I want to talk a little about games that subvert traditional mechanics at the expense of the player, that poke at the player’s assumptions and maybe make an example of him/her.

Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) is the big, mainstream example which I already covered in some detail recently but what has brought the subject back is a conversation I’ve been having with Boson X developer Ian MacLarty about a jam game he made called Booot.

It’s given me a different perspective on such subversions, a perspective relating to player education.

I’m going to spoil Booot but, as the game only lasts a few minutes, I don’t see why you can’t go and enjoy it right now. I’ll be here when you get back.


Right, so I am some sort of soldier or riot cop amidst a demonstration. The crowds come at me and my instinct is to run away – not necessarily shoot. The crowd chases and I am pinned down at some point.

It is not apparent that the crowds are harmless – and I fire. The crowds flee but then I find myself going on a killing spree to keep the crowds at bay. However, having shot at the protesters once, they are no longer harmless: I make an attempt to shoot when in close proximity to the crowd and one of the protesters blows me away with a shotgun.

There are multiple interpretations here and players may find their experience of Booot different to what I have described. But let’s go with my take. The mechanics suggest that demonstrations only turn violent once they’ve been forced to defend themselves, whereas boots on the ground can easily fall victim to their own fear and see danger where none actually exists.

The trouble is I am find myself getting a little tired of this kind of subversion. The game looks like a shooter and the player can do nothing except shoot. Now you might point out that the player has another option – do nothing. It is in doing nothing that enlightenment can be found.

Except, well, it looks like a shooter.

In 2011, I wrote:

The developers can only take us so far and it’s down to us to bridge that final mile, to imagine ourselves into the game. We are the cast of these productions not the audience. Not every player is right for every role.

And more recently in Stop Crying About Choice:

It is as much a player’s responsibility as it is a developer’s to maintain immersion.

If the player cannot inhabit the role on offer, the game collapses into a system and meaning and metaphor are lost. But this is as much an issue of game education as it is acting.

Put a shooter virgin in the driving seat of an FPS and they find it difficult to pull that trigger. They don’t recognise that the game is dressed with affordances: this is to be shot, this is a health pack, this is to be avoided, this is a cutscene. Mainstream shooters are full of heavy-handed tutorials because they want to expand their audience, and that means educating fresh acting blood on FPS conventions.

In last week’s Vault the Grave, I pointed out that players are experts at keeping the systems and narrative apart. If you tinker with the mechanics, you may not be impacting how players interpret the narrative, but how they react to the system. (Aside for jargon buffs: the MDA framework is interesting to bear in mind here.)

A developer who chooses to subvert conventions, thinking that the results will be in the higher metaphorical level, may find players accusing them of being exploitative. The reason is the developer has broken the compact. The player has adopted the role they were supposed to, but the developer has used familiar labels to do quite different things. Now when I press a button in the lift for the basement, the building explodes. The system has been deliberately corrupted.

Look, how about this instead: Booot wants to say something about the danger of placing an armed soldier in a situation that feels threatening, but uses the familiar, warm conventions of a 2D shooter to stage this story.

The player-actor might seem to be doing all the right things, but is performing the wrong role.


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10 thoughts on “Your Game Isn’t As Clever As You Thought

  1. Interesting game, thanks for linking it.

    I would expand your argument to why I don’t think subversions are very effective in general: all subversions are arguments against some idea, not arguments in support of some other idea.

    Take Booot as an example. I have seen shooter subversions before, so I was prepared to do nothing. But then the game does not progress. There is no true alternative to shooting. I can stand still and avoid shooting, but I cannot disarm myself, nor can I address the protestor’s concerns (which appear to be entirely centered around me disarming myself).

    Because the only way to advance the situation is to do something the game wants to tell me is BAD, the game feels more like a Greek Tragedy than a political statement. Here I am referring to one of the popular requirements for greek tragedies: the unavoidable crossing of moral boundaries. In (almost) all greek tragedies some character is forced to choose between multiple options, all of which are morally wrong.

