Electron Dance
23Oct/14Off

Vault the Grave

vault-the-grave

Look, this is going to be a short post as I am still working on resurrecting my PC. The above image from Watch Dogs (Ubisoft Montreal, 2014) snowballed on Twitter this month. Perhaps the one with 2,000 retweets is the original although I've found a mention of this unfortunate juxtaposition back in June on the Giant Bomb forums:

How about after his tear jerking moment at the grave, you are immediately presented with a "Vault" prompt on the tombstone. I hoped over my niece's grave 4 times, having a good laugh at how silly it was.

It's true. Over the grave of the protagonist’s niece hovers a ghost. A ghost called Vault. This means we can finally discard that monstrosity ludonarrative dissonance and instead write the game vaults the grave.

It’s a brilliant example of where systems clash with narrative intent but... also misses the point.

It’s just a tweet so I shouldn't get my knickers in a twist over 140 characters. But it was a real popular tweet. I'm sure most just thought "ha ha" but others no doubt took it seriously, that this is exactly the reason we can't have The Nice Things. Developers should pay attention and stop making games that vault the grave.

Frankly my dear, the truth is I just don’t give a shit.

A year ago, I probably would have rallied the troops around this image. This here, I might have said, is the reason that AAA IS DEAD. All good things come to a DEAD. HERE IT IS.

I've been shifting position over the last year and it’s not because Bennett Foddy believes "Watch Dogs is literally made 50% more interesting because you can vault over your child's grave". Admittedly I haven’t played it so maybe there’s more to this example, but it’s a tweet so let me take it on face value because retweets would be dead in the water if people didn't make face value judgements.

There are so many ways this could have happened. This lad over here designed a reusable tombstone asset and attached the verb "vault" to it. That lass over there designed the graveyard using the assets available to her. She's not supposed to worry too much about the function attached to assets, that stuff is all supposed to be automatic so she can get on with what she was paid to do: level design. And the QA group blink when the word Vault pops up near Lena Pearce's grave because they've seen this level 54 times already in various states of undress. Christ, this wasn't even a cemetery until build 104! Clearly, someone on the all-star AAA team made a grave mistake.

It’s the kind of easy, honest mistake that gets made when you’re talking AAA which demands $$$ polish on grass textures. But “easy mistake to make” is still not the reason I don’t give a shit.

What’s the solution to this problem? Hide the prompt? You could still vault it, right? What if we remove the verb altogether? But then a player can just walk all over the grave any way. Perhaps cordon off the area to preserve narrative integrity? Then we’ve teetered into nannying players. I'm actually pretty sick of verb pop-ups because they define the player's understanding of the world, exposing the system at the expense of the game's power as a storytelling platform. This is still not the reason I do not give a shit.

The reason I do not give a shit is because no one really gives a shit.

I don’t want to shake the Gamer Republic out of its “dumb stupor” and realise how awful this moment is. Your average gamer is not even going to clock it aside from a chuckle. The success of the AAA videogame industry proves that players are pretty good at maintaining a Chinese wall between agency and narrative. Every open world-cum-story has the same problem, the promotion of the world as a system. This is business as usual.

It's just... picking out examples like these from AAA games is like shooting fish in a barrel. The scope and complexity of an AAA title means there are always cracks somewhere. It doesn't tell us anything about AAA sensibilities because it's just a glitch of automated design, accident not intention. And anyone who listened to me have a nervous breakdown in a podcast about Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) will know full well I really do give a shit about these things.

The image commentary misses what the real target should be, the verb pop-up, a tool that allows developers to pretend that game protagonists have a wide spectrum of agency outside of "shoot" and "drive". It helps disconnect the entire world not just a single tearful moment.

If you give a shit or don't give a shit, write in the comments and tell me about your shit.

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Comments (37) Trackbacks (3)
  1. I’ve been having some mild diarrhea lately but luckily I think it’s mostly gone.

  2. A great move. As tempting as it might be to criticize AAA as a whole on the basis of this example, you take the high road and admit that it is only just one example, an anecdote, that is not necessarily representative of the AAA phenomenon as a whole. That’s integrity to me.

    Thank you for your thoughts about the pop-up verbs. They were very elucidating for me. And while I’m at it, thank you for this blog. I only discovered you recently; I believe it was a link from superlevel.de. Got lost in your articles about the Mercenary series. It summoned some childhood memories in me. I never got around to understand the game as deeply as you did, because I was very young back then and my English was almost non-existent. It left a small question mark in the back of my head, and it was fulfilling to finally see it solved. But more than that, I value how well you described the feelings that you had while playing the game. I could relate to that.

    I find it hard to find good and well-thought game commentary that goes beyond the obvious aspects of a computer game and takes the medium and the player seriously. Your website is a shining example. Just wanted to say thank you; I hope this gives you a nice feeling for a moment.

  3. @David: thank you for taking my phrasing so literally. I knew I would not be disappointed. However, TMI.

    @Madoc: Thank you for the nice words! It has been a tough old month and it always seems to get harder to keep the site going with every year, so any high-fives are always welcome. Yes, superlevel has linked here a few times, most recently for Mercenary. I’d probably check out superlevel myself but it’s not in my native language =)

    I’m cruel about AAA design from time to time particularly as I am more focused on the indie side of things, and the reliance on shooting is a bit of a hobbyhorse for me. But I’ve been learning to be a bit more forgiving and understanding of AAA recently.

