Let Them Eat Cake! Ugly Truths, Pt. II

A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges. ~ Benjamin Franklin

My father once told me about a business dinner he attended in Japan. At this dinner, he told me, the various people in attendance all asked the chef for specific cuts of meat. Dad said the chef didn’t seem terribly happy, so when it was his turn, he asked the chef to prepare the steak in whatever way he felt was best. The chef, Dad said, excitedly got to work on his steak, and when it was done, seemed very proud to present it to him. What my father did was respect the chef’s ability to do what he did best, and in doing so, he was served the best steak of his life.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, game developers aren’t chefs. They’re farmers, fishermen, and ranchers. They’re the guys who provide the means to create that delicious steaks, but they are not the ones who create the steaks themselves–no, the chefs are the gamers.

You see, in a truly great game, whether it’s Dragon Age Origins, System Shock 2, or STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, it is the player who takes the tools provided by the developer and creates a wholly unique experience. I can almost guarantee you that the way I play Half-Life is not the way you do. How we each interpret the game’s world and its rules is ultimately up to us.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

For me, gaming is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake. ~ Me, butchering someone else.

Previously, I discussed the issue with player manipulation. To recap: conditioned behavior is artificial fun and therefore lacks any meaning. Ultimately, this is a subset of possibly the worst problem in video game design right now: disrespect for the player base. At its worst, the problem means that gamers are seen as little more than sheep to be manipulated into spending money on things. Instead of being comfortable with letting gamers play how they want to, developers seem to have more interest in controlling every aspect of your experience.

In other words, the farmer is saying “hey, I raised this wheat, so I know the best way to make a cake.”

There are several examples of this. Because I already covered Valve in great detail last time, I’ll mention them briefly before moving on. The joy of cooking, as with jazz, is in improvisation. The best food is where you take the recipe and make it your own. In a cooking class, a good teacher will make sure their class understands the basics of good food before letting the students experiment with the recipes. Say the class final is a black forest cake; if the teacher’s done their job, then each student is going to come out with a cake that’s unique to them. Each student has made a true cake–one that’s as much an expression of who they are and how they interpret cooking as much as it is a great cake.

Valve, unfortunately, is a bad teacher. Oh, yes, every student will end up with a delicious cake, but at the same time, each cake will be virtually identical. Cooking, like gaming, should not be an assembly line process. The experience should not be manufactured, or it loses much of its appeal. Ultimately, a student who learns to bake a cake from Valve’s school of cooking, has baked a lie.

Okay, maybe this isn’t so brief. Back in my Eli Vance post, I pointed out that Valve also abandoned the silent protagonist approach of Half-Life for a similar, but fundamentally different approach in the sequel. Where Half-Life said “okay, you can kill anyone you want and behave however you feel like,” Half-Life 2 said “No. You are THIS guy. Even though you can’t talk, we have defined you through NPCs and how they treat you.” Ultimately, it’s as if Valve didn’t feel the player could create a compelling-enough experience for themselves, so they defined the persona of Gordon Freeman while offering the illusion of freedom.  It’s as if they want to have their cake and eat it too–they want to railroad the player through their story, but they want to make the player feel as if they’re actually free to do as they choose.

I tried to commit suicide by sticking my head in the oven, but there was a cake in it. ~ Lesley Boone 

The illusion of freedom is rather common in video gaming.

Before I get into that, however, I foresee a major objection that many pseudo-intellectuals might offer: “you haven’t really got any freedom in a video game!” This much is true. You haven’t got much freedom in real life either. You can no more move a mountain with your mind than rewind time itself, after all, so unless you’re God Almighty, when I’m talking about freedom, I’m clearly not talking about total freedom. Being a silent protagonist in a linear game like Half-Life still offers freedom, because, as I mentioned earlier, you can still be whoever you want to be. Perhaps you’re the earnest hero, attempting to save everyone from the disaster you blame yourself for. On the other hand, maybe you’re a psychopathic alien rights activist who intentionally sabotaged the experiment so you could get away with killing everyone and everything in Black Mesa!

Right. Enough about Valve.

Let’s talk about Bioware.

Dragon Age Origins is a great and wonderful game, and you ought to give it a playthrough. It might not be as rich or unique as, say, any isometric RPG ever made, but it has got things like great graphics, interesting ally AI, and better gameplay going for it. Dragon Age 2 is the worst RPG I’ve ever played. I’m sure there are worse RPGs out there, and I know for a fact that, say, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura has a more convoluted menu system, worse graphics, worse sound, and lower production value in general. Dragon Age 2 is still worse.

