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Analysis: The Only Way to Win - How Games Change The Rules

In this analysis, interactive fiction author Emily Short examines the rhetorical power of games and looks as the ways in which a game's narrative can sometimes run contrary to its rules to make a particular point.

Emily Short, Blogger

October 14, 2010

7 Min Read

[In this analysis piece, interactive fiction author Emily Short examines the rhetorical power of games and looks as the ways in which a game's narrative can sometimes run contrary to its rules to make a particular point.] My first encounter with the rhetorical power of games came in the early 90s. We had a copy of Avalon Hill's New World, one of those massive games where it takes hours to learn the rules and punch out the cardboard pieces, and hours more to finish a single playthrough. My family played it exactly once. The idea is that each player represents a European power exploring the new world. Your goal is to send home resources; you want to exert some power over regions of the New World so that you can continue to send them. There are all sorts of problems to contend with, such as the loss of cargo at sea, but over the course of a single game it quickly became obvious that the dominant strategy was to exterminate the native population wherever you went. Attempts to live side-by-side with them rarely worked. At the time this was a revelatory experience; I'd not run into a game before that was capable of raising moral issues just through its rules. There was Diplomacy, of course, but there the ethical issues were not simulated in the rules, exactly. Whereas New World seemed to be saying that the problem wasn't merely the method of the explorers, but their goal itself, which drew them more and more into unacceptable behavior. I still find it compelling to play things that invite the player to question the nature of that game. I'm also a lot more jaded about them. Certain rhetorical maneuvers seem especially common: Ends do not Justify Means The rules require behavior that is (fictionally) horrific, and the only question is how soon you will register your contempt for the scenario and quit. This sort of game is vaguely reminiscent of the Milgram experiment: how much do we invest in the authority of the rules, and how long are we willing to participate in something that is, even as fiction, repugnant. Rendition, a text game about torturing prisoners, is an example in this line. It's not recommendable, as its point is cheaply made and its gameplay is disgusting, but I keep coming back to it as a thought experiment. Some people might put Hey Baby in this category as well. Victor Gijsbers' Fate is a bit less extreme: it instead poses a question to the player, asking just how much we're willing to do and allowing us to stop when things get too morally tricky. A less creepy close cousin of this, which is closer to what the New World game does, and also, I think, more interesting: the rules allow appalling behavior -- and makes the evil path systematically easier than the good one, tempting players to play accordingly. The McDonald's Video Game is my favorite example in this line, because it sets up the argument that if you ran McDonalds, you too would be an amoral opportunist ruining the planet. This is actually a bit of a cheat, because what I might be willing to explore in a game is not the same as what I would be willing to do in real life. But it's rhetorically very effective for all that, because it sets up a critique of the social and economic system rather than of the individuals in power within that system. Mandatory Loss The rules are so constructed as to prevent you from winning, so the gameplay is about how you realize that and when/whether you give up. Though I've been harsh about facile uses of this gimmick, there are still some interesting things to be said in this vein -- as long as the process sheds some significant light on why and how the situation is impossible to win. The Rules are a Lie The game is only winnable if you disobey the instructions you're given. Tale of Tales' The Path plays with this by providing an experience that misses nearly all the work's content unless the player disobeys the tutorial instruction to stay on the path. Brandon Brizzi's Before the Law is an example in this last category: an interactive version of a Kafka parable, it addresses the problem of people submitting to authority instead of claiming what justly ought to be theirs. It's clever, in the sense that it exploits the player's own training to follow game tutorial instructions, and maps that onto the story character's training to obey authority figures. There's a gap between what a game tells us to do and what a game system allows us to do -- between the instructions and the rules -- and when we explore that, we learn something new about the modeled universe. Past that point, the metaphor breaks down a bit. As players we do what the tutorial tells us to do because that's how we learn to have the best experience with the game. It's the route to having the most fun. In life, we obey authority for a host of reasons: not just a deliberate attempt to optimize our experience, but also fear, habit, or plain uncertainty about what other options we might have. Every Day the Same Dream (again by Molleindustria) does something similar: it does not explicitly lie about the rules, but uses the elements of game design to encourage the player to suppose that the world works in a certain way, and then allows him to discover avenues of escape. This is the even same trick that lies at the heart of Portal. GlaDOS initially looks and acts like our Tutorial Pal, the reliable game device that can be relied on to tell us what to do, until the relationship gradually shifts. The Fiction is a Lie You think you know what you're doing in the game, but what's really happening is something else entirely, because the rules of the game map equally well onto multiple fictions; partway through you find out the truth. I find this technique usually to be the weakest of the devices I've listed, because it distances the player from understanding the action but don't allow him much responsibility for what's happened. At worst, it's the equivalent of the "All Just A Dream" trope in movies and literature. But there are exceptions. Braid succeeds better than most because it gives the player some reason to doubt the fiction from the beginning, and then ties the "truth" tightly to the gameplay mechanics, so that the final level seems inevitable, not arbitrary. Train appears to have been effective for some players/viewers because it doesn't spell out its fiction clearly and lets participants figure out the meaning for themselves. This method might also be used to pose some interesting analogies: what does it mean to you if the same gameplay mechanics that can express fiction X can also express fiction Y? Does that mean there are systemic similarities between those two situations? Too Grim? Loosely, we can sort these moves into two categories: either the fiction is at odds with the rules in some way (by shading strategically positive moves and making them fictionally negative, say, or by assigning changing meanings to the player's choices); or the rules are implicitly or explicitly misrepresented to the player (meaningful options are not mentioned, the tutorial gives incorrect guidance, win conditions are impossible to achieve). That makes for uncomfortable and sometimes disorienting play -- play that doesn't always feel playlike at all. And the games that use these techniques tend towards the dark, the cynical or satirical, or the politically cutting. Very frequently, they're games about why we obey what shouldn't be obeyed (Train, Rendition), or submit to what we shouldn't have to put up with (Every Day the Same Dream, Before the Law, Hey Baby) -- or, on the other hand, about why we refuse to accept reality (Braid, Photopia). Which makes me wonder: is contravening gameplay expectations, or turning the fiction against the rules, always grim? [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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