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We’re at the end of the first official month of development of the current version of EverEnding. That’s a lot of qualifiers, but it’s still a milestone of sorts. Did it go well, you may ask? Did it go poorly? Kind of in-between!

Most of this month was focused on creating the intro sequence, but before I even started in on that I first wrapped up what I was working on at the end of last month, the crouching animation, even though it really doesn’t need to be done until I start on the first chapter of the game.

Once I have my teeth in a problem, I really don’t like to abandon it until I’ve solved it – a tendency which kind of backfired later on. However, having accomplished that, I started developing the different graphical elements of the intro area, making a dynamic and playable version of the first test screen which was previously just a placed static image. Here’s a comparison of what it looked like before and what it looks like now:

I started with the tree, which I’ve always liked the look of but which was cut off at the edges on this screen since I’d originally drawn it on a paper pad and ran out of space. I extended the top of the tree and added layered systems of branches, then drew several different leaf clumps which I spawn in-game using a particle system. It turns out most of these leaves aren’t actually visible from the main intro area, but I think I’ll probably pan the camera down to this area at the beginning, which will show off the leaves and branches nicely. There’s some aspects I still like better in the old version, such as the overall level of saturation and contrast on the tree and the gradient in the sky background, which I’ll probably try to bring back in as I develop these assets further.

I quickly drew the night sky background, which was mostly scribbling, and somewhat less quickly I constructed fill and edge textures for the dirt, and then built the terrain using Unity’s Spriteshape tool. I had been concerned about the quality of effect this tool would provide, but I honestly couldn’t be happier with how the ground segments turned out. A point of interest is that SpriteShape used carelessly can make the edges of the collision area misleading, so I tried to make it clear via shading what the actual collision edge of the ground surface was.

Previously the main ground area had been grassy, but I figured with the special grass particle effect I developed a short while back I might be better served by leaving it as dirt and then having the grass effect handle all the grass rendering. I may reconsider this at a later date – and the grass effect itself is surely still subject to change – but the dirt ground asset will be useful later regardless. I haven’t created any rocks to replace those in the initial version – they’re not vitally important, but I probably should, especially since I’m certain to need rock elements to place later anyway.

Probably the most time this month was spent wrestling with the rendering system. While the initial simple sprite look was appealing, I couldn’t and can’t stop thinking about how incredible it could look with some extra post-processing and shadowing effects. By copying a shader I didn’t understand well I could get these effects but only at the cost of clipping away the transparency at the edge of the sprites in a fairly hideous way, and one which will cause much more severe problems as I add more assets with transparency effects later on. I still haven’t figured out a perfect solution to this, and it’s a rabbit hole I could get in deep – after all, people build entire careers specializing in this sort of graphics programming – but I’ll probably keep pursuing it both because I think the results could be worth it and because I find this kind of work inherently interesting.

The crux of the issue is that in order to properly post-process an image with certain effects, you need to draw to the ‘depth texture’. In order to make objects draw one in front of another, you need to draw to the ‘depth/z buffer’, which it turns out is a completely different thing… And, in order to draw transparent objects, one would normally avoid drawing to either the depth texture or the z buffer, because it would overwrite information about objects behind the transparent object which you still want to draw because your object is transparent! In layman’s terms: In order to know what something should look like, the game needs to know how far away it is, but it can only know the distance of one thing at a time, so: If we’re holding a piece of semitransparent glass in front of an apple, how far away is the thing it should be drawing? Is it the distance from the glass to the camera, or is it the distance from the apple to the camera?

The only solution that seems viable to me is to set a transparency threshold: If it’s barely transparent at all, like a piece of stretched rubber, then it counts for depth, and if it’s very transparent indeed, like glass, then it doesn’t. However, just knowing this as an algorithm isn’t enough, because you still need to know how to explain to the graphics hardware what behavior you want – and that’s what I’ve been struggling with, because it has very particular ideas about what information you can feed it and how.

I’m not sure how well this problem is coming across in text, so hopefully next month I can just show you a picture of the working version to illustrate what I mean.