You see, one of the most important things in an RPG is player choice (JRPGs haven’t got this, which is why they aren’t JRPGs; they’re adventure games with stats in). Your ability to impact the world around you through your decisions is why the RPG is different from, say, a military arcade manshoot, where your job is just to shoot lots of things. This isn’t to say that every decision in an RPG must be a hugely meaningful one (such as choosing whether or not to topple an entire empire); merely that decisions must have some point. The FPS and the RPG fundamentally different game types, and as such, players expect fundamentally different things from them. I expected the ability to make meaningful choices in Dragon Age 2.

It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it. ~ Richard M. Nixon

Instead, what I got was an adventure game with stats in–a lot like a JRPG, in fact. I can honestly only think of two instances in the game where a choice I made served any purpose; one decision led to my mother’s frankensteining, and the other led to one party member leaving my party. In other words, none of my decisions had any positive impact on the world.

Indeed, Bioware was so intent on very specific outcomes that every decision that ought to have been a major one was steamrolled over by bad writing. Sided with the mages? Too bad! All but one will resort to using blood magic, and that one will hate you for a good long while. Kept the magic tool-thingy that is the only way to complete the magic mirror from Merrill? Too bad, she’ll fix the mirror anyway, and the game won’t even acknowledge it. Want to kill that Chantry woman who is trying to get you to killed? Too bad, the game won’t present you with the option to do so.

A good RPG would take into account everything the player wants to be able to do and allow them to attempt it. If Bioware’s writers really didn’t want you to kill the Chantry agent, then they could have had her run away, but they should have given you the option to attack, and you should have been able, at the very least, to kill her bodyguard person. In Mass Effect, how you treated Wrex ultimately determines whether or not he commits suicide. In Dragon Age 2, no matter how you treat Anders, he is going to straight up murder a bunch of innocent people because he is an insane psychopath. Unfortunately, if you want to keep him as a healer (Bioware refuses to let you teach anyone else anything from Anders’ bag of healing tricks), that isn’t going to happen.

In fact, the only choice the player can have is who they’d like to have a relationship with. Bioware’s gone a total 180 here and turned the game into a (pretty poor) dating sim, and you can romance almost any member of your party, regardless of gender, personality, or anything else. It’s not like the choices are that great–you can select from an emo elf, a walking STD farm, a naive/possibly underage welsh blood mage, or a complete murderous psychopath (who is like the worst spirit of Justice ever; and yes, I realize he became vengeance, but how did that happen, exactly?), for instance.

Once you get rid of integrity the rest is a piece of cake. ~ Larry Hagman

So… congrats. In the end, the one choice you make that matters is which character will leave with you at the end of the game because your character hates both the templars and the mages, ’cause they’re both stupid.

Much of the joy of Dragon Age Origins’ simplistic story revolved around how the player treated it. You could be whoever you wanted to be, right down to appearance, backstory, and race. Dragon Age 2 ignores this and locks you in to a rather boring story with two-dimensional anime-ripoff characters and relationships right out of a bad fanfiction. It’s got some great ideas, but it’s so intent on making sure you experience them that it forgets to give you any choice.

Could you imagine a jigsaw puzzle where every puzzle piece is numbered and you have a nice background to set all the pieces on? Where would the fun be in that? All you do is find piece number 1 and put it in the top left hand corner. Piece 2 goes next to that. Piece 3 goes right next to that… and on and on it goes. It’s not fun.

Another example: imagine that you buy a sandbox. Now imagine that you want to make a sandcastle in it. How much fun are you going to have if the guy who sold you the sandbox keeps coming over and telling you how you ought to build your castle? What happens if he kicks down everything you do that isn’t to his standards, ensuring that any decision you made that he didn’t want you to make is quite meaningless. Is that a sandbox worth having?

No, not really.

Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake? ~ John Heywood

Developers need to respect their players. Their responsibility is to design a framework around which players can have fun, not create an intensely controlled environment where even the most basic player response is a learned behavior. What makes Deus Ex: Human Revolution and The Witcher/Witcher 2 such great RPGs is that the player is taught how to play the game and let loose in the world to behave as they feel like.

The Witcher 2 has a great story, not just because of superb characters like Letho, Foltest, and Roche, but because it manages to really make you feel like you’re part of the plot, not just an outside observer. Some events will happen because of the (often difficult) choices that you make. Others will happen regardless of what you choose, and some will even happen despite your presence. It creates a realistic world where you have freedom, but some things are still beyond your control.