  4. I don’t even think it is a mistake in the strict sense at all. The game just tells you that you have the option to vault over that gravestone. Is that unrealistic? Don’t you have the option to vault over gravestones in real life?
    Of course it is weird to explicitly point out this option, but that is just an artifact of the discrete and set-up nature of videogames. It’s not more weird than tugging a virtual puppet through a dollhouse cemetry is in the first place.

  5. I did laugh last night when I saw this and also had a ‘Seriously though, wtf?’ moment.

    If the act of vaulting over the gravestone isn’t necessarily the problem (because most players probably won’t do it), then it is indeed the ‘Vault’ pop-up that becomes the issue; a visual hiccup. I don’t mind these prompts because as games become more and more detailed I need to have some idea of how my character is going to interact with something and WHAT exactly can be interacted with. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in walking around spamming the use key; pixel hunting AAA-style. I recently completed Tomb Raider and it’s a very detailed game with a lot of ‘clutter’ lying around but contextual prompts only appear when you get really close to something so in a sense it honours thorough exploration rather than sign posting ‘HERE IS A THING TO INTERACT WITH. COME HERE.’ You really have to dig into the scenery rather than just cruise through waiting for the flags.

    What would my recommendation be for this particular hiccup? I suppose I’d prefer the common interactions to stop appearing as the player becomes more familiar with the game’s vocabulary, so ‘Vault’ wouldn’t appear throughout the game. Failing that, just remove them during ‘narrative hot spots’ so the player can still interact with stuff but there’s no visual pollution. I mean, unless there’s a gun fight or stealth section in that graveyard or you’re on some time imperative mission and the graveyard can be used as a short cut, I can’t possibly see a reason why you’d want to vault over a gravestone so it shouldn’t be there in the first place.

  6. Great post. What if Ludonarrative Dissonance… though it certainly is a THING, never really mattered? To be honest I came to that conclusion when the Deadpool game came out and I haven’t looked back. The dissonance certainly exists in lots of games but it’s pretty hard to call it a dealbreaker.

  7. Amanda, I know what you mean. Much is made of ludonarrative dissonance but I guess it doesn’t make that much difference when millions of players are fine suspending their disbelief?

    It reminds me of the arguments in theatre over the unities of time and space in, uh, the 16/17th century (I think?). All these critics decided that it was really, really important that plays shouldn’t skip forward or backward in time (so no scene changes), and they should all take place in a single location. I think it was Philip Sidney who argued, in The Art of Poesy, that if you wanted to write a play about a man being killed and washing up on a beach where his beloved, taking a morning stroll in the surf, would find his corpse – then you absolutely MUST start the play with the beloved on the beach, have her find the body, and then just talk at the audience for half an hour explaining all the backstory. In this way, the audience’s suspension of disbelief will never be strained. But really, what’s to stop you flashing back and performing the events that led to the guy’s death? Seemed like a lot of overthinking nonsense to me.

    Having said that, I did just finish Final Fantasy 2, and it’s literally ridiculous (ie. laugh-inducing) how many people die right in front of you when you have 99 potions and a handful of Phoenix Downs ready to go.

  8. I do think there’s a difference between “the game will let you do this” and “the game tells you how to do this.” I mean, Skyrim didn’t specifically instruct players in how to fill an entire house with cabbages. That was players independently deciding to mess with the game world, subvert it however they could.

    I think vaulting the grave would be an entirely different meme without the button prompt to do so. It wouldn’t be about the game being silly, it would be about players being silly within the confines the game allows–not an issue or error in the text, so to speak, but the players making corrections in red pen.

  9. Further to that, QA took one look at it and went ‘this is not a bug, we aren’t paid to nit pick non-issues like this when the rest of the game is a shambling mess’

    Except there is always one guy who bugs this kind of shit on a QA team and everyone hates him.

    I think that it doesn’t so much bother me that it is there but the way that it makes the title feel impersonal is indicative of the way that a lot of triple A is going.

    Speaking of irritants – 20 hours into the game Shadow of Mordor was still tutorialising things that I had known how to do since hour 2. It was an irritant that got to me about the way that every game is becoming Ubisofted.

    That said – Alien: Isolation and Evil Within are phenomenal games – and are definitely part of the AAA group – Sunset Overdrive is also looking very promising.

  10. @badgercommander DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU CAN HIT Y TO COUNTER I would hate to think that you had forgot!!!! (yes that bugs me too even though I’m loving that game)

  11. Does Watch_Dogs, iconic cap and all, irritate you with the simple fact of its existence?

    If (Y) then retweet this iconic image: vault the grave! Possibly then use as weak foundation for article composed of sweeping assertions about AAA games and development.

    If (N) then snort derisively / with humour for the briefest moment, & move on.

    (This is me agreeing with you. There are far bigger problems with Watch Dogs than this trivial oversight on the part of the devs.)

  12. Okay. Right. Let’s respond to some of these comments at last.

    @Random: Hello, and welcome! Yeah, it’s not the ability to vault over a grave but showcasing the verb that seems a little weird, like someone lacking in social skills. There’s nothing wrong here, but it just makes people feel a bit weird, proof that the game isn’t actually tight regarding narrative. But exactly: most players don’t feel like this destroys the game. It might have come to be regarded as symbolic but, in itself, is a pretty poor example of “bad design”. Uh oh, the acronym of your handle is RIP.

