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Narrative Design

We are surrounded in spirals by the paths we never took. Every choice ever made was a branching point, and just under the surface of our lives lie the possibilities of countless other lives we might have lived. This is a commonly, almost even universally explored theme – most stories involve some degree of wistful imagination for the things that might have been, most stories contain questions of whether the choice a character made was the right choice, and what might have happened had they chosen differently. One might even argue that a wistful imagination of something that might have been is the definition of fiction (and, for that matter, most non-fiction).

Games have a somewhat more complex relationship with causality, though: They are not just one story, one branch with one ending, but a system of stories, a tree with many branches. With a game’s story, there is often no need to question what might have been if you’d made a different choice, because if you’re really curious you can go to a wiki and look it up – or, if the title is too new or obscure for that, the truth of the matter is still only a quick-load away. The coulda-shoulda-wouldas that haunt us are, with this additional information, boiled down to did I, should I, ought I, a path chosen with full information and intent rather than blundered down in the dark as we are often left to do with the real decisions that burden us.

What does it imply about the world to create a simulation where every outcome is fundamentally foreseeable? Every computer game is at its core a simulation, where every action has a predictable outcome, where there’s a proper way to achieve every goal. Every simulation is a model of alternate reality, a statement that each effect has a particular cause. We can create whatever rules we want, whatever rules seem correct or interesting to us, regardless of how these causes map to the effects in reality. We can use this to forward arguments – we can hardly avoid doing so! So every game is a simulation and each simulation an argument for a given model of reality. Our alternate reality may be built on alternate facts while still purporting to be an accurate simulation of the real world. I discussed how certainty of outcome in simulation lead to misleading worldviews a couple of weeks ago, so I needn’t do so again here: Because every game is a static simulation, this creates the form of false certainty I discussed, a faith in the reliability of this most likely faulty model of reality.

However, we must ask: Is it mandatory that every outcome be knowable? With the emergence (or resurgence) of the roguelike genre, this isn’t necessarily so. Though many other genres use randomness to determine the outcome of particular decisions, the roguelike genre uses randomness to generate the entire game world – at least! More adventurous examples of the genre might dynamically generate story elements, usable items, and even the interactions of systemic elements. In this way, it is possible to create a true black box, by creating a layer of abstraction – by, rather than merely crafting the rules and world of the game, crafting the meta-rules, crafting the meta-world, and letting those generate the intermediary game for the player to directly interface with and experience.

We can take another step back: When we went from the traditional narrative form to game design, we went from crafting narrative to crafting systems that craft narrative – and, to once again attain the unknowability we have surrendered, we must make a system to craft a system that crafts narrative. Maybe we’ll get wise to that eventually, and will have to make AIs to craft systems to craft systems to craft narrative. The divine is that which can never be known, we seek it piece by piece, and it’s turtles all the way down.

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The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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For the past month, I’ve been working on my entry to the Idle Thumbs community game jam, Wizard Jam X. This is the final Wizard Jam, due to the Idle Thumbs podcast going into a long-term hiatus from which it may never awake. I really wanted to make something special for this one. I think I achieved about half of what I’d hoped to do, but I am reasonably satisfied with the result.

Without further context or explanation, I present Eight Seconds: Manipulated Through Time.

The concept of Wizard Jam is to take the title of one of the Idle Thumbs podcasts – or one of their several associated podcasts – and to make a game with the same title, which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with its source material. Later Wizard Jams have diverged from this formula somewhat in order to keep things fresh, but I’ve always been a fan of this approach so I stuck with it. In this case, I chose the title “Manipulated Through Time”. I always find it interesting imagining to what degree we might be capable of representing time travel in video games – We have tremendous control of allowing the player to revisit everything prior to the current moment in the game, since we can freely record and play back those previous game states – but can we make it possible for them to interact with the future in a meaningful way?

