At 100%

Today in bizarre internet documents: this Final Fantasy VIII guide. I . . . okay, look, I could give you the whole backstory here, but we’ve both got things to do today, right? How about you just trust me on this one?

I’ll try to keep this concise. In FFVIII, one of your party members has a dog, named Angelo, and the dog can learn an ability called Angelo Search, which allows it to sniff around and root up items while you’re busy fighting alien turtle monsters or whatever. The ability is entirely passive – you can’t trigger it yourself, it just occurs at random times while you’re in battle – and the items you’ll receive therefrom are almost uniformly generic garbage. So for well over 99% of playthroughs, it’s entirely worthless. The game would be substantively identical if it didn’t exist. The plot twist is the word “almost” a couple of sentences back. It turns out the ability has a very, very small chance of giving you some of the game’s rarest items, including some that cannot be acquired in any other way.

This doesn’t make it matter, yet. The chances of it actually happening are so low as to be beneath notice. But it makes it so it can be made to matter. Because the ability triggers on its own, the one thing that one can do about it is wait. You can set up a battle so that the enemies aren’t doing anything that’s going to kill you (the battles transpire in real time, so enemies will constantly attack you while you’re just sitting there), and then you just leave it. You leave the game running, on its own, for hours and hours on end, such that by the time you get back, the probability of your having obtained one or more super-rare items has been upgraded from “lol” to “noticeable.” Indeed, thanks to the magic of probability1, if you just keep doing this, the likelihood that you will eventually obtain the maximum possible number of every item available in this manner ascends to a near guarantee. So what presents itself at this point, with terrible clarity, is a goal: you can use this approach to get not merely something, but everything. The guide in question is a series of instructions as to how to accomplish this.

Meaning it’s a series of instructions as to how to avoid playing the game. Perhaps this strikes you as unproblematic. I mean, it’s at least kind of interesting. Actually going through with this would require commitment, in a sense. And it’s not really any different than anything else you can do in a video game, right? Well, yes and no. It certainly is the case that all actions in a game are fundamentally arbitrary, but that doesn’t make them all equivalent. That is, we can imagine Sisyphus happy, but that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and assume it a priori. If we care about this type of thing for . . . whatever reason . . . then we should take a closer look at what’s actually going on.

What’s actually going on is nothing. You could achieve exactly the same result by hacking the memory file and inserting the right bit values wherever the item count is stored. You wouldn’t be missing out on the “experience” because there is no experience. The end state, including your own end state as a person, would be physically indistinguishable from if you had done it “for real,” which of course logically implies that there is no “for real.” And yet, the whole thing nonetheless involves expenditure of real time and consumption of real resources. The guide in fact indicates that someone damaged their PlayStation – an actual physically-existing object that costs hundreds of dollars and represents years of engineering labor and performs functions in the real world – in the service of running a continuous Angelo Search session – which, recall, means doing nothing – for as long as possible.

So we’re already in “what’s the point?” territory, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. What you get from doing this is also nothing. It is important to understand this claim substantively. That is, if you could use this method to get items that helped you out later in the game, then, well, it would still be really stupid, but it would also be justifiable. After all, having to do stupid things for a while so that you can do non-stupid things later is an important part of real life. But that’s not what’s going on here. One of the items you can get via this method is the Hungry Cookpot, an item so rare that only one of it can be obtained otherwise. This item allows your characters to learn an ability called Devour, which they can be use to permanently enhance their attributes by eating monsters.2 The thing about this is, you get one instance of the ability anyway, without even getting the one Hungry Cookpot you can get, and that instance is all you’ll ever need (you can swap it between characters at any time). The ability has no combat merit, and, um, only one character can eat a given monster at a time3, so even if you’re going to the extreme of maxing out all of everyone’s attributes, additional copies of the ability are entirely unhelpful. They literally do nothing, in an absolute sense. So why does anyone ever bother with this sort of thing? I believe, if you search deep within yourself, you will find that you already know the answer. It is not in pursuit of a goal, it is the goal. The point of collecting as many Hungry Cookpots as possible is to collect as many Hungry Cookpots as possible. You’ll note that the language used in the guide excitedly hypes the possibility of obtaining a bunch of stuff without any explanation as to what it is you would supposedly need these things for. What really clicks the gears into place is the fact that there is such a thing as “as many Hungry Cookpots as possible.” There’s a maximum number of each item that the game allows you to hold, which makes it possible to attain that maximum. When you open your inventory menu and see the number “100” displayed, you will at last know true inner peace.

This situation is not unique to this one game – FFVIII just provides an unusually direct example, on account of it’s weird as shit. What we are discussing here is, in fact, A Thing. The idea of a “perfect game” is something that many players explicitly pursue, in explicit terms. I could go on at some length about this, but I can much more easily illustrate the situation using a real example that someone actually wrote out and committed to the internet. The following block of text originates from a “perfect game” guide for Final Fantasy VII, and is among the most remarkable objects ever brought into existence through descent with modification. Don’t worry about trying to figure out what the hell any of this means, because it doesn’t. Just experience it as a raw mass of terrible aesthetic purity:

================================
3.0 – PERFECT GAME DEFINITIONS
================================

I’ve made up ten levels of perfect game saves, summarized below.  As I said in the intro these are open for debate.  These refer to Disc 3 saves.

SPECIAL NOTE: In general you can’t go through the whole game with a certain perfect game level in mind, and then switch to a higher level.  There are many points in the game which you can’t visit again, so you must have completed the requirements for that place before you leave.  See section 7 for details.

Level 0   – beat the game

Level 1   – Level 0 requirements
– purchase the Costa del Sol villa
– earn all limit breaks
– get Yuffie and Vincent

Level 2   – Level 1 requirements
– beat Ultimate/Emerald/Ruby weapons

Level 3   – Level 4 requirements
– Full set of chocobos (see notes)
– Chocobo Sage tells you everything
– Everyone’s Grudge does 9999 damage to each character

Level 4   – Level 2 requirements
– at least one of each materia mastered
– all characters at level 99

Level 5   – Level 3 requirements
– at least one of each item/weapon/armor/accessory
– complete all sidequests

Level 6   – Level 5 requirements
– at least eight of each armor/accessory, unless the max is less
than eight (thanks to nephalim for this suggestion)
– max stats for each character

Level 7   – Level 6 requirements
– maximum amount of items/weapons/armor/accessories

Level 8   – Level 7 requirements
– max gil
– max experience for each character

Level 9   – Level 8 requirements
– complete set of materia

Notes

Sidequests: This includes getting all four Huge Materia, Yuffie’s
sidequest, the Ancient Forest, and fight all Fort Condor battles.  Will is
testing the F.C. battles I’m missing.  As soon as he’s finished, I’ll flesh
out this requirement further, and probably move it to a higher level.

Items: See section 4 for details.

Materia: See section 5 for a list of materia and the AP amounts needed for
mastery.

Max stats: Use power/guard/mind/magic/speed/luck sources to get these stats up to 255.

Chocobos: Mate the gold chocobo you get from breeding and the one you get for defeating Ruby Weapon to get more gold chocobos (I haven’t verified this myself yet).  It should be possible to get 7.  Alternatively, get one black, blue, green, wonderful, and three golds.

Everyone’s Grudge: This refers to the Master Tonberry attack which inflicts
10 HP of damage for each enemy the character has killed.  This means each character has to kill 1000 enemies.

Max Gil: I don’t know what the max gil is, but it’s at least 400 million.
I’m guessing 999,999,999 because that’s all there’s room to display on
the menu screen.

Max Exp: 999,999,999 exp is the max.  Thanks to Drake for reporting this
one.  Note I haven’t tested this myself.

Complete Materia Set: See section 6 for details.

Once I have a better idea of whether level 8 or 9 is more difficult, I may
interchange them.  If anyone accomplishes this before me, let me know which one you were able to do first.

OPTIONAL: Chocobuckle
———————
Terence suggested this be made an optional goal because it’s got more than one use, and is largely based on opinion.  Possible goals include 0 escapes, 9999 escapes, and 2222 escapes.  I’d suggest 2222 escapes because it’s the easiest way to get Lucky 7’s.  Thanks to Arctic for pointing this out to me.

I mean, like, my god, it’s full of stars, right? If the aliens ever find this one it’s gonna blow their fuckin minds. I’ve got your monolith right here, assholes.

Uh, right, no, so I was talking about something. Okay, what we have here is a description of multiple different “levels” of perfection, with internal debate as to which metrics belong in which level. This is the actual definition of insanity. The entire thing about perfection is that it is an objective, binary condition. Something is either perfect or it is imperfect, and if perfection is your goal, then anything imperfect doesn’t count. If perfection isn’t self-evident, it isn’t perfection. So that entire block of text is fully disconnected from the thing that it thinks it’s talking about. It is pure howling gibberish, dressed up Vincent Adultman style in an ill-fitting trenchcoat of ersatz logic.

Okay, fine, so “perfection” is just the wrong word to use here. These are actually just different “achievements,” right? As if. These exactly are not achievements; they are fully arbitrary tasks that produce nothing and signify nothing. They aren’t interesting to do and there’s no reason to do them. There’s nothing behind them; they’re just numbers being displayed on a screen by a computer. Except of course there is a reason: the reason you would do them is to attain perfection. You can’t not use the concept of perfection here, because that concept is the only thing that makes any of this make sense. But it still doesn’t make sense! Having to argue about what “counts” as perfection completely defeats the purpose.

Okay, enough screwing around. What’s going on here is that these games are nothing but serieses of arbitrary tasks that don’t mean anything, and the appeal to perfection is the attempt to make them meaningful. The point of accumulating items is supposed to be that you need them for something. You might need to plan out how many healing potions you’re going to need in a particular fight, or something like that. But when that isn’t the case, when a game just has a bunch of random stuff crammed into it for no reason, these types of structural relationships evaporate. If you never need to use a healing potion, then it doesn’t matter when or how or in what capacity you can obtain one, and the number displayed next to it in your inventory means nothing. It could be 12 or it could be 10,000, and nothing would change either way. But if that number has a maximum value, then it suddenly gains a reason to exist: it exists for the purpose of reaching that maximum value.

Here’s the throughline. The games under discussion so far don’t have a workable definition of perfection because they’re too messily designed. Nowadays things are different; for the sake of filing off exactly these rough edges, games tend to be tightly constrained and heavily polished. You might think that this would fix the problem by making things non-pointless, by giving you an actual reason to do whatever it is you can do in the game, but that only works if you actually come up with a point for things to have. If not, then streamlining simply crystallizes the problem, because it makes the goal of perfection achievable. And this is exactly where we are right now: the idea of “100% completion” is no longer something that individual players have to make up, but is now most often built in to the structure of games themselves. The advent of achievementification has made the goal of perfection explicit. The game straight tells you what you need to do to reach “100% completion” and how close you are to getting there. But . . . wait for it . . . this still doesn’t make sense, because perfection is not a matter of design precision; it is logically impossible.

In a game where different decisions exclude each other, perfection is impossible in practice. Even if you can decide on a “best” set of decisions, it still doesn’t qualify as perfect4 as long as the other decisions have any merit whatsoever. But of course they always have merit: they provide the player with a different experience, which is the only thing that playing a game actually is. And in a game that is explicitly designed to be 100% completable, this remains the case – there are still multiple distinct mutually exclusive experiences that you can have with it. Quitting the game without ever reaching 100% completion is a different experience, and it has value for that reason, and that value is value that you don’t get if you go on to reach 100% completion, which means that 100% completion is by definition not 100% completion.

Sorry if I’m hamming this up. It’s actually just a basic means-for-ends confusion. As we saw in our Angelo Search example, doing nothing and getting nothing as a result is taken to be significant due to the existence of a counter which can be pointed to as an indication of significance. This is backwards. The only justifiable point of having a completion counter or achievements or any kind of explicit goal statements at all is to indicate good experiences. But the existence of the counter does not change the nature of the experience; it would still be a good experience without the counter. If you have the counter and not the experience, you have nothing.

