Truth and Lies in Game Design

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.

You know the one.

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.

…in unbelievable fantasy objects.

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.

It’s even on my family crest.

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.

“Aspire rather to be a hero than merely appear one.” -Baltasar Gracian

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.

She had a nasty reputation as a cruel dudette.

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.

Beware the all-purpose action button.

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.

Further reading:

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.

19 thoughts on “Truth and Lies in Game Design

  1. Carefulrogue April 8, 2023 / 6:42 pm

    I’m reminded of Mount and Blade: Warband with your example. There the parties served general purposes, bringing you into contact with the available noble men and women, to perhaps collect quests, but perhaps also socialize and gain abstract opinion points.

    • The Ludite April 10, 2023 / 6:15 pm

      I’m not very experienced with everything Mount & Blade has to offer, but one thing that I appreciate about it is that it at least tries to be world unto itself with some degree of indifference to the player. A good amount of the game is just happening with or without you, and doesn’t wait for you to show up to start moving and pretend it’s alive. By contrast, a whole lot of similar video games operate a lot like a drama performance, where all the relevant actors have the script with their lines, they all hang out in a big gang, wait around, and then when you get there, it’s like “Hey! The player is coming! Places everyone! Aaaaaaand action!”

      There does seem to be a little bit of that in Mount & Blade: Warband, but I’m hoping that its purpose is to serve as a tutorial of sorts, and that it will eventually fall away into a simulation that responds to your actions, but isn’t invested in your success. With that said, there’s a lot of the simulation that operates by fiat in order to facilitate fantasy, and while I want to look past pre-written dialogue and instead see it as expressions of the underlying system, it kind of seems to me like the system is serving the dialogue instead of the other way around. I’m in the process of writing a follow-up to this essay that will hopefully explain it a bit further, but it has to do with the degree and purpose of designer contrivance, and how you can read into the design to see how much is real and how much is faked. Hopefully that makes more sense when you read next essay.

      While I’m generally more interested in systems that are more abstract and less explicit, systems like Dwarf Fortress where any kind of “story” is more implicit in the happenstance of the simulation, I can at least appreciate what M&B is trying to do, and would try to push it further if I were at the helm.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Dabor September 5, 2021 / 6:37 pm

    Greetings, stranger from whom I have only read this one article. Got linked here from a comment on Shamus Young’s website and rather enjoyed reading this. To some degree it just is a thorough statement of a sentiment I already largely held, and for that reason I’d be curious to try and explain it myself and see it feels like it lines up.

    For some background: I’m a designer for a couple of very gamey games (a roguelike deckbuilder card game, and a turn-based tactics game) making lots of very gamey stuff, balancing a player’s toolkit and the like. And my favorites tend to be exceptionally gamey – 4Xs, traditional roguelikes, turn based tactics and so on.

    One way I’ve often put this matter is “I don’t like story in video games – but I do like setting.” I’ve always viewed most of what’s conventionally considered story as just “shoving bits of movie into the game,” and tend to dislike it, on the basis of “if I wanted to see this, it could just be a separate product.” Over time I’ve definitely been sold on some games using said bits of interspersed movie to set the tone in a way that puts the player in the right frame of mind (Devil May Cry 5 is the freshest example from a conversation with a buddy some months back).

    I also don’t really consider visual novels games (although I do consider them a fantastic medium). I often compare the pros/cons of them to, well, anime, manga, and conventional novels. They tend to have less unique and evocative art than a straight up comic series and higher production costs than a straight novel, but hit a happy medium where the audiovisual elements can be really immersive while being cheap enough to produce that a small studio can make an amazing 50-100 hour experience on the budget that might make an hour or two of mediocre animation (I don’t know exactly how the numbers line up.)

    You can have visual novel elements in something that’s more of a game – the genre of dating sims does so – but the baseline of just “which story branch are you reading now” is barely more interactivity than turning a page or pressing “play” is.

