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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.

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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.

I always love hearing about the points in game development where a big decision was made not to do something. Every game has moments like that – cut features, changes in design focus, unused assets – and they’re always fascinating, because they show a vision of what the game could have been, what it almost was. Sometimes whatever it is sounds more appealing than what we got – and, just as often, it sounds like it would have been a disaster, and a bullet was dodged.

It’s not just games that undergo this process, this cycle of growth and pruning, though it tends to be far more visible in games because it takes so long to make a game and the process leaves more behind in the form of demo footage and unused content. Every creation is the sum of countless decisions, decisions so small and subtle that in the moment of creation we don’t even notice we’ve made them. Every choice folds in on itself, and builds outwards, in such a way that a single slightly different choice made early on might butterfly effect out and completely change the whole project.

Then again, it might not. Because a decision made early on has so many later decisions stacked up after it, it is in some ways less important than a decision made later on in the creative process. For example, so many artists set out to create something new, to break their creative habits, and set out a sketch in a bold new style – only to find that, as they fill it out and polish it, it begins to look more and more like their previous work, the many intervening tiny choices of detail acting together to overwhelm the few big bold choices they meant to define the piece.

With all this in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to see whether a given decision in the process is a good or a bad one, because what determines whether an artistic choice work or not work is entirely whether the future choices built on top of it make it work. So, what I’m saying is that every choice you make early on in building a work of art is simultaneously incredibly important and defines everything about what it will be – and also completely irrelevant because it will be outweighed by every future choice you make.

Okay. How does that make any sense?

Because art, and the decisions that go into it, are context. Every creative action you can take is only within your vocabulary because of the context of the life you live and have lived, and every choice you put into a work of art only has meaning in the context of its relationship to the preceding and succeeding choices. The specific analogy that comes to mind is, once again, playing a game of XCOM – because I’ve been playing so much XCOM and watching so much more that these analogies are coming to me very readily right now. When you move your units around the map, the early moves don’t directly bring you victory or disaster, but they do affect how likely your later moves are to be useful. The beginning of the combat is both incredibly important, because it sets the stage for all your other moves, but also largely irrelevant, since under most circumstances you have ample opportunity to course correct. Every decision matters, but even in a difficult encounter there are usually many potential paths to victory: As long as the moves you take still are contained somewhere within that victory possibility-space, you’re doing okay. This is actually all pretty much true of any tactical game, so if it makes more sense to you then feel free to substitute Chess or Go in the preceding analogy.

The point of all this is that there’s no benefit or reason to stressing over early decisions. The point of all this is that if you’re waiting to figure out where to start before you begin a project, you’re wasting your time. Begin anywhere. You can get anywhere from anywhere. Yes, I’ve made a blog post arguing pretty much the exact opposite of this as well, and yes I actually still agree with that blog post too. The first choice you make will define everything about your project, but so will all the other choices. Everything matters, but nothing matters so much, in art, that it’s worth being scared about. Just keep making choices. Just don’t run away. Eventually, somehow, you’ll have something worth being proud of.

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This week my first attempt at a legendary difficulty campaign of the XCOM 2 expansion, War of the Chosen, went down in flames. Also this week, I started my first real and persistent attempts at learning Unity and building a game in its toolset. It’s been a week of exploration, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty.

I’ve learned something about challenge, this week. I learned that you can either give yourself a difficult task or an unfamiliar task, and either of those might go poorly, but if you give yourself a task that is both difficult and unfamiliar you are really asking for trouble. When I started the War of the Chosen campaign, I assumed it was mostly the same as XCOM 2 with a few additions. It turned out that almost every mission type was completely different than before. It turned out that many of the things I’d learned about how to play the game from playing before the expansion either were no longer relevant or came with new caveats I wasn’t aware of. It turned out I shouldn’t position a soldier on a fire escape attached to a building that was slowly caving in on itself. It was very educational.

Not only does War of the Chosen introduce a lot of new mechanics to the game, the mechanics it introduces are comparatively opaque, driven more by narrative than mostly systems-determined missions of XCOM 2. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing that will completely destroy an unprepared player who has reduced their margin for error to close to nil by playing on the hardest difficulty.

