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.

null

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.

 

Everything You Need to Know about the Future of Game Analysis

TL;DR:

Dear Readers,

I’m happy to write you with news of big changes coming to With a Terrible Fate very soon. We’re getting ready to grow in some big ways, and we want you to be a part of it.

First, a brief history of the site to set the scene:

I founded With a Terrible Fate back in 2014 with a single, simple (if not somewhat crazy goal): to write about the artistic value of Majora’s Mask every week until its remake was released. That work confirmed in my mind that video games really are a new and special mode of storytelling, one that deserves way more rigorous attention than it’s currently getting.

This idea—that video game storytelling deserves more rigorous analysis—inspired me to grow With a Terrible Fate into a central hub for the analysis of video game storytelling. I started using my education in philosophy to analyze other games, publishing work on titles like Xenoblade Chronicles and Bloodborne.

Something exciting was happening: the more I talked with other gamers about my work, the more I could see how much they appreciated this kind of serious attention being paid to games. I realized that these other gamers had their own insights into the stories of video games, and that together, we could discover more about video games than I ever could on my own.

That’s when I decided to start bringing on Featured Authors: writers besides me, each of whom has their own unique perspective on the storytelling of video games. With their help, With a Terrible Fate evolved from being a blog about the philosophy of video games to being a website dedicated to the serious analysis of video game storytelling.

Thanks to this team of like-minded video game analysts, With a Terrible Fate has grown a lot in the past couple of years. One of our most recent, thrilling milestones was speaking at both PAX Australia 2016 and PAX East 2017. Each of these talks drew hundreds of gamers and developers who were ecstatic for the chance to dive deep into the storytelling dynamics of their favorite games. One of our writers was also recently cited in an academic journal article. This is exciting for me, because it shows that the site has grown into something that’s both academically valuable and extremely interesting to the everyday gamer.

This past May, I finally graduated from college (earning a degree in philosophy that included an honors thesis on the philosophy of video games), and I now have the time and opportunity to turn to the site in an even more serious way. I’m endlessly thankful to my other writers, and to all of you, my readers: it’s thanks to all of you that I’m able to contemplate taking With a Terrible Fate to the next level.

Here’s what you can expect from With a Terrible Fate, starting next month:

With college over, I’ve had the time to develop a new vision for where With a Terrible Fate is going. This means that soon you’ll be seeing some rebranding and some changes, but (hopefully!) all of these changes will be in the spirit of enhancing what you already love about the site.

First, With a Terrible Fate has a new mission statement: the mission of With a Terrible Fate is to give gamers new tools for understanding and appreciating video games as a form of storytelling. Our articles have always been implicitly written with this goal in mind, but now we’re making it explicit. We’re also hoping to expand in the near future to develop other “tools” that serve our mission, meaning we won’t just be publishing long-form articles anymore.

We’re also transitioning away from the blog environment and into the space of a serious publication. This means you soon won’t be seeing articles by “Aaron Suduiko + Featured Authors”: instead, you’ll be seeing work by a team of video game analysts, all equally dedicated to understanding the games they love and hate in new, insightful ways.

Do you want to be one of these analysts? We’re still accepting applications. Check out all the information in the below call for applications (featuring the old “Featured Author” branding):

Poster_web_size

Several new game analysts will be joining us next month, and I can’t wait to share their first articles with you—they’re all quite interesting.

The site itself will also be getting a face-lift next month. We are especially grateful to all our readers who keep coming back to our work even though the design of the site itself leaves so much to be desired. You can expect a much sleeker interface, with easier-to-read articles and easier-to-search categories. We’ll also be taking steps to encourage more discussion: we want our readers responding to our work and talking about it, not just reading it!

Next month will also mark the start of a regular schedule for article releases. Up until now, I’ve been publishing articles as soon as they’re completed; now, I’m holding articles back and planning a routine release of them so that readers know when they can come to the site and expect new content. Logistically speaking, this means we won’t be publishing any new work for the rest of July, but, from August onward, we’ll have a steady stream of work released at regular intervals for you.

Want to know what the schedule is looking like? Want a sneak-peak at our upcoming topics of analysis? Well we’re also starting an email newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

This isn’t spam, and we won’t share your address with anyone. This is just a way for us to directly tell you about our publication schedule for the coming month, upcoming features, and more.

Here’s why the email newsletter really matters: you may not know it, but Facebook only shows the posts that a page makes to a small fraction of the people who like the page. If you want more people to see your content, you have to pay Facebook for “advertising”: you need to pay for advertising in order to reach your own fans.

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Almost 10,000 people like With a Terrible Fate on Facebook…

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…but not even 250 people see this post without paying Facebook for “advertising.”

Right now, Facebook is With a Terrible Fate’s main way of communicating with its followers. However, we also have no funding right now, and we want to be able to actually reach everyone who wants to read our content. So please, if you’re interested in keeping up with us, sign up for our newsletter (one more chance, for emphasis).

Now a bit more about funding. With a Terrible Fate doesn’t have any revenue at all right now. If you ever find yourself wishing we published more content, the reason why we can’t is that everyone involved in the site is working for free: that’s just how much we love thinking about video games.

To really take this to the next level, we need the funding to compensate writers for their time: that’s what will allow us to grow and expand in all the ways we can imagine. But I refuse to rely on ad revenue for this purpose. So many video game website are saturated with ads and sponsored content these days; at With a Terrible Fate, the focus will always be on the value of thinking in new, rigorous ways about the storytelling of video games. We want you to enjoy our content, not to see ads.

To that end, we’re starting a Patreon to give our readers the power to fund us. If you haven’t heard of Patreon, it’s a service that allows fans of creators to give them a recurring, monthly payment in exchange for cool rewards. This lets fans feel more intimately connected to the work of their favorite creators, and it also gives those creators the time and resources to commit more fully to their creative projects. This is what we’re hoping to use to grow With a Terrible Fate. 

We’ll be doing a full launch of our Patreon page when the new site is ready to roll out next month, but we’re actually already to do a soft launch of Patreon for our existing fan base. If you already feel like you know us and appreciate what we do, we would be honored if you would help us realize our full potential. Take a look at our Patreon and contribute here.

We have lots of ideas for how to expand, but funding will also just help us do more of what we’re already doing. It will give us more time to write, and it will also give us the resources to speak at more conventions (airfare and hotels add up quickly).

Speaking of conventions… 

You’ll be seeing us at more of them. In fact, we’re thrilled to announce that With a Terrible Fate will be speaking at PAX West this September in Seattle. We’ll share more details with you soon, but here’s a first look at our talk’s name and description:

The New Game Theory: How to Analyze Video Game Stories”

“You probably googled “BioShock Infinite Theories” as soon as you finished the game. But when it comes to video game theories, what separates the wheat from the chaff? How does the “canon” of a game define or limit how we understand its world and story? Do developers get the last word on which theories about their games are right, or can a theorist be right even if the developer disagrees? Join the game analysts of With a Terrible Fate as we discuss the standards of good video game theory.”

If you’re heading to PAX West, come connect with us and take in our talk! I’m especially excited about this talk because it explicitly focuses on With a Terrible Fate’s primary objective: developing new ways to think rigorously about the storytelling of video games.

And, as a last, miscellaneous tidbit about ways to connect with us: we’re now on Instagram. Follow us for artsy pictures and links to our analyses. For example:

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As we’re populating the account with content, we’re going all the way back to the start of the site, so following us will give you a fun retrospective on everything we’ve covered over the years.

Thank you for being with us this far, dear readers. We’re so excited to take these new steps into the future of video games with you.

Best,

Aaron Suduiko, Founder & Chief Video Game Analyst.

Nudgy Controls, Part II

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

Introduction

In Part I of this series, I discussed some examples of types of games that benefit from the lack of what I’ve termed “nudges,” which is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative consistency and Z preserves narrative consistency. For clarification on this term’s formal definition I would suggest reading the introduction to Part I before reading this article. And I would definitely suggest reading Part I before reading this article if you have yet to do so, as this article will assume knowledge of the ideas covered in Part I.

In Part II I will discuss games that have narratives that benefit from nudgy gameplay. There are two principal ways to think about how a game’s narrative may incorporate nudges. First, it may incorporate nudges that help the player, allowing them to perform feats that are potentially outside of their skillset without the helpful nudge. I will term these sorts of nudges “player aids.”[1]

Second, a game may incorporate nudges that cause the player to perform worse than they would on their own. I will term these sorts of nudges “player hindrances.” Importantly, a player hindrance is not simply a lack of a nudge. It is an active change in output from what the player expects that makes the player perform worse. It is not like the examples of Banjo Kazooie or Dark Souls given in the previous article, in which the player likely fails frequently exclusively as a result of their actions, rather than the corrective measures of the game engine.