    Coming back to the story/setting contrast, a big part of it is that I simply think that video games suck at story. The production values will be crap compared to a movie if it’s trying to do stuff in-engine and involve the player in some artificial way. But the other thing is… you can just have a tabletop roleplaying group with buddies. It’s great fun, and will be a much better and more memorable experience than the best of what story-heavy games have to offer (well, ymmv, of course). It’s hard for me to want to seek out a vastly inferior version of that experience in a single-player setting. I’d feel about as weird as going to a usually-multiplayer game exclusively to play skirmishes with bots when there’s the option for a proper campaign mode right there.

    Even if we don’t get to meet up for them as often as we’d like (even with glorious online tools and not having time zones too far apart), those experiences blow video games so far out of the water that I’d pretty much never consider playing a single player video game for actual role-playing. Instead, it’s all about the fun of systems. I don’t really enjoy being challenged on my reflexes (despite being half-decent at it), so I mainly play all sorts of card/tactics/strategy affairs, where I enjoy mastering a game myself and seeing all the cool stuff I can make happen, running headlong into situations that I don’t even know are winnable and doing my best to make them work out.

    Which is also a big deal for me. I consider this an irrationality on my part and not a flaw in video games, but anything that feels like an outright puzzle to me – a scenario that a developer contrived to challenge me, with an intended solution I’m meant to figure out – always just feels hollow. My brain locks on figuring out what the person on the other side wanted me to do, and not just engaging with the rules of the world openly. That’s why I love a lot of complex-to-the-point-of-chaos games – being in a situation that might be actually unwinnable (or, at least, one where I can’t meet all of my goals as I’d like to) means a lot to me in terms of getting me to engage with it fully.

    The reason it’s irrational is that, well, “intended interactions” are a decent part of what I’ve done for some games, thinking about what a player would enjoy and how to encourage them to realize it’s an option, or to gently-but-not-too-gently try to force them to vary up their experiences for their own good. I don’t have anything objectively against puzzles, I just fail to engage with them the same way I fail to engage with a game when I’m looking at a game over screen purely as a result of “I didn’t press a button fast enough when a thing happened,” even though trying to quickly react to things is a perfectly valid basis for a video game.

    I don’t really know if I have a point here. Reading the post just made me wanna try and externalize some of my own related thoughts. Hopefully you’ll forgive the rambling – I’m sure you can sympathize with the inclination.

    • The Ludite September 18, 2021 / 10:03 pm

      Sorry I didn’t see this comment right away – it got stuck in my spam filter for some reason.

      I come from a similar place, and your assumptions are familiar to me. I’m glad my essay spoke to you, and hopefully helped to further articulate those ideas. With that said, I’m not nearly done with this particular idea.

      When time is less scarce for me, I’m going to pull the thesis of this essay into a larger philosophy. In my case, it’s about more than just what games I do and do not enjoy.

      In my About page, I wrote that I study play, and increasingly I find myself doing so from outside the domain of video games. I find that many video game players think about games only in terms of the video games themselves, restricting their thought to a sort of self-referential mode. It has a way of perpetuating the status quo and only allowing very slight variation. A lot of thought goes into refining the narrow space into which video games have haphazardly landed. Very little thought seems to be going into what exactly the status quo is doing as it occupies countless waking hours of humans worldwide.

      As such, there are a lot of justifications built up for the current state of video games, one might even call them defense mechanisms. I’m talking about stuff like “Different strokes” and “Let people like things.” I understand the impulse to say such things, but I’ve never been satisfied with that. It’s not that I think my tastes are superior. It’s that the more I view video games through a broader lens than “just some nice thing to distract me for an hour or four,” the more concerning the picture looks. It’s that we’re living in some very strange times, under conditions I’m not sure our species has ever seen. And while others see video games as an escape from such times, I’m developing a strong sense that video games may be inducing them in part.

