How authoritarian control is holding games back and the Solution that will help games move forward
Table of contents:
- Intro 2:
- What is authoritarian control?
- A note on comparing books to games
- The Solution (and examples of anti-authoritarianism)
- What’s wrong with authoritarian control?
- Waste’s player’s time with involuntary restrictions and by undoing the player’s work
- Jumps between different games without the player’s control
- Makes games less accessible by making exploration more difficult (Part 1)
- Makes games less accessible to scholars (Part 2)
- Handicaps designers and developers
- It is a sign of a designer’s cowardice
- It is disrespectful to the audience
- Why the solution is not a problem
Games have more authorial control than any other medium; they have so much that I’m calling it authoritarian control. It is a physical and a mechanical control that prevents the audience from freely exploring the physical entirety of a body of work. It makes conceptual exploration more difficult and makes games less accessible to all audiences. Every game does it to a certain degree and it needs to be eliminated from the medium. I seriously feel that’s all I should have to say for everyone to understand, but it probably isn’t so there’s 16 more pages of me expanding on the last few sentences. Take your time.
Yes I know I repeat myself sometimes, and that some section titles don’t quite match their content. It’s taken me over a year to complete this thing and I’m just not going to make any more changes. [EDIT.6.22.2012] Okay, apparently I am going to make some more changes. [/EDIT]
Let’s start by looking at hack-n-slash RPG hit, Diablo 2. I haven’t played Diablo 3 yet, but based on what I’ve read I think what I’m saying about 2 goes for 3 as well to one degree or another.
In Diablo you don’t actually start playing the real game until Nightmare difficulty level, where your character is usually between levels 30 or 40. Before that point your character doesn’t have access to the skills that make him powerful and the enemies aren’t tough enough to provide a real challenge; the game doesn’t really come together before that point. So the point that you start playing the actual game is about twenty hours into a campaign. Let me reemphasize that: the game doesn’t actually start until you’ve played it for ~20hrs. Everything before that is just a long tutorial. And, every time you start a new character YOU HAVE TO REPLAY THAT 20 HOUR TUTORIAL AGAIN! You have no choice, and there’s nothing you can reasonably do about it. This is just unethical business practice and yet it’s the type of thing that happens in video games almost universally. If you are selling a product to a customer, you shouldn’t be allowed to withhold parts or functionality from the customer. If you buy a refrigerator, you don’t have to unlock the vegetable drawer by using the butter tray for 20 hours. If you buy a sandwich you don’t have to solve a riddle each time you want to take a bite. And, if you bought a DVD, you aren’t prevented from skipping to scene fifteen before watching scene one. This is true of pretty much every product, whether a utility or an entertainment: the entire product is available to you, and the only limit is your ability to use it. (It’s possible to nitpick that last sentence, but don’t, you’d just be missing the point.)
It’s true of every product except video games.
Apparently game developers feel they have the right to sell products that have physical content that is missing. I’m not talking about glitches that require patches; glitchcs are somewhat excusable considering the complexity of computer systems. I’m talking about when a player cannot access content, cannot progress through a portion of a game unless the developer’s algorithms have decided the player has earned the right to see more. And the player has to re-earn this right to access content he paid for every time he replays the game unless he’s some sort of sorcerer savant when it comes to saved games.
I figure that in the olden days authoritarian control existed just because of how computers function and it was just easier to let it be. Or maybe it’s because authoritarian control is what made arcades profitable, although in that case it’s a little more understandable since you’re paying for a segment of a game and not the whole thing. But, I don’t know why in this day and age game creators are still exerting this iron fisted tyranny over the audience. Perhaps its the inevitable homage to a preceding dictator as game developers replicate the mechanical tyranny that classic games wielded, the same way that Soviet Communism was an homage and an exaggeration of the very dictatorship it overthrew.
[EDIT.6.20.2012] A friend pointed out in the comments that part of the problem is that things like books and paintings are non-authoritarian due to their inherent physical nature. True. A game’s physical structure is inherently authoritarian because its physical structure is too small for us to see or interact with directly. So we need intermediary, man made tools to interact with a game’s structure and these tools are only as functional as their creators feel they need to be. Which is why I’m writing this whole damn article: we need more tools for navigating games. Even word processors are more navigable than games. [/EDIT]
So what is authoritarian control…
Anyone familiar with games is familiar with the authoritarian control I’ve described above. It is a mechanical system that physically makes the work less accessible; you can’t play level 12 unless you’ve beaten level 11, you can’t open the red door without the red key, and only under specific conditions can you have a conversation with an NPC and that’s after traveling a certain amount of time and through various obstacles to get to it. This applies to both single player and multiplayer experiences and is present regardless of whether you’ve already played the game. Games as a medium of entertainment and as an art form are being held back by authoritarian control. It also, ironically, handicaps the designers’ ability to make the games they want.
