Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeling Every Punch

A lot of insightful, thought-provoking views found their way into the comments of my “Player Privilege” post. One highlighted problem with my argument was that I failed to articulate exactly what I meant by wanting games that are more ‘difficult’. Adrian made the very valid point that simply making games harder for players would not be abolishing player privilege but instead would simply reinstate the privilege of the hardcore by making games less accessible. That games should require more dexterous skill was not my intended argument so this is clearly something I need to distinguish better.
Related to this, The Shape of Games To Come highlighted an important distinction between real-world consequences and virtual consequences:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence."
As essentially what my broader argument is saying is that games could be more meaningful by inflicting harsher consequences on the player, the distinction seems like a vital area to explore. However, the distinction I would make is that they are not distinct at all.
So I am going to start with a wildly presumptuous hypothesis and then work my way back to it. So here it goes: the player takes meaning out of a game (both positively and negatively) through the ways the game affects the player in the real world. To twist this around: the real-world consequences of the player’s virtual actions communicate meaning to the player.
This implies an overlap of what exists in the real world and what exists in the virtual world, and indeed there is a whole body of literature on this topic that I am grossly simplifying and re-appropriating here. While both worlds have exclusive elements (we sit with a controller in our hand in the real-world; the dragons we slay, the cars we steal and the aliens we shoot exist solely in the virtual world), there is this massive gray area where the two worlds smash together like a Venn Diagram. This is the space where you read Fallout 3’s The Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide on the bus home from EB Games. This is the space where a real-world friend shouts “jump!” while a virtual squadmate orders you to “press X!”.
It is within this overlap, too, that we are able to interact with the virtual world. Via our in-game avatar, we project our real-world actions (pressing X) into the virtual world. This is how we play videogames. We poke a finger through this little window into the virtual world and watch the effects of that action ripple outwards. However, this window is not one-way. Just as we can effect change in the virtual world via real actions, the consequences of those actions are able to ripple back to us in very real ways—sometimes too real.
We want our actions in-game to resonate into the real world... but not too much. (link)
The Shape Of Games To Come, in his comment, clarified between what he sees as constructive in-game consequences and destructive real-world consequences by comparing how Heavy Rain and Mirror’s Edge respond to the player’s failings:
"While I too would like to see greater consequence for player actions, I think I would draw a critical difference between in-game consequence and real world consequence. I though Heavy Rain was fantastic largely because of how it handled this; I could lose whole characters, cut off entire potential plot branches and gameplay sequences, etc. based on how I acted in a particular scene. That was great.

What is not at all great is for me to be punished outside of the game for my actions. This has two possible consequences for me, both of which are bad. The first is that the narrative of the game is broken. I died a lot playing Mirror's Edge. And at the end of the day, that reinforced something for me - that the character of Faith could not possibly have done what the game said she did with the skillset the game gave me unless she ran into an almost infinitely improbable string of good luck. The second consequence is that the game has essentially wasted some of my life. Do I have to go back and replay the past hour of gameplay because there was no checkpoint? Then I have just lost an hour of my life, and now I will have to spend another hour just to get back to where I already was. That's not meaningful consequence, that's abuse."
These are both great examples. However, I would argue that both are examples of games projecting consequences from the virtual world back into the real world. They key difference is that the consequences of actions within Heavy Rain continue to resonate in the virtual world as well as the real world. That is, the game reacts to our actions (intended or accidental) and continues along a certain route consequential to those actions. This is a virtual consequence (because it affects the characters in-game), but it is also a real-world consequence (because it affects the way we play, progress, and experience the game).
Meanwhile, the Mirror’s Edge example is a real-world consequence without any corresponding virtual consequence. In short, Faith does not die. Every action between the checkpoint and our misguided jump is erased and forgotten. The player suffers consequences in the real world (loss of time, alienation at the plausibility of the narrative) while the character suffers nothing. Faith has no memory of that fateful misstep, but the player must remember every bone-crunching detail.
My initial hypothesis was that the player takes meaning out of a game based on how the game affects them in the real world. Now I don’t want to twist The Shape Of Games To Come’s words against him so the following is my own experience of Mirror’s Edge and Heavy Rain: My experience of Mirror’s Edge was marred by the way it affected me in the real world without affecting Faith in the virtual world. Yet my experience of Heavy Rain was improved by the way the consequences to my actions affected how I played the game in both real and virtual ways.
So where does this leave us? Have I found a wedge to distinguish between privilege and accessibility? Perhaps what I mean by player privilege, then, is that many games are being designed in a way as to isolate the player in the real world. The player is able to poke through the window into the virtual world then slam it shut before the consequences ripple back to affect them in the real world—ultimately blocking the player off from any meaning those consequences may have conveyed.
An example of this would be the choice to destroy Megaton in Fallout 3. While Megaton’s destruction has very clear virtual consequences to the citizens of the Capital Wasteland (a major town destroyed, many deaths, a large area radiated), the decision hardly affects the way the player progresses in the game. Regardless of what the player decides to do, they receive a house for their troubles. Further, the quests available to the player do not change—the characters within Megaton that give out quests miraculously survive the detonation. While the game’s karma system does quantify the player’s decision with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ points, the real world consequences of the player’s virtual actions are practically nil, and any meaning the player may get out of the experience is greatly diluted. [Edit: Okay. It has been pointed out to me that there are indeed a number of quests and other elements that are shut off from the player if they destroy Megaton so this example is in fact not all that great.]
At the other extreme, however, is what Adrian highlighted in my previous post as a potential abolishment of accessibility. This would be ripping the window from the wall and allowing all the consequences of the player’s actions to flood back into the real world with no real affect on the virtual—such as Mirror’s Edge or any other game with unforgiving checkpoint systems.
So ideally, the consequences of our actions should not be exclusive to either world, but resonate across both. At the end of the day, why would we put so much into games if we did not wish to take something out of them?


