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The Power of Passivity

As game designers we want to give players agency, but we also have to decide what players can't do. How can we position the experience of passivity--of non-agency--in a way that adds to a game instead of subtracting from it?

Greg Pollock, Blogger

March 28, 2013

8 Min Read

There’s a passage toward the end of Bastion where (spoiler alert, but if you haven’t already played Bastion then why are you reading this instead?) you can save Zulf, a dude who has done you wrong but for perhaps understandable reasons. I chose mercy. What happens next I found powerful in a way that no BFG could ever match. As I carried Zulf’s broken body past the countrymen who turned on him, I was weighed down and defenseless to their attacks. I started to panic that I wouldn’t have enough health potions to survive--that I would walk to a grisly, impotent death as punishment for my kindness. Of course that doesn’t happen; the game is well designed and you get out of danger pretty quickly (it felt much longer than the video shows). But that walk, where the normal frenetic destruction is replaced by elegiac stoicism, made me think about the power of player passivity.

On the face of it, passivity is the opposite of what I think about in game design. I think about player agency. What can the player do? Until the player’s input the game is a closed system. The player interrupts that system by interjecting their decisions, decisions that lead to a variation in output. The correlation between input and output allows the player to learn and master the rule set and have fun. We want to give players agency, not take it away.

BioShock 2 and Hobbes: the Pessimistic View of Passivity

I remembered my experience with Bastion when I ran through a tangentially related sequence at the end of a BioShock 2 level. After killing the level’s boss, my arch-nemesis Lamb comes on the PA to tell me about her great ideology and how crappy I am. Everything in the environment starts falling apart as she floods the level and I scramble to escape. This example isn’t quite as crystalline as the one from Bastion: it’s possible to delay and pay no consequences, as I found out when I looked for videos on YouTube. But when I was playing it the threat felt real. It felt like the level was collapsing and all the plasmids in the world could not hold back the annihilation coming my way. Lamb’s monologue made an impression on me at the point when Lamb says, “Subject Delta, I want you to commit this moment to memory for me. This… howling, brutish slog through the dark. This is who we are.” Lamb echoes Thomas Hobbes’s “nasty, brutish, and short” in more than just language. Both worldviews found a need for governance on a pessimistic view of the limitations of the individual. As humans we are benighted suffering creatures, and this is why we need to submit to a governing body (the king, Lamb, Parliament, etc.). They are both speaking about (and deriving power from) the inescapable experience of passivity, of limitations in agency. (When Hobbes really wants to prove his point he resorts to the infallible example of passivity, “well you have to sleep sometime!” to explain why people in the state of nature need to band together to escape harm).

Bastion’s passivity is nearly the opposite. Rather than the hellishness of being trapped in my own cumbersome and alien body, cut off from others and vulnerable to them, Bastion presents the way in which that limitation becomes an opening to others. That shift in orientation is a cornerstone of the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas. Whereas many philosophers talk about the individual trying to make sense of his or her own death, Lévinas centers on our experience of the death of others (for the pretty good reason that we experience the death of others during our lives and by definition we never experience our own death). Lévinas is writing from a Jewish tradition (his experience in Auschwitz figures prominently in his work) but a related idea is at work in the passion of Christ. Christians bear witness to His suffering as the opening onto salvation. The same idea works without a religious framework: Matthew Calarco has applied Levinas’s concepts to understanding how animal suffering matters to us, personally and ethically.

All of which is to say, in a long and theoretical way, that I think passivity is an important part of the human experience and one which games are capable of tapping into. The challenge is how to frame it in such that it intensifies gameplay rather than limiting it. Part of that is the vulnerability of the player character to injury and death. For the player, however, that vulnerability includes limitations on their agency. Space Team does a great job with this, making your UI fall apart as you take damage, so that what deteriorates is not an abstract number but your ability to interact intentionally with the play space. (It is also absolutely infuriating). Bastion makes it so you cannot outrun your enemies while carrying Zulf. BioShock throws water in your face, cuts the lights, and generally makes it hard to get where you want to go (at least they don’t take away the map).

Passivity in Casual Games

Those games use passivity as an exceptional game state. They interrupt one experience with a more passive one to create emotional intensity. I love that, but in thinking about how the concept of passivity applies to games and the uniquely game-ly properties of player action, I also see the problem more broadly as it relates to how player agency is (inevitably) limited in some way. I mean, even in Minecraft, the game that arguably gives the freest rein to player creativity, there are still constraints on what recipes can be crafted and the granularity with which the world is rendered. I’m thinking less of games like Minecraft or Bethesda open worlders, though, than of casual games for smartphones and tablets. Here there are several platform constraints that need to be accounted for in the types agency given the player: the lower processing power of the device, the size of the device, the size of the human finger, and the touch control interface are all important design constraints. Designers work with these by modifying the kinds of agency the player has. (Games that don’t do it well become frustrating because their interfaces don’t provide the level of fidelity in translating player intention into game input that they want. I have a whole spiel about this that I will save for another day).

Two games that do a good job of suspending some types of player agency are Clash of Clans and Gratuitous Space Battles. (I played GSB on the iPad where it is, and feels like, a PC port, but I’m including it here because it works for what I want to say). In Clash of Clans you send raiding parties to enemy bases to destroy their stuff and steal it. Before a raid you spend time and resources to build your army, and here you have perfect fidelity of control. During the raid, however, you have very limited options. You pick where to deploy your units, but once they hit the ground they are all AI driven (and often not in the way you would want). This lack of control can be frustrating but there are good reasons for it. For one thing, it certainly made the game quicker to develop, but it also does avoids promising a level of precision that the game would not be able to honor. A game you play on your iPhone should not ask you to perform StarCraft-level precision actions. Instead of offering a theoretical level of control likely to suffer a loss of fidelity, Clash of Clans forces the player to be passive for much of the raid as they see whether their strategy was effective. That passivity positions the player for a minute of nail-biting once all the troops are deployed and they can only watch.

And if you like to watch--or if you think Clash of Clans is a F2P trifle that can’t prove a point about serious games--Gratuitous Space Battles takes the “let’s configure some stuff and see what happens” loop to max level. In GSB you create space ship designs, then select and deploy a fleet of your ships against a computer opponent. Once you’ve positioned your fleet you hit Go and see what happens. During this phase the player has no more input. You sit back (or lean forward) as you learn whether your designs are correctly configured to capitalize on your opponent’s weaknesses and send them to a fiery doom. The game has a pleasant fiction around this--the ship captains know what they’re doing so just let them do their job, ok--but more importantly, it works as game design. GSB gives you plenty of depth of choice in the ship design screen so the passive portion isn’t a way to skimp on control. At a point when many games would create intensity by overloading the number of desired actions per unit time, GSB creates intensity through passivity.


Working on casual games for smartphones requires thinking through a number of constraints. My argument here is that what we subtract from player agency can be rethought as more than the unfortunate consequences of our target platform or demographic. By attending to why and when passivity is compelling, those subtractions can make our games better.

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