I reserve a special place of loathing for a particular type of game, which wouldn’t be so bad if that type of game weren’t so incredibly common. I’ve heard several people say that it’s literally the entire point of all games, which doesn’t bode so well for me. Given how pervasive this type of game is, I sometimes can feel pretty alone in this viewpoint, but I’m pretty sure I’m not. I may just be the only one to say it out loud. I’ve spent a long time trying to articulate this idea, but I’m finally going to try to say it: the emperor has no clothes. Games have been lying to us. Blatant lies. Shameless lies. And we love them so much that we believe them anyway.
Take for example that time I played some Warframe around 2015. I have no idea if it’s still this way, but at the time it had these tutorial missions that really bothered me. I was sensing a lack of consequence in the experience. So experimentally, I jumped into an open pit. The game unceremoniously plopped me back on the platform from which I’d jumped, as if to say “No honey, up here.” I was bemused. What was the point of these pits then? Apparently the point was for me to be a space ninja, and decorative pits for me to leap over are part of the fantasy.
Also part of that fantasy was endless mook slaying. Okay, no surprise there, but the nuance of it stuck out: this was supposedly a tutorial, yet even as it stretched on for hours, it wasn’t really teaching anything. Rather than an introduction to the complexities of the game’s interactions, it felt like an elongated excuse to keep putting killable guys in front of me. Any pretense of “tutorial” gave way as the story stretched out for an indulgently long time. The mook-slaying game seemed to be in service to the tutorial, rather than the tutorial in service to the game. And all of that was in service to space ninjaing.
But the whole fantasy rang hollow, and nowhere was this more clear than a particular story beat: I don’t quite remember exactly what was going on at the time – something about the bad guy putting a computer virus in my brain. My guess is that I was Doing Something about that, when my tutorial computer-friend spoke up. She told me that the enemy ship I was currently cleansing of all sentient life was on its way to a peaceful planet, and if allowed to arrive they would murder everyone on it, just to make absolutely clear that these were Bad Guys.
I was then presented with a choice – sort of. Apparently there was some kind of computer somewhere on the ship I could use to redirect it elsewhere, saving countless lives on the heretofore unmentioned planet. But, she warned, my primary mission of Doing Something could become compromised if I took time out to save Planet X. Compromised how? She didn’t really say, and I couldn’t come up with a reason why it would be compromised if I moseyed on over to the computer terminal that was now conveniently marked on my minimap. After all, I hadn’t had any trouble killing everyone I saw up until now. Why not?
So mosey I did, deleting a few more guys on the way, until I got to a collection of pixels in the shape of a sci-fi computer. I think I pushed F. Just like that – countless lives were saved. A hero was me.
But it sure was hard for me to feel it. Nothing about the entire scenario felt true. Most obvious was the fact that this planet full of saved people hadn’t existed mere minutes ago, nor were they mentioned ever again. I’m not sure the planet was even named. My mission went completely uncompromised despite all warnings to the contrary (no tongue-lashings from the tutorial lady, even). The undoubtedly complicated calculations needed to reroute the ship through endless space were conveniently abstracted down to one touch of a button. Apparently nobody on the ship felt the shift in course and bothered to correct it after I left. Maybe that’s because they were all dead.
Such contrivances are commonplace in video games. Many people seem to think of games in a “fiction first” sort of way: designing a game starts with imagining some kind of exciting fantasy, and the game mechanisms follow from there. If part of that fantasy is too complicated or cumbersome to formalize in the game system as a player activity, it is instead abstracted to a single button-press or folded into the narrative as a cutscene or character speech. The game is secondary. Even the story is secondary. The fantasy drives the design, top to bottom, and the developer does whatever is most expedient to make it work.
In 2011, Jonathan Blow gave a talk at GDC Europe called Truth in Game Design. In it, he describes how systemic games that are centrally about the interactions of their rules have a truth to them that sets them apart from games about contrivance. A game designer who presupposes all the answers to a game’s questions squeezes out any truth the game might otherwise be able to express. By setting the system in motion and seeing what comes out rather than manufacturing the results, the designer can touch onto the preexisting authenticity of the world rather than manufacturing a fake one.
While this topic seems to primarily be about exploring and modeling the phenomena of our universe, I can’t help but think about it every time I see a game’s narrative sweeping over its otherwise vacuous gameplay. I think about it when a game asserts its desired fantasy by way of aggrandized errands, arbitrary chores preordained in full from beginning to end. If there’s an antithesis to Jonathan Blow’s philosophy of truth, surely it’s gauche approximations of fantasy cobbled from busy work. Lies in game design.
What Do You Mean “Lies?”
