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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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Most games are competitive in nature – some might argue that as part of the definition of game, that anything that isn’t competitive is really a puzzle or some other sort of interactive entertainment. What the word ‘competition’ even means in a simulated environment isn’t necessarily obvious, though: Some games have very direct competition between human players – most traditional games and sports fall into this category, alongside multiplayer shooter and real-time strategy games and so forth – but, more recently, video games have created the ability to have simulated competition, other entities which act like competing players but which don’t require a person to provide the input. One could regard these as, since they’re not actually being controlled by a person, being essentially a puzzle to be solved rather than in competition – but they are presented as competition, and provide much of the same sort of satisfaction that we seek from competition.

What many single-player games then boil down to is a sort of competition pornography, a way of simulating an interaction between people in an experience built for just one person. The problems that emerge in these interactions tend to be the same as those that emerge with pornography– the sensations most desirable in the interaction become isolated, then amplified, then exaggerated to grotesque proportion. That which was meant to be intimate becomes raucous, that which was meant to negotiate dictates, and that which was meant to be understanding becomes controlling. This isn’t inherently a problem – it’s fine to enjoy ridiculous exaggerated entertainment as long as we understand it to be entertainment – until it becomes the default, the status quo. When we solely understand conflict and competition through obscene hyper-competition, just as when we understand sex through contrived hyper-sex, we begin to cede the ability to understand how to actually interact with other human beings.

Most of us can figure it out, anyway, but the more artistic license and exaggeration that is taken, the more it feeds into a solipsistic view of human interaction. What separates a game that is grotesquely hyper-competitive from any other competitive game? Is it possible to create a game that simulates the sensation of competing with another person without implicitly boiling human lives and interactions down into insultingly simplified systems? The question of how to portray something meaningful without suggesting that it has only the meaning we assign to it is one that rests at the core of art. How can we reduce something to its appearance, to a set of symbols, to a series of words or interactions or moments, without removing something vital? How can you taxidermy emotion?

The presentation of a game as competition doesn’t rest in any one place within the game. The mechanics contribute by creating opponents with similar capabilities to the player, the presentation contributes by making them look and sound like a person, and the narrative contributes by giving them motives and backgrounds that place them in opposition with the player. Most single-player games function by generating a huge field of completely committed enemies that are categorically opposed to the player and whose only call and only response is lethal violence – which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is also extremely limiting. Even in most games where they are motivated to oppose the player through more robust systems, enemy NPCs rarely prioritize protection, preservation, escape, or survival as tactical goals – they merely flip a switch over to hostile and attempt to fight the player to the death.

What makes this uncomfortable now is how often we see real groups of real people portrayed this same way. There are those, so the rhetoric goes, whose way of life is inherently incompatible with ours; there are invaders; there are gangsters, there are born criminals, there are those whose only understanding of the world is through violence, and to defeat them we must become the same and only understand the world through violence against them. While I love much of what we have achieved artistically within the medium of electronic entertainment, it has become terrifying to see the rhetoric of dehumanization and the necessary evils of simulated competition slowly grow and knit their leaves together until they become so similar.

It is not the violence that is the problem. It is the understanding of violence as an inevitable consequence of an inevitable action, of the world as a zero-sum game, that is the problem. It is coming to no longer see these contrivances and assumptions as assumed or contrived that has become the problem. Of course it’s not the games that are to blame, and it’s not the competition that has made the world a blood sport. The systems these games are made of are just revealing, and reinforcing, the things we have believed all along.

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Everyone feels trapped. Helpless. We have a problem, and it’s a trolley problem. We are on rails, and the scope of our choices sharply constrained. There is no preventing the harm, only, perhaps, reducing it.

In the face of impending disaster, the scope of the world shrinks. When the tiger is chasing us, there is no east or west, just a one-dimensional measure: Away from or towards. Like an action hero escaping a rolling boulder, the idea of dodging to the side never enters our minds: We must move as quickly as possible away from the threat, even if it dooms us.

We wake up. We eat breakfast. Go to work, go to the movies, go to sleep, and follow the tracks laid out, and the scarier it is the more unthinkable it becomes to change the routine. Even if our routine is part of the threat, we cling to it because it is also the only thing we can rely upon. Trapped in a prison, we reinforce its walls to try to feel safer.

Violence blooms. When you believe your life exists on a single axis, that your worth is measured by your impact and that the only tool you have to create an impact is your violence, it becomes startlingly easy to justify unthinkable atrocity to yourself. It is only expected that someone will do something drastic when they feel trapped – and the more horrible things we do to each other the more trapped we feel by one another, and each act of violence acts catalyst to the next.

