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.

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.

Pic1ZE.png

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.

CloverAxeEnding.png

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.

BranchingTimelineZE.png

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

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

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

Morphic Resonance and Gameplay

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

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

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

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

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

Why Does Player-Avatar Morphic Resonance Matter?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Citations

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

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

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

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

 

PAX Aus 2016, “Press X to Scream”: Full Presentation Content

With a Terrible Fate was honored to present a panel at PAX Australia 2016 entitled “Press X to Scream: Horror Storytelling in Video Games.” In the months since our presentation, we’ve been publishing our work from the panel in argument form, for the benefit of those viewers who were unable to attend. Now that all of the PAX Aus content has been published, we’ve aggregated it all in once place so that you can experience our entire presentation in written form.

  1. From PAX Aus: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Jump Scares
  2. Mythology, Horror, and the Unknown: Horror Traditions in Video Games
  3. Bloodborne, Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea
  4. From PAX Aus: Horror in Majora’s Mask
  5. From PAX Aus 2016: Guilt & Inequity in Silent Hill 2

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.

leapoffaith.jpg

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.

re4_dodge_rock_9059.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 12.20.25 PM.png

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.

Resident_Evil_4_Ganado_village.png

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.

saddler.jpg

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.

octodad yo.jpg

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.

The Tragic Irony of Final Fantasy XIII-2

Since the beginning of With a Terrible Fate, I’ve made passing comments about how deeply the storytelling of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy offended my sensibilities, both as a player and analyst of video games. On the first day of my three months analyzing Majora’s Mask, I discussed the Zelda game’s value by showing how it succeeded where Lightning Returns failed; when I discussed my fears about Square Enix dividing the Final Fantasy VII remake into multiple games, I cited the weak episodic storytelling of the XIII saga as prima facie reasons to worry about Square’s ability to tell one story across multiple games. Yet despite constantly using the XIII trilogy as fodder for broader critiques, I have never yet devoted an article to tackling the problems of the series head-on.

Well, with today at last marking the release of Final Fantasy XV, I found it a fitting occasion to turn my full attention to Final Fantasy XIII, as something of a personal reflection on why I was so let down by the trilogy. I do view the trilogy as a fantastic failure in storytelling, but the undertone of this critique is the quiet hope that Square learned its lesson and remembered how to tell stories. This, I think, is the core issue to keep in mind as FFXV finally enters the universe of game criticism in the coming weeks: remember that FFXIII also “looked pretty” and had a decent enough battle system; its colossal failure was one of storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is the measure by which FFXV will stand as a masterpiece or fall as an epic waste of time and resources.

Sadly, I could probably spend as long picking apart the FFXIII trilogy’s problems as I spent analyzing Majora’s Mask (but don’t challenge me on that–it wouldn’t be fun for anyone). So today, I’m just going to focus on Final Fantasy XIII-2. I’ve long thought that, of the three games in the trilogy, FFXIII-2 was the one with the most redeeming features and the greatest narrative potential. The problem is that FFXIII-2 is, in a surprising and sad sense, a very poignant story trapped inside of a very poorly composed story. The project of this article is to explain what I mean by that claim; in particular, I want to show you how the very structure of Final Fantasy XIII-2’s universe renders its narrative shortcomings tragically ironic, perhaps even in a way that can give disappointed players a new appreciation for a game that fails in an almost beautiful way. I’ll first argue that, sacrilegious though it may sound to say so, FFXIII-2 was poised to be the spiritual successor of the classic Chrono Trigger. After that, I’ll show how the overall framing of FFXIII-2‘s story destroyed what initial potential the game had–in fact, I’ll argue that it suffers from failures similar to those of Assassin’s Creed III, but suffers from those failures to an even greater extent than ACIII does. Lastly, I’ll combine these two strands of analysis to show how the game becomes a tragically ironic narrative failure. In the end, we’ll walk away with some lessons in how stories can fail–and, hopefully, how stories can succeed.

FFXIII Lightning Serah Mog

I’m still waiting for a justification of why this Moogle was so crucial to the plot of XIII-2.

Not a Hallway Anymore: Temporal Overworlds

One of the most common criticisms of the first entry in the FFXIII trilogy–named simply Final Fantasy XIII–was that its world and story were overly linear, meaning that the game consisted in a singular path from the beginning to the end of its narrative with very little by way of exploration or divergence from that path. One of JonTron’s most popular video’s, criticizing precisely this aspect of the game, bore the fitting title “Final Hallway XIII” in reference to the game’s severe linearity. So, you might expect that the developers, in crafting a sequel to FFXIII, might compensate for this aspect of the original game by making the sequel substantially less linear, with a variety of different paths and narrative outcomes to explore.

And indeed, less linearity is exactly what we see in FFXIII-2; in fact, the structure of the game’s world and narrative is radically non-linear. What I mean by ‘radically non-linear’ is that, where the worlds of most games tend to be spatially organized, the world of FFXIII-2, at its highest level, is actually structured in terms of time. The player’s main interface with the game is the Historia Crux, a metaphysical space that allows them to access various moments across time–some of which occur in alternate timelines. The Historia Crux is analogous to the ‘world map’, or ‘overworld’, of many other games: the global space that contains all of the various locations to which the player can travel over the course of a game’s narrative. Yet instead of being a broad swath of space, the Historia Crux is a broad swath of time: we could justly call it a temporal overworld in the sense that it fundamentally structures the game’s narrative and locations based on time rather than on space.

historia-crux

The Historia Crux matrix of gates to locations throughout time and timelines.

One might even say that the story of FFXIII is about linearity and non-linearity in narrative. The Historia Crux is made possible by a variety of paradoxes that corrupt time with impossible events following the end of FFXIII‘s narrative, when the goddess Etro intervened to save the player’s party of characters, thereby distorting the flow of history. One way of viewing the goal of FFXIII-2, then, is to travel through time resolving these paradoxes, trying to restore order to the timeline. One might actually see this as a clever response on the part of Square to the linearity criticisms about FFXIII: by resolving paradoxes in FFXIII-2, the player is able to travel to a variety of potential timelines and witness several paradoxical outcomes to the game’s history–yet all of this is done in service of restoring order and linearity to the storyline, ultimately reaching the game’s singular, canonical ending. It’s easy to interpret this as a metaphor for the tension in games between the need for games to present multiple possibilities on the one hand, and the need for games to tell a coherent story on the other hand: for players’ choices to matter in game narrative, multiple outcomes to events must be possible, and yet this increasing variability in the game seems to cut against the grain of a well-articulated story with fixed, carefully arranged events.

So far, so interesting. While I haven’t yet said much at all about the particular content of FFXIII-2‘s story, the form of its world certainly seems like an interesting basis for telling a tale that plays on the special features and constraints of video games as a medium. And it’s worth noting at this juncture that this isn’t a radically new idea: in fact, it picks up on some of the central mechanics and themes of a much older game of Square’s: Chrono Trigger.

traversing-time-in-chrono-trigger

The Epoch’s time-traveling interface in Chrono Trigger.