A nudge can be either a player aid or a player hindrance. I’ll start with a discussion of games with player aids and then move on to a discussion of games with player hindrances.

Games with Player Aids

Player aids exist to make certain potentially difficult aspects or portions of a game easier for the player to accomplish. They are most effective when a task that might be difficult for the average player is not difficult for the avatar the player is controlling. The player aid turns this task into something trivial to accomplish, maintaining the narrative consistency of a game by continually establishing the competency of the character. There are many games that have done this over the past years, notably the Batman Arkham games as well as the Assassin’s Creed games, so many readers are likely familiar with the gameplay I’ll be describing. I will go over two examples of player aids, and then discuss an example of something that potentially looks like a player aid, but is not.

The first example of a player aid hearkens back to the introduction of Part I, discussing the antics of bridge-crossing between Banjo Kazooie and Assassin’s Creed. I’d like to take a moment to look at a related set of circumstances in Assassin’s Creed: whenever the player is making Altair jump off of a building. Usually, the city of an Assassin’s Creed game is such that there is a convenient building to jump onto, or an even more convenient cart full of hay to dive into (and somehow stay completely uninjured, but we’ll ignore that complaint for now). For the sake of example, let’s imagine that the only safe landing space when jumping off a building is one cart full of hay on the ground. If the player runs directly toward the cart, Altair will reliably jump off of the building and land in the cart. However, if the player misses the mark slightly, Altair will jump off of the building and somehow steer his course, mid-fall, toward the cart, even though by the laws of physics in the real world he should have missed and landed with a nice splat on the hard ground. Each of these instances in which the player misses the path toward the cart of hay is a player aid: an enforcement on the part of the game mechanics of Altair’s status as an expert assassin who could not have made such silly mistakes—otherwise, he would have been dead long ago.

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Altair jumps into a hay barrel.

One will note that the pattern I described in the previous paragraph holds for an uncooperative player as well as for a less-than-competent player. If the player intentionally attempts to miss the safe landing, the game’s engine corrects the player’s actions to be more narratively consistent. I have personally attempted to cause disasters in Assassin’s Creed, and can note from experience that one must actively attempt to cause harm to Altair in order to do so, as the game liberally aids an uncooperative player to a safer output than the one she was attempting to incur. In this case, input X is forcibly shifted from output Y, the output in which Altair is hurt, to output Z, in which Altair is not injured, even though the player did not want this to occur.

Another example of a player aid is seen frequently across shooters on consoles: aim assist, which is any instance of a game engine helping the player to shoot at enemies, rather than shooting into thin air. While aim assist often exists simply for the purposes of making multiplayer shooting games balanced across skill levels, or just making a shooter game more approachable for beginners, aim assist (lack thereof) often serves an important purpose in narrative consistency as well.

To see how aim assist can act as a player aid, first note that it fits the mechanical model described in Part I. The player can try to move her targeting in any particular direction, and when an enemy target is not on screen, the engine consistently moves the targeting in the direction of the player’s input. However, when an enemy target is onscreen, the game engine aids the player by making an output that differs from the direction of the player’s input, so as to make the player aim at the enemy target. In this way, in some circumstances input X, which often yields output Y, yields output Z instead.

What we need now to see how aim assist can be a player aid is motivation for why aim assist may preserve narrative consistency. Rather than point out a particular game for which this is the case, I will construct a category of games in which aim assist preserves narrative consistency. Imagine any game in which the protagonist is a well trained, expert marksman. For any game in which this is the case, aim assist will preserve narrative consistency, because expert marksmen rarely, if ever, miss. Aim assist works to prevent, to a degree, an incompetent or uncooperative player from undermining the expert status of the marksman.

In contrast, if a game features a protagonist with little-to-no training with guns, it would not make sense narratively to include aim assist. Aim assist would actually make the protagonist too competent, and would thereby undermine narrative consistency.

To further understand what player aids are, it will help to see an example of something that one might initially think is a player aid, but actually is not. Many games with action-filled cutscenes, such as Resident Evil 4, Uncharted, and even Final Fantasy XIII-2, have sections that demand user input in the form of action commands. These are sections of gameplay in which the player acts by pressing a button in response to a visual input on-screen. In response to a single button press, a player may run up the arm of a goliath while dodging bullets, do a backflip over an Indiana-Jones-style boulder rolling down a hill, or deliver a finishing blow to an enemy. These sections are usually designed to allow for player involvement during sections of gameplay in which the actions being performed by the protagonist are too actiony and cinematic for normal gameplay. Initially these seem like they may be player aids, in the sense that the game engine is making it almost atrociously easy for the player to perform incredible feats.

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Leon prepares to dodge a boulder.

However, cutscenes with action commands do not thereby contain player aids, because these sections always have one specific output for the player’s input. If a player presses ‘B’ in response to some prompt, for instance, this button press is mapped to a specific output, there is no potential other output that might occur. Because of the one-to-one mapping of player input to game output, there is no nudge taking place. A nudge requires a shifting of output that is not occurring in this case. Simply making some complicated avatar action easier for a player to accomplish is not equivalent to a player aid. A player aid fundamentally changes how a player controls her avatar by shifting the output of some input to something that better fits the narrative than the usual output. To use an analogy, one could think of player aids as a proofreading system akin to error-correcting on a smartphone. A game with player aids corrects the player’s output to what is more correct for the story, rather than simply making it easier to give the correct input to yield said output.

Games with Player Hindrances

A player hindrance exists to disrupt a player’s actions, making simpler tasks more difficult to complete. A game may include a player hindrance to show that a character has difficulty with or is unable to do something, regardless of player ability. They are most effective when the player is controlling a character who is in some way less able than some standard (as defined by the game) regardless of player ability. There is a variety of potential reasons for the gap in ability, usually having to do the current bodily status of the avatar—in particular, when a character is inebriated, in some way physically injured, or close to death. The difficulty in diagnosing a player hindrance, then, comes in correctly identifying what standard it is that the character is failing to live up to. I will go over two examples of a player hindrance, both from NieR: Automata, in which the standard being compared to is the normal functioning state of the avatar. Then I will go over one example from Resident Evil 4 that is more difficult to diagnose. Finally, I’ll discuss one crucial example of a situation that initially appears to be a player hindrance, but actually is not.

At several points in NieR: Automata (a game with multiple avatars), the player’s avatar, an android, is hacked, EMP’d, or injected with a computer virus. When these events occur, various capacities of the avatar get removed, from the ability to attack, to the ability to jump, to the ability to see shapes with edge detection. While there are several instances of this throughout the game, I will focus on one in particular: when 2B, one of the avatars in the game, is infected by a virus that is threatening to control her entirely, leaving her unable to operate normally, on the verge of death. Thus player hindrances are warranted in order to make clear that 2B is no longer able to control her own body sufficiently, regardless of the actions of the player.

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2B losing functionality from a virus.

In particular, when attempting to walk in a straight line, 2B will suddenly stop in her tracks, and sometimes when attempting to stop, 2B instead just keeps running forward. In this way, the player’s usual input can yield one of two outputs, either stopping or continuing moving forward, in a way that is not predictable to the player. The simple task of moving from one spot on the map to another becomes significantly more difficult, regardless of player ability, and so we can say that this section of the game contains player hindrances so as to preserve the narrative of 2B losing control of her body.

Again in NieR: Automata, the avatar is at times a robot with only very limited maneuverability, in contrast to the usual android avatar, who is very agile. The agency of the robot is much less than that of the android, evidenced by the robots’ slow movement speed, simple attack patterns, and a camera angle close to the robot that doesn’t allow for much peripheral vision. While the player is “hindered” in that she is less able to act through the avatar than before, these are not player hindrances: they are simply instances of the player being given fewer options, or simply fewer effective options, in accomplishing any particular task. They are akin to an avatar getting into a car: the control scheme and abilities of the avatar change, but that does not constitute a nudge in the gameplay. Changes in control scheme are not instances of player hindrance.

