Player Agency – The Experiences Only Games Can Bring Us

Pope’s follow up to his 2013 hit “Papers, Please” has a stunning 1-bit art style, adding to it’s unique charm even more.

I recently played through Lucas Pope’s new game “Return of the Obra Dinn”. It’s an amazing game and I can’t sing its praises enough, but I’ll just be focusing on one key aspect of it, and that’s how it made me feel. The game has been getting a ton of comparisons to “Her Story”, a wonderful 2015 title by Sam Barlow, and I absolutely see the connections too. But the game that Obra Dinn reminds me of the most is Johnathan Blow’s 2016 masterpiece “The Witness”. Both of these games elicited an emotion from me that most art never even tries to achieve: the feeling of epiphany.

In doing research for this article I found an amazing piece about romance in games by Andrea Phillips, which you can read here. I’ll try not to retread what she has said too much, but she does come up with a great term that I’ll borrow here: emotions of agency. These are the emotions that only video games can produce. The best stuff that any media has to offer will elicit strong emotions from you. Most of these are second-hand though, games can make you feel these emotions firsthand.

One of the first puzzles you’ll solve in Obra Dinn. All of the pieces are available to you, you just have to find out how they fit together.

I’ve seen tons of mystery films that don’t feel like a tangible, solvable mystery to the viewer. I often find that we simply get to see the characters show off their wit as they unravel clues. We marvel at their intelligence, but the audience doesn’t get to experience these eureka moments for themselves. To be fair, it is possible to experience the feeling of epiphany in other mediums. I can think of a few films whose plots unwrap like puzzles, where dedicated viewers will guess a twist ending thanks to some subtle clues. These moments are pretty rare though and will usually only come once a movie, if at all. Video games however can make you feel like the detective, and you’ll get all the satisfaction of solving the mysteries. Games have the ability to be based entirely around making the player feel clever, and like they’ve figured something out using only their ingenuity.

That’s exactly what games like Obra Dinn and The Witness offer. In these two games you’ll always have all the tools you need to solve the puzzle, so it’s up to you to see how everything fits together. And when it finally clicks, it’s an immensely satisfying thing. While these games are amazing in their own right, the reason I admire them so much is because puzzle games are so rare. I love a good action game, but it’s such a well established genre that you need to do a lot more to stand out. A good puzzle game on the other hand is much harder to find, and will offer an experience that tests your intellect where most other games will challenge something like dexterity. This makes puzzlers unique experiences, even in the realm of games.

But there are other games that elicit emotions that just cannot be replicated in any other medium. You can’t, for example, feel embarrassment by watching a movie or reading a book. When something awkward happens in a movie, you might be embarrassed for the person, but you’re not embarrassed yourself. With the interactive medium that is video games however, we can experience these feelings for ourselves. Hence first-hand emotions, emotions of agency.

Shadow of The Colossus is a pretty cliched example to bring up when talking about this kind of thing, but it’s so trite because it just works so well. No other game has even attempted to deliver the kind of experience that it brings. I’m going to dive into the main plot of the game, so if you want to play it but haven’t yet, I would highly recommend that first. It’s an incredible game for many reasons but in order to discuss a lot of them, I will have to spoil it.

The following section contains spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus.

A picture from the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. Here you can see Wander clinging onto the massive colossus’s weapon. Needless to say the game’s sense of scale is incredible, and it looks gorgeous.

Shadow of the Colossus is about remorse, and it’s the only game I’ve seen even attempt to capture that emotion. The game lets you control the protagonist, Wander. We don’t know much about him, except that he’s grieving after the loss of a young girl named Mono. We don’t know anything about their relationship, but the journey Wander goes on to try and save her speaks volumes. He takes nothing but his horse and his sword, and sets out to slay the sixteen colossi across the land (you can see one in the picture above), being promised by an ancient entity named Dormin that if he does so, Mono may come back to life. That much is never even made a certainty.

This is the exposition you get at the start of the game, more or less, and the rest of the story is incredibly minimal. You follow Wander as he seeks to kill the colossi. These gigantic beasts are majestic, and mysterious. They’re beautiful, yet you have to kill them. Unlike most violent video games where you just assume the people you’re killing are evil, SotC makes you feel guilty for slaying these creatures. Many of the creatures aren’t hostile at all. One of them merely holds you in its hand and glares at you as you stab it, as if it’s just as curious about you as you are as it. You gain a strong sense of empathy for the creatures as you’re causing such pain, and no doubt it starts to give you some hesitation.