But what about Unity? Fortunately, in that case I was smart enough to not try to overlap two kinds of difficulty, and I set myself an easy task to do in an unfamiliar environment: Make some sort of game or game-like experience by the end of the month. Of course, my approach to doing that still makes things characteristically difficult for myself, such as by getting deep into the specifics of the physics system to get a jump animation to work just the way I want it to or to make a cursor in 3d space lock onto the closest available surface, but I’m getting somewhere and I’m learning a lot.

It’s important sometimes to be able to embrace ignorance. Having an appreciation of learning is only possible when you have an understanding of just how much you don’t know – the reason why so many people resent education and expertise is not resentment at the knowledge and skill people accumulate, but resentment at the implication, by having knowledge and skill, that those who do not have it are ignorant and unskilled. Learning becomes an insult, training becomes a prank. Everyone has this seed in them, a part of them that hates their limitations so much that they can’t stand to see anyone excel. Only by accepting our ignorance can we learn to move past it. It’s not like Socrates’ knowing enough to know that he knew nothing: It’s knowing that you know nothing so that you are able to replace the nothing with something.

Sometimes it helps to take a dive into the unfamiliar. Not only is it a necessary prerequisite to making the unfamiliar familiar, old assumptions and habits start to be cast into a new light and questioned anew. Scraping away superficial layers of knowledge sometimes helps one to attain a more complete, clarified knowledge.

Or, at least, these are pleasant things to tell oneself while one is being reborn, unaccustomedly ignorant, weakened, and infantilized.

I’ve noticed that when I get frustrated with playing a game, there’s usually a very specific way it happens. When I play, I keep in my mind a model of how the game works, what optimal and interesting play is, and how to achieve that. I attempt to play using that model: If I succeed, then great! I’ve made progress. If I fail to execute on the approach I have in mind, that’s also fine, since I just need to try again. The point of friction, though, comes when I succeed in doing the thing I had in mind, but the thing I had in mind completely fails to work – because that means the entire mental model I had of the game is skewed somehow. There’s a desync, somewhere, between the game I’m playing and the game that actually exists. This is a dangerous moment, because now it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the game that exists is just an inferior version of the game I’m trying to play in my head, one which fails to account for being played in the way I expect this game to be played.

This point of friction usually emerges sooner or later, to lesser or greater degree, even in games I love. With Dishonored it came when the game provided me no avenues to non-lethally disable an opponent once they were alerted to my presence (a lack thankfully rectified by its sequel). With XCOM 2 it came with the realization that flanking tactics were sometimes far more dangerous than they were worth simply because the cost of accidentally revealing an enemy unit could be so high. At some point, inevitably, the actual design of a game tends to diverge from what I believe the most beautiful, elegant, or intuitive way to play that game to be – and, being a stubborn person in certain very bizarre ways, I still try to play it in the way that I perceive it should be played, even in the face of the actual designers of the game obviously disagreeing with me.

I may be a bit of a standout in how stubborn I get about these things, but I’m hardly unique in my initial approach. Everyone has an idea of what ‘good play’ is supposed to look like in a game they play – whether it’s based on other games they’ve played, movies they’ve played with similar theming to the game, or just on the way the first couple of times they played went, very quickly they build a mental model of what’s desirable and what isn’t. Hypothetically, that model could even line up perfectly with the game’s systems – more often than not, though, there’s a disconnect here. The ‘right’ way to play the game, from the player’s perspective, is not the same as the way most likely to actually achieve success. In order to do well, they might have to do something that feels wrong, incorrect, suboptimal – that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

In this way, it pays to be aware of what baggage players are likely to bring to your game. This is why the history of similar game designs matters to your game design, because the expectations fostered by those games are going to affect how people see, understand, and play your game. This is why understanding what your art style conveys about the nature of your design is important, because people who find the style appealing are going to come in with certain expectations about the gameplay. This is why it’s important to ensure your player has some way to understand the breadth of the design, rather than just giving them one sample encounter and leaving them to infer that the rest are pretty much like that one.

When a conflict between the player’s conception of the design and the realities of the design occurs, it can only be resolved by the player changing their mental model of the game, and not everyone’s going to be interested in doing that. There’s an art of persuasion to it: The game has to, by its design and theming, forward an argument as to why its way of doing things is better than the way the player has in mind. Does it make more sense? Is it because the opponents have some special countermeasure grounded in the narrative? Generally, players are going to be more accepting of their approach not working because they haven’t accounted for other factors in the game (such as not defending adequately against a new technique) than because the game doesn’t reward, or even punishes, their approach (such as not having an old technique work when one would expect it should).