Well, that’s still an interesting idea, but I wasn’t really able to robustly pursue it here because it turns out my hands were quite full with allowing the player to interact with the past – though the idea of these two interactions being equivalent is also presented. It was important to me to make it so the player interacted with that past in a meaningful way – not just as a static recording, but as something more tangible – and, in so doing, that also means that you are directly affecting your future self with the actions you’re taking now.

This is always true, just revealed a bit more explicitly here.

My original concept of the game was that every minute, time would be reversed. For each minute, you would interact with your shadow self, which was doing everything you just did but in reverse, and by so doing you would navigate puzzles and so forth. While thinking about this, I realized that in that first minute, before there was any shadow to interact with, the player would have no idea what was going on – and that even once the idea of the time reflection began to make sense, controlling your inputs precisely, with reversal in mind, for an entire minute would still be nearly impossible. The obvious solution was to shorten this feedback loop to a shorter period of time so it was more feasible to observe the results of your actions. I waffled for a while considering different time values and eventually settled on eight seconds as an appropriate length for the time loop. I also eventually ended up making variants on this time reflection idea – you’d have reflections that reversed the flow of time, or echoes that moved the same temporal direction as you but with an eight-second delay, or reflections that had an echo of their own, and so forth. This undermined the original idea of a time loop where you were interacting with yourself directly, but by the time I got to this point I’d forgotten that was the original idea – and only remembered just now, when describing it here. I included the duration into the title to make it a little bit clearer what was happening (the tutorial for a game can begin with the title!) and also had some slight visual changes with each tick and each “reversal” to add to that clarity.

Because the concept was so innately difficult to wrap one’s brain around, I tried to make the game’s other elements as simple as possible. I had some idea of physics puzzles, of raising platforms with your reflection in order to traverse them, of tossing items to yourself – and, while these aspects are not entirely absent, they’re all done within the incredible simple framework of doors, switches that open doors, and boxes that can go on switches. However, because the player can be duplicated, and because whatever the player is holding when they’re duplicated can also be duplicated, even the simplest of these can become remarkably complex in practice.

What I came to realize over the course of the project is that there’s two somewhat contradictory sets of goals at play: That which builds interesting and thought-provoking puzzles using the mechanics, and that which builds an interesting moment-to-moment experience using the mechanics. These aren’t entirely contradictory of course: The idea of a fraught cooperation with your past selves implies challenges to be surmounted, so developing the theme requires challenge and developing challenge requires use of the theme, but there are points where these impulses push me in opposite directions. For instance, a huge amount of clarity could have been added to the puzzle solving if I locked the camera into a top-down perspective and made the movement turn-based – but this would also reduce the sense of the self being reflected, and reduce your interaction to a player and a pawn rather than a player with an avatar representing that player. In this case, I made the decision to present the game in first-person early on in production before realizing these ramifications – so, in the end, it becomes more of an experience than a proper puzzle game, with most puzzles being solved by fiddling with the scenario until an answer emerges rather than actually being thought through.

When it came to the appearance of the game, I wanted something highly detailed but not necessarily realistic. I was imagining the hyper-detailed surreal scenes of Twin Peaks or the minimalist stop motion of the 1989 Oscar-winning animated short Balance, something that felt very physical and real but without any grounding in the physical limitations of reality. I ended up leaning heavily on a free (deprecated) 3d tileset called Simple Corridors – because it was free and had PBR (Physically Based Rendering) materials, which is a fancy name for including a standard set of rendering textures that approximate the appearance of real materials. I originally planned on having a few separate environments, but since I didn’t have the time or skillset to make this type of asset on my own and didn’t want to break the bank buying professional assets I ended up making every area of the game a variant on the first tutorial zone I created – which, honestly, was probably all for the better, since it added to the thematic idea of being suspended in time.

