Nudgy Controls Part III: How the Last Guardian Turned Gameplay into Story

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

Introduction

In the first two parts of Nudgy Controls, I defined an important way that a game’s controls can preserve narrative consistency in a game: through “nudges.” A nudge is an instance of player input X, which usually yields output Y, instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z maintains narrative consistency. In the Part I I defined exactly what a nudge is, and discussed a variety of types of games that maintain narrative consistency through a lack of nudges. In Part II I defined two different types of nudges: player aids and player hindrances. Player aids are instances in which the player is assisted in accomplishing tasks that she potentially could not accomplish without assistance. Player hindrances are instances in which the player’s actions are disrupted, forcing the player to fail where they otherwise likely could have succeeded. All of these ideas are covered in depth in the previous two articles in the series, and so I do not focus on them here. For the remainder of the article I will assume the reader is familiar with the previous two articles, so I would suggest reading those first if you have yet to do so.

In this article I consider the case of The Last Guardian, which pushes the idea of a nudge beyond what our current model can explain. The game is about a young boy (to whom I refer as “the boy” and “the avatar”) who wakes up in a mysterious place away from home, and must escape with the help of a giant beast (Trico) whom he tames throughout the course of the story. Many reviewers, such as IGN and Game Informer, have claimed that this game suffers from a clunky control scheme, and that “platforming as the boy is occasionally spotty, but Trico’s inability to consistently follow your commands drags the experience down more than anything else.” [1]

It is true that the boy often hesitates in situations that surprise the player, leading to failure, and also that Trico is relatively difficult to control. However, I think this highly critical review of the game’s controls is misguided, since both the boy’s and Trico’s behavior can actually be explained by nudgy controls, once we add a few new ideas to the model. The nudgy behavior is a good thing as opposed to a detractor from the game overall because the behavior establishes and reinforces the overall narrative. Criticising The Last Guardian for having frustrating controls while praising its narrative does not make sense because the frustrating controls help form and reinforce the narrative of the game. In this article I explain how we can view the boy’s hesitancy as instances of nudges that are sometimes player hindrances and sometimes player aids. I will also show how the difficulty of directing Trico is the direct result of trying to control a character while there are many nudges taking place. In the end we will see that control schemes should not be judged solely on how “tight” the controls are, but rather on how well the control scheme reinforces or even helps establish the narrative of the game.

The Boy’s Hesitancy

Let’s consider two aspects of the gameplay in The Last Guardian, and how we can make sense of them using nudgy controls. There are two particularly noticeable moments where an input X shifts some usual output Y to a different output Z instead. One occurs when the player attempts to give an input that would ordinarily make the avatar run over a ledge. In these moments, the avatar stops short at the edge. So instead of the expected output of the avatar continuing to run and then running off the ledge occurring, the output is shifted to the avatar stopping at the edge. Importantly, it’s not as if the avatar is incapable of falling. If the player makes the avatar jump off the edge as opposed to running, there is no invisible wall in the game engine that stops the avatar’s movement, and he will fall off the side.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 11.54.47 AM.png

The boy stops himself at a ledge.

The second bit of unexpected behavior occurs when the avatar is falling. Whenever the boy gets close to something stable he can grab, he reaches out to attempt to cease his fall, and succeeds so long as the object is within reach. The player is supposed to be able to stop the boy from doing doing this by holding a particular button, allowing him to instead just continue to fall.

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The boy reaches out to grab a ledge as he falls.

But even while the player is holding the button down, the boy will often still grab things close to him while falling, especially if they are very close to him, or a part of Trico he can hold onto (an indication through gameplay of the boy’s trust and care for Trico). In this way, when the player is holding the relevant button, the usual output of continuing to fall is sometimes shifted to grabbing on to something to cease the fall.

But is the nudge of the boy staying away from ledges a player aid or a player hindrance? And what about the nudge of the boy breaking his fall? Upon reflection it becomes apparent that these behaviors sometimes act like player aids and sometimes act like player hindrances.

Initially, one might be tempted to declare that stopping at the edge of a platform is a player aid, since stopping at the edge of a platform would prevent an untimely death in the form of a lethal fall for the boy. But the answer is not so simple, as evidenced by the fact that many reviewers were frustrated by the nudges “messing them up” in some way. Game Informer in particular says that “the imprecise controls make the journey rough.” [2] For example, if the boy gets to a ledge right as the player attempts to jump, then the boy will stop his momentum entirely, messing up the player and frequently leading to accidentally falling off of a ledge as the player frantically adjusts her plan for the situation. Is this not an instance of a player hindrance?

Similarly, ceasing a fall while the player is attempting to prevent that action might initially seem to simply be a player hindrance, since the player did not want that action to occur. If there are many things for the boy to grab during his fall, dropping down can take quite a bit of time and effort if he grabs every ledge, which is potentially very bad for the player when there is some time-limited objective to complete. And if an enemy is approaching the player, then delay in getting to the ground could lead to the enemy capturing the boy. So an instance of the boy breaking his fall when the player is trying to make him fall seems like it must certainly be a hindrance. But what if the player misjudged the distance? Then the boy grabbing a ledge before landing on the unforgiving ground could also potentially save the boy’s life—certainly an example of a player aid. At times, the boy’s caution makes execution of the player’s goals more difficult, even though the same caution often prevents the player from making careless errors.

So it appears that at times these are player aids and at times they are player hindrances. In the rest of the analysis, I will refer to such nudges as mixed nudges. But I get ahead of myself, as there is still one more important aspect to consider before declaring that these are nudges. I must show that they preserve narrative consistency in some way. In order to do so I will introduce one more idea into our model, which I will term avatar perspective.

Avatar Perspective and Mixed Nudges

Just as the player has the capacity for perception, so too does the avatar within the fiction of a game. [3] The ability to perceive gives rise to a consistent way of viewing what is perceived that is unique to the individual because every person has a unique set of perceptions. I will call these consistent ways of viewing perceptions perspectives. One aspect of a perspective is someone with a given perspective will view certain things as belonging to the same category, such as things that square-shaped, certain things that are scary or not scary, or certain actions being moral or immoral. There are a nearly infinite number of possible categories, and exactly which items make up a particular category. Players and avatars all have the capacity for perception, and thus they all have a unique perspective, and thus unique ways of categorizing what they perceive. This includes the boy in The Last Guardian, whose actions in response to player input reveal various aspects of his perspective.

In general, the player and the avatar’s perspectives will not align with each other, simply because perception is unique to an individual. But the amount that the perspectives differ is not consistent: the player and the avatar may have very similar perspectives, but they may also have incredibly different perspectives. The way in which perspectives differ is not consistent, either. The avatar may lack a moral compass and have no issue with the murdering of children, even though most players view such an action to be repugnant. It’s possible to have a player that is color blind and an avatar that is not. And lest you think that vast differences in player and avatar perspectives are uncommon, consider any game with a third-person camera, in which the visual perception of the player and the avatar differs greatly just because of an offset in camera placement within the game engine.

Differences in perceptions and ensuing perspectives between the player and the avatar can be crucial in analyzing mixed nudges. The relevant difference in perspective in The Last Guardian has to do with which sets of objects are viewed as being within the same category. There are many possible categories to consider. For instance, let’s consider the category of corgis that look the same to an individual. For the sake of the example let’s say that I am not familiar with corgis, and that you, the reader, are. In that case, most corgis will look alike to me, even though you’d be able to discriminate between the dogs with relative ease. A similar situation arises between the player and the avatar in The Last Guardian.

