When I read some fiction about a character, say he’s called Dave, who did something terrible, I don't feel guilty about it. It's not my story, right? It’s Dave’s. And Dave is a piece of shit.
But what if the book forced you to act out what Dave did, go through the motions like some puppet? Would you feel guilty then? Would you feel like it was all your fault? Perhaps I should ask an actor.
And this here is THE LINE you should not cross if you want to avoid spoilers for third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) and the epic Immortal Defense (RPG Creations, 2007). Okay, maybe Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games, 2008) too.
For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?
It’s while I’m pacing through the haunting, empty megalopolis of NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) that it occurs to me. I’ve had enough of the derogatory phrase “walking simulators” even though some are attempting to adopt the term as a positive label. Ya know... that doesn't mean I have to like it.
This kind of crap goes a lot further than “walking simulator”. Games have also been characterized negatively as toys. Or theme park rides. It's all about the magic ambrosia known as “interactivity” which is as well defined as a drop of water in a puddle, because “sitting, walking, listening, looking, playing, just fucking being is interaction”.
Attempting to rigorously define interactivity is about as joyous as rigorously defining the word game into your preferred pigeon hole. You might see healthy debate in this conversation. I see a black hole event horizon through which my will to live is disappearing.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Especially as you've probably figured out that today I want to discuss “himitsu-bako”.
A detective searches for answers after investigating a mysterious series of crimes. But the answers find him first.
#warningsigns is a short film about videogames and the future. Twitter has already issued its verdict:
And Kieron Gillen has also put in a nice word. You should set aside fifteen minutes to watch the entire film. If you have the bandwidth and screen estate, please note you can watch at 1080p HD resolution. The film, preview screenshots and credits can be found below.
A year in the making. Turn out the lights and settle down. This is #warningsigns.
In his epic Dark Souls Diaries series, Matt “Steerpike” Sakey wrote about a key moment when he felt guilty for killing an NPC he had intended to save. Sakey didn’t have long to mourn. Rather than leave him to wallow in his misery, one commenter told him there was actually nothing he could do. Don’t feel bad about it.
Player guilt is so easily destroyed, it seems, if we learn everything is a foregone conclusion. We are fascinated by what lies behind the curtain and the fear that the game might be making a fool of us, exploiting us through an illusion of agency. No one wants to be Stanley of The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2013), the developer’s puppet.
We crave the weight of consequence yet revel in its destruction. How do we make sense of this contradiction?
In 2012, Jenn Frank wrote about how she rediscovered some floppy disks carrying some of her Norn creations from the artificial life simulation Creatures (Millennium Interactive, 1996). She saw them as coffins. She sent her Norns into stasis on floppy disks but they never woke up; she had murdered her brood.
Save games. A thorny subject for sure. In 1981, we might have asked whether a man was not entitled to the control of his own leisure time. ‘No!’ said the developer from his office cubicle. But we are not in 1981 any more. In 2014, I should be able to do anything I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want, multiple times. Not only can I do whatever I want but I can also shout at people on the internet for doing whatever they want. This is liberty.
The save game is one of the most important innovations in game design. It’s also a promise to the developer that we’re coming back.
But why do we sometimes break that promise?
When British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it was reported his answer was, “Because it’s there.” The desire to climb does not have to make any sense, have any rhyme or reason. The mountain was a challenge that called to Mallory. It’s very existence was enough to seduce him to its slopes in 1924 – and the mountain claimed his life. Mallory’s body was recovered in 1999.
There is a similar pattern in our desires to take on challenging videogames. Playing Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010) isn’t making us smarter and doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition. We might argue that it improves reflexes but this is the kind of comforting babble we tell people who don’t play games. Players need no such justification.
Oh, wait! Except when we do!
Some reviews of Kickstarted puzzle game Full Bore: The First Dig (Whole Hog Games, 2013) find its rewards not shiny enough. “Gems […] have no apparent value other than raising your completion percentage,” writes Britton Peele for Gamespot. “Why should you spend time collecting them, other than because they're there?”