For the music, I wanted to integrate both reversed and unreversed instruments, and have it be at times unclear which was which – it was also, since timing was such a huge part of the game, an opportunity to convey the eight seconds conceit through another information channel. I could have, and perhaps should have, executed this as a static music track, but instead I created a simple adaptive music system using several separate music stems for each instrument, each being 8 or 16 seconds long and each with an assigned intensity value. Trigger volumes set the music intensity as the player progresses through the level, which randomly plays a random sample of the appropriate intensity at timed intervals – many of which are reversed versions of other samples. The basic idea of this worked really well, creating something that sounded more or less intentional and built over time – but, because Unity’s support for playing arbitrary sound samples is much less robust than it is for creating a dedicated sound emitter, I had a number of issues with controlling these sounds, from slight desyncs caused by frame timing to large variations created by the game being paused for the settings menu. Also, as I built the musical components out more the administrative overhead of managing even this relatively simple song structure became significant. It was a worthwhile experience, but I’ll likely try to integrate one of the existing middlewares for adaptive music next time I want to do something like this, just to have a proper editor at my disposal. All in all, I’m pleased but not entirely satisfied with how the musical component turned out – it sounds interesting some of the time, and seldom degrades into true cacophony, but it does sound like a slipshod implementation of the idea it represents – which it is. I decided that sound effects would just detract from the surreal experience, though, and didn’t bother with them.

Other technical difficulties emerged through the time reversal system itself, which should be a surprise to no one. Recording and playing back a character’s history is fairly trivial, but recording and playing back a history in a way that still acts on the world, and that can be acted on, is a more significant challenge. All values must be relative instead of absolute – and movement values must be relative both to the world and to the facing of the character. Partway through the project I decided to vary the levels by mirroring them and scaling them, and I hadn’t considered earlier on what effects this might have on game entities which existed within these worlds. The reflection of the player was modified by the transformation of the world it was placed in, which is thematically interesting but absolutely not my desired result. Suddenly whenever they were supposed to turn right they’d turn left, entirely because right and left had traded places in the world they were now put in. Other issues came in when I added the ability for the player and the reflections to grab and throw each other, which then created rotational feedback loops where, when the rotation of the character was recorded for the next playback, it would record both the player and the reflection’s rotation summed together. Some of these issues may still exist, though I tried to stomp out as many as I could – but even aside from the technical challenge of implementing a solution, figuring out what a solution even ought to look like was frequently a non-trivial design challenge. What does it mean to pick up or drop an item in reverse, and what effect should these actions have on the world? What degree of physical interaction between the player and their reflection enabled interesting outcomes, and what was unfeasible to implement? What was likely to break the game? I had to answer each of these, and though I ended up approaching most of these conservatively it was still an unpredictable game and prone to weird breaks which I had to take a few extra days to debug.

I’m happy with how the project turned out, but I don’t think my methodology was very good. I dropped everything to work on this, and I think the end result of that was unhealthier work habits and hours, a lack of focus, and a bunch of extra stress I probably didn’t need to deal with. Though this is the last Wizard Jam (for now?), I will likely participate in some other game jams in the future – and these tough lessons are ones I think I’d better keep in mind when I do.

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Last week I wrote about how no two people walk away from a piece of art with the same conception of what they just saw. I mostly couched that in terms of older media like visual art and film, but this idea applies to games in an especially interesting way. If we regard a film as a set of visual moments set to narrative that creates an experience in the viewer, a game is sort of like a set of systems that generate those visual and narrative moments – a sort of movie machine. This is not an especially popular perspective, since most games that try to directly reproduce the experience of seeing a movie tend to be hamhanded and tedious, but it’s a useful analogy for understanding some of the ways games can be interesting.

Sometimes, as in the case of a strategy or classic arcade game, the point of interest is meant to lie within the systems and learning how to understand and exploit them, with the visuals and narrative working to express the system state – sometimes, instead, as with RPGs or visual novels, the point of interest is in the narrative, with the systems working to vary the expression of that narrative. The art of games becomes a kind of meta-art – so, just as our perception of the experience of the game varies from person to person and context to context, so does our perception of the systems of the game that created this experience. Most people, in effect, never end up playing the game itself, but playing their perception of the game – they don’t follow the rules that are coded in, they just follow their understanding of the rules. They don’t engage with the systems that exist, they engage with the systems that they find useful and interesting. The game which they experience is, in the end, just a sub-game made of a larger whole.