I also started getting sound and music implemented. Now, the intro’s sound and music needs are pretty minimal, basically just requiring one music track and one long sound effect to be played, but I started seriously considering what the music system would need to look like to handle future problems. Even in the very first playable area there’s some degree of adaptive music, and later areas have other types of dynamic music planned, from transitional segments to cross-fading alternate tracks and more as I think of them. Altogether, these represent a not-insignificant programming task – and, in Unity, requires some rather awkward queuing and loading of audio tracks. I decided that it was foolish to try to create a music system like this when there’s already incredibly powerful tools made for this specific purpose out there, so, after a quick assessment of its licensing options, I began integrating FMOD, an adaptive music system for games, into the project. This system is free for small-scale projects like this, and in addition to adaptive music provides great tools for mixing sound effects together and slight dynamic tweaking of sound parameters based on arbitrary values – so, for instance, one can not merely adapt music by creating alternate tracks, but also by bumping equalizer and filter parameters based on in-game actions. FMOD also provides an actual tool for visualizing these mixes and setting up musical transitions, which is great because manually plugging values into an XML script on my first attempt at this was a real drag.

Finally, I started considering how text was going to work. This seems like it should be a freebie – there’s some pretty standardized ways of handling text in games at this point – but, for this project, I want a sort of living storybook feel, with text appearing on the page as you encounter it. First, I needed to figure out how to just get text on the screen, which ended up being fairly easy since Unity includes TextMeshPro, a great solution for solving exactly this problem in 2d and 3d spaces. However, when text is on a background that could be any color, just black print doesn’t really cut it, so I spent quite a while looking through different fonts and rendering styles until I found a couple that worked for the two main ‘voices’ I need to have at the start of the game – though I’m still undecided whether these parts will also have voice acting.

After this I created a simple class to fade in the text over time – and then worried it should have been even simpler, since for some unfathomable reason I made it so text faded in over a set total amount of time instead of at a predictable rate, meaning it would be nearly impossible to sync up between fields of different length. As soon as I started thinking about all this, though, I started thinking about the way it should be, about what the optimal interface and feature set ought to be for a tool like this. This is a trap! This exact behavior is why I was talking in the last devblog about trying to treat this project as a series of game-jam-esque sprints, and why I said my tendency to fixate on problems once I approach them causes issues: Because this is the sort of thing you don’t do in a game jam. Not only is this a far more refined solution than is immediately needed, but trying to create it pushed me into writing code for Unity’s internal UI system again which is an invariably soul-crushing practice since getting anything done in there is such a finicky and arbitrary mess. I realized all this after a couple of days, and left this text fading in a state where it’s not quite as perfect as I would want it to be if I were selling it as a product – but is still quite sufficient for my immediate needs.

One could reasonably ask: Why focus on creating an introduction before completing any playable areas? I will preface the explanation by saying that I don’t believe this is the correct approach, and might in fact argue that it’s a very incorrect approach. Generally speaking, I would prefer to start with the core gameplay, build up playable areas, and expand out from there. However, right now I’ve already essentially created a gameplay prototype with the initial AIR version of the game: I don’t know if the gameplay is going to work on the macro level, IE will engagements with enemies be interesting and will the overall flow of play be interesting, but the prototype gameplay has been enough to convince me that the simple act of moving around the world will be satisfying. In addition to these basic gameplay systems, though, there are narrative systems – which are usually considered as an afterthought, but which also need to be developed and tested. Developing the intro will a) create a distinct chunk of the game, albeit a relatively unimportant one, b) force me to create the structure of the narrative systems, and c) create a free-standing piece that should hopefully build enthusiasm for the project – both for myself and for potential audiences.