Ultimately, The Witcher 2 respects its players. It doesn’t ignore your choices, nor does it defer to you every time you want to do something. It says “alright, you can do this–so let’s see how you handle this kidnapping!” This sort of respect is a hallmark of great gaming: STALKER gives you a gun, some ammunition, bandages, and a first aid kit. It tells you how to play, but it doesn’t hold your hand. The onus is on the player to keep an eye on their health and armor, as well as to watch out for anomalies and enemies. STALKER trusts you to be good enough to carry the right gear and to be observant, and it’s certainly never cheap. If something kills you, it’s because you screwed up. I’ve heard similar praise in regards to PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls.

The best games are those that respect their players and help those players craft a unique, exciting experience. I don’t know anyone that says “aww man, I did this thing in Half-Life 2 that was so awesome!” or “hey, in Dragon Age 2, I managed to…” I do, however, know people who play games like STALKER, Demon’s Souls, and The Witcher 2, and they absolutely love telling me about the decisions they made or the fights they got in.

Developers, respect your gamers. Give them a framework to operate in, but don’t treat them like they’re toddlers. In the end, they’ll love you for it.

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  1. Your complaints and arguments seem valid for the most part. The only thing I have a problem with is the insisting that these games aren’t fun. It’s like saying Inception made me think, therefore Transformers wasn’t fun to watch.

  2. I thought it was a shame you didn’t tackle what I put in my Kotaku comment :P, perhaps you should go back and read it. Nonetheless it was an interesting read :), and I’m glad someone has truly cemented my decision to avoid DA2 since it sounds terrible.

    Actually, here’s the comment I last left:
    “Interesting. I love choice too, customising my ending of Fallout: New Vegas was one of my most satisfying game experiences and if someone could combine Valve’s brilliant game design with an open-world experience (I know this is unlikely to happen soon) that would be one hell of an experience.

    But for all I can see, the Skinner box actually tricks you into mindlessly pressing the buttons without a lot of thought, even through boredom. It’s about creating a meaningless measure of progress even when gameplay design and mechanics don’t. BUT Valve’s ‘psychological trickery’ is simply a way of making a perfectly good linear game with a progressive plot and progressive mechanics pack more of an emotional punch and add satisfaction while taking away frustration.
    Here’s the crux of the argument: when you allow the player to make a mistake or struggle they may enjoy the game less and find it frustrating, if you take the player by the hand they totally lose the satisfaction of solving a puzzle/making a good choice. If you can give the player that satisfying choice while being fairly certain they won’t fail or make a bad choice, then you have created something great to play through.

    Obviously it can’t be thinly veiled at the time, we really need to feel like we have a choice. I guess if you are painfully aware of this at all times and can’t allow yourself to just play through the game I can understand. But even past that we can be distracted by an incredibly interesting plot or humour, both of which (arguably) Portal 2 had and one of which HL2 Eps had.

    What I have to disagree on is that somehow this makes the game ’empty’ and devoid of meaning, rather than enhancing the experience. Lots of things in life are a combination of what we have learnt and what other people tell us to do, but we still all think we have 100% free will. It’s a common phenomenon, and unlike Skinner box, they aren’t fake emotions we’re mistaking for real ones, they’re real emotions that are just being manipulated. I don’t see what is inherently bad about that. But yeah, rant over, I just am nitpicking and I know this is your opinion, but just so you know you can still be aware of this and enjoy these games :P.”

  3. Hey, Trolly, sorry for the late reply. I did write to you on Kotaku, but I’m guessing you didn’t get that post–I know how finicky their comment system can be, after all.

    Ultimately, I disagree with this:

    “BUT Valve’s ‘psychological trickery’ is simply a way of making a perfectly good linear game with a progressive plot and progressive mechanics pack more of an emotional punch and add satisfaction while taking away frustration.”

    How so?

    Valve gives you a simple ball and socket puzzle. Then you do the next one, which is slightly more challenging. Then the next, then the one after that, and on it goes. Once Valve gets to the end of the puzzles, they just abandon them. You don’t really get an opportunity to use your skills. Contrast this with a game like Halo or System Shock 2 where you’re given everything you need to know at the start of the game, and the rest of the game is played however you like.