All this is very abstract, but one doesn’t have to look very far to see instances of this dynamic. An obvious example of this is in skill trees, which many RPGs such as the Diablo series have and which only allow you to pick a small subset of the existing abilities to use. A somewhat less obvious example are the huge variety of spells and weapons in Dark Souls, of which most people have only used a few. A perhaps even less obvious example is when games provide some tactical option that many players simply choose not to use – such as the cover system in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I personally largely ignored after about 15 minutes of play. In each of these, the game that you actually end up playing is a smaller subset of the game as it exists, comprised of those systems which you find interesting or believe to be useful.

What do we mean when we say that a game allows the player a large degree of choice? To a significant degree, what we are saying is that we allow the player to choose what parts of the game to ignore, to allow them the freedom to create the sub-game within the game that most appeals to them. Puzzle games offer very little choice, because you’re forced to fully engage with and understand the systems in order to solve them – since, in most cases, the puzzles have but one solution. Strategy games provide a vast field of solutions to various interlaced dilemmas, many of which you can ignore in order to implement your chosen approach.

This understanding of choice through systemic engagement is of particular interest when considered in the discussion of difficulty and accessibility. While it’s often possible in RPGs to hammer through challenges through sheer skill or cleverness, the systems other players might ignore frequently become ways to progress to those who can’t manage the straightforward solutions. Helpful tools such as turrets, which might be useless to a player who has no issue with aiming, could be fundamental to a player who does not have that capability. If the game is designed to be expansive, and to encompass many approaches that are applicable to different capabilities, then the sub-game the player ends up creating might end up feeling more complete and satisfying – potentially more so than if you simply offer difficulty or accessibility settings to achieve the same purpose.

However, this comes with a drawback. If the player is creating their sub-game out of the systems you have provided, there’s nothing that guarantees whatever system-combination they devise will actually generate a satisfying experience. Many games are actually designed in such a way that this outcome becomes likely – such as, for instance, having a mechanic that’s de-emphasized for much of the game only to become useful, or even necessary, at the end – long after the player’s forgotten about it. Or, as in many cases, the method of play that the player identifies as most effective are actually the most tedious ways to play the game, so the player quickly gets bored of the experience, a problem which I’ve discussed in the past.

This all adds up to be a lot to keep in mind while designing your game. How necessary are the different mechanics? What capabilities and aptitudes do they open windows for? Are there combinations of these systems that will create a bland and uninteresting experience? What will the scope of created experiences look like? It seems, at times, impossible to account for all of these permutations and their significance. Just like the player, you may never fully grasp your game. All you can do is seek to shape it into something which ends up interesting and appealing, no matter how you slice it.

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If we are alone, and we are dissatisfied, we can change the scene – either by traveling or adapting the world to suit ourselves. If we are with a few other people, it is usually still possible to convince them to enact some sort of change to relieve the pressure – but, as the number of people increases and increases and increases, the world comes to seem more static, less mutable. Systems of management are devised and implemented, and as the number of people involved in creating these systems increase and their responsibilities diverge these systems, as well, come to seem distant and immutable

Nothing is actually any more permanent than before – actually, probably less so, since we have a tendency to affect fairly rapid change on our environment – but our perception of our ability to intentionally effect these changes fades. Like we’re all trying to push a large rock, none of us really feel like we’re affecting any change – and yet the rock moves. Even those with undeniable power seem to buy into the illusion – to our collective ruin, since rapacious consumption becomes that much easier to justify when one can internally believe the environment to be immutable. You cannot destroy a world that cannot be changed.

It’s a kind of incentivized reasoning. If the world can be changed, then that means we might be making it worse. If the world can be changed, then we have an obligation to make it better. If the world can be changed, but we have no actual capacity to change it ourselves, then we are imprisoned. None of these notions are pleasant to think about.

So we don’t.