What role does art have in this world? What role do games have in it? Violence has always been a huge part of American art. We see the world in terms of violence – the real, physical, undeniable kind, because the tacit violences of oppression and denial are invisible and unacknowledged by us. Crime is violence. Justice is violence. Violence is understood as the alpha and omega, the cause and solution of all of our problems. When presented with a time machine and the horrors of the holocaust, the question we come up with is whether you should go back in time to murder baby Hitler. This probably wouldn’t solve the problem and it would be murdering a baby, but this is the calculus of our morality, atrocity vs atrocity. This has become extremely normal. We export it worldwide.

There is no reason to believe that this is a necessary intrinsic trait of art. It’s just how things are now.

Traditional narrative art, novels and movies and so forth, frequently feature violence – but, because they are singular narratives, it’s easy for us to assume that this violence is just a point of drama and interest in the context of an otherwise full world, with love and science and food and all that other good stuff that we like to spend time on. Games, though… are odd. Violent games aren’t just a portrayal of a violent anomaly in a normal world, they are portrayals of violent worlds, worlds where the only way to interact is through attacking and killing. You are on a track. Your only problem is a trolley problem: What path will you take, and what will the final body count be?

Narrative art, in each case, tells just one story, but implies the existence of many diverse others within its unseen world. Games, by necessity, have to collapse the possibilities of their world into near-nothingness, just so their inevitable bloody endings will make sense. This tendency is, if anything, made worse by the advent of “open-world” games – games which pretend to a living and breathing verisimilitude while presenting a paucity of genuine options. “You can do anything” they quietly promise – and, as long as the only thing you want to do is race cars and shoot people, you might never know the difference.

Obvious lies are not ineffective lies, and are still easily believed by those with motivation to believe them. They tell us we can do anything. They tell us this world exists beyond the boundaries of violence, and then give us only the tools of violence with which to explore it – and, in this way, these games truly are simulations of America: A country that believes it still must arm good guys in order to kill bad guys, a country that believes it is the sole role of a man to stand up and fight for what he believe in no matter what it might be, a country that believes that choosing the hard choice to sacrifice human life for the ‘greater good’ is just and admirable. A country with an entire toolbox but that never lays down its hammer, and sees human lives only as nails.

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A few nights ago I was wedged between my bed and the shelves I was trying to cram into my closet. I was soaked in sweat, and resting my head against the flimsy particle board backing of the shelves, which was becoming increasingly flimsy the more I tried to push them into place against the evidenced will of the laws of space and physics. Everything I owned was piled up around the room, and for each new other angle I tried to fit the shelves into the closet I had to move everything around again, each thing blocking where the next thing needed to go, or getting caught on every other thing, or tipping over and scattering things everywhere. So many things. Each action had prerequisite actions, every object a series of locations it had to be shuffled to before it could go where it was supposed to, and at the end, when I was forced to give up, the stacks of possessions piled up behind that stoppage like a train jam, and I felt despair out of any proportion to the problem of fitting a set of crappy Ikea shelves in a closet.

Of course, while the shelf situation was frustrating, it wasn’t the source of despair. The despair that was waiting to raise to the surface was over the chain of prerequisites, the stack of laundry that had to go on the bed so I could open the closet, the boxes that had to go on my computer chair so I could remove the old shelf, the whole room becoming chaotic and unusable just to clear a path, and the path in the end being useless – but then the car I needed to borrow as well, the money I needed to spend as well, the time I needed to make, the projects I needed to plan, as well, as well, as well.

When we speak of the belief that all things are connected, we speak of it as though it ought to make things easier somehow. As though there’s a difference between a web and a tangle when either one can make you drown.

A belief in a the vast interconnectedness of all things is not a cure for anxiety.

It feels like Sokoban, a game of pushing boxes into place, where each box requires pushing other boxes requires pushing other boxes before anything can go where it actually needs to go. It should seem repellent in this aftermath, but Sokoban seems so appealing to me as a game right now because it would be nice to know what the actual boxes are, where the bounds of the arena where they can be moved lie, and to be certain that the posed problem can in fact be solved. Games promise self-contained problems, problems that don’t connect to anything outside of themselves and that you can therefore give yourself wholly to solving without constantly worrying about whether you have to do something else outside of them first. They promise not to be approachable – not necessarily easy, but quantifiably difficult. They promise to have a beginning and an end, to have boundaries instead of the constant hell of shifting walls that the vast sloppy systems of the outside world offers.