    @Gregg: Hello Gregg. Really sorry I’ve been out of touch. I remember playing through Spec Ops and surprised that the verb prompts kept appearing. I thought that once the game considered me an expert, the prompts would disappear. Not so! By the way, if we made it so you COULDN’T vault over a gravestone you’d have walls of text about how “only special walls can be vaulted over”. This caused me no end of grief in Spec Ops where exploration was constantly thwarted by the most flimsiest of barricades.

    @Amanda: I don’t know who was first – you or Robert Yang – who got me thinking about ludonarrative dissonance, as a concept, being overblown in terms of the average player experience. The critic, of course, cannot ignore it. I guess this is one small fragment of a bigger conversation about the value of criticism identifying issues that most players would miss… but I don’t think I’d find that too interesting. Too meta.

    @James: I think avoiding “vaulting the grave” is a guideline if you’re reaching for immersion but it’s not essential. I doubt it’s possible to achieve. We’re always explaining something away because all these games are underpinned by systems that only respect the narrative through a patchwork of hacks and whispers. Regarding your FF2 example – I am always bothered that no one else in FPS games have ammunition problems. Wouldn’t that make for really interesting dynamics? (I’m sure there’s a counterexample out there somewhere.)

    @Feo: Good day to you, new commenter! Yes, that’s right. Like I said back in Stop Crying About Choice, players (as a group) will always seek the asshole option even if it’s not formally provided. That’s the nature of games and there’s only so far you can develop narrative consistency without treading on player’s toes. Developers always have to trust players to work with them and I doubt chastising them for ruining the mood is not going to integrate them into story any better than giving them freedom.

    @BC: Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m trying to drive at – all those verb popups feel “impersonal” and it’s TUTORIAL CORRECTNESS GONE MAD I SAY. Sorry about that guy on the QA team: I wonder what his real calling would be.

    @Shaun: I don’t want to be too harsh on any individual because once something has been retweeted 2000 times, you look like you’re on a bandwagon rather than just chuckling, even if you were Retweeter #3. But some games really do get piled on. Bioshock Infinite, for instance!

  13. It surely does not *destroy* the game, but I can’t help but feel that the game could be *better*. It is the critical player’s role to not only point out things that destroy the game, but also things that could and should be better (I guess this is kind of the metadiscussion you don’t want to get into? Well, I’m doing it ;) ) I think this particular example is mainly a side effect of the massive bloat in AAA games – the focus on quantity instead of quality, which makes it impossible to correct all of these small mistakes and corner cases.

    I’ll extend this to ludonarrative dissonance. Games with ludonarrative dissonance are playable, enjoyable, even excellent sometimes. As you say, “Your average gamer is not even going to clock it aside from a chuckle.” But the average gamer would still find the games more enjoyable if the dissonance was non-existent, surely? An excellent game can still get better.

    I think it is right for these things to be ridiculed and called out, because they make the game worse. I agree that it’s okay for large AAA games to have these mistakes, but the AAA studio that can avoid them makes a much better game, so they should strive towards it. The first step IMO should be to shorten the games, so that there is time to perfect these corner cases.

    But it might just be me, I generally despise long games – I feel like my time is being wasted, because they focus so much on putting enough hours in the game that the seconds don’t feel good.

  14. Hey Victor,

    I do think games which minimise vaulting the grave are probably better. It’s just that it *probably* doesn’t swing sales/attention as much as other aspects of a game. If you retool a story and associated game systems to somehow magically wipe out grave vaulting, I imagine no one would really notice and you’ve diverted resources from something that people *would* notice. It does matter, to some of us more than others, but in aggregate I think the statistics prove it doesn’t make a huge world of difference where it counts: the bottom line. From an artistic angle, a cultural worth angle, then we’re on stronger ground.

    On “right for these things to be ridiculed and called out, because they make the game worse”: the thing is, there was a retweet-orgasm over vaulting the grave, but nothing equivalent on the issue you feel more strongly about, shorter games. I’m bothered that the discourse disintegrates into noise about a funny screenshot (well, I suppose it is Twitter) instead of getting more attention for structural issues that can be addressed. There are no funny screenshots that draw attention to game length. And I think, like you, there IS a problem there – not just because I am now a parent with little time to play games.

    Much thanks for the comment! I try to respond as quickly as I can but not as easy finding the time as it once was.

  15. Cool article, I appreciate seeing some more reasonable discussion about AAA games. So much of game discussion I see on twitter is hyperfocused on indie, alt-game experiences they miss out some of what makes AAA attractive to many players.

    I do think that switching focus at the end to the prompt instead of the vaulting is still kind of a distraction. Over-tutorializing is just another annoyance that probably doesn’t break the game that much for people. But yeah, there were probably work-arounds that could have been explored… given time.

    I think a deeper issue is that there are philosophical differences between games like WD or other open-world games and games that focus on a “tighter” experience — and it’s not just indie vs. AAA. A game like Alien Isolation (from my impression, have not played yet) is going for a very focused experience. And that’s great! I love that kind of approach. But I also enjoy, and many players love, a more open approach… that is almost by its nature messier.

