHa androids and machine lifeforms isn’t standard AI; given the context, which says that standard AI would have been inhumane for disposable androids, we can safely infer that the consciousness made possible by machine cores is somehow “less authentic,” “less genuine,” or less “sui generis” than “standard AI,” where “standard AI” probably means genuinely, intrinsically self-conscious AI of the sort that we still have yet to achieve in the real world. We also know that the player of NieR: Automata has apparently direct access to the game’s fictional world: the pods act as a direct means of access within the fiction by which the player can manipulate the world, and the player’s choices are reflected in the actions, psychology, and basic makeup of the androids; further, the iterative structure of androids’ existence—constantly dying, being re-instantiated, and recovering their old data—closely mirrors the player’s actions of guiding them through the game, failing, reconstituting the android, and recovering their data. Now, returning to my analysis of Nier and assuming that it’s correct, we also know that technology exists (namely, the maso technology of Project Gestalt) that allows humans from other dimensions to impart their sentience to otherwise non-sentient entities. Given that such technology already existed, I think we can infer that the best explanation of the sentience that emerges in androids and machine lifeforms is that, through the construction of black boxes from machine cores, androids were able to induce the same sort of relationship between android and player that previously existed between Nier and player. And, just as the player’s sentience proliferated throughout Replicants in Nier, so too was the player’s sentience diffused in NieR: Automata amongst beings with the relevant kind of technology—that is, beings with machine cores. This explains why both YoRHa androids and machine lifeforms are susceptible to becoming sentient.

What about the pods? It’s clear enough by the end of NieR: Automata’s Ending E that the pods are also at least on their way to sentience, if not fully sentient; yet there’s no evidence (so far as I know) that they’re also powered by machine cores. So how can my account explain their sentience, since they presumably wouldn’t be connected to the player’s sentience via machine cores? I think the answer here is straightforward. Recall that, on my account, pods act as conduits that directly connect the player to the world of the game. Given this direct relationship between the player and the pods, there isn’t any need to appeal to machine cores in explaining the pods’ emergent sentience: we can instead say that, since the pods already possess basic operational intelligence and they’re being used to directly transmit the player’s agency to the game’s world, it’s only natural that the pods could somehow “pick up on” or learn to emulate the consciousness of the player to whom they are intimately connected. This response is admittedly somewhat more vague than the analyses of sentience in androids and machine lifeforms, but this vagueness is a direct result of there being proportionately less information available about the structure and ontology of pods. Thus, I don’t think the additional vagueness in my account should speak against my analysis per se; we should instead just be disappointed that there isn’t more documentation about pods within the world of the game.

If my arguments in this section are right, then the sentience that emerges in Replicants, YoRHa androids, machine lifeforms, and pods are all deeply related in a surprising and informative way: all of them are derived, directly or indirectly, from the metaphysically foundational sentience of the video games’ player. As I emphasized at the outset, this Narrative-Grounds Analysis needn’t settle the most pressing questions of how to interpret the actual events of the games: my analysis, for example, needn’t bear on question of who the aliens are who brought the machine lifeforms to Earth, nor need it bear on the question of which of NieR: Automata’s endings is the “true” ending (if that’s even an intelligible question to begin with). What the analysis instead succeeds in doing is establishing a crucial link between the player of the Nier games and the content of those games: the player doesn’t just determine what the avatars do in those games—the player actually enables entities in those games to become sentient within the fiction, in a metaphysically robust sense.

3. Playing a Fictional Video Game

I think that the above analyses is the best account of the metaphysical foundation of sentience across both Nier and NieR: Automata; however, I think that NieR: Automata suggests a further, much more radical interpretation of the fiction’s metaphysics, one which invites us to reinterpret the precise significance of the player’s sentience and agency on the game’s world. I want to emphasize, however, that this further interpretation is both (1) much more speculative than the above analysis and (2) theoretically separable from the above analysis: that is to say, you can consistently endorse my above analysis while also rejecting the argument presented in this section. All the same, I would be remiss not to mention this more radical interpretation of the game’s world, because there is at least some evidence for it within the game and it allows us to conceptualize the game in an extremely unexpected, unorthodox, and challenging way.