You may start the game with no qualms over killing these creatures, feeling like a badass for taking them down, but by the end you start to feel intense regret and guilt. These emotions are not second-hand, they’re very palpable and real. You didn’t watch a character in a movie slay the colossi, you slayed them. These creatures were beautiful, most didn’t attack you unless provoked, and some were entirely peaceful. Yet you killed them, and you’ll finish the game feeling that maybe your task wasn’t as heroic as you originally thought it was. Long after the credits roll you’ll still be thinking about the consequences of your actions.

Spoilers end here.

If you don’t understand the desire to experience things like this, that’s fine. I personally think it’s fantastic that art can create safe places where we can experience things we never would be able to in real life, uncomfortable or otherwise. At the very least they can offer us a valuable new experience we would have been missing out on otherwise, and at best they can teach us something new about the world, and maybe even help us grow as people. These are the things I love to feel when I’m enjoying a piece of art, and video games are no exception.

I think games as a medium have an incredible amount of potential to provide people with unique experiences like this. I love and care about this medium dearly, but it is far from perfect. There’s many things I think the medium could accomplish, and will in the near future, but we aren’t quite there yet. Romance is a big one. There’s a lot of reasons games have never been good at portraying romance. Dialog and story standards have been incredibly low up until the past couple years, and the medium has a spotty relationship with women. This year though an incredible little game called Florence came out, telling a slice of life story about the relationship of two young people as they fall in love for the first time.

I won’t go into detail about the plot, but at it’s core is a love story. You play as the eponymous character Florence Yeoh as she meets a man named Krish, and you’ll follow their relationship through its highs and lows. The gameplay is simple, consisting of WarioWare-like micro-games, an example of which you can see below. In order to talk about what’s going on this picture, I need to explain a very useful term: “mechanics as metaphor”. Mechanics as metaphor was coined by the wonderful ExtraCredits team in 2012, and it’s essential to talking about art games. It’s pretty self explanatory, it’s when the mechanics of the video game represent something other than the literal. In the example of the picture below, you just arrange puzzle pieces into the shape of a thought bubble. Literally you’re solving a simple puzzle, but metaphorically you’re Florence going on a date, thinking of things to say. Over time she gets to know Krish better, and the number of puzzle pieces decrease as it becomes easier to think of what to say, and their conversation flows better.

One of the many examples of how Florence uses mini-games to show the characters’ relationship.

I know these mechanics are incredibly simple, and their metaphors are obvious and perhaps even shallow. But I think it’s a wonderful first step for the medium. Florence was created in the hopes of being a unique experience among the hundreds of derivative games out there that offer the same mechanics and themes, over and over. A first hand look at relationships and love in the modern age, told in a way only video games can tell a story. This interactive medium has so much to offer us, it’s growing and will only continue to grow as time goes on. Games like Florence, Obra Dinn, and SotC are just the beginning. Every year, amazing new video games come out that can offer us experiences unlike anything else. It’s an amazing medium, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes from here.

Thank you for reading.

Player Agency – Video Games Should be Funnier

There was once a time where if someone said that a game had good writing, they meant it had good writing for a game. Nowadays stories in games aren’t seen as rare, they’re almost commonplace. The quality of storytelling has improved greatly, and standards are a lot higher. In the present day games are seen less as toys for children and more as a serious art medium like film or music. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have catching up to do however. While writing overall is much better than what it was a decade or so ago, games are still incredibly lacking when it comes to humor. For that reason, today I’m going to be taking a look at comedy in video games.

The Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990 by Lucasfilm Games, is the godfather of comedy games.

Art is subjective and what makes a piece good is never set in stone. But there’s still ground rules, and though some of the best pieces break these traditions, there’s always classic do’s and don’ts. Games though, are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things and we haven’t yet created ground rules for a lot of things. Think about the “WASD” control scheme on a PC game, it’s the standard layout for a majority of titles on the platform. Today it’s a staple, but there was a time not too long ago when it didn’t exist. And comedy is a place where no such standards exist to this day. No one has figured out a foolproof way to tell jokes in the medium as of now. Games are so notoriously unfunny that when someone brings up the topics of games that make you laugh you’ll hear the same two or three titles brought up: Monkey Island, Portal, maybe Undertale… So why are most video games humorless, and how can we make them funnier?

The problem lies partially in how we categorize games. We define them first and foremost by how we interact with them. Any signifier of tone or style is secondary. The first thing you hear about a game is whether or not it’s a platformer or a shooter, not whether it has a noir aesthetic, or if it’s a romance. So where entire movies might be defined as being a comedy, in games these descriptors are less important. Another big reason is the disconnect between game writers and the rest of the development staff. Writers often create scenarios for the game they think are funny but will have no other input in the development process, leading the designers to guess how the joke is supposed to be played out. These things are very important, but today I’m just going to be taking a look at the issue from a design perspective.