There exist games that get this right. The Donkey Kong Country games were among the first to introduce the concept of 100% completion into the platformer genre. In Super Mario Bros. 3, there’s a bunch of different stuff you can get and different routes you can take, but none of it is “recorded,” so there is no sense in which you can try to do “all” of it. In Super Mario World, all of the alternate level goals you find are saved, so you can go for all of them, but this information isn’t displayed anywhere, so it’s fully at your own discretion. The only reason to do it is if finding the goals is actually an interesting project. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, introduces the Big Counter. Your save file has a completion percentage on it based on the number of bonus rooms you’ve found; you see it every time you start up the game. Some of these secrets are interesting to try to find and some of them are stupid, but at least they’re all something. Going for 100%5 of them necessitates actually doing stuff. But the truly notable game in this regard is the sequel. Each level in Donkey Kong Country 2 contains a single “DK Coin,” and each one is hidden in a different interesting way. Getting all of them requires exploring around offscreen and making difficult jumps and other such behaviors that are actually engaging. And on the navigation map, each level shows whether you’ve found the coin or not, so a missing coin indicator sends not merely the message that there’s a button to be pushed for the sake of receiving a gold star, but that there is interesting gameplay in the level that you haven’t seen yet. So in a case like this, the completion counter points you to where the good experiences are. It has a substantive function that is justified in terms of its practical effect on the player.

There are probably some motherfuckers out there who’ll still want to go for the the imagining-Sisyphus-happy counterargument here. That is, so what if some achievements are “empty”? Nothing means anything anyway, right? People who do things like this are making their own goals and defining their own values, aren’t they? Well, sort of, but this line of argument applies the other way around. The fact that nothing means anything is why goals don’t real. So the only sensible thing to do is to completely ignore the concept of achievement and just look at the actual behavior that the humans in question are performing, and the experiences they are having as a result. In one case people are engaging in interesting gameplay and having things happen in their brains, and in the other people are turning on a computer and then doing nothing, and then looking at the results and experiencing nothing. This is not imagining Sisyphus happy. This is Sisyphus pretending to roll a boulder up a hill and then pretending that he actually accomplished something by pretending and then congratulating himself on a “perfect” boulder roll. I mean, really. Camus would be disgusted enough to lose his taste for fucking French actresses for maybe like five minutes.

Still, that’s just an assertion on my part. There actually is one more step that I have to take here. I have to argue that what I’m calling “interesting gameplay” is in fact, in some substantial way, better than simply leaving a game console powered on and watching numbers go up. Except . . . do I? Do I really? We already know that the only reason people engage in certain behaviors is because of the existence of a counter that gives them the appearance of significance. In other words, they’re doing them because the designers of the game, implicitly, told them to, and for no other reason. In other other words, if it were really up to the players themselves, they would choose not to engage in these behaviors. Actually, the vast majority of the time they really are choosing not to engage in these behaviors. People like to write up these guides to make themselves feel important, but the vast majority of hardcore gamers don’t even bother with this shit, and the vast majority of people who play games aren’t hardcore gamers for exactly this reason: because this shit is fucking boring.

The trick is not to get complacent. Remember, the developmental progress of games has been towards this problem, not away from it, such that “100% completion” is now the normal thing that games are assumed to be about, to the extent that it’s actually built in to their distribution platforms. So the fact that most people hate this shit does not tell us that things are fine; it tells us that we have a real problem. We have a highly-developed and ubiquitous form of “entertainment” that coerces people into doing things that aren’t interesting and that they don’t like doing (while in many cases extorting money out of them in the process). And games, while often notably blatant about these types of things, are in no way sui generis. We live in a society that, in general, is built around people doing things that they don’t want to do, that aren’t interesting, and that don’t produce anything worthwhile. This is how things really look at 100%. We are all Angelo Search now.

So that’s it. The people behind these things, consciously or otherwise, are: wasting human potential, stunting intellectual growth, promoting excessive consumption of resources, degrading aesthetics, and creating bad ideology. This is evil.


  1. Actually you kind of have to hack it, apparently, since the random number generator that the game uses is fake. I really hope you appreciate the effort I’m going to to streamline this argument for you. It’s quite taxing. 
  2. Look, I’m really sorry about the amount of exposition this requires. The game in question originates from a period during which design was generally clusterfuckish, and games were often intentionally obfuscated for the purpose of selling strategy guides. Also I guess I should clarify that I’m not making any of this up? 
  3. no seriously what am I doing send help 
  4. I will pay the dictionary people good money to eliminate the word “prefect” from the English language and also all spellcheckers, thank you. 
  5. Wacko trivia: the maximum completion percentage in Donkey Kong Country is 101%, because reasons. In DKC2 it’s 102%, and in DKC3 it’s 103%, also because reasons. 

Take off the brakes

Ossuary is an adventure game about Discordianism. Despite the underlying philosophy, this is a very straightforward approach, so it’s useful for determining whether this kind of thing actually works, at all.

ossuary_evil

Our first order of business is to understand what type of thing an “adventure game” is. That is, you walk around and you talk to people and you use things on other things and your progression is typically heavily story-based, but the question is: what are the underlying rules that define your interaction with the game space? To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, consider a typical combat-based RPG. You have an attack stat, and the monster has a defense stat and an HP value, and based on those things there’s an equation that determines what’s going to happen when you execute a particular attack. Or, in an action game, there’s maybe a physics engine or something (which is also just an equation) that determines what’s going to happen when a particular set of objects is in a particular configuration. So what’s notable about adventure games is that they lack any framework of this type, and what they have instead is nothing. Rather than being able to calculate the right answer, you just have to guess it.

The mechanics of other types of video games are like physical laws: they can’t (in theory) be broken, but you also don’t necessarily know what they are. You can be mistaken about them, and they may not accord with whatever conceptual frameworks you employ to understand them, but they’re there anyway. In an adventure game, there are no such laws, which means there are only conceptual frameworks. As you’re playing, you form the idea that, for example, you need a key to open a locked door, but there’s nothing that requires that to be the case. In a Metroid game, a green door can always be opened with a Super Missile; there may be an additional route around it, but that rule is always there. In an adventure game, there is no “always.” You might find a key for the door that breaks off when you try to use it, and instead have to talk a nearby guard into opening the door for you, even if neither of those things ever happens anywhere else in the game.

What’s important to understand here is that, while any type of gameplay can be reductively understood as a matter of “guessing” the right answer, adventure games are still different. Returning to our RPG example, you’re also selecting from a number of options, one (or more) of which is the “right answer,” but the underlying framework tells you something about what’s going to happen when you choose each option. When you have an attack that deals 50 damage and you use it on an enemy with 45 HP left, you know in advance that you’re going to kill it. Furthermore, those variables can change: the enemy might have a defensive property such that it only takes half damage and survives, and you might then have a “piercing” attack that ignores defense, so you can use that and kill it anyway. Learning about these rules as you play the game enables you to make informed decisions, and to take advantage of the available variables in order to accomplish your in-game goals.

What distinguishes an adventure game is the complete lack of any of these sorts of variables. Using the blue key on the blue door will open it and allow you access to the next area, and that’s it. That is absolutely everything there is to be said about the gameplay from a mechanical perspective. There’s no rule you can follow to predict what’s going to happen in advance, and there are no confounding variables that can change that result. In short, an adventure game is a game with no mechanics.

By itself, this sounds pretty bad, as though the gameplay were merely a matter of making random guesses until one of them works and allows you to watch the next cutscene – and, indeed, in the worst adventure games, this is exactly what happens. So adventure games are kind of the mechanical equivalent of free verse: there’s nothing that necessarily holds them together, so you have to come up with a way of doing it yourself. What’s needed is a way of making things make sense; in other words, the gameplay in an adventure game is aesthetic rather than mechanical.

A simple example of how this can work occurs in the game Savoir-Faire. The player character has the innate magical ability to link two objects together, such that actions taken upon one object affect the other. The first puzzle you encounter is a locked door, which can be opened by “linking” it to a teapot; “opening” the teapot then correspondingly “opens” the door. Knowing that you can do this type of thing reliably means you’re not just fumbling around in the dark when it comes to puzzles. You’re still “guessing,” in a broad sense, but you have something to go on – you have a reason to expect certain potential solutions to work. A more popular example is the Ace Attorney series, where your actions have a very specifically defined context: you’re trying to select a piece of evidence that refutes a particular argument. Because you always know what type of thing you’re trying to accomplish, you have a basis from which to make intelligent choices. And this is why the concept of “puzzles” is appropriately associated with adventure games: rather than simply having a list of options to try, there’s something you have to actually figure out.

There is, of course, a next step, which is to make the puzzles actually mean something. Guessing what door-opening technique the author was thinking of isn’t any more interesting than guessing what number they were thinking of. And what’s significant about Ossuary is that it actually gets really close to doing this. It has a coherent theme that provides an aesthetic foundation for its puzzles.

ossuary_democracy

The game is set in an unexplained foreboding netherworld, with the aesthetics set to maximize the forebodingness. Raw blackness is offset only by the tiny, misshapen figures of what barely count as people. The crunch of bones underwrites every step you take, everywhere in the entire game, while spooky dirge noises reverberate continuously in the background. It is very clear that the place that you are in is a bad place.

The gameplay uses the traditional adventure game approach of “inventory” items that you “use” on things, but it’s both radically simplified and semantically amplified. There are only seven “items,” which aren’t actually items at all: they’re the seven Christian sins. You gain the use of each sin by being “infected” with it, thereby becoming able to infect others with it. Every puzzle is solved by choosing the sin that will motivate someone to do what you need them to do.

The conceit, then, is that sins are good things. The descriptions in the “inventory” are all framed positively, inverting the usual valence: rather than sins being threats against purity, here they are the only spark of life in a world of darkness. The aesthetic thread that ties the puzzles together is this idea of positive corruption. Your goal is to introduce meaningful disorder into a world of pernicious order.

ossuary_pride

The basic idea of Discordianism, if there can be said to be such a thing, is that society is currently constructed along an order/disorder axis, with a preference for order. This points towards the false goal of an eternally true “perfect order” that will solve all problems and account for all things. Hence, we end up pursuing order even when it’s harmful. The proposed redress is not to make the same mistake in pursuing pure chaos, but to sometimes pursue order and sometimes pursue disorder as appropriate.

The world of Ossuary is, like ours, a world toiling under what Discordians refer to as the Curse of Greyface.

“In the year 1166 B.C., a malcontented hunchbrain by the name of Greyface, got it into his head that the universe was as humorless as he, and he began to teach that play was sinful because it contradicted the ways of Serious Order. ‘Look at all the order around you,’ he said. And from that, he deluded honest men to believe that reality was a straightjacket affair and not the happy romance as men had known it.

It is not presently understood why men were so gullible at that particular time, for absolutely no one thought to observe all the disorder around them and conclude just the opposite. But anyway, Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.

The unfortunate result of this is that mankind has since been suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance. Imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.

It is called THE CURSE OF GREYFACE.”

Ossuary is an ironic portrayal of this situation. It’s all imposing black backgrounds and haunting sound effects. It even has slowly-fading-in Famous Quotes displayed in isolation, which is like the calling card for pretentious over-seriousness. In fact, in the last ending, the quote displayed is “The human race will begin solving its problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously” – presented in the most serious manner possible.

So, I mean, that’s the joke, right? It’s a somber and serious explication of why it’s bad to be somber and serious. Hence, all of the endings are bad endings. There are five possible goals, each of which allows someone to take over the netherworld according to some principle of how things ought to be ordered. This even applies to the goal of exposing the lies of the other potential rulers, because that just gives power to the one claiming the authority of the truth.

But it’s not just that Ossuary portrays this situation, it’s that the entire logic of the game accords to this framework. As an adventure game, all it involves is slotting the right answers into the right questions. It’s perfectly ordered: use A on B so you can get C, use C to get to D, and then you’re done. The gameplay, as gameplay, is rigid and boring in the way that adventure games generally are. You just walk around and click on things until the puzzles get solved, and you have to constantly track back and forth to get the necessary items from one place and use them in a different place. In terms of game mechanics, it’s a fully ordered system illustrating why fully ordered systems are bad. So, in fact, the player’s introduction of disorder is merely aesthetic, because it is executed in the most orderly way possible.

ossuary_order

So, like, that’s still kind of the joke, it’s an expression of the fundamental emptiness of order, but we’re getting into dangerous territory here, don’t you think? The thing about satire is that it’s actually not a joke; it takes its subject more seriously than the subject takes itself. The corresponding danger is reification: if Ossuary works for you as a game, that necessarily means that you’re totally cool with expressing things through fully ordered systems.