They did, anyway. Now games are a service, with boundaries that shift, with ‘new’ services on offer that may in fact just be keyed doors in front of the parts of the game you originally wanted to play. We have gleefully broken down the boundaries of the game that offered such comfort in the naive belief that to have no boundaries is to be free and that to be free is to be unbound. These games are just a symptom of a deeper rot of disruption, naturally. Why have boundaries between work and leisure when you can do both at once? Why have boundaries between work and entertainment when you can do both at once? Why not just have a little bit of work happening all the time, every day, forever? Be a bit more productive whenever you’re idle so you can feel good about yourself? How else could you possibly feel good about yourself?

And before you know it, everything in your life is just a box needing to be shoved into place so everything else can fit. Your chair and bed are boxes to be moved into place. Your friends and family are boxes to be moved into place. It’s all Sokoban now, and what is vitally important is that everything be moved into place, and it’s all interconnected, a puzzle of unverifiable size and complexity and of inescapable urgency.

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I finished my playthrough of Sekiro a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had some time to sit and reflect on the experience. If you aren’t familiar with Sekiro, it’s the newest game by From Software, developers of the Dark Souls series, and it’s a continuation of that style of design as well as a spiritual successor of Tenchu, a beloved stealth game which I’ve never played and know very little about. Since I know nothing about Tenchu, I’m going to be talking a lot more about where Sekiro lies as a successor to Dark Souls than as a successor to Tenchu.

The original Dark Souls is still a powerful experience – dark and foreboding and inscrutable, Dark Souls offers many approaches to surmounting its various obstacles but obscures much of its narrative and mechanical breadth behind cryptic clues and interfaces. Sekiro is somewhat different in this regard: While it still maintains several of the mechanics and elements of exploration established by the Souls series, it does not shroud itself in mystery in terms of either its systems or its narrative and it provides relatively few ways to approach any given obstacle. Although I’ve been disappointed by the recent Souls games’ tendency towards simplicity, towards always funneling you into the same approach both in terms of movement through the world and tactics in combat, I enjoyed Sekiro’s even more streamlined approach. Sekiro’s commitment to this style takes simplicity and turns it into refinement.

Combat in Sekiro is usually a duel: Getting up in someone’s face and staying there, answering their every motion, call and response, until the heat gets too much and you need to retreat. While the overall sensation of move in, do damage, move out, is frequently the same as in a Souls, you no longer have the stamina system enforcing that behavior and thus you have much more leeway to keep pressing the attack – and are even encouraged to stay up close and personal for as long as possible before retreating by the game’s posture system, a mechanic of trying to push enemies off-balance through constant pressure so you can deliver a single lethal blow.

However, because there’s no longer nearly as much flexibility in how you approach obstacles – no bows, no bombs, no spells, no shields – the game is rather less forgiving than Dark Souls if you have a hard time engaging with the core mechanic of approach, deflect, counter, and various permutations on same. The game does offer numerous ‘shinobi tools’, such as shuriken, firecrackers, and a flamethrower, to give you these sorts of advantages – but, in the end, they’re all quite limited, and while they will help you they’re not so much an alternate path to victory as a way to gain an initial advantage on the same fight you’d be doing anyway.

Like the Souls games before it, Sekiro is a game about immortality: This thematic element makes a lot of sense as a way to integrate gameplay largely about getting the shit kicked out of you over and over again into a larger narrative. Most games, particularly before the Souls series arrived at prominence, simply narratively discarded any part of your gameplay that didn’t result in success. You reloaded, you rewinded, it never happened, forget about it. What having a game about immortality allows the developers to do is integrate every attempt, every failure, into the player’s story, a story of defeating death itself to right wrongs, of being a ghost or revenant set out to achieve one last vital task. It integrated the video game meta-narrative of undoing failures into an explicit narrative of fighting through them.

(Here’s where I get into the specifics of these games’ narrative. This is what would be considered spoilers for the Dark Souls series and Sekiro, so if you haven’t played these games and want to come to them fresh then you may want to stop here.)