With a few exceptions, the physical entirety of any other medium (books, etc.) is available to the audience. The concepts, meaning, and ideas in that work are not always easily accessible, but the physical construct is totally accessible. If games were paintings then they’d have an iron curtain hanging in front of them and to move the curtain one inch to the right you’d have to go through an obstacle course, kill some Nazis, or move some crates onto some pressure plates. And you’d have to keep doing this to reveal the painting inch by inch. While that scenario might actually work for some modern-interactive-performance art show, if every painting did it that way then viewing paintings would become a hateful experience.
As I mentioned earlier, from a business perspective authoritarian control is unethical, but just as importantly from an artistic perspective, authoritarian control is batshit moronic. If you want to tell a story, or entertain, or move your audience then why the hell would you keep them at arm’s length all the time? It’s like if you published a book but then snuck into people’s houses and slammed the book shut anytime they tried to read it.
Most mediums give you guidelines, or cultural laws, to follow but which you can break (you may not start reading the book in the middle, but you sure as hell can) and you break from those guidelines at your own loss. But games force physical laws upon you (you must get the red key to pass through this door; you can’t keep playing the game until you do) and even if it’s in your best interest to do so you can’t break from those laws. This can be a serious problem if you’re a reviewer, critic, scholar, or student and you want to jump to a particular point in a game, study one single segment of the game, or if you want to skim the entire work to pick up on themes and motifs. It’s also a problem if you just haven’t developed the physical dexterity or hand eye coordination to master a game. (Yes I am aware of console commands, and institutionalizing a GUI for console commands is actually my solution to this problem found in the section titled “The Solution”.)
If games want to stack up to mediums like film, literature, painting, etc., then game designers+developers need to break their own authoritarian control and let the audience explore their work freely and openly. The audience needs to physically explore the work freely so they can conceptually explore the work more intelligently. It’s the same behavior allowed by books, poems, movies, paintings, sculptures, photographs, screenplays, recorded music, digital television, board games, sports, and, what the hell, even conversations. As a quick example, let’s say one of my favorite lines in this hypothetical book you can’t see me holding is on page 157, and I want to turn to page 157. Okay… I just did it. Easy. All I had to do was flip to it. You know what I didn’t have to do? Go through fifty screens of platforming to get to it. Nor did I have to reread the preceding 156 pages to get to it. That’s nice. I wish games allowed me that. But they don’t.
Once again, I’ve actually said most of what I want to say already. But, this article is only 1/4 finished. I feel the need go into details to flesh out my thoughts and ideas in case this isn’t clear to some people.
I explore my reasoning about authoritarian control in even more detail in the section titled “Why is authoritarian control a problem…”. You can skip to it if you want or you can continue reading this article the way it was intended; your choice. If this was a video game you wouldn’t have that choice.
What am I NOT saying:
I am not saying “ANARCHY!”
Much of the feedback I’ve gotten so far shows that people think I’m suggesting games should completely get rid of rules, structure, and objectives and that’s not the case. I am not saying that all games should be free roaming, goalless, obstacle empty explorathons with no challenges or difficulty. I think games should be games. They should maintain their rules, obstacles, and goals since that is what makes them. However, I think there should be a meta-mechanic that allows audiences to circumvent those obstacles and structures when they feel it is necessary, which I get into in more detail in the “Solution” section.
A note on comparing games to books:
I compare and contrast computer games to other mediums many times in this article. I shouldn’t have to make this note, but I know from experience that I have to. If this article actually gets read by a large number of people, someone is inevitably going to waste my time by saying something like, “Books and games aren’t the same thing! You can’t compare them! Making games completely unique and putting them on a pedestal is my only way of feeling important!”
While books and games aren’t the same thing, that’s true, it is utterly illogical and moronic to say you can’t compare them. For example: your eyes are not the same thing as the stars, and yet I can compare them and how they both sparkle and fill me with joy. A dog is not a lizard, and yet we can compare them because they both: are animals, have faces, have four legs, are edible, have latin names, breath, eat, move, and you will not find corpses of either buried in my backyard. In this same way games can be compared to movies, and games can be compared to books. They are all mediums of entertainment, they all have physical and conceptual components, and they all have the potential to be great art. Now let’s move on.
Computer games (which I think is more accurate than “video games”) need to allow the audience to freely explore the physical totality of the game.
Players should have the option to skip around to any point in the game they want, at will, whenever they want and that includes skipping to any state of attributes and adding anything into inventory. A Braid style rewind feature idly would be a given in the same way a save feature is a given. The ability to start any level at any checkpoint or loadpoint should be made available as soon as the game starts for the first time. The ability to move quickly or teleport to any physical point in the game should be constantly available. Every segment of combat should be skippable; every cinematic should be skippable; every dialogue tree should be skippable with the outcome easily chosen; the audience should be able to teleport to their next destination without having to spend minutes at a time walking there. I skimmed a book on game design once and it said, “Walking is not gameplay”; many modern game developers, including the indie/artsy crowd, could learn a lesson from that statement. A corridor you walk down is just an unskippable cutscene where you have to constantly hold down “play”.
While much of the above may seem complicated to implement into games, most of it isn’t, because it’s been done before, just not user friendly and not to the degree I think is necessary.