We proceed on the assumption that the world is constant, that any changes we make are superficial. We know this to not be true, now, based on our effects on the climate, but the basic belief still lingers: We might, we reason, be able to change the world if we had control, but we don’t have control, our societal structures do – then we feel powerless to change those, in turn, achieving the same basic effect.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

The implied burden of of this power for change is too much for any single person, and so movements must be built around it. The American spirit of rugged individualism tends to work against this necessity. This is probably not an accident.

When we make game worlds to live in for entertainment, they are also mostly static, with some notable exceptions. Even for those games where we can readily change our environment, though, such as Minecraft, we seldom have any significant effect on the underlying systems of these environments. You can carve away chunks of the world, replant it with greenery, open up dimensional portals, but you can’t really change how anything lives or dies, moves or acts. This is fine: Implementing a truly adaptable system like this would be a massive technical and artistic undertaking, but it’s telling how few games even try, or see this as a gap.

One notable exception to this trend I can think of is Dwarf Fortress, a game which is notorious for systematizing everything to an extent that becomes baffling and overwhelming. A careless decision can lead to a base getting flooded with lava or invaded by hippopotamuses. Other useful comparison points are the classic MUD (Multi User Dungeon) games, which allowed players to create their own regions with their own rules, and Second Life, a 3d successor to these primarily notorious for providing a playground for virtual sexual exploits.

Dynamic world games are still rarely respected by “hard core gamers,” though – either treated as impenetrable novelties like Dwarf Fortress, childish playgrounds like Minecraft, or both, as is the case with Second Life. No matter how popular these games may be, they’re always understood to be outside the mainstream of what games are and what gamers want.

What we want, what we are meant to want, is to take what we are given and enjoy it, and to strenuously avoid thinking about the possibilities of change and what they might imply.

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Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be.

What do we want virtual reality to be? We want the complete experience of being someone or something else. We want to be able to do what they can do, see the world from where they see it, understand their life as they understand it. Sometimes we want to be ourselves but in some sort of more exciting scenario, but that’s still more or less the same thing – inhabiting some alternate version of the self that lives in more exciting and fulfilling circumstances is still basically playing a character. There is something greedy, something invasive about it. The sort of greed, not for money or power but for unique perspectives and experiences, that motivated the villains in Get Out, who solve the virtual reality conundrum by essentially hollowing out other peoples’ minds and physically occupying them, living in their reality, colonizing it.

However, say we want to create a simulation of what it might mean to occupy another body, one that does no direct harm to someone. Right now, the gap between virtual reality and actual reality is obvious. Aside from any issues with graphical verisimilitude that we can assume will be addressed to some degree over time with better rendering and artistic technique, there’s a big difference between the experience of seeing through someone’s eyes, hearing through their ears, controlling approximately where their hands are and what they’re doing, and the experience of being that person. It is, perhaps, satisfactory for a simulation of being a robot locked in place, with sensory and interactive apparatus, but even then the virtual entity cannot be wholly inhabited because you still have awareness of your own body, your own place. You cannot escape yourself so easily.

In order to experience what it is to be another person, you’d have to occupy more senses – the senses of taste and smell, the senses of balance and of proprioception, the sense of touch, and while we occasionally make minor forays into some of these with tilting rooms and packaged scents, it is still far from a complete transformation.

That’s still a problem that can probably be solved. We can regard it as something like the issue of graphical fidelity, a problem that is challenging but that we can take concrete steps to approach, bit by bit. There’s a bigger issue. Say we figure all that out, and we create a perfectly convincing all-encompassing simulation of being a star football player winning the Superbowl. I don’t know anything about football, but say you undergo the simulation and experience the entirety of the winning play, from the first pitch through dunking the shuttlecock into the wicket: Who actually did this brilliant, effortlessly physically perfect play? Who ran? Who dodged? Who threw? Who pumped the legs, found the point of balance, who carefully threaded the defenders and perfectly understood the field of play? It wasn’t you, because you didn’t have the lifetime of experience and training necessary to do those things – a person’s unique capabilities stem indelibly from their personal history and understanding of the world. How can you say you’ve had that experience, then, if you didn’t really do any of it?

