The fundamental point of playing a game is to face challenges that, while still challenging, are ultimately resolvable. A maze would not be enjoyable if there was no path to the exit, but neither would it be enjoyable if the path to the exit was a straight line from the entrance. Furthering this, when a game pits a player against a certain challenge, the game must ensure that the player has the means to overcome it. The means could be a certain tool, a certain ability, knowledge of a certain fact, or some combination of these. Half-Life 2 ensures we receive the gravity gun before we confront any physics-focused puzzles that require heavy or distant lifting; Zelda games give us bombs before any secret passages must be cleared; Shadow Complex does not require us to double-jump to any platforms before the double-jump ability is obtained.
As game mechanics, these all make perfect sense. If we needed to double-jump to reach the double-jump ability, we would not be able to progress. The challenge would be too challenging (i.e. impossible) and not resolvable. The game would be a broken game. A game, at its base level, wants to prevent our progression at every chance, but it also wants us to ultimately defeat it and must give us the means to do so.
However, as believable fiction, coincidentally finding the perfect tool right before it is required can be a bit farfetched. Why is the red key always left lying around outside the red door? Why do enemy reinforcements always wait until after I have taken over the AA gun before assaulting head-on? Why would the Great Spirit left to protect the sacred boomerang have only one weakness—the boomerang? What are the chances that if I keep running through the first unlocked door I find, I will eventually get to my destination? Suspension of disbelief is a delicate thread that is already stretched taut by our engagement in a work of fiction. When that fiction seems too contrived, too unlikely, it does not take much for that suspension of disbelief to snap.
Conveniently finding exactly the thing to overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge is a plot device known as deus ex machina, and it has been around for a very long time. Latin for “God from the machine”, deus ex machina introduces a means to solve a seemingly unsolvable problem, a way to get the protagonist (and the plot) out of the dead-end the author has burrowed it into.
In film and literature, deus ex machina is typically frowned upon. Usually it is the product of lazy writing. Without planning ahead, the writer has burrowed the narrative into a dead-end and can only get it out again by suddenly introducing a new character, a new tool, or a sudden-yet-convenient natural disaster. It is not believable and not enjoyable to read (that said, plenty of comedy harnesses deus ex machina where it is intentionally ridiculous).
As we watch the protagonist struggle, we want to think, “Oh boy! How are they going to get out of this one?” We expect them to solve the problem because that is what protagonists do, and we look forward to seeing what ingenious, thrilling methods they will use. We don’t expect them to whip out a can of shark repellent.
So in stories, deus ex machina should generally be avoided. In game design, however, as clarified above, the player must have access to the tools and abilities that allow them to overcome any challenge they face. So how do story-driven games give the player the tools they need without appearing contrived? Or is deus ex machina an essential plot device in game-story design?
Simply, to not look contrived, games need to ensure the player feels as though they have a challenge by harnessing an existing tool in a unique, improvised way—even if it is the only way that challenge can be overcome. If we watch a film protagonist and go “Oh boy! How will they get out of this one?” then, when we play a game, we need the chance to go “Oh boy! How am I going to get out of this one?” It is the difference between already having a grappling hook in your inventory and coming across a grappling hook at the base of the cliff.
By having some time and space between the challenge and its solution, what is essential on the game design level will not seem so contrived on the fictional level. Games such as Zelda and Metroid achieve this by having the player pass inaccessible paths and items for hours before a means to access them is obtained. Rather than feeling like a contrived solution to an immediate challenge, once the player finds the required tool, all those old paths open up and the player’s explorative abilities increase ten-fold. By having to backtrack to all those rocket-doors already discovered, it does not feel as though Samus conveniently found these rockets just in time. If Samus were to only find rocket-doors after finding rockets, however, that would seem contrived and unlikely.
Another solution is not to give the player a specific tool to overcome a specific challenge, but a range of tools that can be used and combined in a variety of ways to approach a range of challenges in different ways. Recently, I stared playing Alone in the Dark (the more recent, 360 version). While it has some quite horrible deus ex machina in the opening stages (a fire extinguisher sitting beside every burning corridor), the item-combining mechanic, as well as being able to pick up a variety of objects with different properties, keeps things feeling dynamic and not too contrived. Fighting one crack-possessed person, I ran out of bullets and frantically searched until I found a wooden chair which I stuck into a nearby flame (the whole building was on fire) and hastily finished the battle before I burnt my hands off. Perhaps that was the only way to progress at that point, and the fire and chair were placed there to be used in exactly the fashion I used them. However, it felt like I figured it out myself and like I was lucky to find those items.