Back in the days when penny-arcade was still funny and gaming hadn’t been devoured by the cancer of its own profitability there were some relatively helpful tools for navigating a game freely. One was cheat codes and the other, by far the most powerful, was console commands (a.k.a.: debug mode; developer mode). These still exist of course, but I feel like their availability has been declining over the years, especially with console games. Maybe that’s just my imagination. Whatever the case, it’s not readily available, user friendly, and it’s not really cheating it’s just an extremely accessible way of navigating the physical portion of game to access the conceptual portion. I think the solution to authoritarian control in games is for developers to provide a UI for console commands (level select, level skip, god mode, ghost mode, item spawn, etc.), as well as the ability to rewind time, teleport to any point in the current level while playing the game, and if the player fails he should be able to pick up right where he left off as opposed to twenty minutes before he left off. Oh yeah, and the ability to save anywhere at anytime should be a standard at this point in gaming history, it really should.
With the press of a button the audience should be able to access any of these features. It could be called User Friendly Console Commands, but the acronym, UFCC, would be pronounced “you fuck” so maybe it should be User Commands, you see. Actually I don’t give a damn what people call it, but I’m going to call it a User Command Interface in this article, or maybe I’ll call it something else. Whatever, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, whoever you are.
[EDIT.6.20.2012] A friend mentioned in the comments that many aspects of this solution would require the developers to do more work (whereas a lack of authoritarian control is inherent in the physical structure of books and paintings). That’s kind of true. I know that things like a rewind feature would be a significant amount of more work, but a GUI for general console commands shouldn’t be a setback. During the development of many (all?) games there is something comparable to a developer mode that lets the creators move around how they please to test their creation. I mean, the developers and designers of Diablo 3 sure as hell wouldn’t want to play 20hrs of gameplay just to test one boss battle, or play 40hrs just to balance out high level characters. There are systems in place for the developers to physically navigate their own game with extraordinary ease and sometimes these systems are left out of the game and sometimes they’re left in but kept a secret. Much of my suggestions for a GUICC would involve creating a menu that executes code that already exists in the game, which shouldn’t be too difficult. Right?[/EDIT]
Just for fun, here are some examples of when developers loosened their authoritarian grip on the audience in the past. Feel free to skip to the next section, I’m writing many of these mainly out of nostalgia and not to make a point. Or am I?
The original Starcraft had a linear story which was told across three sequential campaigns. You could start with any campaign you wanted, but the game would warn you that you’d be missing out on many story elements by not starting at the beginning. I started with the Protoss, the third campaign, because they were my favorite. That was nice. Unfortunately in Starcraft you couldn’t skip around levels within a campaign, unless you used cheats. But even then, if you wanted to witness the in-level stories and dialogues you had to play through the level, and even with “Power Overwhelming” it could be a tedious process.
Sticking with Blizzard, Diablo1 had a great example of anti-authoritarian design. There was a quest and boss called The Butcher. Everyone who’s played Diablo remembers him because you encounter him on the second level of the dungeon, a point when your character is not prepared to face him. When you see his chamber, festooned with entrails and furnished with impaled humans, it is very clear who must be inside. Any wise player would save before entering. And they’d die because there’s no way they’d be strong enough. This first encounter is intense and terrifying, more terrifying than even Diablo himself. But it was optional. You didn’t have to ever fight the Butcher and you could continue the game and come back to him when you were ready. By giving the player the freedom to skip that challenge, deal with it at his own discretion (and by not giving the Butcher a spear-rope to capture players with) Blizzard North had created a really unique gameplay moment while allowing the player to balance his own difficulty curve.
Quake 2 was separated into “units” with each unit containing several levels. You could skip between units with some console commands. You couldn’t skip between levels, unfortunately, but you could activate god mode or ghost mode to get through levels as quickly as possible. Now this wasn’t at all unique, but what I thought was interesting is that the commands for skipping units was given to the player right in the game manual; usually that kind of information was gained from sources outside the game.
Here’s a quote from the manual:
“If you wish to play a particular unit, without working your way through all the levels preceding that unit, you can. We do not recommend that you jump into the middle of the game or skip any levels, since Quake II was designed in a progressive manner, and each level is important to the unfolding of the entire game. However, if you want to just play through a particular unit, you can ‘exec’ a file which will launch the level and give you the appropriate weapons and ammo to start with for that unit. To do this, simply pull down the console by pressing the tilde ( ~ ) key, and type the following command for the respective unit you wish to start:
To play : Type this command:
Warehouse Unit exec warehouse.cfg
Jail Unit exec jail.cfg
Mine Unit exec mine.cfg
Factory Unit exec factory.cfg
Power Unit exec power.cfg
Biggun Unit exec biggun.cfg
Hangar Unit exec hangar.cfg
City Unit exec city.cfg
Boss Levels exec boss.cfg”
Myst had a Zip Mode that you could activate. It let you skip sections of a level that you’d already traveled through. It even let you skip certain animations such as elevator rides. It made the game a lot less tedious. The Myst manual did warn you that if you used Zip mode you might miss something important along the way, but the game did nothing to block your use of it such as making it unlockable content.