Because I got so focused on trying to get specific tasks completed correctly, instead of merely functionally, I didn’t reach my original goal of completing the intro by the beginning of this month – but I don’t think I’m actually that far off. I had originally conceived of this beginning bit as being largely just text, but with a bit of reflection I’ve realized that would be an incredibly boring and tedious start to the game, so I now have a sequence planned where the camera slowly pans down to the intro screen, across text displays, and with cuts to certain illustrations I have yet to make. This is conceptually still pretty simple – and honestly probably doesn’t sound very exciting, described in this bare-bones manner – but should be more exciting and intriguing than just a few lines of suggestive dialogue, and I think with a deft touch could be really cool. The current intro music is almost 2 minutes long, which I’m starting to suspect may be too long to actually fit this sequence without messing up the timing – so I may also need to rewrite it to accommodate this.

Thus, to complete the intro, I need to make 3 illustrations and a couple more minor pieces of art, possibly tweak some assets, animate the camera transitions and text fade ins, add some sound effects, and then edit the music track to fit. I think all this is achievable within one week. Once this is complete I’ll start in on the first area – which, at first, will mostly be animation work while I complete and implement all of the standard character animations.

In all honesty, my mood has been all over the place recently – for obvious reasons. It’s nice to have something concrete to work on, like a ship in a bottle, while being otherwise locked in place.

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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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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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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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In games, actions have consequences. This is broadly true in all cases: The game is defined by its reactions to the actions you take within its spaces. However, when we talk about games – and when games talk about themselves – the concept of ‘consequence’ tends to take on a very specific meaning: When a game says that actions have consequences, it means narrative consequences – and, though this is not so much stated as assumed, it also tends to mean that these consequences are karmic. That is, good actions achieve good results, bad actions achieve bad results . If you’re not sure what good or bad are, don’t worry: The game will tell you.

While consequences in these games may be unexpected or even unintended, they almost always fall within the broad moral scope of whatever choice you’ve made. If you choose to kill, more people die, more chaos is created, the world is made worse, and if you choose to spare the world is made happier, safer, more predictable – regardless of who or what it is you choose to kill and what mayhem it may cause in the future, or how cruel the circumstances of ‘sparing’ might be. Obviously, cause and effect are not always this predictable: The world is capricious, and when you take an action within its systems the consequences that emerge from it are often quite unpredictable and unrelated to whatever moral reasoning was used to arrive at that decision.

This abstraction would perhaps be less galling if the games using these karmic systems weren’t premised on the justness of violent intervention under all circumstances, with only these specific predetermined pivot points being where the use of violence to achieve your definitely just and righteous goals was questioned.

Even if this is frustrating, it’s also revealing. We take a lot of cognitive shortcuts when it comes to moral reasoning. Often, legality comes to stand in for morality, which is convenient because then the flawed mechanisms of human justice can appear as some sort cosmic justice, and the consequences of our actions can seem, if we squint, to take on a moral dimension. The worst evils, though, are frequently entirely legal, and performed by organizations rather than individuals, while the law often punishes courageous moral acts performed by individuals. First legality, then morality, comes to be defined as that which stands with power and protects the status quo. No one with a heart and mind could believe that this is a good measure of ethics. Many people manage it, regardless.

Most games are either interested in an absolutism where the law is the rules and any infraction is a failure to play the game properly or in a nihilism where all legality and morality is irrelevant and the player can cause as much mayhem as they wish without thinking about its impacts. However, when we try in games to explore moral gray areas it mostly comes in the form of individual decisions – and overwhelmingly often in taking shortcuts to ensure extralegal punitive justice is meted out. This is in some ways an acknowledgment of the limitations of legality as a system for approximating cosmic justice – but always by stating the system is insufficiently punitive to some person in particular. We know the law and its enforcement is often unjust, so standing against it might not seem morally gray at all if we don’t tack on some other ethically questionable action such as vigilantism – but this leaves a gap. Morally gray action 1: Uphold the law, which is questionable. Morally gray action 2: Defy the law in order to do something questionable.

In aggregate, most of the options offered by games are: Follow all the rules, break all the rules, or selectively break rules to enforce punitive justice. Rarely do we actually have the option of defying the law in order to do something morally just beyond punishment. This gap between legality and morality is vital to explore, and yet because of how we have defined our moral terms it becomes invisible to us. When the law bans compassion, only the outlaws will have compassion.

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