In other words, why should we spend time solving puzzles in a puzzle game?
A couple of years ago in an essay called A Theoretical War, I touched on the Holy War over the meaning of the word ‘game’. The war has not gone away. Each time some ‘alternative’ release reaches across the divide – such as when Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) or Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, 2013) hits Steam – there’s an outbreak of unpleasantness. This battle to control ‘game’ even has a parody Twitter account, TheGamePolice.
Outside of the mainstream, there’s a strong belief that no one needs to define or control what gets to be called a game. Everything can be a game. But let’s put aside a technical discussion on definitions. The word ‘game’, in popular culture, has connotations. It is a complicated word that means different things to different people.
Last year, Darius Kazemi published a slideshow called Fuck Videogames in which he suggested not everyone needs to make ‘games’. He admitted he had dropped the term himself, pitching his own work under the banner of ‘weird internet stuff’.
Here’s a question for you. Are there problems with calling everything a game? Here’s another. Are there developers who would rather not call their software a game? I consulted Kazemi, Ed Key (Proteus), Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales) and Dan Pinchbeck (The Chinese Room) on whether we need an alternative.
Puzzle games have a delicious quality. They are honest. The design never lies because everything you need to know is on the screen. There are no special switches and no powerups are required. The answer is in front of you, it’s right there, if only you could see it. Look again. Look harder. This is possible, you know it is.
Actually, now I think about it, the game is taunting you, mocking you. Are you still stuck on this level? Still? Don’t worry, I can wait, sweetie. You just take your time. I’ll have a cup of earl grey over here while you think your brains out.
That honesty? Passive-aggressive is what it is.
This is the first part of the Learning Curve trilogy.
As the years progress, the human brain archives ancient experiences it decides aren’t so relevant any more. It shoves the past into a blender face first, making it difficult, if not impossible, to identify events let alone organise them into a sensible chronological sequence. Cause and effect are corrupted.
But there remain flashes of important moments and here are some from my videogame childhood: running home in tears when a café owner switched off a Check Man (Zilec-Zenitone, 1982) arcade cabinet seconds after I’d inserted my one coin for the evening; walking back to the bus stop from Porthcawl beach where there was one last videogame arcade to visit, a place in which we discovered Tutankham (Konami, 1982) and Jungle Hunt (Taito, 1982); losing a whole morning to an obsession with my first virtual world, Adventure (Atari, 1979) on the Atari VCS.
I know that we bought an Atari VCS during a stay in London because I recall seeing its box, complete with screenshots and Ingersoll Electronics logo, bundled onto a National Express bus bound for Wales. I know the most anticipated Christmas presents at that time were Atari cartridges. I could usually tell which presents were the cartridges but never opened them all in one go, as I wanted to savour the annual tradition of the Christmas unboxing.
Childhood seems longer than it is. Although I am left with an impression that the VCS dwelt in our house for many, many years, this cannot be true. I have a receipt here that says we bought it in a store called "GEM Electronics" on 23 August 1980, and I have another receipt saying we purchased an Atari 800 on 8 October 1982. I can rescue cause and effect from these receipts. They imply we sold most of our VCS games in 1982, just two years after we bought the console.
The reason my parents sold the console was practical. Primary school wasn’t stretching me enough and I was the kind of child who engorged his brain on Open University television programmes. A primary school teacher even told my parents off for teaching me at home, pushing me ahead of the class, but they confessed it was because I watched adult literacy programmes like On the Move. My parents decided to buy a computer to prevent me from getting bored, to channel my energies. We didn’t have much money, so the VCS was sold to raise funds for a 32K Atari 800 Home Computer with an Atari 410 Program Recorder.
It was hard to say goodbye to those black, chunky cartridges and their colourful boxes, but we didn’t say goodbye to every game. My little sister had told prospective buyers that we didn’t like Basketball (Atari, 1978) so they took her sage advice and did not buy it. I still have this box today.
But I'm not here to tell you about the Atari VCS. I'm here to tell you about my years as a game developer.