Bethesda games Oblivion and Skyrim have a similar mechanic as Myst’s zip mode called fast travel. You can instantly travel to any city you’ve already been to. It’s nice not having to spend half an hour walking somewhere because “Walking is not gameplay”. And with games like Skyrim the time it takes to walk from one city to another is usually several real time days, not half an hour, because of all the distractions along the way. If Beowulf was a Bethesda hero he would never have made it to Grendel and the ballad would be all about Beowulf recovering stolen family heirlooms and messengering letters between star struck lovers.
The Chicago Bungie Myth series and Marathon series both featured a level skip cheat. You just held down command+option and clicked new game. In Myth it was nice because you’d see a list of all the level names and you could skip to any one and start commanding your troops. Marathon’s level skip was a little less friendly; you chose levels by numbers, not names, and when you started the level you only had a pistol, three clips of ammo, and there was no way to start with anything else. This allowed vidmasters to show off their mad skillz, but unfortunately this lack of weapons also made it difficult for one particular young man to jump to certain levels and safely study the level design for his own mapmaking.
Even Washington Bungie did some nice anti-authoritarian things with their Halo series. In the later games, not only was it possible to skip to any level you’d already accessed, you could also skip to the midpoint of each level. Very nice. Just a shame that this option wasn’t available right when the games first load.
Why is authoritarian control (and the lack of User Commands) a problem?…
Waste’s player’s time with involuntary restrictions and by undoing the player’s work:
Most games are designed to force you to lose progress. In fact, I believe games are the only medium that is designed to deliberately stall or undo the audience’s progress.
Let’s say you’re in a level. There are no quicksaves because screw you this is a console game. Your last checkpoint was twenty minutes ago. You’re fighting your third group of Doom-borgs and you die. Now you’ve got to redo those twenty minutes and fight the first two groups of Doom-borgs (the ones you already beat) again. You get to the point where you died last time and you die again. Once again you lose your progress and replay the exact experience you’ve already played. This system of failure and repetition makes it so that even if you’ve proven you can accomplish one task you have to prove this again if you fail at a succeeding task. Why?
The equivalent of this would be having to reread 5 pages in a book over and over again until you finally read the last sentence correctly, and only then could you move onto the next page. Or if you had to watch twenty minutes of a movie over and over until you managed to watch it without glancing away or blinking. It’s batshit insane. What’s wrong with you game developers? Why would you do this to people? If the audience wants to replay your twenty minutes of gameplay that should be their choice not yours. And in fact, after they beat that twenty minutes of gameplay they should be allowed to instantly rewind and play it again if they enjoyed it.
Again from a business standpoint, the customer has already paid for what comes after those obstacles; he shouldn’t be prevented from accessing that content. The customer has also paid for the what came before those obstacles and he shouldn’t be prevented from returning to that content whenever he wants. And again from an artistic standpoint, why would the designer deliberately prevent the player from seeing the work beyond this point? How does anyone benefit from that kind of tyrannical system?
I can just hear some people complaining, “But that’s what a game IS! It’s a system of rules and obstacles and goals, and if you can’t overcome the obstacles then you can’t reach the goals.” That’s true. And if a player chooses to keep replaying a game segment that’s their choice and that’s totally fine. The problem comes when it isn’t a choice and when overcoming physical-mechanical obstacles is mandatory.
Let’s look at board games and sports. In each of those there are systems, rules, obstacles, and goals. However the players in board games and sports voluntarily place those restrictions upon themselves. They know that the best experience they’ll have usually involves playing by the rules. That doesn’t prevent them from modifying the rules for a new situation or ignoring the rules to play a more casual game. In a game of football (read: soccer) players can say there’s no off sides, no out of bounds, no goalies, or they could choose to play for fun and avoid keeping score. Nothing is forcing them to follow the standard rules. And, if someone is playing a game of chess they can start playing with the pieces in mid-game positions to explore different tactics and common scenarios. Video games can’t do that, none of that, unless you’re a modder or a hacker, and that’s way beside the point.
This next paragraph is just a rambling rant, and a rant many people have gone on in the past. I still feel like writing it, but you should feel free to skip it. What the hell is the deal with restrictions on running? It doesn’t even make sense. Movement is one of the ways that players access content. Why constrain that basic mechanic by making it take longer to reach new areas of gameplay? It would be like if it took ten seconds to turn a page in a book; ten seconds isn’t a long time, but it sure as hell is a waste of time if it’s spent turning a page in a book or if it’s spent walking down an empty hallway in a game. This really blows my mind that anyone would think it would be a good idea to limit the duration that players can move at maximum possible speed. I mean, I get that racing games limit turbo, or whatever, because in that context modifying movement speed is part of the core competition. But in an FPS or actionRPG? Especially in single player! What the hell? The only thing players are doing when they’re not sprinting is tapping the sprint button until it activates again (or equivalent mechanic). Seriously game developers? What the fuck are you trying to accomplish with that? Are you even thinking? Maybe you’re trying to simulate reality because in reality we can’t sprint forever. In reality we also can’t crouch walk for long periods of time because our thighs would explode. In reality we also can’t run backwards up stairs without tripping. In classic games where there were two movement speeds, like Quake and Marathon, the only limit on running was your pinky finger’s ability to hold down the run button. My pinky finger is bowed and rippling with muscle, by the way.