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Above is how I see four corgis versus how you see four corgis. Notice that to me, all the dogs are look the same, whereas to you, each dog looks at least slightly different.

Specifically, there are many situations that the avatar of The Last Guardian sees as belonging to the category of “situations that are dangerous for the boy” that the player does not see as belonging to that category. The avatar has very simple perceptive rules in this regard: all situations of falling and being close to a stable object to grab onto are dangerous and so demand the same response. Likewise, all situations of running toward a ledge are dangerous and so demand the same response. The player, in contrast, likely does not see all of these situations as belonging to the same category. Specifically, when the avatar is already close to the ground upon starting to fall, the player would not see this as a dangerous situation for the avatar, even though the avatar would see it as dangerous. And when the avatar is running toward a ledge and the player is preparing to make the avatar jump at the ledge, the player likely does not consider this situation to be as dangerous as the avatar considers it to be.

The existence of nudges in conjunction with avatar perspective ends up being surprisingly rich in its ability to endow a character in a narrative with clear desires. The consistent way that the avatar acts in response to situations she views as belonging to the same relevant category imply that there is some consistent desire that the avatar is acting upon. These desires form the basis of personality traits. The example of the mixed nudges in The Last Guardian serve as clear examples of the creation of personality from avatar perspective.

The boy views a set of situations as equivalently dangerous. These situations are any in which he is running toward a ledge, and any situations in which he is falling and has something he can grab onto to cease his fall. From these situations we learn that the boy has a desire to avoid injury and death—a fairly sensible desire in general, but also one that makes a lot of sense for a young boy in the dangerous situations he finds himself in. Sometimes this desire is helpful for the boy in that he avoids dangerous situations, and other times the same desire leads to distraction and clumsiness that makes it harder to achieve his goals.

The boy climbing over a ledge.

The mixed nudges in The Last Guardian preserve the consistency of the boy being young and afraid. By having the nudges sometimes be player aids, the player can see that the nudges are not present to show that the boy is clumsy, and by having the nudges sometimes be player hindrances, the player learns that the aids do not arise out of training or a high degree of innate competence. Rather, the mixed nudges preserve the character of the boy as being someone trying not to hurt himself while doing dangerous things, but not always reading the situation correctly because he is young and inexperienced. His category of situations that are dangerous is too broad.

By taking into account avatar perspective, we can explain how what initially seem to be fairly clunky controls are actually instances of nudges that are sometimes player aids and sometimes player hindrances. These mixed nudges do a lot of work in preserving the consistency of the boy being young, afraid, and in a dangerous situation that he does not always navigate perfectly or elegantly, even with the help of a very experienced or skillful player, even though he will not be goaded into reckless action by an incompetent or non-cooperative player. [4] This suggests that the reviews mentioned at the beginning of the article were misguided in criticizing The Last Guardian for the clunky control scheme for the boy, since the controls in fact make the character of the boy more vivid.

Player-Controlled Entities

Reviewers who criticized The Last Guardian spoke not only of difficulty controlling the boy, but of difficulty controlling Trico as well. Polygon reviewer Philip Kollar points out that Trico’s behavior “makes for a realistic depiction of my favorite house pet [a cat], but it’s terrible gameplay.” So at this point I will switch gears to discuss the other half of the duo featured in The Last Guardian. I disagree with Kollar’s claim that Trico’s behavior is terrible gameplay: the gameplay may be frustrating, but that does not make it terrible. The gameplay is actually highly effective at building the character of Trico. The difficulty of controlling Trico can be explained by the presence of a large number of mixed nudges in the actions of Trico that actually reinforce Trico’s character rather than detract from it.

Note that in order for this analysis to work we may need to consider nudges that apply to things the player has control over generally, rather than specifically avatars. While Trico is not necessarily an avatar, he is a character in the game over which the player has at least a degree of control.

Intuitively there is a distinction between avatars, defined roughly as the entity that the player controls as an entry point into a game, and entities in the game that the player controls through the avatar, which belong to a larger category of player-controlled entities. [5] While most players would likely disagree with the claim that Trico is the player’s avatar, he is definitely a player-controlled entity.

There are many games that have a character that is not necessarily an avatar, but is definitely controlled by the player through the intermediary of the avatar. Super Smash Brothers is one notable example, since it has two examples of playable “characters” that consist of multiple entities. One of these is the Ice Climbers: the player directly controls Popo, canonically the climber wearing blue; Nana, canonically the climber wearing pink, does the same actions as the climber wearing blue, but slightly delayed in time. The other is Rosalina and Luma, a space princess and a sentient, star-shaped creature that she commands, respectively. These two can move as a unit or separate themselves and perform the same actions while standing apart from each other.

Rosalina and Luma.

The Ice Climbers in action. The one in blue is Popo and the one in pink is Nana.

In the case of the Ice Climbers, what narratively justifies this gameplay is the tight bond of friendship and trust between the climbers. The two characters have climbed dangerous mountains together, and have presumably gotten to the point where they can communicate so quickly and effectively that it is as if they were reading each other’s minds, and so can coordinate actions in a way that initially seems to be impossible. In the case of Rosalina and Luma, Rosalina is casting spells on Luma that get him to take the same actions as Rosalina instantaneously.

I will define the unit of two player-controlled entities where one is definitely an avatar of the player and the other is an entity being controlled by the player through the avatar to be a partnership. I will mostly not be focusing on the entity that is definitely an avatar (which I will just call the avatar), because we have already discussed that entity in detail in this series. Instead our attention will be on the other entity in the partnership (which I will call the partner). In general across the examples we will look at, the control players have over the avatar when also controlling the partner does not contain nudges. This is not necessarily a rule that must be followed, but examples of that sort would be very difficult to analyze, and so we will not be considering them in the scope of this article.

Within most game narratives, if a partnership exists, there is some dynamic relationship between the characters in the partnership. It turns out that this relationship can be defined and enforced by gameplay. This will prove to be a crucial idea when considering the example of Trico in The Last Guardian. So let’s consider more generally how gameplay can enforce various aspects about the relationship between the partners in a partnership. In this section we will consider two relational aspects in particular, both of which will be important in analyzing Trico’s behavior: how well an avatar and partner are able to communicate with each other, and whether a partner intends to cooperate with an avatar.

The gameplay for the Ice Climbers describes both of those relational aspects quite simply. The nearly simultaneous actions of the climbers show how these two characters can communicate quickly and effectively with ease. And since the climbers never act antagonistically toward each other, they clearly determined long ago that they intend to cooperate with each other.

The Ice Climbers are just one example, however. There is no reason that a partner needs to be able to communicate well with the avatar or intend to cooperate with the avatar. Both of these factors are at play in the example of Trico. Let’s consider two examples of partners that speak in important ways to how the avatar and partner in in The Last Guardian do or do not communicate.