      I realize this sounds very “Old man yells at cloud,” and I’m sure to many that’s all I’ll ever be. But it’s not my goal to flush all of video games down the toilet. Video games are powerful in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. There’s a lot we could do with them to further as a species. We just need to get past the point where everyone understands them as pleasant wastes of time.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. fodazd May 13, 2021 / 12:31 pm

    I enjoy a lot of things in games that are “fake”, and I have no problem switching off the part of my brain that knows they are fake when I play them. I don’t enjoy combat without real stakes, meaningless click-quests or dialog-trees containing pseudo-choices, but I still appreciate the goal of helping me immerse myself in the setting. In my opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong with games offering escapism. It is certainly valuable to ask why we want to experience these escapist fantasies though.

    Regarding systemic simulation games: I agree that stories coming out of these games can be much more memorable that scripted story sequences, precisely because they are occurring “naturally” instead of being put there by a designer. However, there is a downside to consider: You might have to play for a long time before you actually get to experience one of these unscripted stories. “Not forcing” interesting things to happen might mean they don’t happen for you at all. Whether or not this is a trade-off worth making will depend on how much time you have available to play video games, and your relative tolerance for nothing interesting happening versus accepting contrivances. Of course, game design matters a lot in both cases: In a well-designed systemic game, there will be much less risk of nothing interesting happening for extended periods of time, just like well-designed scripted games go much easier on most peoples suspension of disbelief.

    Now for my main disagreement with this article: Even in systemic games, the game designers set the bounds of the experience. The things that happen in these games can only occur because the designers set up game systems that allow them to happen this way. You are constrained to interact with the system only in the ways the designers accounted for, just like your character can only say the things the designers put in a dialog tree. Yes, the dialog tree might present only the illusion of choice to the player, but so might your given options for interacting with a systemic game. It is completely unclear to me why a greater distance between “a designer did it” and the actual events in the game would automatically make these events more “true”, or why something directly crafted by a designer would automatically be more “fake”. Something directly crafted by a designer could feel arbitrary and contrived, or it could feel just as natural or more so than a series of events coming out of a systemic game. The game systems themselves are directly crafted by a designer, and they can also feel contrived or natural, depending on how well they work. Is an amazing story coming out of a systemic game better than all the examples of bad scripted content mentioned in this article? Sure. Is a series of boring, nonsensical and inconsequential events “naturally” produced by a bad game system actually more “real” than an emotionally touching scripted sequence deliberately crafted by a designer? I don’t think so. And if it is, then I just don’t care that much about “realness” in games.

    • The Ludite May 16, 2021 / 2:06 pm

      There’s a big difference between the experience of a systemic game and a scripted game. You say that both games constrain you to interact only in ways the game is designed for, but that’s only technically true. There are always constraints on what you do, even when you’re not playing games. The difference is the strength of those constraints.

      In a scripted game, the constraints are very strong. The choices you have are premapped, and the results are presupposed. They are so strong that the designer can very easily draw out the entire possibility space. Everything that the game can be is contained within its programming, and it’s all readily visible.

      In a systemic game, the constraints are much weaker. True, the player can’t do anything, but player agency is still a very large part of the experience. Neither the choices nor the results are set in stone, only the inputs. The inputs combine in incalculable ways to give rise to intent, and that intent comes from the player, not the designer.

      If I asked you to draw out the path to every single scripted outcome in say Dragon Age: Origins, you could do it. It would be time consuming and really obnoxious, prone to error by omission, but it’s still possible. You can even imagine what it might look like on paper. But if I asked you to draw out the possibility space of EVE Online, how would you even begin? It’s a problem on a completely different scale, and the reason is because you can’t account for player agency. In Dragon Age: Origins, player intent is not only assumed, but prescribed by the writer before the player shows up. In EVE Online, intent is spontaneously created by the player after the designer leaves.

      If you’re involved in a drama production on stage, you have a script to follow. The writer of the play assumes the actions, intents, and motivations of the character that you are playing. If you and all the other people on stage portray your characters convincingly, perhaps going so far as to employ method-acting techniques, maybe for that stretch of time you can convince yourself that what you are doing is “real.” But once the play ends and everyone returns to the “real world” – like, I can’t even write this sentence without using the word “real” to describe your landing spot. It’s obvious which world was fake and which world is real.

