Playing by the Rules
Roleplaying is a curious hobby, in that it has different goals depending on who you ask and when you ask them. If you asked, say, someone who picked up tabletop gaming in the past few years - let’s say by about 2005 or so, and possibly after some freeform roleplaying in an MMO or other video game - tabletop RPGs are a collaborative storytelling activity and fun battle system. If you ask someone who started gaming before that, well…the answer becomes a bit more complicated.
See, pen and paper roleplaying games are still games, in that they have defined rulesets and states of play. However, where video games are limited by the programmer and machine, unable to deviate from their rulesets, tabletop games essentially have no limits whatsoever but the players’ and Game Master’s1 patience and creativity. Thus, everyone involved could be playing a different game from the one everyone else thinks they’re supposed to be playing.
As you might expect, this can be problematic.
Ultima IV is one of the classics of the RPG genre. Considered the first great entry in what once was the greatest RPG series in gaming, long before Japan showed up with its Dragon Warriors and Final Fantasies to show us how it’s done, Ultima IV pioneered gaming’s first true morality system, in which completion of the game required one to follow the Virtues, a series of moral axioms, becoming the Avatar thereof and bringing hope to the land of Britannia.
This is what we can all agree on. Unfortunately, there’s a dark secret to this classic game: it’s basically unplayable.
Of course, try to tell that to certain people, and they’ll call you illiterate. They’ll claim that modern gamers are spoiled by their quest compasses, their voice acting, their tutorials. They’ll claim that we cruelly dismiss a true classic for our hollow, hedonistic pleasures, with no difficulty or effort involved in the enjoyment.
This is, of course, completely false. Yet at the same time, it’s also true. But the fact that there’s truth to it isn’t, in fact, a harbinger for the end of intelligence in gamers or anything like that. It’s perfectly natural.
This week, I’m going to explain why a game can both be a classic and unplayable. More importantly, though, I’m going to explain why it’s okay for things to be that way.
You Can’t Escape, You Know
“The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.”
Let’s talk about agency.
The agency of the player is the key component of all interactive entertainment. However, agency is naturally a limited thing in video games. Since a computer program is, by its nature, deterministic, it can only allow and respond to a limited number of actions, assuming no outside device or program interferes. A game is further limited by the assets the programmer inserts into the program and intends to be seen.
The earliest games had extremely limited agency. Pong had the agency of moving the paddle either up or down - an amazing two whole directions! However, the desire for increased agency was quickly discovered, mostly in early mainframe RPGs. Since then, the trend has been toward more and more agency, be it agency of mechanics (ie, the gameplay) or agency of narrative. Usually, the level of agency is set early on, and the expectation is followed through the entire game, the contract between player and designer.
But what happens when agency is denied? And what does this increased agency mean for players?
(Warning: Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, L.A. Noire, and Portal after the jump.)
That Dreaded Question
Let’s just get this one out of the way.
A great man once said, “I don’t think I’ve ever read a definition for art that wasn’t stupid.” As expected, this is a question which occupies a certain kind of person a great deal, be it for their own justification of love or hate of a given medium or expression…or, very rarely, an actual legitimate attempt at defining the undefinable.
So, in defending ‘games as art’, I must, inevitably, confront this very question in some manner or another. This, despite lacking the qualifications to do so, let alone the interest.
Basically, what I’m saying is: buckle up.
The Art of Nothing
John Cage’s infamous 4’33” is a musical composition in which no instruments are played. Specifically, it instructs the musician playing the piece to never play a single note. Cage’s intention in composing this piece was not to create music that was silent, but to create a musical piece that consisted exclusively of all the sounds being heard while the piece was being ‘played’. In essence, Cage intended it to be music in which neither the composer nor the artist had any influence on the ‘performance’.
Some would argue that this distinction is academic, pedantic, or, to use more colorful terms, retarded. That, I think, is for people with art degrees and actual credentials to decide, but let us, for the sake of argument at the very least, accept Cage’s original interpretation.