To understand the problem, consider the Principia Discordia itself, as a document. It is, of course, an explanation of Discordianism, which makes it an orderly work. It even contains some substantive philosophical statements and political arguments. The reason is doesn’t suffer from the same problem that Ossuary does is that it’s presented in the most haphazard manner possible. It jumps between different weird sort-of-parables while making up a bunch of goofball terminology and fake history, accentuated by crude sketches and bad jokes. And throughout it all, it presents itself as a religion, injecting unseriousness into what is normally the most serious of affairs. The concise way to put this is that it’s fun1. This isn’t done out of defensiveness; it’s an active illustration of the document’s own principles. It embodies the upsurge of disorder into order.

Ossuary lacks this upsurge; it offers only one extremely narrow pathway of progression; it’s all hodge and no podge. In fact, there is a sort of alternate hidden goal in the game other than empowering the rulers, and it’s not an ending, which sets it apart from the rest of the game’s framework. It allows you to remove the Curse of Greyface, returning light to the netherworld and replacing the spooky dirge noises with happy glow noises. But you’ll notice that this is the most boring and conventional way to express this state of affairs, “bringing light to the darkness” or what the fuck ever, and, indeed, the way you achieve this goal is even more arbitrary and dull than the rest of the game. You have to solve a couple of nondescript click-on-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so you don’t even get to talk to people or anything; you’re just inputting the correct answer into the system.

ossuary_art

So, is the point that this sort of thing is impossible to express through the necessarily hyperconstrained format of the adventure game? It is the opposite: it is precisely because an adventure game does not have an underlying set of mechanics that it is the perfect vehicle for illustrating the simultaneous use of multiple, overlapping frameworks.

This is a specific point; we’re not just talking about “chaos” in general here. Like, an action game can be “chaotic” in the sense that there’s a bunch of stuff going on and it’s hard to make sense of it all, but that’s not very interesting in this context. Remember, for Discordians, valorizing disorder is just as much of a straitjacket as valorizing order. What’s required is dynamism, and just as the Principia Discordia incorporates this understanding into its text, Discordianism incorporates it into its philosophy. As opposed to most conventional religions, which have a bunch of different sects that each think they are “correct” in opposition to the others, Discordianism has infinitely many contradictory sects which are all simultaneously correct.

To get technical, what Discordianism promotes is the ability to juggle conceptual frameworks. That is, there’s “reality,” which is the actual collection of stuff that exists, and then there are the ideas that we have about reality, which are frameworks that we use to understand it. Any given framework implies a set of constraints, which means it illuminates some things while obscuring others. Thus, adherence to a single framework is necessarily limiting; the ability to switch between frameworks as required allows one to perceive more of reality than anyone can under a single framework.

So if we’re talking about gameplay, what we ought to be talking about is a game with multiple rulesets that the player must switch between of their own volition. Again, you might think that adventure games, without mechanics, cannot accomplish this, but in fact they are optimally suited for it. Remember what we were discussing before about adventure games being held together with aesthetics rather than mechanics? In any other genre you would have to actually implement multiple different systems, which, like, go for it, but also good luck. But in an adventure game, you can get right down to business: you can simply portray the thing you want to portray. The frameworks won’t “technically” be implemented in the game, but they will end up where they actually matter: in the player’s mind.

The idea of productive corruption via sin that Ossuary advances is just one aesthetic approach. Indeed, Ossuary has five goals that you can pursue all at once, but you pursue them all in the same way. This problem is most obvious when it comes to the lie-exposing goal: this ought to be a different type of thing than the other goals, but it’s actually just the same walk-around-and-trigger-flags rail-ride. Only the negative half of the argument against excessive order is made; the ability of games to require behavior of the player provides the opportunity to force them to do the thing that you are claiming is important for them to be able to do. Miring the player in only one system undercuts the argument.

More important than any one conceptual system is an understanding of what a conceptual system is and what it does, and more important than perfecting any one set of game mechanics is understanding what those mechanics are for in the first place. Mastery has already been achieved, and it hasn’t helped. We need better art and worse games. We need a little chaos.


  1. I’m aware that I am no fun, so don’t bother pointing that out. I’m not claiming to be the Pope of Discordianism here. 

Encircle me

Platformers are dead. I mean, you’d think, right? On one end of the spectrum, Super Mario Maker is an explicit acknowledgement that there’s nothing left to do in the genre except keep cranking out levels. On the other, the puzzle-platformer trend is an implicit argument that platformer gameplay isn’t meaningful unless you weld another genre on top of it. Contrary to popular belief, however, there are new things under the sun; anyone saying otherwise is just rationalizing their own lack of imagination. What I’m getting at here is that Circa Infinity is an original platformer.

circa_infinty_scouting

The game’s hook is that it takes place around the perimeter of a circle rather than on a flat plane. This seems like a gimmick, the difference being simply a matter of visual transposition, but it’s not. It has a substantive effect on how the game plays. You start on the outer rim of the circle, and you progress by first “warping” into the circle from a specified point, thus positioning you on the inside of the perimeter, and then jumping from there onto the outside of another circle located inside the first, “zooming in” in this fashion until you reach the goal. Generally speaking, the outside of each circle is safe, while the inside contains enemies that you have to avoid (you can’t attack in any way). Thus, the time when you’re on the outside functions as a sort of scouting phase, allowing you to see everything that’s going on on the inside: where the monsters are, how they’re moving, and where you’ll need to move relative to the warp point. Once you dive in, then, you’re fully prepared. You’ve already seen everything that you’re going to have to deal with, so there’s no trial-and-error effect.

This solves one of the big problems with platformers: you have to be able to see what’s up ahead in order to play effectively, and this isn’t always possible. This has always been the critical flaw of the Sonic series, which is focused on speed, and which therefore necessarily makes it difficult for you to know what’s up ahead in time for you to actually do something about it. It’s a common experience in Sonic games to be blithely running along and then suddenly have some spikes show up right in front of you, and this is stupid (also, why are spikes used as an obstacle in a game where you play as a hedgehog?). There’s nothing interesting about failing like this; it might as well have been a random event. The series has tried to resolve this problem in different ways, and none of them have really been satisfactory. The original Sonic the Hedgehog is actually not very fast, it’s much more of a standard jumping-across-obstacles platformer. Whereas Sonic Rush offers a mechanic that lets you blast through anything that you hit while running, which solves the problem by trivializing it. These are just the most blatant examples of a general problem; even Mario games have the same issue. You’ll often be unable to see where a long jump leads or where an enemy is coming from, turning the gameplay into guesswork. Circa Infinity offers an approach as correct as it is simple: you first show the player what they’re in for, and then you let them have at it.

It also offers a novel approach to the checkpoint dilemma. This is a fundamental conflict between two theories about how to manage the failure loop. One school of thought holds that, once a player has “solved” an obstacle, forcing them to go through it again because they failed at a different obstacle merely enforces tediousness; ergo, you place a checkpoint after each significant challenge. But action games aren’t about solutions, they’re about performance, so it makes sense to require the player to be able to navigate obstacles consistently, rather than allowing them to just get lucky once and move on; this implies that checkpoints should be as infrequent as is reasonable. Mario games split the difference by offering one checkpoint halfway through each level, preserving the arduousness but not being a dick about it. Circa Infinity has a more dynamic approach: failing sends you back one circle, forcing you to replay exactly one previously-completed obstacle each time you fail. This might not sound like much of a difference, but what makes it interesting is that it allows failures to cascade. If you get frustrated or impatient and you screw up a circle you’ve already completed (or if you lucked your way past a circle the first time and now have to solve it for real), you’ll get knocked back again, and this will keep happening until you calm down and start doing things right (there’s a limit that prevents this from becoming completely obnoxious: some circles are completely safe, so they function as “hard” checkpoints; once you’ve reached one, you can’t get knocked back any farther). Thus, the game does not merely use checkpoints for the sake of player convenience – it uses them to enforce a specific approach to its obstacles.

But these are just minor technical points, you’ll say; they don’t change the fact that this is the same old get-to-the-goal gameplay. True, but the final effect of a game is determined by its individual design choices. So the reason this stuff is important is that it makes Circa Infinity feel like something more than Aestheticized Action Platformer #644. Giving the player advance information and encouraging them to use it makes the gameplay thoughtful in a way that even complex action games rarely are. But execution still matters; some levels have rigid solutions, but this isn’t a puzzle-platformer. So what’s really notable here is that this game achieves a rare synthesis: it requires you to observe and analyze and come up with a plan of action, and then to execute that plan with focus and physical precision. It connects the animal to the cerebral in a way that is not just “fun” but is, frankly, a significant part of what it means to be human.

circa_infinity_trainwreck

Each level also has its own specific conditions, and their progression builds towards the overall effect. The first is a simple introduction, setting up the framework with standard run-and-jump gameplay. You get an idea of what the game is like, but you can pretty much finish it by just flailing around. The second level is more rigidly designed, forcing you to take what you learned in the first and apply it more seriously. You can’t get out of jams by dodging frantically around them; you have to think before you act. In the third level, you control two characters simultaneously on opposite sides of the circle, which requires you to account for both perspectives when deciding how to move. This is when the planning aspect really hits home: the correct path for each level becomes non-obvious, so you really have to keep a sharp eye on the layout of each circle and execute your actions with a plan in mind. Even the basic task of entering the inner circle requires conscientiousness: if you enter from the wrong place or at the wrong time, you might be unable to avoid getting hit.

And that’s where the game peaks. The fourth and fifth levels have the same structure as the third, but simply pile additional requirements on top. These fail to add anything significant to the gameplay; on the contrary, they detract from its effectiveness. There gets to be so much accumulated mechanical cruft that navigating each level becomes simple tedium. Any of the additional mechanics may or may not have been interesting on its own, but piled up like this they just become a mass of annoyances. The experience starts to feel less thoughtful and more mechanical, like filling out a checklist.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the outer rim stops being safe, so planning becomes both more important and less doable. This might have been a great twist if it had been allowed to exist by itself, but nothing introduced in the later levels is allowed to do so; everything being crammed together makes the levels hard in a boring way rather than challenging in an interesting way. The individual mechanics are all viable, but they aren’t taken anywhere. If one level had, for example, been about not having time to plan, and if the stages had been designed with the intent of creating an experience based on this dynamic, then this could have been an interesting effect for the game to explore. (An important aspect of the now-standard Braid framework is that each level has a characteristic mechanic and they don’t overlap; this allows each level to focus on creating one specific effect.) As it is, this failure points to the real heart of the problem: Circa Infinity does not appear to have been designed with any particular intention at all.

I’m not referring to the intended goals of the designer; as a rule, I don’t care about people’s intentions. I am referring to the fact that the game itself evidences a lack of purpose. Each stage records your time and your failure count, and displays these to you when you finish. This is actually quite annoying, because it makes you feel like you’re being graded on your first run through the game, when you’re still experimenting and trying to figure out how things work. More importantly, it strongly suggests that the game is geared toward achievement-heads who only care about getting The Best Score, rather than people who want to have a good experience playing a game.

It’s also entirely typical: in order to compensate for the fundamental hollowness of the basic level-completion goal, players have long been setting extra challenges for themselves, and winning without damage or in the shortest possible time are the two most common examples. In other words, what Circa Infinity is doing here is, lacking any goals of its own to offer, simply falling back on established genre procedures – despite these procedures being directly at odds with how the game actually plays. Remember that stuff I was saying about planning and execution? Well, implicitly rushing the player through the levels via an omnipresent timer is a great way to get them to ignore that dynamic. And remember how well the checkpointing in this game works? Well, treating mistakes as failures rather than opportunities to learn makes that a bit of a moot point.