Maybe the concept of a game that lies is weird to you, or perhaps even banal. Everyone knows video games aren’t real life, so aren’t all games basically fake? Worrying about how “real” a game is might seem like pointless pontification. So, to convey precisely what I’m talking about, I’m going to run through an example of how to lie in a game. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it’ll all seem pretty straightforward. All you have to do is design the first thing off the top of your head.
Let’s say that you want the player to take part in a cultural celebration as part of a game’s story. You’ve got these vikings, and they’re having a party. How can you put this into a game? Well, you can start by putting in some food and drink. If you get your graphic artist (maybe you are one!) to put together some meat on some stands, a few kegs of beer, some dishes, and spread it out across multiple scattered tables, you can make it look really good.
And video games are interactive, aren’t they? You want the player to be celebrating at this feast. So you go and make all the food and drinks clickable. You get the graphic artist on the horn again, get some good-looking drink animations, maybe record some sloppy meat-eating sounds to play. Now the player avatar gets to participate in the revelry. Easy!
And you can’t have a party of one – you need other people at this feast too. So you simply grab some NPC models you’ve probably already made and make them stand around, too. You might even have some “cheer” or “laugh” or “dance” animations made up, so you throw those in, too. You even get the player to mingle by making the NPCs clickable, allowing players to play those emotes right back at them, adding some interactivity to your video game.
And now you need to communicate all this to the player. After all, this little celebration probably isn’t the game proper, the one where players make HP bars go down by swinging swords around. So you leverage an existing “quest” system that prompts the player to eat meat, drink beer, and emote at NPCs five times each. You could even give players some of that XP they love so much. You lock out any given instance of party paraphernalia once clicked to force players to move about the party, making it look more natural.
And there you have it: a virtual party for the enrichment of the narrative experience. Clickable party things in a fabricated, digital space populated by animatronic pretend-people. It was so easy!
But it was only easy because you’re lying. Lying is easier than telling the truth, after all.
How exactly is this scenario lying? All you need to do is look past the visual presentation and take the mechanisms literally. The two have nothing to do with each other. Sure, you’ve surrounded my player avatar with a jumble of party objects, but if those objects have no meaning outside the contrived fiction, there’s no reason for me to take them seriously.
What’s with the food at this party? Why should I click on any of it? What does it actually do for me other than make a “food clicked” bar go up? As a clickable object, it could’ve been anything at all and have exactly as much meaning to me as a player. Indeed it’s completely indistinguishable from anything surrounding it – food, drink, and party robots all serve the exact same, singular function of “fill the quest bar.”
But I’m not asking that you put hunger into the game for realism’s sake. I’m asking that I – the player – have my own reasons to be at this party. We all know why people go to parties, right? I mean, at risk of sounding too clinical about it all, parties are all about the facilitation and development of social relationships. That’s what I do at parties, anyway: meeting people, bonding with people I already know – do I even need to explain this? You even put NPCs in this space for that very reason. But who am I meeting at this event? These people don’t even have names. What sort of relationships am I cultivating here? I’m just thoughtlessly moving from robot to robot, harvesting them for their quest progress.
By abstracting all the primary elements of the intended experience, you’ve made it impossible to take the narrative at face value. In fact, it sounds like something a space alien would put together having just been told what a human party is. “A group of humans stand about talking and yelling with food and drink lying around. Isn’t that what you said?” The whole experience rings very hollow, placing it in an extremely uncanny valley of social interaction.
At this point, you might want to say that this little scenario I’ve made up is an oversimplification, a hyperbolic toy of an example that I’ve tailored to make video games look worse than they really are. But with a little soul searching, I think you’ll find that I’m more on the mark than you’re willing to admit. After all, I didn’t make up this example at all. As a matter of fact, this is a 100% real event from Guild Wars 2 called “Partake in the moot.” Everything I’ve described above was completely accurate. And when I played it, the idea that someone thought such a thing should capture my imagination was so absurd, so insulting, that I quit the game on the spot.
Players in a Play
“Oh, he’s one of those players,” you might be thinking, “the ones who don’t like stories in games.” Why can’t my limited world-view allow for all kinds of games, not just the ones I like? Is this merely sour grapes on my part that people enjoy something I don’t? Settle down. Lest you think I’m flushing an entire school of design down the toilet, let me assure you it’s less sweeping than it might appear. It’s not the entire category of “story game” that I’m dismissing. In fact, the dichotomy of “story vs. gamey” isn’t even the right axis to think about here.
To say that the design decisions from my examples are about telling a story isn’t quite right. There’s lots of ways to convey story, in games or elsewhere. But the particular methods I’ve described have more to do with a loose concept one might generously call “roleplaying.” It’s playing pretend. And while that might call to mind fond memories of playing D&D and such, this particular manner of roleplaying is exceedingly tenuous by comparison.