One particular way in which the player will be hindered by the gameplay when playing as the robot is when attempting to carry a bucket of oil. Usually, the robot can walk over pipes on the ground without falling over, but this action causes the robot to fall over when carrying a bucket full of oil on its head. In this way the output for the player’s input has shifted, meeting the first requirement to call this gameplay a player hindrance. Initially, the shifting output is surprising for players, who do not expect carrying a bucket of oil to be sufficient reason for tripping and falling over a pipe. But, the gameplay reinforces the narrative conceit that many of the robots are weak and relatively incapable individually. In this way the shift in output is narratively impactful: it shows that carrying a bucket of oil is a sufficient hindrance for the robot that even skilled player inputs cannot lead to success at walking over a pipe. The robot’s status as a pathetic being is at least maintained, if not more forcefully asserted, by this moment.[2]

In both of the examples given above, the avatar is not able to operate at their usual standard, in the case of 2B because of her near-death state, and in the case of the robot because of carrying a bucket on its head. But the “standard” that a character is not living up to does not actually have to be inherent to the character themselves. To see this let’s consider another example. Those who have played Resident Evil 4 may remember that the protagonist Leon Kennedy’s aim with a gun is often not great. When the player pulls out a firearm, even when giving no input, the location that Leon is aiming can move in any direction: up, down, left, right, and any diagonal mixture of these. So one can see that the first part of the definition of a nudge has been met: when the user is giving an input (in the form of no input), any of many directional movements of the gun is possible.

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Leon (attempts) to aim at an enemy.

There are three potential ways in which this gameplay could maintain narrative consistency. One might initially think that perhaps Leon is not trained in using a firearm, and thus it would not make sense for him to have rock-steady aim. But this theory does not seem correct, since Leon was trained first as a police officer and then as a special forces agent. So his aim should in theory be very good. One might then be tempted to think that the explanation for his terrible aim is the frightening situation that he is in, fighting for his life against parasitically controlled people and monstrosities wielding chainsaws. But again, this theory isn’t coherent plotwise, as Leon must have been trained to manage his fear in combat situations as part of his training as a special forces agent.

Many players do not consider the third potential reason for Leon’s terrible aim, which I will explain in the following paragraph; as a result, these people believe that either Leon must be either a terrible shot or a coward. The lack of explanation for Leon’s terrible aim has plagued the impression that people have of him since the game’s release. Many people explain the existence of the nudge as being indicative of Leon’s actual incompetence, even though his attitude and demeanor appear competent. I recognize this as a weakness for the game: it’s easier to embrace the idea that Leon is incompetent than to recognize the larger theme that Leon’s shaky hand speaks to.

In the Resident Evil series as a whole, there is an idea that, in order to improve humanity and win wars, one must create biological enhancements for people as well as biological weapons. Many of the game’s villains describe normal humans as inept and/or weak. Leon’s shaky hand speaks directly to this theme, and grounds the player in the body of a human person (albeit a very well trained human person), who is subject to imperfections and up against biologically enhanced enemies. The fact that Leon’s aim is bad maintains the consistency of the idea that Leon is physically inferior in various ways to his enemies, and only stays alive through clever use of weapons, supplies, and his own smarts. The gameplay has less to do with Leon as a person, and speaks more to the world in which he is embedded. The standard that Leon does not live up to ends up being the standard of the ideal military combatant, which in the world of Resident Evil must be biologically mutated/enhanced.[3]

One may worry that this analysis is problematic in that presumably every character in a story has uncountably many arbitrary standards to live up to, and since these standards don’t all align, the character must be failing to meet at least one of these standards. In this way it would appear that all gameplay should be instances of player hindrances. But this is clearly not the case, since intuition tells us that most gameplay is not a player hindrance. This is where narrative consistency comes into play. The narrative should define the specific standard out of the uncountably many out there that the character is not meeting, so as to justify the use of a player hindrance.

In the case of Resident Evil 4, this standard is created through dialogue with a character named Lord Saddler in particular. At one point Saddler shoots down a helicopter arriving to rescue Leon and says “Don’t tell me you’ve never swatted a bothersome fly! In essence, it’s the same thing… When you’ve acquired this power, you too will understand.” Through this line, Saddler communicates to Leon that humans are no better than insects, and that there is a power greater than humanity out there to subscribe to. Leon does not meet the standard of this greater power. Leon’s shaky hand keeps this narrative consistent to make it believable that a power greater than humans—greater than Leon—could conceivably exist out there.

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Lord Saddler.

As evidenced by the example of Resident Evil 4, player hindrances can be tricky to diagnose, for it isn’t always clear whether there is a standard within a narrative that an avatar is failing to meet. Further, player hindrances are uncommon: outside of characters who are in some way gravely injured, intoxicated, or afraid, or simply incompetent, it is difficult to imagine when a player hindrance might be used. This is especially true since players tend to find player hindrances frustrating, and so developers have a tendency not to design them, as evidenced by the number of players who bitterly complained about Leon’s aiming in Resident Evil 4, followed by the subsequent removal of this feature from the studio’s future games.

Now that we’ve considered some games that incorporate player hindrances, let’s nail down exactly what player hindrances are by considering a game that initially might appear to be one in which player hindrances are warranted, but actually is not. One may be tempted to think that the example of Octodad, from Part I of this series, may be a game that would benefit from player hindrances. As a reminder to the reader, Octodad is a game about an octopus masquerading as a normal human suburban father and somehow succeeding. The game has intentionally very difficult controls, so as to put the player in the shoes of the octopus. The player’s experience navigating the difficult controls mirrors that of an octopus trying with only minimal success to be a human father. However, there is a crucial reason that Octodad does not fit in the schema of games that benefit from player hindrances.

The games with player hindrances discussed above all drive home that the avatar is unable to perform some particular action regardless of the input of the player. In the case of Octodad, however, a key part of the narrative is that somehow the octopus manages to successfully act in the role of the human father, even though there are numerous physical difficulties present in doing so. Unlike the example of 2B given above, the octopus father actually does manage to accomplish his goals so long as the player succeeds, even with all of the obvious obstacles in his way.

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Octodad shrugs.

The intrigue comes from the hilarious attempt of the player to succeed at being a normal human father even with the intentionally difficult controls. As mentioned in Part I, to introduce nudges into this gameplay would take the player out of the shoes of the octopus. Like the octopus, the player must fail of their own merit, rather than being forced to fail by a player hindrance. If the player were forced to fail, the nature of the story would be very different.

A Non-Obvious Similarity Between Player Aids and Player Hindrances

The reader may notice an apparent discrepancy between player hindrances and player aids. It initially appears as though player hindrances are always relative to some standard, whereas player aids are more “absolute” in that they do not seem to be tied to any particular standard. This is actually not the case. Both player aids and player hindrances are relative to standards. But with player aids there is not much need to specify the standard in question, since it is relatively easy for most people to recognize an avatar with superhuman capabilities (notice the implicit standard of “human” in the word “superhuman”). In contrast, in order to understand a player hindrance, especially those similar to the Resident Evil 4 example where the standard is something the character ought to meet, it tends to be necessary to more explicitly identify the standard. So while identifying a standard seems to be less pertinent in analyzing a player aid than a player hindrance, the difference does not arise out of the theoretical grounding of these terms, but rather just the process of analysis.

Conclusion

In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve defined nudgy controls, considered games that importantly do not use nudges, and considered how some games use nudges in one of two forms, player aids and player hindrances. In Part III, we will explore how this paradigm of game controls allows us to better understand the challenging control scheme of The Last Guardian.

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


[1] Thank you to my good friend Luke Wellington for the suggestion of this term as it applies to helpful nudges, as well as providing criticism to my first article which led to its theoretical grounding.

[2] As an aside, from a game design perspective, this particular choice is designed to be frustrating. The designers know that the player has no way within the game itself of knowing that the robot will trip in these contexts. When the player takes these actions to save time (as the environment is set up in a way that encourages these actions to make traversal faster), the player will spill the oil and waste time. This sort of design decision is frustrating for players, and many developers avoid it so as to keep their players from quitting playing the game. The designers of NieR: Automata likely designed this section intentionally with the goal of frustrating the player in mind so as to put the player in the shoes of the robot.

[3] Thanks to Brendan Gallagher for pointing out that this analysis is not canonical or based on the author’s intent. My analysis is agnostic to author intent, and with that disclaimer the argument presented should hold.

Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games

-by Laila Carter, Featured Author. The following article is based on Laila’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Horror is always an interesting genre: it subverts all the norms that we are used to, goes against human nature, and forces us to confront our own fears. When video games embrace horror, they enable players to willingly embark on a journey that thrives off of dread, thrills, the grotesque, the abnormal, and the contrary. What I want to explore is the storytelling elements behind this, and how the horror genre has transversed different media, from the ancient myths all the way down to present-day media. Storytelling tropes come together in gaming in a fascinating way, creating the fundamental aspect of the horror gaming genre: something that I term “Daemonic Warped Space.” Various mythological elements correlate to various aspects of this idea: specifically to the warped, to the daemonic, and to the combination of the two. In the paper, I will explore how this is the case, demonstrating how ancient and modern mythological tropes can produce horror atmosphere in the present-day storytelling of video games.