The central thrust of this more controversial interpretation is that it is true within the fiction of Drakengard, Nier, and NieR: Automata that the world is nothing more than a data structure being manipulated by a human from the outside. In other words, put roughly, this interpretation claims that it’s true within the fiction of the video game that the world is nothing more than a video game. Just to be clear about how radical this thought is: our typical assumption with the fictional worlds of video games is that these worlds, within the context of the fiction, are real. For example, it doesn’t seem to be true within the fiction of The Legend of Zelda that the world is an interactive data structure; instead, it seems true within the fiction that there is a real world called Hyrule, in which Link really performs certain actions, quests, etc. The thesis I’m exploring in this section is claiming that it isn’t true within the fiction of Nier games that there is a “real world” in this sense: instead, within the context of the fiction, there is a computer-generated world with which a human player interacts.[4]

I see two central data in NieR: Automata that support the thesis that the fiction of the Nier games represents a pure data structure: the first datum is information about the overarching “network” that governs machine lifeforms in the game, and the second datum is the way in which the game’s content is generally represented to the player. I consider each datum in turn.

After the player completes Ending E of the game (assuming the player doesn’t delete her data—more on that in the next section), a “Machine Research Report” is added to her information archive. The report, written by Information Analysis Officer Jackass, details the network that governs the machine lifeforms, explaining how it was created and how it evolved into a “meta-network,” codenamed ‘N2’ (typically represented within the game as two Red Girls). It offers the following information about the machines, their network, and their meta-network.

NieR Automata N2

A representation of N2 as one of the Red Girls.

“Machine lifeforms are weapons created by the aliens. The only command given for their behavior was to ‘defeat the enemy’. However, it appears that their capacity for growth and evolution went too far, and they eventually turned on and killed their creators.

“At this point, machine lifeforms recognized that the goal of ‘defeating the enemy’ actually REQUIRED an enemy. In order to maintain this singular objective, they reached the contradictory conclusion that their current enemies—the androids—could not be annihilated completely, lest they no longer have an enemy to defeat.

“In order to resolve this inherent contradiction, the machine lifeforms began to intentionally cause deficiencies in their network, diversifying the vectors of evolution for all machines. This is the cause behind some of the more ‘special’ machine lifeforms, such as Pascal and the Forest King.

“Meanwhile, the deficient network began repeating a process of self-repair while incorporating surrounding information, until it finally reached a fixed state as a new form of network. Traces of information regarding human memories from the quantum server of the old model were discovered, indicating that it had integrated them during the final stages of its growth process. Said server contained a record of the discarded ‘Project Gestalt’, as well as information on the human who was the first successful example of the Gestalt process.

“Having acquired information regarding humanity, the network’s structure changed once more, becoming what might better be called a meta network (or a ‘concept’, to borrow the words of the machines). This led directly to the formation of the ego we identify as N2.

“…So then! To sum up: For hundreds of years, we’ve been fighting a network of machines with the ghost of humanity at its core. We’ve been living in a stupid ****ing world where we fight an endless war that we COULDN’T POSSIBLY LOSE, all for the sake of some Council of Humanity on the moon that doesn’t even exist.”

