I don’t consider myself exceptionally awkward in social situations, but I don’t think I’m particularly comfortable in them either. Much of the time, particularly in emotionally loaded moments, I have no idea what to say – no idea what an appropriate sentiment is for the occasion, no idea how to express something that isn’t hollow or tone-deaf. My usual tendency when I don’t know what to say is to say nothing, but sometimes nothing is just not an okay thing to say, and that tends to be when I run into issues.
These sorts of ambiguous situations, where anything could be expressed and all expressions seem insufficient, exist everywhere in life. However, when we make games, even when we try to simulate some aspect of life, this ambiguity is flattened. Dialogue is expressed through branching trees of pre-written choices, or in more ambitious attempts through some text parser or abstract sentiment generator – in the long run, no matter how the player expresses the sentiment, it is interpreted by a machine, chopped up into something quantifiable for the game’s systems to react to. There is inevitably a Right Choice, a correct thing to say in that circumstance to progress the game, to get the ‘good’ ending, to see the bonus cutscene.
Dialogue, in a game, is a control mechanism, not communication – or, if it’s communication, it’s the game’s designer speaking to you rather than you speaking to the game. You don’t care if the game understands, you don’t care how the game feels, you just care about how it responds to your input. It really isn’t much like speech at all – which is fine, it doesn’t really need to be, but having it constantly presented as speech, being treated as though the player is genuinely expressing something in the way they would to another person, probably has some strange effects on how we understand speech to actually work.
This, though, is just a specific instance of the process of disambiguation that happens when we try to emulate the vast mess that is reality in our goofy little electronic worlds. To play, as a child, is to imagine scenario after scenario with no logical connection or overriding ruleset – you have been shot, but you are bulletproof, but the bullets are armor-piercing, but you’re actually bulletproof times infinity plus one. To play in a video game, though, even an open-ended one, means that there must be a logical connection from one moment to the next, since the game, being a computer program, has to operate on logic. There’s still lots of room for self-expression in a well-made and open-ended game, but the fidelity of that expression is mediated by the granularity of that simulation. Or, at least, the fidelity of the part of that expression that exists within the game – because there’s also the part of that expression that exists within the minds of the players, and that could be as unbounded as ever. In theory, at least – do kids pretend they’re pirates in games that aren’t about pirates? Ninjas in games about vikings? Wizards in games about soldiers?
Maybe that’s why we like to play games, though. The infinite possibility and ambiguity of life and human interrelation is incredibly overwhelming. How relaxing it is to be provided an environment where only a few choices can be made – and, even if those particular choices end up being wrong, they are wrong for reasons which are explainable and quantifiable, albeit sometimes quite complex. The games industry keeps trying to make games look more and more realistic, though, while maintaining this simplicity of input and response, and it builds a myth – a myth of a world where each action and consequence is mapped directly and predictably, and anyone who’s clever can find the action and the consequence. The ‘Just-world hypothesis‘, the belief that everyone gets what they deserve based on the actions they have taken, is much easier to convince yourself of if you can build it on a belief that every action and reaction are directly mapped, straightforward, and quantifiable.
If the causal relationship between action and reaction is completely predictable, any suboptimal outcome can be blamed 100% on poor decision-making. Every tragedy becomes a justification that bad things happen to bad people, where in this case ‘bad people’ means people who have made any choice that is subsequently followed by a bad outcome. In this way, games as they have traditionally been structured have a radical conservative bias.
Maybe there’s some other way for them to be structured – but without some huge leap forward in technology that creates worlds too complex for predictable causality, or some sort of ongoing responsive content created by another person (as in a tabletop RPG), this is always going to be a sytemic bias of the technology. The only way to push back against that is explicitly through the content of the game, and that’s going to be difficult to do without alienating players, since rewarding ‘optimal play’ is a foundation of game design.