Thus there needs to be some degree of abstraction. If you’re to control someone who has capabilities you do not, you need to be able to boil those complex micro-decisions down into more digestible macro-decisions. Instead of the tiny piece-by-piece decisions of position and balance, you’re fed the bigger and more understandable decisions of where to run, when to throw, who to pass to, and so forth.

It doesn’t really sound like virtual reality any more, does it? It doesn’t really sound like becoming another person temporarily any more. It sounds like a video game.

If the idea of being able to inhabit one of the characters you play in games sounds appealing, that’s because games are made to only show the appealing sides of their characters. This isn’t some nitpicking realism-critique about characters never needing to use the bathroom, but a lot of character designs, a lot of character animations, a lot if characters are simply not made to be functional. They would be unable to actually draw their weapons, or they would keep falling over, or they would be unable to see past their own clothing if they were a living creature – which is, perhaps, not the experience people have in mind when they imagine what it would be to live as this character.

The point is, art isn’t consistent. Art doesn’t always completely make sense, or create a livable reality. Art is not coherent. That is what makes it interesting, because anywhere there’s a gap in a story or inconsistency in a character or a lack of detail is a place where we are invited to interpret. There’s no bone or tendon to it, no connectivity, merely a series of moments, and in that way art is like dreams, all memory and no substance.

Okay, then. What about lucid dreaming? What about a virtual reality comprised of extremely specific dreams, of remembered moments orphaned from the specific experiences that created them, implanting a perfectly formed recollection of a finely crafted or curated lived experience? This is more or less the plot to Total Recall (and the short story it was based on, We Can Remember it for you Wholesale). Memory implantation is probably the most actually plausible form of a true “virtual reality” – of course, you’d have no actual ability to affect the outcome, but you would remember all of the choices you supposedly made and would rationalize the reasons you made those decisions. That’s pretty much how we live our lives anyway, placing yesterday’s decisions into narratives that make sense based on who we believe we are, since the self of yesterday is essentially a stranger to us. If we’re making fake memories, we can make them perfectly plausible: In John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, a character finding themselves in an implausible tropical paradise lifts up a handful of sand and finds it to be too perfectly detailed for it to possibly be a simulation. However, as the computer running the simulation points out afterwards, the entire beach of sand doesn’t need to be simulated, only the moment of staring at a handful of perfectly detailed sand and of deciding that this couldn’t possibly be a simulation.

We cannot know what it is to be someone else – that experience is forever alien to us. Even more tragically, we cannot really know what it was to be ourselves ten years ago, ten days ago, ten minutes ago – we are severed from our past mind, with only the flimsy bridge of memory and the cataclysmic tower of consequences to tie us to our history.

Virtual reality will never be what you want it to be, and you’ll never be quite sure what actual reality even is.

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To play a game is to perform a series of tasks it asks of you. Most of the time, these tasks are some sort of challenge of dexterity, cognition, perception, or some combination thereof. There are also, though, a number of tasks that games ask of us that aren’t challenging – that are simple, rote, and obvious. The example which first brought this to mind is the act of feeding in Vampire, The Masquerade: Bloodlines – in this, since you play as a vampire, you have to find isolated people to prey upon, either by luring someone away from the crowd or just finding someone who wandered away on their own. This is rarely actually very difficult to do, and one would be hard-pressed to argue that it significantly contributes to the challenge of the game – but should it? As a vampire, you should find this act of supernatural predation easy and natural – and so you do. However, one could easily imagine a designer deciding that there was no point to having so much play time dedicated to something obvious and easy to do and either cutting the gameplay element or tuning it to be more dangerous, to be less trivial – and the game would be the lesser for it.