The obvious way to read this is to take it at face value: aliens created machines that killed them; these machines fought the androids; the machines ultimately learned about the real events of Project Gestalt and evolved, etc. But there’s another potential interpretation of this information available to us: suppose that aliens created a vast data structure, with “machine lifeform” programs that were governed by an overarching network with some sort of artificial intelligence. The network was designed with the purpose of “defeating enemies”; after generating and killing virtual representations of their creators, the only network-independent entities it knew, the network had to find a further, more sustainable way to fulfill its purpose. To this end, the network generated a virtual history of humanity and Project Gestalt within the data structure, along with the subsequent androids whose express purpose—protecting humanity—would necessarily put them into conflict with the machine lifeforms, thereby ensuring that the network would always be able to strive towards its purpose of defeating enemies. On such an interpretation, the worlds of Drakengard, Nier, and NieR: Automata are just the data structure generated by the machine’s network and meta-network: the network is the cause of those worlds, rather than just another element contained within those worlds.

Of course, the network and its machines couldn’t fulfill its purpose of defeating enemies simply by programming other entities to attack it: this would effectively constitute a fight against oneself, which is no real fight as such. So, the natural solution was to enable some external agency to control the androids and direct them to fight against the machines—and this external agency is what the player provides. The interesting, unintended consequence of the player’s introduction to this data structure—returning to the themes of the last section—is that the player’s sentience ends up “infecting” otherwise non-sentient computer programs with genuine sentience, which turns what was once a mere data structure with quasi-artificial intelligence into a virtual world that supports sentient virtual beings.

To reiterate, this interpretation is absolutely wild. Nevertheless, I think there’s enough evidence for it within the game to at least consider it as a seriously possible interpretation. Consider as further information about the machine network the monolithic Tower that emerges after the death of 2B—the Tower in which N2 resides, and in which A2 and 9S face each other. The purpose of this Tower is expressed by N2 directly to 9S, as he is losing consciousness during Ending D. It’s worth quoting what 9S learns from N2 about the Tower.

NieR Automata Tower

The Tower in NieR: Automata.

“This tower is a colossal cannon built to destroy the human server. Destroy the server… and rob the androids of their very foundation. That was the plan devised by [the Red Girls—i.e. N2].

“But they changed their mind. They saw us androids. They saw Adam. And Eve. They saw how we lived, considered the meaning of existence, and came to a different conclusion.

“This tower doesn’t fire artillery. It fires an ark. An ark containing memories of the foolish machine lifeforms. An ark that sends those memories to a new world.

“Perhaps they’ll never reach that world. Perhaps they’ll wander an empty sky for eternity. It’s all the same to the girls. For them, time is without end.”

In a similar way to the Machine Research Report above, we could interpret this in the obvious and literal way, but it seems like there’s another reading available that resonates with the radical interpretation we’re presently considering. On this alternative reading, the Tower is something like the central hub that generates the virtual world. Its libraries of “information” with various port numbers are actually libraries of functions to call to instantiate and run all the various virtual entities that constitute the network’s world; the network planned to fulfill its purpose (“defeat the enemy”) by annihilating its enemies (this is the discussion of the Tower as a “colossal cannon”), until the network realized it could better fulfill its purpose in perpetuity by using the input of a human to perpetually re-instantiate the network’s virtual world and enemies over and over again. Remember the fact that NieR: Automata has 26 endings? On the wild interpretation we’re currently considering, the multitude of endings is explained by being the networks’ way of prompting players to “send the memories” of the virtual world’s entities in the game to “a new world”—that is, a new possible outcome of the game. By constantly replaying and exploring all of the possibilities of the game, the player allows the network and its machines to infinitely strive to fulfill their purpose of defeating the enemy. In this way, the very structure of the game reinforces the idea that the machine network generated a virtual world for the player to engage in order to fulfill the network’s purpose of “defeating the enemy.”

As I mentioned earlier, the way in which the game presents its fictional content to the player further reinforces this wild theory that its world is just a data structure. The loading screens in the game present presumably in-game data about the various vitals and systems pertaining to whichever android is serving as the player’s avatar; pods are able to use the loading screen as a communication interface, further implying its in-game status as some sort of abstract data structure; the entire world as presented to the player will sometimes appear to “glitch” when all is not right with their android’s sensory systems, even though the world is not presented to the player through the android’s visual field; and the omnipresence of the virtual “data space” in which 9S can hack—appearing everywhere from in machine lifeforms, to the minds of androids, to locks, to seals on the Tower, further suggests that the world could foundationally be just a virtual data structure. Taken individually, each of these data could be furnished with an alternative explanation; yet taken holistically, together with the previous considerations about the origin of the network, it seems at least possible to seriously consider that the world of the game is itself nothing more than a video game generated by the machine network.

