Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Death of the Player

As kids, my two brothers and I devised a game called Traps. Influenced at least in part by playing Spy vs. Spy on our Master System II, Traps would see one of us design an obstacle course around the house and yard (usually just the yard as we would concoct games such as this when our parents kicked us outside) that the others would have to navigate through. As the name suggests, the course would be littered with traps. The most enjoyable part of the game was trying to invent new and exciting traps that our player (‘victim’ almost seems like a more fitting term) would not be expecting. We would lean buckets of water atop doors; hide small ditches of spiked twigs under leaves; and force each other to climb the sun-baked metal of the slippery slide.
The game could not have been any more linear. You finished by completing the course, but you were not allowed to deviate from the course at any time—not even to avoid traps. This meant that the course could only be completed by activating every trap along the way. Even if you saw the spike pit under the leaves, walking around it would be cheating. Interesting gameplay was not the primary concern in Traps—the traps were. While the player had an essential role in the game, that role was the equivalent of a lab rat in a genetics experiment.
Playing Playdead’s beautiful debut XBLA game, Limbo, last night, I found myself reminiscing about Traps. Limbo’s beautiful, beautiful monochrome levels (did I mention they are beautiful?) are littered with dangers that seem to have been extracted directly from the mind of the playable boy—giant spiders, spikes, bear-traps, other children, brain-eating leeches to name a few. Many of these dangers are not meant to be noticed and avoided the first time. Dying is a large part of Limbo and a lot of care has gone into the morbidly varied death animations. The designers have used many a cheap trick to ensure the player is dead before they even realise they are being threatened. Limbo is not about avoiding death; it is about dying. Again and again and again.
This relates to a kind-of-theory-thing I have recently been trying to no avail to flesh out into coherent thoughts. My justifications for it still need plenty of fleshing out but the essential argument is this: 
The player is not the most important element of all videogames.
I mean that quite specifically. The player is still very important (essential, even) to all videogames, and they are indeed the most important element for a lot of videogames. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that allowing the player to stand unchallenged atop the pedestal of priorities they have held for decades can be detrimental to creating more meaningful games. Okay. I know. I am crazy, but just hear me out before you scroll down to write an angry comment.
Based on the assumption that the player is the most important element of any game, gameplay considerations are almost always prioritised over all other considerations (such as coherency, believability, themes, aesthetics, etc.). In the article “Brave New Worlds” in GamesTM No.95, Rocksteady’s principal designer, Bill Green, says:
“Inevitably, sometimes we have to sacrifice believability for the sake of gameplay, and the player must have a smooth, readable ride even if that ceiling wouldn’t pass a civil engineers assessment. The player is the most important person in the world when you’re designing, and they must be able to read the environment, knowing up-front how they can interact with it and where they can go.”
The ludology line of thinking would completely agree with this. As would anyone with any financial interest in seeing a AAA title sell enough copies for them to keep their job. I completely respect that. Games are games and should be about the player and gameplay first and everything else second, right?
At the risk of being slaughtered by a mob of said ludologists, I would answer no. Some games have (or could have) a greater interest in elements other than gameplay and the player’s convenience and, dare I say it, enjoyment. Perhaps the flight simulator is a good example of this (then again, the genre is practically dead, so perhaps not). Certainly, the player’s ability to play the game is important, but is it more important to a committed simulator than hyperrealism? Sometimes yes sometimes no. All I am trying to say is that the player is not always the most important thing. In some games other consideration are just as (if not more) important.
Limbo is one of those games. The player is an essential element of the game; without them, the boy would just lay there, sleeping forever. However, the player is essential in the same way the player of Traps was essential—as a lab rat. The player exists in Limbo to run their rat wheel and allow the stunning aesthetic and thematic design to really shine. And, considering Limbo’s most potent theme is death, the lab rat player must die a lot of times.
Is this a justified strand of game design, where the player is not empowered but exploited? It is not something I have fully explored or entirely made up my own mind about. I was not planning on posting such thoughts for quite some time yet, but the few hours of Limbo I have played (I have not even finished it yet!) really made me want to get this out.
So please, rip my kind-of-theory-thing to shreds.


Mr Ak said...

I disagree, I think. I'd want to consider it a bit more before being definitive, but I think you're conflating "player" with a certain type of player experience. At least in your examples.

Take the first set of beartraps in Limbo, for example. The set-up for this is beautiful. You come up out of a gully, run along, before seeing some butterflies/fireflies, the first moving things in white that you've seen in the game.

But while you're looking at them, you run into a decapitating beartrap, which kills you with a gruesome snap and a fountain of blood.

*sigh* good times.

Anyway, my point is that the experience of that trap is focused very much on the player - it reinforces lessons from earlier that the game will kill you, and that death is relatively unimportant. It encourages you to experiment and have fun with it.

Certainly, Limbo's ideal player doesn't have the same identity as they would in Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game I imagine is based much more or routine and caution than experimentation.

But both are still about the player experience - just not the same player, and not about the ease of playability.

Is my thinking on it, anyway.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi Mark.

Thanks for the input. You are indeed right that the player is central to that experience with the beartraps. How something can be 'the focus' without being 'the most important consideration' is something I have not really taken into account, I guess.

Perhaps the biggest hole in my argument at present is one of definition. I have not properly defined what I mean by the general statement'most important' when I say the player is unquestioningly prioritised. That is probably the biggest flaw in what I am saying at present.

Thanks for the challenges. :)

Adrian Forest said...

I think I see where you're coming from on this, but I wonder if you're conflating "user experience as the highest priority design goal" with a "death of the player" in a Barthesian sense.