There are also some ideas that just aren’t utilized wisely. The enemy types are for the most part very simple: some run, some jump, some hover overhead, and in combination they define which routes are feasible. This simplicity aids the game’s planning aspect by making it very clear what you have to deal with. But there’s one oddball, which is, fittingly, the ghost. Ghosts persist through two circles each, though, strangely, the reason they do this isn’t because of ethereality, it’s just because they’re bigger than the other enemies. The point is, ghosts can still get you even after you’ve passed the circle in which they first appear. Once again, this is a potentially interesting idea that is not actually used for anything. It could, for example, have been used to require the player to plan out an approach to multiple circles at once. But because ghosts don’t move, and because getting past them just requires performing an arbitrary action, they’re basically just an annoyance during the planning phase. They become just one more thing to add to the pile of obstacles you have to worry about; they don’t actually require you to play differently.

About that arbitrary action: because ghosts are so big, you have to duck under them instead of jumping over them (because they float above the ground. Look, it’s fine. Metaphors don’t have to be coherent). And this is bizarre, because Circa Infinity does not actually have a duck move. Pressing down causes your character to sort of melt into the circle beneath them, which is how you activate the warp points to move to the inside of each circle. But when you encounter your first ghost, you suddenly have to realize that this move can also be used while you’re not on top of a warp point, and also while you’re moving, which allows you sort of “slide” under the ghost. This is stupid. It looks stupid and it feels stupid. I’m inclined to leave it at that, but I’m also already here, so I guess I might as well explain why this is an actual substantive gameplay problem.

In Mario games, doing a high-bounce off of an enemy gets you more height than jumping normally. This doesn’t make physical sense, but it does make intuitive sense. Bouncing off of an enemy is a more complicated action than simply pressing the jump button, so it feels like you should get more out of it. This is sort of like how in movies there’s a big poofy sound effect whenever someone gets punched in the face. In real life, getting punched doesn’t really produce much of a sound, but it’s kind of a big deal (in that it breaks an implicit barrier), so it feels like there should be a big distinctive sound associated with it. “Enhancements” like these aren’t bad because they’re unrealistic; on the contrary, they’re good things precisely because they’re better than reality – they make more sense. Art is, after all, largely the attempt to make sense of a senseless world.

The problem with Circa Infinity‘s ducking mechanic is that it doesn’t make any particular sense. As mentioned, the way it’s tacitly introduced makes it seem like an unintentional consequence of a completely different mechanic. Which could work, except that this is an abstract game and everything about it is completely arbitrary. This isn’t a case where you’re experimenting within a game world and you find a way to combine your abilities to do something new, or anything like that. It’s just an arbitrary required action that happens to occupy the same button mapping as a different arbitrary required action. Specifically, ducking doesn’t get you anything that jumping doesn’t already provide. Functionally, it’s the same action: you move past an enemy while pressing a certain button that allows you to avoid it. You can duck in Mario games, too, but there ducking is a different type of action than jumping is: you stay still while avoiding an obstacle that’s moving above you. This increases the number of ways in which you can interact with the game world and gives you a different strategy for avoiding certain types of obstacles. In Circa Infinity, ducking is just another dumb thing you have to remember to do every once in a while. It’s also completely static; the only thing it’s used for is getting past ghosts. It doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a structure, it feels like you’re bubbling in the answer on a test.

There are other problems; the boss battles, for one, are just sort of there. Because the game’s effect is dependent on the aforementioned aspects of the level design, the boss battles don’t really add anything; they feel obligatory (especially because there isn’t actually an attack mechanic; “ducking” is repurposed again for damaging the bosses). But all of these things are “problems” only in the sense that Circa Infinity doesn’t appear to have been trying to get them right in the first place. This is a video game, and video games have boss battles at the end of each level. Why would anyone ever try anything else?

circa_infinity_abstract

When I talk about “purpose,” I am not claiming that Circa Infinity should have had some kind of story or message plastered on top of it. I meant what I said earlier: the mindset that the game creates in its best moments is meaningful; it is an effect that goes beyond a simple “message.” This distinction is related to the problem a lot of people have with abstract art. People have the idea that a painting is supposed to be “of” something, and can therefore be judged based on how well it represents the thing that it’s “about.” The Mona Lisa, to take an obvious example, is appreciated for the way it captures a subtle emotional state. Whereas something like a Rothko is “just a bunch of colors”; it doesn’t “represent” anything. But of course every painting is “just a bunch of colors”; even a photorealistic portrait isn’t actually real (neither is a photograph – and neither is the image that you actually see with your eyes). Art doesn’t have to be be representational; what is has to do is affect the viewer. (Really, everyone should understand this point very well, as the most popular art form, music, is almost never representational and almost always operates by creating a direct emotional effect.)

The point of a Pollock, for example, is to get you to look at visual art in a different way, to change the mindset you use to understand paint on a canvas. Circa Infinity works in much the same way: it takes the standard components of platforming and puts them in a new context where they operate differently. It changes the way you think about planning and performing actions in a game – and maybe even in life. Platformers do not require Braid-ification in order to be made meaningful; that’s certainly one option, but a game no more requires a pretentious short story layered on top of it in order for it to mean something than a painting has to represent something in order for it to create an emotional reaction.

This isn’t really a defense of abstract art. A lot of the stuff that winds up in art galleries is made by and for a tiny audience of art weirdos and is only understandable from within the set of expectations and assumptions that constitutes their milieu. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that everyone else is correct to point out that, from their point of view, such art is entirely pointless. It isn’t even a matter of preconceptions; most people simply don’t understand what they’re supposed to be looking at when they see a big blue square in a museum.

Indeed, this is the same problem that almost all video games have: they target only the audience that already understands them. (This is the actual significance of Braid: it challenged people who thought they knew how platformers were supposed to work.) They’re like the opposite of Wittgenstein’s talking lion: they cannot communicate because we already know everything they’re capable of saying. By making tiny adjustments to a conventional framework, they convince themselves that they are moving forward when they are merely pacing around a preestablished perimeter. It is into such a framework that Circa Infinity retreats from its potential. Its focus on pointless challenge, its formulaic structure, and its tabulation of meaningless statistics ensure that everyone who encounters it will either understand it as a typical “hard” platformer or dismiss it as something that is not for them.

No work can appeal to everybody, nor should one try. But there is a line between reaching out towards people and looking at yourself in a mirror. You don’t have to make a statement or light a beacon or raise a battle standard, but you do have to actually pick a direction to move in. Otherwise, you’re just . . . well, you know.

circa_infinity_running

Get good

One of the Big Stupid Debates in video games is whether games should be “hard” or not. The standard framing is that “easy” games are accessible but shallow, whereas the fact that “hard” games require effort and dedication makes them significant experiences, so the question becomes whether games should be “dumbed down” to appeal to more people or whether games becoming easier means losing the things that actually make them important. The reason this debate is stupid is because the answer is obviously not one or the other; games are allowed to be different things. But it also avoids the more important question of what difficulty actually does.

Let’s start simple. Mario and Mega Man are both games where you control a character who can jump, but only one of them is actually about jumping. What this means is that that jumping in Mario games has mechanics: you can jump farther by getting a running start, bounce off of enemies, etc. Thus, challenging jumps have a point to them. A pit that’s too wide to cross with a regular jump requires the player to learn to do a running jump, which then becomes an ability they can employ in the future. The challenge is interesting because it requires you to learn something.

Mega Man, by contrast, is about shooting; jumping just gives you another option for positioning yourself, so it doesn’t need to have its own mechanics. There’s no acceleration; your jump is a one-note action that always has the same potential height and distance. Despite this, there are instances in Mega Man games where you have to make as wide a jump as you possibly can, and the fact that there are no mechanics involved makes this an uninteresting challenge. You just have to keep trying until you get the pixels in exactly the right place, and once you’ve done it you haven’t learned anything. There’s no takeaway that you can apply to the rest of the game. It’s just a bland obstacle that you got past, and now it’s behind you.

The purpose of difficulty, then, is to require the player to exercise game mechanics. If a Mario game were easy enough that running was never helpful, or a Mega Man game were easy enough that you never had to shoot while jumping, then those mechanics might as well not exist. And difficulty is only justified if it actually does this – gives the mechanics a reason to exist. Otherwise it’s just wasting your time.

There is an extreme overabundance of examples where this is the case, to the point where there are several different categories of cliche on this subject alone. A non-exhaustive list includes: invisible flags triggered by talking to some random NPC, missing an item five screens back and being unable to progress without it, waiting for a random number generator to come up with the right value (or failing because a random number generator came up with the wrong value), custom interactions that don’t follow from the rest of the mechanics, secrets hidden in nondescript locations that can only be found by constant wall-hugging, bad controls and unclear graphics of all kinds, pixel-perfect action requirements, button mashing, insufficient information, unbalanced or opaque customization options, misleading guidance, required actions that don’t make sense in terms of the story (or morals, or common sense), and mandatory grinding. These are all examples of pointless difficulty: the game becomes “hard” in the sense that you have trouble proceeding, but it’s not hard for any good reason. There’s nothing you have to figure out or try to do differently. There’s just a big dumb rock in your way that you have to squeeze around.

(The caveat here is that all of these things – even bad controls – can potentially count as game mechanics if the game is actually designed around them. Randomness, for example, is a valid aspect of many designs, but if you’re going to fail the player randomly, that needs to actually be part of the game and not a mere impediment. It works in roguelikes because the player isn’t supposed to be able to win in general; it doesn’t work in Dragon Quest, where failing just slaps a penalty on you and makes you repeat some stuff you’ve already done.)

As an example of the difference, let’s say you’re playing a combat-focused game and so far you’ve been winning fights by just attacking everything as fast as possible. Then you run into a situation where two enemies are attacking you from different directions, so attacking one of them gets you killed by the other. In this case, the problem isn’t that you aren’t “good enough,” it’s that you need a different strategy. Maybe you have to defend and wait for an opening, or reposition yourself so that you can attack safely. In a situation like this, it’s entirely valid for the game to halt your progress until you’ve figured this out, to ensure that you understand that you’re doin’ it wrong. Offering difficulty mitigation options like being able to skip the area or buy upgrades is straightforwardly wrong here, because it allows the player to progress without learning the thing that the encounter was designed to teach them. On the other hand, if you’re in that same situation and you are doing the right thing, but you’re still failing because you’re not pushing the buttons fast enough or you can’t tell where the hitboxes are, then the game is actually wasting your time.

The reason ultra-hard games are generally bullshit is that the point at which this starts being the case comes very quickly. Once the player has figured out what they need to do, the game needs to stop being a dick about it. To take the most infamous example, I Wanna Be The Guy has basically no mechanics, you just move around and try to put yourself where there isn’t something killing you, so there’s nothing to exercise in the first place. Each challenge teaches you nothing but how to get past that one challenge, which makes the “difficulty” of the game a matter of mere time consumption and nothing else. This isn’t to say it’s poorly designed; on the contrary, it’s a very clear game with specific, understandable challenges. It’s just that the whole thing has no reason to exist in the first place (I mean, it explicitly exists as a fetish object; I hope I don’t have to explain why this is a bad thing).

To sum up, difficulty is a matter of function and not preference. Every game has a correct difficulty level, which can be identified as the point at which the game mechanics are being fully exercised but the player is not being jerked around. We can think of this as an adaptation of Einstein’s old dictum about design: a game should be as easy as possible, and no easier.

But we still haven’t approached the real issue. If we accept that the purpose of difficulty is to require engagement with systems, the question becomes: who cares? Why should we bother forcing people to figure out an arbitrary set of rules and interactions?

This isn’t a theoretical question. One of the major trends in game design right now is games that don’t have mechanics. These games generally focus on story directly rather than wrapping it around a conventional genre design. They include Twine games and the type of exploration-based story games that are derisively referred to as “walking simulators” (that term alone shows you how bad the disconnect is: some people cannot conceive of games as anything other than toy boxes). This trend is a justified reaction to the fact that most game difficulty is bullshit. Worse, there’s an extreme amount of cliquishness (to put it politely) around the whole subject; there are plenty of morons out there claiming that games that don’t consume as much time as possible with pointless punishment “aren’t real games.” Rejecting this attitude is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.