    Thus, these games do not really encourage change. It is the gaming equivalent of War (Huh!) What Is It Good For? Everyone knows the BAD things is BAD, but what alternatives do you propose? What should I say when everyone around me is mumbling about how war is bad, but desperate times call for desperate measures?

    To me, this is the key strength of a “good” game. It is easy to force the player into a situation, and then pull back to show that the actions you forced on them were wrong all along! It is more interesting to include the “correct” answer.

    PS: One final point, to bring into focus how all of the options in Booot are bad, I will reference the current protests in Hong Kong. There hasn’t been much violence (thankfully) but there also hasn’t been much advancement. Simply allowing protestors to protest does not qualify as a “good deed.”

  2. Interesting article. While I understand the argument and its premise – and actually agree (Sandy did a fine job adding to it) – I want to propose a different view on the subject: Maybe the reason that the game wants to trick you to misintrepret its signals, is because you’re not “losing the game” by doing so. Doing the morally wrong thing (“failing”) might actually be the “win state” that gets you thinking. By making you criticize its inability to offer alternative solutions to shooting people, the game is trying to make you criticize all the other games that do the same thing.

    By coincidence, I read a comment by Risingson on Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s “What Are You Playing This Weekend?” article today that sums up pretty well what I think these games are trying to achieve. I will copy it here:

    “Nothing. I had a crisis some weeks ago where I was playing Fallout New Vegas and I thought, “wait, I am playing in complete self interest. My character is an hypocrite and absolutely cynical. And he is killing hundreds and hundreds of unnamed people and even interfering in the ecosystem just for… for money? for political ideas?”. Then I thought that maybe videogames educated us to be like this. And then I can barely enjoy any videogame without feeling that I am playing a person I hate. And it happened to me in every sandbox, in every rpg, in every adventure game that I played lately.”

    Granted, Risingson came to this conclusion by himself, but using the same shooter mechanics than the games they are criticizing, these games might be trying to invoke the same epiphany when you eventually go back to those shooters.

    Having shot people in video games since the 80’s, I, for one, would welcome the change.

  3. Hey again Sandy.

    Yeah, when Booot came up I was fairly confident that the game was going to subvert somehow, so I played along best that I could. I think these subversion games do much better when they don’t funnel you down one path but provide the possibility of avoiding its moral trap. However, in cases like these, the moral teaching of such a game is only possible to interpret through narrative superposition: putting all the possible paths together then tell you what you’re supposed to take away.

    Having said that, I don’t want put the “Booot” into Ian MacLarty as it was a jam game, made on a short time span as an experiment. If it failed – well, no big loss.

    “But what alternatives do you propose?” Zooming out a little, the larger issue for me is the *point* of activist games. As far back as 2011 I have been bothered by this; when I ran an interview with Jonas Kyratzes, I said: “When it comes to political activism, I’m never quite sure if the materials produced preach to the converted or actually reach a wider, less engaged audience.”

    I don’t have answers here and I don’t want games to stop trying to be a “little bit too clever” either, because in some of these experiments, strange things can happen. I love Spec Ops, despite its many flaws. From a conversation on Twitter this week, @Crono_Maniac was supporting these kind of subversions against the player, explaining: “It’s a delicate act. You’re basically asking the player to do a bad thing so you can show them the consequences. Rather than shaming the player, you’re enlisting their aid in exploring an idea and sharing a parable.

    This gave me some pause. The player has to feel like they are part of the parable, instead of the butt of its joke. Without going into too much detail, I think it is possible, but definitely no cakewalk.

  4. I posted my reply to Sandy and only then notice there’s the additional comment from Annaisha.

    Well, hi, Annaisha! I think I’ve probably responded to your point already. The Twitter comment on the “game as parable” – making interesting fail states as a story delivered in co-operation with the player, as opposed to abusing the player’s trust. Although I think the problem with all these games where you’re killing hundreds of goons is the problem of wrapping a story around a fun system, grave-vaulting really, a side-effect of modern design rather than a deliberate attempt at making a protagonist with crappy morals.

