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. 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. 

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.

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.

F+

Here’s a modern horror story:

“The teacher takes the girl’s paper and rips it in half. ‘Go to the calm-down chair and sit,’ she orders the girl, her voice rising sharply.

‘There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper,’ she says, as the girl retreats.

. . .

After sending the girl out of the circle and having another child demonstrate how to solve the problem, Ms. Dial again chastises her, saying, ‘You’re confusing everybody.’ She then proclaims herself ‘very upset and very disappointed.'”

Let’s briefly set aside the hilarious irony of an irate adult sending a child to the “calm-down chair,” because this is actually important. It’s not about being “mean,” or the teacher “losing control,” or whether the kids are being “terrorized” or need to “toughen up.” It’s about ideology.

That’s why this person is an idiot:

“Some parents had another view. Clayton Harding, whose son, currently in fourth grade, had Ms. Dial as a soccer coach, said: ‘Was that one teacher over the line for 60 seconds? Yeah. Do I want that teacher removed? Not at all. Not because of that. Now if you tell me that happens every single day, that’s a different thing. But no one is telling me that, and everyone is telling me about all the amazing things that she does all the other days.'”

One of the more dangerous things about the internet is that it creates the illusion that “data” just pops up out of nowhere instead of having specific contingent physical sources (also “data” is a conceptual category and not actually a type of physical thing, but that’s another story). In this case, obviously, the assistant teacher would not have been recording this incident unless they already knew that something was up, i.e. this type of thing had in fact been happening on a regular basis.

More than that, though, the fact that this is how the teacher behaves when she has a “lapse in judgment” means that the rest of the time she’s biting her tongue. What we’re seeing here is what she actually believes: that “underperforming” children deserve to be ostracized and humiliated. And the fact that the school supports her means that’s also what the school believes.

Per standard procedure, the New York Times spends the entire article wringing its hands over a bunch of nonsense, then buries the lede right at the end:

Dr. McDonald, the N.Y.U. professor, who also sits on the board of the Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side, said that the behavior in the video violated an important principle of schooling.

“Because the child’s learning was still a little fragile — as learning always is initially — she made an error,” he said in his email. “Good classrooms (and schools) are places where error is regarded as a necessary byproduct of learning, and an opportunity for growth. But not here. Making an error here is a social offense. It confuses others — as if deliberately.”

Whether this is in fact a “principle of schooling” is precisely the issue. As I’m sure you’re aware, what is euphemistically referred to as “education reform” is in fact a major ideological conflict over this exact point. But even this guy doesn’t have it quite right – he’s still framing things as though a child giving an unexpected response is an “error” that needs to be “corrected,” as though “errors” are “byproducts” of growth rather than the substance of growth themselves.

Naturally, since we’re talking ideology here, this confusion is not limited to schooling. Labelling something as an “error” is a pretty obvious value judgment. What we’re actually talking about is what it means for something to be “correct” in general; what, in a practical sense, is the right thing. In the past, we had the idea that “might makes right,” that those who happened to be victorious were by that fact necessarily of superior ability or favored by god or whatever. Despite the phrase now being shorthand for barbarism, this philosophy has one major advantage: the winning party has to actually win. They have to do something to deserve it. Today, we’re enlightened enough that we don’t have to worry about reality anymore. We now live in world where “right makes right,” where what’s right is right by virtue of it being accepted as such and for no other reason, where filling in the bubble labelled “B” on a standardized test is correct if and only if the grading rubric specifies “B” as the correct answer.

Wikipedia, for example. How do you know that the information on Wikipedia is accurate? Well, if it weren’t, someone would have corrected it.

There’s a broad misconception that people only know things that they have been explicitly taught. This is most dramatically demonstrated in the area of language. Children learn their first language (or two) without ever being explicitly taught anything about it. It’s actually not at all clear how it would even be possible to “teach” language to someone who can’t talk; it would be very much like teaching the proverbial blind person to see colors. Yet, as children age, we cling to the idea that they must be educated out of their “errors,” that a language is a big stone tablet of rules against which one checks each utterance for “correctness.” In the saddest case, one reaches adulthood with a disorganized basket stuffed full of “rules” that they then go about waving in the face of anyone who says anything “incorrectly.”

The truth is not that verification implies correctness, but that learning implies error. Language correction is self-contradictory: the fact that you have to tell someone that they said something wrong means that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. If there had been, the error would have occurred organically: they would have been misunderstood. It’s clear that this is how we actually learn things about language: we fail to express ourselves, and then we try again.

(Of course, this only applies to people who are paying attention. We’re all familiar with the type of person who talks so much and so inattentively that they end up creating their own unique mishmash of noises and gesticulations, such that they are able to utter on endlessly without ever intersecting reality.)

The point is that things we are explicitly taught account for probably about 1% of our actual knowledge base. What actually happens is that we have experiences and then we try to create a framework under which those experiences make sense. As such, it’s theoretically possible to accelerate the process, to create a sort of hyper-pedagogy in which the student is constantly barraged with miniaturized interactions designed to create a specific understanding. And by “theoretically” I mean video games.