You have to ask yourself: what is the point of “Partake in the moot?” I can tell you it’s not about telling a story. There’s no progression of events, no indelible consequence of anything that happens. The NPCs are emoting at prop tables when you get there, and they’ll keep emoting at those prop tables until the servers close for good. So if not a full-on story, then maybe it’s just for world building or flavor? But that doesn’t explain why it’s clickable, why the player has to participate. If anything, your intervention into the scene is messing up the flavor, what with your clown suit of mismatched armor riding on your swooshy-pixeled novelty mount. Nobody bats an eye as you tromp your muddy boots all over the tables of food as you go your “shortest distance between two points is a straight line” merry way.
Perhaps it’s simply giving the player one more opportunity to gain extrinsic rewards like XP, which seems like a plausible (if increasingly desperate) explanation. XP is exactly what you get and exactly the reason why most will participate. Why a feast, though? This isn’t really what the game is about. Elsewhere in the game, there’s even an existing system surrounding food, but this stuff is completely disconnected from it. In fact, absolutely none of the game’s primary interactive depth is leveraged for this event. The team obviously spent a lot of time designing all the hundreds of damage buttons that players use for everything else, but “Partake in the moot” throws all of that in the garbage and replaces it with… what? A one-button interface where you can click anything in any order? “Push F to do what I have decided is the appropriate thing to do to this particular object.” It’s like playing a prototype, a placeholder. Here’s the game before there’s an actual game to play.
This gets to the heart of what makes “Partake in the moot” so weird to me. When I listen for its intent, I find that the whole point of its existence is nothing more than a self-insertion device, and an insultingly flimsy one at that. It asks for my input merely as a token of my participation, as though to say “Ah yes, you clicked something to make it go. That means you’re right here in the fantasy.” Really? It feels more like cold-reading a script than it does living in a world. I read the text next to the F key to see what pushing it does at this moment. Ah, now it says “Tap this keg.” I shall play my part, not because it actually matters to anyone – not even the pretend people – but because my teleprompter will reward me with XP. This is somehow meant to represent fantasy-appropriate roleplaying. For me it’s like playing house with a bossy five-year-old.
See, it isn’t the concept of a game about immersion that bothers me – it’s that its immersive qualities are so transparently fake. Everything about it is forced. I wasn’t eating because I was hungry. I wasn’t mingling with people I knew or wanted to get to know. I wasn’t drinking to lower social inhibitions (games where you get e-drunk on fake video-game beer are particularly absurd to me). The event even asks me to pretend it had consequences: a letter I got from an NPC afterward told me the moot was – past tense – a success, but I could very easily see it still going on, as it will forever. Not even the ambient sound of a carousing crowd is real – it’s prerecorded audio that doesn’t actually come from anyone at this stupid moot. It’s like they’re piping in “people are having fun, I promise” over the loudspeaker.
“Surely we can fix this”, you might think. Maybe the scenario designer simply didn’t go far enough in the design process. If my probing questions about the food and relationships and whatnot are valid, maybe you just need to keep making up answers to those questions before I can ask them. But that’s essentially the whole problem: you’re making them up. If you ask a designer what to do about the lackluster NPC relationships, a lot of people’s first thought is to hire a writer to invent a relationship to foist onto me – one more dictate I need to accept. Presupposing the answers to the fantasy questions is exactly what got us here to start with. I’m still going to push F to wind up that NPC and make it go. Nothing has changed.
This fantasy by fiat is accepted wisdom in games. It’s derived from a very old philosophy of design, the idea that it’s not enough to tell a story to the player – the player has to be in the story, and the story has to be about the player. It’s a high-minded idea, often predicated on the thought that “Well, this is a video game, not just a book or a movie.” Indeed, the very word “just” is a dead giveaway of the kind of designer you are: the sort that believes that books and movies are somehow “lesser” than video games. The primary motivating thought in all this is that a game’s story is better because it happens “directly to the player.”
But it’s that very thought that leads down the road of all this fakery. The designer is arranging a theater scene, accounting for all the actors placed just so, contriving all the props – we even call them “scripted events.” All the game’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. The idea that games are ideally some kind of canned holodeck program induces a fixation on surface-level imagery over meaning and utility. Like a Potemkin village, it has only to look good at the moment it’s seen.
Seeing Versus Believing
And they do look good. AAA games typically employ a small army of animators, visual artists, programmers, voice actors, motion capture teams, and work them to the bone for the sake of your momentary immersion. The philosophy seems to be “seeing is believing,” and the bulk of game dev effort seems to go toward the outward presentation of the game. But as much work as a given dev team puts in, you have to ask yourself how much work you’re putting in, all on your own, to make this facade work for no other reason than you want it to.
See, I imagine that at this point some readers want to argue that I’m not doing my part in the author/audience relationship. By not accepting the fantasy of the game on its face, I’m not allowing the magic of games to work properly. Games may rule over the likes of movies or books, but even games require a willing suspension of disbelief or else of course I won’t have a good time.
