Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Game Designer as Malignant Demon

Coletta Factor aka Spoiler Warning: Bioshock

While attempting to think himself out of radical skepticism about the external world, Descartes proposed the following scenario: “I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; I will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity.”

The main thing that differentiates video games from other games (say, chess and monopoly and sports) is the fact that the rules of a video game are not disclosed in advance. You can't play chess without knowing what rules govern the game: what sort of moves each piece can make (the knight moves in an L), and what conditions count as success (checkmating the opponent's King). In a video game, on the other hand, you have to learn the rules that govern your character and the world as you go. The first layer of rules govern your interface with your character-- hitting A makes your character jump, holding X down makes him duck. The next layer of rules govern what counts as success in the game-- you have to go this direction to reach the next level, you have to kill this enemy in order to get some item that will allow you to progress further in the game. While a game's instruction manual often provides some of this information at the outset, there is a sense that you don't really understand these rules until you have the controller in your hand and begin to work your way around.

Often, there is a character within the game whose role is to guide the player through learning and mastering these rules. In the Zelda games, for example, Link meets a fairy in the first village who instructs him how to swing his sword and where he should go for the beginning portions of the game. This device, using an in-game character to teach the player the game's rules, has been used in many many games throughout the years.

In the opening scenes of Bioshock, a first-person shooter developed by 2K Boston, the player encounters just such a character. As the player arrives in Rapture, an underwater art-deco metropolis built by the industrialist Andrew Ryan, he is contacted via radio by a man named Atlas. Atlas has survived a catastrophe that has befallen the city, and from a safe hiding place he directs the player through the game's objectives. As you play the first two thirds of the game, it seems clear that your goal in the game is to defeat Ryan and gain control of Rapture.

When the player finally reaches Andrew Ryan's office, the game delivers an unexpected reversal. Just before you enter, you learn that Atlas has subjected your character to a form of mind control. Everything that you have experienced in the game up to this point has been an illusion, created by Atlas through a form of post-hypnotic suggestion. His helpful direction through the game's world has been a covert form of command, all devised in order to make you kill Ryan and hand control of the city over to Atlas. When you enter his office, Ryan tells you that you have been subject to this plot; but as you kill Ryan you have no control over your character. You watch as your character beats him to death with a golf club, and Ryan repeats the same phrase over and over again: “A man chooses, a slave obeys.”

I see all this as a parable about gaming. When you play through a good video game, mastering the game's rules and using them to succeed in the game's environment, the game communicates a feeling that resembles agency. The feeling of empowerment that you get from adjusting to the game's logic and using this knowledge to overcome the obstacles in your way resembles the feeling of free choice, but it not. Games are an interactive medium, but in a real sense the designer of the game is the one who makes all the choices because they are the one who creates all the rules. The genius of Bioshock lies in the fact that it investigates this paradox in the context of the game itself. in Bioshock, the designer appears not as a helpful sprite but as a malignant demon.

If games are going to be about anything other than escapism, than they can begin, as Bioshock does, by exposing the very impulse that drives our love of games itself: the pleasures of being subject to rules that we do not choose.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I have to admit, I really enjoy these philosophy-meets-video games posts, Wesley.

Good work and godspeed.