Jumps between game genres without the audience’s say so:
This is one of my biggest problems with RPGs. They force you to take turns playing different games and you can’t do one (role play) until you’ve done the other (fight), and vice versa. You’re perpetually jumping back and forth between reading a novel then playing a game then back to reading a novel. Let’s look at sci-fi action RPG Mass Effect. You’re playing the role of Commander Cowboy and let’s say you want to just shoot aliens with your sidekick Sergeant Warrior. Too bad, you have to have a conversation with Ambassador Spacehooker first. Can you just jump to the part that you’re actually interested in: shooting space aliens? No, you have to slog through the conversation, which you don’t care about. But let’s say the opposite is true. Let’s say you’re mainly interested in the story of Mass Effect (then you should go read a book, nerd), can you just skip the repetitive and monotonous combat? Can you just skip to the part where you have a deep conversation about alien ecology with Dr. Scientist? No. You are forced to slog through the combat. It’s absurd. Yes, I know that some people consider both games (conversations and combat) to form the sum total of an RPG, but playing both should be your choice. I’m glad that Mass Effect 3 made some steps in the right direction.
I think this aspect (games forcing players to switch between game paradigms) is part of why multiplayer as well as game modes like Firefight and Horde Mode have become so popular. They are pure gameplay uninterrupted by anything else including other types of gameplay. You don’t have to be mentally switching gears every five minutes and rarely are there 10 second hallways of walking. I think single player could become just as popular as multiplayer if games abandoned their authorial control and adopted a Console Command Interface. The player could shape his experience to suit his own tastes, skipping the types of gameplay they’re not in the mood for right that minute. The game would be more accessible and potentially more enjoyable.
Makes games less accessible (Part 1) and makes exploration more difficult:
Players cannot go at their own pace, players cannot review what they’ve already experienced, players cannot explore different actions, players cannot focus on one part of the game, and returning players cannot “flip” to their favorite part.
Gamers like to extol the virtues of exploration and non-linear design in video games. Unfortunately that is just a cognitive illusion and games, even open world games, are extraordinarily linear and allow less exploration than other mediums (I’ll explore that idea further in a different article). Physical game design prevents the audience from accessing the objects and architecture and actors of the game. Since the material constructs are inaccessible this also makes the immaterial constructs, ideas and stories and meaning, also inaccessible. And considering that progress often involves good reaction speeds and good manual dexterity, this makes conceptual content less accessible to people with competent intelligence but clumsy manual skills.
In order to intelligently and purposefully explore the concepts of a creative work the audience needs as few mechano-physical hurdles placed in front of them. Every physical obstacle placed before the audience is just a distraction from the concepts found in that creative work. Yes, of course there are exceptions to this, like when form meets function or when the medium fits the message, but that’s clearly not what I’m talking about. Aside from those exceptions any time the audience has to struggle with the physical aspect of the work they are being pushed away. If a player can’t “flip” to their favorite part of a game that decreases the potential enjoyment they could get from that game. If they are forced to go at the developers’ speed then they can’t dwell on one particular segment, mulling it over and enjoying the experience at their own pace.
What it comes down to is that video games are elitist and exclusive in their physical design. They are deliberately or inadvertently designed to filter out certain people and only allow other types of people in. They exclude both gamers and non-gamers.
A couple other things that makes games extremely inaccessible is their lack of mechanical predictability in progression and their fatalistic approach to progression. Not knowing what comes next, conceptually, is part of the enjoyment, and even not knowing what comes next, mechanically, can be fun but usually the latter makes it extremely difficult to explore a conceptual work. If I have a book then I know that every time I turn a page I will access the next page and thus will have access to more content. That is mechanical predictability. If I accidently flip two pages at once, I notice my mistake, and I can flip backwards to where I should, and want to, be. That’s a non-fatalistic approach to progression.
In games, though, players don’t always know what will move the game forward and what will help them progress. Sometimes they think doing one mechanical thing will progress the game and it doesn’t. That’s just frustrating and it’s part of why point and click adventure games died off. The analogy with books would be if sometimes turning the page didn’t work and you’d have to poke the page, or rub it, or lick it to get access to new content, but you were never sure which of these actions applied to which page. Sure, sometimes this would be fun, but there’d be many points where you just want to get to the next part predictably and in a consistent way. What console commands do is create a meta mechanic that is always consistent and which will always progress the game predictably.
A fake wall is an another example of mechanical unpredictability; you think it will behave in a certain way mechanically but then it doesn’t. That’s not bad. What is bad is when that type of mechanical unpredictability prevents you from making progress or results in you losing progress, like a fake floor above a lava pit. And even that wouldn’t be bad if it didn’t make you lose progress. If you could just start over right before the lava pit then that would be fine and you could have a good chuckle about the designers’ joke. That’s somewhat the case in games like Prince of Persia and Braid. There isn’t much bad mechanical unpredictability because you can just rewind without really losing progress and without breaking much flow.