The basic framework for modern video games is the challenge/failure/retry loop. The historical-material basis for this was arcade games. Arcade games were required to eat quarters, which meant each play session had to 1) provide a dopamine jolt, 2) terminate itself (eat the quarter), and 3) provide an incentive for initiating another session (inserting another quarter). The most popular solution to this equation was something called “extra lives.” Your quarter bought you a certain number of lives (usually 3, a psychologically significant number), and then the game started trying to kill you.

The critical moment comes when you fail a challenge and then have the opportunity to try it again. If the game is at all decently designed, you’ll have some idea of what happened and what you want to try to do next time. So in your typical action game like Metal Slug or whatever, the right thing to do is to hit the enemies with your attacks and the wrong thing to do is to get hit by the enemies’ attacks. So you’ll be thinking about how to position yourself and when to attack and so forth, and you’ll want to try again in order to test these ideas out. By hitting you with this sort of scenario over and over again, the game locks you into whatever its idea of a good time is. Materially speaking, in order for the game to be as short and dopamine-intense as possible, the failure loop happens as often as possible. In other words, games are very educational.

And what’s being taught is the thing that every one of these interactions has in common. You’re presented with a given situation with given rules, and there’s a “correct” set of actions to take that will result in the outcome that has been defined by the game as “success.” Executing this set of actions is the right thing to do. Anything else is the wrong thing to do. In certain extreme cases, progressing in a game will require you to do something that is obviously wrong in terms of narrative, such as aiding an enemy or falling into a trap. In such cases, the game implicitly frames doing the wrong thing as the right thing to do.

So the original problem is obviously that games have mostly been about dumb things like avoiding projectiles and jumping on turtles. And this is still largely the case; increased substance in games has been well outstripped by increased flash and pretentiousness. More fundamentally, though, the material situation has changed. Since games have stopped needing to eat quarters, the “failure” part of the loop has atrophied. Now that we pay for games once and play them until “finished,” failure becomes a mere impediment that may as well be done away with. Instead, games now give the player some actions to perform, reward them for doing so, and that’s it.

But “bringing back” failure isn’t a solution. “Failure” on its own isn’t any more significant than “success.” In fact, there’s currently a countertrend in the form of “ultra-hard” games which jam the failure loop into overdrive, and this isn’t any better. Failing the same meaningless challenge 100 times is exactly as pointless as successfully executing the same meaningless task 100 times, in exactly the same way.

What we ought to be looking for are forms of success and failure that are interesting, that cause you to reassess your situation in some way, to question your assumptions, and to gain new insights. Which is what art is supposed to do. It’s deeply sad that people are so zealous in insisting that games “count” as art, yet so blasé about actually getting them to do the things that art is good for.

Of course, not all games are derived from the arcade model. Sim games, for example, tend to lack explicit goals and thereby make room for interesting failures. SimCity allows you to explicitly sic disasters on yourself just to see what happens. Dwarf Fortress is mostly known for players’ stories of the hilarious catastrophes they’ve suffered. And of course there are pure story games, as well as games that are entirely focused on providing aesthetic experiences. But the failure loop is still at the core of how video games are generally conceived, and these exceptions are often ones that prove the rule. For example, story games often have “correct” choices that you need to make in order to get the “true” ending.

On the other hand, I’d be remiss not not mention that, throughout the history of games, players have often ignored what games are supposed to be about and created their own goals and rules of interaction. The most popular example is speedrunning, which usually involves subverting the normal progression of a game and playing it in a way it wasn’t designed for. This provides heartening evidence that structure isn’t everything, that people can find their own truths even in the midst of the labyrinth. Still, the motivation for finding these alternate paths in the first place is often the poverty of the intended experience. The fact that people can make do with garbage is hardly a justification to keep producing more. On the contrary, this sort of player creativity provides us with new vistas to set out for.

(Games that explicitly support speedrunning have entirely missed the mark in this regard: the point is not to incorporate speedrunning as a new task in the same type of game, the point is that there are different types of games to be designed.)

If connecting all of this to the current state of society seems hyperbolic, that’s probably because it is. Video games are barely doing anything right now. We’re lucky that they’re still in their infancy; the problem is that they’re enfants terribles, and they’re going to grow up. And this may in fact happen sooner rather than later.

Going back to our unfortunate charter school students: what are they actually learning? For a few minutes each day, they are presented with some facts or rules or something that they are instructed to internalize. But every second they’re at school, they are being taught a deeper lesson: that the goal of life is to respond to challenges by producing the right answers. What we’re looking at here is the mentality for which “failure is not an option.” This phrase is, first of all, a category error, because failure isn’t something you choose, but more importantly, it represents an extremely dangerous way to think. It assumes that everything’s been figured out, that our society’s assumed goals are not only correct, but worth any sacrifice.