This analysis of the game’s metaphysics is of course controversial, and I’m not at all as confident in it as I am in the previous section’s conclusions about the player as the metaphysical basis for sentience in the fiction. Yet the analysis has distinctive merits. NieR: Automata is a game that is obsessed with the formal elements of video games: machine lifeforms are designed with the purpose of defeating enemies (in other words, they are meant to be enemies to the avatar), and avatars—the YoRHa androids—are designed with the purpose of defending humanity (in other words, they serve humanity while also being directed by the inputs of an actual human player). This metaphysical analysis explains these parallels between narrative form and content by saying that the game’s fictional world just is the virtual world of a video game, and its constituent characters are designed accordingly. It also captures the narrative significance of the wide array of endings that the game has: whereas we would otherwise presumably have to admit that there’s no intrinsic narrative reason why the game has so many possible endings (we might instead simply say something like “the developers thought it would be more entertaining,” which doesn’t seem as satisfying an explanation), we can instead say on this account that the machine network constructed the world in this way in order to keep the player coming back and thereby sustaining the network’s purpose. So, although this section is not intended as a staunch defense of this interpretation of the game’s world, it is an invitation to take seriously the idea that NieR: Automata’s universe might really be what it most immediately appears to be: a video game.

4. The Ethics of Being a Sentience-Source

Suppose you find my above arguments convincing. You might still feel the urge to ask: “So what?” After all, I was very clear at the outset of this paper that analyses of a narrative’s metaphysical foundation needn’t have any direct bearing on how we interpret the events of that narrative. If that’s true, then why should we even bother with NG Analysis?

Well, in the first place, I should hope it’s apparent by now that NG Analysis does have implications for how we understand a video game and its fiction, even if it doesn’t directly bear on events in the game. I imagine, for instance, that we might feel different playing through NieR: Automata and thinking that its fictional world is fictionally just a data structure, versus playing through the same game and thinking its fictional world should be understood as fictionally real in the same way that our actual world is understood as real. Or consider how different the series of games would be if sentience arose intrinsically from Replicants, androids, and machine lifeforms, rather than arising derivatively from the sentience of the player. On that alternative understanding of the games’ metaphysics, the games would be presenting a world in which sentience can naturally arise out of programmed machines. In contrast, that isn’t the case on my interpretation: because the sentience of all these entities is ultimately grounded in the player’s sentience, machines only end up being sentient because the sentience of a naturally sentient lifeform (the human player) is shared with the machine. I take it that a fictional world in which intrinsically sentient machines are possible is crucially different from a fictional world in which such machines are not possible.

But suppose now for the sake of argument that the above considerations don’t move you. I want to close by considering one other way in which the analysis of NieR: Automata’s metaphysics deeply matters: namely, it determines the ethical commitments that the player has within the game to androids, pods, machine lifeforms, and other players.

If a given entity is sentient, then we typically think that the entity has moral rights—that is, there are morally permissible and morally impermissible ways for a moral agent (like a human) to treat that entity. Because androids, machine lifeforms, and (eventually) pods are sentient within the fiction of NieR: Automata, that means that, fictionally, there are right and wrong ways to treat them. These entities of course don’t have real moral rights because it isn’t the case that the programs representing them in the video game are literally capable of robust artificial intelligence, but when we engage in the fiction, it stand to reason that we must treat them as fictional entities with moral rights because of their fictional sentience. But notice that, based on your preferred metaphysics of sentience in the game, the sense in which these entities have moral rights will differ accordingly. If you think that these entities naturally became sentient independently of the player’s sentience, then they will have fictional moral rights regardless of whether the player interacts with the fictional world or not. On the other hand, if you agree with me that the sentience of these entities fundamentally depends on the sentience of the player, then it follows that these entities only have moral rights so long as the player interacts with the game’s world and thereby renders them sentient.