      But it’s not so obvious for a game like EVE Online. I spent some time as a teacher for EVE University, the longest-running player-run newbie-training organization in the game. I gave lectures, ran practicals, and organized training exercises for other actual people. Everything we did happened in a digital space. The ships that we shot at, the targets we scanned down, the wormhole chains we explored, none of them exist in physical space, that’s true. But for all I know, I live my whole life in a computer simulation and could wake up from this huge dream in a sleeping pod tomorrow. If that happened, I would struggle to name all of the subjective experiences I had in the simulation as “not real.” I still existed in that simulation as a discrete entity with my own identity, acting on it as I saw fit. As far as “reality” goes, that’s the best any of us have got.

      Now let me be clear: whether or not an experience is real is a different question than whether or not an experience is valuable. If someone puts together a scripted sequence with powerful emotional overtones that can be totally valuable. But I question whether it’s a necessary component that the experience pretend that it’s happening directly to me in the way that many video games do. Because let’s interrogate that concept for a moment: “A scripted sequence with powerful emotional overtones.” Hmmm. Sounds a lot like a movie to me.

      And you know what? Movies are great. I watch movies and read books all the time. But you know what else? Never once have I been in the middle of a movie and thought “Man, this story is nice, but it sure would be better if it were actually happening to me somehow.” I’ve never thought “I’m having trouble investing in the characters of this book. I wish I were included in this conversation – that would really help.” And while this essay is primarily written about my own perspective, I also feel pretty darn confident that no one else I know has ever had those thoughts either.

      My big thesis here is that making the game lie about my involvement in this fictional world is a strict value-subtract for me. I would much rather that the story be told with some other person at its center. A story can just be a story – it doesn’t have to involve me to be moving. I can’t think of a single reason why that would improve the experience, and I can think of a lot of reasons why it would unnecessarily constrain whatever story is being told.

      On the flip side, a systemic game seems like a more complementary design choice for a game that features a player self-insert as the main character. If it seems like I’m privileging the “real” over the manufactured, it’s because I’m trying to make the point that if your goal as a creator is to establish a “reality space” for a player to inhabit, that’s the home turf of systemic games. And only pretending to provide that, while also trying to control every last little thing, offends me in the same way that people get offended at an overly controlling DM whose story has to happen the way he wants it to. Even if that story is ultimately good, it’s still misusing the medium it inhabits, and the players’ expectations cause them to rebel.

      Now you have a very pragmatic viewpoint on what type of experience that you prefer, and I totally understand. You want “good” experiences above all else, and I even agree. As I said here and in the essay, I don’t need all my games to be “real.” But I do need all my games to stop lying to my face about how real they are, especially when I can clearly see their arm shoved up the puppet.

      Thanks for reading!

      • fodazd May 16, 2021 / 5:14 pm

        There seems to be a certain design philosophy in scripted games that says the player always has to stay actively involved at all times, and therefore cutscenes need to include quick time events or “press F to do a thing”. I completely agree that this is garbage. A good cutscene can stand on its own without needing to distract me with meaningless button presses. And since the stated goal of these things is to present the illusion of interactivity… Although it previously would not have occurred to me to call it “lying”, you definitely have a point there.

        I also agree that when your goal is to provide as much player agency as possible, then systemic games are generally doing a much better job than scripted games. Scripted games kind of have to be like the railroady DM, because for practical purposes it just isn’t possible to to have scripted content ready for whatever the player wants to do in a video game. There can be scripted games that account for a lot of possible player choices, and the tracks are much less noticeable in them, but they are still there. A systemic game can also kind of feel like a railroady DM, but in that case the problem is with that specific game’s design, and not some fundamental limitation of the underlying design philosophy.