For our first example, let’s say that a developer would like to create a game with a partner who is a femme fatale. While she is incredibly sharp and picks up on everything that the player commands her to do, sometimes she acts mischievously based on a set of intentions that the player is unaware of. Through gameplay that has her usually be responsive to player input except in certain circumstances where she acts against player direction, the developer could maintain this sort of characterization very effectively in the narrative. So the extent to which a partner is responsive to player input can give insight into the level of cooperation between the avatar and the partner. Note again that this analysis only works if the relevant gameplay is not nudgy in terms of controlling the avatar as opposed to the partner.

One particular manifestation of the archetype of femme fatale is Kainé from Nier. She sometimes assists Nier, the titular character and player’s avatar, in various combat situations. It might surprise some people who have played the game, but it is in fact possible to give Kainé a small set of specific commands.

Kaine1.png

The menu screen for issuing commands to Kainé (1/2).

Kaine2.png

The menu screen for issuing commands to Kainé (2/2).

However, Kainé’s behavior does not change much when issued these commands, hence why few people use the feature at all. Even though she is clearly aware of the command issued to her, she apparently has no desire to heed the requests made of her, evidenced by the fact that she literally does not act upon the requests. This is all fitting to her character as a perpetually angry, foul-mouthed warrior.

Kainé killing a monster, but probably not listening to the player.

Now consider a game where the avatar’s partner is someone who is only slightly conversant in the language that the avatar speaks. In this case, that partner, who is player controlled, is slow to respond to player input, or doesn’t respond at all, simply because that message cannot be efficiently communicated, if at all. Unlike the previous example, there is no malevolence or masking of intentions: the gameplay speaks specifically to the inability of these two characters to communicate with one another. A very frustrating example of this is Hey You, Pikachu, a 1998 game in which the player communicates with Pikachu on-screen, attempting (almost always unsuccessfully) to get Pikachu to perform a variety of actions.

Pikachu almost certainly misinterpreting the player’s input.

While Pikachu is intuitively does not appear to be the player’s avatar, because the avatar is apparently the character from whose perspective we are seeing Pikachu, Pikachu certainly is controllable by the player. [6] [7] But the player usually has such difficulty communicating with Pikachu that it is as if Pikachu were not controllable at all. On the level of literary criticism, the issue with Hey You, Pikachu is that Pikachu is so difficult to communicate with that it appears as if he is actually very stupid, as opposed to simply being an animal. This shows the power of gameplay in characterizing a player-controlled entity.

Moving forward I will use these two examples of inter-partner communication to think about Trico’s response to the player’s actions through the intermediary of the avatar. The lack of ability of communicate generally, and not intending to cooperate even if the message is understood, are important aspects of the relationship between boy and his beast that the gameplay highlights and reinforces.

Trico’s Behavior

We now have the groundwork necessary to analyze how Trico’s behavior preserves the narrative consistency in The Last Guardian. To see how this is the case, I will first define one of Trico’s behaviors in question. From there I will show how Trico’s behavior can be seen as mixed nudges and that those mixed nudges arise from Trico’s perspective differing from the player’s in one of the two ways mentioned in the previous section. Trico either does not understand the message, or Trico has an intention that differs from that of the player’s.

One primary way of communicating with Trico is to give him a visual cue of where to move. As anyone who’s played The Last Guardian knows, getting Trico to actually do this is often a long and frustrating process, as he often does not notice what the player is asking him to do, does not understand, or just refuses to do it. This leads to a situation where the player input can yield a wide variety of responses from Trico, some of which help the player, some of which are neutral, and the rest of which hinder the player in some way.

In this way, we can see that the output-shifting required for a nudge exists: the player input can yield any of several outputs from Trico. I remind the reader that the gameplay for controlling the avatar in these circumstances of directing Trico is nudgeless, and so we do not need to worry about compound nudges. Since the nudges can be hindrances the player in some circumstances and be helpful in others, the nudges are in fact mixed nudges. But what of preservation of narrative consistency? What does this gameplay accomplish in terms of that?

Interpreting Trico’s Behavior

Since Trico is a sentient being, he, like the player and the avatar, has a unique perspective. The problem is that since Trico is a beast, his perspective frequently differs from that of the player, who is human. Trico’s larger size means that he looks at the navigation of physical space differently from the smaller human avatar. There are certain things out in the world that scare Trico, especially stained glass images of eyes, that do not have the same impact on the player or the avatar.

The stained glass eyes that frighten Trico.

And Trico is uncontrollably attracted to certain scents that do not seem to have any impact on the avatar. This is all evidence for Trico having a consistent perspective based on his non-human sense modalities.

The difficulty of communicating with Trico arises from the inherent difficulty of bridging the divide between avatar and partner in terms of language and species, such that the player can communicate what she wants to Trico through the avatar, and the player can understand what Trico needs in return. When the player gives a command to Trico, if he sees it and understands it, Trico then responds by performing the desired action, and we can view his behavior as a player aid. If Trico does not see the command or is unable to understand, his lack of action ends up being a player hindrance. The mixed nudges present in this case preserve the narrative that Trico does not have an easy communication channel with the boy at the start of the game, and may not be able to understand what he is being asked to do. This is similar to the example of Pikachu from Hey You, Pikachu: he often literally does not understand the commands he is given, and thus cannot act upon them in a logical way. The mixed nudges further drive this lack of ability to communicate expediently home.

Trico not understanding his commands is not the only source of nudges in his behavior, however. There are times when Trico understands what the player is asking him to do, but does not want to perform the action, similar to Kainé’s reactions to commands in Nier. One clear example of this is when the player is asking Trico to jump into the water. It takes a while to goad Trico into jumping in the water in the first place, and he is quick to get out whenever given the chance. Apparently he does not like getting wet. These player hindrances—moments when Trico does not quickly perform an action even when he understands it, because he has different intentions and desires—preserve the narrative that Trico is a being with feelings and desires, as opposed to just a robot that processes inputs from the player and acts if he understands the command. The usual output of Trico performing the output when he understands it shifts to Trico (at least temporarily) not performing that action. Trico, like Kainé, thinks and feels for himself, and that comes out in the gameplay.

“Training” and the Disappearance of Hindrances and Mixed Nudges

Over the course of the game, the frequency of moments in which Trico stares dumbly back at the player lessens. The net impact of this is that as the game progresses, many mixed nudges get replaced by player aids, as commanding Trico to do certain tasks gets easier and easier. This change in the nature of the nudges in the game over time preserves the narrative that Trico is being trained and forming a bond of friendship with the boy. As these two characters work together more and more, it becomes easier to communicate quickly and effectively. The boy has taken on the role of an animal trainer and created a capacity for communication with an animal with whom most people are unable to communicate.

Some of the player hindrances start to disappear toward the end of the game as well. There is a moment in particular when the boy is in danger of being captured by moving statues where Trico overcomes his fear of the stained glass eyes to jump in to destroy the statues and save the boy. As these hindrances disappear, it preserves the narrative that Trico cares for the boy and is willing to overcome fear and danger in order to save the boy, just as the boy overcomes his own fears and dangerous situations to save Trico. The existence of a vast number of mixed nudges early in the game that gradually turn into mostly player aids (or at least mixed nudges that are aids far more often than hindrances) over time displays the growing bond between these two characters. The game succeeds at displaying the birth of this friendship through of the nudges in the gameplay as opposed to dialogue or cut-scenes, which are few and far-between in the game.

Trico and the boy connecting with each other.