Adrian Forest said...

Not to nitpick, but I'd point out that destroying Megaton *does* in fact remove access to the quests there, except in certain circumstances.

Allan Weallans said...

That's an interesting point. It leads onto some other questions.

I know a lot of times I'll be faced with a choice and feel like I'm inadequately informed of what the consequences might be, so I'll save before making the choice, and if I don't like the consequences, reload. Of course, I feel guilty for that, because it represents a refusal on my part to co-operate with the consequentiality of the story.

When we talk about abolishing player privilege, I think we're really talking about increasing player responsibility, but where does that responsibility lie? Does it lie in-game, such that the player has to take responsibility for their actions, or does it lie in the meta-game, meaning that the player has to be disciplined about co-operating with the consequentiality of the game? To put it another way, is it my responsibility to co-operate with the game, or is it the game's responsibility to make me co-operate?

And if it's the game's responsibility, should the game implement that by preventing me from not co-operating (e.g. by not allowing me to load from in-game, or by delaying the consequences of a choice so that reloading is less of a trivial thing) or by making me want to co-operate (somehow?)?

How informed should the player be ahead of time of what consequences an action will have? I'd guess no information turns a choice into a meaningless and arbitrary guess, while complete information is probably no fun, either.

Brendan said...

Hey Allan, thanks for the insights.

Increasing player responsibility is totally what this is all about for me. In fact, I used to toss around that term a while back. I may have shouted 'Yes! Exactly!' out loud to some extent when I read that in your comment. :)

For me, the responsibility isn't so much that the player must be forced to act a certain way. Rather, the player should be able to refuse to co-operate with the story, but they must accept responsibility for the consequences of that refusal.

For instance, one of the main complaints people have with GTA4 is that they feel no sympathy for Niko because of the horrendous acts they committed outside of the missions. People say things like "How I am I meant to feel sympathy for this guy who just ran over a dozen joggers in Central Park?". I think that shows a complete lack of player responsibility. A responsible player would either a) not run over a dozen joggers, or b) accept that that was their own choice, and not the games.

This isn't a waterproof argument, though. GTA4 does at many times require the player to break with the character being built (as does Uncharted 2, Gears of War, and practically every game ever). Others would argue that, ideally, the narrative should adjust to take in the murder of those joggers.

But personally, I think if the player wishes to experience the story the game has crafted for them, they have a responsibility to act a certain way--but that should not prevent them from just screwing around if that is all they really want.

Allan Weallans said...

One problem I often have with consequentiality is tied to intentionality. When I accidentally run over a civilian with my car in Boiling Point, or an ally foolishly runs in front of my flying arrow in Oblivion, the consequences are the same as if I had intended those actions. Obviously it's very hard for the game to know whether I did or not, but I think consequences caused by a controller fumble (or worse, by careless AI) aren't really on the same level as consequences resulting from a conscious action.

Every consequence has an antecedent, and while you've been talking about in-game and real-world consequences of in-game antecedents, there are also real-world antecedents with in-game consequences. Most of the time that's desirable: the in-game consequence of the real-world antecedent of pressing a button is the avatar performing an action, without which there would be no game. But the examples I gave above are where it gets out of control and breaks the fiction. I think you could almost add "and vice versa" to the idea that the real-world consequences of in-game antecedents should be somehow limited.

Ryan said...

I should point out that I didn't post those comments. I only responded to 'Shape Of Games To Come' who actually made those comments you've quoted in this post.

Brendan said...

Oh dear! Complete mental stuff up on my behalf. Somehow I did some weird logic thing in my head which made you the same person. >_>

Sorry, Ryan! I will fix the post now so I am not putting words in your mouth.