US: 2 Dec 2010
There is a wonderful xkcd strip where one of Randall Munroe’s famous stick figures (in an effort to console his friend) compares a bad break-up to a video game: “Remember when Aeris died in FFVII? It was sad. But you had to keep playing.”
“Actually,” the friend counters, “I downloaded a mod to add her back to my party.”
Any player of a certain age can recount at least one friend who’s done this, as well as untold other acquaintances that were convinced there was some secret quest or hidden boss that would undo Aeris’s death. Even today, more than 13 years after the game’s release, there are players who keep the faith that there is some way to reverse fate and authorial intent to bring Aeris back. As Munroe’s comic jokes, there are some unsettling implications once we factor the “bargaining” stage of grief into digital media.
Grief itself is a difficult process to conceptualize by digital means, where failure and bad outcomes are so easily undone. More than any passive storytelling form, interactivity empowers the player to choose whether a result is acceptable and that may include anything from modifying the game to taking his hands off the controller entirely and walking away.
For those determined to keep playing, narrative determinism is, if anything, just as reassuring. It can’t be helped if it’s scripted, after all. One of my more visceral experiences in gaming came recently while playing Mass Effect 2, in which a series of events led me to believe that I’d just indirectly murdered most of my crew. When the cutscenes ended, I was rocking in my chair, eyes wide, heart pounding, and as control was given over to me once more, I did the only thing that I thought was reasonable to do:
I reset the game.
This, of course, only led to the revelation that the event was preordained and the inference that (by Bioware’s logic) a high degree of magical charisma and blue-colored decision making meant that I could get everything back to normal. Realizing that the action wasn’t in my hands freed me from feeling guilty about it, theorizing that it was reversible spared me from grieving about it. It’s a little ironic that in a series of games promoting the empowerment of the player to make choices, I got my biggest shock from something that I only thought that I could control. Charitably, I could say Bioware at least did a good job of conditioning my expectations in such a way that the game could garner this response, but the fact remains: when confronted with a consequence that I couldn’t handle, my immediate player’s response was to stop and get a do over. Inevitability was only something that I could accept once it was directly shown to me.
So how might we construct a game where a player remains empowered while coming to terms with the limitations of that empowerment? Something like Heavy Rain is no good for this; it falls short on logical follow up on one too many occasions, and even the purist player is always aware that he can replay chapters or the entire game at some later point, assuming he wants to test the limits of his agency. Where do we set about finding a game that can show the player the consequences of his actions as well as the finality of them?
Three sources come immediately to mind when considering this. The first is the MMO, where the real-time environment should prevent the player from undermining causality. Not being an online gamer, this sounds viable to me in theory, but I’ve watched a little too much Final Fantasy XIV and World of Warcraft over friends’ shoulders to believe that there is a great deal of consequence to those games that cannot be overcome with patience and diligence.
The second source that I would name is something in the vein of Lose/Lose, a computer game from Zach Gage that irreversibly deletes data off your computer if you shoot its generated enemies. This goes a long way in establishing material consequence for one’s actions, but in a world of easy disc images and backups, it offers little real terror for the tech savvy. Furthermore, it’s not the easiest to relate to. It tells no story and there are no characters; it’s just you, the program, and your data, however much you choose to value it.
This leads me to the third and last game that I might mention, which has made quite a bit of a splash in recent weeks: One Chance, the short and subdued flash game from Awkward Silence. As the name implies, you as the player have a single opportunity to complete your stated goal of saving the world. If the game is reloaded, you’re presented with a static image and no means to start over.
Oh, sure, there are still ways around this caveat, as there is with anything technologically based. But what I liked about One Chance is that by offering a story (as barebones as it is) it gives that single chance a certain amount of narrative weight. Posts about the game on various gaming blogs often generate feedback from readers volunteering how their (singular) playthroughs went, taking personal ownership of their choices and learning via others how might their alternative options have gone.
The game is still quite limited, in some respects disappointingly so. But we can consider it a model for what a consequence-reliant game could look like. To the extent that it is able to, it immerses the player in order to get him to consider the effect that his actions have on other characters.
Inasmuch as games can be systems and simulations through which to explore possibilities with minimal consequence, games like One Chance show us that it’s also possible that they empower players by making them consider the lack of such privilege. Here’s to seeing more games in the vein of Awkward Silence’s work in the future.