Responding to Critical Review

Game Informer complains that “Trico’s inability to consistently follow your commands drags the experience down more than anything else,” yet they also say that “The Last Guardian forges a connection between the player and Trico unlike anything else in gaming.” Now we can understand that Trico’s inability to consistently follow commands is actually a crucial part of how that special connection gets forged. While it is tempting to view the inconsistencies in the control scheme as factors that make The Last Guardian worse, it actually is the case that the controls do work to develop the relationship between the boy and his beast. [8] The nudges present in the boy’s gameplay reinforce his status as a young child, and the nudges present in controlling Trico reinforce his status as a non-human creature. It is not as The Verge author Andrew Webster says: “Often [the controls] don’t work as they should, and you’ll need to push through some terribly frustrating moments to experience everything The Last Guardian has to offer.” Rather, the terribly frustrating moments are an essential part of what the game has to offer in creating the relationship between the boy and Trico.

Although it may be initially tempting to criticize a game because of “clunky” controls, I hope that this analysis has shown that it’s worth taking pause to consider what a game’s control scheme may be saying about the story of the game itself. While it is true that at times controlling the boy and Trico is difficult in surprising ways, these aspects of the gameplay carry weight in preserving the narrative consistency of the game. The mixed nudges present in controlling the boy drive home his attempt to be cautious, even though his youth sometimes leads him to misread situations. The wide variety of nudges present in controlling Trico drives home his status as a non-human animal, and the change in types of nudges over time shows how he forms a strong bond and ability to communicate with the boy. Kotaku reviewer Mike Fahey sums it up well by saying “The unpredictable AI can make for some frustrating moments, but that frustration only enhances the illusion that this strange cat-beast is a living thing. I am not irritated with a video game. I am irritated with my large feathered friend.” [9] The game uses nudges in a way that is poignant and subtle to develop the relationship within the partnership that the game features.

Directions for Future Research

We’ve covered a lot of ground in these articles. Starting from defining nudgy gameplay and progressing through games that don’t need nudges to games with player aids and hindrances, and then on to games with mixed nudges based on avatar perspective, we’ve seen a wide variety of ways that games have dealt with the variable that is the player in ways that preserve their narratives. My hope is that the reader uses this way of thinking to critically analyze the games that they play, including ones that I did not discuss in this article specifically, and that these articles can serve as a starting point for further analysis.

To that end, there are many topics I brought up in these articles that I did not have space or time to comment on to the degree that is deserved. I think it pertinent to bring up a few of those topics and pose questions as a place to leave the reader at the end of this work. Hopefully one of these questions will spark a reader’s thinking and they will think of some way to explain some aspect of the stories in video games that at this point remains elusive.

One topic that I hinted at but did not dive into for lack of space is the issue of the definition of ‘avatar’. While the term is frequently used among game fans and analysts alike, the word does not seem to have a consistent definition. So what exactly is the avatar? How does the avatar differ from other player-controlled entities? WaTF founder Aaron Suduiko has some foundational thoughts on these questions in the form of his senior thesis, which is an ontology of single-player video games. But other than that work, the question at this point has no clear answer.

Another open topic is the topic of multiplayer generally, something I discussed in Part I of this series in the context of multiplayer skill tournaments, and how games of that sort are better off remaining nudgeless. One challenge in writing that section was identifying exactly what the narrative of a multiplayer game is. Finding the narrative within a multiplayer game is not as easy as it might initially appear. Consider, for example, a group of six players cooperatively playing a Destiny mission. While there is a story presented by the game in terms of voice lines and cut scenes, there is also a narrative being weaved within the conversation between the players, which need not actually bear any relation to the cut scenes and voice lines. Which of these is the dominant narrative? Or do they coexist? How do you analyze a narrative that has multiple agents influencing the narrative’s events? This is massively under-explored territory, even here on With a Terrible Fate.

Nudgy Controls Conclusion

Participatory storytelling has a unique challenge to handle: how does a storyteller convey a cohesive narrative to an audience that has a hand the instantiation of that narrative? We can all imagine an audience member in some participatory theater who gets bored and rolls his eyes at a dramatic moment in the show, critically undermining believability of the narrative being presented. This sort of challenge is a constant issue for writers of stories for games. How do you make sense of the role of the player in your story? What if the narrative requires skill on the part of the player that the player does not possess? What if your player is too skillful in a moment when failure is expected? What if your player’s desire is to try and break the narrative consistency of your game through their actions? In general, how do you handle the variable that is the player, who is importantly external to your game?

Sometimes the most effective technique is to nudge the player’s input toward a more narratively appropriate output in the controls themselves. We’ve seen how doing this can make a character appropriately badass regardless of player skill, and how it can be used to make vivid the critical condition of a dying character. But beyond that we’ve seen an even more subtle and fascinating capacity that these nudges possess. Nudgy controls can create and reinforce character traits and relationships, to the extent that a game like The Last Guardian needs little exposition other than just the gameplay itself.

It’s time to stop judging the control scheme of a game solely on how “tight” the controls are. Sometimes a game’s controls are difficult, or frustrating, or even too easy, in a way that reinforces the narrative of a game. Gameplay and narrative are inseparable. Let’s start judging control schemes based on how well they work with the narrative, rather than in the superficial ways we have been up until now.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] Game Informer.

[2] Game Informer.

[3] For this section, I stipulate that the avatar is a sentient being, for sake of simplicity. This is not actually a requirement for the analysis to work, but it makes the argument easier to follow.

[4] While mixed nudges that arise from personality traits and perspectives, such as the ones described in the previous section, are deep and rich, this is not the only possible manifestation of mixed nudges. To see this, consider the following case. One could imagine a science fiction game in which the avatar has a “quantum fuse box” implanted into his brain. The device works in the following way: half of the times it is activated it makes the avatar successful at whatever he attempts to do, aiding the player tremendously, and half of the time it forces the avatar to fail at whatever he attempts to do, hindering the player. The activation of the device occurs randomly, and the output of the device is random.

This hypothetical game definitely has nudges whenever the device is activated, in that any input on the part of the player is shifted, and the nudges preserve the narrative consistency of the existence and effectiveness of the quantum fuse box. But the nudges are player aids half of the time and player hindrances half the time, meaning that they are mixed nudges. So there is no requirement for mixed nudges to arise out of avatar perspective. Thanks to Aaron Suduiko for proposing the quantum fuse box example.

[5] Player-controlled entities and its subset, avatars, actually end up being incredibly rich and complicated territory to consider. All avatars are player-controlled entities, but it’s not clear where the dividing line between the categories is. What differentiates a player-controlled entity from an avatar? Are any of the individual units in a game like Halo Wars avatars? In a role-playing game in which the player controls an entire party of characters, is each character just a player-controlled entity, or an avatar as well? Are all of the characters avatars of the player? Is one character the player’s avatar and the rest just player-controlled entities? The answers here are not clear, and so for the most part I will leave these questions unanswered, as the answers are likely long and tangential to the topic at hand. This leaves open the possibility that player-controlled entities and avatars are in fact the same set of entities, making one of the two terms redundant. Intuitively this does not seem to be the case, as it seems that some things are avatars and others are simply player-controlled.