Though it wasn’t structured around paradoxes, Chrono Trigger did gain fame for its time-travel narrative structure, complete with a wide variety of potential game outcomes depending on choices the player made, when the game’s ultimate enemy (Lavos) was defeated, and so on. Released in 1995, the game was ahead of its time–no pun intended–in the way it built a robust game narrative out of multiple possibilities and timelines for the player to explore. This is the tradition in which FFXIII-2 followed; you can even see echoes of the time-hopping interface of Chrono Trigger’s time machine, the Epoch, in the design of the Historia Crux.

caius-and-yeul

Caius with one of many ill-fated Yeuls.

But FFXIII-2 goes beyond merely elaborating the structure of Chrono Trigger: in the details of its story–or rather, one of its storylines–it makes the game’s time-based narrative deeply poignant in a surprising way. The central antagonist of the game is Caius Ballad, a man who has been made immortal by being endowed with the heart of the goddess Etro–the Heart of Chaos. He is the designated guardian of Yeul, a Seeress with a double-edged gift: the young girl can see the future, but her lifespan shortens each time she does so, causing her to die young, only to be reincarnated thereafter. Thus the immortal Caius, knowledgeable of all time thanks to Yeul’s visions, has also had to watch countless Yeul’s die in his arms, “carving their pain on his heart” every time. Caius’ mission in the game is to kill the goddess Etro, from which time and history flow, in order to end time itself: he only wants to do this in order to end Yeul’s suffering by putting a stop to the cycle of her dying by degrees every time she sees the future.

yeul-and-noel

Noel and a dying Yeul.

On the other hand, we have the protagonist Noel: one of the player’s two characters, who gets wrapped up in a quest to change the future and resolve the timeline. Growing up, he knew both Caius and one incarnation of Yeul; he refused to become Yeul’s guardian when he learned that he had to kill Caius in order to do so. As he travels throughout time, he clashes with Caius and meets numerous other incarnations of Yeul; thus he comes to understand both the fate of Yeul and the pain endured by Caius as Yeul’s companion and protector. In the game’s final battle, Noel confronts Caius and challenges his views about Yeul: though Caius believes Yeul to have been cursed by Etro to die and be reborn countless times, always living a short life, Noel tells Caius that he knows Yeul wanted to come back because she loved Caius and wanted to be with him, time and again.

The closer you look at the story of Noel, Caius, and Yeul in relation to the overall architecture of FFXIII-2‘s narrative and world, the more poignant the story becomes. The very act of the player and Noel progressing through the story and constantly changing the future causes Yeul to have more visions, thereby shortening her life and killing her more quickly; Caius, the game’s final villain, wants Noel to be strong enough to kill him so that, by Caius dying, Etro will die too (since his heart is her heart) and Yeul will be free from seeing history. And as Noel continues in his journey, he comes to understand both Caius and Yeul, all the while unknowingly unwinding the coil of fate to the point where he is strong enough to kill Caius, and Caius forces him to do so. And on top of all this, perhaps most impressively, this narrative perfectly mirrors the act of playing the game: as the player explores and exhausts all the game’s narrative possibilities, she becomes more invested in and knowledgeable about the characters, all the while progressing the story to the point where the game reaches its conclusion, effectively ending the timeline of the game’s world and terminating the player’s interaction with the various timelines. This is a story shockingly rich with layered conceptions of time, sympathy, pathos, and the tension between possibility and fate.

I started out this article by claiming that FFXIII-2 was a game with tragically ironic narrative shortcomings, but thus far I seem to have been describing an incisive, acutely self-aware game with a moving narrative. So where’s the problem? Well, you might have noticed that I said above that Noel is one of the player’s two characters–and it’s the other one of these characters that makes trouble for the game.

Tragedy and Time

In a nutshell, the problem for Final Fantasy XIII-2 is that the story I just related to you above is relegated to the status of a sub-plot: Noel and his cohort are effectively supporting characters in service of the player’s other controllable character, Serah Farron. The game is principally conveyed through her perspective, and her goal–the primary impetus for the game’s overall narrative–is to effectively undo the world and story of Noel, Yeul, and Caius.

serah-and-company

Note here that Noel is backgrounded relative to Serah and Mog the Moogle, and that Serah is the one deciding that the party is ready to go. In these respects, this picture symbolizes pretty much every aspect of the problems I’m pointing out for the game.

Serah is the sister of Lightning, who was a major character in FFXIII and the primary protagonist (and only player character) of Lightning Returns, the last entry in the trilogy. She is engaged to Snow, another key character from the first game that gets downgraded to little more than “Serah’s fiancée” in FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns. The overarching narrative of FFXIII-2 is that, as the time paradoxes began (following the events of FFXIII), Lightning was effectively erased from history, trapped in Valhalla, the realm where the goddess Etro dwells beyond time. Serah is the only one who remembers Lightning’s presence after the events of XIII-2, due to the paradoxes; Lightning, from Valhalla, sends Noel to join Serah on a journey to fix time, along with Mog, a Moogle who guides Noel and Serah through the world and time.

Personally, Serah doesn’t strike me as a very interesting character–she seems to, for most of the game, have a generally bad time in the style of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and to be generally two-dimensional besides this–but it’s not especially insightful to critique a character by saying tit isn’t one’s personal cup of tea. I think the more interesting problem with Serah is actually much deeper and harder to forgive than anything like her likability: the problem is that Serah’s epistemic perspective is directed outside of the game’s universe. The entire thrust of Serah’s storyline is that she remembers her sister when no one else does, and wants to restore time to the way she remembers it; in other words, she remembers the events of Final Fantasy XIII, and is trying to reestablish them in a world that is radically different. (Note, as an aside, that this is one of the reasons why it’s so challenging to make sense of the series’ overall consistency: the very premise of time paradoxes in FFXIII-2 effectively undoes many narratively central elements of FFXIII, and similar anti-plot devices bridge the gap between FFXIII-2 and Lightning Returns.) So the primary objective of the game’s narrative, as presented through the lens of its focal character, Serah, is to undo the world of the game by changing history to reinstate the world of the previous game. So Serah’s narrative isn’t simply a “distraction” from Noel, Caius, and Yeul’s narrative: it actually actively disqualifies it as relevant, since that narrative constitutes part of the world that Serah is aiming to undo. Indeed, even when Serah is identified as a Seeress who, like Yeul, can see the future at the cost of her life, this fact that could potentially unify the two narratives seems nevertheless to be something that Serah’s narrative tries to overpower and disqualify: she decides to continue trying to change the future despite the fact that it may cost her life. Thus when Serah does die at the end of the game as a cost of her visions, the death doesn’t beautifully tie her story and fate together with Noel’s–rather, it just puts a final emphasis on the bizarre fact that the game you just played forced you to focus on a player who never wanted to be in the world of the game.