    Sprawling mess vs. tight ‘n focused is not bad design vs. good design. Sometimes a game where they try to cram in everything is appealing, and you forgive the faults in individual pieces because the breadth and scale of the content IN ITSELF is an end goal that can be valuable and awe-inspiring and wonderful.

    A game can be a sprawling mess and be bad. But a game can be a sprawling mess and be amazing not just despite this, but *because of* this.

    RPGs have this in common with open-world games. Lots of systems that on their own are not the most exciting, but there are so many systems in terms of narrative, exploration, stat management, party dynamics, etc. etc. that the sum is greater than its parts. As much as I joke about it I don’t actually want to play Mass Effect with no shooting or stat management and just the romance aspect. Those character relationships are elevated b/c of the other things happening in the game. Traditional Final Fantasy combat is not the most exciting thing, but combined with the story, the world map, the art, the scale of exploration, it’s awesome — and can easily become *overwhelming* if “improved” — that is, it adds to the individual element but reduces the sum.

    But it is still useful to know when you are moving towards “hot mess” design rather than “hyper-specialized machine” design so you can make those decisions intelligently. The same goes for ludonarrative dissonance. Yeah, it’s way overhyped in import… but being aware of it can be so valuable.

    Ex: One of my all-time favorite games is Sleeping Dogs. Getting to explore Hong Kong is amazing. The melee fighting is amazing. The story is wonderful in its kung-fu noir dirty cop tone. One really smart decision they made is that since you’re an undercover cop, you lose points for doing un-cop-like things. So on a mission, you start with a max amount of “cop experience”, but slowly lose it when you eg. destroy scenery, cause car accidents, hurt innocent people. (There is also “triad xp” that you *increase* by being a badass, and they are not mutually exclusive.)

    When I started the game, I started off driving like this was GTA (a game I don’t like). The *moment* I saw that I was losing points, and that the game was judging me — “Pedestrian injured, -10 cop xp” — I was like, oh damn, I really AM a cop! And I started driving safe. I obeyed traffic lights. I drove slower. I took taxi’s to avoid accidents. I reloaded missions when I ran over people b/c even though the xp loss wasn’t really game-ending, I just felt like this wasn’t right, I was a cop.

    They made a small tweak and it radically changed how INTO the world players were. They discovered it in playtesting late in dev, but I can’t find the interview where they mentioned it :(

    Anyway. AAA in general does many stupid things, but so do indie games. The high points of AAA is amazing, and often is just trying to achieve something different, through a different philosophical approach, than other types of games. There’s still value there.

    (Posted a response based on my tweet, per your request!)

  16. Tangential anecdote:

    One of the games that had the strongest emotional effect on me this year was Black Flag. That game was a *mess*. But I was suffering from a major, dangerous depression, and all I wanted was to be on a tropical island somewhere.

    For several weeks, before I finally went on medication, sailing around the Caribbean listening to shanties, exploring colonial-era settlements, was one of the few things that made me feel less bad. The fact that I still had goofy goals to keep me occupied helped keep me engaged.

    There are experiences that AAA games are still uniquely able to deliver b/c of the time, tech, money and time required.

    There are indie/alt-game experiences that AAA will never touch. Important, serious games… that I will never play, b/c I don’t want and can’t have some of those games in my life. I turned off Depression Quest immediately, I refuse to play Papa & Yo and Papers, Please. These are important games, I want them to exist. But big ridiculous games, even when they’re not even the best big ridiculous games, have value and artistic merit.

    See, this is why I tweet. Either I tweet, or I wall of text :/

  17. @Mike – although we’ve a very different focus to Electron Dance, we’ve always covered a fair amount of AAA stuff at Arcadian Rhythms. This is probably largely because most of the other writers are largely console gamers, but there is of course a lot to be said about such games, whether you’re celebrating your target or being witheringly critical.

    I will couch this shameless plug by saying that the quantity of our output has declined over the latter half of this year (for various reasons), so it’s a bit less exciting than it used to be.

    Re. Sleeping Dogs, the combat is definitely one of the game’s strongest areas. What I think I most like about it is the balance struck between it being a smooth ride that is yours to fuck up (ala. the Batman Arkham games) and a messy brawl in which things will just go badly when there are a lot of guys swinging at you. There’s a roughness to it that I appreciate.

    The other thing I particularly like about that game is that, at least in the early part of the game, you inhabit a society which wears its materialism and consumerism very differently to… almost every sandbox / crimelord / city game I’ve otherwise seen. In GTA you get new bachelor pads every few hours. In Saint’s Row you get infinite shiny toys. In Sleeping Dogs… you get a bird in a cage, or a second-hand air conditioning unit, to go in your tiny purpose-built flat. I really hope this doesn’t change later in the game.

    It’s a shame that the surveillance missions are stupid and awful.

    Anyway, I think I am in a similar boat to you, in that I like small, unusual games and avant-garde ‘experiences’ (lol), but I also love a big flashy game done well (even where it may be clearly situated within a safe, oft-repeated formula).

  18. Hi Mike – and thanks for writing the comment which people don’t usually do on request! I’ve been known to write walls of text on other people’s blogs in the past and Electron Dance has seen its fair share from many visitors.