To that, I ask a simple question: how far are you willing to go to get your fantasy? Because even in the world of books or movies there’s limits to suspension of disbelief. A fiction still needs to take care to disguise that it’s fiction, because our suspension is earned, not given. At the very least, it’s finite. Too many careless steps and the spell is broken. Maybe it’s significant breaks in continuity, the jarring of a wooden actor, awkward phrasing in the text, too many plot conveniences, or something conspicuously out of place. Maybe it’s an otherwise valid narrative premise that other people might accept, but doesn’t really work for you. Whatever it is, there comes a point where you say “This is stupid. I’m out.”
I’ve heard this limit referred to as “intellectual currency.” In some ways, it’s the amount of bullshit you’re willing to tolerate to enjoy something. You come to a work with some amount to spend, and as long as you’ve got some left in your mental budget, you continue along. A robust work will spend your intellectual currency judiciously and give you a return on that investment. A careless one will burn through it all early and induce you to quit out of lost interest or even outright betrayal.
This is all rather fuzzy, especially since different people come to the table with differing amounts of currency to spend. One story element may be expensive for one scrutinizing person, but cheaper for a more naive reader, and cheaper still for a sub-culture conditioned to readily accept it. Some people might even actively seek out media that recklessly burns through intellectual currency, enjoying them as they would a train wreck (your local B-movie aficionado should come to mind). Amorphous as it may be, it remains a useful framework by which you can imagine why people do or do not stick with the stuff they read, watch, listen to, or otherwise engage with.
So when it comes to video games, one might expect to see something similar going on, some minimum standard for believability, however flexible. One might expect that certain games pass their immersion test while other games fail it. But that’s not what I see – from my perspective, the bar for immersion is extremely low. And my suspicion is that it’s because video games are more associated with escapism than all other media.
Think of the games that tend to attract the most hype. There are games where you get to pretend to be a cowboy. There are games where you get to be Spiderman. There are games for being a spaceman, games for being a vampire, games for being a werewolf, games for being a cyborg, games for being an assassin, and a whole shitpile of games for being fantasy man in the dungeon swording the dragon. Hell, there’s a game where you can be a vampire, werewolf, assassin, dragon-swording fantasy man riding on a Spiderman horse.
And it just seems to me that the lure of being any one of those things is so great for most people that they basically turn their scrutiny off completely. Intellectual currency goes to infinity. “Give me my badass fantasy, and I’ll believe anything you say as long as the physics aren’t too wacky, and sometimes I’ll even accept wacky physics if they’re funny enough.”
But honestly, oddball physics are the last thing I’m worried about. My problems are more subtle, more cerebral, but no less distracting to me. Why does this NPC wait around indefinitely for me to get around to pressing X so he can deliver his dialogue? Why does time effectively stop for all story elements unless I’m there to observe them? Why does everything scale its power level to mine? Why does this entire world seem to exist purely for my sake? If this world exists for my sake, why am I only allowed to say and do certain things to it? Why does this all feel like it was written out beforehand?
I know. I know!
But my knowing that there’s Good Game Design™ reasons for all of those things is exactly the sort of conflict that breaks the whole experience. See, I don’t even think you’d improve the situation by implementing “bad game design” in any one case. The limitations imposed by making those game design choices aren’t my problem. My problem is that so many games like to pretend these limitations don’t exist at all. I have a problem when a game is trying to tell me that it’s more than it is, when the design implies promises it can’t possibly hope to fulfill and isn’t even going to try.
A lot of games pretend that you can have a dynamic conversation with a voice actor. Dialogue options (especially where my character is otherwise silent) imply that this NPC is talking to me, listening and responding to me, even building a relationship with an actual me. Games pretend that I’m in danger by having a HP bar that can reach zero so that the game can play a death animation. This is to further imply that by not dying, picking up a Plot Object, and returning to an NPC somewhere, it means I’m some kind of hero (or failing that, at least formidable). It’s often reinforced verbally to make sure I get the message.
But the only reason anyone believes any of that is because they want to. It certainly isn’t the game’s doing. Applying any amount of scrutiny causes it all to readily fall apart. A dialogue choice staring me in the face also implies that not only is someone else picking my words, but they already know what they’re going to say back to me long before I ever showed up. Even if there are many options, it’s still a choice between paved pathways. I don’t feel like I’m talking to a person, I feel more like I’m navigating nested folders in Windows Explorer, drilling down into a directory before exhausting it and coming back to root (“Did you need anything else?”). I even see these conversations as meta-competitions against the writer, where I try to predict where he hid the bonus gold (or, ugh, “love points”) in the dialogue tree.