    Valve’s design philosophy encourages rote behavior. I’m not sure how you feel that the plot’s progressive (what do you even mean? That the plot progresses?), and by progressive mechanics, I assume you mean the tech-demo-that-is-a-gun-that-shows-off-the-physics-system (which was definitely some neat progression in terms of game design)… but… how on Earth do you find that it’s emotional?

    I don’t see that at all. My emotions are tied into, like, story, character, sensation, and the like, not, say, pressing X and observing Y occur as a result.

    When you say that it adds satisfaction, I suppose you may be right. There is always some satisfaction to be had in “I carried out X successfully,” and even greater success to be had knowing that it all went smoothly, but if it exists… independent of you–if it leads you like a donkey with a carrot, what’s the point? Where’s the value? You’re just getting led from point A to point B with no freedom of your own. You can find freedom in a linear game, just as a cook can find freedom in cooking a recipe, but Valve games try to make you subconsciously move through the whole thing in a perfect way.

    It’s what you might call an authoritarian type of design–getting the player to bend to the game. Me, I prefer jazz, man.

    “Here’s the crux of the argument: when you allow the player to make a mistake or struggle they may enjoy the game less and find it frustrating,”

    Of course, but I’d like to point out two things:

    1. People who always get frustrated easily because things don’t go right aren’t worth spending time on.

    2. Overcoming a challenge tends to be very satisfying. People don’t like Dragon Age 2’s combat for a host of reasons; one such reason is that the killing is basically popcorn murder: it spawns never-ending waves of guys who die so easily that there’s no satisfaction.

    Challenge is vital. If you subconsciously know what to do all the time (because all your puzzles involve putting a ball in a socket), then it’s like having a gun with 9999 damage or a “press to win” button. The challenge is gone. Look at Half Life 2’s final level–blam, you are godlike, nothing can stop you, the end. It needed a level that should have been the culmination of all the skills you learned in the game and pushed you to the limit (but still made you feel badass); instead, all we got was a level that let you kill everyone with one hit. It lost all meaning.

    Personally, another reason I don’t like Half Life 2: Episode 1’s Citadel portion is because the slowness of the puzzles clashes with the urgency of a game, but that’s a topic for another day.

    In fact, I could write blog posts about both challenge and dissonance. Hmm.

    “…if you take the player by the hand they totally lose the satisfaction of solving a puzzle/making a good choice.”

    Absolutely right, and that’s why I dislike Valve’s approach to games. I expect to be puzzled in a puzzle game, not breeze through most of it with the occasional “oh, I’ve got to look around to see where to place this portal a bit harder than I did last time” sections.

    (For what it’s worth, Portal does have some genuinely clever puzzles; Portal 2… not so much)

    “I guess if you are painfully aware of this at all times and can’t allow yourself to just play through the game I can understand.”

    Unfortunately, I see quite a lot of the man behind the curtain when I play–at least the obvious bits. I can’t not think about it.

    “But even past that we can be distracted by an incredibly interesting plot or humour, both of which (arguably) Portal 2 had and one of which HL2 Eps had.”

    Portal 2 amused me, but it felt… devoid of something. Space tried too hard to be a new meme. It was the first Valve game I played where I went “you know what? Erik and Chet should go quit and go back to Old Man Murray.” HL2E1 and E2 were not really humorous enough to distract me (I remember zombine, and that’s it), and their plots boiled down to “stop the citadel from exploding and then get on a train” and “fight through some caves, save Alyx’s life, get to Black Mesa East, defend Black Mesa East, Eli dies.” In ALL of Half Life 2, literally the only thing that has me interested is who the G-man is and why Gordon Freeman is there.

    “Lots of things in life are a combination of what we have learnt and what other people tell us to do, but we still all think we have 100% free will. ”

    In real life, I have been conditioned to prefer raspberry-flavored frozen desserts, whether they’re sorbet or ice cream or popsicles or whatever. That does not prevent me from experimenting, however.

    In a world run by Valve’s design philosophies, everyone would subconsciously select one (and only one) flavor and would enjoy it, because they’ve been conditioned to do so. There’s no X-factor. In real life, I am limited by a selection of ice cream flavors and my predilection for raspberry, but I still have the power of choice. Valve doesn’t want me to have that power–it just wants me to get through and have some tasty ice cream.

    Vanilla’s good and all, but it’s not like I can go back through the line again and go “wait… what if I tried it with pickle and telephone flavored ice cream instead?” Likewise, sure, the game’s fun one time through, but you’ll never get to back and make sweet gameplay jazz.

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