Mythological Roots: Horror Tropes

In ancient mythology, the first stories ever told, certain events or occurrences appear in several cultures, thus establishing themselves as common myth anecdotes. Whether these elements were shared between cultures or came about separately in isolation, these anecdotes are widely recognized and still used to this day. Here, we will examine three of these anecdotes in order to understand how they form the atmosphere of the horror genre.

One of the most prominent motifs in almost all mythologies is the descent to the underworld. A hero must embark down into the abyss, into the land of the dead to encounter its mysteries and overcome some obstacle that is keeping her from progressing. The Underworld is the most famous type of “Otherworld” – a supernatural realm of spirits, of the soul. It is a realm opposite to reality, one that makes regular mortals question their judgment, sanity, and existence. Most of the time, the Underworld is portrayed in a religious light since the afterlife is one of the greatest mysteries in all faiths. The Underworld can be Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory in the middle (like in Dante’s The Divine Comedy); it can be Limbo, the Spirit World, the Realm of Shadows, or it can be Hades in Greek mythology. But it doesn’t have to be religious: the Underworld is simply a place of no return, where the spirits of those forgotten tend to wander; if characters ever do escape, they come back up as changed people (and if they don’t escape, then the story is badly written). It is Frodo’s journey into the horrid land of Mordor, where the land is covered in ash, fire, and brutality; it is Limbo – the deepest layer of dreams – in the movie Inception; it is Harry Potter’s literal death and meeting with Dumbledore one last time. The Underworld may appear very differently in each medium, but each place has one thing in common: the realm serves as a place of spiritual undertaking, forcing the hero to deal with internal struggles and psychological roadblocks, whether those be identity crises, relationship issues, or lack of faith in others or oneself. As Clyde W. Ford says:

“Mythological journeys of descent into the world of the dead are symbolic of movement from the light world of ordinary reality to the dark world of the unconscious; there, just as when we fall asleep, we die to the world of wakeful consciousness and awake to the marvelous world of evanescent forms and symbols within. The challenge met by those who successfully travel these corridors of the psyche is to claim some boon or gift from this inner realm: an insight or revelation that will release the energies pent up in the labyrinths of personal and social crises; the marker of a new direction that offers reinvigoration where old ways have grown stale” (Ford, 20).

Once you enter the Underworld, it is very hard to escape. Successful characters learn to look within themselves for the way out of this haunting, confusing, and dreaded place. The hero’s descent, then, is not only to uncover whatever secret she needs to in order to progress in her physical quest, but also to overcome her fears and the crisis of mortality. She must accept who she is, including her faults, yet also realize her potential for growth—that it is not her time yet to stay in the land of the dead, but rather to find meaning in the descent as a way to challenge her current mindset and change it for the better. The journey to the Underworld helps the character cross the threshold into a “personal land of the dead…dying one’s former self so that a new self may be born in its stead” (Ford, 26). The character must confront the personal hell within herself before she can save the day. This does not necessarily mean defying death outright (though sometimes it does), but more of accepting death as a possibility. Characters learn to let themselves change in order to succeed in the normal world, whether they initially like it or not.

The descent to the Underworld is such a universal theme that is appears in almost every single mythology that exists: heroes rescuing (or attempting to rescue) their loved ones from death, immortals dying and becoming gods of the Underworld, or demigods trying to prove their resistance to death and courage. A famous example of the descent to the Underworld lies in the Odyssey. Odysseus must travel down to Hades in order to figure out how to get back home and restore his life. He meets all the fallen heroes of the Trojan War, as well as his late mother; from them, he learns to be a bit wiser, and to take a good look at what it means to be a (Greek) “hero.” Was the glory from the Trojan War really worth it? Does acquiring riches and killing all those people amount to such glory? Odysseus takes these questions to heart, and because of this, he is able to approach the problems at home with a new perspective, enabling him to win the “glory” of his home with tactics different from the Trojan War (except at the very end, but that’s always controversial). The Underworld and the meeting of the dead help Odysseus succeed in completing his goal of returning home and protecting his family. He has to overcome inner struggles and change his old self into a different man before he can leave to continue on his quest.

The second mythological trope of horror is hard to explain, given its nature. The Unspeakable “It” is a presence that permeates throughout the entire setting, invading all space with its terrible presence. This entity is usually never directly seen, but instead felt: the character is overcome with an inexplicable sense of dread as she feels something on her skin, something watching her every move—yet she cannot say what that something is. The Unspeakable “It” is an amorphous being contaminates the very air you breathe and surrounds you with its unsetting power. It has no shape or boundary, and it tends to make up its own rules as it grows into something overwhelming. There is no true escape from this creature: there is only unwilling acceptance, complete assimilation, or mad obsession.

The Unspeakable “It” appears in all forms of storytelling, though some incarnations are much subtler than others. In mythology, this creature can be a force of evil that constantly tries to consume the world—for example, the chaos god Apep from Egyptian mythology. It can also be a being who exists throughout the whole world and is not constrained to one specific place, like Gaea from Greek mythology. Many times, the Unspeakable “It” is simply “The Darkness” or “Chaos” with a capital ‘C’, as nothing else can really describe such forces. They just exist and usually try to thwart the heroes of the story. The most famous portrayal of this mysterious entity, however, comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraftian horror appears at the very beginning of the story and never leaves: it haunts the narrative to the very end, even if the characters somehow “kill” it (spoiler: Lovecraftian monsters never truly die. Their existence is permanent throughout the world). These monsters are made of a conglomerate of pieces, from tentacles to eyeballs, from disjointed arms and legs to inhuman mouths, from ordinary animals to creatures never seen before by a human.[1] These monsters can be unimaginable, as Lovecraftian himself can barely describe the creatures in his stories – they do not fit into a coherent description that humans would comprehend. For example: “It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualised by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions” (“The Dunwich Horror”). Most importantly, Lovecraftian horrors are ancient, huge, and everywhere. When describing his creature Yogo-Sothoth, Lovecraft states that it “was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike” (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”). Lovecraft’s horror features creatures of unimaginable amalgamation and limitless possibility, threatening the entire earth and space as we know it.

Like Lovecraft’s monsters, the Unspeakable “It” is a “kind of force that doesn’t belong in our part of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws than those of our sort of Nature” (“The Dunwich Horror”). It is an entity that invades our world like a parasite, consuming and overtaking everything in its virus-like corruption. The best thing to do it get rid of it as quickly as possible; however, you can never truly destroy the horror that is the Unspeakable “It,” because once it’s here, it is here to stay.

The last mythological story element we will consider is the Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. Blaming Athenians for the death of his son, King Minos of Crete required seven young men and seven young women from Athens to feed to his Minotaur—an abominable half-man, half-bull—as payment. After the second round of sacrifices, Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, decides to go as as one of the young men in order to kill the horrible beast and end the sacrifices. Unfortunately, the Minotaur resides in a labyrinth created by the genius inventor Daedalus, and escaping from its confusing halls is impossible. Luckily for him, Theseus has the help of Princess Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, who gives him string so that he can retrace his steps to escape the labyrinth. Theseus navigates the complex maze, kills the Minotaur, and becomes a legendary hero.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Unspeakable “It” trope have features of obvious relevance to the horror genre, but The Minotaur and the Labyrinth might instead seem like a very specific, heroic story. I argue that the monster-living-within-a-hostile-environment narrative is one of the main elements of horror, one that makes a story enticing and tense. The Minotaur knows the layout of the Labyrinth, having lived there all its life, while Theseus does not. He, and others before him, had a great disadvantage as they had to navigate an environment that was foreign, confusing, and treacherous. The Athenians did not know the “puzzle” of the Labyrinth, whereas the Minotaur could easily find its way around. Theseus had to figure out a trick to solving the puzzle (i.e. using the string) in order to survive. However, unlike Theseus, many characters have a hard time finding “string” in their world’s labyrinth. These characters did not have outside help, and instead had to make their own string—sometimes on the spot, and other times through dangerous games of trial and error. All the while, they must escape from a terrifying force that wishes to destroy them. The danger can take place in a literal maze, like in the story The Maze Runner (which is the entire plot of the book). For a more figurative type of labyrinth in the same genre, The Hunger Games presents an open world of survival; there is no “maze” per se, but the setting remains hostile and foreign to Katniss, filled with murderous enemies and lacking any plausible means of escape.