This problem is deep and inescapable because the narrative of FFXIII-2 virtually always focuses on events through Serah’s perspective. This is important to note because there are multiple ways in which games can intermingle good and bad narratives, and these ways bring about different effects in the overall narrative. It’s useful in this regard to contrast FFXIII-2 with the case of Assassin’s Creed III.

The Animus

Desmond and the Animus of Assassin’s Creed.

Again, regulars to the site will know I’ve been harshly critical of ACIII in the past, mostly in virtue of what I see as a baseless use of an alien-like First Civilization dominating and confusing a narrative about Templars fighting with Assassins; I first detailed this in an article comparing the “aliens” of Assassin’s Creed to the “aliens” of Majora’s Mask. Roughly, my gripe against the game is that the imposition of the First Civilization discounts the value of any agency the player appeared to have within the world of the game, thereby undercutting the entire point of having played the game; this is especially clear when Desmond killed with little narrative justification or explanation at the end of ACIII. But it’s crucial in understanding ACIII to note that there are two layers to the narrative: we have Desmond working as an assassin in present time, and we also have him accessing and living out the memories of his ancestors in the past via the Animus. When engaged in the Animus, the broader storyline of Desmond, the First Civilization, etc., largely fade away: instead, we are left with a compelling narrative about a Native American ancestor, Ratonhnhaké:ton, taking part in the American Revolution, becoming an assassin, and undertaking a deeply personal quest for justice.

The key thing to notice about the above ACIII example is that the layered aspect of the narrative, with the Animus interface serving as a barrier between Desmond’s story and Connor’s story, allows us to effectively consider each narrative independently of the other, while still being able to consider them compositely if we so choose. Despite my qualms about the overall game and series, I quite enjoyed Ratonhnhaké:ton’s story in Assassin’s Creed, and the overall narrative structure allowed me to enjoy it without the overarching Desmond narrative severely impeding it. But this isn’t the case in FFXIII, because there is no Animus-like interface between Serah and Noel’s narratives: Serah is the player’s primary conduit to the entirety of the game’s world–the world she wants to undo. Even in the momentous final confrontation between Noel and Caius that I described above, we find Serah collapsed a few yards from them on the beach of Valhalla, being sad and generally having a bad time. We’re trapped in the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong or want to participate in the world in which we as players as participating, and that is the crux of FFXIII‘s failure.

Conclusion: A Tale of Tragic Irony

If you like irony, then there’s a silver lining for you in all this: even though the overall architecture of FFXIII-2 spoiled what could have been a moving and cerebral story, it does leave us with some tragic, dramatic irony in the way that Serah’s narrative interacts with the narrative of Noel, Caius and Yeul. Noel, Caius, and Yeul are deeply enmeshed in a universe rife with paradoxical possibilities and timelines, trying understand the best way to shape their world and each other as they grapple with the complex perspective and sympathies that come with witness life, death, and pain across countless generations and potential timelines; yet all of their struggles to understand and make meaning ultimately depend on the whim of a player whose actions are being filtered through the lens of a girl who has no intrinsic stake in the events or native inhabitants of the world in which she finds herself. This almost recalls classic Greek tragedy in how laughably ironic it is: as characters wrestle with their humanity and universe, their fate rests in the hands of someone whose priorities are entirely elsewhere–literally in a different game.

If there’s any larger takeaway here, I think it’s this: the worlds and metaphysics of video game worlds are integral to the stories of video games, and the characters of games oftentimes relate to the game’s world in different ways. If the characters have different stakes in the world, then the relations between those stakes, along with the weight given to each of those stakes, must be mindfully architected, or else the whole narrative could be thrown out of balance. And, although we might think it obvious, FFXIII-2 shows us how crucial it is that the principal avatar in a game is actually invested in the world of that game. After all, what incentive does a player have to act as an avatar that does not wish to participate in the game’s world?

But, with that, a new chapter is beginning. Here’s hoping that Square learned from its mistakes, and that Final Fantasy XV has a story worth telling. The only way to know for sure is to dive into its world and find out. Or, you could head back here in a few weeks and see what I think of it.

Or both. Both is good.

FFXV Art.jpg

 

Unclear Control: An Intersection of Player Experience and Game Mechanics

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

I spend a lot of time introducing non-gamers to video games I like. A majority of the time the non-gamer’s reaction is mixed. Amidst moments of excitement and comments about the beauty of the graphics, there are inevitable complaints about lack of clarity in the in-game systems and control scheme of the game. Some of the complaints are completely reasonable, and I agree with them entirely; understanding the implications of the Final Fantasy VIII junction system, or how to jump in Dark Souls without helpful explanation from a friend, seems to me to be a miracle. I quickly forgive these complaints because they are complaints about overly complicated systems.

FF Junction Screen

The Final Fantasy VIII junction screen.

But there is another set of complaints that are much more foundational. These are complaints about the basic systems of a game, which often aren’t that complicated, but are steeped in convention. These complaints have to do with the fact that non-gamers by definition have less experience with the conventions of gaming than a gamer. For example, some of these complaints might be:

  1. How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
  2. How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
  3. How do I pause?

But the following example is, I think, particularly interesting, simply because it’s a problem that every game has to deal with in some way. This is the moment when the person I’m showing a game to has just finished watching the introductory cutscene (or lack thereof), and their avatar is just standing there, gazing off into the distance, until I say, “Hey, you can move now, you know?”

Usually at this point, the person in charge of the avatar jiggles the joystick and, surprised, says, “Oh whoa, you’re right.” Even experienced gamers often get caught off guard at that moment, since they are by nature naive for any given game when they are starting it for the first time. Normally, conversation about that moment of unclear control ends on that note, and never comes up again (unless the player makes the mistake another time). One should ask, why doesn’t the game just inform the player that they’re in control using a text box? And that is one potential solution to this problem. But it’s easy to trivialize the narrative power of a moment like the one described above. The power of a moment that plays with player expectation so effectively should not be overlooked. The mechanics in a game that impact us most are the ones that play with our expectations.[1] Rather than leave the unclear control at the start of a game as a nuisance in the gaming experience, why not use it to tell a game’s story better? There are a few games that have caught on to this narrative power. For example, in Batman: Arkham Knight, when Batman tells Alfred that he’s going to even the odds, and a text prompt appears that says “L1- Even The Odds”, the player shudders with anticipation of what powerful new ability is about to be introduced (or perhaps aware that it will undoubtedly be the Batmobile).

Batman Calling the Batmobile

The prompt for the player to call the Batmobile in Arkham Knight.

In a similar way, some games have played with the accidental mechanical phenomenon of unclear control in order to create experiences that range from satirical comedy to heartbreaking loss.[2]

So what exactly is it that defines “unclear control”? To understand, I’ll propose a framework that will capture the phenomenon of unclear control so we can analyze it. The framework consists of two mechanical elements of games. We’ll then look at the phenomenology associated with the second mechanical element. I’ve created this framework with the intent of explaining unclear control, but I believe it could explain other design decisions as well.