[6] I leave open the possibility that Pikachu is the player’s avatar, but common intuition from players is that while he is controllable by the player, he is not the player’s avatar.

[7] Note how even in first-person, in which we cannot see a manifestation of our character on-screen, we still think of the character from whose eyes we are seeing to be the “avatar.” There can be no figure on screen and yet we can refer felicitously to an avatar being present. This is odd and warrants further analysis.

[8] Of course, my analysis of nudges in The Last Guardian doesn’t excuse all of its control issues. I readily admit that controlling the camera in The Last Guardian is pointlessly difficult and that the game would have been better with tighter camera control.

[9] Mike Fahey, Kotaku.

Does Final Fantasy VII Belong in the Video Game Canon?

The following is the first entry in Featured Author Dan Hughes‘ series, “Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!”

Welcome to the Polygonal World of Final Fantasy!

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and the fourth kind, welcome one and all to the first installment of “Now Loading…The Video Game Canon!” In this, our virgin installment, we will be taking a look at a game that has had more critical acclaim, more cultural impact, and more salacious fan art drawn of it than quite possibly anything to come out of the Japanese video game market. A bold stance, I know, but consider the source in that we will be looking at Final Fantasy VII! I wanted to start this series off strong, and figured there was no more interesting candidate than the game that introduced an entire generation of gamers not only to the Final Fantasy series, but also to Japanese Role-Playing Games and the broader RPG genre as a whole. I don’t want to make assumptions and say that a large swath of you have been to comic book, video game, or anime conventions, but I’m going to do just that and then assert that even if you haven’t even touched this game, then you have still at least seen someone dressed up as a Cloud or a Sephiroth in your travels through the Nerdsphere. You may have been fortunate enough to see your friend pop this game into his PlayStation, or perhaps unfortunate enough to have seen your friend pop the movie, Advent Children, into her PSP. Regardless of your exposure, this blockbuster of a game has permeated so many facets of video game culture that it would be a crime not to examine it as a candidate for the canon.

Released in 1997 for the Sony PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII marked the series’ jump to three dimensions. Square Enix, then called Squaresoft, were lauded for the (then) smooth transition from 16-bit sprites and painted backgrounds to beautiful polygonal character models and gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds. The story, though vague and at times confusing, was praised as being both a welcome addition to the then fairly sizable Final Fantasy library, and also a landmark in video game storytelling in general. The world of Final Fantasy VII is vast and complex, with intricate plot details and character summaries woven together to build a universe that truly felt lived in and believable. If The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was Nintendo’s opus for the Nintendo 64, then Final Fantasy VII was Sony’s assertion that the PlayStation was a contender in the console wars.

It’s difficult to go into more detail without cutting into the other sections, so let’s waste no further time and examine Final Fantasy VII!

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Story and Characters: A Rogue SOLDIER and a Dying Planet

As any fan—or friend of a fan unfortunate enough to hear “Just sit down and let me explain it to you”—knows, the story of Final Fantasy VII is something of a confused mess when you get down to its particulars. I chalk this up to an uncharacteristically poor localization resulting in a number of confusing typos, and the always slightly confusing storytelling of the Squaresoft writers. For your edification, I will provide an abridged version of the story that has been broken down to its bare essential plot elements and themes. Then, for your enjoyment, I will do my best to recount all the insanity that is this game’s story.

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Pictured: An Incredibly Succinct Metaphor for Death.

IN JUST A FEW SENTENCES OR LESS, SQUARESOFT, GOOD LORD

At its core, Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a man who, due to a number of violent tragedies in his past, deludes himself into believing he is someone else. This ultimately reveals itself when a maniac known as Sephiroth tries to destroy the Planet, and is only made worse when someone Cloud swore to protect dies before his eyes. Cloud then has to work through his feelings of guilt, remorse, and borderline PTSD, all while the world is literally coming to an end around him. Ultimately, these battles, one on the outside and one in the confines of Cloud’s mind, come together when he embraces a mystical, Planet-binding force called the Lifestream, which is essentially the collective conscious of every single being to ever live. The Planet is saved, and Cloud understands that even when someone dies, they are never truly gone, and to hold onto the grief of losing someone would to do a disservice to oneself and the memory of the dead.

Fundamentally, Final Fantasy VII is a beautiful story about loss, grief, and learning to move on from tragedy. These themes are made even more poignant when one realizes that the concept of the Lifestream and the general themes for the game were the brainchild of genius series director Hironobu Sakaguchi after experiencing a tragedy of his own. After Sakaguchi’s mother died, he struggled for a long while with her death and the nature of oblivion in general. Through a lot of introspection, he was eventually comforted by the thought of a vital, living essence that composes all things and flows through the very Earth itself. This concept later became the Lifestream, and Final Fantasy VII ultimately became a tool through which Sakaguchi moved past his grief.

That, to me, is what you essentially need to know about the game’s plot and themes to understand how wonderful and timeless the game truly is. Based on this simple breakdown, the story is worth canonizing.

However, two small paragraphs does not a three-disc game make, now, does it, Square? Here’s that same synopsis with just a touch more detail.

I’VE HEARD OF WORLD-BUILDING, BUT THIS IS RIDICULOUS

Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud Strife, a formerly high-ranking member of a corporate military group known as SOLDIER. He is recruited by Barret and an environmentalist/eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE to destroy the Shinra Electric Power Corporation’s nuclear reactor type power plants because they are sucking Mako energy, or the lifeblood of the planet, out of the Earth to fuel technological advancement. Cloud couldn’t give two figs about Mako energy and the dying planet, though, and only wants his money for the job he just literally killed hundreds and hundreds of people completing. And though Cloud, Barrett, and now Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa are off to destroy another Mako reactor literally one day after destroying the first one, they somehow didn’t plan on Shinra not being too keen on having that happen again. Cloud falls off a ledge and lands in a church where he meets Aerith, a flower girl with spooky old-world powers.

While Cloud is flirting hardcore with Aerith, Barret and Tifa get wind of a Shinra plot, and decide (mutually, I assume?) that Tifa will go after the local gadabout/pimp/gay icon? to squeeze some information out of him one way or another. Aerith and Cloud see Tifa going to this brothel, one thing leads to another, and Cloud is dressed in drag to infiltrate the pimp’s mansion. You know, I recently replayed this game and forgot how quickly this all happens… It’s like the first hour of the game.

Yada yada yada, Shinra blows up an entire slum because it turns out you shouldn’t blow up 1/8th of a mega corporation’s power supply/work force, the gang takes revenge in what little way it can, and then leaves for the bigger world to chase after Sephiroth, a man with vague intentions and even vaguer explanations for those intentions. Also the Sephiroth that they’re chasing isn’t actually the real Sephiroth, but something called a Remnant (as they are later referred in one of the umpteen spinoffs this game has,) which is basically just some random person with a bit of Sephiroth’s crazy DNA wrapped up inside them. Oh, and it eventually turns out Cloud is also one of those Remnants, but can’t quite remember why or how, and ends up giving Sephiroth the means to blow up the Planet because of this tenuous and, frankly, very poorly explained connection to him and another guy who eventually got an entire game of his own, Zack Fair…..

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Anyone see the plot? I lost it here someplace.

I’m going to be honest with you folks, I thought it would be fun to type out all the inanity behind Final Fantasy VII’s plot, but it would just take up all the document space in the world. Not to mention it was way less fun than I thought it might be, but hey, you take your chances, am I right?