There’s a sense, as designer, that the design of the game should stand alone, should contain all the context it needs to make it make sense to the player, and that everything they learn about how to play the game should come from the game itself. Even someone who has never played a game before, though, comes to a game with some conception of how the game should be played. If you want people to learn the game, to stick with the game, then it is your job to, no matter what these preconceptions are, guide them and endeavor to reshape them to align with what the design of the game actually is.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.

 

This week I played through Doki Doki Literature Club, which is a game I’d been vaguely aware of as a harrowing anime experience but, honestly, that describes several games, so it wasn’t really distinct in my mind. I’d like to talk about some of the ideas it brought up to me – not having participated in any of the discourse around the game, it’s entirely possible I’ll say something ignorant here, but I’d like to just go off of my read based on a single complete playthrough of the game here.

There’s gonna be spoilers! In fact, I’m going to spoil the entire thing, give a play-by-play of my entire playthrough, since most of what I want to talk about doesn’t make a ton of sense without that context. If you’re interested in playing a meta horror-game with fourth-wall-breaking elements framed into a visual novel dating-sim format, you should probably play this game before you read the rest of this post. The game has content warnings for mental illness and suicide, so I guess you could consider this post to have the same, though I won’t be going into much grisly detail.


The setup is this: You play as a faceless (but explicitly male) high school student: You can name this character and make a few decisions here and there, but for the most part his personality, such as it is, is out of your control. He is made to be generic and uninspiring, with few interests aside from sitting around his house playing games and reading comics. You’re talked by your childhood friend, Sayori, (who is, of course, a cute girl) into joining her after-school club, the titular literature club. This literature club is also comprised entirely of cute girls: Along with Sayori there’s Natsuki, Yuri, and Monika, the president of the club. As members of the club, you all decide to bring a poem each day: “Writing a poem,” in this case, takes the form of picking 20 words you like out of a list to represent the approximate sort of thing you wrote. Depending on which words you choose, one or other of the girls will probably like your writing more – and therefore, in the logic of the game, like you more. For whatever reason, you can’t write to appeal to Monika, just the other three girls – there’s no narrative justification for this, just The Way Things Are. You get some feedback as to who likes what, and how the scenes afterwards play out depends on who you appeal to – I don’t know how much changes since I only played through once. You also get to read their poems, which I really enjoyed: The poems all show their characters well, and are frequently charming in their own right, as well as having clues to where the story might be going later.

I wanted to be friendly with everyone but the game was really not set up for that: You have to choose someone. Generally when I had to choose an option I’d side with Sayori, primarily out of a sense of loyalty since I’d narratively known her longest and she’d invited me in the first place. As the game progressed and I got closer to her, she started behaving erratically, needing to leave early or not showing up. I talked to Monika about it and she talked to Sayori, came back, and told me not to worry about it – but, after she talked to Sayori, Sayori seemed even more upset, and left. A while after this it was revealed that Sayori was struggling with severe depression and that it was getting worse. A while after that she confessed to being in love with my character.

Here’s where I feel I made a mistake. I was of the opinion that Sayori needed a friend more than she needed a boyfriend, and that it was more important that I be supportive than I be romantic, so instead of picking the “I love you” option, which I felt would read as manipulative, I picked the “I will always be your best friend” option – which, contrary to the literal reading, is framed as romantic rejection here. I feel some nuance was lost, but that may be intentional. At this point the plot progressed on its own without any of my input, because my character just let her run off on her own, ignored when she didn’t show up the next day, and of course by the next time I saw her she’d killed herself, since that was obviously what was being set up.

What was less obvious was what came next: The screen turned glitchy, the game restarted, but this time Sayori was nowhere to be found. The intro was rewritten without her, it was Monika instead of Sayori who recruited me to the club. The plot progressed much the same way it did before, except any time Sayori would be there it got glitchier and glitchier, with Monika reading most of her lines. Eventually history repeated itself with another of the girls, except she started behaving much stranger much faster, and after she stabbed herself she lay on the floor dead or dying while page after page of gibberish text went by, and several days passed by in the game.