Why should these ethical considerations be any more compelling a case for the value of NG Analysis than the earlier considerations were? Because, it turns out, these ethical considerations will determine what choice you should make at a crucial juncture in the game’s narrative.

In Ending E of NieR: Automata, Project YoRHa enters its final phase: destruction of all androids and deletion of all data. Pods 153 and 042, together with the player, decide to recover the data of 9S, 2B, and A2 (the avatar androids)—thereby preserving the player’s data and allowing the player to continue exploring the game’s world and possibilities. In order to recover the androids’ data, however, the player must complete an exceedingly challenging mini-game in which she pilots a digital ship that destroys all the names in the game’s credits, all while avoiding myriad projectiles that the names are firing at the ship.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 7.00.52 AM

The credits-based mini-game in Ending E. Getting hit by three projectiles total is fatal.

It’s very difficult to complete this mission alone; however, after failing several times (assuming the player is connected to the online network of other players), the player will receive a “rescue offer” from other players. If the player accepts, then the ships of other players will join the player’s ship, making the mission extremely easy; however, every time a projectile connects with the pack of ships, another player’s data (not the original player’s) is lost. Once the player completes the mission, the androids’ data is successfully restored, and the pods offer the player an option: if she so chooses, the player can sacrifice her own data in order to help another player reach this ending, just as she was (presumably) helped in reaching the ending. At the price of the save data and records you have accumulated in the game, you can help another player—a perfect stranger.[5] Here’s the crucial ethical choice: do you agree to help the other player or not?

If you have the view that androids, and machine lifeforms, and pods are fictionally sentient independent of you, the player, then, within the context of the fiction, these entities have moral rights against you no matter what. Given that choosing to delete your save data plausibly entails more-or-less “erasing” these entities, it stands to reason that such a view would forbid you from deleting your save data: to do so would be to help a stranger at the cost of annihilating countless sentient beings. In contrast, if you have the view that the fictional sentience of these entities fundamentally depends on the sentience of the player, then it follows that, were you to withdraw yourself from that fiction—for instance, by deleting your save data—then these entities wouldn’t be fictionally sentient anymore, and thus wouldn’t have fictional moral rights against you. On such a view, helping a stranger would not transgress against the moral rights of anyone, since, upon deleting your save data, the androids, machine lifeforms, and pods would lose their foundational connection to your sentience, from which their own sentience derived. Since, other things being equal, you probably ought to help the stranger since you were probably helped by strangers in successfully reaching Ending E, it follows on this view that you ought to delete your save data. So your view of the metaphysics of sentience in Nier: Automata could end up determining what you morally ought to do within the fiction when presented with this choice at the end of Ending E. If you think that your choices as a player within a video game matter at all, then this means you can’t afford to overlook the metaphysical foundation of NieR: Automata.

Conclusion

Nier: Automata, as I said at the outset, is a philosophically rich game across a wide variety of dimensions. I’ve only aimed in this paper to analyze the most foundational of those dimensions: the metaphysics of the game’s fiction. But those metaphysics, we’ve seen, are quite illuminating with respect to the rest of the game: they afford the player a central role as the wellspring of sentience in the game’s world, and they suggest new ways of grounding the self-consciously “video-game” aspects of the game’s narrative. These metaphysics may well be part of why the game’s exploration of sentience and the meaning of being human is so compelling: even as machines and androids wrestle with these concepts, the sentience they are trying to understand is ultimately your very own sentience; the humanity they want to know is your humanity. The human in NieR: Automata, therefore, is the one behind the controller.