        I still remain unconvinced that systemic games are automatically more “real” or “true” than scripted games though. I kind of agree in the case of multiplayer games: The people you interact with in these games are real, and therefore it stands to reason that the experiences you share in these games are also in some sense real. But this goes for both scripted multiplayer games and systemic multiplayer games. You mentioned Dark Souls as an example of a game that has something “real” to it because of its multiplayer, but I think we both agree that Dark Souls is a scripted game. The only example of a singleplayer systemic game that is supposedly “real” is Prison Architect, which I haven’t played yet. But I can still ask some questions about it:
        -> If your particular story of the troublesome prisoner just didn’t happen, and you just successfully ran a well-managed prison for your entire run, would that experience still be “real”? Even if nothing interesting happened?
        -> If someone posted a save directly after you get the troublesome prisoner as a sort of “challenge scenario”, and you had the exact same story you had after loading that save instead of just getting the prisoner via RNG, would that be “real”? Even if it didn’t happen “naturally”?
        -> If someone told you a strategy of how to deal with troublesome prisoners like that, but you decided to not use it because it makes the game boring, and then had the exact same story you did, would that be “real”? Even if you as the player deliberately decided to make it happen?

        When I play a map-painting 4X, then there is (usually) no script to follow. There is just the system reacting to my decisions and probably some RNG. 4X is pretty close to the archetypical systemic game: The constraints on what you can do are very weak, and drawing out the entire possibility space is impossible. And yet, in a lot of 4X games, when you have played and won them once, it feels like you have experienced all the game has to offer. It does not matter how big the possibility space is when each path through it feels about the same.

        By extreme contrast: When I play a visual novel, there is a very strict script to follow. The game literally does not have any interactivity beyond choosing between different railroad tracks (and sometimes not even that). Visual novels are pretty close to the archetypical scripted game: The constraints on what you can do are absolute, and drawing out the entire possibility space is usually very feasible. Any yet, each “railway track” of a visual novel can feel massively different from the others. The possibility space may be very constrained, but each path through it feels meaningfully different from each other path.

        Now, which type of game is more “real” or “true”? 4X or visual novels? I am sure it depends a lot on the specific games in question, but to me, the notion that 4X are automatically “real” because they are systemic, and visual novels are automatically “fake” because they are scripted seems ridiculous.

        • The Ludite May 18, 2021 / 8:33 pm

          I think what’s happening here is mismatched definitions of the word “real.” I expected this. My claim that some games happen in literal reality is certainly the most contentious. I’ll probably spend many more essays trying to develop it.

          So I’ll answer your questions, not in a prescriptive manner, but as a way of demonstrating my working definition. I’m also going to introduce a third word to this conversation, one I should’ve used from the start: “contrived.” This isn’t meant to replace “fake,” but rather contrast it from “real” without implying “deceit.” Deception is the realm of “fake.”

          Firstly, I need to make it clear that any given declaration of “real” doesn’t necessarily apply to a game in total. You raise an important distinction with Dark Souls, which could fairly be argued is ultimately a single-player game. You’ll notice that I hand-waved the “story” aspect of the game and instead focused on a particular multiplayer interaction. That’s because that interaction comes out as more real than what the rest of the game looks like when played alone. Individual moments of “real” can happen even in the midst of contrived ones.

          This may also imply a gradated scale of real to contrived or real to fake, but that’s not something I’m completely prepared to lay out.

          “If your particular story of the troublesome prisoner just didn’t happen, and you just successfully ran a well-managed prison for your entire run, would that experience still be “real”? Even if nothing interesting happened?”

          I have absolutely no trouble saying yes with no hesitation. The “quality” of one’s experience in a real world is immaterial to its reality. I don’t always have weird days at work or incredible weekends. But I do undeniably have them. They are real. As you’ve mentioned, ideally games live in an interesting place in reality rather than a boring one, but it’s not required for said reality.

          “If someone posted a save directly after you get the troublesome prisoner as a sort of “challenge scenario”, and you had the exact same story you had after loading that save instead of just getting the prisoner via RNG, would that be “real”? Even if it didn’t happen “naturally”?”

          I don’t think I have a problem saying yes here either. Every experience has a beginning and an end, even if those bookends are subjectively chosen after the fact. Just because we change the starting point from “open dirt field, ripe for building” to “You have a building and a problem” doesn’t mean that the following experience generated by the scenario, subject to your agency, is any less real than it was before. It might be just a bit more constrained in its possibilities.