When a death animation stops playing, the game rewinds to thirty seconds ago, or some save point I can make whenever. The stakes of “mortal danger” are completely broken when every time I do die the game tells me it’s just kidding. “But Sam, what player in 2021 goes through a shooting segment thinking they’re actually in danger?” Why yes, that’s exactly my point. Everyone seems to intuitively know you can’t really die, and is completely unfazed by a death animation because “That’s not how it really happened.” So why is the game making such a big production out of these fake deaths? Why are these NPCs warning me of “danger?” What’s even the point of getting into a shooting match with these guys if they literally cannot kill me?
The answer seems to be “because killing them makes me the hero,” and thus games sprinkle bad guys liberally throughout and punctuate them with the occasional “You’re the hero!” banner and confetti in the form of grateful NPCs. My problem with this answer is that the whole hero concept is misdirected. A hero is someone who undertakes risk to do good. The more overwhelming the risk, the greater the hero. But if there are no stakes for me – the player – there’s no risk. No risk means no hero. There is instead a silhouette uncharacter that the narrative preconceives to be a hero, which is then projected onto the player who wears it like a suit. The hero-suit assumes all risk via the narrative, but that risk doesn’t transfer to the player. Seeing this hero-suit symbolically play a death animation is supposed to reify the danger, but then the player is allowed to simply take off that hero-suit and get into a new one.
In this way, the game is trying to skip to the good part. The “Bad guys are shooting at me” experience by itself isn’t enough. The game wants to give me the full package: “Bad guys are shooting at me, but I’m so tough and strong and skilled that I overcame them.” And to make that happen, the game needs to make sure everyone does overcome them, and balances itself accordingly. The player is not only intended to win, but win readily. Indeed it would be cause for concern for developers if players regularly failed. I mean, be honest: you would never play Mass Effect if you died as often as you do in Dark Souls. But by skipping to the good part, the game cuts off the risk factor – the very thing that gives the good part any meaning whatsoever. I’m not a hero, the suit is a hero. And only because the game said so.
The deeper you go, the more delusive it becomes. The sheer inevitability of my herodom, the fact that every other player is exactly the same kind of hero as me, means there’s nothing special about my being a hero, which is the very definition of special! Even the story choices the game presents to me don’t meaningfully differentiate me from others who made the same choices as me. Hell, I can choose to not be a hero at all and pick all the “villain” options or whatever, but those choices are just as precanned, just as inevitable, just as unremarkable as any other. And of course, everyone already knows all of this. I just seem to be the only one incapable of switching off the part of my brain that perceives it.
For me there’s an uncanny valley of video-game fantasy. I’m perfectly fine with a game like Portal, whose story is content to be fake. Sure, it only happens one way, and I can’t impact it. The deaths aren’t real. But the game never implies otherwise. The story is something that happens in the background as a justification for gameplay that’s interesting in its own right. I’m inhabiting the body of someone named Chell, not because I’m supposed to deeply engage with this unperson, but because it’s necessary for me to see my avatar when I look through portals so that I understand how they work. The story was made for the game, not the game for the story. As a result, the game navigates its story constraints gracefully, and I’m content to play along.
But the closer a game tries to pass itself as real while also being transparently fake, the more conspicuously wrong that it looks. Where others are excited about “the movie that happens to you,” I can’t help but see the cracks. I’m promised agency, but only given it in the loosest possible sense. When a game forces me to go find all the right NPCs to push F next to because the story requires it, deep down I know it’s because a naive designer felt an unnecessary impulse to involve me in the video game. When a game puts chatting NPCs in the background explicitly for the sake of “immersion,” it often has the exact opposite effect when their lines inevitably repeat. When a game lets me Choose My Own Adventure via vending machine buttons in the shape of dialogue options, those choices look more like constraints. The whole thing looks less like something real and more like a game desperately shouting that it’s real.
In between games about truth and games content with fiction, there is an awkward space for games that are fake, but try to pass as real. Indeed, it’s the very act of pretense that puts them in the “fake” category to begin with. I find myself completely unable to take them at their word. Seeing as taking them at their word is how they’re meant to be enjoyed, well… you can see the problem. But this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the legions of fans who specifically want to be fooled. For them, seeing isn’t believing – believing is seeing. The game is only making a token effort to seem real, and the fans gladly do the heavy lifting all by themselves. After all, scrutiny only breaks the spell, and who wants to do that?
Sincerity of a System
So that’s it then: I’m just a curmudgeon who can’t enjoy things. I’m wasting my time writing hateful internet words about a kind of game I don’t happen to prefer. Or worse, I’m being an intolerable hipster, hoping to pass off my miserable spite as superior taste. I am a stick, and this is my mud.
Maybe. But I promise you I didn’t set out to hate our most popular games on purpose. There was a time I didn’t even hate them at all. I accepted the lies same as anyone because conventional wisdom said that lying was the entire purpose of games. But now I have a higher bar for investment that demands more than pleasant lies. Because at the end of the graph for the uncanny valley is when games cross the boundary and become real. Whatever feelings and emotions they invoke come from something authentic rather than a fabrication of that authenticity. I don’t need to play pretend. There’s no veil to pierce, no backstage crew to stumble upon. The things that happen in these games really happen.
