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.
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.