essay, video games

All games are comedies — Part 2

[By the way, I’ve started a new series over on Bitmob inspired from thoughts from yesterday’s post showing how villains might not actually be evil at all, just misunderstood.]

After looking through yesterday’s post, I realized I had run away from what I set out to do and, while there are still some good ideas there, I think I should clarify some items.

  1. Line Hollis was talking about moral incentives as the player perceives them and why some games — Final Fantasy VII, Fallout 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution were her examples — anger players by changing the assumed reward for certain actions. The players put forth effort using certain methods and the proverbial rug is pulled out from under them. This is bad.
  2. I was talking more from the video — it’s good, go watch it — and Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation of using graphs of the fortunes (on the scale of “Sickness and Poverty” to “Wealth and Good Health”) of protagonists throughout a story. All stories will fall as some approximation of a wave function on the graph.

Hollis makes the point that the fortunes of players can be see as the result of understanding the incentive system that governs the game. In other words, if the player understands that certain actions — completing quests in Fallout 3 — will result in a reward but is then faced with a situation where not only are the conditions changed but the expected behavior is different, it angers players. She also, most correctly, points out that punishment is common — thus arguing against Sztajer and the statement “Games are centred around the idea of rewarding the player for playing well, and there is therefore a feeling that if you make the player character worse, you’re punishing the player and they’ll stop playing.”

I agree with her. In fact, I agree up to this point:

“In reality, however, very few fixed-narrative stories actually embody a consistent moral universe for their entire duration. I mentioned before that Cinderella stays good all the way through. So why is it that her fortune varies so drastically? The reason is that the incentive system keeps switching up throughout her story.”

When she sets about classifying “Cinderella” as morally confusing, I would counter that there are two competing moralities on display, not one that flips back and forth. That is what I meant by the “protagonist (always doing what you are told will get you to the goal) and antagonist (get to the goal, nothing else matters).” I got attached to the ideas of two groups and pulled those terms, protagonist and antagonist, to identify them. That is not exactly what I meant to do. The player is nearly always the protagonist — this is something I debate from game to game; in Fallout 3, I would argue, the player is not the protagonist — and the story revolves around the actions the player takes. The antagonist then is the force that the player is fighting against.

Cinderella is following orders in the hopes of a reward. She gets punished for not doing chores correctly but keeps at it. (Not unlike, as I mentioned before, the players of Dark Souls.) Her story finally ends when she flips and takes her fate into her own hands. (In which case, she learns that she should not wait for a reward but pursue her goals. That’s what her other sisters were doing. She learns to “[optimize] the reward system”. Maybe?)

The step-relatives want the Prince (=money, a more stable future) and seek out to seduce him. (In the Disney version of the ending they don’t actually get punished, just lose their prize. Evil wins?)

“The Half-Cinderella [no punishment] arises when a player notices the incentive system they’re playing in and figures out how to optimize it. After all, optimizing reward systems is what players do when left to their own devices. Changing up the incentive system could, in theory, make for a more varied and emotionally gripping experience, whether we’re talking about gameplay incentives or moral ones. But if you don’t signal the change, you’re just screwing with the player.”

In this, we completely agree. But the problem is complex. Should the morality and fortune curve change? If the incentive changes, as has been discussed, doesn’t that mean that the player will change too? Replacing one Pavlovian conditioning for another? The player should change their morality over time?

While I agree with the idea that it could be an “emotionally gripping experience” to learn, for example, that the people you have been killing for hours were actually the good guys and not the evil ones I think it would be very hard, if not nearly impossible, to telegraph that idea far enough in the past for people not to get angry (best case) or just not care (worst case). This also assumes that players actually care about the story enough to have a response at all.

I think the issue I have is that developers probably won’t do that. They like for the players to have control and a degree of agency. If the player learned that everything they had done was, as another example, just a dream, it would void the actual story (i.e. Super Mario Bros. 2). If they later learn they could never have failed — no actual risk — then the whole process was worthless from a story point of view.

This is the reason I am against the use of “it was all a dream” as a story trope. If you lied to me about the experience, why should I believe anything? This is what I would advise developers: switching incentives is fine, if it is justified and explained — just as Line Hollis said. Changing the moral system, however, is probably not a good idea.

Being against some actions — don’t kill the villagers, they are helpful — but later switching it — kill everyone now — will confuse and annoy the player in the best case. They will constantly challenge it and question if the system will revert back at any time. Making the players paranoid about which actions are good and which are bad is probably not a good idea. (Although, I will admit, I’d like to see a game run with that idea. Make me wonder constantly if I’m really the “good” guy at all.) The ending could even be in doubt if the perceived morality was not the intended one.

Getting back to Vonnegut, the player will always win in the end. I am not aware of a game that someone cannot win. (Is it really a game if no one can win?) That win state means that the reward cycle will continue throughout the experience and should, ideally, climax for the player in the ending. You will notice that I have not been talking about the protagonist but the player herself. As long as the player can win, it is a comedy.