In education, it’s unavoidable that students will say or do things that a lesson planner could never have anticipated. This is a good thing. They’re children, and they’re human. When it comes to games, inconveniences like these can be abstracted away. The player can be given no actions to perform but the “correct” one, and no tools except those needed to do so. One can then be assured that they will do the right thing. Imagining such a system applied to actual humans is obviously horrendous. And yet, those who think that the purpose of education is to train children to answer correctly are advancing precisely this dystopia – the same dystopia enjoyed by millions as their primary form of entertainment. And so it is that, by an astonishing coincidence, the rise of video games has coincided exactly with the rise of neoliberalism.

When Shakespeare said that “all the world’s a stage,” what he was actually saying was obviously “I’ve got plays on the brain 24/7.” All the world’s an anything if you’re obsessed enough with whatever that thing is. We can just as easily conceive of the world as a game: one in which we are constantly presented with tiny tasks governed by rules of interaction. Every time we act, the world reacts; we get feedback; we learn something. But our actions also create the context in which further interactions happen: we’re designers as well as players. Every second of every day, we are creating ideology, and knowing this gives us a small amount of control over the process. If all the world’s a game, it’s badly designed. But we, as the players, still have a choice. We can choose to go for the high score and unlock all the achievements, or we can choose to play a different game of our own design.

Stay woke

Waking Mars is, well, basically what it says. It’s inventive and original in a way that’s actually fairly heartening. The problem is that it fails to live up to the most significant sense of its title.

Quick political rant: the current Mars exploration fad is a bunch of horseshit. The sheer scale of the endeavor is being vastly underplayed; we’re not getting to Mars, and there wouldn’t be anything to fucking do there if we did. The only people saying otherwise are a) actual hoaxers and b) rich fucks fantasizing about abandoning their responsibility towards the planet they’ve destroyed and ascending to techno-heaven. Whereas all of us without tickets to Magical Space Paradise are going to have to live and die here, regardless.

There’s a reason this is a hot topic, though: we’re starved for glory. Getting to Mars is a goal we can look to for proof that humanity is still capable of greatness. The problem is that the current, greatness-less situation is justified. Our past “greatness” was built on a mountain of corpses, and those ghosts are coming back to haunt us. The kind of greatness we need now is not the kind that involves monuments and Manhattan Projects, it’s the kind that involves responsibility and small, quiet triumphs.

Which should be where Waking Mars comes in, because this isn’t actually a game about Mars exploration. It’s a game about managing an ecosystem.

mars_alive

The idea is that you’re the first person on Mars, and as you explore the caves you encounter these weird alien plantanimalthings, and you need to grow and reproduce them in order to open up each new area. There are multiple different organisms with different attributes and different reproductive strategies, and you have to “research” them yourself in order to find out how each one works.

This aspect of investigation and discovery is what the game really has going for it. You start with no information other than “you’re exploring Mars,” and the situation gradually reveals itself to you as you do so. Rather than being given a set of puzzles with well-defined rules, the majority of the gameplay is figuring out the rules yourself. Furthermore, the explicit objective you’re given is to find your way back to base camp, but this is not the goal of the game. You actually have to ignore this objective entirely and search around in order to find out what’s really going on and what there actually is for you to do on Mars (obvious spoiler alert: it’s aliens).

The combination of exploring the caves and encountering and investigating each new life form gives the game a real sense of vibrancy that’s sadly uncommon. You genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, not in the banal “shocking twist” sense but in the simple everyday sense of encountering the unknown. The actual gameplay mostly involves figuring out how the different types of plants work together, which heightens the effect. For example, one plant type will start to produce seeds when you water it, which can then be fed to a different type of creature to get it to reproduce, and that creature can then be eaten by a third type of plant, which will then produce seeds of its own.

The problem is that that sentence I just wrote is about as far as it goes. Once you’ve discovered how everything works, you find that there’s very little going on other than spawning as many plants as possible. As a result, the game relies on a major crutch: each plant has an associated “biomass” value, and the goal of each area is nothing more than getting the total biomass above a given threshold. There are no unusual conditions to deal with or specific behaviors that you have to trigger, you just have to stock up on seeds and get them plants in the ground.

Defining each challenge as a mere number kills much of the potential gameplay. For example, one type of plant produces water seeds, which can be used to hydrate other plant types. But the water plants themselves provide the smallest amount of biomass, so there’s no reason to ever actually plant them. When you need water seeds you can just go get them from one of the existing plants. This is precisely the problem with framing your game in terms of which number is bigger than the other number: there’s no dynamism. The only worthwhile option is the one with the biggest number attached to it, which means it’s not really an option at all.