The first mechanical element of the framework is the player’s control state. The control state is the set of ways in which the player can impact the game at any one time t (for this and following explanations I will label a moment in time as variable “t”). Control state is fluid, so it can change over time, based on in-game mechanisms and controls. At time t the control state could be one thing, but it could change to something else at time t + 1 second. But at any time t the player has a definable control state.

The second mechanical element is the actual game state. The actual game state is the collection of all aspects of the current run of the game, including the graphical systems, the music that’s playing, as well as many more internal calculations that vary depending on the game. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state, and there is only one actual game state at time t.

But many aspects of the actual game state do not present to the player’s senses, which leads to the creation of the apparent game state. Many times in a game, the player cannot distinguish between several different game states. Thus, these game states are apparently the same. These actual game states will all be grouped together into one apparent game state. Thinking about it from the other direction, one apparent game state can arise from a variety of actual game states, only one of which is active at time t.

A key aspect of this system is that a particular apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states because it can arise out of several possible actual game states. The control state in any one particular apparent game state can be ambiguous. I’ll note the key relationships between these ideas below:

  1. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
  2. The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
  3. The apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states.

With this framework we can now define unclear control.

Although the classic example of unclear control is the moment at the end of a cut scene when it is unclear if the game engine is once again taking player input to control the avatar, the mechanical phenomenon is actually more general than that (I describe unclear control as a mechanical phenomenon because it is a phenomenon borne out of the mechanical systems in a game). Unclear control occurs whenever the player is experiencing an apparent game state that contains several different control states.[3] In this way the player has no way to tell how much control they have until they try to give an input.

Unclear control is born out of an inherently frustrating aspect of video games: the question of how to communicate to the player that they are in control. And historically, games have had differing ways of dealing with this problem, including giving tutorials, and text-prompted hints. However, many game companies did not realize that this was a problem that they had to deal with in any particular way, and so when the initial dialogue ends at the start of the game, the avatar is left just standing there until the player figures out that they are in control. Thus, in its first appearances, unclear control is a frustrating, absent-minded, and accidentally created mechanical phenomenon. But, some game creators recognized that unclear control could be used to create narrative power, and so kept creating systems that utilized unclear control, even though it is frustrating for players initially, so that they can tell stories in a more intriguing way in the latter portions of the game. On that note, let’s turn to a few examples.

Final Fantasy VI Cover ArtFinal Fantasy VI makes use of unclear control frequently throughout the game. Dialogue sections (parts of the game in which the only player input possible is to click a button to make the next dialogue box appear) often have no visible or auditory transition back into player control once the dialogue box disappears, so when they end, the player’s avatar is left standing there until the player decides to move. But sometimes there are dialogue sequences in which the player’s character just stands in place, without making a sound, with no dialogue box present. Thus, the two most common ways to know whether the dialogue section has concluded are to try to move your avatar, or just to just wait for so long that the dialogue section could not reasonably still be going. I doubt that many players actually do the latter, so I will assume that in general the way of checking to see if a dialogue section is over is to press a movement button once the dialogue box has disappeared.

This brings us to an example of how unclear control can be used to forward a game’s narrative. At one point in Final Fantasy VI, Locke, one of the game’s protagonists, gets put on a mission with a previous romantic flame named Celes, who he thought had been killed earlier in the game. They bump into each other accidentally late at night outside of the inn at which they are staying. Locke attempts to apologize to her for an earlier transgression, but she won’t respond. After a moment she runs away from Locke, off-screen. Locke is left silent, staring off in the direction that she ran. At this point I impulsively tried to run after her, thinking that the dialogue section had concluded and my next goal was to find her and tell her that I didn’t hate her (chasing after characters is a recurring objective in the game). My goal at that point implicitly became to chase after Celes. But it turned out that the game hadn’t yet handed control back to me yet. The game was actually in a different control state. Instead of giving control back to me, the game slowly faded into black. But my experience should not be considered unique, because the gameplay itself is what gave me the goal to chase after her.

Locke and Celes

Locke encounters Celes outside of the inn.

Through unclear control, the game gives the player a goal—to chase after Celes—that is not actually achievable based on the metaphysics of the game world. I could not act on my desire to pursue Celes, just like Locke couldn’t. The unclear control in this example potentially creates a palpable feeling in the player of the difference between what is wanted and what is done. Regardless of the amount of player emotional investment, the apparent game state creates the illusion that the in-game goal is to chase after Celes, because the dialogue section appears to have concluded and the player is given an indication of where to go to follow her. Thus in some sense the player feels they can and should chase after her. But the volition cannot turn into action. When it comes down to it, Locke doesn’t chase after her, no matter how much he might want to. And then comes the feeling of failure—the feeling of not acting on your desires and also not helping a friend. Through unclear control, the game can express to the player a feeling of knowing what you want but being unable to incite yourself to action. I challenge any medium other than games to express this feeling as eloquently as Final Fantasy VI does.

My next example, from Undertale (by the magnificent Toby Fox), is not nearly as emotionally charged: the goal is satire on JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). So in order to understand it, I’ll need to describe the trope that is being made fun of. A great example of the trope in action comes from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane, the character that the player controls through a majority of the game, walks into a room mostly filled with water, with a bridge through it. Once the player walks into the room, the player loses control of Zidane, and then a dialogue section ensues. There is a moment of pause before a serpent slides out from a hole in the wall and falls into the water. There is another pause before the serpent attacks and a battle starts.

Zidane at the serpent encounter

The room where Zidane encounters the serpent monster.

Thus the formula is born. The player is in control, walking along, and a certain location will cause the control to be taken from the player. A monster appears and does something. Then, after a pregnant pause, the monster attacks and a battle begins. One should note that in order to use this particular series of events, generally the game must be discontinuous between the battle word and overworld, featuring a transition of some sort between the two worlds (most older JRPGs work this way).

An important detail of this particular trope is that it teaches the player something about their control state during the events leading up to the battle. When the avatar stops, they know that they are no longer in the control state that allows them to move their avatar. But after the monster appears, a naive player may try moving again, to see if they have regained control. These games have now standardized that after a monster appears and control is taken from the player, control will not be given back to them until after the ensuing battle. This is not a necessary truth, just a standardized one.

Undertale features a moment very similar to the one in Final Fantasy IX described above. One need only take a look at the two pictures below to see the similarity in the circumstances. In both cases the player is walking into a room filled with water, and there is a bridge across it. In a similar fashion, the characters both stop on the bridge only to be interrupted by a monster.

 

Zidane after defeating the serpent

Zidane stands in the room where he just defeated the serpent.

The player encountering OnionSan

The player encounters OnionSan.

Now, Undertale is incredibly ambiguous between two of its control states in particular: walking around the world, and dialogue. The apparent game state for the two control states is the same whenever the dialogue box is absent, especially during transitions between the control states. Dialogue sections almost always start with only an abrupt change in control state (taking control away from the player), and they almost always end by returning control to the player. Often very little indication is given that a transition has been made.