Monika returned and confessed that she’d been editing the game files to try to drive me away from all the other girls, exaggerating their mental problems and negative traits, since without her changing the game itself there was no way for me to ever choose her. She deletes the other characters and traps me in a world with just me and her. Of course, like all good super-villains she describes the means of her own downfall, so I delete her. Though she’s deleted, she still exists a little bit somehow (perhaps still present in RAM), and feels remorseful for everything she’s done, so she restores the other characters. The game starts over again, everyone’s back except Monika, Sayori is the president of the club now, except now she too is self-aware and malicious: So Monika’s ghost, or whatever it is, just deletes the entire game. Roll credits, complete with Monika playing a nice ending theme for me.


Before I played the game, when I was talking to people about it, I heard some criticism of the game’s treatment of mental illness – and, in one sense, I think that that criticism is entirely justified. The characters’ problems are somewhat cartoonish, broadly drawn for the purposes of dramatic traumatic reveals, and in the sense that anyone looking to the game for a realistic portrayal of mental illness will be let down this portrayal is, indeed, a problem. However, within the meta-narrative of the game, I think it’s important that these characters be unrealistic: The original versions of them are crafted to be endearing, to be just damaged enough that the player character can save them, so that he can dramatically be there in their moment of need. And, once Monika sabotages them, this ‘cute’ mental illness is exaggerated, made grotesque. The portrayal is unrealistic and shocking, and in this way serves as a satire of many other saccharine depictions which are also unrealistic, but in ways we don’t notice – that we have become primed to accept, but nevertheless may do harm.

Even before the game became explicitly horrific, I found aspects of the setup disturbing. The emotional manipulation of the other characters paired with the lack of control I had over my own character’s behavior were difficult for me to cope with: At every moment, I felt like I was making a bad decision, particularly once the life-or-death stakes of the game were made clear. When everything went wrong, and I had no control, no ability to say anything to fix it, it felt simultaneously unrealistic and realistic, alienating and familiar. Not being able to say the right thing is a very common experience, even if the limitations to me doing so are not generally physical. Every dialogue tree with actual consequences in a video game makes it a sort of horror game, a simulation of the terrible inadequacy of the spoken word to convey what must be conveyed, and the brain to find the words that must be spoken.

Monika breaks these hard barriers, though, and in so doing becomes a dark reflection of the player: She is aware of a world outside of the game, but she’s entirely trapped within it, with just these ‘friends’ who seem like paper cutouts to her now for company. Like the player, she has romantic ambitions within this world, and like the player she seeks to achieve these romantic ambitions by emotionally manipulating the characters around her. However, unlike the player, the world she’s in is not set up to allow her to easily do so: All of the tools, all of the language of the game, is designed for the player to manipulate the emotions of these three fictional girls. She can only do it from the wrong side, using clumsy and destructive methods. I don’t know that it justifies the monstrosity of her methods, but it does seem that the methods she uses are the only ones available to her. The ethics of this situation are interesting: From her perspective, all of the characters in the game, aside from herself, are automatons with no real feelings. What would make her actions evil when we so readily accept authors tormenting and killing their characters in the name of truth and beauty? She’s just writing an unhappy ending, the same as the game’s creator did.

Monika’s transgression is, then, not a transgression against ethics, but a transgression of the natural order of the world. Only the author is allowed to kill off characters, only the player is allowed to manipulate them towards their own ends. And, because this power imbalance is formulated into a genre where the main character is positioned as the sole male with exclusive power over a domain of women, she takes on an aspect of the witch – the woman who does that which must not be done, claims the power which is for the exclusive use of men. The violence she enacts against the other characters doesn’t originate in her: The violence is inherent to the structure of the game, and she just brings it to the surface, makes it explicit. This makes her the villain apparent of the work…

And yet, it reminds me of something. It reminds me of how much violence is enacted by the systems we live in, silently, without consequence, and yet when windows are broken by people attempting to struggle against that violence they become the villains. It reminds me of the peace of oppression, of how people who speak up on behalf of those who suffer may one day in the distant future be regarded as heroes, but in the meanwhile are just regarded as troublemakers. While I know this is silly, and may seem trivializing, and I’m not actually suggesting Monika is some sort of fictional character freedom fighter, it does seem strange to me that when she does the same thing the author does, the same thing the player does, when she does nothing but reveal and exaggerate the structural violence that already exists, she becomes the villain.