This is boring, but the real problem is that it kills the theme. The game is supposedly about ecosystems, but there’s no sense of balance. For example, you can spawn as many of those seed-eating creatures as you want by just continually feeding them seeds, so in some areas the “solution” is to just spawn as many of this one type of creature as possible, which is the exact opposite of how ecosystems work. Early in the game, the player character expresses concern that recklessly growing as many plants as possible could have an adverse impact on the ecosystem. Turns out that doesn’t matter; apparently care is for suckers and ecosystems are just about making bio-numbers as big as possible. What should be an exploration of give and take is instead an exercise in making numbers go up.

mars_numbers

The game’s overall framework also has a coherence problem. Each area is supposed to be self-contained, the conceit being that the plants seal themselves off for self-protection until the surrounding areas have rejuvenated sufficiently. But the way you progress is by collecting seeds from one area and taking them to another area. Managing the reproduction of each plant type is supposed to be part of the gameplay, but you never have to actually worry about this. If you run out of seeds you can just go get them from somewhere else.

The problem is that there are two different types of gameplay being represented here: resource management and puzzle solving. You can’t just hybridize these by mashing them together, because they directly contradict each other.

Part of what defines a puzzle is its resource constraints. If you think of puzzle games like Lemmings or The Incredible Machine, each level in these games gives you a certain number of each potentially available tool, and the challenge is figuring out how to achieve the goal given what you’ve got. If you always had access to everything, there would be no point: you could just do whatever you felt like every time. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough resources, the puzzle is unsolvable. Good design means giving the player enough resources to solve the puzzle without a major headache, but few enough that they actually have to come up with something meaningful.

Waking Mars falls into both traps. If there’s a specific type of seed you need for a certain area, and you don’t have it, your only option is to backtrack and wander around until you find one. In other areas, being well-stocked with seeds trivializes the challenge. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing when you can just throw down as many high-value plants as possible in order to get over the threshold.

In a resource management game like Civilization, on the other hand, you have to take a big-picture view. You know what your current “income” is, what the costs of your various options are, and where your future resources can potentially come from. You can then make long-term decisions based on what you know, while trying to account for what you don’t know.

Waking Mars fails to deliver on this front as well. Since you can always get whatever seeds you need, your resources aren’t actually limited, so there’s nothing to decide. This makes the whole reproductive aspect of the gameplay fall flat. There’s supposed to be a give and take involved in reproducing each plant; for example, some plants have to eat other plants. But because everything is actually unlimited, managing this never actually becomes a decision, it’s always just a task. As it is, Waking Mars gets the worst of both worlds: both the boringness of having to manually collect resources and the blandness of not having any real constraints to deal with.

And this is why these two types of gameplay don’t work together. A puzzle has to be locked down; the ability to bring in outside resources destroys it. Whereas the presence of puzzles in a resource management game is pointless friction that gets in the way of the actual gameplay (imagine trying to play Civilization if you had to solve a puzzle every turn to get your towns to harvest their resources). Certainly, it’s possible to combine these genres, in the sense that anything is possible, but design is a real thing and you really do have to know what you’re doing.

The thing is, either of these approaches by itself would have been thematically significant. Focusing on resource management would have added to the sense that you’re struggling to restore life to a dying planet, while focusing on the puzzles would have emphasized the relationships between the different plants and the complexity of the ecosystem. The game should have picked a gun and stuck to it. Instead, it tries to walk in two directions are once, and ends up stumbling over its own feet.

mars_resources

In the end, the key that really locks away the game’s potential experience is manual interaction. Pretty much everything in the game requires you to be there poking at it for it to actually work. You have to pick up all the seeds and carry them around yourself. Reproducing plants requires you to sit there and collect the seeds before they roll down into a lava pit or something. One type of creature won’t move unless you chase it, which means it won’t feed itself and its predators will never be able to eat it unless you’re there to bottle-feed them.

Since the setup is that you’re on a mostly-dead planet and it needs some intervention to get going again, it’s appropriate for the game to start by requiring you to jury-rig everything. But if we’re talking about reviving an ecosystem, the goal should obviously be to set things up so that they start working on their own. And this just doesn’t happen. The most blatant example is the water plants again. Clearly, the idea is that these plants have a function in the ecosystem: they hydrate the other plants. So it would make sense if you could arrange the plants such that each water plant can reach as many other plants as possible.

But you can’t really do this; the water plants basically just squirt about randomly, and they may occasionally hit another plant, but the possibility of precision just isn’t there. Furthermore, since you can carry the water seeds around and use them yourself, there’s no reason to even care about this (this is exacerbated by the aforementioned fact that you never actually want to plant the water plants. Design is a system; the parts affect each other). It would make a lot more sense if you just couldn’t use the water seeds to hydrate other plants yourself. That way, you would actually have to organize the environment in an intelligent way instead of just stocking up and then poking everything.

And again, this is not just about gameplay: the real problem is that this doesn’t work for the theme. Nature is very much not about manual intervention being required for every little task to succeed. It would have been quite provocative for the game to ultimately reveal that it’s bigger than you, that once you’ve restored the planet’s functions, the majesty of nature takes over and leaves you as just another insignificant individual creature.

mars_research

If we add all this up, we get to the heart of the matter: Waking Mars thinks it’s a video game. There’s actually a lot of other evidence that makes this even more painfully obvious.