For all the games that claim you’re a hero, very few can do it like the Dark Souls series, and it has nothing at all to do with the games’ main narrative. Non-consensual PvP in the form of player invasions has been a staple of the series since the start, and invasion dynamics favor the invaders. Because the PvP is initiated by the invader, they are typically well-equipped and highly practiced, while their victims are invaded ready/willing or not.
However, beginning in Dark Souls 2, players can join a covenant specifically dedicated to opposing invaders in real time. When a player is invaded – and only when a player is invaded – a member of this covenant is also summoned to the host’s world. While the invader’s goal is to kill the host, the counter-invader’s goal is to kill the invader on behalf of the host.
As a member of this covenant, your entire purpose for being is literal heroism. If there weren’t someone in danger with something at stake, you wouldn’t be there at all. The fact that an invader intentionally invades someone who didn’t ask to be their target makes it really clear who the bad actor here is (they’re even a big scary red color). And there is no script to follow: there is no do-over should you fail to protect your charge. If you want heroism to mean something, you need to allow for the chance that maybe you’re not a hero after all. But just try and tell me it doesn’t mean anything when the host – and the real human behind it – bows to you in thanks after foiling an invader.
And that’s only the first-layer understanding. Since this whole idea of the “hero’s rescue” is implicit rather than explicit, there’s room for subjectivity in its literal events. Some invaders look at these would-be heroes and instead call them “cops.” These red invaders (generously) see themselves as legitimate duelists engaging in fair, honorable 1v1 fights – they even bow beforehand. But those blues? They’re so bad at PvP, so dishonorable, they only ever engage in PvP at a numbers advantage. They’re the “fun police,” ruining otherwise honest, wholesome fights. Multiple readings of the same situation, even conflicting ones, don’t diminish the truth of the scenario. They only reaffirm that there’s indeed something real there to read into in the first place.
Whereas the vast majority of MMO games prescribe you as the hero, EVE Online doesn’t prescribe anything beyond “You fly spaceships.” And yet so many true stories emerge from the game, stories retold in gaming news articles, documentaries, novels – there’s too many to list. The biggest reason for this is because the game actually lets things happen to you. It lets other players have real impact on you. Instead of following a script and giving you a hero suit to protect you along the way, the game puts you into a dangerous world and subjects you to all the risk that comes with it. When your ship plays an explosion animation, that means it is really gone. Everything in it – gone. By not pulling punches or rolling back consequences or saying “Just kidding!” the game impresses its reality onto the player. It lets me feel something. When I have something tangible at stake, I can invest in whatever story and meaning that’s resultantly attached to it.
And there’s lots of possible stories, lots of things you can do and people you can be – seriously, a lot. But the truly unique thing about that list is how many of them are wholly invented by the players themselves. The designers didn’t script a branching story-path for players to pick their favorite one. They made an open environment, rich with interactions and possibilities. In EVE Online, you are not who the game says you are – you are what you do. You forge an identity through the impact you have on the game world and your fellow players. Whether you’re destroying and looting another player’s hauler as a pirate, infiltrating a rival alliance as a corporate spy, picking at the wreckage of someone else’s PvP fight as a junker, or negotiating an incident between player corporations as a diplomat, it’s the truth behind those actions and the logic behind their causality that gives them tangible weight.
Truth in game design isn’t limited to inter-player interactions – you can absolutely get truth from single-player games so long as the system is free to express itself, unshackled by designer mandates. Prison Architect is a game about designing and running a mass incarceration facility. Each prisoner has an individuated experience in your prison from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, whether it be on parole or on a hearse. Hundreds or even thousands of personal stories play out in parallel as each prisoner tries to fulfill their needs while navigating your prison’s policies and design. In time, you’ll learn the names of your most prominent ones.
For my part, I’ll never forget a prisoner named Kaitlyn Harvey. Harvey came to my well-managed prison determined to take it down. From day one, she immediately set about recruiting a gang army to challenge my authority. I responded by assigning her to an isolated wing of the prison apart from the general population. Even isolated, she continued to raise hell. Unprovoked she would start trashing her cell, trying to get the attention of the three guards I’d assigned to her. When they entered to subdue her, she could shrug off several tasers, disarm a guard, and kill him with his own weapon.
Desperate to stop her rampages, I hatched a flagrantly unethical plan: since I had no mechanism by which to discharge or kill her, maybe I could get the prisoners to do it for me. I would sow suspicion among the prisoners that she was snitching on them, provoking their ire. Then at just the right moment, I would take the guards away and release her to the general population. With luck, the unsupervised mob would take their revenge in a “random and tragic prison riot.”