So when the player is stopped on the bridge, the player immediately knows that they’ve entered a dialogue section. The monster, who we find out is named OnionSan, shows up and talks for a little while, immediately activating the conditioning any regular JRPG player has experienced. After OnionSan is done talking, all of these non-naive players are ready and waiting through the pregnant pause for the battle to start. But, little do they know, the game has actually changed the control state for the player: they are back in control. When finally they do decided to try to move, they are rewarded with watching the avatar awkwardly shuffle across the screen. With the use of an unclear control state, Undertale has fashioned a moment that is awkward both in dialogue and in the actions of the player. And since the moment repeats a few times before the player makes it to the next room (without ever fighting OnionSan), the awkwardness is effectively prolonged, leading to wonderful participatory satire.

Creating ambiguity in the amount of control the player has at any one moment can be an effective means in many occasions of tying humor or story into the very mechanics of a game—a key part of the player experience. Final Fantasy VI used unclear control to give insight into Locke’s state of mind through the implicit creation of in-game goals—to experience firsthand how multiple options appeared possible, but only one choice was made. Undertale used the unclear control to satirically challenge a common trope in the JRPG genre. And I’m sure that with more searching, other brilliant examples of narratively powerful unclear control could easily pop up. But what’s most important, I think, is that unclear control takes use of what is often a frustrating or embarrassing experience for a player (not being sure whether or not they have control of the avatar) and turns it into a tool to use to expand player experience. What other frustrating aspects of games can we hijack in a similar fashion? Games don’t have to be frustrating, even for new players. If an element of the design of a game is frustrating, it should be removed (if it can be). And if it is not removed then it should be used as part of the storytelling experience. Rather than stick like glue to our common mechanical conventions, game designers should make use of their mechanics to expand their story, or maybe at least tell a joke. Let’s make use of how the mechanics of our games make players feel to enhance the experience. Let’s shoot for the standards set by Final Fantasy VI and Undertale, and use all the tools we have available to us to tell our stories.

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

[1] “Game mechanics are constructs of rules and methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics).

[2] If we define a phenomenon as the object of a person’s perception, unclear control would be a mechanical phenomenon because it’s something that a person notices that is based on the mechanics of the game. I describe it as accidental because, to the best of my knowledge, no one desired to create unclear control in the design for their games in its first appearances.

[3] It may also be interesting to consider the situation in which players have no control. Is WHETHER a player has control relevantly different from HOW MUCH control a player has in any particular way? Are there special characteristics for the “null set” within this model? I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. But if we find the answers, they may help fill out the model in a more complete way. I’m eager to hear any thoughts/examples. If I find an intriguing idea I’ll likely write about it in the future.

Teaser Metaphysics: Storytelling in Xenoblade X.

A professor of mine once presented a lecture as “an expression of doubt and a plea for help.” He wanted very much to believe that a particular argument we were discussing was true, and yet he saw too many problems with the argument to believe in it. Thus, he was expressing doubt in the argument, while also asking his students to help him find a way to make that argument work better.

I want to frame this commentary on Xenoblade Chronicles X in the same way that my professor framed that lecture: an expression of doubt in the game, and a plea for readers to help me see something in it. Regulars of With a Terrible Fate know that I am a vocal proponent of the philosophical richness of Xenoblade Chronicles; I eagerly dove into Xenoblade Chronicles X (I’m just going to call it “Xeno X” from here on out) expecting that same sort of philosophical richness. I was tremendously disappointed, and quite frankly felt robbed–that’s how much I was let down when I compared Xeno X with its most immediate predecessor. Although this piece is an explanation of why I felt so let down, I don’t want to feel robbed by the game; so, please, if there is something I am missing or that I have overlooked, I am eager for someone to let me know.

With preliminaries out of the way, this article, as I said, is in principle a very negative review of Xeno X. More specifically, I argue that Xeno X promises to confront deep, interesting, metaphysical questions especially salient in video games, but ultimately only confronts broad, generic philosophical questions that can be addressed virtually anywhere. I first discuss the promised philosophical themes: the ways in which the game hints at certain philosophical puzzles, encourages (and indeed requires) the player to pursue missions that seem likely to shed light on those puzzles, but never actually follows through on these ideas. Next, I discuss the philosophical themes that are present in the game, and argue that, although certainly interesting in other contexts, the overall architecture of the game precludes these themes from being salient. Finally, I consider the fact that Xeno X is obviously set up for a sequel–I argue that, far from being an excuse for the game’s unfulfilled promises, this particular sequel dynamic is symptomatic of a severe problem in popular storytelling today.

(As always, spoilers abound–for this game, and for Xenoblade Chronicles.)

 

I. Teaser Metaphysics

The best way I’ve found to describe the universe of Xeno X on its most fundamental level is as a “teaser metaphysics.” I mean to say that every deep metaphysical concern that’s apparent in the game’s universe is of obvious importance throughout the game, and yet we never actually discover the substance of those concerns. Elma says multiple times during the game that “there’s something about this planet.”[1] In my estimation, this is a perfect tagline for the game: it’s always clear that something strange and interesting is happening on the alien planet of Mira where mankind has relocated post-alien-annihilation-of-Earth, but it’s never clear precisely what that “something” is. I’m going to offer a list of the three (and only three) moments I felt were interesting in this way, which the game never followed up on; then, I’ll discuss why I think the game’s architecture forced the focus onto these moments in a self-destructive way.

 

  1. What are we talking about? (Ch. 5) 

When the player’s character, together with Elma, Lin, and the irredeemable Tatsu discover a group of imperiled Ma-non in Chapter 5–alien races abound on the world of Mira–Elma makes an observation about how strange it is that she and the other humans can perfectly understand all of the aliens they’ve encountered thus far.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.31.08 AM

Elma: “Tatsu, the Ganglion, and now these Ma-non… Don’t you find it a little odd that we can understand these alien languages?”

Lin: “Huh…good point.”

[…]

Elma: “Tatsu, did you study our language?”

Tatsu: “Friends’ language?”

Elma: “What language are we speaking right now?”

Tatsu: What language? Nopon, of course! Friends’ Nopon very good, by the way.”

Elma: “See? Xenoforms have different anatomy, physiology–different vocal setups in general. It seems likely they would struggle with out pronunciations. And yet, here we are, conversing.

Lin: “But if they can’t even produce the sounds… this shouldn’t be possible.”

Elma: “No, it shouldn’t be. Unless, our words aren’t being perceived as sounds at all. Maybe our intent is getting across some other way… But how? Could it be something about this planet?”

Lin: “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.”

Elma: “Well, what if it IS some kind of new phenomenon? Aren’t you curious to learn more?”

Lin: “All right, now you’re starting to sound just like L.”

Tatsu: “Okay, already! Friends talk less, help Ma-non more!”