While the immortality of Sekiro and of Dark Souls is treated nearly the same way mechanically, they’re treated quite differently by the narratives of each game. The story of Dark Souls is a story about systems of power and authority, and the existence of immortality within that context is evidence of how those systems have begun to fail – the powers of life and death have started to collapse, and the ancient undifferentiated stasis that held sway before gods and humans has started to take hold. Those who hold the reigns of power try to con those who suffer from this curse – you the player, as well as implicitly a huge number of other undead including all others who may have played the game – into sacrificing themselves in a ‘heroic’ quest to prop up this authoritarian system of divinity… Until it collapses again, presumably, at some point in the future, which the sequels imply happens many many times with each successive iteration becoming more corrupt and exhausted. Alternately, you can choose to subvert the system of divine authority and usher in a new age of dark – which sounds quite foreboding, but is presented more as an age of human self-determination in the absence of the divine than as something eldritch or unholy as standard video game symbolism might have such a name imply. In Dark Souls, ‘Dark’ isn’t so much evil as it is empty, the gaping nothingness we are confronted with when we seek for grand meanings and symbols, terrifying and comforting in equal measure, the pupil at the center of the iris.

However, Sekiro is almost aggressively unconcerned with the systems of power and what immortality might mean within these systems. Sekiro’s story is about what immortality might mean to individuals – old men faced with the decline of their bodies, young men who feel compelled to tackle tasks that are beyond the capacity of any single person, and the children whose youth and boundless potential these men covet and seek to exploit. It’s a game about dropping the ultimate gift of undeath into a world like our own and the strife and desire and bloodlust that would inevitably bubble up around it – in short, a game about greed.

In the story of Sekiro, your first priority is to ensure the safety of your master, the young lord Kuro, a child who has the power to give immortality. Others also want this power, most notably Genichiro who wants it to save the kingdom of Ashina where the game takes place. Along the way other objectives emerge, since Kuro himself decides that this power of immortality is going to keep causing trouble as long as it exists he dedicates himself, and therefore you, to the task of ending immortality, of letting humanity be merely human. Yet, though you are set this grand task, the top priority of the story is generally on protecting Kuro, and you are in the end mostly on this quest because he asks it of you.

Put succinctly, Dark Souls is a game about systems and Sekiro is a game about people, and this affects every aspect of both games. Combat in Dark Souls is largely against huge monsters, creatures who if they ever were human have long since lost contact with that humanity. It is a matter of distance and timing, dashing between gigantic legs or away from gigantic claws to deliver a strike or two and eventually putting the poor thing out of its misery. Sekiro is mostly about fighting people, opponents who move and act very much like you do, who one could easily imagine playing as with only minor tweaks to the control scheme. It’s about pushing up against them, engaging with their every move, answering each motion with a motion of your own, almost collaborative, almost a dance. There’s an intimacy to it, very different in tone to the cold calculation of Dark Souls combat.

The priorities of Sekiro’s story, as well, lie with individuals, not systems: It is a journey to save Kuro and to help him in the gargantuan task he has set for himself. You don’t set out to change the world, only to help Kuro, but circumstances demand that in order for that to happen the world must first be changed. Structures mean nothing without the people that inhabit them.

Genichiro fights to save Ashina, and is willing to sacrifice his people, himself, and his humanity to achieve that – so what is he actually fighting to preserve? An empty name? A ghost kingdom? The battle to save Ashina has gone on so long that the land is deeply scarred, its animals have picked up weapons and learned to fight. The best thing for it would be to let it go. To give up, and see what comes next. The biggest difference between Dark Souls and Sekiro is how they portray giving up. In Dark Souls, to give up is to lose yourself, to become hollow, a shell. In Sekiro, giving up is presented as sometimes the only reasonable option: Lord Isshin, who saved Ashina from a bloodthirsty despot, sits alone in his besieged fortress (aside from occasional outings), content to die while his grandson Genichiro goes to extraordinary measures to save Ashina because he knows there’s nothing there left to fight for. As the player dies over and over, refusing to give up, unleashes a sickness called dragonrot on the world, poisoning all of the people you meet along the way, it raises the question: Is what I’m doing for the best? Or am I just doing my duty, even if it does harm?

Perhaps one of the reasons From Software’s games have done so well is because there’s a certain thematic resonance between their stories and the daily tolls of our lives. Being conned into propping up deeply cruel and unjust systems, feeling hollow but persevering, being caught between an old prosperous generation and a young one full of potential but being pushed into a deeply fucked up world, it’s all a very millennial experience. It doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s something reassuring about believing that at least, somewhere on the other side, there’s something else – an escape, a change of state, or merely progression, perhaps no better than the world we have now, but at least it’s one step away from where we stand.

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For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.

Everything in a game is there for a reason – whether that reason is because it’s necessary for the player to progress, because of aesthetic appeal, or because of an oversight on the part of the developers, there’s some history behind every bump and nook and crevice of the world. Much of the time, this history is merely of idle curiosity – the sort of stuff that’s interesting in developer commentaries but doesn’t really get talked about elsewhere.