          “If someone told you a strategy of how to deal with troublesome prisoners like that, but you decided to not use it because it makes the game boring, and then had the exact same story you did, would that be “real”? Even if you as the player deliberately decided to make it happen?”

          Again, there’s no problem with “real” here either. People decide what they want to do for all sorts of reasons, and constraining yourself for the sake of challenge or “honor” or somesuch is a very human thing to do. In fact, the very decision to do so implies “real” by virtue of the fact that the player had the agency to decide what to do without that thing being presented as an option with a contrived outcome. Even if you do the same thing over and over again and get the same result, the reason that “real” still describes it is because the result is an implicit expression of the system, not an explicit contrivance by a human designer. And on top of this, with any sufficiently complex system, it will be very difficult to do the same thing over and over again perfectly enough to get identical results, because even minor, accidental deviance can ripple out like a butterfly effect and cause substantial differences.

          Your later example of 4X games versus visual novels can also be adequately explained by the concept of contrivance. Of course the differing paths of a visual novel feel massively different from each other – they’re basically different books. It’s not surprising that a story told one way provokes a different reaction from the reader than a story told another way. But every single version of that story is still contrived. The author knows how it goes with absolute certainty, to the point that the term “possibility space” ceases to have any practical utility. I know I was the one to start using the word in the first place, but it was only to illustrate the difference between the experiences.

          And here we can also start to play with the word “fake,” because visual novels really like to cast the player with his/her own role as the protagonist and pretend that the characters of a dating sim are really into the literal you. That’s why I really appreciated that Katawa Shoujo is a story that happens to an actual named character with thoughts and feelings of his own. There is no contrivance of player agency, no sense of self-insertion. And the story is immersive and enjoyable just as it is.

          Apologies if I get it wrong, but the sense that I feel like I’m getting from you is that you might be judging “real” and “fake” based on your own subjective experience with individual games, in a “I really felt this way while playing” sort of way. That’s valid, I think one of my other design buddies feels that way too. But by introducing this topic, and exploring it going into the future, I hope to establish a sort of objective aspect to my concept of “real,” parallel with the subjective experiences of playing those games. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I do. Thanks for your comments, I really enjoy them.

          • SebastianSolidwork May 19, 2021 / 1:51 am

            I find the usage of “truth” more helpful than “real”.
            A lie can be real (e.g the spoken words, the existing Guild Wars 2 party), but it’s not true.
            I fear mixing in “real” will dilute the discussion.
            I can get not much out of “real”.
            In the end it’s to me the point if I believe what has been told or not. I can’t believe in the hero-suit too.
            In it’s core it’s a topic about individual perception. Some do, others not.

            I’m not sure if this helps you much Sam, but I don’t wanted it to be unsaid.
            If it’s not, please ignore it.

          • fodazd May 19, 2021 / 1:21 pm

            Yes, you a right: I am operating under a subjective understanding of the word “real”, and it seems to be different from the definition you use. To be honest, I find it difficult to wrap my head around thinking about it a different way. Philosophers have argued for a long time about what the definition of “reality” or “truth” should be, but I’m not a philosopher, so I use the words “real” and “true” like I have heard them used by others. In the context of gaming, this means talking about my subjective impression of how “real” or “true” a particular experience felt to me.

            Your definition of “real” seems to have a lot to do with player agency, and I agree that the feeling of agency can contribute a lot to making an experience feel “real” even in my subjective view. However, if we are looking for an objective definition, the similarities end pretty quickly: As I mentioned before, I can feel like I have agency even in a very constrained scripted game, and I can feel like I have no agency even in a very open systemic game. How exactly “agency” is objectively quantified would be an interesting question here.

            I agree that “contrived” is a much better word for what you are talking about than “fake”. I could definitely agree that visual novels tend to be more contrived than 4X, but given how silly the mechanics in some 4X are, I would maybe also call them contrived. I still wouldn’t say that 4X are “real”, but I am interested in your further thoughts on this topic. Although I have to admit that given the horrible things I usually do in 4X games, the thought that they are actually “real” is a little bit disturbing.

