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Games Can Make Statements – but Should They?

Do you have a theme or issue you want to explore in your game? Do you want to tell players what you think about something? Well, don’t. Telling people things is for other media, not ours.

Warren Spector

March 1, 2023

6 Min Read

Last time, I talked about the fourth of my success criteria – walking in someone else’s shoes. (And before anyone starts giving me a hard time, recall that that’s the one I feel I’ve fallen farthest short of so I’m way more down on myself about it than any of you could be!)

Anyway, here’s another thing I think about a lot. Here’s the fifth thing on my list of success criteria. Maybe it’ll resonate with you:

Do you have a theme or issue you want players to explore? Is there a statement you want to make to players?

In my opinion, developers should make sure they have something to say before they start working on a game. Okay, maybe “should” is too strong a word. Despite appearances, I’m not trying to convince anyone that my success criteria are “right” or “better” than anyone else’s (though I am arguing that you need some idea of what you think is important before you go through the gruelingly hard work of developing a game!).

So, while it’s fine to make games that are nothing more than a way to pass some time in a state of adrenalized bliss, let’s acknowledge that we’re as capable of profundity as any medium. Work with me on this...

Actually, when I said “make a statement” earlier. I... well... I lied. The important part of this success criterion is about having a theme or an issue you want players to explore - actively explore through their gameplay choices.

Earlier, I talked about the idea of Shared Authorship? (If you missed that – and you’re interested, of course – you can go back and read that before you go on here.) In another blog post, I talked about making games about choice and consequence (and recovery – but that’s a whole ‘nother thing I’ll get to at some point. I also talked about player/developer dialogue? Here’s where we come back to all that stuff.

If you really want to make a statement – to tell players something you think is important and what you think or feel about it - don’t make a game. Write a novel or make a movie. Here’s my main argument: Games shouldn't make statements. They can – and should – ask players to ponder questions.

In a novel or movie, the author (however you define “author”) really does make statements. They answer questions related to a theme or issue. All you can do as a reader or viewer (or listener or whatever) is interpret – you get to agree or disagree. In a game, you answer those questions for yourself every step you take in our virtual worlds.

In Deus Ex, you get to decide how the world should look at the end of the game. Every NPC has a worldview, and you get to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. What’s the “best” future for humanity? Who's right and who's wrong? The developer asks questions and players answer for themselves.

Let me repeat: Linear media answer questions about the world in which we live; games ask them and allow players to answer them. Let me give you specific examples. Again, I’ll use Deus Ex and throw in Epic Mickey. Both of them asked questions about our world – not just the fictional world in which the games were set. Our world.

Now, it may be that even the team that made Deus Ex will think I’m nuts, but what Deus Ex was really about for me, can be summed up in four questions:

  1. What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?

  2. What would it do to our world and the people who live in it – our world, the real world – if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?

  3. What’s the nature of humanity? At what point in a world where human augmentation is commonplace do we stop being human and start being… something else?

  4. What’s the most desirable “end state” for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (if conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?

Note that I didn’t care whether players knew the game was “about” their personal answers to those four questions. No author wants his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. You don’t want to beat people over the head with your “message.” Suffice to say the Deus Ex team’s outstanding execution resulted in questioning players without most of them even realizing that was what was going on. (And, to beat a dead horse about credit, it must be said: That wonderful team owned details and execution at a level that’s rarely acknowledged.)

Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn’t see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I’ve worked on, but that’s another story…

Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:

  1. How important are family and friends to you?

  2. Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do, or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?

  3. Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem (like getting someone’s cat out of a tree), when the fate of the entire world is in your hands, or is it better to ignore local problems because you do have an entire world to save?

  4. What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on?

  5. What does it mean to be forgotten? How does that make you feel? How does that affect who you are?

Again, players may not realize it, but they’re answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the game world, the characters, and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.

And here’s a secret: Critically, no one in the world will ever know what I think is the best future for humanity or the importance of family and friends. What I think doesn’t matter at all. What does matter is the player’s answers to the questions. Not the developers’ answers and not the character’s answers – the player, the real human on the other side of the screen holding the controller or wielding the mouse.

For anyone who says their game can’t ask deep questions I’ll just say this: If a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions, any game can.

I could go on for days about any of the topics I’ve talked about in the last few weeks. But it’s time to wrap this up and let all of you decide what your success criteria are and how best to accomplish them. So next time, conclusions.

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