The complex and sometimes confusing aspects of the game’s story are definitely a negative when it comes to canonization. The core of loss and grief is so strong, but I must admit that the amount of effort that goes into explaining a lot of crucial plot details smacks of poor writing. I can’t blame the poor localization there, either, because these crazy plot inconsistencies exist in the Japanese version as well. However, I, like many other people who play this game, tend to let that slide because of how strong the central theme of the game is. It also helps that the cast of characters is well-fleshed out with clear motivations and strong personalities.

I would say the strongest praise that can be given to the main cast in this game is that they are at once complex enough to be interesting and simple enough to know exactly who they are. Cloud is the strong, silent type who doesn’t fancy himself a hero due to his tragic past. Barret, while outwardly tough and ready to die for his cause, is also a loving father who really just wants the Planet to be safe for his daughter. Tifa is a bit of a femme fatale, but she cares deeply for her childhood friend and believes in saving the world. And of course that’s not even mentioning Cid, Red XIII, Aerith, Cait Sith, and the optional Vincent and Yuffie characters. Within moments of seeing these people on screen, you know who they are and what they are about. You know how they will interact with each other, and how they will react to events taking place around them. Good characters are characters who can be summed up simply, and Final Fantasy VII pulls that off flawlessly.

In short, though the story of Final Fantasy VII is at times complex, confusing, and downright poorly written, the heart of the game and the characters within it are enough to forgive a little confusion.

Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Like a Fine Wine

Though the story may fall flat in some parts, there is nothing but praise to be given to the overall aesthetic of the game. When compared to previous Final Fantasy games, VII doesn’t necessarily break the mold when it comes to gameplay and mechanics. Instead, it takes the tried-and-true, turn-based combat system from other games and perfects it, giving players the option to customize magic, summons, and equipment such that they can truly play a role. For example, due to Aerith’s quiet and gentle nature, I always build her as I would a white magic user. She typically becomes the healer, and if push comes to shove she can send out an army of Materia summons for the offense. Likewise, Cloud always struck me as a brute force kind of character, so I would focus less on healing magic and more on strength or defensive buffs and the like. That being said, the way the game is built allows you to fill any role with any character. It’s a versatile enough roster that you can see the character’s inherent strengths and weaknesses, but flexible enough that you can play by your own rules if you’d like. For example, a mechanic that in later Final Fantasy installments that was over-complicated or ditched altogether in favor of crystal hallways, namely that of boosting your stats with different equipped Materia, adds an interesting dimension to character customization. Certain types of Materia come with boosts to certain stats, so you could theoretically load up a character with spells and abilities that you won’t even have them use in order to just buff up their strength or defense. It may not be the best in terms of strategy, but it offers the player choice in every aspect of gameplay. Who you use in battles, who you team them with, how you equip them, what spells you want them to use, all of these choices are yours and have a number of different meaningful and noticeable impacts on the way you play the game. This flexibility is indicative of an element that is sorely lacking in modern Final Fantasy titles: meaningful choice. An entire essay could be written on the bleak deterministic nature of later games in the series, but luckily this title makes you feel like your decisions matter.

The music is composed by Final Fantasy series regular, Nobou Uematsu, and in my humble opinion is some of his best work to date, if not his very best work. Each piece—from the iconic battle themes, to the character songs, to even the simple background music that greets you upon entering a town—is immediately recognizable to anyone who has played the game. Though not the most technically impressive, every piece of music serves the world of the game, and truly envelops you within it. And of course, something must be said of a soundtrack with one of the most popular final boss themes in all of video games. “One-Winged Angel” still makes concert halls go insane; look it up.

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Throw him onto Tetsuo’s motorcycle and you have the most famous anime still in recorded history.

By today’s standards, the hard-jutting polygonal character models are laughably incompetent. I find it a boring argument to come to the graphics’ aid by saying “it was revolutionary at the time,” or “it was a product of the PlayStation’s limitations.” Rather, I give the choppy character models a pass because the visual world itself is so distinct that few games have been able to replicate it richness. The pre-rendered backgrounds from Midgar to the Great Northern Cave help to set the somewhat bleak and sad tone of the game. When you visit the slums of Midgar or the dying town of Corel, you feel not only that this world is real, but also that it is dying. The character models are undeniably hilarious, and are the butt of a possibly infinite number of jokes, but the full aesthetic of the world fits with the strange models in a strange way.

Though noticeably dated in some ways, the game is so distinct in these three aspects that it stands the test of time. Had the gameplay, music, or visuals been bland or inseparable from other games at the time, I imagine this game wouldn’t have left such a clear mark on so many people’s memories.

Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: Movies, Spin-offs, Remakes, Oh My!

The impact of Final Fantasy VII—not only video game culture, but on culture in general—is undeniable. This game was released at what many fans consider the peak of the Final Fantasy series, and the impressive visuals, memorable characters, and fun gameplay, combined with the time at which it came out, launched this game to an almost surreal level of fame. For many American gamers, it was an introduction to Final Fantasy and JRPGs, making the previous titles so popular that they were eventually remade and ported over to the PlayStation from Nintendo consoles. In just a few years, Square Enix made Final Fantasy: Advent Children, a CGI movie sequel to the game; this sequel was released and re-released in numerous iterations and formats. The impact of the movie alone was enough to influence anime for years to follow, making its way into innumerable Japanese toy stores to the point that Akihabara should basically just relent and have a storefront exclusively for Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII would go on to influence how RPGs looked, felt, and even sounded, to the point that one could argue that all modern JRPGs find many of their roots in the game. It also shaped the future of the Final Fantasy series, for better or worse. The games that followed clearly took a great many cues from Cloud Strife and gang, and slowly began devolving into, ironically, games that seemed like remnants of a once-great story. But the condemnation of recent Final Fantasy games is a diatribe for another day.

Between spin-off games starring Zack Fair and Vincent Valentine, and a strange Japanese mobile phone game that was popular for a baffling amount of time, it is not surprising that we have now been promised a complete remake of the original Final Fantasy VII for the PS4. The amount of attention and importance placed on this game is undeniable: without Final Fantasy VII, there’s a good chance we would be without a huge swath of our gaming libraries today.

BONUS LEVEL: Opening, Bombing Mission

This is a massive game, and so a massive article naturally formed around it. But you’ve stuck with me this far, and I’m hoping you can stay with me a little longer before I render the verdict you have no doubt come to on your own.

There’s an adage when it comes to novels and short stories: the first and last lines are the most important. I tend to agree with that, and also think it can apply to video games. However, video games are largely a visual and auditory medium, so the opening shot, much like in a movie, acts as that crucial first line.

Final Fantasy VII opens on a prolonged view of the stars in the sky, lingering for just a moment longer than may be comfortable in order to emphasize the scope of the story you are about to witness. Without cutting, the camera falls away from the stars into darkness, where a woman’s face is lit up by a pale green light. She walks out of her quiet alleyway filled with flowers into a grimy, loud city street full of people and machines. She looks upwards, we zoom out, and see the sprawling, fetid city of Midgar. Midgar rejects the natural light of the stars above, instead radiating its own pale, sickly glow to show a gross dominance over the natural world. The title screen appears, the music changes, and we zoom in on one part of the city, on a train pulling into a station….