The Halo games achieve this quite well, also, by limiting the number of weapons the player can carry. Depending on your chosen weapon-set, the player will inevitably have the advantage in some conflicts and the disadvantage in others. This is most sharply felt in levels like “Two Betrayals” where the player must switch back and forth between Flood and Covenant confrontations—each requiring different weapons and tactics. This often leaves the player with no choice but to improvise on the spot and leads to a greater sense of achievement. When you come face-to-face with a Wraith tank and blast it with a rocket launcher, it is usually because you lugged that rocket launcher across half a level, not because it was sitting right before the Wraith, waiting for you. This avoids the pitfall of deus ex machina and allows for a more convincing story.
But does it allow for a more convincing game? In Bioshock, when the player needs to become a Big Daddy to get a Little Sister to unlock a door, you just happen to be in the part of Rapture where people are turned into Big Daddies. Do people just accept this? When I was playing Bioshock, I certainly did; the coincidence did not faze me at all. It was not until afterwards that I thought about it as slightly too convenient.
Each storytelling medium has its own accentuated mechanics. Novel protagonists often think and muse to themselves so that their thoughts can be rendered into words for the reader to read; film characters strike visually effective poses, even when no other characters are watching, to help the audience read their emotions. Perhaps we are more willing to accept deus ex machina in games than other mediums as a necessary mechanic for game stories.
One argument in favour of deus ex machina in games would be that presenting the player with challenges specific to a new tool, ability, or character allows for an improvised training ground of sorts. While it may seem farfetched that each Zelda boss has a weakness to the most recently obtained item, these boss battles provide a space for the player to come to terms with the abilities of the new item. Similarly, Half-Life 2’s “We Don’t Go To Ravenholm” stage provides a training ground for the newly acquired gravity gun.
Uncharted 2, meanwhile, embraces deus ex machina. On the train level, when Drake is being pestered by the gunship, he stumbles across a very convenient AA gun. “How the hell am I going to take out a— oh… hello!” he exclaims as he stumbles across the gun that saves his life. While I typically roll my eyes every time I find the obligatory AA gun in every single game, this time I did not mind at all. It was tongue-in-cheek; it was conscious. Uncharted 2 knows that it is a game and that games require resolution to challenges so it unabashedly gave me an AA gun.
In The Matrix, the matrix itself is essentially a videogame. In order to complete the “Save Morpheus” level, Neo and Trinity need “Guns. Lots of Guns.” And that is exactly what they get. It does not jar with the audiences expectations as the hackers’ ability to manipulate the matrix has already been explained; Neo and Trinity are entering a computer program and will take the greatest advantage available—especially when the opponent is the computer program. In a sense, it is not even deus ex machina as it is entirely feasible within the rules set by the movie.
In another sense, though, it is the most literal form of deus ex machina as Neo plays God inside the machine world. Neo is able to do this because he is a product of the same programming that crafted the machine world. The machines, by nature, must do everything in their power to stop him, even if his ability to manipulate the machine world makes his victory inevitable. Much like Neo, the player must be the true god inside the machine-world of the game. The game must try to stop the player but, ultimately, it will be from the machine that the player obtains the means to eventually overcome it. It is inevitable.
For the sake of the gameplay the player must always have the means to overcome a challenge (except in rare exceptions such as Bioshock’s confrontation with Ryan or Red Dead Redemption’s ending). But for the sake of the fiction, the means cannot seem too contrived. The true god inside the machine is the player, but the game must do everything it can to fool the player into thinking the opposite is true. To risk an overdose of film analogies, C-3PO is the game and Chewbacca is the player. The game must put up a valiant, convincing fight, but in the end must let the Wookie win.
Note: This post gets a Portal screenshot even though Portal is not mentioned at all in this article because I could not find any of the screenshots I wanted to use.