            Also, I am glad you like my comments, even though I usually disagree with a lot of what you say.

  4. Remy77077 May 13, 2021 / 7:03 am

    Very interesting stuff and well worth the read (& wait for more!) 🙂

    A bit of a tangent here to your main point I know, but one thing this kept reminding me of, as someone who mostly plays competitive games, is a discussion I often have with people when they complain about a fighting game not having “enough of a storyline to engage them” (or some critique along similar lines). In more recent years I’ve responded, that the REAL story in these games, is nothing on the screen, but the story that you =actually= experience yourself when you train, beat a rival for the first time, or play in an actual =real= tournament and what experiences you had doing all of those kinds of things. Those are the real experiences that I always remember from these games.

    I have a hard time finding anything close to that kind of thing in single-player videogame experiences, but I suspect there’s something here that aligns with the “real” experience of enjoyment I get when I achieve something that IS actually difficult within a video game (and these days I can know for sure when I can see how few people ever got that ‘Achievement’ or how high up a leaderboard I was etc)… but of course, that still does depend on how and why that task was ‘difficult’ or rarely completed, too as you expand on in this post I noticed – I saw echoes there (and here) of something I wrote long ago now too ( ) 🙂

    • SebastianSolidwork May 13, 2021 / 9:20 am

      I wonder why this people don’t demand a story at sports like tennis or football…
      Here is it clear that the interaction of the players creates the story emergent.

      • Remy77077 May 13, 2021 / 9:55 am

        laughs * That’s a great way of putting it.

        The likely response would be that they don’t enjoy playing or watching competitive sports either though…

        And I sometimes wonder what they did get out of some of the games they do enjoy, and getting back to the crux of this piece I guess, what players who ‘enjoy the lies’ more are actually enjoying the most? Is it this escapism ‘the fantasy the game inspired me to tell to myself’ .. or “the movie that happens to you” to quote this post?

        • SebastianSolidwork May 13, 2021 / 10:23 am

          Thanks, nice you could help you here. 🙂

          I think there is a pull- and a push-part.
          The “pull” is basically the pure fascination of the audio-visual effects (literally “mind blowing”, or better “sense blowing”) together with the lack of games literacy. The feel good with it.
          The “push” (better: getting pushed) is their somehow demanding life the want to escape for a while. Not being pushed by a boss, regulations, demands of others. Overall being exhausted and somehow wanting to be not bothered by this for a while.
          Is can even include the idolizing of work (by playing games doing it):
          “Here I do the work how I(!) want to do it.”

          Next comes maybe a somehow a variante of sunken cost fallacy.
          They have played such games for a longer time and now doubting them would invalid the fun they had in the past. WHAT IS WRONG! The fun they had was real, without doubt. Just from now on they wouldn’t enjoy more of the same.
          But somehow they consider the time they invested until now as a loos… “What is now wrong, must have been in the past too.” – nope.

    • The Ludite May 15, 2021 / 8:00 pm

      A game that comes to mind for me is Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

      It’s not a game that I’ve played so I can’t speak to details, but I was interested in the concept of an NPC rival that the game generates for each individual player of the game, and how the “story” is generated by what actually happens in each of your encounters. I suspect that the possibility space of what can actually happen is fairly constrained (especially given that the NPC is voice-acted, which SEVERELY limits emergence), but it was unexpected for me that a super-IP-based AAA game was willing to let go of the story reins even that far. If somebody who loved that game took inspiration from the rival idea and took it further, did away with further author contrivance, and pushed it as far as they could make it go, I’d be interested in that game for sure.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Insights to a Bored Mind May 13, 2021 / 5:12 am

    Therapeutically any danger is a test of experience and playing games helps our mental health.

    • The Ludite May 15, 2021 / 7:32 pm

      I’m not prepared to talk about the mental health benefits of games, and frankly I don’t think very many people in the field of games are prepared to talk about it either. All I can say at the moment is that I’ve never heard of a clinical psychologist prescribing one of their patients a steady diet of Skyrim, and I have a suspicion that there’s a very good reason for that.

      Thanks for reading!

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