Being an interactive medium, games struggle with what is arguably the crux of comedy: timing. It’s hard to predict if a joke will land when every player in your game is going to behave differently. A player can easily interrupt the timing of a joke by triggering an event before or after the developers intended. Naturally then if developers want to attempt to be funny they’re going to opt for a very static kind of comedy. A line of dialog in a cutscene, a visual gag, etc. If these things are done right they can be great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this way of going about comedy, but it’s not taking advantage of the biggest thing that sets games apart from other mediums: interactivity. Not every game needs to be super experimental about the way it tells jokes, but the medium is young and growing so there’s no reason not to at least try to innovate. There are a few titles that have attempted to make genuinely funny interactive content, and I’m going to take a look at how and why they work (or in some cases, why they don’t).

The Portal games succeed by reacting to the players inputs. If you screw up the obvious timing for a joke, a different punchline will take place. Often the other characters will ramble on about how you “didn’t do what you were supposed to” and quickly get sidetracked, and the aimlessness of their monologues ends up becoming the joke. This is a pretty gimmicky solution, but the well written dialog keeps it from getting too repetitive. Beyond that though, the writing in the game is pretty straightforward. Most of the comedy takes place in scripted cutscenes where the player has no agency.

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A level from the 2011 Valve hit, Portal 2. Along with it’s precursor, it’s widely considered one of the funniest games of all time.

The Stanley Parable takes it a step further, giving the player much more freedom. The entire game is a satirical take on player choice and the game has a quip for pretty much everything you do. The Stanley Parable is not a wholly comedic game, there’s times of existential dread and serious dramatic moments, but in its comedic moments it’s a shining example of how to do comedy. Every step of the way it’s obvious the game’s satirical tone was present from the beginning of development. Most importantly though, it feels like a comedy game, as opposed to a movie stuck in a games body which is surprisingly common. There’s a lot of developers that seem more like confused filmmakers in the wrong field of work.

Jazzpunk takes a very different, surrealist approach to comedy. It doesn’t always stick the landing, but you can’t say it’s not unique. The game presents itself as an interactive pastiche of 60’s spy films. Its world is made up of a few large, open levels where the player can wander around, and though you always have an main objective you’re bound to get distracted by the things around you. This is where the true fun of the game will come from. It’s design is similar to a sandbox game, but instead of a physics engine to mess around with, you’re interacting with various characters and objects to see what kind of a gag they’ll pull off. The reason Jazzpunk fails though is because all of it’s jokes are non-sequiturs that mean nothing to the player. They’re completely absurd and require no real input besides pressing a single button. The way it approaches jokes might work in a different game if the punchlines were more grounded in reality, but it comes off sloppy here. Luckily, there are games that take a sandbox approach to humor that do work.

A screenshot of the absurdist comedy-adventure title Jazzpunk, developed by Necrophone Games.

The previous few games we’ve been talking about have been made to consider player interaction, but they’re still grounded in authored experiences. Every joke was still completely intended by the developer. The player had a little input in how some of them would play out, but for the most part it was all predetermined. In recent years though, there’s been a trend of games where the humor comes entirely from the player. Games can often be funny due to glitches or bad design choices, and certain developers have started taking advantage of this fact and built an entire sub-genre of game centered around this kind of humor. Games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Surgeon Simulator intentionally give their games awkward controls, unpolished mechanics, and unfinished levels for the sake of laughs. The purposefully bad design is an odd choice that has led to mixed reviews, but it does lend itself to unique gameplay. The games become a sort of interactive slapstick, with the clumsy characters constantly hurting themselves and others in amusing ways.

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In Octodad you have to be a good husband and father, while keeping everyone from finding out that you’re an octopus. It’s as crazy as it sounds.

Now that we’ve taken a look at a couple of the most famous examples of comedy games, what can we learn from all of them? This first thing may seem obvious, but the comedy has to be considered a part of the game from the get go. Jazzpunk was originally designed as a serious game and it wasn’t until later in development that it took a comic turn. If you play it with this in mind it’ll make a lot more sense why it doesn’t usually work. You can’t force comedy into a game where it doesn’t belong. We need to have a better mindset about the tone of our games before development even starts. For example we need to think of our adventure games as “comedy adventure games”, as opposed to “adventure games that just happen to be funny sometimes”.