2B and 9S

[1] Obviously, these are both toy examples, and it isn’t obvious that either of them is the correct account of Link’s time-traveling abilities.

[2] I say my work “doesn’t necessarily” pose a threat to that theory because there surely may be specific cases and ways in which an account of a narrative’s fictional grounds might restrict the set of possible interpretations of that narrative’s events. My point is simply that there is no a priori, categorical entailment relation between theories of a narrative’s fictional grounds (NG Analyses) and theories of the meaning of that narrative’s events (NE Analyses).

[3] In precisely what sense does Nier “serve” the player? An easy response would be to say that the player “controls” Nier in just the way that the literal control mechanics of the game suggest. If you’ve read my recent work on the foundations of video game storytelling, then you know I don’t think it’s right to say that players control avatars in that way; however, on my view, the explanation would simply be that the player already occupies a fictional role in the grounding of the game’s narrative, and Nier simply embellishes that fictional role by identifying it as a human, extra-dimensional entity controlling Nier. All of which is to say: my preferred view of video game metaphysics supports the interpretation of Nier that I offer here, but one needn’t subscribe to my broader video-game metaphysics in order to endorse this interpretation of Nier.

[4] While the interpretation I’m considering here is radical, it’s not without precedent: my most recent work on Xenoblade Chronicles defends the view that its universe (or, at least, the main universe within the game) is best understood to fictionally be a computer-generated world with external input from a player.

[5] There are of course ways to avoid the hard choice here by, for example, backing up your save data on an external source that the game can’t delete. I’m ignoring such methods on the grounds that they are illegitimate responses to the choice within the context of the fiction.

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.

Sci-Fi and Real Science: With a Terrible Fate at PAX East (video)

With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX East 2017, in which we spoke to a crowd of about 500 people about how to better understand the science-fiction storytelling of video games using real science. We were also fortunate enough to have the entire panel recorded; we’re sharing that video with you here, so those of you who weren’t able to attend can virtually hear and see what we had to say. You can also read articles that present this same work in a more academic form: Matt McGill’s work on SOMA can be found here, and my own work on BioShock Infinite is here.

Thanks for being such a wonderful audience, PAX East. We hope to see you again next year.

Meet With a Terrible Fate at PAX East 2017.

With a Terrible Fate is thrilled to publicly announce that we will be presenting a panel at PAX East 2017, and we want to see all of our Boston followers there.

On Sunday, March 12, at 1:30pm at the Bumblebee Theatre, check out With a Terrible Fate‘s “Stranger than Fiction: The Real Science of Sci-Fi Games.” We’ll explore how applying real scientific theories and studies to science-fiction video games allow us to more precisely understand their worlds, stories, and relation to us as players.

Matt McGillFeatured Author and neuroscientist Matt McGill will be on the scene to talk about SOMA. Using cutting-edge neuroscientific findings, he will discuss the various
aspects of SOMA‘s wild world and suggest that it is far closer to reality than you might first reality. He’ll even go beyond the descriptive to the normative: if it turns out we really can do the sorts of things that happen in SOMA, does it follow that we should? If you want to preview the material he’ll be discussing, you can check it out here.
screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-8-11-13-pmAfterwards, I’ll discuss the quantum physics and philosophy of science that underpin the story of BioShock Infinite. I’ll argue that we can use these real theories to make better sense of the game, uncovering a new interpretation that makes better sense of the most famously confusing aspects of the game. Once we see this new interpretation, we’ll be poised to step back from BioShock and see a new, surprising way of analyzing video games more generally. You can preview the work I’ll be discussing here.

 

We’re excited to see you, Boston. With a Terrible Fate began here, and we owe a lot to the people in the area who’ve been keeping up with us since the Dawn of our First Day. So come meet us; explore games, science, and philosophy with us; ask us plenty of questions; and, as always, stay tuned for new content.

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.

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