  5. The parable idea is a good one.

    And I probably sound too harsh in my comment, because I don’t really want to see subversions like “Booot” go away. I like it when games try to do something interesting, even if I think they fail in their goals.

    As for preaching to the choir, that is a problem that just about everyone with a message has struggled with. Honestly, I think it’s a good reason for why you should include politics in “non-political” games.

    As an example, I was discussing Loretta Lynn with my sister lately. She pointed out that Loretta Lynn (a popular country musician) is partly responsible for the widespread adoption of the birth control pill. We grew up listening to Loretta Lynn, and I immediately pointed out that I didn’t remember her singing any political songs. So I looked up the song “The Pill,” and sure enough I have heard it dozens of times without realizing what it was about (to be fair, I was pretty young when we used to listen to her music).

  6. Interesting article – I found myself disagreeing vehemently at the start, and by the end I came away with a different perspective on the whole issue. A lot of valid points have been made, so I won’t revisit old territory – love the idea of the player and developer working collaboratively towards some meaning-goal, the idea of a parable etc.

    I do think there’s one thing that you haven’t touched on yet, though: the idea of inhabiting a fictional character’s headspace. This is, basically, half of the argument for political games: that games are an inherently empathic medium because they allow you to see life through somebody else’s eyes, do what they do, feel what they feel. I think it’s been overblown a bit – what exactly am I feeling in Duke Nukem, and who am I inhabiting exactly? Do I see the world through the Duke’s eyes, or do I sneer at him? – but I think there’s still some validity to it. For example, I would love to have someone make a really good feminist game which shows (male) players all the s*** that women have to put up with. I think that would weaponise the medium of gaming pretty effectively in a political cause.

    But to get back to Booot, what exactly are we doing? Who are we inhabiting? I guess the reason it sort-of-fails is that players *think* they’re inhabiting the character of a thinly-sketched 2D shootemup avatar, but they’re *actually* inhabiting the character of a riot police officer. This disconnect is what made you feel uncomfortable and misled. But at the same time, there was a moment where you felt threatened, you felt that the advancing people were a horde/mob, and you acted in fear through the most obvious outlet: pulling the trigger. Even though I’m not sure about how effective the game is as a whole, I love the fact that it was able to evoke that moment in you (and probably quite a lot of players), because that emotional moment *was* honest, even if the rest of the game wasn’t: that feeling of being overwhelmed, of having a presumption to act, of having a very clear idea that that presumption involved violence somehow, is a pretty good reflection of how a lot of riot cops feel. Right?

    So in other words, the “message” of Booot – that demonstrations become riots not through protestor violence but through police violent – is actually a superficial message, the least interesting thing about it. The *actual* message is, “This process (of riot cop violence) comes about through fear, anxiety, a sense of power or presumption, and the way that the police see the crowds as ‘Others’, not as ‘people’.” In other words, the “point” of the game is not to teach players some banal point about riot flashpoints, but to dissect the role that the police have internalised and to recreate that emotional moment in the player. What’s weird is that this role has a lot of crossover with the protagonists of 2D shmups: the primary weapon is violence, not reason/communication, the crowd is “Other”ed, it needs to be “cleaned up” etc., which explains the dev’s choice of (deliberately misleading) genre.

  7. @James Patton

    Re. the end of your second paragraph, I was reminded of Hey Baby:

    However it seems that the game has come along a bit since I last looked it up, and now rather than an exaggerated “subject of catcalling” sim it is a tongue in cheek celebration of the transformative power of violence.