We also need to let go of control as developers and give some of that freedom to the players. Authored experiences are great, but if we wanted to watch a funny movie we’d go watch a funny movie. If we want to play a funny game then that game should be funny in a way that only games can be. It doesn’t have to be something as strange as Octodad or Jazzpunk. The game can be funny in subtler ways too. You could fill the flavor text and dialog trees with witty jokes. You could offer a minor choice that gives players a sense of freedom and adds personality to the experience. The sky is the limit and as I said earlier, there are no objective wrong choices. All of this is uncharted territory and no one knows what works in every scenario, so we’ve got nothing to lose by being creative and trying something new.

Games don’t have to be completely serious and unfunny, and to be fair a lot of them aren’t. While there’s nothing inherently comedic about party games, their style of play leads to a lot of funny moments. Their environment allows for banter with your friends, as you often get the opportunity to surprise or screw them over. So the medium is clearly a place where wholesome fun and laughter can be had, after all that’s the experience a lot of games are attempting to provide in the first place. When we go out of our way to intentionally design a game with the purpose of being funny, we just need to keep this stuff in mind and let our imaginations do the rest. Just about every year there’s a game with some inspiring new mechanic that becomes a must have for everything that follows it. I truly believe that someday soon, someone will make a comedy masterpiece that really shows the potential of video games as a comedic medium. Until then, we need to keep experimenting and playing with expectations until we can find a formula that truly works, and one day we’ll get there. And I can’t wait for that day.

Thank you for reading.

Player Agency – How “Breath of The Wild” Evokes Being a Kid Again

Our protagonist on horseback as he’s pursued by a Bokoblin.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the experience of being a kid better than anything I’ve ever seen. No video game, or any piece of art for that matter, captures that very specific feeling of childlike wonder so well. The game is wildly popular and most aspects of it have already been talked about ad nauseam, so there’s lots of brilliant items of design I will be skipping over so as not to be redundant. That being said, if you would like a more general overview of all the game’s innovations then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s video on it, which you can find here. His game design series “Gamemaker’s Toolkit” is one of my favorites. Not to get off track though, let’s dive in to why exactly this game is so special.

Let me explain what I mean when I say “childlike wonder”. I’m talking about that feeling as a kid when you had a more active imagination and it seemed like anything was possible. As you get older it becomes harder to surprise, as you’re more aware of how the world works. As a kid it’s a lot easier to impress, your imagination would fill in the gaps where things had flaws or missing pieces. The older, more linear Zelda games felt like true adventures when you were young. The secrets you found felt like they were tailored for you, like no one else had discovered them. You were the adventurer and only you. Growing up you start to see the limitations of these games. They’re made up of rigid systems that have very strict rules, and are all incredibly authored experiences. Their limits are very obvious, which is understandable considering the series is over 30 years old. Breath of the Wild manages to recapture those feelings of adventure however. Naturally it still has rules and logic, but the systems it uses are so open and free it can feel like magic, even to an adult.

A screenshot from the first 3D Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. It remains a fan favorite today.

If you’re familiar with the history of Zelda you’ll know that the desire to deliver that childlike experience is baked into its DNA. In 1986, Japanese game developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka released a game called The Legend of Zelda on the Famicom, and the next year overseas on the NES. Miyamoto has since stated that he was inspired to make the game by the feelings he got when exploring the forests and caves around his house as a kid. Like a lot of the games in the franchise, the original doesn’t hold up incredibly well if you’re playing it for the first time today. The game was still widely influential in its time though and is not to be discredited, and lot of the great things Breath of the Wild does are modern twists on the aspirations of the original game. The desire to explore and navigate an uncharted world has been a focus of this series since the beginning, it’s just BotW that does it best. And a lot of what makes this adventure so magical can be summed up by a single mechanic: Climbing.

Climbing is one of the most fun ways to explore as you struggle to find footholds and retain your stamina.

“You can climb anything in the game”. It’s hard to sell the novelty of this idea without actually playing it, but if you go back and play almost any adventure game you’re going to notice places the developers didn’t want you to go. And you’ll always find some excuse that an area was out of your reach: “You can’t jump high enough”, or “that area is too dangerous to travel to”, etc. Something along those lines. There’s no such thing in BotW. Everything you see in the game is reachable, at any point in the game. If you can figure out how to go there, you can go there. This extends even to events that in other games would be ordered chronologically. There is no such thing as “doing the game out of order”. You can finish the quests for the game in whatever order you want, or not at all. The final boss is even open to fight from the very opening moments, you just probably won’t be prepared for it at the start. But if you want to fight it, you can. This stuff extends throughout the whole game. If you see any cliff, it can be climbed. There’s no arbitrary “you must be at least level 10 to enter” at any point in the game. There are areas that are filled with dangerous creatures that will most likely destroy you if you enter, but nothing is stopping you from getting your ass kicked right out of the gate. If you want to take them on you can, the only thing stopping you is your own cleverness.