As for fatalistic progression. That’s where you progress and you have no choice in going back. Most games employ a fatalistic approach to progression: once you’ve made progress you cannot undo that progress to explore other options. Once you lose your fire power in Mario it’s final; you can’t go back and try it again without losing a life. Once you make a decision in the dialogue tree of an RPG then that decision is almost always final. You can’t go back to explore other options and if the result is something you didn’t want then you have to deal with it no matter what (which could be either enjoyable or frustrating, but again the player should be allowed to shape this experience).
Authoritarian control makes games less accessible to scholars (Part 2):
Here’s something; If I am reading a difficult passage in a poem and I’m having a difficult time understanding what the author is saying I can just skip it; I am not forced to read that one stanza over and over until I understand it. I can reread what came before this, or I can move on and then come back to the problematic stanza later. With what I read in the rest of the poem I might have a better chance of unravelling the meaning of the one part that I didn’t get. In this case, skipping content is beneficial in my understanding of the very content that I’ve skipped. I’m creating my own difficulty curve; I am adjusting the work to my own skill level. If you already get the picture, seriously, just skip the next two paragraphs, they are just me reiterating myself. No, I’m not going to delete them in the editing process.
The poet may have hidden the conceptual content of his poem within symbols and metaphors, but he has made the physical entirety of the poem completely available to me. Because they cannot allow their audience the same freedom that a poem, or other work, can, video games leave their scholars and reviewers with only a clumsy, frustrating, and time consuming method of navigation, or it leaves them with youtube Let’s Play videos which isn’t a solution at all. However, a User Command Interface would create a fluid and polished method of navigating the work that would be conducive in gaining a better understanding of the game. It would be easier to follow your own train of thought or your own line of inquiry through the conceptual aspects of the game.
Oh yeah, and in literature you can read a book any way you want. You can read it upside down, backwards word by word, backwards letter by letter, start in the middle, read sentences based on the Fibonacci sequence, and so forth. I don’t know why you’d want to, but you can. You can’t do anything vaguely similar with a video game unless you hack it. Considering that games are a digital medium it is embarrassing that they can’t accomplish the same thing as ancient, dusty tomes.
Let’s look at another situation, branching plots, alternate endings, and dialogue trees. They all essentially relate to the same situation: you are given a mechanical choice that let’s you linearly explore one section of the game in exclusion of several other sections of the game. If someone wants to see an alternate ending then they have to replay the game. If someone wants to explore a dialogue tree they can’t do it easily. They’d have to either replay the entire game or create a save game before the dialogue, reload, and replay the dialogue differently. If the player had User Commands at his disposal he could just rewind the conversation back to the decision point and explore an alternate path. For casual players this wouldn’t be an issue. For scholars and hardcore enthusiasts User Commands would be a way to play the game on a much deeper and more exhaustive level.
Handicaps designers and developers:
Developers are constantly thinking or worrying about how their players will approach their game. Is the difficulty curve alright? Has the player been taught all the skills they need to succeed? Will the player miss something crucial in the story? With a meta-mechanic like GUICC allowing audiences to explore freely, developers+designers wouldn’t have to think as much or worry as much about these sorts of things; they could focus more on making the games they want to make.
It seems that a complaint many gamers have with modern games is that they are dumbed down in terms of mechanics and difficulty. But developers don’t dumb down their games because they want their games to be easy and boring. Dumbing down games makes them more accessible to a wider audience which means more money and less chance of losing their job.
How much time and effort do developers put into testing and balancing difficulty curves in their games? How much time in trying to perfect the game so it’s not too hard for beginners and not to easy for veterans? Not entirely sure, but I think it can be quantitatively established as a “metric butt load”. Now this metric butt load of effort being placed into balancing difficulty curves is done with good intentions: to make the game more accessible for all types of players. That’s cool aside from the fact that it ends up appealing to the lowest common denominator. But here’s the thing, what if games let you fast forward or skip through sections at your leisure. Developers wouldn’t need to spend so much time balancing difficulty curves because with a fast forwarding mechanic players could just create their own difficulty curves. By giving players this ability, developers would be freeing up a lot of their own time to focus on other things. Hell, with this ability developers could make levels that are literally impossible to win just to make a point about something and it wouldn’t break the game because the players could just skip those kill levels.
Some sort of User Command Interface would also free up the developers from creating drawn out early game scenarios that teach players the game’s language and mechanics.