What this means is that difficult games need to have something going on that justifies their difficulty – something that it’s for. Consider a sim game where the player has to make decisions about how to invest their resources. There might be a certain long-term goal that the designer wants the player to aim for, requiring them to save up and go without the smaller advantages that easier goals could provide. This could teach the player the values of patience and discernment: deciding what really matters and focusing on it rather than responding to every intervening distraction. And you could just as easily design the same game to teach the opposite lesson: that responsiveness is more important than meticulous planning. Difficulty is what allows you to do either of these things; it’s what makes one choice right and the other wrong. If the player succeeds no matter what they do, then it doesn’t matter what options they have. Without a specific weight behind each available choice, interaction is nothing but an empty mirror reflecting the player’s own preexisting prejudices. The point of art, if that is indeed what we’re talking about, is not to allow you to indulge your preferences in a way that makes you feel comfortable and entertained. It’s the exact opposite: to force you to experience something that you haven’t felt before, something that makes you uncomfortable, or that scares you, or that hurts.

(This is part of a broader problem wherein American culture considers “having it your way” to be among the highest virtues, when it’s actually borderline nihilism.)

But it’s possible for the same game to be equally difficult without being meaningful. If you’re given two seemingly identical choices as to where to invest your resources, and one of them happens to be better than the other for no real reason, the game can still be “hard” in the sense that you’ll fail if you make the wrong choice, but the choice doesn’t matter in any way other than the game giving you a pat on the head for getting it “right.” A game where you can make all the right choices without understanding why any of them are right is obviously hollow. RPGs, which tend to be among the worst-designed games, are often completely arbitrary in this regard. One attack will be better than all the others, not for any real reason, but just because the random mess of equations on the backend happens to resolve itself in one particular way.

So, difficulty is only justified if it’s based on mechanics, but the mechanics themselves are only justified if they actually mean something. This isn’t any kind of radical interpretation; it’s something we understand intuitively about every other art form. When we refer to a book or movie as “challenging,” we’re not talking about the same thing that we’re talking about when we talk about games. We’re talking about something that actually matters. Everybody understands the difference between a book which is hard to read because it’s trying to express something difficult and a book which is shallow but overwritten because it’s trying to make itself look like a big important art thing. This distinction is what the negative connotation of the term “pretentious” refers to. And most game difficulty is pretentious in this same sense: it gives the appearance of depth when there’s actually nothing there.

Nobody complains about Ulysses being hard to read, because it’s clear that that’s part of the point, and if you’re not into it you’re free to read something else. For games that are correctly difficult, implementing an easy mode makes about as much sense as rewriting Ulysses in plain English. But vanishingly few games are actually like this. The impulse against difficulty is the result of a correct observation: that the vast majority of video game difficulty does nothing but waste people’s time. When people say that they want a hard game to have an easy mode so they can experience the story, they’re usually making a valid claim, because games rarely have anything else going on (plus the story and gameplay rarely have anything to do with each other).

Another way to think of this is that selectable difficulty only makes sense because games aren’t designed well. This is analogous to how swapping out one rhythm track for another in a shitty pop song doesn’t make a difference, because it’s just there to fill space anyway, whereas changing the beat of a song that is actually well-written would ruin it. Having selectable difficulty levels in a game should seem as absurd as having selectable rhythm tracks in a song. Just as good songwriting is the art of turning a succession of noises into something with actual meaning, good design is the art of making mechanics meaningful.

Thinking about things this way broadens the conversation considerably. For one thing, video games are largely fixated on one particular type of difficulty, which is the failure loop. You’re given a challenge, and each time you fail you’re kicked back a bit so you can do it over and over until you succeed. This can be a perfectly valid design if it works according to the criteria we’ve outlined so far, but this one form of difficulty is often taken to be what difficulty in games “is,” when in fact the whole banging-your-head-against-a-wall thing is only one tiny corner in the potential space of game difficulty. We don’t have to let basic gamebros monopolize the concept of difficulty; games can be challenging in meaningful ways. As just a few quick examples:

  • Games can be difficult in the same way good stories are: they can present unusual situations and evoke complex emotions that require effort to understand. Mechanics and interactivity can be used to convey different aspects of the story. So all those “easy” story games are actually harder than “hard” games in the way that actually matters: putting effort into them allows you to get something meaningful out of them. People complaining about story games they don’t understand are actually complaining because those games are too hard for them.
  • You can have a game where it’s easy to win battles but hard to win the war. That is, actions in a game can be easy to execute but difficult to plan. Sim games tend to be like this: instead of immediately punishing you for each mistake, things just gradually get harder as you lose momentum. This allows you to keep playing and experimenting while also organically revealing the pros and cons of your chosen approach. The difficulty, then, can be in figuring out a goal that you actually want to go for rather than merely divining the series of inputs that will earn you a gold star.
  • Some games can be thought of as performances: you always get through them each time you play, but the goal is to learn how to play well, where “well” does not necessarily have a strict objective definition. Rock Band would work this way if it didn’t have scoring mechanics; Rhythm Heaven gets closer, in that you can’t fail mid-song, but it still expects you to play “perfectly.” Speedrunning imposes this kind of difficulty on games that wouldn’t otherwise have it; style and creativity become more important than mere completion. A game could be designed to support performance in a creative way rather than merely tying it to a number.
  • Aesthetics can make actions difficult to complete for emotional rather than mental or physical reasons. The classic example is the end of the last boss fight in Metal Gear Solid 3, where all you have to do is press one button, but the thing that pressing that button represents makes it hard to actually go through with it. This is just an example of this effect being used in one tiny place; imagine an entire game where your actions regularly had this kind of emotional weight.

It also has to be said that the failure loop has a particular dark side, as revealed by recent unpleasant events. What’s always been odd about the Saddest War is the ratio of how obsessive those fuckers are to how little they actually have to be upset about. Like, with other groups of reactionaries you can sort of get why they lose their shit; old-style Christian patriarchy, for example, really is on the way out and fundamentalists really do have to fight tooth and nail if they want to preserve it. But the market for dumb pandering action games isn’t in any danger, because the people doing feminist criticism and making experimental story games are a completely different audience (this is what the “gamers are over” article was actually about: the fact that there are other audiences). So the fervor of these particular reactionaries requires a different explanation, and the particular content of the games they’re so devoted to is the obvious place to look for it. Many Saddest Warriors have explicitly stated that they’ve been “trained” to do what they’re doing by the experience of obsessively overcoming challenges in video games (which, hilariously, is the exact argument that used to be advanced in favor of censoring violent video games), and their actions bear this out: they’re still banging their heads against that same wall, even while basically everything else in society strongly indicates that they’re wasting their time. And while it’s only a tiny minority of players who are acting this way, the unavoidable conclusion is that the failure loop really does contain the danger of getting you stuck in a rut, even when what you’re doing is objectively moronic.

So because “difficulty” is currently taken to be its own thing rather than one component of a worthwhile goal, talking about “necessary” difficulty at this point puts the cart several miles ahead of the horse. The horse is meaning. This is obvious once you recognize that being good at video games isn’t actually good for anything, but some people have trouble getting to that first step.

The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of games right now aren’t actually good enough to compel any particular type of design. If they were, there wouldn’t be a problem. A good book that’s also challenging to read isn’t a problem because it’s worth it, and the fact that everyone understands this is why there isn’t a big dumb debate about it. People make their own individual decisions as to what they want to bother with, and everyone’s happy. In contrast, the people who want easy modes added to hard games so they can play them are wrong, not because there would be anything wrong with doing that, but because the better response to this situation is to find something better to do with your time. And the people who want games to stay hard so that they stay meaningful are also wrong, because difficulty itself doesn’t make an experience meaningful. The fact that people like this derive self-worth from meeting arbitrary challenges is a character flaw that they should be working to overcome rather than defending.

As it stands, the things that are hard about real life – choosing long-term goals based on limited information, dealing with people who are fundamentally different from you, making moral choices within an immoral system – are not only absent from video games, they’re all replaced by their exact opposites. Goals are always given to you, you never have to figure them out. You’re the only person who matters, and everyone else is just an instrument on the way to the good ending. And, worst of all, the system is always right. If there are level-ups, it’s always right to level as much as possible. If there are collectibles, you should always collect all of them by any means necessary. And if there are things that you can kill, you’d better get killing.

Games don’t need to get easier or harder. They need to get good.

Just drifting

So there’s this concept in game design called “verbs,” which are basically all the actions that the player can take in a game. Like, in Mario you can run, jump, duck, fireball, grab turtle shell; in old adventure games you can USE <inventory item> ON <thingy>. That second part, the <thingy>, is the “noun,” which is the object within the game that you’re “verb”-ing. This framework doesn’t work for everything – it’s difficult to apply meaningfully to abstract games, and it’s an awkward fit for sim games, where you’re basically just selecting options off a menu – but, imaginatively speaking, there should be a large variety of potential “sentences” you can form like this, giving games a rich expressive language that can address a wide variety of human concerns. Realistically speaking, not so much. Video games have been and are overwhelmingly concerned with the noun “enemy” and the verb “kill.”

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Hyper Light Drifter is a typical video game that presents itself as a typical video game. You run around fighting enemies and picking up items, working your way towards the big, imposing bosses, and dying over and over again while you try to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not particularly friendly, because it assumes that you’re already familiar with the things that it expects you to do. But it’s made with considerably more care and effort than your typical pointless nostalgic throwback. It uses pixel art, but it isn’t really “retro” – it’s an aesthetic, but it’s not intentionally low-quality. In fact, the graphics are really good. The environments are big and messy, making it feel like the world has some actual weight behind it. The copy/paste effect is largely avoided; different instances of the same structures will have slight differences or be broken in different ways. Most impressively, there are many huge, unique setpieces that add a real presence to otherwise generic areas.

So you’ve you’ve got this rich, mysterious, expansive world to explore, and your only means of interacting with it is to kill things. Aside from a generic “interact” button used to open doors and pick up items and soforth, everything you can actually do in the game is focused on finding groups of enemies and killing them. Verb-wise, it’s basically “move,” “dodge,” “kill.”

Again, there’s enough effort put into this to make it better than it sounds. Attacking and dodging both have subtle, smart mechanics that give the game’s action unusual contours. Your weapons are the typical sword and gun, and the typical distinction here is for them to be useful in different situations: the sword is powerful but dangerous, while the gun is convenient but weak. Hyper Light Drifter makes the obvious but uncommon choice to make the gun strictly better than the sword. It does the same or more damage, and it’s faster in addition to being ranged, so it’s always the preferred weapon. The catch is that you have to charge the gun by attacking enemies with the sword. This makes combat extremely focused: instead of switching between your available actions, you have one line of attack that you have to balance based on your gun’s charge. You have to be competent enough to fight with the sword regularly, and you have to have the judgment to know when to go for quick kills with the gun, and the fact that these are two aspects of the same line of action allows for fast and smooth gameplay.

The defensive side of combat is similarly focused: all you’ve really got is a quick-dash that lets you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. Standard practice here is for the dodge move to just make you invincible while it’s happening, so it can act as a defensive catch-all. This way, whatever kind of attack you’re facing, you can get by it by just dodging at the right time. In fact, the invincibility means you can often dodge into attacks to both avoid damage and wind up in a great position to attack immediately afterwards. But again, Hyper Light Drifter does not make things this easy. The dodge move here is just a movement ability that offers no explicit protection. Not only will dodging into an attack result in getting hit, but even an imprecise dodge away from an attack might not be enough to avoid it, or it might put you in a bad position for the enemies’ next attack. On top of this, the dash itself kind of weak. It doesn’t have much range, and because of how fast the gameplay is you might find yourself under fire again immediately after dodging out of danger. What this means is that you have to actually figure out how to dodge each attack effectively, and be precise enough about it to both avoid damage and put yourself in a position to counterattack. For example, there’s a samurai-like enemy that slowly approaches you and then quickly attacks once it’s at the right distance. You’ll probably get hit if you try to dodge toward or away from the attack, since it’s fast and it has long range. And you can’t just keep your distance, or you’ll never get a chance to attack. What you have to do is dodge precisely so that you wind up to the side of the enemy after it attacks, which will put you out of danger but close enough to follow up with your own attack.

Everything else about the game is equally focused. Each enemy has one simple attack pattern, so you always know what you have to deal with. Damage amounts are small and clearly displayed, so you always know what the situation is. If an enemy has 3 HP, you know you can kill it with one combo; if it has 4, you need to be prepared to retreat after hitting it. If you’ve got an enemy down to 1 HP, you know you have the option of finishing it off with a gun attack and not having to worry about it anymore. Similarly, enemy attacks deal either one or two damage to you, so you always know what you can survive.