One of the many fearsome creatures you’ll stumble upon during your time in the game.

These ideas are probably only novel to someone who is aware of how this genre typically works. Before Breath of the Wild, so many of these roadblocks were considered standards, and were thought necessary for the game to function. It seemed an impossible task to make a game without all those arbitrary requirements that would still work and be fun to play. If you’re not familiar with these kinds of games or maybe even games in general then these things might sound obvious. If you do play games then you’ve probably had the moment where someone who didn’t would look over your shoulder while you were playing and ask you why you couldn’t do something. “You just can’t”, you would tell them; that’s just how the game works. That’s the harsh reality creeping in, when the immersion is lost and you realize that this is indeed a video game that like all other things has to follow a strict set of rules. The fact then that you can describe Breath of the Wild to a layman and have it make perfect sense is an incredible feat, and perhaps the kind of goal all games of it’s kind should try to reach.

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The player attempts to roll a boulder onto a camp of unsuspecting enemies.

The physics system is another area where the game delivers on the “you can do anything” philosophy. Its the kind of thing that makes Zelda comparable to the “Immersive Sim” genre, a title touted by games such as Deus Ex and System Shock. When you break it down the goal of these games is also player choice and emergent gameplay, but Zelda outshines all of them by nature of being much more modern in both technology and design choices. In the original Deus Ex you could strap sticky bombs to walls and jump on them, an unintended part of the design that ended up lending it’s hand to the game’s feel. It made players feel creative by realizing there were multiple solutions to every problem. A similar example in Breath of the Wild is when you’re solving a puzzle that involves directing electricity. Some players will realize that their metal weapons conduct electricity and instead of using the tools the puzzle provided, they use their own. They “cheat” with this and end up solving the puzzle their way. Unlike Deus Ex though, this was an intended consequence of the games engine. The fact that weapons made of metal conduct electricity like they would in real life isn’t just a fun little factoid, it’s a part of the game. Everything in the game can interact. Another commonly cited example is that while a carrying a metal sword in a thunderstorm you could get struck by lightning. Fires create updrafts that you can ride on, rain makes cliffs slippery, boulders will roll down hills, and so on. The developers made sure that there were no inconsistencies in the games logic, that every part of the world felt alive. Under the hood there are still rules, but the game feels like a playground for you to explore and discover how things work.

Breath of the Wild bucks an insane number of video game conventions, all in order to  give the player a sense of freedom. It knows that standards for video games are higher than they were in 1986, and it knows that older people just have higher standards anyway so you need to work harder to get them immersed. It eschews linearity to create a truly open world. You feel free to let your imagination take hold, the sky’s the limit. There are no boundaries, you can do whatever you want.  Everywhere you go, there’s a discovery to be made. One of the most exciting parts of the game was simply seeing something in the distance and making my way there on foot, knowing I could do it and that nothing would stop me. It makes you forget you’re even playing a game, it makes you feel like a little kid experiencing childlike wonder and fun, it makes you believe anything is possible again. You feel like a little kid before the harshness of the real world became obvious to you. And for the hundred hours I played the game, I discovered what it was like to be a kid again, and all I wanted to do was explore it’s magical world. And that is a wonderful feeling for a video game to offer.

Link approaches a Hinox, not yet being spotted by it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is perhaps my favorite game of all time, and that’s a pretty common opinion to have. Its legacy will be felt for years to come, and it’s one of the few games that feels so monumental that anything made before it is now null. When the original game came out, people had similar feelings. It felt like an evolution of the medium of games as a whole, and a testament to what you could do with them. Since then the industry has continued to be creative and to innovate until we reached where we are today. This probably means that though many hold the opinion that BotW is an untouchable masterpiece, one day it too might be considered dated and clunky. And that’s a good thing, nothing lasts forever and if people stopped being creative because they thought the original Zelda was just untouchable then we never would have gotten here. That being said, Breath of the Wild is still an incredible game and it’s going to be pretty hard to top. It’s a game that can only be surpassed by something that takes everything the game did, and doing it ten times better. So basically, it can only be surpassed by the next Legend of Zelda game.

Thank you for reading my first post. And thanks to the BotW community for providing the screenshots I used. I’ll be back two weeks from now with another post.