We have a tendency to think of game mechanics solely in terms of the challenges they pose. When we consider a game’s systems, it is most often to see how they collide to provide an interesting problem for the player to solve – that is, a mechanical element ought only to exist if it interacts interestingly with the challenge of the game, a sort of Chekhov’s Gun of game design, where if a gun exists in the world there must also be a terrifying monster to be killed with it. What we tend to devalue in this mindset are the simpler pleasures of existing and acting and being acted upon. Often what provides the most enjoyable sensation in a game is not solving an especially difficult problem, but of feeling entirely a part of the world of the game and of performing the role assigned to you.

Of course, you don’t need to perform your role – a great deal of enjoyment can be head from playing games ‘badly’, from refusing to perform the tasks it assigns or performing them in an intentionally awkward and absurd way – but intentional subversions of the role still position you as a part of the game’s world, albeit an incongruous one, like the Marx Brothers at an opera. Challenge, while it can be enjoyable and can serve to contribute to the plausibility of existence within a space, is not what makes the game – the tasks are the game, whether they are challenging or not.

However, the difficulty of the tasks is still important. There’s a certain amount of wiggle room – games depict herculean tasks managed by fairly simplistic and easy player input all the time while some games, like Bennett Foddy’s QWOP, do the inverse, offering very simple tasks than can only be accomplished by incredibly difficult feats of coordination. There’s a lot of charm to be found in this incongruity at times, but it can also work against the simple joys of partaking in a game’s world – which is why, in general, we are better served by trying to map the systems and challenges of the task reasonably closely to the methods and difficulties such a task would present. This is where a lot of the discourse around challenge in gameplay tends to fall apart – the obstacles in the game begin to be viewed entirely in terms of the difficulties they present, and not in terms of how they express the world of the game and how the difficulty inherent to those obstacles fit into that expression.

Another example of mundane tasks presented to provide a feeling of satisfaction and investment in a space is the house cleaning game in The Beginner’s Guide. This is a fairly small part of a fairly short game: You walk into a house, and someone there, who looks like a generic placeholder dummy, welcomes you as though you’re a friend and starts asking you to do small tasks around the house, picking things up and cleaning them and so forth, and eventually these tasks start to repeat because there’s only a few of them to be done – and, as in life, it’s only so long after the floor has been swept that it must be swept again. Nevertheless it creates a small and intimate atmosphere of participation and care which has interesting implications within the greater narrative of the game. Similarly, many of the interactions in The Walking Dead games from Telltale weren’t challenges so much as they were prompts asking you to participate in the story, in tiny unpleasant chores and in the mechanical necessities of survival. These are tasks which must be done, but which aren’t meant to challenge.

Even when tasks aren’t meant to be challenging, though, they’re still part of the mechanics of gameplay, and can have significant consequences. Though feeding in Bloodlines is usually trivial, under some circumstances it can become much more pressing and far more difficult because you’re already dealing with other problems such as pursuit by police or vampire hunters. Similarly, in Far Cry 2, you occasionally have to contend with short debilitating bouts with malaria, during which you can’t do much of anything. You have medicine you can take to recover, and all in all it only takes a few seconds, but a few seconds is all it takes for something to go disastrously haywire, a car to run off the road, a barrel to blow up, an ambush to be sprung – so depending on timing this mundane but necessary task can become a huge wrench in the gears.

There are plenty of games that press against the presumption of challenge, but most of these are presented as open-ended, with no particular required tasks but many possible activities. As many options as we have to make games that aren’t based around proving technical skill, that still tends to be our fallback position. The earliest games were entirely about such skills, with paper-thin narratives built up around them to contextualize and justify the simple gameplay – as games got bigger and more complex, as the actions they could offer gained more capacity for nuance and expression, the stories got more complex as well, but stayed largely in the mold of their predecessors, simple stories that justified simple mechanics. The restraints that held us back from envisioning wildly different experiences at the advent of the medium still hold us back today, just because so much of what we understand a game to be is rooted in the simplistic challenges that the technology once held us to.

Perhaps it’s time to make more games that are as much about existing, about being in a world and performing to the expectations of that world, as about solving, discovering, and controlling.

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