    I guess I don’t tend to see this in terms of over-tutorializing as the issue, but the constant wilful collapse of the world to its underlying mechanics. Those games that maintain their popups from start to finish: you can’t travel very far without another verb being stuck in your face, reminding you that’s you’re not in a real world but a videogame (I think Dishonored did this, plus Spec Ops from my hazy, recent AAA memory). I have always hated achievement popups for the same reason but while those jerk you into “oh it’s a game” briefly, the verbs are there all the time.

    “But a game can be a sprawling mess and be amazing not just despite this, but *because of* this.”

    I love this line because it is so true. Often polish destroys what made a game just right: I’m one of those that find the promotion of Portal to the perfection of Portal 2 took away what made it great and gave me something “good”.

    Polish is great, but mess is where cool stuff happens. Mess is often where innovation often appears.

    And your point on Mass Effect (having still not played myself) is well observed: all the different activities taken together deliver a composite experience which is not just “shooting bad guys” or “conversation branches”. Boiling a game down to one “essential activity” will give you something interesting and abstract but it’s not the same with the puffed-up version with lots of colours and lights: artistry is when those things really come together. That’s why, even though I spout a lot of stuff here which relates to skill and mechanics, I’m not in agreement with the hard position that mechanics are everything.

    I find that interesting about the Cop XP system which I must admit I hadn’t heard of before. I’m wondering how much that is attempting to “control player behaviour” through point systems but – at the same time – you really don’t want it to collapse to “one mistake, game over” which a problem that dogs stealth-based games, so a lenient system would be preferable I guess.

    I think AAA games are trying very hard to be different but keep running into “Dead End” problems. As soon as someone “solves” a problem, it spreads like wildfire across AAA design: GTA is now the established model.

    I used to use games to through my own black moods, but Electron Dance has made game-playing more “work” so I tend to avoid games if I need to relax now. It’s one sad side-effect of running this site for several years.

    But I agree some of the worlds offered by AAA studios are brilliant. I just wish they wouldn’t get in my face about missions and verbs so much. (The Conversation with Dan Stubbs has touched on this a fair bit.)

    Right, that’s enough text walling from me. I see Shaun has done the business too =)

  19. I did check out the Dan Stubbs convo, but I pretty much checked out at “we have other mediums for linear experiences, games should focus on open systems” bleeeh BLEEEEH this is some old-school philosophy of art junk — “a medium should only do the things it seems uniquely able to do, eg. books shouldn’t describe things b/c we have painting”. That’s not me making something up, there was an art critic who said that.

    No. NO. I reject any philosophy of video games that doesn’t have room for BOTH messy, open systems and linear experiences and a variety of games that exist on a spectrum between the two. Same goes for popcorn comfort games and Serious Games and weird interactive experiments.

    …I should probably read “Stop Complaining About Choice” or something, huh?

    I love the HELL out of Thief though :D

  20. I don’t really agree with this and yet I do.

    Although I don’t think that games should be limited to only exploring open systems, I do think that they owe it to themselves to start exploring what they are strongest at instead of falling back on established story telling methods in other mediums.

    For example cutscenes can pretty much do one – with only the very best even coming close to what we have in other genres I see no point in them other than a way to take a break and go and get a beer.

  21. Mike: I pretty much agree with you. I mean, I’m very *bored* by the AAA focus on imitating film, by how characters always seem to be pre-written rather than procedurally generated, how stories are usually the same no matter how many times you replay a game. But that’s not because I don’t *like* that stuff – it’s just that this focus on linear storytelling/planning/characterisation has been the norm for a while, so I’m just more interested in the open systems/procedural generation side of things.

  22. Further along the Dan Stubbs conversation, Stubbs will reveal that he absolutely adores Metal Gear Solid, the most cutsceniest of them all. That is, Stubbs isn’t actually as extremist as he comes across – but he’s tired of convetion.

    What the conversation is building towards is why Stubbs is building The Hit and how he sees videogames. I didn’t agree when he said linear experiences were dead and buried – Gone Home, for example, is pretty damn linear – but I was interested in what kind of bed he as making and why he wanted to lie in it.

    badgercommander, of course, is our resident cutscene-skipper. I shall never forget this.

    Oh and Mike, I think there’s test in here somewhere which prevents people from writing comments if they are not fans of the original Looking Glass Thief. So you’ve obviously passed the test!

  23. Interesting phenomenon you have described here!

    Claiming and complains about AAA games seems to be a popular among majority of players. It’s kinda chic. But often full of hypocricy. I mean in Watch Dogs you can observe people, penetrate their privacy, hack and steal their whole monetary possession. And then vault over graves. And Watch Dogs is rather a pacifist game compared to GTA series. There you do torture people. So some complains are just justification attempts of own ego. Games haven’t to be politically correct. It’s up to player what to do.

    It’s like Mephistopheles in “Faust” actually. He is neither dark, nor horrible, nor sadistic. He just gives directions.Wrong and horrible. But it’s up to Faust (I.E. human being) what to do. And men are weak – so the disasters happens because of people. This message in Faust is often ignored. Sure, it’s better to complain about daemons (or game makers) than about own dark deeds.

  24. Merzmensch,

    I used to moan a lot about AAA myself and once called it “lazy AAA” but was immediately called out on it. Every AAA project is an intensive operation. And the problem is that project ambitions are often scaled down simply because they’re either too much work or the reasons simply don’t work as intended. Witness the collapse of Bioshock Infinite reactive world in the early previews to what was actually released.