You’ve got a life bar and you can technically “die,” although this will almost never happen and it doesn’t actually do anything regardless, since this isn’t an action game. Despite this, there are a couple of pointless “action sequences” that you have to slog through. There’s even selectable difficulty levels, which aren’t prominent, but still: selectable difficulty levels in general are a sign that you don’t know what you’re doing, and it’s particularly bad when they have nothing to do with what the game is actually about.

You get an achievement for “fully researching” each life form, which is exactly how actual discovery does not work. The essence of discovery is not knowing what’s still out there to find. Crossing items off of a checklist is the opposite of a revelation.

The story is established through tons of bland dialog between two talking heads. This is unnecessary, because, as mentioned, the point of the game is that you’re gradually discovering things for yourself. Pretty much none of the dialogue is at all helpful or interesting (as much as I hate to be snide, the fact that the game credits Wikipedia pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the discourse level, science-wise). Also, a very large amount of the dialogue is from an A.I. with the “joke” that it talks like a poorly coded chatbot, which gets old after about four lines and is also an obvious excuse to avoid having to do any real writing. I will mention that the two human characters in the game are a Chinese man and an African woman, which is nice, except that the former is wooden and pensive while the latter is gabby and emotional. You don’t really get points for diversity when your characters are just flat stereotypes.

Finally, there are “multiple endings” in the usual trivial sense, meaning you can choose between two different cutscenes to view at the end. Oh, you clicked on the right button and got Ending #1? Good job. Here’s your achievement. Now click on the left button so you can get Ending #2. Now you’re done.

Once again, the game had somewhere significant to go here: it could have done its part in correcting the most common misconception about evolution. As no one on the internet is aware, evolution is not a straight line from amoebas to spaceships. It’s convenient to think of things this way, because it means everything just keeps getting better automatically. All we have to do is watch the numbers go up.

But that ain’t how it am. Evolution is about mutual adaption, which means both that different things happen under different conditions and that lots of different things can happen even under the same condition. And since we’ve got a game here that is about restoring an ecosystem based on the interactions between different types of organisms, there should have been different ways for this to happen. There should have been different ways to grow the ecosystems in different areas, resulting in different evolutionary paths which would cause different forms of life to ultimately awaken in each of the endings. Instead, the ending to this game is that you activate an alien artifact and it causes a magical crystal spaceship to shoot up from out of the ground (not exaggerating).

This would have been a significant achievement in gameplay as well. The thing that games are supposed to be good at is modeling rule-based interactions, so evolution is hell of fertile territory to make some games about (in fact, this type of thing was the inspiration for one of the original meaningful games). Games have no right to exist if we can’t create meaning out of a set of rules. Evolution is one of the reasons we know this is possible: we exist because of a specific set of rules that operated under specific conditions. If we can’t make that meaningful, we’re fucked.

And we will continue to be fucked as long as video games continue to rest on their shoddy, decaying laurels. Waking Mars is based on a good idea that could have translated into a truly significant experience. Instead, despite its originality, it degenerates into convention. And while it has its share of design problems, what it ultimately needs is not “better design.” It needs to get woke.

Gamed to death

My post about level ups needs an addendum, as there’s a related issue that’s somewhat more practical. That is, it’s an actual threat.

The concept of power growth can be generalized to the concept of accumulation, the difference being that accumulation doesn’t have to refer to anything. When you’re leveling up in a game, it’s generally for a reason, e.g. you need more HP in order to survive an enemy’s attack or something. Even in traditional games, though, this is not always the case. There are many RPGs where you have like twelve different stats and it’s not clear what half of them even do, yet it’s still satisfying to watch them all go up when you level. This leads many players to pursue “stat maxing” even when there’s no practical application for those stats. Thus, we see that the progression aspect of leveling is actually not needed to engage players. It is enough to provide the opportunity for mere accumulation, a.k.a. watching numbers go up. This might sound very close to literally watching paint dry, but the terrible secret of video games is that people actually enjoy it.

The extreme expression of this problem would be a game that consists only of leveling up, that has no actual gameplay but merely provides the player with the opportunity to watch numbers go up and rewards their “effort” with additional opportunities to watch numbers go up. This game, of course, exists; it’s called FarmVille, it’s been immensely popular and influential and has spawned a wide variety of imitators. The terror is real.

Of course, as its very popularity indicates, FarmVille itself is not the problem. In fact, while FarmVille is often taken to be the dark harbinger of the era of smartphone games, its design can be traced directly back to the traditional games that it supposedly supplanted (the worst trait of “hardcore” gamebros is that they refuse to ever look in the damn mirror). Even in action-focused games such as Diablo II or Resident Evil 4, much of the playtime involves running around and clicking on everything in order to accumulate small amounts of currency and items. While this has a purpose, allowing you to purchase new weapons and other items that help you out during the action segments, it doesn’t have to be implemented this way. You could just get the money automatically whenever you defeat an enemy, as you do in most RPGs. But even in RPGs where this happens, there are still treasures and other collectibles littering the environment. This is a ubiquitous design pattern, and it exists for a reason: because running around and picking up vaguely useful junk is fun.