I'd absolutely agree that user experience is increasingly prioritised in design, but I see that as an overwhelming positive. The thing is, I see this more as the designer trying to communicate with the user on their own terms, in their own language. I even think there's parallels to be drawn to the medieval translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

What I would distinguish this from, though - and a distinction I think you're implying but not spelling out - is design where the player plays only a trivial role. As Mr Ak points out, both Limbo and a hardcore flight sim are both designed with the player experience in mind, just a *different* player, a player who wants a different experience.

But I'm not sure you could find a game designed around a player who plays only a trivial role. In fact I think you'd have to question whether such a thing could be considered a game at all. Even in your childhood game of Traps, the game is designed around the player, to create a particular player experience.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hey Adrian, thanks for the input.

So perhaps I am conflating theoretical concerns (the death of the player in the Barthesian sense) with practical design concerns (user experience as the highest priority design goal)?

That would make sense, as many of the problems I have with "player privilege" (my new tenetative name for what I am talking about as 'importance' is flawed) are more theoretical ones--such as players not taking responsibility for their role in a narrative (which I touched up in my "Defence of the Cut-scene" piece)--and less practical design ones. That is probably an important consideration for the limitations of what I am trying to argue that I have not properly considered.

As for whether or not a game could exist where the player has a trivial role, my first reaction is to answer 'yes', but I would struggle to think of any currently existing examples. It is something I am going to have to think about.

Thanks for the food for thought!

Mr Ak said...

"As for whether or not a game could exist where the player has a trivial role, my first reaction is to answer 'yes', but I would struggle to think of any currently existing examples"

I'd argue Heavy Rain does, although I'm not suggesting it's intentional (if it were, would the player cease to be trivial? Hmmmm...), or the only way to approach the concept.

The arbitrary nature of the game control along with the railroad nature of the plot (okay, that's simplifying - but to expound further would take too much time.) means that the player could be replaced by software entering randomised correct/incorrect responses and still end up with essentially the same experience.

It trivialises the play aspect by removing any agency on behalf of the player. Which is what leads to the rebellious "Lt Carter Blake?" (Idle Thumbs, I forget which episode) style of play where the player wrests agency back by force, breaking the communicated experience in the process.

Chris Dunkley said...

I don't think the player can ever be trivial, except in the case of a multiplayer game where other players are taking centre stage. But then multiplayer is part of the experience and the designers have obviously intended for moments where the player will observe other players doing things, which is just as valid an experience as any other.

The bottom line is that no matter how complex the artifice and simulation of a game becomes and how minimal the player's input becomes the entire thing is all ultimately for the player's benefit or else it doesn't exist.

If the experience the designers want to create is one where the player feels unimportant and insignificant then that requires just as much tailored design as any other experience. which seems to be what the other commenters are saying, so I wont go into it too further.

The part that I find myself spending the most time thinking about after finishing Limbo is whether or not I like the death theme. Obviously this was part of the design but I'm not sure that it's a particularly good way of exploring a game world or solving puzzles. I'm not sure the game makes any meaningful point about death and I'm not sure I want anything to do with it.

I keep coming back to the idea that I'm not a masochist. I don't care to watch graphic deaths over and over, I don't want it to happen. I think this is the psychology most desingers hope for with their death mechanics; you're supposed to fear death and use your skill to avoid it. Most games give you tools you can use to feel out the situation with the hope of avoiding death. But Limbo almost invites you to die. You almost MUST die to figure out what you need to do next. You're supposed to enjoy watching you're character get skewered, which is disturbing.

When you were a kid playing "Traps" I'm sure you never felt legitimately in danger. The point was never to revel in violence, but to trivialize those things you might fear. You know you're about to run the gauntlet, you step on the sticks and you survive! I guess sticks aren't so scary after all.

Limbo is the opposite. The player is just wandering along and then they are blind-sided and exposed to fairly graphic violence. Next time they know how to avoid the trap but I don't think the players feels clever for making this discovery. They don't conquer their fears. They've simply exhausted all other options for progress.

Anyway... I don't know what my point is but... this is what's rolling around in my head right now.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hey Chris, thanks for taking the time to reply.

While I can not say I agree with all of them, your insights on twitter about the game were really interesting.

"The bottom line is that no matter how complex the artifice and simulation of a game becomes and how minimal the player's input becomes the entire thing is all ultimately for the player's benefit or else it doesn't exist."

Ignoring for a moment your following paragraph, my issue is that I feel a lot of games these days take this mentality to the extent that the player becomes like a spoiled child that can do no wrong and is never punished and growns up with an inflated sense of self-worth. Everything for the player becomes about "Me, me, me." and if something in a game does not work, then it could be an issue with absolutely anything except the player. However:

"If the experience the designers want to create is one where the player feels unimportant and insignificant then that requires just as much tailored design as any other experience."

That is absolutely correct and, as you say, something the other commenters have already pointed out so I, also, won't repeat myself there. Suffice to say, perhaps my argument is not that I want to make the role of player less important, but I want to make it less... spoiled. I want it, in select games, to not be above judgement, if that makes sense.

I'm (embarrasingly) still yet to finish Limbo as I have been stuck for days on one puzzle (that is perhaps ironic considering this post), so I won't comment too much on how well it deals with the death theme.

I feel as though the point a lot of the time is not to feel satisfied that you solved a puzzle, but to be constantly second guessing just how much you can trust the levels and the designers. And that takes us back to the more theoretical paragraphs of this comment: is it wrong for the ultimate aim of this puzzle/platformer to not be making the player feel satisfied by their experience?

I'm not entirely sure. But I really appreciate all the extra ideas you have given me to muse over. Thanks heaps :).