    I don’t like it when we ascribe malice or laziness to results which have a variety of possible causes. There are plenty of reasons to complain about AAA design – but the odd incident like this is not it.

  25. The idea that “Games haven’t to be politically correct. It’s up to player what to do” seems like an oversimplification to me. Players follow, or break, the affordances a game offers them, and a game can make it easy or hard to do certain things. Take the strippers in Hitman–people say that you don’t have to kill them, but when the devs go to the trouble of programming in murderable strippers they know damn well what’s going to happen.

    In the particular case of Watch Dogs it seems as though the devs did something where murderable characters were explicitly reduced to one or two simplistic aspects, including things like “Muslim”; and then when players made videos in which they scanned for Muslims and murdered them one of the writers blamed it on “sick reality we live in.” That was bullshit. This isn’t like making passersby have different races (because everyone’s got to have some race), which makes it possible for a player to kill everyone of a certain race, but doesn’t encourage it; they made a design decision that specifically facilitated that kind of behavior, and someone somewhere in the design process should’ve (and probably did) know what would happen. Yes, it’s the player’s responsibility if they actually do that, but it’s also the game maker’s responsibility for making it easy for them to do.

  26. Matt: if certain mechanics have taken special time and resources to develop then maybe the developers should consider some of the consequences that QA groups are unlikely to dig out.

    On the other side: GTA-style games have women in them. It seems likely some guys will go on a women killing spree *just because*. Do we think that’s something developers should be taking responsibility for just like the Muslim hunt?

    If the answer is no, what is the difference in this context?

  27. Sorry I know you’ve alluded to the answer but I want to draw this out more explicitly.

  28. If I understand Matt’s reasoning, the difference is that NPCs must necessarily be assigned attributes like gender and race, but that their simple presence does not encourage player behaviour. (It would be a strange game that removed all female NPCs to prevent players from killing them.) But if there were a database of all the women in the game, or if players could easily find all the women in a game (through eg. highlighting, map markers) then that would make a female-targeted killing spree much easier and would therefore be tacit encouragement.

    What if there were a game where every NPC had a gender, race, religion, age, income level etc. which determined their outward appearance, and players could “filter” these NPCs? So they could highlight, say, every NPC over the age of 40, or that earned over $20,000 a year, or was white, or a muslim? That would encourage the player to view the NPC population as being comprised of certain overlapping groups. Would that still be tacit encouragement? Because while it seems like a truly equal system, it would be naive of us to think that nobody would use it to massacre NPC muslims, or maybe run around killing working class women or something.

    Or maybe the problem in this example is that this is a game which encourages you to see every NPC as a potential murder-target? Joel, I’m thinking of your “When you have a knife everyone looks like a target” article on Dishonored.

  29. I don’t think that GTA, Watchdogs or Hitman encourage killing people because of their gender, or their religion.

    But even if there was a game like this — so what? There is a game literally called “Kill all Humans”. And that is definitely racist. But there is no problem with that. “Papers, please” enforces you to make decisions over NPCs based on (purposefully) arbitrary criteria – and your decisions may very well decide about life or death of those NPCs. No problem with that.

    Now, if there were a game that encourages you to kill specifically men and not women, for example, I would probably not play it. This is not what attracts me to a game. But I would be utterly against installing any regulation that would ban such a game by law.

    People don’t make real life decisions based on game experiences. If someone plays “Hatred”, for example, then that person won’t become more likely to go on a real-life killing spree. People killing the strippers in Hitman can therefore do that as much as they wish, and there are no negative real-life consequences for anyone. At all.

    But there are limits, of course. Those limits are already dealt with by current laws. For example, a game that encourages you to kill Jews **in real life** would be banned because of incitement of the people. At least in the country that I live in. Just as any other publication with the same kind of message, like a magazine, a book or a movie. Free speech is restricted by certain laws.

    So I really don’t think we need more policing of computer games. If I look at the countries were women are most likely to get into trouble for the sheer fact of being a woman, or where women have less rights than men, those are not the countries with liberal laws towards free speech. Those are largely non-secular countries, dominated by religious thinking, which is in favor of men, and which is usually taught by — you guessed it — men.

    Those men are utterly unimpressed by Hitman. Either if you couldn’t kill the strippers there, that wouldn’t change a damn thing.

  30. Ooooooh, now we’re going down a rabbit hole.

    I agree games should not be policed more than they are. There should not be a law restricting Watchdogs because some players can target Muslims. But we should definitely have discussions about how games affect us, what messages they send to players and what cultural influence they have.

    For example, if women are always portrayed as weak, submissive victims who need male player characters to save them, this may affect the way men view women. It might not result in murder, but it may impact the way that women are viewed in society at large.

    By the same reasoning, it is unlikely that a male player who kills all the strippers in Hitman will go out and massacre a bunch of women. Certainly it won’t be the only factor. But when a guy like Elliot Rodgers murdered 7 people and injured 14 more because he was, in his own words, “forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me,” then we have to ask ourselves whether our media might be failing to educate men like him about women, and whether it could be doing better to influence the world positively.

    Like I said, that doesn’t mean legal restrictions, but it does mean having conversations with other developers.