For a more concrete example of the Minotaur and Labyrinth trope, in Neil Gaiman’s fiction book Coraline, Coraline must somehow find a way out of a distorted world that mirrors her own small neighborhood: a world that is controlled by the Other Mother, a grotesque, button-eyed figure who wishes to consume the girl’s soul. Coraline must traverse the twisted and changing hallways of her Other house, encountering decaying forms of her Other Father and neighbors, and saving her parents from the dark distortions of space and shadows. The Other Mother created the eerie version of the house and watches Coraline at all times—she knows the “labyrinth” that Coraline has to navigate, and is fully aware of the girl’s every move, putting Coraline at a severe disadvantage. Coraline also has no string at the start of the perilous journey, no way of knowing how to defeat the Other Mother and escape her realm; over time, however, she manages to overcome her fears, find a few allies, and collect resources to fight against the Other Mother and escape.

The Minotaur and Labyrinth story element, when used in horror, creates an atmosphere that keeps the reader/audience on the edge of their seats. The monster and the setting have combined into one force that the heroes must overcome in order to succeed, even though the monster has the advantage of knowing where it is in terms of space and time, while the heroes do not.

Horror Atmosphere: The Daemonic Warped Space

Next, I am going to discuss atmosphere in horror, because it is arguably the most important storytelling aspect to the genre. Horror (good horror, at least) has a specific type of atmosphere, one that creeps directly into the skin and leaves readers/viewers/players on the edge of their seat, not trusting anything that they see or hear.

The first element of horror atmosphere deals with the setting of the narrative: the Warped Space. In his essay “Lewtonian Space: Val Lewton’s Films and The New Space of Horror,” J.P. Tellote explains distorted or “warped” space as “the site of those ‘subject/object disturbances’ that distort our conventional experience of space and open onto a decidedly disturbing world” (Tellote, 5). The conventional setting—something the audience expects—has twisted into a new environment, one filled with unknown variables and situations, one that the audience does not recognize and thus fears. These spaces are “‘not empty, but full of disturbing objects and forms’, yet not so much real objects as amorphous projection of ‘all the neuroses and phobias of the modern subject’…(Vidler2000:viii)” (3), meaning the space of the medium distorts reality with the viewer’s own fears and imagination. People see one thing on the screen—an open doorway, oddly placed furniture, or a long dark hallway—but they project “phobias” that linger in their minds, creating a twisted space that blurs the objective reality on the screen and the personal fears of the audience. Lewtionian space has the “ability to place [viewers] in a space where the imagination is free to play – and to confront our very fears” (6). The space plays with the vulnerability of the human psyche. It leaves people to their own horrors, to their inner demons, and lets their fears run wild without any way of justifying their existence. This space “warps” the rational and the irrational, blurring the line between logical understanding and madness, preying on the audience’s fear of concealing darkness, eerie emptiness, and strange camera movement. The audience projects imaginative horrors into these spaces, and they then have no choice but to confront them.

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This irrationality of human fear ties into the concept of the “daemonic,” the second element of horror atmosphere. The daemonic is something Eugene Thacker describes as “fully immanent, and yet never fully present…[the daemon] is at once pure force and flow, but, not being a discrete thing itself, it is also pure nothingness” (Thacker 35). In this conception, daemons are not physical creatures with horns, hooves, and pointed tails; instead, they occupy no space, have no physical presence, and are something that humans can neither touch nor describe. They are a force parallel to our human existence, much like abstract concepts of chaos, luck, or, in this case, nothingness. As a non-human entity, daemonic force is “a limit…both that which we stand in relation to and that which remains forever inaccessible to us. This limit is unknown, and the unknown, as the genre of horror reminds us, is often a source of fear or dread” (27). Daemonic force is so against the natural laws of the world that it doesn’t exist in the same realm as we do, and yet human existence is defined and haunted by its presence. It is everything we are not. This situation of a non-human and intangible force that violates all the known laws of nature frightens us, for it is human nature to fear anything that is not like us, especially if its features remain a complete enigma. Humans cannot grasp the concept of the daemonic and they never will, but it is a force that constantly surrounds them. In order to understand human existence in the horror genre, we must acknowledge the presence of the daemonic.

In horror literature, film, and gaming, the two concepts of Warped Lewtonian space and the daemonic force fuse together that twists the environment into a twisted version of imagined, psychological fear. Everything combines into one realm, one entity that I call the “Daemonic Warped Space”: A place not empty, but filled with forces that are both incomprehensible and inaccessible to humans, forces that distort our perception of reality and fantasy. This new setting is everywhere; both physical and mental, it will follow the characters as an encompassing entity with a mind of its own. Characters can never touch or restrain it because of its ubiquity. The Daemonic Warped is both the hideous monster waiting to attack, and the creaking walls that trap the character within. It is both the darkness that hides everything in shadow, and the hallucinations stemming from a character’s tormented psyche. It is the embodiment of a character’s limit, subconsciousness, and fears, and it is nearly inescapable. The Daemonic Warped space is crucial to the horror genre because it forms the fundamental basis of good narrative atmosphere: it becomes an entity itself in the fictional world, trapping the characters in a living nightmare in its distorted yet contained presence.

Mythology and Atmosphere: The Storytelling of Horror Gaming

We have discussed three mythological elements that appear in horror storytelling, along with the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space. These all relate to each other and work together to create the foundation of storytelling in horror fiction, specifically in video games.

The Journey to the Underworld trope remarks on the setting of a hero’s journey, forcing the character to travel down into the world of the soul and the unconscious. The Underworld, then, is a Warped Space: a place of the dead and the supernatural, where a living being creates a conflict of existence between life and death, the physical and the mental, consciousness and dreams. In horror gaming, this descent into the Warped Underworld is the basis for the entire game. The goal for the player is to find a way out and survive the ordeal.

The Journey to the Underworld and the Warped Space come together in the murky, crawling city of Rapture in the video game BioShock. Rapture is a new place, both to the avatar, Jack, and to the player; it is a place with different rules and norms. It is a city at the bottom of the ocean, built in the 1946 and initially capitalizing on the American ideals of prosperity and success in its early days. However, when Jack descends into the city, its corridors are devoid of life and instead filled with corpses. Messages in blood are splattered across the walls, used weapons lie everywhere, and the glass walls separating Jack from the ocean groan against the silence of the city. Not only does the city subvert the norm by existing at the bottom of the ocean, but it is then distorted even further by its emptiness (a city is supposed to be busy, filled with people), its violent backstory, and its murderous inhabitants that have strayed away from both sanity and humanity. Unlike Odysseus, who travelled to the Underworld willingly, the player and Jack are thrown down into this world with neither an explanation nor any way of escaping. They confront the dark and eerie halls of Rapture with no clue as to what they are fighting or why, and yet they know they must fight simply in order to survive.

Rapture also distorts the very concepts of life and death. The life of the ocean surrounds the bloody massacre in the city, creating a conflict of existence between the living and the dead. This is also seen with the existence of Jack himself: (mostly) everyone else in the game is dead, and yet somehow you (Jack/the player) are still alive. You have to survive in a place that has been consumed by greed, corruption, and destruction. Welcome to the Underworld: a land of the dead that doesn’t greet the living lightly, where escape is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. Rapture is a city warped by death and fear, causing the player to doubt every corner, every character, and every action they take.

Both Jack and the player have no idea as to what is happening or why they are in Rapture in the first place. All they know is they somehow have to get out of the horrid, decrepit place before someone out for blood kills them. The player must survive and press forward in order to discover the secrets of Rapture, of Adam, and of Jack, someone about whom the player has very little information. Rapture, then, represents a realm of complete mystery, one that you must unearth as you proceed through the game. It is the embodiment of the Jack’s troubled psyche, dark from his amnesiac state and corrupted by his haunting previous life. His subconscious leaks into the atmosphere of the place, reminding him and the player of his tortured and distorted childhood, of his criminal tendencies, and of his “hacked” mind.[2]

During one moment in the game, the player finds the powerful shotgun lying in the middle of the floor. Once Jack equips the new weapon, however, all the lights shut off. The player can hear footsteps and sounds emanating all around, and tenses—an ambush is coming. A spotlight then switches on, lighting a small circle of the room while the outside remains covered in pitch black; from this cover, enemies pop out and attack. This switching off of the lights and revealing only a small portion of the scene portrays Rapture’s trickiness as a whole, and how the city messes with Jack’s mind throughout the game. Jack will remain “in the dark” about certain people or history of the city (and of his past), only gaining concrete knowledge through audio recordings that deliver snippets of information. The player can choose to ignore these audio logs and proceed through the game blindly, or he/she can slowly piece together the misses pieces of the puzzle, “illuminating” the story bit-by-bit. Rapture, however, will only show the parts of the story that it wants to show, not giving Jack what he wants—his past in Rapture—until the end. Before that, the avatar must deal with the “patches of light” that make his path clear, that clear up his mind about the truth of the city, and that help him discover who he is as a person. The rest of the city, though, will remain in the dark throughout much of the game, where hauntings of the city and of Jack’s past sneak out and try to destroy him. Rapture portrays Jack’s distorted psyche, and he must descend into its darkest corners in order to escape its traps and leave the demented place behind.[3]

If the Journey to the Underworld and the Warped space complement each other in storytelling, then the Unspeakable “It” Trope and the Daemonic do as well. Both the Unspeakable “It” and the Daemonic permeate the entire setting, existing everywhere and with no chance of escape. Both come together as one force in the horror games, as a monster that is both in the walls and has a physical form, hiding just around the corner waiting to scare you.