The problem with focus, though, is the question of what you’re focusing on, and this is where things start to get a little dispiriting, because all of this violence happens for no reason. The story is intentionally abstract; there’s no text, just the occasional pretty picture to suggest what’s going on (and also the occasional ridiculously overwrought cutscene, which is awfully incongruous in a game with an otherwise minimalist story). But the problem isn’t the technique, it’s the substance, which is to say the lack thereof. There’s no actual reason the enemies in each area are enemies, you just go there and start killing them. Games with lots of text in them get a bad rap for being slow and boring, but it’s this kind of stuff that writing is actually good for: establishing a relationship between characters and the world they live in, creating a context in which the actions you take mean something.

Abdicating one’s responsibility to provide this sort of context can have unfortunate consequences. The “story” in one area is that the native inhabitants have been genocided by, um, some kind of frog ninja clan, or something. There’s a lot of very explicit imagery showcasing the horror of the situation: piles of corpses, heads on pikes, flayed bodies, the whole deal. It’s all quite brutish and upsetting. And so, arriving in the middle of this situation, your response as the player is to murder every living thing you encounter, leave a trail of corpses strewn across the floor, and then strike a coolguy victory pose. “Dissonant” does not begin to describe the effect.

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The issue is not that violence should never be portrayed in games, or even that violence is always wrong. In reality, violence is a complicated subject. Violence can be used defensively or coercively. One application of violence is torture, the living destruction of a human being, and another is mercy killing, using violence to end suffering. The presence of violence makes related choices such as intimidation or pacifism meaningful. But video game violence does not admit any of these complications. The term “senseless violence” exists for a reason, and this is it. The problem with violent video games is actually not the fact that they’re violent, it’s that video game violence is nothing at all like real life violence. It’s thoughtless in a way that nothing real ever is, and that is both the problem and the appeal. When you see an “enemy,” the only thing you have to worry about is killing it. Once you’ve gained proficiency with the controls and learned the enemy’s patterns, you’re done; there’s nothing more you have to think about. You don’t have to consider what the right way to use your abilities is.

Instead of thought, games typically provide what is commonly understood as “challenge.” As a typical video game, Hyper Light Drifter is typical in this regard. Which is to say it’s hard, but not in any way that’s interesting. Actually, the better descriptor is “merciless.” There’s no grace period after getting hit, and many attacks will stun you or knock you down, which will often lead right into getting hit again immediately. One enemy type is actually intentionally designed this way: a bunch of them swarm you at once, and their attack stuns you, leaving you open to an arbitrary number of follow-up hits. There’s really no way to respect a decision like this.

Enemy projectile spam combined with multiple dudes rushing you is a common situation. Healing takes time, so you’ll frequently either get hit immediately after healing or just die before the animation finishes. This is all compounded by the fact that the gameplay is extremely fast. Everything I just wrote and more can happen in the space of about 3 seconds. Bosses in particular rush you like motherfuckers, so your first few attempts at each one will basically be instant losses. This has the annoying effect of requiring a learning curve of figuring out how to not die right away before you get to the actual learning curve of figuring out how to win. And once this happens, it turns out to be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. There aren’t really any complications beyond the basics of avoiding attacks and attacking when you have an opening. Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, you’re done.

Obviously, these things all make the game “difficult” in a general sense, but the fact that there are many different types of difficulty is why it’s important not to lump distinct concepts together under the same word. Difficulty of conceptualization is different from difficulty of execution. Moral complexity is different from optimization. Planning is different from exhaustive investigation. Hyper Light Drifter is game where there is no thinking about what to do or how to do it or why you’re doing it, and there is only mastery of execution.

This compounds the aforementioned problem of senselessness. If the game had some kind of motivation to it, if it made you want to learn how to perform well, there might be some kind of value in it. This is why combining a story with gameplay is such a good idea: it makes action meaningful. As it is, though, you’re just going into each area and scouring the life from it, for no reason. It’s difficult to think of anything less meaningful than that.

Again, the violence is not the problem. Violent stories can be meaningful, and senseless gameplay doesn’t suddenly become interesting when you take the gore out of it. In fact, Hyper Light Drifter itself makes this point quite clearly, because the non-violent aspects of the game are equally senseless. Besides killing everything, the other main activity in the game in searching for secrets, and this shares the same lack of logic that the violence does. What will happen is you’ll notice a platform off to the side or a break in the trees or something, and you’ll go over there, not for any real reason (there is, again, no motivation for any of your actions in this game) but just because you’re playing a video game and video games have things hidden in places like this.

I’ve prepared some examples to show just how little sense this makes. Take a moment to inspect the following screenshot:

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See the gray scraps in the lower left? Those indicate that there’s actually a passage there rather than a wall. Now try this one:

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See the same scraps in the center right? Same deal, right? Nope. That one’s just a wall. One more:

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See how the path along the floor branches off to the right? Pretty clearly indicates that someone built a path there, and you just can’t see it because of the camera angle, right? Again, no. Just a path leading into a wall for no reason. Pretty much everything hidden in the game is like this: there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so you just have to obsessively check everything. Sometimes enemies coming out of a wall means there’s actually a passage back there, and sometimes it’s just randos comin’ outta nowhere. There are even a number of cases where just standing in a nondescript location will cause a little symbol to appear over your head, indicating that you can press the “interact” button to make some floating platforms appear out of nowhere. It’s all senseless.

And there is such a thing as sensible exploration. In fact, it isn’t particularly hard to get this right, you just have to treat exploration like it’s actually a part of the game. In Civilization, exploration matters because it has a cost. You have to spend resources you could be using on other things, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything good, so you have to make do with whatever comes up. In Metroid, exploration has mechanics. You have a variety of tools available that allow you to interact with the environment in specific ways, which makes exploration a matter of figuring out how to get places rather than merely poking at every wall just in case there’s something there.

And the other half of exploration is, again, the context in which it makes sense. And, again, Hyper Light Drifter has none. It is not the case that, for example, you’re in a library looking for a particular book, and you see a passageway behind some shelves, so you explore it looking for a hidden area. In fact, there is a library in the game, but your only business there is to pass through it on your way to continuing to kill everyone. In fact, there are even some library books on the floor that are in your way, so what you have to do, just as when you encounter any other type of obstacle, is to attack and destroy them so that you can proceed. I found this to be a particularly provocative aesthetic choice, as I am of the school of thought that considers book burning to be one of the great crimes against humanity. Perhaps this is a less universal viewpoint than I had assumed.

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The goal of the game is to find enough magic triangles in each area to open up the magic elevator that takes you to the last boss, which you then kill, and then everything’s over. But the only reason the last boss is the last boss is that it’s a big spooky shadow monster, so of course you’re supposed to kill it. And the only reason collecting the magic triangles is your primary goal is that, you know, it’s a video game, so obviously you’re supposed to run around and collect everything that’s not nailed down. Some of the magic triangles appear to act as power sources for the areas they’re in – the lights go out after you take them – which only serves to make the actions that the game requires of the player even more bizarre. Like, the person destroying the power grid for no apparent reason is pretty obviously the bad guy, right?

And where the game isn’t incongruous, it’s sterile. In one area, you find a lab full of monsters and robots and robot monsters, and it’s all just sort of there. It’s all spectacle and no interaction; you can’t disable the machines or figure out what’s going on or anything, it’s just a bunch of scenery, imposing and flat. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a diorama.

One thing that seems like it should be interesting is the fact that the protagonist suffers from a terminal disease, such that you occasionally have to stop moving and cough up blood for a little while. This raises a number of questions about how you’re going to interact with the game world. Perhaps there will be times when you’re too weak to fight, forcing you to surrender? Maybe there’s some sort of medicine or resource you need to find in order to manage your symptoms? Or maybe the protagonist goes through the game acutely aware of the fragility of life, compelling her to avoid killing and show mercy whenever possible? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Once you’re done coughing, you can get right back to slaughtering everything. And then you die at the end, which I guess is sad, or something.

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I get that this is all beside the point. The developers didn’t think about any of this, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to either. Considering how niche this game is, maybe I’m the only one who cares. But remember: Hyper Light Drifter thinks it’s a typical video game, and the problem is that it’s right. It’s the kind of obsessively inaccessible work that ought to be understood as niche, but given the current situation of video games, it actually is the kind of thing that its audience thinks of as “normal.” It wouldn’t be playable otherwise; there’s no explanation for any of your actions and no way to know what to do, except that the stuff you have to do is the same stuff you always do in video games. There are complicated mechanics for killing, and one generic “interact” button for everything else. There are big fancy graphics that don’t matter, because they’re just backdrops and not actual objects in the world. Conversing with another living being receives only the bare minimum representation, while chopping the heads off of goblin monsters is illustrated with lavish animations. A typical video game is one that’s complicated without being thoughtful, evocative without being meaningful, bloody without being human.

The mindset that this game requires you to inhabit is genuinely disturbing. You have to view the world as an adversary, something to be hacked through as you lust after pickups like a starving dog. You have to act like an animal, and not even the good kind of animal that gets to just eat and fuck all day long. The kind that stares with dull eyes at whatever happens to enter its field of vision, that inhabits the world as a creature of mere sustenance, that can’t think.

I mean, I’ve been here before, okay? I understand why this game exists. When I got to the first boss I died instantly, and then I died slightly less instantly a few more times. I experimented with the mechanics to make sure I had a handle on how they were supposed to work. I memorized the progression of its attacks and came up with a strategy for avoiding each one. I tried attacking it at every possible opportunity to see when I could do so without getting hit. And a few dozen tries later I barely killed it by using my last two bullets after noticing it was almost out of health. A lot of people can’t deal with things like this, especially with the audience for games having radically expanded, but I can. I just don’t care anymore. It’s typical. My ability to “overcome” “challenges” like this is not a virtue, it’s a vice. Difficulty needs to be for something; bashing your head against a wall is not a recipe for revelation, and putting up with it is not a recipe for being a decent person.

I’m honestly not even upset about any of this. I’m just sad. A lot of effort was put into this game. It’s precise and intelligent and beautiful. Playing it takes real effort; you have to pay constant attention, explore without guidance, and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. You can’t finish it without coming to a real understanding of the mechanics and genuinely improving in skill. And in the end, all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.

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Every step you take, I’m there

I’ll spare you the suspense on this one: In Between is an attractive, enjoyable, well-made game, and it’s a failure. It has strong, distinctive aesthetics and solid level design, and it uses these things in an attempt to convey a serious, relevant message using game mechanics. The bad news is that the significant word in that last sentence is “attempt.” The good news is that the game fails thoroughly enough to be deeply instructive.

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The story concerns a man with terminal cancer facing up to the inevitability of his own death. The levels you play through represent his mental journey from shock to acceptance, with each chapter using different types of obstacles to symbolize different stages of the journey. At a basic impressionistic level, this is all very convincing. The backgrounds and the music impart a dull, haunted feeling that puts things in exactly the right emotional space. Some levels feature darkness as an obstacle, and this is portrayed with excellent visual precision. You can feel confident moving halfway into the black, as the graphics make it very clear where the actual danger line is without being obtuse about it. One particularly notable effect is the failure animation, where the screen splits into shards before reforming at the last checkpoint. The slightly jarring feel of this is like running up against a painful idea and mentally recoiling from it. It also works really well in terms of gameplay, since it’s a quick, sharp animation that provides a mental reset and is also engaging.

The story is conveyed through first-person narration, which has a lot of positive effects. First, it solidifies the fact that this is a personal journey that this guy has no choice but to deal with in the space of his own mind. Second, it meshes the story with the gameplay, since you’re going through the levels with the voice sounding in your head. Finally, the voice acting itself is convincing and adds an element of gravitas to the proceedings, even though the substance really isn’t there in the writing.

Easy though it is to make this accusation, the game just has nothing to say about its subject matter. The writing is nothing but bland bromides and generic slice-of-life vignettes, presented uncritically and completely unmined for insight, and in the end, having built up nothing with which to actually form a conclusion, the game finally rattles off some new age horseshit about how we all turn back into stardust when we die or whatthefuckever. Apart from its aesthetic offensiveness, this is ultimately uninteresting. That everything dies is just a fact; death is only a problem in the specific case. This is why one death is a tragedy while one million deaths is a statistic. Death is only meaningful if life is worth living, and the game doesn’t actually show us anything that implies that that’s the case.