Keep in mind that while most gaming sycophants claim that games are the only medium that [something something] immersion, [something something] interaction, [something something] player agency, choice, blurgy murgy [some more illogical and poorly thought out arguments], all that nonsense isn’t true (I’ll save most of this mammoth topic for another article). All mediums are fundamentally the same, and the only difference between them is their physical construction and mechanics. The mechanics of reading a book are very different than the mechanics of watching a movie, but how they use those mechanics to tell a story or communicate meaning is essentially the same (all poetic devices are just literary devices; all literary devices are just linguistic devices; all linguistic devices are just artistic devices; or something very much like that). But even within the same medium the mechanics can change. When free verse poetry first started runnin’ around, people had to learn how to read it. It’s physical structure was different, the mechanics it focused on had completely changed, and the rules were different from the poetry people were used to. It took some time to learn how to access this new poetic structure, but people figured it out and now everyone can write poetry including whiny teenagers that just went through their first break up. Okay, I’m getting sidetracked. The point is, that like every other medium, the mechanics and the language of one game can be different than other games. Because of this many developers provide tutorial sections or instructive gameplay segments so that the player slowly can get used to whatever it is the designer wants them to get used to. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying that developers spend a certain amount of time and energy working on these parts of the game when they could be working on other parts of the game instead. If a game allowed a player to fast forward or rewind at their leisure then these segments wouldn’t be as necessary and their structure could be more relaxed. It would still be a good idea to introduce new mechanics slowly to the audience, as is true of every medium, but with User Commands those segments wouldn’t be as strict. Thanks to the player’s ability to construct their own learning curve the developer would have that particular responsibility loosened from their shoulders. And I do understand that this aspect (guiding the player’s learning) can be fun for developers and I understand that it is its own form of enjoyable artistry. Still, User Commands would give developers a little more leeway and freedom in how they do this.
Authoritarian control is a sign of the designers’ cowardice:
The only reason you could have for consciously forcing someone to play your game sequentially or force someone to explore your story is because you lack confidence in your own work and you’re afraid to let people explore it freely.
I remember back in the day when the games community was wasting their time going, “oh no, games have so much player agency how do we get the player the play the game the way we want them too?? how do we get the player to actually pay attention to our story??? waaaah, here’s some bullshit solution that involves psychological manipulation or here’s a solution that involves giving up.” It went something like that in almost every article and forum.
The question, “How do you get an audience to be interested in your work”, is a legitimate question that is faced by every one in the arts. The answer is simple although actually implementing the solution is extremely difficult. The answer: make your work interesting and engaging. Does that seem like a bullshit answer? It’s not. It’s the most accurate and the most specific answer that can be given to that sort of question. Anything that attempts to be more specific than that is pedantic ignorance. The way to reach the solution is by working, working, working, working, working, working, and remembering that practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. The solution requires a critical eye, a critical mind, and some powerful intuition, all of which can be developed and enhanced by working, working, working, working. It requires paying attention to what works, what doesn’t, getting feedback from peers and equals, not fans. I guess you can also get feedback from focus groups, but then have fun making Transformers and enjoy all your money and worthlessness. There is no article, no list, no developer interview that will give you a solution that is more accurate than, “Make your work worth experiencing. Make your story worth listening to. If you’re able to do this you’ll do this.”
The point is that if you’re using authoritarian control or psychological tricks to get the audience to go through your work, you are just succumbing to your own cowardice. If you lack confidence in your own work then how can the audience feel confidence in exploring it.
Authoritarian control is disrespectful to the audience
This should be a no brainer at this point. Feel free to skip it if you already understand what I’m going to say.
Even if you ignore my other arguments what it still comes down to is that authoritarian control is extremely disrespectful to the audience.
What is a designer saying to the audience when he makes a level unskippable or a branching story impossible to explore freely (in any way at any point in time)? “You’re too stupid to explore this game on your own terms. Do it my way, dumbass.” What is a designer saying when he makes a cinematic unskippable? “My story is so god damn amazing you WILL see it.” It’s not amazing, though. And, no matter how good your story is it is still deranged to force someone to play it, in the same way that it’s deranged to hold someone’s eyelids open to force them to watch your dystopian movie compilation.
I remember a friend of mine played Portal. Somewhere in the middle he came to a level where he had to do this thing where he’d fall into one portal and fly up out of another one on a higher platform, flip around, and shoot another portal at the next platform. He had to do that several times in a row. But he couldn’t. He just became too disoriented from all the flying and spinning around. He told me that he finally quit when he started feeling nauseous. He couldn’t finish the level. So, he couldn’t see the rest of the game either. Sure, his reaction was probably something only a minority experienced, but it shouldn’t have prevented him from accessing the rest of the game. What was Valve telling my friend by making this level mandatory? “You’re not good enough to see the rest of our game. Get lost!” So my friend got lost and never played the rest of Portal.
Some people might say, “Well, yeah, your friend sucks. He just didn’t have the skills to beat the level.” Okay, whatever, you dick, but games are not tryouts for your high school football team. There shouldn’t be a “cut” based on physical proficiency, especially not with a game like Portal which is supposed to value cognitive ability not reaction speed. I hate puzzle games that make things hard by forcing you to do things more and more quickly; that’s a false increase in difficulty (and a discussion for another article).
All of that condescending mechanical design could be avoided if players were given a Console Command Interface. What are developers saying when they provide users with a user friendly system of mechanical navigation? “We like you guys. We respect you. You’re mature enough to play this game so we trust that you will use this ability to explore our creative work maturely and appropriately.”