    Let’s try to keep this civil, this could easily blow up into a big argument.

  31. Back on topic, my complaint about AAA is not that you can kill anyone, but that it’s pretty unreflective. Like vaulting the grave in Watchdogs: it’s not a problem that this is possible, but that the game doesn’t react in an appropriate way. Vaulting a grave in RL is sacrilegious, disrespectful and somewhat farcical. In the game it’s just a fairly neutral action, like vaulting anything else. In the same way, murdering vast numbers of people in most AAA games is just something to pass the time, rather than a striking and horrific act of vengeance/nihilism/whatever.

    I’m not saying every game should have a built in “remorse meter” or something, but I am much more interested in the cultural, anthropological and ethical ramifications of murder, rather than the mechanics of it. So I’d like to see more games that explore murder in a more critical, reflective fashion, rather than loads of games where you can kill loads of people for no real reason.

  32. When you talk about ‘kill all humans’, do you mean ‘Destroy All Humans’? The game where you play as an asexual bobbly head alien called ‘Furon’ where you go round destroying a pseudo-sixties earth. Or is there a more offensive racist one I am missing?

    I do find it weird that when some people start talking about certain things they don’t like in games (being able to single out minorities and murder them or something along those lines), someone immediately jumps to defending a developer’s right to make them. Like the next step is to immediately install a ban on anyone making a game that the original posters didn’t like.

    No one is talking about banning them, some people just seem to be making a pointed piece of criticism. In essence, excercising their right to freedom of speech.

  33. I’m all for fact-based arguments. Speculation can be nice, but at the end of the day, if someone presents a positive assumption, then the same person also needs to substantiate this assumption in some way. Otherwise, it’s not an argument I can follow, just idle talking. Make-belief. This quote from Hitchens is quite fitting: “What can be assumed without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

    “For example, if women are always portrayed as weak, submissive victims who need male player characters to save them, this may affect the way men view women. It might not result in murder, but it may impact the way that women are viewed in society at large.”

    Speculation. Where is the evidence?

    Look at societies where women are actually viewed as weaker than men. For example, where they have to hide their bodies because otherwise, men might be attracted by them and rape them. And if they didn’t dress in a decent manner, they might very well be held responsible for being raped. We both know this is not a joke or something that I made up. It is actually happening on the world right now.

    This is not a consequence of how women are portrayed on TV, or in magazines, or in computer games. Actually, women were treated like this in the same regions before there even was TV or magazines.

    Or look at regions where people are very likely to kill other people. You won’t find a higher rate of killer games being played there.

    The really world appears to look like people can differentiate between games and reality. Even more: In more peaceful and just societies, a certain subset of people enjoys doing stuff in games that would be abhorrent to do in real life. Exactly BECAUSE they will never do this in real life.

    For me, it’s part of the definition of what a game is. A game is playing “as if”. You specifically do things in games that you do not do in real life. Maybe because you don’t have the resources to do it in real life, or you lack the ability, or because it would go against your moral values. Certain people have the desire to play out those things that will never be real in fictional worlds.

    So my opinion is exactly opposite of yours: I expect games to encourage non-realistic behavior, and among that also politically incorrect behavior, and also behavior that would be morally wrong in real life. I expect games to make those things specifically easy for the player. Games are an escape from real life, not a mirror of real life. I don’t expect every game to be morally reprehensible in this way, but some of them. Other games can deviate from real life in other aspects of course. But there are certain genres that go against everyday morals, and that’s okay. Just like there are slasher movies, and that’s okay too.

    “But when a guy like Elliot Rodgers murdered 7 people and injured 14 more because he was, in his own words, “forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me,” then we have to ask ourselves whether our media might be failing to educate men like him about women, and whether it could be doing better to influence the world positively.”

    No. It’s not the job of the media to educate people. Maybe the news media, because they report on real life. Maybe. But certainly not fictional media. Certainly not Hitman. I do not want to live in a society where people get their education from games like Hitman.

    And luckily, I don’t.

    I live in a society where women have exactly the same rights as men. The law is exactly the same for both. Both women and men are guaranteed the same chances in life. Equal rights.

    The societies that treat women badly don’t have a flood of anti-female media causing it. On the other hand, societies that treat women as equal to men do have very diverse fictional media. From misogyny to hatred against men, from killing kittens to murdering strippers in gruesome ways — you find all of that in a certain subset of our media.

    If you think that fictional media influence people’s decisions to a certain group of people in real life, in such a way that a suppressive system is formed, then show me the evidence. Because I see that the suppressive cultures are less liberal, and games like Hitman are less present there. Which is exactly the opposite of what your point of view, if I understood you correctly.

  34. @badgercommander:

    Ah, please! Don’t destroy my beautiful example with reality. :-)

    I was probably wrong about the kill/destroying all humans thing. But still, even if the title is “Destroy all humans”, the title is still racist. If one were to accept that it’s not okay for a game to encourage the player to kill all women/Muslims/strippers/whatever, why should it be okay for a game to target humans (a race!) specifically — even in the title?

    “I do find it weird that when some people start talking about certain things they don’t like in games (being able to single out minorities and murder them or something along those lines), someone immediately jumps to defending a developer’s right to make them. Like the next step is to immediately install a ban on anyone making a game that the original posters didn’t like.”