    Re. the original topic, I am not wholly convinced by the idea that these games fail in the way HM describes. Not entirely sure my counter is a strong argument, but speaking personally I (1) don’t feel that as a player adopting the role of a character there is the sort of contract based on trust that HM describes, or (2) expect that whatever I am experiencing will not trick, mislead or betray me in the service of story, making a point or – well, whatever.

    My personal response is probably not remotely representative, however, thanks to ten years of reviewing fictional entertainment and a degree in literature. On the other hand, given the foundations on which this sort of discussion rest can you really get beyond the personal?

    I now await for cleverer people than me to write something clever in response.

  8. So this is one of those articles where I go in with conviction but finish slightly unsure by the end.

    There’s unease around mechanics that force players into committing actions against their role-playing nature. This is one of the themes of the piece I wrote on Spec Ops, Hypnosis in the Sand (trying to get you to do something against your nature while under hypnosis will most likely break the trance). I do not think subversions of traditional mechanics are out of the question, but I think they are often cheap after we’ve seen this play out again and again.

    I could draw a line between “exploitation” (e.g. shameplay) and “fascinating” depending on how much the we’re separating player from protagonist. What James says about a “fictional character’s headspace” means we have agreed to dump immersion, because this isn’t your story. When we’re trying to shame the player, that’s where we get upset, because the developer has either fooled players using traditional cues (aha! you thought you were shooting robots! but no, the robots are PEOPLE, your FAMILY!) or robbed them of verbs to do anything else. Usually these go hand in hand as players are not allowed to find a safe ending because of a fear that players would miss the point… although I’d disagree from the perspective of narrative superposition. (sorry I’m using my own terms here, but I really like that one)

    With Booot, I knew “something was up” because I know the developer – he pointed his game out to me – and the attackers were holding up protest signs. I knew I was being set up… somehow. Knowing this, I was able to interact with the game cleanly instead of just shooting away and going AHMYGODD. I probably should have written this into the article, because I think that “knowing” context is pretty important to how it was consumed. So I wasn’t actually fooled, but I didn’t like how it was trying to put itself forward as a 2D shooter with a surprise kicker. It just feels so… activist game.

    Here’s a game where all you can do is shoot innocent protestors and, surprise, when you shoot them, they get angry and kill you. It’s like Shaun’s Hey Baby in many ways, it preaches to converted. It’s trying to fool the player and limits player actions to shooting, so it can make a statement that we probably already get. If we don’t get it, then we’ll just reject the game as propaganda. Do games actually change minds – or the discourse around them? It may seem like an arbitrary distinction, because “play” is nebulous, but talking heads have been simplifying the impact of diversity/marginalized developers in terms of their games for years now. I wonder if it’s presence of such developers and discussion around their games that generates far more impact than the games themselves. That is, the games are the grit around which the pearl of change forms.

    On Booot, it would be better if violence were not the default option, trying to tease the player into firing, so they really DO feel complicit, or understand the situation more. It’s too easy to remove options and say “well, that’s what life is like! you feel like you got no choice! deal!”. A book on the role of a riot cop would do better to communicate this. More pressure on the tension, better interaction between cop and protester, and the gun fires almost accidentally, to show how these things happened. That would feel more human than “players who shoot weapons don’t get real life”. I know I’m pushing MacLarty’s jam game much harder than he would’ve expected, but it’s the example we’re dissecting on the table. The game that Booot should be is of course much harder to make.

    I dunno, you know? That’s why we have comments, to thrash this shit out.

  9. You know what? I just realized that I completely misinterpreted the end of Booot.

    You see, I reached a point where I didn’t feel like shooting. So I stood still and nothing happened. Then I wondered if I could shoot myself. So I clicked on myself. I immediately died, and the camera slowly zoomed in on my corpse. As it did so, I noticed a protester holding a gun come onscreen. The message this created was “if you give up your gun, someone else will pick up a gun in your place.”

    But having replayed the game again recently, I realized you can’t shoot yourself. I just somehow managed to attempt killing myself at the precise moment a protester killed me. Huh.

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