 

And, with that, the scene devolves into one of the story’s many jokes about Lin cooking and eating Tatsu. Just as we’re broaching metaphysically salient territory, the game drags us back into tired jokes about eating its most frustrating character.

Why is this dialogue so interesting? Well, besides the obviously interesting idea that different species are somehow able to perfectly understand one another as though they were all speaking the same language, I initially thought this dialogue was suggesting that the game was philosophically aware that it was a game. What I mean by that is this: I’ve argued several times that one of the most philosophically interesting things about Xenoblade Chronicles is that you actually can’t make sense of its story unless you understand the player to be a character within the game’s narrative. In this way, the philosophical content of the game depends on its status as a video game, which I think makes it uniquely interesting. So I initially thought that, like Xenoblade Chronicles had done previously, Xeno X was created interesting philosophical content based on its status as a video game: perhaps everyone could understand one another because their intents were being represented directly to the player. This would make sense since the entire game is literally conveyed to the player, and the player is at various times able to hear Elma’s thoughts (for example). It would also be a way of explaining Elma’s cryptic comment here that speaker intent is being expressed without relying on the phonetics of language: perhaps the idea might be that the entire world, in virtue of being a video game, is simply encoded information that is then represented to the player in a comprehensible manner.

The above analysis is speculative because, so far as I can tell, the game never follows up on this discussion. This is teaser metaphysics at its finest: as though mocking to the player directly, Lin responds to Elma’s curiosity by saying, “Heh. Someone sounds pretty intrigued, huh.” But perhaps I’m being unfair–perhaps other philosophically salient material in the game provides us with the analytic resources to make sense of this language puzzle.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case: everywhere I turn, the game just provides more teaser metaphysics.

 

The unstoppable success of an avatar. (Ch.8)

This case is a little less straightforward than the language puzzle we just discussed, but I hope to convince you that it’s just as much a case of teaser metaphysics. In Chapter 8 of the game, in which alien forces attack the human city of New L.A., two aliens–Ryyz and Dagahn–confront Elma, Lin, and the player’s character within the city. As Ryyz approaches, Lin trembles in fear.

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.30.26 AM

Ryyz: “You’re right to be afraid, little girl. [To Dagahn:] Let’s kill her first.”

Elma: “Lin, stay calm. Don’t let them into your head. We’ve faced worse than this before–and we’ve won, every single time. Don’t forget that.”

Lin: “I know…”

 

I want to suggest that, because Xenoblade X is a video game, Elma’s words of encouragement to Lin are much more interesting than they appear at first.

Here’s an obvious fact about most video games: if the player of the game makes a mistake, the character(s) she controls can end up dying, and then the player has to repeat the narrative from a certain, earlier point, until she succeeds in progressing without dying. Certainly not all games work this way, but the majority does, and Xeno X is in that majority. Moreover, the exchange I quoted above comes two thirds through the main storyline of Xeno X–so, while it’s certainly possible that an adept player could have reached this point without her party ever dying, it’s very likely that her party has died at least once, requiring her to “try again” in the very standard way that video games expect of their players.

But now we have an interesting puzzle: there’s a sense in which what Elma says to Lin is just not true, because, if the player has failed at some earlier point in the narrative, then the party hasn’t won “every single time.” There’s also a sense in which Elma is right: the player, after all, have to succeed once in every story mission in order to make it to the current point in the narrative, regardless of how many times she might have failed along the way. So, this seemingly throwaway line actually suggests that something very interesting is going on in the world of this game: somehow, the game only “counts” the player’s successes as meaningful, disallowing the player’s failure as constitutive of the game’s narrative. This could be an interesting commentary on the discrepancy between a player’s experiences on the one hand, including both failures and successes, and the experiences of the game’s characters on the other hand. Indeed, the mere fact that Elma says something so unusual and applicable to the nature of video games suggests that some sort of special relationship between the player and the game’s world is at work.

But again, I must speculate because the game never follows up on this idea. There is hope that it might be explored–after all, the fact that all the humans on Mira live in replaceable, robotic, “mimeosome” bodies points to this same theme of the game’s world having video-game-esque metaphysical dynamics–but the idea is never fully articulated. Nor does the game offer us the resources to meaningfully theorize about this dimension of its world. I held out hope until the very end of the game, and a single line led me to believe that these metaphysical dimensions of the world might be explored after all; but, as we shall see, that line ultimately turned out to be another red herring.

 

The one being who wasn’t on the computer. (Ch.12)

After the final confrontation in the Lifehold Core against Luxaar and Lao, Elma pauses to reveal something unexpected to the rest of the party.

 Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.32.14 AM

Elma: “The truth is, exactly one mim in New LA…actually is being controlled remotely from a real body held in stasis here.

Lin: “Wait, someone isn’t stored in the database with the rest of us?

Elma: “That’s right. This was a special case.”

 

Whereas everyone else who fled Earth and arrived on Mira had their consciousness stored digitally in a computer database, controlling mims (i.e. robotic mimeosome body) from that database, there is one mim controlled by a real person. At this juncture, I was prepared to be very impressed with the game. It seemed to me as if the game were about to answer all of my questions. What better way to explicate the special metaphysics of a video-game world than by having a character within the game point out that the player’s character is being controlled by a “real” person–i.e. by the player?

If Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, various otherwise inexplicable or underwhelming aspects of the game might have started to make much more sense.

Character Creation

For instance: the character-creation aspect of the game, I submit, feels very contrived and forced. The player initially appears to have a wide variety of choice in being able to customize nearly every aspect of her character–appearance, voice, catch phrases, etc. But it quickly becomes clear that this aspect of choice is superficial: the player’s character never has an actual voice in cutscenes, and has a limited number of oft-repeated catchphrases when engaged in combat. The only way the player’s character can have input in cutscenes is by the player choosing, at various junctures, between several lines of text for her character to “say” (though, again, these lines aren’t vocalized). And this choice element is superficial: virtually no text choices the player makes can seriously influence the plot of the game. The game’s narrative is linear, and, as a result, the player will be “pushed” towards a single outcome of events regardless of the “choice” she makes. When my party discovered Tatsu, I tried to use every dialogue choice available to me to leave him behind and not let him join the party (as I mentioned, he seems, consistently, to be more of a nuisance than he’s worth–and not in the trope of a character you “love to hate”).

So the choices the game appears to offer the player don’t really matter, whereas at obvious choice-points in the narrative, the player has no power. For instance: after Lao betrays the party and the party defeats him, Elma wants to kill Lao as punishment, and Lin tries to stop her. This is an obvious choice point where, if choice really matters, the player should be able to choose a side for her character to take: side with Elma, or side with Lin. But this doesn’t happen: the player’s character automatically sides with Lin, forcing Elma to stand down. And of course, this must be the case–since Lao ultimately reappears in the final battle of the game, and the narrative is linear, it couldn’t be an option for Lao to die here. But this makes the game smack of fake choices: the player, presented with an illusion of choice, ultimately lacks any sort of real input over a character that everyone notices “doesn’t say much.”