This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning. Super Mario Bros., for example, had coins; they’re one of the defining aspects of what is basically the ur-text of video games. Again, these coins actually did something (they gave you extra lives, eventually. Getting up to 100 coins in the original Super Mario Bros. is actually surprisingly hard), but again again, this isn’t the actual reason they were there. They were added for a specific design reason: to provide players with guidance. Super Mario Bros. was a brand-new type of game when it came out; the designers knew that they had to make things clear in order to prevent players from getting lost. So one of the things they did was add coins at strategic locations to encourage the player to take certain actions and try to get to certain places. And the reason this works is because collecting coins is fun on its own, even before the player figures out that they’re going to need as many extra lives as they can get.

The coins here are positioned to indicate to the player that they're supposed to jump onto the moving platform to proceed.

And there’s something even more fundamental than collectibles, something that was once synonymous with the concept of video games: score. Back in the days of arcade games, getting a high score was presented as the goal of most games. When you were finished playing, the game would ask you to enter your initials, and then show you your place on the scoreboard, hammering in the idea that this was the point of playing. Naturally, since arcade games were designed to not be “completable,” this was a way of adding motivation to the gameplay. But there’s more to it than that. By assigning different point values to different actions, the designers are implicitly telling the player what they’re supposed to be doing. Scoring is inherently an act of valuation.

In Pac-Man, for example, there are two ways you can use the power pellets: you can get the ghosts off your ass for a minute while you try to clear the maze, or you can hunt the ghosts down while they’re vulnerable. Since the latter is worth more points than anything else, the game is telling you that this is the way you’re supposed to be playing. The reason for this, in this case, is that it’s more fun: chasing the ghosts creates an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, while simply traversing the maze is relatively boring. Inversely, old light-gun games like Area 51 or Time Crisis often had hostages that you were penalized for shooting. In a case like this, the game is telling you what not to do; rather than shooting everything indiscriminately, you were meant to be careful and distinguish between potential targets.

So, in summary, the point of “points” or any other “numbers that go up” is to provide an in-game value system. What, then, does this mean for a game like FarmVille, which consists only of points? It means that such a game has no values. It’s nihilistic. It’s essentially the unironic version of Duchamp’s Fountain. The point of Fountain was that the work itself had no traditional artistic merit; it “counted” as art only because it was presented that way. Similarly, FarmVille is not what you’d normally call a “game,” but it’s presented as one, so it is one. The difference, of course, is that Duchamp was making a rather direct negative point. People weren’t supposed to admire Fountain, they were supposed to go fuck themselves. FarmVille, on the other hand, expects people to genuinely enjoy it. Which they do.

And again, the point is that FarmVille is not an aberration; its nihilism is only the most naked expression of the nihilism inherent in the way modern video games are understood. One game that made this point was Progress Quest, a ruthless satire of the type of gameplay epitomized by FarmVille. In Progress Quest, there is literally no gameplay: you run the application and it just automatically starts making numbers go up. It’s a watching paint dry simulator. The catch is that Progress Quest predates FarmVille by several years (art imitates life, first as satire, then as farce); it was not parodying “degraded” smartphone games, but the popular and successful games of its own time, such as EverQuest, which would become a major influence on almost everything within the mainstream gaming sphere. The call is coming from inside the house.

Because the fact that accumulation is “for” something in a game like Diablo II ultimately amounts to no more than it does for FarmVille. You kill monsters so that you can get slightly better equipment and stats, which you then use to kill slightly stronger monsters and get slightly better equipment again, ad nauseum. It’s the same loop, only more spread out and convoluted; it fakes meaning by disguising itself. In this sense, FarmVille, like Fountain, is to be praised for revealing a simple truth that had become clouded by incestuous self-regard.

There is, of course, a real alternative, which is for games to actually have some kind of aesthetic value, and for that to be the motivation for gameplay. This isn’t hard to understand. Nobody reads a book because they get points for each page they turn; indeed, the person who reads a famous book simply “to have read it” is a figure of mockery. We read books because they offer us experiences that matter. There is nothing stopping video games from providing the same thing.

The catch is that doing this requires a realization that the primary audience for games is currently unwilling to make: that completing a goal in a video game is not a real accomplishment. As games have invested heavily in the establishment of arbitrary goals, they have taken their audience down the rabbit hole with them. Today, we are in position where certain people actually think that being good at video games matters, that the conceptualization of games as skill-based challenges is metaphysically significant (just trust me on this one, there’s evidence for it but you really don’t want to see it). As a result, games have done an end-run around the concept of meaning. Rather than condemning Sisyphus to forever pushing his rock based on the idea the meaningless labor is the worst possible fate, we have instead convinced Sisyphus that pushing the rock is meaningful in the traditional sense; he now toils of his own volition, blissfully (I wish I could take credit for this metaphor, but this guy beat me to it).