When I put my little conspiracy into action, everything went like clockwork. Lunch time rolled around, and conveniently every single guard was ordered to investigate a dirt pile on the opposite end of the facility. Her gang members had all previously been confined to their cells as a “random punishment.” Harvey stood alone in the canteen, facing down about a hundred prisoners who hated her. Sure enough, a fight broke out. I smiled to myself as a pack of them descended on her to execute the hit.
She killed every single one.
Even vastly outnumbered, surrounded by a mob armed with lunchroom cutlery, she killed the first three with her bare hands. Then she stole someone’s knife and began making bloody work of the rest of them. When the commotion died down, there were twenty corpses and a crowd of unsettled prisoners watching Harvey finish her lunch. Not only had my plan failed, but she got another twenty-five years added to her sentence for the murders, ensuring I’d never be rid of her.
Tell the Truth, or at Least Don’t Lie
As you can see, these games centered on truth are not secret or obscure. There’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of if not played those I’ve mentioned here. But maybe you’ve never looked at them with this perspective before. I myself played these games for quite awhile before I was able to express this idea about them.
In honesty, though, it isn’t so much that I demand that all games be unscripted sandbox simulators. As I said earlier, sometimes all that’s needed is simply the absence of lies. The story mode of the RTS Tooth & Tail definitely has a script. It reverts failure back to the start of a given mission. But the game also never promises that its world is a real, player-inhabitable place. The context of its story is largely an excuse to mix up the rules of engagement, introduce you to various unit types, and even play a funny joke on you in the final mission. The game doesn’t lie about what it is or who you are. It is what it is – nothing more, nothing less.
Or even consider Gone Home, a story game which asks you to take on a first-person role of an existing character named Katie. While you might think that it’s a game that lies about “living a story,” the game never asks you to make decisions about that story, never pretends that you have agency. The Katie character is nothing more than a framing device that prompts you to explore the house and discover the preexisting story, a story in which Katie is ultimately not that important. And the “detective” stance that the game pushes on you is intended for the the real-life you behind the keyboard – not the fictional you living in the pixels. Its purpose is to encourage you to further engage with the narrative, to consider the logic and causality of this unfolding story, and use that to decide where to explore next. It’s certainly not about playing pretend.
My perception of truth versus lies hasn’t ruined my ability to appreciate games at large. It’s just that as I look back on my most memorable and resonant experiences, I notice that none of them are based on someone else’s concocted escapist fantasy. Each one was a real, unique thing that happened only to me. Each was a confluence of systemic events that no one person fully controlled. I feel very strongly that the reason for their abiding resonance is because I was seeing the world as it is, not as I want it to be. And while that may seem a preposterous thing to say about video games, it’s only because we best know them, it seems, for their comfortable pretend worlds where things happen primarily because we want them to.
But that’s far from the only thing games can be. If anything, games are more suitable for truth than any other medium. Individuated experiences that emerge from complex systems are nigh impossible to forge. They often surprise the creators of such systems, which implies that these outcomes live outside the game proper. They exist somewhere in reality as a convergence of people, decisions, and forces more fundamental than the game construct that houses them. A designer can’t build them, only discover them. Often this is by accident, but once in a great while, a designer will search one out intentionally and use the game system as a frame for it. Ian Bogost writes in Video Games Are Better Without Characters that games can teach us, bit by bit, about the pervasive tangle of interactions that makes our world turn.
That’s not to say that video games can explain it all. It’s not to say that video games automatically get it right. And it’s certainly not to say that everything can be resolved into one, incontrovertible truth, let alone that we’re able to discover it. But playing with the universe by way of games that break it down, one truth at a time, can be a powerful method for learning about the world, about others, and about our personal selves. Even if a game isn’t literally, inarguably, impeccably true, there’s something to be said for “true enough.” Aiming at “a truth” if not “the truth” is not only valuable, it’s the only thing anyone can do. It’s not unlike a scientist going from a vague understanding of a phenomenon to a slightly less vague understanding, one that prompts further inquiry or debate. Such games invoke the wild spirit of discovery.
But the inverse side of games, the side where everything is made up, is often about gratification. It’s about excessive comfort. Lies are often told to avoid truth. “Escapism” implies there’s something wrong, something bleak in your life to escape. And when that escape involves indulgent flattery, there’s a further implication that what you’re not happy with, what you’re trying to escape, is yourself. You’re not some slob on the couch, you’re a pinnacle of humanity, loved or feared by all. You can have everything you want by being exactly who you are right here and now. If the world won’t accept you, maybe this fake one will. “Greatness awaits” at the push of the power button.