Frequent players of games, though, tend to notice the patterns of this history. If two objects have a particular spatial relationship to each other – say, they’re just close enough to jump from one to the other – then we start to infer the intent behind the placement. This is particularly noticeable when solving puzzles in games. When the developer has created the environment to be navigated in one specific way, everything about the structure and layout of that environment becomes significant. It’s like a cryptogram: there’s a meaning behind this arrangement of elements which is directly being communicated to us, but the meaning hides behind a layer of obfuscation. And, like a cryptogram, solving the puzzle is mostly just a process of sorting all the information available to us properly: Once you know what every element’s role is, the solution becomes obvious. This is, more often than not, why people see twists coming in a story as well – not because the thing that happens next is likely, but because all of the pieces of the story moving to set up the twist lack subtlety and too clearly show the aims of the author. As with games, every part of a book was written for a reason, and if you’re good at seeing what that reason is then the shape of the story will start to take form long before it is read. Writers who are invested in creating a sense of surprise and discovery often need to find newer and more subtle ways to create surprise as we get better and better at reading their intent. We could view this as a sort of game itself: The artist’s attempt to create a surprise vs the reader’s ability to decode their intent prematurely.

Real spaces, too, have a history that is shaped by cause and effect. Places where people walk become trails and trails become roads – spaces not made to create puzzles, but merely to be traversed and lived in. The ability to infer the history of a space, whether virtual or real, can be a useful skill. It is not, however, a generalized problem-solving skill. That is to say, if you’re very good at solving puzzles, that doesn’t necessarily make you very good at solving problems. The problems we encounter in the world aren’t very much like the problems that games propose to us. They are not bounded or discrete, their elements are not carefully placed to be used. They are inconvenient and messy, and it’s not always clear when one has found a solution – or what other new problems that solution may pose. Problems may not even be solvable at all. The obstacles that games present may be useful for keeping your mind sharp, but the amount of transferable skill between the tiny constrained problems offered by a game and the huge incomprehensible problems proffered by day-to-day life is minimal.

While the skills games teach may, at times, have utility, that utility is rarely anything like the way those skills are represented in-game – that is to say, while the manual dexterity and tactical thinking needed to become a martial arts master in Street Fighter may have other applications, it won’t help you win many actual street fights. It’s sometimes difficult to accept that the skills don’t transfer, though, because to accept this is, some feel, to denigrate their validity as skills. Beating Dark Souls doesn’t mean you can fight a horse, but it does mean you’re capable of a certain degree of patience and care and precision. Doing something that’s difficult doesn’t necessarily mean you can do anything else that’s difficult, but it does mean you have the capability to face and overcome a difficult problem, if perhaps a very constrained one.

It may be obvious that playing video games isn’t generally good training for real life problems, but it’s worth restating because we tend to believe in the idea of generalized mental capability, in a sort of hierarchy of intelligence, to believe that if you can do one difficult thing that smart people do you can probably do other difficult smart-people things. What lets people do difficult things, though, isn’t some sort of abstract intelligence, some numerical value that makes them better at brain stuff than other people. It’s skill and it’s practice. We have a very easy time with this idea when it comes to athletic pursuits, to the idea that the abilities that make a person great at one sport probably don’t lend themselves to making them great at another sport, but have a harder time with it when it comes to mental skills.

Movies and television like to use a visual shorthand to show that a person is smart, so that we know to respect whatever they’re about to say. They show them playing smart-person games like chess or playing smart-person instruments like violins, have them wear smart-person glasses and speak in smart-person voices. And, of course, we know that wearing glasses or playing chess don’t necessarily make you smart – but we still believe there must be such a thing as smart, and that there must be a certain set of pursuits and attributes that belong to this class of smart people.

Pursuing skill in any endeavor is admirable in its own right, but it won’t somehow train up your intelligence score. You can’t grind your stats. All you can do is get better at doing a thing, and sometimes that will also be helpful for doing other things. Even then, there’s many ways to get better at a thing – for instance, if you want to play the piano, you could improve at sight-reading music or at improvisation, you could improve at jazz or classical music, you could improve your ability to play quick phrases or to make big jumps across octaves on the keyboard. These are all related but distinct skills, and together they can make you “good at the piano” – but what does “good” mean to you, then?

It takes a whole other skill, a whole other kind of dedication, to be able to face a problem of unknown size and indefinite scope, and slowly pick away at it bit by bit, unable to know when or how it might be solved. That’s one I think we’re all still trying to get the hang of.