The Unspeakable “It” and its Daemonic presence appear in several games where the enemy is seemingly everywhere yet nowhere: In Metroid Fusion, the X parasite inhabits every biological organism and hunts you. In System Shock 2, the Many infect the dead to attack the protagonist while SHODAN hacks into cyberspace throughout the game. In Bloodborne, everything is a Lovecraftian horror waiting to pull you into its sick realm. Yet one game in particular stands out for portraying the Daemonic, Unspeakable “It.” SOMA, by Frictional Games, follows Simon throughout the claustrophobic halls of PATHOS-II, a(nother) facility built underwater after an apocalypse occurred on the surface of earth. The moment he wakes up in this place, he is confronted with a slimey, tarish growth on the walls, one that pulsates and quivers to the touch. The substance is the far-reaching extension of the WAU, an organic AI computer that consumes the entire PATHOS-II research facility. The computer grows and expands on walls and through computers mainframes into horrid creatures (who were former humans), within both deceased and living staff members. It infects nearly everything, and all your actions/decisions are based on its looming presence that either helps or hinders your progress. Even when you (might) decide to “kill” it in the end, its murky goop is still present in the corridors, in the systems, and in Simon. The WAU will continue to live on, and humanity will be corrupted by its organic technology.

The ever-consuming presence of the WAU is due to its programming: the computer’s main goal is to “save” the remainder of humanity by integrating humans with itself. It amalgamates with any organic form, whether living or dead, to produce a being that can survive after the apocalypse. But, are these beings really human? At one point, Simon comes across a woman who is still questionably alive, for tubes and wire run through her body, and her breathing is synced with the WAU’s organic goo that she sits upon. Other encounters with humans show their organs completely replaced with gears, lights, and machines. Catherine, the AI copy of a previous human mind that you find, is infected with the WAU on the device that houses her. Even Simon replenishes his health through the WAU at specific sites, because he too is a copy of a former human mind. Barely anyone in the game is fully human anymore, and the player can feel this shift into non-humanness as the story develops. Simon cannot escape the ever-present WAU, both physically—as it covers the walls and blocks his path—and mentally—as it constantly makes him question what he is. Is Simon a copy of a human, or another extension of the WAU’s organic components? Is the WAU really “saving” humanity, even though it is taking away basic human parts? The computer and its effect on the PATHOS-II make Simon, Catherine, and player question what it means to be alive, serving as a questionable boundary of human existence. The WAU’s consuming appearance is the daemonic force that Simon and the player must survive against, one they cannot truly escape but which instead allows them to examine their complicated existence as human and machine.

Lastly, the atmospheric element of the Daemonic Warped Space corresponds to the mythological story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. With the Minotaur representing the Daemonic and the Labyrinth the Warped Space, both come together to illustrate the perfect balance of physicality and psychological tension that a good horror game needs in order to make the player fear for their virtual safety.

These two elements of horror will appear in every (good) horror game, but Amnesia: The Dark Descent masters the performance. The player must walk in the shoes of Daniel, an amnesiac who must wander through dungeon hallways in Brennenburg Castle in order to uncover the truth of his past. The corridors of the castle are all giant puzzles, which the player must “solve” in order to proceed forward, serving as the labyrinth that will eventually lead him to the “Minotaur” he has to defeat. Eventually, the player comes across the iconic monsters of the game: The Gatherers, deformed humanoid beings with disgusting, gaping mouths. Unlike the avatar in BioShock, however, Daniel cannot fight against the Gatherers. His only tactic for survival is to hide behind boxes or run to a safe area. Given this and the total eeriness of the mansion, the monsters and the setting of Amnesia: The Dark Descent create a collective sense of dread for the player. You must avoid the monsters in layered, environmental darkness, making the monsters hard to pinpoint. The darkness blocks the visibility of entire rooms sometimes, and yet the player can sense when a monster is present. Most of the time, all you have to go by are the sounds the Gatherers make, a door creaking open across the room, or soft footsteps. And, because of the nature of a labyrinth, it is incredibly hard to know when and where a monster will appear. The player can only move forward by guesses, inferences, and imagination. To make matters worse, Daniel cannot stay in the dark for too long or else he will lose his sanity, blurring the lines of reality and causing hallucinations to appear on the screen. Daniel does have a lantern to light his way through the complicated maze of the mansion, but this help is no Theseus’ string: the lantern needs to be constantly replenished with oil (a resource that’s hard to come by), and the Gatherers can spot you more easily with the light on. Darkness is both your friend and your enemy, helping you hide and helping the monsters finding you. Amnesia: The Dark Descent perfectly captures feeling of terror in a game where the monsters know the “puzzle” of the environment better than you do. The Gatherers understand the tricks and complexities of the maze-like hallways, and surprise the players in rooms with undiscovered entrances. They use the long hallways where darkness covers the end to ambush you; they conceal themselves in fog-filled rooms; and they corner you into one-way corridors filled with boxes, planks, and other items that thwart your progress and bring you closer to death. The Gatherers and the mansion work together as the Daemonic and the Warped Space to create the sensation of all-encompassing danger, consuming darkness, and inevitable death for the player, bringing out the sheer dread in anticipation of a monstrous encounter.

The Daemonic Warped Space works effectively if the two elements, the Daemonic and the Warped Space, are together. If they are separated, however, the atmosphere quickly falls apart. Unfortunately, this situation can be seen in The Dark Descent’s sequel, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. At one point, the enemy pigs, the equivalent of Gatherers, leave the manor where the avatar wanders and begin to attack the neighboring town. The initial setting of the Machine is now left behind as the avatar walks through a more open space of the outside village, hearing the massacre of the villagers by the various pigs off-screen. The once-horrible monsters have abandoned the space, no longer using the environment to their advantage; the setting is no longer blocking the player’s path and producing suspense situations around the mechanics of the game. The Daemonic and the Warped Space are no longer using each other to create the basic element of fear: the player does not feel threatened, and the horror of the situation is lost. In order to create the tense and chilling atmosphere of the horror genre, a game must keep the Daemonic and the Warped Space together. Only when the two play off each other’s strengths to create one dreadful enemy can a player be immersed in their own fear.

Conclusion

In closing, I will look back upon one of my favorite horror games, one that represents the ultimate form of the Daemonic Warped Space and demonstrates how effective it can be in a video game. P.T. is the perfect example of the daemonic forces and warped setting fusing together to produce pure terror in the minds of players. What the game so extraordinary is it was only a demo for a much longer game (that got cancelled!), and the player does not actually do anything in the demo except for keep walking. The Warped Space distorts onto itself and repeats, causing the player to walk down a seemingly endless loop of the same corridor. You are stuck in a weird limbo where the rules of reality collapse and the dark subconscious reigns. The hallway projects different phobias and scares in each iteration of the loop, growing darker each turn, having a once-closed bathroom door now open, or inputting a different sound in the air. The monster is nothing specific; rather, it is an unknown force that you cannot fight against. It keeps changing, and the threat against you is vague in nature, making it even more terrible. Yet the “force” of the daemonic feels everywhere, like it’s the very hallway itself because it keeps messing with you. You experience the Daemonic according to its own will: it produces fears and monsters regardless of your decisions, acting alive in its own hauntedness. The only way to overcome this loop nightmare is to keep journeying, surviving the loop and experiencing the sadistic presence. The continuous, warped hallway remains alive with the Daemonic and keeps morphing to throw you into further torment, producing scarier circumstances at each turn. Your psyche does all the work, trying to piece together the story, the monster, the setting, and the way to escape, yet halting when confronted with an unknown entity due to your imagined fear.