In less than five minutes and without one line of dialogue, Final Fantasy VII lets the audience know that it is story about natural forces against manmade forces on an epic scale. When two forces sit at odds with one another, something must change… Join us, won’t you?

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Let’s hope the remake can capture the glory of shots like these.

VERDICT: A Game for the Ages

If you have read this far, then you no doubt know that I absolutely place Final Fantasy VII in the canon of video games. Although its plot is confusing at times and its visuals may not have aged gracefully when compared with modern games, the themes, characters, and sheer impact this game has had on the world at large is enough to encourage people to not only play the game, but to study it as well. There are so many lessons about gameplay, storytelling, world-building, and longevity that Final Fantasy VII can impart, and to let it fall by the wayside would truly be a sin. So, welcome, Final Fantasy VII, to the Video Game Canon! Congratulations, and may the Lifestream guide you.

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Well done, lads.

The Real Hostage in the Zero Escape Series is You

by Kent Vainio, Featured Author.

*Warning: Spoilers to follow for the Zero Escape series!*

What if a video game could make you feel just as trapped as the characters in it? Take a moment to imagine what that would feel like, to be sitting comfortably on your couch in the real world and at the very same time feel trapped in an diabolical escape game with your life on the line. How would you react?

That’s exactly where the Zero Escape games come in, a series of visual novel masterpieces that accomplish all the above and more. They engross, involve, and trap the player in their poignant and terrifying stories about humans trying to survive deadly escape games. I can personally attest to the fact that these not just any ordinary visual novel experiences.

How are these games able to trap their players? The key idea is that of morphic resonance. If that term sounds to you like a highly fascinating but scientifically unproven theory of biological communication, then you are spot on. Rupert Sheldrake first coined the term in his 1981 book A New Science of Life. It is a pseudoscience concept describing, in Sheldrake’s word’s, “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species.” [1] According to this view, memories and experiences are stored in so-called morphic fields that surround us all the time, which can then transmit this information to other organisms of the same type.

You might wonder how this outlandish concept connects with visual novel video games. Well, the real magic of this idea is how it is used in combination with the games’ well-designed narrative structures and gameplay to create a vivid feeling of immersion in their fictional game worlds. In this article, I compare and contrast the depiction of morphic fields in the first two games of the Zero Escape series in the context of player-avatar interactions, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating just how effectively this concept is used to trap the player. This feeling of being trapped consequently invites them to consider the games’ pseudoscientific world as their own reality, which leads them to deeply question human psychology and the truly fascinating unknown depths of the subconscious mind. To accomplish this, I first analyze the narratives of both games, and the ways in which they use the idea of morphic fields, followed by an analysis of these fields in the context of gameplay. I then tie these ideas together to show how the games can teach us about human nature and the incredible human mind.

Essential Background

The first game in the Zero Escape series, entitled Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (which I will simply call 999 for the sake of brevity), revolves around the nightmarish experience of protagonist [2] Junpei, who wakes up in a sinking ship, only to be forced to play the deadly “Nonary Game” with eight other participants in order to escape the failing vessel before they all drown. Each participant is given a bracelet with a number on it, and these numbers can then be added up to progress through a corresponding door with that sum on it, with the ultimate aim of escaping through the number 9 door. Along the way, the participants must solve challenging escape-the-room puzzles to advance through the ship, all the while contending with the uncertainty, fear, and malice of their fellow game players. Upon completing the game, it turns out that the current Nonary Game is actually a replication of a previous one that occurred prior to the events of 999. The original was instigated by a malevolent pharmaceutical company, Cradle Pharmaceutical, which endeavored to conduct further research into the idea of morphic fields. To accomplish this, Cradle took nine sibling pairs (the game tells us that siblings are said to have an extra special affinity for communicating through the morphic field) and then forced them to the play the same life-threatening Nonary Game that the player experiences in the first person, through Junpei’s eyes. By putting the siblings in mortal danger, Cradle hoped to draw out their morphic resonance powers, which, according to the game, become vastly more potent in the face of imminent danger. All but one of the children managed to escape the game, as a lone girl, Akane, was unable to solve a challenging Sudoku puzzle that resulted in her untimely incineration. It turns out that the mastermind behind the current Nonary Game is none other than Akane herself, manipulating Junpei through the morphic field to help her stay alive in the past. Ultimately, this plan succeeds, Akane is revived, and the group escapes. [3]

Virtue’s Last Reward (which I will call VLR for convenience), is the direct sequel to 999 and once again incorporates a Nonary Game, this time involving a unique feature called the Ambidex Game—a game of betrayal, reminiscent of the prisoner’s dilemma—in which players can choose to either betray or ally with a partner to gain or lose points, with nine points necessary in total to leave the facility. Anyone who reaches zero points or fewer will be executed, and no participants can leave until someone wins the game. To make the situation even worse, all the participants have been unknowingly infected with a deadly virus called Radical-6, which slowly robs the host of their mental faculties, eventually turning them into an animalistic murderer and ultimately killing them. The plot’s backstory (slightly less relevant than 999’s for the specific purposes of the analysis in this article) involves a terrorist group trying to wipe out the human population by spreading Radical-6, resulting in the game’s protagonist, Sigma, one of humanity’s few survivors, constructing a life-threatening game that will allow his present consciousness to swap with his past consciousness from a previous timeline through morphic resonance. This is possible because, just like in 999, morphic resonance powers are increased when facing extreme danger. In this way, Sigma travels back in time to stop the outbreak of the virus using the knowledge he has accumulated about how to stop it. [4] This scheme is highly complex, and is graphically represented in the diagram below.

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In this image, the bright blue arrows represent the flow of Sigma’s conscience through time, with the aim of ending up at Point E to trigger an alternate future where most of humanity does not perish from Radical-6.

As can be seen from the plotlines of each game, both stories depend centrally on the concept of morphic resonance. However, the truly fascinating aspect of this series is the way in which the games manage to evoke a seemingly real sense of morphic resonance between the player in the real world and the protagonist in the game world through a combination of expertly designed gameplay and unique narrative structure. This conceptual bridge between the player and the protagonist allows the player to more deeply empathize with the plight of those partaking in the Nonary Game, and ultimately leads to a blurring of the distinction between the real world and the game world.

Morphic Resonance and Narrative

To prove that morphic resonance connecting the player and avatar, we first begin with an analysis of the narrative structures of 999 and VLR. By ‘narrative structure’, I mean the way in which a story is told—for example, as a single story told by a narrator, or as a web of interconnecting narrative branches that together form a cohesive story. The narratives of both games require using information from a previous playthrough to help inform the success of a subsequent one, an action which is a direct analogue to the idea of transmitting knowledge through a morphic field from the past to the future. Although Junpei/Sigma are technically the ones performing the actions in the worlds of the games, it is the player themselves who is accumulating knowledge from successive playthroughs and then imparting their knowledge to the corresponding avatar in the game. Thus the player is effectively transmitting knowledge to their avatar through a morphic field of sorts, by controlling him on each playthrough.