However, if Elma had said that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character, I would have forgiven this design choice. The notion of a custom-designed character works extremely well if it’s true within the conceit of the narrative that the character was created as a proxy for the real player. We might then also have more supporting evidence for the theory I suggested about how language works within the game: perhaps the player’s character never needs to literally speak because his intentions are conveyed representationally through the medium of the game, along with everyone else’s. And perhaps this could even help explain the mechanics of success and failure that I described in the last section: perhaps the player’s knowledge of her failures, imputed to her character, are part of the narrative explanation of how the party was able to progress so far successfully. To say as much would be to marry the form of the narrative as a video game with the content of the narrative in a novel, metaphysically and epistemically interesting way.

But of course, Elma doesn’t say that a real person was remotely controlling the player’s character. Instead, she reveals that she is actually an alien, whose real body has been stored in the Lifehold Core, controlling the mim who has followed the player’s character throughout the whole game. While certainly a plot twist, it offers no help in making sense of the game’s teaser metaphysics, nor of the ontological status of the player’s character. Thus the game leaves us with many questions, the promise of many answers, yet no actual answers.

 

II. Backgrounded Philosophical Issues 

The reader might think me unfair to Xeno X. After all, broadly speaking, I’m comparing it to Xenoblade Chronicles, and maybe it’s simply not trying to be the same kind of game as Xenoblade Chronicles. Well, the reader may be partly right: Xeno X does try to explore a number of issues that aren’t deeply addressed in Xenoblade Chronicles, and it’s a different game in many other ways, as well (Skells, mission-based storylines, etc.). But I contend that, even taking this into account, Xeno X fails as a cohesive narrative because its game design suggests to the player that the kind of metaphysical issues I described in Part I will be central to the game: and because the game is designed in this way, it’s hard to deeply explore any of the other philosophical issues the game raises.

Some of the putative philosophical issues in the game include: enslavement (the Ganglion race, representing the game’s main antagonists, has enslaved the Prone race), xenophobia (the various alien species are called “xenoforms” and much of the game focuses on dealing with inter-species difference), and the value of one’s body (humans are initially told that their real bodies were preserved in the Lifehold Core and that they are controlling their mims remotely from there; ultimately it is revealed that their real bodies were left on Earth and destroyed, and all that remains are digital representations of their consciousness, contained in a Lifehold database). All of these themes are certainly interesting on their own terms, and great stories have considered all of them in the past. So the problem with Xeno X isn’t that it lacks any interesting themes: the problem is that it directs the player’s attention away from these themes and towards its teaser metaphysics, leading to ultimate disappointment in the game’s philosophical salience.

Story Mission

The story in Xeno X is broken up into missions, each with certain “progress requirements” that the player must meet before she can begin the mission. Many of these requirements are “survey” requirements: you have to go out into Mira and survey a certain amount of land in a particular region before you can take on the mission in question. This means that you can’t go through the entire story of Xeno X continually because the game effectively requires you to stop in between missions and explore the world.

Although I do think that game’s shouldn’t require players to explore the game’s world extensively in order to complete the story (meaningful exploration in games ought to be left to the discretion of the player, or else it ceases to really be exploration and instead becomes a chore), that isn’t the problem I’m pointing out in Xeno X. The problem is far deeper than that: they’re effectively using the game’s world to tell a story that forces the player’s attention toward the game’s teaser metaphysics.

It’s no secret that video games can use the very world of the game as part of its narrative, in order to tell unique and interesting stories. Xenoblade Chronicles, again, is an excellent example of this: the entire world of the game is two monoliths, which, without getting into details, represent both the central conflict of the game and the themes on which the game is centered. The more I’ve looked, the more it seems to me that many of the most philosophically interesting games use their worlds as storytelling elements in this sort of way. Xeno X, on the other hand, is a clear example of how using a game’s world as part of its storytelling can handicap the game’s central themes and messages.

From as early on as Chapter 5, when the dialogue about the language puzzle happens, it’s clear that Mira works differently than the player and various characters were originally led to believe. Humans and Ganglion alike mysteriously ended up there with little-to-no explanation; everyone can understand one another without sharing the same language, etc. As Elma suggests in Chapter 5, and again at the end of the game, the overriding theme of this strangeness is “there’s something about this planet” that explains all of these bizarre phenomena. And there’s a very easy inference we can draw about a game that claims “there’s something about this planet” and then requires the player to explore that planet in order to progress through its story: by exploring the planet, the player will discover the mysterious aspect of the planet that explains its special dynamics. That is how the game’s very world, in conjunction with the requirement that the player explore that world, forces the player to focus on the game’s teaser metaphysics. And when it becomes evident at the end of the game that all the many hours of exploration did not shed any light on the true nature of the game’s world, the player, I contend, feels and ought to feel cheated: the game has effectively reneged on its promise to explain itself and its world.

In the absence of any such explanation, the required exploration feels contrived within the context of the game’s narrative; indeed, the best explanation I’ve found for all the required exploration built into the game’s story is that developers wanted to ensure that they could show off the entirety of their world to players. But the developer saying “look at this world I built” should not be an explanation for the most foundational elements of a game’s narrative dynamics. The result is that the game focuses on the philosophical issues on which it never follows through, and the philosophical issues that it does explore are left in the background. Indeed, discussions of race, enslavement, and the status of body all felt distracting to me because I was always waiting for the true nature of the world to be revealed–and it never was.

 

III. The Problem with a Promised Sequel

Maybe I’m being unfair to Xeno X because, judging by its ending, the game is quite obviously set up for a sequel. Elma discovers at the end that the database supposedly holding everyone’s consciousness is and has been in ruins (this is when she says again that “it’s something about this planet); after being mutated and destroyed by the party, an apparently regenerated Lao washed up on a beach. The game leaves so many questions unanswered, you might argue, because it intends to resolve them in a sequel (or DLC, or what have you). So perhaps we should excuse the game’s apparent incompleteness and focus on what it does, as opposed to what it promises that its sequel will do.

Screen Shot 2016-05-11 at 8.24.34 PM

I think that this sort of reasoning is a mistake. Speaking candidly, it seems to be increasingly more common nowadays for stories to be predicated upon sequels. The ending of Final Fantasy XIII-2 was nothing more than a cliffhanger leading into Lightning Returns; books-remade-as-movies are split from a single book into multiple movies (e.g., Harry Potter, The Hunger Games). This strikes me as a disingenuous way of getting consumers to spend more money just to get the second half of a story in which they’ve already invested. Worse, though, this kind of storytelling that builds a sequel into the first story simply doesn’t work, especially in video games–and there are deep theoretical reasons why it doesn’t work. I argued precisely this in my work about why Final Fantasy VII shouldn’t be remade as multiple games. I’m going to quote, rather lengthily, the relevant argument, since it also applies to the case of Xeno X. The argument starts with two basic claims about how video game narrative works.