The best example of this occurs on the fifth iteration of the loop. You turn the corner to face the exit door, and instead spot the first being in the game standing your way: a deranged, mumbling, crooked woman sways in your path. You know approaching her is a bad idea, but that is the only way to continue. So you walk forward, and, right before you reach her, the lights shut off, leaving you in pure darkness. It is the most terrifying thing because the setting and the monster are both fooling with you, and you as the player know that there is nothing you can do about whatever will happen next. You simply must continue forward in a darkness where a monster may or may not be, and that is utterly horrifying. The Daemonic Warped Space is an essential atmospheric element to horror storytelling and gameplay mechanics, for it makes you confront the fear of the unknown, and, no matter how hard you try, you will be going against monsters beyond your control and knowledge—monsters that work with the dreadful environment to make your life absolutely miserable.

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Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] From “The Dunwich Horror”—Someone describing the invisible monster terrorizing the village: “‘Bigger’n a barn . . . all made o’ squirmin’ ropes . . . hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step . . . nothin’ solid abaout it—all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together . . . great bulgin’ eyes all over it . . . ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stovepipes, an’ all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’ . . . all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings . . . an’ Gawd in heaven—that haff face on top! . . .’”  http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/dh.aspx (Seriously, read this story).

[2] I am not trying to spoil the game entirely, but instead just hope to give readers a hint of the story. If you want to know more, you’ll have to play the game for yourself.

[3] Or not, depending which the ending the player gets.

 

 

Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

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Introduction

1990s 3-D platforming games were relatively difficult games, especially for my 3-year-old self. I distinctly remember playing Banjo Kazooie back in 1998. With my young, untrained fingers, it was simply impossible to walk across one of the many absurdly thin bridges spanning a dangerous gap without falling. But at that age my will was indomitable, and through countless hours of training, I became a master at crossing thin bridges. Platforming games became unilaterally easier at that point. I could apply the same skillset to each instance.

Then in 2007 Assassin’s Creed came out. Within the first hour of the game, I ended up in the same thin bridge predicament that I remembered so fondly from my days of playing mid-90s platformers for the Nintendo 64. As I set out across the bridge, I moved very slowly, ensuring that my camera was pointed straight ahead and I maintained exactly the course that I wanted.

Then I messed up. I got distracted and my thumb twitched ever so slightly. I mentally flinched, and awaited my inevitable plunge from the bridge. But that plunge never came. Altair remained perched on the bridge as if nothing happened. I stared in disbelief. I knew that I should have fallen.

But a thought occurred to me at that moment: Altair is an expertly trained assassin, not a bear named Banjo bumbling his way through the world. Why should he ever fall unexpectedly while crossing a thin path? How would he have survived his training and his missions up to this point? Maybe it was not actually possible to jump off the bridge.

I decided to test my theory, and try to jump off the bridge. Needless to say it didn’t work. The game prevented me from jumping off the bridge. But rather than be mad at the game for not placing trust in my ability to handle the mechanical difficulty of crossing the bridge, I was pleased. I was pleased because the game really put me in the shoes of the avatar. Altair is a master assassin, and as such needs to be more skilled than the 12-year-old who was controlling his actions as an avatar. By shaping the input I gave the game, the engine preserved the character of Altair.

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Authors have a difficult task in creating a narrative for a game. While the author is in command of a majority of the events in a game, there is a single variable which remains outside of their control: the player. The player’s actions are integral to the narrative of a game, and yet are by nature not within the control of the person who wrote the narrative of a game. But that does not necessarily leave the integrity of a game’s narrative to the whims of the player. In order to maintain a game’s narrative consistency, the believability of a story and the actions of the characters contained within, an author may introduce subtle nudges to the player’s actions. Not all games need to do this, however: some narratives are perfectly well maintained by a non-cooperative or incompetent player. But some narratives cannot afford the level of outside shaping to the narrative brought on by a player left entirely to their own devices.

The example I gave above is instructive because it shows how a game’s controls can be an important force in preserving, or not preserving, the narrative consistency of a game. If Altair had been able to fall, it undermines to a degree our ability as players to believe that he is an expert assassin. If Banjo never fell from ledges, maybe it would be hard to believe that we were playing as a human-like bear. By restricting (or noticeably not restricting) the ways in which the player can control the avatar, an author can maintain the consistency of the narrative being presented to the player.

There are many ways that control schemes can have an impact on the internal narrative consistency of a game. But in this and the following two articles, I would like to describe one particular concept: nudgy controls.

In the interest of defining nudges I would like to start by first defining what a game that lacks any nudges looks like. These are games in which an input X on the part of the player reliably yields an output Y within the game, so long as the physics of the engine allow it. For example, pushing left on the control stick always yields moving left, unless there is a physical wall blocking your path. There is a consistency to how the controls work. This is the example of Banjo who will reliably walk left in all situations when the player presses left, even if that results in him falling to his death.

Nudgy controls often resemble the paradigm described above, in that most of the time, an input of X yields output Y. However, in some cases, instead of input X yielding output Y, instead some other output, Z, is yielded. A nudge is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative coherence and Z preserves narrative consistency. As an example, most of the time when a player pushes left on the control stick, the avatar moves left. However, in some minority of cases the avatar instead moves forward. This is the example of Altair, who is nudged away from jumping off of the path to his death, presumably due to his training as an assassin.

Each individual instance of Y occurring instead of Z does not necessarily preserve narrative consistency. Context determines the effectiveness in this regard. The nudges in Assassin’s Creed help to preserve internal narrative consistency, while the same Y-to-Z conversions in Banjo Kazooie would actually undermine the internal narrative consistency. Thus the same mechanic used in Assassin’s Creed would that could be called a nudge would not be called a nudge in Banjo Kazooie. My definition of a nudge contains only the cases in which the instance of Y occurring instead of Z actually does preserve narrative consistency.

There are several kinds of games which maintain narrative consistency explicitly through lack of nudges. These games include:

  1. Trial-by-death games.
  2. Games with intentionally obtuse controls.
  3. Multiplayer skill tournaments

For the remainder of this article, I’ll go over these three types of games that don’t incorporate many nudges. In a follow-up article (Part II), I’ll discuss two differing models for nudgy controls.

  1. Trial-by-death games

A game’s mechanics can be described as trial-by-death if a majority of the gameplay consists of players dying at least once before success. There are a few possible reasons for the repeated player death. Through the death they could learn about a mechanic they could not have known without extra-gameworld knowledge before succeeding. In a puzzle game, there might be asymmetric information, such that the player cannot learn the solution to the puzzle without failing once at it. Or the game could just throw innovative, difficult challenges at the player that do not require a player death, but simply often result in it. These games are not simply “hard” in a conventional way; players usually cannot avoid dying entirely simply by learning some basic set of skills and mastering them. Unlike Pac-Man, which always features the same ostensive situation but with an ever-escalating degree of difficulty, a trial-by-death game will constantly change the nature of the challenges along with the difficulty.

In order for trial-by-death games to function properly, the player has to be sure that they can trace the effect of their death to their own actions. That way, given the new information they get from dying, they can change the way they play to not get killed again. This is one crucial reason for trial-by-death games not to have nudges in the controls. As the game designers at “Extra Credits” put it, studios like From Software (which created Dark Souls) make a “covenant with the player.” This covenant is that the game has a consistent ruleset. So the rules will not suddenly change, even in extenuating circumstances. If the player gets killed, they can always trace it back to their own actions, rather than pointing at the game engine and saying “it changed the rules.” The flipside is also true, though: if the player succeeds they can rightly congratulate themselves. But this sort of covenant with the player requires consistency in the controls. And so it precludes nudges. There should never be a moment in which input X could spit out either Y or Z. The player should always be sure of the output (if they’ve learned the game sufficiently). If there were nudges, it would be difficult for the player to diagnose the cause of their death, because they may be unsure about whether their own action or the nudge killed them. The inability to diagnose the problem would then lead to an inability to coherently change behavior for another try.

But the lack of nudges also can preserve narrative consistency in trial-by-death games. Dark Souls is an exemplar in this regard. As an undead in a world of gods and other undead, each task requires many attempts before success. By leaving the controls unhindered by nudges, narrative is preserved, since the player inevitably must try each task multiple times before success.[1] In this way the play experience parallels the avatar’s actions. Within the context of the game world, the avatar dies repeatedly attempting to accomplish his or her goal. The player as well most likely fails and tries again many times before success.