But if you stopped participating in the lie, if you let yourself look at reality, who could you be? What potential is there in your life? What possibilities lie dormant and unexpressed? Truth isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it’s excruciating. But at least you know where you stand. And once you know that, you can take your first step toward a better reality. That’s why I’ve intentionally immunized myself to such spurious greatness. It doesn’t fulfill, enrich, or propel. Once I developed an eye for truth, it got very hard to get excited about games built on lies.
Go and Lie No More
And that eye for truth is what I now curse you with. I curse you with the seed of doubt. I curse you to scrutinize the games you love and wonder if they’re everything you thought they were. But I don’t curse you in order to share my pain – I curse you because in the end I promise it isn’t a curse. I really don’t miss all the lies, because experience has taught me that they absolutely cannot compete with truth, with the real.
That’s the irony of it all: even while players say they want immersive games that are more realistic, the games born of that demand are often the most fake. It’s a lot faster and easier to skip to the end of the design process by making something look good on a screen and let a player’s willing imagination do all the work instead. But presupposing the scenario and endlessly hammering on it until it’s shaped correctly often produces a result that is predictably flat. Probably because it was hit with a hammer.
By contrast, games that are about real experiences are much more difficult to recognize. They can’t be as direct with the fantasy. Often you won’t even know what you’re looking at until it’s already happened. These games don’t stipulate on the details of how the experience will happen. They don’t force it – they can’t. Any such attempt immediately puts it right back in fake territory. Real things happen organically, systemically.
If you would like to embrace my curse, if you want to try to pick out truth from lies, you can start with a simple question. When something happens in a game that feels important, pivotal, or game-changing, ask yourself what made it happen. Think of all the dependencies, the “what ifs,” and the multitude of excluded possibilities that led you to this one particular moment. The farther you can go back in its chain of causality before you’re forced to say “A designer did it,” the closer you are to truth.
When a character is killed in a prerendered cut-scene, a designer did that. Even if you made a host of story choices that led up to it, a designer did every single one of those choices, too. When Nora Baker, your most reliable confidential informant in your Prison Architect game is killed because prisoners were too suspicious of the information she was feeding you, which would have been fine if she hadn’t been caught in that big mob in the shower right at the moment when all the guards were pathing wrong after getting called away to search another cell as a result of your contraband policy… well, suffice it to say a designer did not do that.
Or perhaps you are the designer, one who’s interested in building something more real. In your case, a commitment to not lying might be just what your game needs in order to take flight. Jonathan Blow spoke of this in the panel I linked at the start. If you take one thing away from that lecture, let it be his advice to “be open to what is here.” Instead of approaching the design as a fantasy to be forged, perhaps approach it as dynamic to be discovered. You can still make your fantasy, but if you ask yourself what the components of that fantasy are and encourage those components to emerge on their own, rather than explicitly force them to happen, your fantasy will feel all the more real.
And to do that, you need to be listening to the design as well as guiding it. You need to let it be its own entity, fulfilling its own purpose, even as you deliver it into the world. That’s how I often write my essays – not with a concrete plan, but an idea. That idea steers the essay, but I also have to let the essay go where it wants to. The final version often surprises me to some degree, and I hope it surprises you too. That likely means I’ve found a new little corner of truth.
But if you can’t quite find truth, if you can’t find a way to nudge emergent narratives to the surface, I ask that you at least don’t lie. Don’t try and sell me on the idea that I’m more than I am. I am not on a hero’s journey. Your NPC does not love me. I am not the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and when you resort to artifice, throwing purposefully weaker ones at me, I can’t help but see right through it. I realize that by myself I’m not offering much incentive to abandon a tried-and-true formula that seems to work on everyone else, but at least think about whether or not that’s the kind of designer you want to be.
Think about what would happen if you stopped lying for your game and instead saw what was truly there. If you’re not spending time and space in the design to create a delusional flight of fancy for the player, that means you’re making something else entirely, something that likely rings more true. After all, not lying is its own form of truth.
And if you’re still unsure or unconvinced by all this, follow my continued work. This essay is merely the foundation for this topic, something I need to establish before diving into the specifics. It’s a difficult topic to write about because it’s so complicated and tangled. Here we are almost 9000 words later, and I’m still worried I’ve left you with a wrong impression of which I see as truth, and which lies. But I have a few more essays already planned that delve deeper. There’s lots of ways games lie, this isn’t the sum total of them. And sometimes truth can be found in the most unlikely places. Very few games are all truth or all lies, but rather a messy jumble of the two.
And maybe if you let these words knock around in your head for awhile, carry them with you and remember them as you play, maybe you’ll start to see what I mean. After all, truth is enduring. Truth has weight. And if you listen, truth speaks.
Truth in Game Design (Jonathan Blow) – You still haven’t watched this? Why have you still not watched this? Go watch it.
Real, Not Role Play (Caleb Ayrania) – An EVE Online player talks about how players of the game are all roleplaying, whether they realize it or not.