Crucially, the game needs to make us feel something about the main character, to get to know him at least a little so that his death actually imparts a sense of loss. This doesn’t happen. His story is sketched in the broadest strokes, as a series of disconnected cliches. He has a strained relationship with his father, he’s stuck in a dead-end job, he loves his wife and daughter. That’s about it, and none of these things really gets developed much beyond the basic outlines. In particular, we learn absolutely nothing about the man’s relationship with his wife, and this is a huge problem, because this is supposed to be the most important thing in his life, and she’s the person most impacted by his untimely death. Any detail at all about how these two people got together or what they share with each other would have done wonders, but we get nothing. It’s the heart of the story, and it’s left hollow.

Of course, there’s a sense in which the man’s specific circumstances aren’t the point, as what’s he’s dealing with is the one true problem that every living being has to face up to sooner or later. That’s probably why the writing is as broad as possible: as an attempt at universality. The problem is that’s not how that works. The more you generalize, the less you give people to hold on to. A completely universal story is one that’s completely inapplicable to anyone’s actual circumstances. Paradoxically, it’s by being as specific as possible that you make your work relatable (this is why James Joyce always wrote about Dublin, for example). I mean, it’s not that much of a paradox; the concept of expressing the universal through the particular is like Art 101.

To the point, In Between didn’t actually make me feel anything about death, and I can assure you that I am highly susceptible to emotional manipulation in this regard. I really doubt that anyone involved with this game has ever actually felt the icy hand of oblivion clawing at their heart. I can’t imagine that anyone who had would allow the subject to be treated so bloodlessly.


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As for the gameplay, In Between is a puzzle-platformer, which by itself is somewhat sigh-inducing. The success of Braid has meant that every joker who wants to make a Serious Art Game does so by rigging together a bunch of puzzles and then slapping a layer of half-baked pretentiousness on top of it. See, the fact that Braid chose this genre was not a coincidence: the puzzles in Braid are relevant to its theme in a meaningful way, and so is the fact that it’s a platformer (I’m going to write a big pretentious post about this sooner or later, so get hyped).

Now, In Between‘s level design is actually very good. The central mechanic is the ability to change the direction of gravity at will, which is clever (though meaningless), and the controls are surprisingly fluid considering how potentially awkward it is. There are a few obstacles where it’s just a matter of dodging past them at exactly the right time, but for the most part the solutions are logical rather than twitchy. Though the gameplay is based on the typical challenge/failure/retry loop that is endemic(/pandemic) to the medium, failure is usually a matter of not thinking things through rather than accidentally running into a obstacle. In this particular case, though, the use of the failure loop is a bit of a strange choice. Consider: isn’t it odd for a game about facing death to use death itself as a mere convenience mechanic? Doesn’t this convey precisely the wrong impression, that death isn’t a real thing? Doesn’t it feel wrong to be playing a game about a man afraid of death and to constantly be throwing that man into pits of spikes, only for nothing to actually happen? This is where the problems with the story start to worm their way into the rest of the game: since In Between doesn’t really know what it’s trying to say, it has no basis from which to choose relevant mechanics.

There are a couple of early clues as to what the fundamental problem is here. First, the game has spikes in it. Spikes are the archetypical Meaningless Video Game Obstacle, dating back to at least Mega Man, where spikes were somehow the ultimate weapon against a robot. The reason spikes are used to fill this role is that they’re obvious: they’re simple and pointy, so they connote “bad thing” at the lowest possible resolution (the game VVVVVV, as the title indicates, deliberately exploits this fact for aesthetic purposes). Hence the problem: “avoid bad thing” is not enough of a framework for meaningful action, and it doesn’t work at all if you’re making a game specifically about a bad thing that cannot be avoided.

The other clue is the fact that the chapters are based on the Kübler-Ross stages of grief. I mean, for god’s sake. You can’t possibly expect to be able to say anything meaningful using perhaps the single most overplayed bit of pop-science dumb-downery as your framework. The only explanation for the fact that this is the horse the game chose to hitch its wagon to is that it has no idea where it’s going.

So, while the game makes a decent attempt at tying its mechanics to its theme, the fact that it has nothing to say means it ends up being excessively literal-minded. Each chapter has a few lines of narration implying the relation between the mechanics and the theme, but they’re always a stretch. For example, a level where you have to use switches to open doors has the narrator say, “Things change. Pathways that were open are now closed.” Which is a literal description of the gameplay that also kind of sort of seems like it maybe has some deeper meaning, except that it doesn’t. I mean, the whole point of the story is that there isn’t actually a path for this guy, right?

This is actually really important, though, because this attempt gets to the heart of how video games can be made meaningful to people. Designing mechanics with thematic significance in mind, such that the gameplay actually does the thing that it means to express, is exactly the right thing to do, and too few games are doing it. So it’s not enough to write In Between off as being “not good enough” here; we need to understand exactly why and how it fails in order to figure out how to get this right.


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Denial

Each chapter of In Between introduces a new mechanic that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s theme. “Denial” is represented as a big wall of darkness that advances on you when your back is turned, and recedes when you’re facing it. As a metaphor this is coherent enough: the truth will eventually overtake you if you turn away from it, so you have to “face the darkness” in order to be able to resist it.

But the actual gameplay here doesn’t really work. All you have to do in each level is get to the goal, and the darkness doesn’t actually get in your way or anything, so all you really have to do is move fast enough so that you can turn around before you get overtaken, which . . . is really the opposite of what’s supposed to be going on here, right? Rushing through something is basically the opposite of facing up to hard truths. Conceiving of denial as an obstacle that you have to overcome on your way to something else is exactly wrong: the point of denial is that the thing itself must be faced.

This is the first symptom of the fundamental problem that all the levels have: the game is about trying to come to terms with things, and navigating a level to avoid the obstacles and get to the exit is a totally incoherent metaphor for this. Because, you know, you actually win each level, which is not at all what happens when you’re actually dying (i.e. always).

So, okay, this can be fixed though. What would make sense here is if facing the darkness were the actual goal. First of all, it never really feels like you’re “denying” anything, so it would actually make more sense for the darkness to not be a threat in the early levels, so you can start out by ignoring it. Then, in order to convey the theme of “facing the darkness,” the later levels would have to change things such that facing the danger becomes how you complete the level rather than merely something you do on the way to completing the level. For example, you could have to explore each level thoroughly in order to banish the darkness from every corner, and doing so would expose you to dangers that you could otherwise have avoided. As the game actually is, though, the way you finish these levels is by ignoring the darkness most of the time and just focusing completing the level normally, only turning around at certain points where the darkness becomes a problem. The gameplay actually encourages you to remain in denial.


in_between_anger

Anger

“Anger” is by far the laziest chapter, thematically speaking. Anger is represented as big red orbs that kill you if you touch them, and that’s about it. Unlike in “Denial,” there’s not even any new behavior required here. The anger orbs are just another obstacle, and you avoid them just like you avoid the spikes. As a result, the levels create no emotional impression relevant to what the chapter trying to convey.

There is a slight complication, which is that some of the anger orbs move around in response to certain actions, so sometimes you have to shift them around in order to open up a path. Gameplay-wise, the problem here is that these behaviors are arbitrary, which makes the whole thing an exercise in uninteresting trial-and-error. But this also fails to elevate the levels thematically. Again, a literal-minded narration cue attempts to tie the gameplay to the theme: “there must be a way to control the anger, or to avoid it.” So having to move the orbs around is meant to represent “anger management.”

But even when you have to move the orbs around, they’re still just obstacles, and an obstacle is not the type of thing that anger is. Anger isn’t something external that prevents you from reaching a goal; it comes from inside you, and what’s scary about it is that it feels right. I mean, even without any analysis, it’s obvious just from playing these levels that they don’t feel anything like anger. This chapter wouldn’t have made it out of alpha if the developers had just listened to their feelings.

So, since anger comes from within, since it’s something that affects your own actions, it ought to be represented not as an external obstacle but as a player ability. It would have to be something powerful, something that feels good to use. Since this is a platformer where you have to navigate around obstacles, the obvious thing would be an ability to destroy parts of the level so that you don’t have to deal with them. You could blow away some spikes, or punch a hole in a wall and just walk on through to the exit.

The other half of the problem is the same as in “Denial”: there’s supposed to be a progression here, the protagonist is supposed to be working through these feelings, but the obstacles remain mere impediments to the goal the entire time. In order to portray the protagonist changing his perspective, the means of navigating the levels would also have to change. Specifically, indulging your anger would eventually have to backfire. The later levels could be more intricately designed, such that trying to break through them would actually make them uncompleteable. The player would learn how to be careful about using their ability, to think before acting, to control their anger, before finally completing the last level without using their anger powers at all, but rather accepting the world as it is.


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Bargaining

“Bargaining” is the most successful chapter, because it’s the only one where the new mechanic is something other than a new type of obstacle. You control two characters at once on a split screen, and you have to maneuver them both to a point in the level where they can come into contact – each level is completed when the two characters touch. So this is also the only level where the actual goal is changed to match the theme. Also, the second character’s controls are reversed, which adds a nice aesthetic touch: the two halves of each level feel like opposing fragments, with a tension between them that you have to balance carefully while moving gradually forward, until you finally achieve a synthesis where the parts negate each others’ flaws and become whole.

The problem is that the thing I just described there isn’t what bargaining is. The struggle to harmonize opposing parts has a different name: reconciliation. Bargaining is almost the opposite: it’s when you’re trying to get something or get rid of something at any cost. But the only thing to say about bargaining in the face of death is that it doesn’t work. You could probably work this into the gameplay somehow, but I think the developers actually had the right instinct here: reconciliation in the face of death is a much richer subject. Again, sticking to shallow pop-science models = not that great for artistic expression. By inadvertently abandoning the model here, In Between comes very close to succeeding in spite of itself.

But it’s that very success that allows the flaws with the game’s story to come creeping in. Even if you’ve got good mechanics, you still need to connect them to the thing that they’re supposed to represent. And if you don’t actually write a story where there’s something there to connect to, you’re just reaching out into thin air. In this case, all we really learn about the dying man is that he feels bad about leaving his family behind. There’s just nothing there to be represented.

When I said that you control “two characters” in this chapter, that was actually a bit of wishful thinking. You control the main character and like a ghost version of him, or something. It’s kind of funny: it’s like the designers were subconsciously aware that they had nothing to represent here, so they put in something that actually symbolizes a lack of representation. What’s less funny is that they had a real solution right under their noses. In the cutscene introducing this chapter, the screen is split between the dying man and his wife, running home to meet each other after his diagnosis comes in. So, since we’ve established that the point here is that this guy has to think about people other than himself, that even in death, there’s no escaping the web of human relationships, isn’t it pretty fucking obvious that the second character here needs to be one of those people? Most obviously, his wife? I mean, you can stick to the conceit that this is all happening inside the guy’s head by making it like an afterimage of the person or whatever, but if the point here is that this guy needs to reconcile his own trauma with the needs of his loved ones, isn’t it thematically required for those people to actually be present in the gameplay?

I’m going to go out on about half a limb here and say that the problem is sexism. Recent events have indicated depressingly that a female player character with a purpose other than adolescent sex appeal is just a bridge too far for some people. Guess what though: sexism isn’t just a moral issue, it’s a quality issue. It is not at all the case that “inclusiveness” is a form of “censorship” that “dumbs down” games. Quite the contrary: games cannot be made correctly until this problem is solved, until the other half of humanity assumes its place as player characters. As In Between itself demonstrates, a man’s story cannot be told without accounting for the subjectivity of women.


in_between_depression

Depression

“Depression” is dishearteningly similar to “Denial”: it’s a big wave of darkness that you have to avoid. When you wind up representing two different concepts in almost the same way like this, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your chosen means of expression. Also, I think we can do a little better than representing “dark” things as literal darkness. Anyway, the difference is that to get through the depression-darkness you have to move between pockets of light, just like how when you’re actually depressed you have to find the little things in your life that make you feel better and focus on them in order to keep moving.

