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.

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Lord Saddler.

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

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

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

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Octodad shrugs.

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

A Non-Obvious Similarity Between Player Aids and Player Hindrances

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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

“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

Andrew Ryan Statue

At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.

Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

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Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Trial-by-death games

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

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

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

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

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

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

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tekken_the_most_powerful_second_episode_by_jin_05-d5otl9v.jpg

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


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

A New Theory of Video Games

With a Terrible Fate has been quieter than usual lately because, for the past few months, I have been working on a thesis to fulfill part of the requirements for my degree in philosophy. I am now pleased to say that this project is complete, and the result is a new theory of the ontology and metaphysics of video games. The theory comes with some surprising results—for instance, I don’t think there’s any deep sense in which the players of video games actually control or embody avatars.

Thank you to all those who have found this site and engaged me in conversation about video games, whether online or in person. Those conversations are a huge part of how my thinking on video games has evolved over the years. And, now that this project is complete, stay tuned for more new work coming soon (I heard, for instance, that a new Zelda game and Nier game might have been released recently?).

You can read the full thesis here.