    The reason for this might be that this is what people are actually talking about. When a certain person who was involved in Gamergate and a certain other person were invited by the UN to hold a speech about harassment, they encouraged the politicians to make more restrictive laws. Every single time some teenager freaks out and shoots other people dead, there comes the mob with the pitchforks demanding banning “killer games”. The “safe zones” that are now demanded on american universities — and sometimes even granted! — are restrictions of free speech, exactly because someone might get hurt by the free speech. Or “culture” might be influenced in a negative way if people are allowed to speak as they will.

    And the arguments of those people are exactly the same as the ones mentioned here. When you ask why this context is being projected onto those arguments, I would like to ask in response: Why leave out the context? Why pretend that the rest of the world doesn’t exist? I mean, it’s really not the first time someone brought this up! Why not mention it?

    “No one is talking about banning them, some people just seem to be making a pointed piece of criticism.”

    There is a difference between:

    “I didn’t like that aspect of the game. In retrospect, I think I wasted my money on it. No idea why anyone would like that!”

    and:

    “I think that aspect of the game might have a negative impact on society as a whole. People might very well do bad things in real life because of this game, and other games like it! Let’s talk about this…”

    Can you spot the difference?

  35. …you realise this is not a particularly controversial idea? That media influences people? There are entire university departments dedicated to this.

    Ok, let’s address the idea that people are trying to take away your games:

    – You’re overgeneralising about the UN report. The person in question is Zoe Quinn, the number one Gamergate target and the one person in the entire world who probably has the biggest reason to want restrictions like you said. But, she said of the report: “Overall, I’m disappointed in it … It’s an important subject that deserves to be addressed but how it’s addressed matters just as much, if not more. Unfortunately, it feels like the issues with the report might have ultimately kneecapped an otherwise potentially useful resource.” The article goes on (not Quinn speaking now): “The report has come under fire for its troublingly broad purview as well as its reliance on dubious sources to make controversial claims—one of which is the claim that violent video games and movies cause violence.” It later suggests that the report was hijacked by totalitarian states seeking to curtail freedom of speech, and that this was just an excuse. The problem, clearly, is with oppressive states hijacking Quinn’s message to curtail freedoms; Quinn herself was unhappy with the report and does not support such restrictions.

    (I’m quoting this article, btw: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/im-disappointed-zoe-quinn-speaks-out-on-un-cyberviolence-report )

    – Your second point, that people try to ban videogames every time there’s a mass shooting: no, that was the case 10 years ago, but it is not the case. Since the US Supreme Court decision that videogames should be protected under the first amendment (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n), very few politicians have claimed that games are turning kids into monsters. This view is out of date.

    – Safe spaces have been implemented in some universities, but so what? You can play your videogame in your room. One space might be designated as a safe space, but… there are loads more spaces?

    Also, women and men may have theoretically the same rights, but guess what? The world ain’t fair! We have:
    – the gender pay gap
    – glass ceilings
    – industries which encourage women to stay away, and penalise them with harassment if they pursue those careers anyway
    – unequal access to reproductive rights
    – vastly different outcomes in rape trials
    – vastly different reactions to outspoken men and women (eg. gamergate was a remarkably vicious response to Quinn having a relationship with someone who actually never wrote about her game and to Sarkeesian making some cultural criticism videos)
    – hey, let’s add catcalling too, because that genuinely traumatises some people

    So let’s get that straight, at least.

    Also, societies which treat women badly DO have a huge flood of anti-female media. It’s just usually not in the form of videogames. It’s in the form of old men on TV telling everyone that women are weak, passive and belong in the home. It’s cultural myths like “Men should go out to work and women should look after the home” which get reiterated through casual conversation, newspapers, old books (sometimes interpretations of holy books) and media narratives where women end up with a lovely man and they get married and she cooks and cleans for the rest of her life.

  36. Also, yes, of course there’s a difference between:

    “I didn’t like that aspect of the game. In retrospect, I think I wasted my money on it. No idea why anyone would like that!”

    and:

    “I think that aspect of the game might have a negative impact on society as a whole. People might very well do bad things in real life because of this game, and other games like it! Let’s talk about this…”

    And there is ALSO a difference between both of those and:

    “I disagree with this game’s message so I do not think anyone should play it, ever.”

    Notice that the second quote AT NO POINT SAYS WE SHOULD BAN GAMES. In fact, you were the one who brought it up.

  37. Sorry I had to close the comments. I’m sure someone was typing something right now and is probably annoyed their comment submission has been eaten by the void. I knew I was sailing to close to the sun by focusing on an argument about developer culpability. It was nuance but, well, on hindsight maybe I should’ve left it alone.

    What often happens in these kind of discussions is that we get scope creep. We moved onto games encouraging bad behaviours, the banning of games, games as role models, the origins of sexism, fantasy play in games distinct from reality, media’s role as an educator, humans are racist, Gamergate, safe spaces, gender pay gap. Each one of these is worth a dozen essays. There’s no hope of a conclusion here.

    We’ve all seen this discussion take place a thousand times over and “you know what, mate, you’re right,” is something you never see in these threads. Before everyone gets really tired and has just another bad day on the internet, I’m just calling it.

    Please enjoy the rest of your day and don’t fret about that one comment you couldn’t write.