This is an understandable mistake. As humans, limited beings seeking meaning in the raw physicality of the universe, we’ve become accustomed to looking for signs that distinguish meaningful labor from mere toil. It is far from an unusual mistake to confuse the sign for the destination. But the truth is that any possible goal (money, popularity, plaudits, power) is also something that we’ve made up. The universe itself provides us with nothing. But this realization does not have to stop us: we can insist on meaning without signs, abandon the word without losing the sense. This is the radical statement that Camus was making when he wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He was advising us to reject this fundamental aspect of our orientation towards reality.

We have not followed his advice. On the contrary, games have embraced their own meaninglessness. The most obvious symptom of this is achievements, which have become ubiquitous in all types of games (the fact that they’re actually built-in to Steam is evidence enough). Achievements are anti-goals, empty tokens that encourage players to perform tasks for no reason other than to have performed them. Many are quite explicit about this; they’re things like “ 1000 more times than you would have to do it to complete the game.” Some achievements are better than this, some even point towards interesting things that add to the gameplay experience, but the point is the principle: that players are expected to perform fully arbitrary tasks and to expect nothing else from games. In light of this, it does not matter whether a game is fun or creative or original or visually appealing. No amount of window dressing can counteract the fact that games are fundamentally meaningless.

If you want a picture of the future of games, imagine a human finger clicking a button and a human eye watching a number go up. Forever.


While renouncing games is a justifiable tactical response to the current situation, it’s not a solution. Games are just a symptom. Game designers aren’t villains, they’re just hacks. They’re doing this stuff because it works; the problem is in people.

Accumulation essentially exploits a glitch in human psychology, similar to gambling (many of these games have an explicit gambling component). It compels people to act against their reason. It’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people talk about how they kept playing a game “past the point where it stopped being fun.” I’m not exactly sure what the source of the problem is. Evolution seems unlikely, as pre-civilized humans wouldn’t have had much opportunity for hoarding-type behavior. Also, the use of numbers themselves seems to be significant, which suggests a post-literate affliction. I suppose the best guess for the culprit would probably be capitalism. Certainly, the concept of currency motivates many people to accumulate it for no practical reason.

Anyway, I promised you a threat, so here it is:

“They are told to forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall,’ others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, ‘I’m Peculiar’ — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.”

(Okay real talk I actually didn’t remember the bit about the “virtual award.” I started rereading the article for evidence and it was right there in the second paragraph. I’m starting to get suspicious about how easy these assholes are making this for me.)

What’s notable about this is not that Amazon turned out to be the bad guy. We already knew that, both because of the much worse situation of their warehouse workers and because, you know, it’s a corporation in a capitalist society. What’s important is this:

“[Jeff Bezos] created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics . . .

Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

What’s happening in avant-garde workplaces like Amazon is the same thing that’s happened in games. The problem with games was that they weren’t providing any real value, and the problem with work in a capitalist society is that most of it is similarly pointless. The solution in games was to fake meaning, and the solution in work is going to be the same thing.

And, just as it did in games, this tactic is going to succeed:

“[M]ore than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.

‘A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,’ said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, ‘The Amazon Way.’

. . .

Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.

. . .

‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.

. . .

[I]n its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.

. . .

‘I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.’”

It’s only once these people burn out and leave that they’re able to look back and realize they were working for nothing. This is exactly the same phenomenon as staying up all night playing some hack RPG because you got sucked in to the leveling mechanism. It’s mechanical addiction to a fake goal.

The fundamental problem here, of course, is that Amazon isn’t actually trying to make anything other than money. A common apologist argument for capitalism is that economic coercion is required to motivate people to produce things, but this is pretty obviously untrue. First, people have been building shit since long before currency came into the picture; more importantly, it’s obvious just from simple everyday observation that people are motivated to try to do a good job when they feel like they’re working on something that matters, and people slack off and cut corners when they know that what they’re doing is actually bullshit. The problem with work in a capitalist society is that people aren’t fools; the reason employees have to be actively “motivated” is because they know that what they’re doing doesn’t merit motivation.

The focus with Amazon has mostly been on that fact that they’re “mean”; the Times contrasts them with companies like Google that entice employees with lavish benefits rather than psychological bullying. But this difference is largely aesthetic; the reason Google offers benefits such as meals and daycare is because it expects its employees to live at their jobs, just as Amazon does.

As always, it’s important to view the system’s cruelest symptoms not as abnormal but as extra-normative behavior. The reason Amazon does what it does is because it can: it has the kind of monitoring technology required to pull this off and its clout commands the kind of devotion from its employees required to get away with it. Amazon is currently on the cutting edge; as information technology becomes more and more anodyne, this will become less and less the case. Consider that Google’s double-edged beneficence is only possible because Google is richer than fuck, consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company pulls, and then consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company would pull if it had Amazon-like levels of resourcefulness and devotion.