So this works fine, mostly, except for the game’s lack of specificity again rearing its ugly head. We never actually learn anything about what makes this guy depressed (beyond the obvious) or what makes him happy, so the whole enterprise comes off as hollow. What you actually do in these levels is move glowing boxes around to create lighted areas you can move through, which really doesn’t feel like managing depression. It feels like making whatever arbitrary moves are available so that you can get through a video game level.

I’m really not asking for much here. All that’s really needed is for the light-producing tools to portray something the guy likes, and to behave in a relevant way. Given that this game is about a very practical real-world experience, it’s inappropriate to try to convey it using generic abstract video game objects. A little bit of representation goes a long way.


Acceptance

“Acceptance,” appropriately, is an epilogue rather than a chapter. It consists of a series of trivial rooms that repeat in a loop. One of the rooms has spikes in it, but they’re not in your way, so you’ll never hit them unintentionally. The only thing you can do is “accept death” by deliberately killing yourself.

Straightforward enough, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually make sense. Killing yourself is not the same thing as accepting death. Indeed, because killing yourself is the only way to finish the game, doing so is actually the goal, i.e. the thing that you’re supposed to do, so you’re not actually “accepting” anything. This turns dying into something you do, rather than something that happens to you without your consent. In order for the concept of “acceptance” to actually be applicable, you would have to somehow be required to give up on finishing the game. It really doesn’t count as acceptance if you get an achievement for it. (Actually, there’s also an achievement for going through the “Acceptance” levels several times without accepting death, which I believe establishes a new state of the art in Not Getting It.)

The disease here is the idea that a game must be “finishable,” that it ends when you’ve done “100%” of everything there is to do. So the puzzle-platform framework, where the game consists of a series of challenges and it’s over once you’ve cleared them all, is fundamentally at odds with In Between‘s intended theme. A more appropriate framework would be something like a roguelike, where’s there’s a wide variety of potential things to do, but each playthrough is limited in some way, so you can never get everything at once. The game would eventually end on you of its own accord, while you still have unfinished business.

This would also be a great chance to develop the story. In what little of it there actually is in the game, we learn that the protagonist’s untimely death leaves him with a number of regrets. He never fully reconciled his feelings about his father, he was never able to pursue his dream of being a writer, he’s worried about leaving his wife alone (the wife gets zero character development. I’m telling you, sexism at work), and he’ll never get to see his daughter grow up. So, what could be interesting here is if the later levels in the game gave you the opportunity to explore some of these relationships, but not all of them. There could, for example, be some kind of stamina mechanic that depletes as you play levels, with the game ending once you run out. This would force you to make choices about what to do with your remaining time. It would close off important paths that you wanted to take. It would leave you with regrets.


in_between_death

I’m not picking nits here. There’s a specific and important reason for all of these problems, which is that In Between chooses a means of expression that doesn’t work for the thing that it’s trying to express. It takes standard avoid-obstacles-and-get-to-the-goal platformer gameplay, tightens the design into the form of puzzles, and then paints over it with a series of shallow, literal-minded metaphors. But even if that coat of paint were more evocative, the actual moving parts underneath it don’t move in the right direction. The gameplay portrays the wrong thing – it uses completionist solution-finding gameplay to portray a situation in which there’s no such thing as completion and there are no solutions. This is as wrong as writing an EDM song about the good old days before technology ruined everything (ignoring the possibility of irony, which is obviously not what’s happening here). The means don’t lead to the ends, and this disconnect, irrespective of the quality of the writing, silences the game before it has a chance to speak.

Again, the reason In Between is a puzzle-platformer is because that’s what Braid was, and everyone agrees that Braid is a meaningful game, so obviously if you want to make a meaningful game you should do the same thing. More fundamentally, the misconception here is the idea that any means of expression can potentially convey any message – that one can communicate as though by Mad Libs, taking an existing design and switching out the words. The misconception is that “story” and “gameplay” are separate things.

A work of art is an aesthetic object; once created, it steps in and the creator leaves. The intent vanishes behind the act. But to suppose that this fact robs art of its ability to communicate is to lose sight of the real good while looking for the imaginary perfect. On the contrary, we’re fortunate to live in an ordered universe, one where specific actions have specific effects, and where intent cannot be directly transmitted. This forces us to engage with reality. In exchange, we lose the ability to inhabit the realm of pure ideas, which is a good deal, because that place is fucking boring.

Of course, reality involves danger, and the danger of communication is that you can make an honest go of it and still trip over your own tongue. One’s chosen method of expression comes in between the intent and the interpretation, and once it’s in position, it takes on a life of its own. Galatea was not an anomaly – any work, once encountered, begins to communicate of its own accord. And unless you’re really sure that it’s something you want speaking for you, it’s going to make you look like a fool.

Filled with determination

If you follow these things, you may be aware that Undertale has some kind of big spooky skeleton secret hidden in it that nobody’s figured out yet. There was a recent update which appeared to be a trivial bugfix but which apparently contained a new hint to the mystery, and now everybody’s trying to figure out what it means, blah blah blah. This isn’t actually interesting. Whatever “theories” people come up with about this don’t amount to anything, because they’re guesses concerning what is probably about a tenth of a plot point in an already shallow story. I’ve got a better theory: Undertale is a honeytrap for nerds.

undertale_screen

When I wrote about Undertale before, I mentioned that one of the great things about it is that, once you’re done with it, it encourages you to stop playing. This isn’t just cute, it’s important, because of circumstances. See, if you’re writing a book and you want to make it a page longer, you have to actually write another page. In a video game you don’t have to do that. You can make the game longer by just being like “go collect 5 platypus tails” and then the player has to go do that, even though you haven’t actually added anything to the gameplay (this is pretty much what’s going on whenever the words “procedurally generated” make an appearance). This possibility is a bad thing. The way books and also every other medium except games work is metaphysically superior: in order to occupy more of the audience’s time, you have to actually put something in that is at least potentially worth that time.

For this and other reasons, video games are generally not designed with the understanding that the player should get something out of them; on the contrary, they are largely concerned with occupying time. Undertale is not like this: it wastes a little bit of time on wandering around and solving dumb puzzles, but for the most part the stuff you do in the game is actually relevant to what the game is trying to be about. Of course, it’s far from alone in this regard, but it’s still a significant countermeasure against a very pervasive and very bad trend. As I explained in the other post, I don’t really feel that Undertale has all that much to offer, but it is designed such a way that what it does have to offer is presented to the player in a straightforward and non-time-wasting manner. All well and good.

What I didn’t mention before was the contradiction embedded in the present topic: Undertale also contains a bunch of goofy hidden easter egg nonsense with vaguely-implied quasi-significance to the plot. The details aren’t super important here, but basically Undertale keeps track of pretty much everything you do and makes certain subtle changes throughout the game in response. The funniest example is that, early in the game, you have the opportunity to both hit on a character and to refer to her as “Mom,” and if you do both she’ll call you out on it later. So mostly it’s just jokes like this in the dialogue, but there’s also apparently some sort of secret counter that causes certain NPCs and messages to show up, or something, I don’t really care. The point is that finding this stuff requires a huge amount of behind-the-scenes-ery and determined investigation into things that don’t appear to matter at all, and the implicit message that this is worth your time directly contradicts the explicit message that, once you’re done with the game, you should be done with it. But this is only the case if the same people are receiving both messages.

I played through Undertale twice in order to get the good ending, which I had to do because I fucked up the first time by not realizing you can avoid killing the first boss. This was clearly intended; the beginning of the game is actually very well-designed in this sense. You’re given the tools you need to resolve the encounter peacefully, but you don’t necessarily know how to use them yet, and the dialogue surrounding the encounter strongly implies that there’s no good way to handle it. As such, the most likely player behavior is that you’ll kill the boss while feeling uneasy about it, and thusly be resolved to get it right the next time around once you know for sure that it’s possible.

The reason this is important is that playing through Undertale a second time is super fucking boring. As previously explained, the game’s mechanics are as shallow as possible, and this is where it really hurts: the game’s only draw is its novelty. This is in addition to the fact that there’s just a stupid amount of dialogue that you have to page through on every screen. Thus, a second playthrough ends up having two effects. First, you’ll notice that some dialogue is slightly different based on some seemingly trivial choices you can make. This demonstrates that there’s a lot of very subtly hidden stuff in the game, but the fact that the game is still completely linear makes it clear that none of it actually affects anything. The second is that, by the time you finish, you’ll be super fucking sick of the game, so when it tells you that you’re done and you can stop playing, you’ll be more than happy to take it at its word.

Unless, that is, you’re the type of person who imbues trivial differences and vague hints with an undeserved level of significance, who determinedly mines for “content” and “completion” regardless of whether you’re actually getting anything out of it, who goes on message boards to look up instructions on how to do everything to avoid the unsettling feeling of having your own experience. In other words, if you’re a nerd.

Related to the problem of being able to artificially extend the play time of video games is the problem that you can hide things in them. In a book, for example, you can hide meaning in various ways, but you can’t hide the actual text. You can’t “lock” a chapter such that it can only be read if you flip through pages 26-45 in 55 seconds and then read page 12 backwards. In video games, you can do exactly this, and again, this is a bad thing: it prevents players from accessing what’s actually in the game. This has always bothered me: after going to the effort to put something in your game that you think is worthwhile, why would you then go and conceal it such that 99% of your audience will never have any idea it exists?

The only possible answer is that you think the search itself is significant. This could potentially be the case, but consider the type of thing we’re actually talking about here: the way you find secrets in games is generally not by experimenting with the mechanics but by obsessively poking every last thing until you find something. This is not really behavior to be encouraged. Undertale takes this problem well over the top, as the secret in question here is completely invisible in normal gameplay. You apparently have to edit the game files or something, which is about as close to a true waste of time as it gets.

If, however, we assume that the aforementioned contradiction is intentional, then this becomes the point. By keeping its secret bullshit partitioned away from the meat of the game, Undertale only wastes the time of those who are determined to have their time wasted. It’s no coincidence that the “secret” plot involves time travel and super science, while the real plot is about relationships, becoming a better person, and accepting reality. This same dynamic applies to the game’s violent route. As I originally complained, the game provides exactly zero motivation to go down the path of violence, which defangs it as a choice. But again, this becomes the point: because it’s so obviously evil, there’s no reason to go through with it other than “just to do it,” to make sure you’ve “completed” everything, to be the kind of nerd who values making numbers go up over morality. The game also has a hidden “hard mode” which turns out to be fake; it ends abruptly with the suggestion that you should find something better to do with your time, making the point that you’re not supposed to be doing this. In summary, Undertale gives each player what they deserve. The judgment you bring to the game becomes the way it judges you; the measure you mete is measured to you again.

undertale_better

Given the current situation, this particular bifurcation takes aim a crucial point. You may have heard that games are undergoing a bit of a “culture war” at the moment, and by “a bit” I mean it’s basically the saddest possible thing. There’s actually a question as to whether games ought to be things that are meaningful to people or piles of numbers and equations for nerds to masturbate over. Undertale responds to this sordid dilemma with a double move: the people who go into it looking for a significant experience don’t have their time wasted, while the babies looking for pointless trivia to obsess over get their bottles. (Again, the problem with this is that the “good” part of the story is completely facile, making it only a weak affirmation. I stand by my original point that Undertale is more clever than it is smart.)

It’s apparent that Undertale hasn’t quite succeeded here, as its popularity has caused the usual suspects to barf out the tiresome “not a real game” accusation. This is because it’s too simple; specifically, it lacks the tediousness and fake complexity that define a “real game.” The reason behind this recurring uproar is that nerds need this kind of thing to feel safe: fake engagement that makes them feel like they’re figuring things out and solving problems when they’re actually just pounding levers in a Skinner box and waiting for a random number generator to come up with the correct value. A game that actually tries to engage them on a personal level without hiding behind “complexity” scares them.

There’s an opportunity, then, for a full manifestation of this approach to deliver a long-awaited coup. By using the dark arts of game design to quarantine nerds within their own desired illusion, forward-looking games can drag this dire medium into the light without having to endure the bile of reactionaries. It’s not everything, but it might just be enough to finally fulfill the command of destiny: kill all gamers.