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

Dark Souls is not unique in being a game that benefits from a non-nudgy control scheme. There are other narratives for which non-nudgy control schemes contribute to narrative consistency. In Octodad, the player controls an octopus masquerading as a normal 1950s breadwinning human father. Octodad has a control scheme which is intentionally obtuse, in that the controls are unintuitive and difficult, yet faithfully respond to player input. In particular, there is a button that lifts his “leg” (which is actually a tentacle), a control stick to move said leg, another control stick to move his “arm” (again actually a tentacle), and many objects in the game are easy to knock over. The player’s difficulty navigating the obtuse control scheme mimics the experience of an octopus attempting with only minor success imitating the normal motions of a human.

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Needless to say, it’s very difficult to do. No nudges are necessary in Octodad because either a change from output Y to output Z would help the player control the octopus better, which is antithetical to the narrative of the game, or the change from Y to Z would further inhibit the player. While initially this may seem like a choice that would further enhance the narrative consistency of Octodad, I’d argue that actually wouldn’t be the case. In order to mirror the experience of the inept octopus, the player should also feel as though their own actions are not very effective by their own nature. If the player feels they are forced to fail, they will not be in the same sort of physical situation struggling with the controller as the octopus has in struggling with his body. The introduction of nudges does nothing to further maintain narrative consistency over leaving the game non-nudgy.

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

There exist a wide variety of games that could potentially be considered multiplayer skill tournament games, and any game that fits the archetype is well suited for a control scheme that lacks nudges. I define this category by its three primary features. First, it is a multiplayer game, meaning that multiple players participate in a game. Second, it is a competition of skill, meaning that within the narrative of the game, the most skilled competitor comes out victorious, leaving nothing to chance or sabotage by another player. Third, it takes place in a tournament environment, in which the central narrative thrust is the competition itself, rather than a narrative that contains within it a competition.

A multiplayer skill tournament game doesn’t use nudges because an inclusion of nudges would undermine the narrative of the game. A nudge may cause an of imbalance in the skill levels of the competitors who are controlled by players. This imbalance potentially makes a player question the validity of the victor of the tournament, and thus the narrative itself. One will note that in the absence of any one of the three conditions—that the game is multiplayer, that the game is skill-based, and that the game is a tournament—the requirement for nudge-less gameplay vanishes. A game that is not multiplayer could include non-player characters that are simply more or less skilled than the player. A game that is not skill-based (for instance a game based on randomness) does not require an even playing field. And if the narrative is not a tournament or simply contains a tournament within it, non-tournament aspects of the tournament may require nudgy controls.

There is nothing in particular that pins the multiplayer skill tournament to a particular genre, such as racing or fighting games. Presumably any multiplayer game could have the narrative and gameplay of a multiplayer skill tournament. However, in practice, one finds that only a particular subset of games have realized the multiplayer skill tournament. Those games are 1v1 fighters. There are numerous multiplayer games that one may think are multiplayer skill tournaments, but actually aren’t. I’ll begin by explaining some examples that may seem at first glance to fit the category but actually do not. Usually this is due to the game not satisfying the second requirement: that the game is purely a competition of skill

The first example is the least related to multiplayer skill tournaments out of what I’ll discuss, but it’s still instructive to consider it. Mario Party seems to be an instance of a game that is multiplayer, where the players compete in a game of skill to determine the victor. However, a significant portion of the results of the game are blatantly based on randomness as opposed to skill (evidenced by the constant die rolls). So Mario Party fails to meet the second requirement and so should not be considered a multiplayer skill tournament.

Another example that one may consider is Call of Duty, which features a set of players competing at a skill-based game to determine the victor. Call of Duty fails to meet the requirement in two important regards, though. Firstly, there is no notion of a tournament present in the narrative. More often, Call of Duty is about a single war, or various covert operations, which have far more complicated victory conditions than a single match between players (including civilian casualties, and political stability post-war). Secondly, due to the nature of the cruelty of war, there is an awareness that sometimes even the most skilled soldier is a random casualty of war. Within the narrative of a war game such as Call of Duty, there is an awareness of the possibility of random loss, since war is too complicated and messy. Sometimes the best soldier dies. I will not be considering Call of Duty to be a multiplayer skill tournament because of the random losses and lack of a tournament narrative.

One example that may initially seem to be a multiplayer skill tournament is a racing game. In principle, there is nothing preventing a racing game from fitting the category. If the game is multiplayer, the vehicles are roughly equal in power (however this is defined for a particular vehicle), and the narrative is that of a tournament, the game would fit the category quite nicely. However, this is not what you tend to see in practice. In racing games one tends to see one of two things: sabotage, or unequal vehicles. In the instance of sabotage, one character has somehow tampered with another character’s vehicle, skewing the results of the tournament. In this case, an author should probably introduce nudges to the gameplay to make clear that there is something preventing the player from fully realizing their skill. Often, as well, the different characters have clearly unequal vehicles, making it not the case that skill specifically is what determines the victor. If a racing game avoids these two problems, it would be a good candidate for a multiplayer skill tournament.

From these examples one can see how fitting the mould of a multiplayer skill tournament is a case-by-case basis. From here I will consider a set of games which nicely fit the category.

1v1 fighters are a paradigmatic example of a multiplayer skill tournament. There are many games that fit the 1v1 fighting game paradigm. A few notable examples include Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Although the category cannot be pinned down entirely, a majority of these games feature two players fighting against each other in two dimensions. There exist a wide variety of moves available to the player, some of which are activated by button combinations, or a specific sequence of button presses. These moves tend to be more powerful. In order to be successful at a 1v1 fighter game, a player must know three things: the powerful button combos, when it’s best to use any particular move, and how their opponent will likely play.

Most 1v1 fighters tend to share a similar narrative basis: a collection of fighters come together to compete in a tournament, where the winner takes all. A prototypical example of this would be the original Tekken, which features no overt story other than the existence of a tournament. While some of these games take characters from other stories, the narrative is more often than not framed in the fighting tournament schema, in which the strongest, most highly skilled fighter is the winner. And since the players are the participants of the tournament, acting as the fighters themselves, the most highly skilled player should always come out victorious. 1v1 fighting games realize this narrative by creating a cast of fighters who all have roughly equal potential for victory, and keeping the game as close to nudge-free as possible.

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All of these games share one key common feature: they are all designed to have a cast of roughly equally strong fighters. Due to the difficulty of that task, there is no 1v1 fighting game that is actually perfectly balanced between all the characters, but having a cast of equally powerful fighters is the end goal of the design of these games. Evidence of the goal is the constant “nerfing” of powerful characters, who are made a little weaker, and “buffing” of weaker characters to bring them up to par. The unachievable end state of fighting games is a set of characters all on a par with each other.

We can thus see that 1v1 fighters meet the essential requirements for a multiplayer skill tournament. Multiple players square off against each other, the victor is the one who is most skilled (given that the fighters are equally strong and/or fast), and the central thrust of the narrative is a tournament.

So why does a multiplayer skill tournament require nudge-less gameplay? What differentiates the winner from the loser is supposed to be the better player. Skill is what determines the winner. Let’s consider what happens when a developer introduces nudges that further hinder the player. In this case, the players can tell that they are being hindered from performing at the level they desire, similar to the case of an opponent sabotaging them. The players will feel less like skill is determining the outcome, and so the tournament no longer will feel like a competition of skill. In the case that the developers introduce nudges that actually help the player, then those players who are less skilled will have an artificial boost in skill. This is a problem because if these players should win, it would not be through skill, but rather through the benefit of nudgy controls, similar to the instance in the racing game of one character simply having the best car. Less experienced players will be able to achieve success without skill, to the detriment of the more skilled players. In both the instances of hindering and helpful nudges, introducing nudges into multiplayer skill tournaments is problematic. In order to maintain the narrative consistency of the worlds of multiplayer skill tournaments, in which the more skilled competitor is the winner, the game needs to be unhindered by nudges.

Conclusion

All three of the kinds of games I mentioned share one fundamental feature: they are all games in which the level of competence of the player is a necessary element in the narrative of the game. In trial-by-death games such as Dark Souls, the narrative of the game contains several instances of failed attempts by the player, and so narrative consistency is preserved by having a player transition from being incompetent at a task to be competent and then succeeding at that task. In Octodad, the controls are obtuse enough that a majority of players will be incompetent at the game in the same way as the octopus is incompetent at being a father. No nudges are necessary to realize this narrative. In multiplayer skill tournaments, the differentiator between fighters is supposed to be skill. By introducing nudges, a designer undermines the extent to which skill feels like the determinant of the course of the narrative. So introducing nudges would be counterproductive.

That does it for my discussion on games that are unhindered by nudges. In Part II I will discuss some examples of games that use nudgy gameplay to preserve their internal narrative structure.

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


[1] I prescind here from the obvious counterexample of people who have played Dark Souls many times, and so rarely die.