 

Claim 1: The player of a video game is able to substantially, causally influence the events in that game’s universe, in virtue of her actions through the proxy of her avatar(s).

Claim 2: The causal influence of a player on a video game’s universe is essential to the narrative of that game.

(Note: when I say ‘video game’, I’m not talking about all video games, strictly speaking. I’m primarily concerned with analyzing story-based, single-player games.)

Intuitive though these claims may be, they are substantive claims nonetheless. I don’t expect to offer conclusive proofs of them as “principles of game narrative” within the scope of this paper, but I do hope to convince readers that they are two very plausible assumptions to make about a very broad set of video games. […]

Claim 1 just says that the player of a video game is able to shape its world in a significant way. At first glance, this claim might seem obvious—“This is a trivial fact,” one might say, “because the player literally controls someone in the game’s world (the avatar), and the avatar’s actions, derived from the player’s control, clearly influence the events of a game’s universe.”

But this response is too quick for two reasons. First, it’s not readily apparent that people in a universe really do have causal power over the universe—it could just be that the universe as a whole evolves over time, with its various parts only appearingto interact in a series of causes and effects. That’s very different from a universe in which people can genuinely modify the events of the universe through their own actions.

Second, even if we grant that game avatars do have causal power within their universe, it’s not obvious that this power is derived from the player. Even though the player is controlling the avatar, you might think that, within the context of the game’s narrative, the avatar’s actions can only be properly understood as choices that the avatar chose to make. It would be unwarranted, unnecessary, and bizarre to make sense of the plot of a Mario game by saying something like “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then the player took control of Mario in order to make Mario save Peach.” Rather, we just say, “Bowser kidnapped Peach, and so then Mario saved Peach.” Claim 1 suggests that we really have to analyze the story of a game partly in terms of the player’s causal influence, which seems like an odd thing to do.

But a closer examination suggests that Claim 1 survives these two criticisms intact. We can get around the first criticism by considering replays of a single video game: when we play through the same video game more than once and have the avatar make different choices, the events of the game evolve differently. This doesn’t require that the game have choice-determined endings, or anything like that: the mere fact that we can move an avatar either left, or right, or not at all, in the same moment of the game’s narrative during different playthroughs of the game, suggests that avatars really are agents within their universes—their actions aren’t wholly determined by the universe external to them.

What about the worry that the avatar’s causal power is enough, without invoking any implausible causal power on the part of the player? Though this point may be more controversial, I think we have fairly clear-cut cases (and less clear-cut cases) suggesting that we do have to analyze the stories of games partly in terms of player agency if we are to adequately explain and understand those stories. In many games, the player will be provided with information that her avatar could not reasonably know—perhaps something is revealed through a cutscene where the avatar is absent. This knowledge may well lead the player to make decisions in the game and direct her avatar in ways that could not be adequately explained by appealing to what the avatar believed and desired—instead, we need to appeal to what the player believed abut the world of the game, and how she acted on those beliefs through the avatar. We see this phenomenon even more clearly in replays of games: a player may well make different choices during her second playthrough of a game based on certain facts that were only revealed to her (and her avatar) very late in the narrative of her first playthrough—and so it would be even less plausible to account for these choices purely using the avatar’s mental life. We need a concept of the player acting as a causal agent through the avatar.

So I think that Claim 1 remains plausible. The player, acting through her avatar, can causally influence the events of a game’s universe. This influence is substantial in the sense that the player’s actions, by influencing the game’s universe, influence the whole causal chain of the universe thereafter—the actions aren’t somehow “negated” by some counterbalancing force. I think that we typically think of causal influence in this way (i.e. a single action has ripple effects through time and space), and so this is a fairly intuitive view of game narratives.

What about Claim 2? This claim says that the causal impact a player has on the world of a game is an essential part of that game’s narrative—without that same impact, the game wouldn’t have the same narrative. So it isn’t just enough for a player to be able to make a choice in a game’s universe that has nothing to do with the story: in some sense, the game’s story must be inextricable from the player’s choices. But this seems to be patently true. Witness first: in many games […] the events of a game’s narrative will not transpire at all unless the player chooses to engage the game and exercise her causal force. More to the point, the player’s avatar often constitutes the point-of-view through which the narrative is conveyed, and the avatar’s actions are crucial determinants of the events of that narrative. As a result, the narratives of games do seem deeply dependent on player choice.

Even in cases where game narratives seem to suggest that the game’s universe is ultimately indifferent to the actions of the player—e.g., Bloodborne—the narrative functions on this level as a denial of the impact that the player and avatars actions had. This narrative function is still irreducibly a claim about the player’s causal impact, and so it does not threaten Claim #2. The claim, when considered, seems both intuitive and sound.

If we accept these two claims—and I think that we should—then we are faced with an interesting consequence. The consequent claim is this: if a player’s causal impact extends over the entirety of a game’s universe, and that causal impact is essential to the narrative of a game, then it seems that the entirety of a game’s universe, insofar as a player causally impacts it, is essential to that game’s narrative.

Another way to put our newfound consequence is this: it’s not enough for a game’s narrative to essentially involve the choices of the player in a local, finite sense. Rather, game narratives of this sort involve the impact of a player’s choices on the game’s whole universe, however narrow or broad that universe may be specified. I think that this, too, tracks with our intuitions about how game narratives often work: oftentimes, a primary element of a game’s story is demonstrating how player’s choices have impacted the game’s world. Nor is this a feature of heavily “choice-based” games: perfectly linear games nonetheless reflect the impact that a player’s actions have on the game worlds, even though the player didn’t have much of a choice as to how to act. (Think of Shadow of the Colossus: linear though it may be, it’s hard to deny that the game’s narrative is heavily focused on the ways in which the player’s actions have permanently altered the game’s world.)”

 

If the argument I presented is right–and I think it is–then, just based on the storytelling dynamics of video games, you can’t present a video game narrative that “points beyond itself” to reference events in a future sequel. The totality of the game’s world is causally related to the actions of the player: if the nature of the player’s influence is rendered mysterious in the game’s narrative, promised to be explained as a sequel, then that game simply doesn’t work. Its narrative, metaphysics, world structure, and so forth, end up depending on a world alien to both the game itself and the purview of the player: and thus the game is render deeply, thoroughly incomplete. This, I submit, is precisely what we see in Xeno X.

 

As I said at the outset, I would very much like to be wrong about this argument: I had very high expectations for the Xeno X, and was saddened to finish it with such disappointment. The world that Monolith Soft built is expansive and intricate, but that alone doesn’t make for a compelling story. Indeed, in this case, by pointing to the game’s teaser metaphysics and unfulfilled narrative commitments, I think the world actually damages the story. At this point, I truly don’t know whether I would invest in the inevitable sequel.

 

[1] To my knowledge, she says it twice: once during the brief scene where the party discusses the bizarre language dynamics of Mira, and again when she discovers the annihilated Lifehold computer in the game’s post-credit scene.