Why the solution is not a problem:
I kind of feel ridiculous actually explaining this, but I just know that somewhere in my future (your present) there is some self-entitled internet dickweed fuming about how being able to skip around a video game defeats the purpose and makes the game too easy. All I have to say to that is, “It’s an option, like saving, and if you want things to be difficult then just don’t choose that option. No one’s forcing anyone to do it. That’s the whole point: not forcing the audience.”
Some people might say that this UCI option would ruin games. These people need to wake up and realize that games are already being ruined by many things including authoritarian control.
Let’s remember that the ability to freely navigate a piece of work has not been a real problem for other mediums. You can start reading a book in the middle or you can just skip to the end. That’s your choice, but you’ll get the best experience by starting at the start, most likely. That’s why the author put the stuff in the beginning at the beginning and the stuff in the middle in the middle. Even bands will arrange the songs on their albums so that by listening from start to finish you’ll get the best listening experience; you don’t have to do it that way, but according to the musicians it’s your own loss if you don’t.
The same should apply to video games. Your best possible experience is in playing the levels from start to finish and accepting the limitations the designers place on you. Stray from that tradition at your own loss, but you are allowed to stray.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s a simple method game designers and developers can use to encourage players to play games “correctly” while still providing a Console Command Interface. And the method already exists. “Achievements” are the most idiotic and yet utterly successful innovation in the games industry in many years. People do absurd things and they will play games past the point of enjoyment to get those worthless badges. Bizarre. Anyway, if a game had a CCI and it also had achievements for completing levels without ever using that mechanic then those achievements would encourage players to play the game in whatever manner the designers thought best.
This should be simple.
Phew, that article lasted a while. I’m glad it’s over; it took me over a year to write this thing. I had intended to write an article about authoritarian control that would say everything I wanted to say in about two pages. After several months I had about fourteen pages of notes and accumulated thoughts. I starting writing the article, then deleted it, then wrote an outline, then started writing the article from scratch, then deleted it, then started over again. I wrote the entire thing and then spent several more weeks rewriting sections, editing, rewording things, rearranging the order of sections, and then I just got tired. The final thing, the 14-15 page thing you just read, it isn’t as good as I want it to be and it still hasn’t said everything I wanted to say (and that page count has changed three times). Oh well. I’ll have to put the other things I want to say in other articles I suppose. There are still things I want to edit, but am forcibly restraining myself.
But why did I go through all that trouble just to post an article on a blog no one reads? Just to get it off my chest maybe, because GOOD GOD I hate authoritarian control. And who knows. Maybe this will come in handy to someone, someday; maybe it will come in handy to everyone someday. I mean the eradication of authoritarian control’s strangling grip on the medium. Games won’t move forward until it’s gone.
Modern developers are circling around the idea already. Look at Mass Effect 3‘s options for truncating the combat or dialogue or having equal amounts of both. It’s almost like they can sense what they need to do, but it’s on the tip of their tongue and they just can’t grasp it. LET THE PLAYER SKIP WHATEVER HE WANTS. Just look at how Oblivion and Skyrim let you fast travel to destinations; unfortunately this can only be done if you’ve already traveled to that location and you can’t do it within a city. LET THE PLAYER PHYSICALLY EXPLORE HOW HE WANTS.
Look at Bungie and what they’re doing with multiplayer. I’m not even talking about Halo’s Forge. Just look at the customizability for Halo multiplayer and Firefight. Everything is completely customizable (weapon sets, enemy sets, player attributes, game rules, etc.) to a degree that is only insane because it’s rare. In this case, Bungie gets it: let the player create his own experience; encourage the player to go with your experience but don’t force them.
I don’t play many games these days, not because they are of lesser quality than classic games (even though they are) but because I have no freedom when I’m playing them. I’d love to play Diablo 3 but I don’t see any point in playing for thirty hours just to get a decent character that’s finally fun.
[EDIT.6.20.2012] The solution I described, a GUI for console commands, is inevitable. Every medium has become more and more accessible and navigable over time, if possible: books are printed in brail for the blind, in large type for the hard of sight, and in languages other than Latin for everyone who isn’t a monk in 13th century Europe; movies and tv provided closed captioning for the deaf, and though both mediums once were very authoritarian they are now available for the audiences convenience on dvd and the internet. Games will have to follow suit.[/EDIT]
I remember a few months back I read something on Rock Paper Shotgun about the whole Mass Effect 3 combat skipping controversy. (Seriously? People actually debated about that? That just shows you how immature the game community is, but whatever.) At the end of the article the writer said something to the effect, “I don’t see why games shouldn’t let you skip combat. DVDs let you skip scenes and it doesn’t hurt that medium.” When I read that I thought to myself, “Ah, shit. I took too long writing my article. Now everyone will be writing about authoritarian control, or whatever they call it, and it will look like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon.” But that discussion never came. As of this writing, even RPS hasn’t touched on that topic again. Everyone is still circling, but they’re bound to figure it out soon.* The only way games can break out of the camouflaged cage they’re in right now is by breaking authoritarian control.
* Examples of people touching on these ideas:
Here is an article on Game Informer where the writer discusses how parts of games are physically inaccessible to hims because of his physical disability.
On his blog, Steve Gaynor talks about respecting the players which touches on some aspects of authoritarian control.