essay, video games

Unnecessary Obstacles

“Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
The Grasshopper

I was reminded of this quote I had written down from my reading of The Grasshopper a few months ago. As I was trying to make my decision about what side-missions and objectives to cover in Final Fantasy X-2, whether or not I should just straight to the final boss or even stop playing completely, I thought about that quote. It described in simple and direct detail exactly what I was doing. That is, taking on “unnecessary obstacles” in the pursuit of my own personal mission to try and get the highest percentage points complete in the game as possible and in playing the game itself.

The game Final Fantasy X-2 tracks your way through the game. I should say that up front. In wondering if I should go and take on monsters or missions in various areas, I am reminded that completion of certain plot elements in the game reward the player with percentage points. With the highest percentage, the player gets the best ending, the desirable one. And I do want it. For reasons that are not entirely clear to my conscious mind, and despite the fact that I could watch the ending online easily, I am taking on mini-games and dialogue options that I know I will not like just for the sake of a few more points, sometimes even fractions of a point. I continue to beat my head, metaphorically speaking, against the wall that is this game in the pursuit of the nugget of entertainment that I might mine from the experience, that small spark of joy.

In a more abstract sense, starting any game is like my own experiences with Final Fantasy X-2. Entering any game world, taking part in the “magic circle”, is a voluntary expedition. It is the exploring of a space through willful intent. You agree to the world and its quirks by entering into it. Passing through “simulation gap” is the invoking of a strange user agreement. This EA is not in giving up your rights to use the content of the game but your own roles within the world. Coming into the world, not unlike Alice, means that the rules of reality are strange, distorted and even a subset. Yet that first step must be one of choice, of willfulness, of voluntary commitment to the world.

To play a game is to take on tasks. Commonly known as missions or quests in any modern game, these are the driving force of the narrative existence of the player. In order to get anything done, to make progress along the linear pathway of the plot, the player must take on tasks that have some meaning in the game world (anchor the task) while also providing a meaning reward for the player (lure). If the player is given a binary options then the reward of either option must be presented in such a way, through pre-knowledge or exposition, so that each choice is meaningful for either the player in the moment or the story as a greater whole. In other words, if the player understands, at least on some level, what the carrot is, then the choice of sticks will be easier. There must a lure for each choice, a meaning for them, so that each choice can be justified not only within the player’s internal narrative but that of the game.

To use what might be somewhat of a strange metaphor, the idea puts me in the mind of a fishing trip. From my own personal history, this would mean the adoption of the manner of the way that fishermen acted and spoke. More on the first than the second. There was very little speaking during the trip and while on the water — this was freshwater fishing, talking sacred the fish I was told. Therefore, there was a type of attitude needed to approach this type of game, a mind adjustment needed for the process.That and the taking of various bait thought to work. This was not unlike the ideas on what would work and wouldn’t given previous experience with a game or fishing spot, the bias that is taken through the “simulation gap” and into the “magic circle”. Then there is the picking of a spot, some narrative justification, rationalization that one spot should be better than another. Then lures would be used on each line, the reward of “unnecessary obstacles” of the actual waiting and wishing for fish to bite the lines. Each task, line in the water, might or might not give some manner of success. Each was, in its own way, a quest or mission taken in the game. Success was wished for and wanted but regardless of the outcome, they are added up the overall narrative of the experience, the session.

We play games to make choices. By the simple logic, we must want the presence of situations that will cause us to have to choose. The more choices, the better. In the pursuit of verisimilitude of the subset of reality, we take place in simulations that will cause us to stay in the simulation as long as possible. Thus, the use of “unnecessary obstacles”. The perfection of a clean experience, the perfect ending, is not something we want. We dislike and disengagement from anything that does meets the uncanny valley of realism. If things are too good for the protagonist, things going too well, we stop the experience. On some level, we recognize and crave the imperfection of realism. We want the dirt and grime. Despite the call for better looking video games, we always prefer the filters that blur, the rough edges. We seek out the situations that will give us a challenge, even if it is only imaginary. We continue to seek out the “obstacles”, the rocks in our paths. Given the choice of the well-beaten or blazing a new path, we choose the harder of the two. This tendency, be it a drive or not, means we choose the “unnecessary obstacles” over the smooth road.