So, while publications like the New York Times are useful for getting the sort of “average” ruling-class perspective on the issues of the day, you have to keep the ideological assumptions of this perspective in mind, which in this case is super easy: the Times assumes that Amazon’s goal of maximizing its “productivity” is a valid and even virtuous one (also, did you notice how they claimed that this is happening because “technology wants” it to happen? Classic pure ideology). All of the article’s hand-wringing is merely about whether Amazon’s particular methods are “too harsh” or “unsustainable.” The truth, obviously, is that corporate growth itself is a bad thing because corporate growth means profit growth and profits are by definition the part of the economy getting sucked out by rich fucks instead of actually being used to produce things for people. This goes double for Amazon specifically, which doesn’t contribute any original functionality of its own, but merely supersedes functionalities already being provided by existing companies in a more profitable fashion.

And this is where things get scary. With video games, the only real threat is that, by locking themselves into their Sisyphean feedback loop, games will become hyper-effective at wasting the time of the kind of people who have that kind of time to waste. Tragic, in a sense, but in another sense we’re talking about people who are making a choice and who are consequently reaping what they’ve sown. But the problem with the economy is that when rich fucks play games, the outcome affects everybody. And when those games are designed against meaning, and all of us are obligated to play in order to survive, what we’re growing is a value system, and what we’re harvesting is nihilism. Bad design is a fate worse than death.

In this vein, I strongly recommend that you get a load of this asshole:

“’In the office of the future,’ said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, ‘you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.’”

Can you imagine living in a world where values are determined by humans? It’s getting kind of difficult!

When the situation is this fucked, even the New York Times has its moments:

“Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads.”

You know you’re an asshole when the shit you’re pulling is so blatantly horrific that even the “paper of record” is scoring sick burns on you from behind its veil of ersatz objectivity.


The thing is, when it comes to values, “money” in society has the same function as “score” in video games: it’s a heuristic that maps only loosely onto the thing that it’s actually supposed to represent. Ideally, economic growth would represent the actual human-life-improving aspects of a society, and to an extent, it does. Despite everything, most people really are trying to make the world a decent place to live. But a capitalist society is one where “growth” is pursued for its own sake, where spending a million dollars to feed starving children is just as good as spending that money on car decals, or on incrementally faster smartphones, or on weapons.

This is why you need to watch the fuck out any time someone starts talking about “meritocracy.” The problem with “meritocracy” is the same as the problem with “utilitarianism”: you have to actually define “merit” or “utility,” and that’s the entire question in the first place. With utilitarianism this is less of a problem, since it’s more of a philosophical question and this understanding is usually part of the discussion (also, when utilitarianism was first introduced it was a revolutionary new idea in moral philosophy, it’s just that today it tends to be invoked by people who want to pretend like they’ve solved morality when they actually haven’t even started thinking about it). But the meritocracy people are actually trying to get their system implemented; indeed, they often claim that their “meritocracy” already exists.

To be explicit, the word “meritocracy” is internally inconsistent. Claiming that a society should be a “democracy,” for example, establishes a goal: a society’s rulership should be as representative of the popular will as possible (that is, assuming the word “democracy” is being used in good faith, which is rarely the case). But the concept of “merit” requires a goal in order to be meaningful. It’s trivial to say that society should favor the “best,” because the question is precisely: the best at what? The most creative, or the most efficient? The most compassionate, or the most ruthless? Certainly, our current society, including our corporations, is controlled by people who are the best at something, it’s just that that “something” isn’t what most of us want to promote.

The problem isn’t that these people are hiding their motives; they talk big but they aren’t actually that sophisticated, especially when it comes to philosophy. It’s worse: the problem is that they have no goals in the first place. For all their talk of “disruption,” they are in truth blindly following the value system implicitly established by the set of historical conditions they happen to be operating in (see also: Rand, Ayn). This is necessarily the case for anyone who focuses their life on making money, since money doesn’t actually do anything by itself; it means whatever society says it means. This is why rich fucks tend to turn towards philanthropy, or at least politics: as an attempt to salvage meaning from what they’ve done with their lives. But even then, the only thing they know how to do is to focus on reproducing the conditions of their own success. When gazing into the abyss, all they can see is themselves.

Thus far, the great hope of humanity has lain in the fact that our rulers are perpetually incapable of getting their shit together. The problem is that they no longer have to. If nuclear weapons gave them the ability to destroy the world on accident, information technology has given them the ability to destroy values just as accidentally. A blind, retarded beast is still capable of crushing through sheer weight. The reason achievements in games took off isn’t because anyone designed things that way, it’s because fake-goal-focused games appeal to people, they sell. The reason Amazon seems to be trying to design a dystopian workplace isn’t because of evil mastermindery, it’s simply because they have the resources to pursue their antigoal of corporate growth with full abandon. Indeed, what we mean by “dystopia” is not an ineffective society, it’s a society that is maximally effective towards bad ends. And if capitalists are allowed to define our values by omission, if the empty ideal of “meritocracy” is taken as common sense rather than an abdication of responsibility, if arbitrary achievement has replaced actual experience, then the rough beast’s hour has come round at last; it is slouching toward Silicon Valley to be born.