999 has an infinitely looping narrative structure with 6 endings, one of which is the “true ending.” This means that 5 endings end up with the protagonist dying some kind of horrific death, while the final ending—the “true ending”—involves escaping the Nonary Game and finding out all of the plot’s backstory, in essence making it the only real “ending” to the game, an ending that can only be obtained by dying multiple times during separate playthroughs. In order to navigate their way through this narrative structure, the player must first play the game a few times to get a sense of the characters’ different personalities and the context of their situation, and then on subsequent playthroughs use that information to make choices resulting in varied narrative outcomes. For example, in one of the most common endings, Clover, a young girl who at first seems to be the most innocuous participant in the Nonary Game, brutally murders Junpei with an axe after starting to doubt his loyalty. Thereafter, the player learns not to go into a puzzle room in a group with Clover, which will inevitably end up with them confronting her alone and being killed.

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Clover walks away nonchalantly after cutting down Junpei with an axe.

In a similar fashion, the player might learn of characters that are hiding secrets or harboring vital information to the progression of the plot, and so on subsequent playthroughs they will choose to form exploration groups with these characters in order to advance their respective storylines. This process of trial and error involving the accumulation of information across successive playthroughs exactly mirrors communication through a morphic field between the player and avatar.

VLR also utilizes a similar branching narrative structure, but one that more directly relates to the idea of morphic fields enabling the transfer of knowledge between parallel timelines. Although 999 does not really touch upon morphic resonance between parallel universes, VLR makes it abundantly clear that the human consciousness is able to jump between universes in the stream of time, and it is this type of morphic resonance that is utilized by the protagonist, Sigma, to survive the Nonary Game and escape alive. Right from the start of the game, the player is presented with a screen full of branching timelines that diverge at every key decision point in the game.

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This image is an example of what the player’s narrative flow chart might look near the end of VLR. Grey boxes with white question marks represent yet-unseen parts of the game’s narrative. The “NOVEL” sections in blue are narrative choices that the player has made and the sections in green with question marks are decisions that have already been resolved or could be resolved upon replaying them by gleaning information from other parallel timelines (with the ones in black representing yet-unresolved dilemmas). The character icons are endings for those specific characters. Finally, the skull icons indicate points at which the player died.

Like 999, the player must play through certain branches of the narrative, and then must use the knowledge gleaned from these short playthroughs to advance other sections of the timeline. This is especially important in the case of the “story locks,” or black icons with question marks on them, which are key moments in which the protagonist faces impending doom—for example, being threatened by another character. The only way to move past these locks is to explore other timelines in the game and talk to other characters in order to find out the piece of information that will help the protagonist survive that specific event.

This process is identical to the proposed use of morphic resonance in both Nonary Games, which is to transfer knowledge to the participants in times of extreme stress or need, when their ability to connect to and resonate with the morphic field is enhanced. In this case the player acts as the transmitter of information through the field, and the video-game protagonist is the receiver. By forcing the player to use information from parallel universes to advance the story, the game strictly imposes the paradigm of morphic fields on their communication with the game’s protagonist. This morphic communication with the protagonist is made even more believable by the fact that the real world and the game world could be seen as existing in parallel dimensions, and thus information can be transferred between them in the way that the game describes.

Morphic Resonance and Gameplay

Aside from the narrative structures of each game, the gameplay mechanics further reinforce the idea that the player and protagonist communicate through morphic resonance. Both games involve extended puzzle-solving escape-room sequences, in which the player must interact with the environment around the protagonist to help them solve challenging problems. Once again, the player is using their knowledge from real-life areas of problem-solving and mathematics to help the protagonist complete puzzles and escape, which we can understand as the player communicating ideas to the protagonist through a morphic field. Moreover, by virtue of being video game avatars, Junpei and Sigma literally can’t solve puzzles without the player’s knowledge and influence, and hence are directly reliant on the player transferring knowledge to them to progress through the game.

Perhaps the most poignant example of morphic communication between player and protagonist manifested in gameplay occurs at the end of 999, as the player helps Akane solve the Sudoku puzzle that resulted in her untimely death in the past. The player must save Akane by performing actions on the DS touch screen that are then transferred to the past, represented by Akane sitting by the puzzle on the top screen. However, the DS must also be rotated 180 degrees to view the puzzle right-way-up.

Turning the DS upside-down to help Akane stay alive in the past.

This juxtaposition of the two screens on one device, as well as the physical rotation involved in solving the puzzle, very literally bring the action of the game into the player’s real-life surroundings, making them feel as if they are communicating with Akane through the morphic field. Although Junpei is the one most immediately transmitting the instructions to Akane within the game, it is the player who is helping Junpei and Akane escape, and thus the player who is acting as a transmitter of information through a morphic field between their world and Junpei’s world.

Unlike 999, VLR does not have any single experience like this one. However, the much more direct action of jumping through time at will to find out information about the Ambidex Game does create an equivalent sense of physical connection to the idea of morphic resonance.

Why Does Player-Avatar Morphic Resonance Matter?

Clearly the game developers have gone to great lengths to ensure that the players feel connected to the protagonists in each game through morphic fields, which invites the question of exactly why this is the case. On a superficial level, this greatly increases the enjoyment factor of both games and makes them much more engaging, fascinating experiences. Not only are the ideas of morphic fields and subconscious communication between parallel universes able to pique any player’s interest right from the get-go, but the fact that players feel like they are seemingly performing this type of communication in real life makes it a more visceral experience of surprise and discovery.

However, at a deeper level, mirroring the player’s experience with those of the characters in the game also makes the player feel trapped in the game world. By virtue of being escape games, these titles not only aim to present an engaging experience, but also to put human behavior and psychology under the magnifying glass in situations of extreme stress, as in the Nonary Game. They therefore endeavor to convey much more profound messages about human nature, and by making the player feel trapped in the game and thereby empathize more with the characters’ struggles, both internal and external, they can get such messages across quite effectively. Despite displaying seemingly negative features of human behavior, such as the eager willingness to betray others to save one’s own life (highlighted by the Ambidex Game), or endanger many people’s lives for the sake of research (such as in the case of Cradle Pharmaceutical in 999), these games ultimately convey hope and optimism about the untapped potential of the human mind and subconscious. By having the main characters escape in the “true” ending of both games, staying loyal to the very last, the games convey a sense of hope that, no matter how bad the situation gets, human ingenuity will always pull through. In the case of this game series specifically, the unfathomable, untapped depths of the human subconscious are the saving grace of the day, making the player deeply excited and enthused that something like the morphic field might actually exist and might be watching over us, so to speak, in times of trouble.

Conclusion

Despite being a pseudoscience concept with no true scientific backing, morphic resonance is successfully used to ignite the player’s imagination upon playing these games, and instills them with a sense of wonder about all of the undiscovered facets of the human mind. In this way, the developers are able to effectively get across the excitement they themselves felt when reading about this fantastical concept for the first time. And who knows: maybe the next time you find yourself in a potentially life-threatening situation (which I of course hope does not happen!), humanity’s morphic field will save the day after all.

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Kent Vainio is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

Citations

[1] “Morphic Resonance – The Skeptic’s Dictionary – Skepdic.com.”

[2] In both 999 and VLR, the player’s avatar is the main protagonist of the story (either Junpei or Sigma respectively), so I use the terms avatar and protagonist interchangeably depending on the context.

[3] “Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.” Wikipedia.

[4] “Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward.” Wikipedia.