This month, everyone except me has been playing Dishonored. I read the blog posts, watch the Let’s Plays, and fantasize about the choices I might make – but right now, £39.99 for a new release is the difference between making rent and borrowing money. At the same time, I can't bear to be left out of the blogging frenzy that's struck up around the game. So how can I write about Dishonored without having played it? Simple: maybe nobody else is playing it either.
Immersive sims are supposed to be full of choices, right? We can choose whether to kill or save, hurt or harm, sneak or fight. In theory, then, these games should provoke ‘natural’ roleplaying, and lead us to react directly and authentically to actual dilemmas rather than ‘play along’ in a self-aware fashion. And yet so far everything I read about Dishonored testifies to the extreme self-consciousness with which we play these kinds of games.
In Rock Paper Shotgun’s Verdict piece, Jim Rossignol spoke of replaying stealth-style, John Walker attempted a “perfect stealth route”, and Adam Smith only ever reloaded if he died. Commenters on Joel ‘Harbour Master’ Goodwin’s thought-provoking post at Electronic Dance, meanwhile, swapped stories of their murder diets like they were at a weight watchers meeting. I would be no different – as a quick self-haruspication reveals.
I can’t play Dishonored, but if I could, I’d be a cautious player, a ghost by default. I would scope out the areas before me, watch carefully for weaknesses, and take the route less travelled. I would slip past enemies when I can, dispatch them non-lethally where I can’t; take the smart route, the cunning exit, the shortcut with ironic overtones (the dumbwaiter, the servants’ quarters, the bigwig’s open balcony). I wouldn’t be afraid of using my tools to put the guards to sleep, but I regard as unconscionably gauche those players who insist on clearing the map of every single enemy as if they were cleaning a window.
So far, so boring. But when the chips are down and the alarms ring out, I wouldn’t quickload. I’d force myself to deal with the consequences - run, delay, or even fight my way viciously to safety. I’d preserve the consistency of the timeline, of my narrative, at the expense of consistency of approach. Occasionally, I will also find a reason to break my own rules, like I’ll find evidence of an enemy type’s ethical transgressions and when I knock them out I’ll coldly dump their sleeping body off a cliff or into deep water.
My approach would not be ‘natural’ or spontaneous. I would aspire to that, but I know that I’m editing out the many quickloads I’d make when it was simply inconvenient to be caught, or when I got second thoughts about a decision. Enacting my narrative of ‘losing control’ really means making a deliberate decision not to quickload. And I know from experience with Deus Ex and Thief Gold -which I'm currently playing through for the first time - that I am pathologically intent on doing things ‘right’. In Uncharted, I walked if I didn’t need to run; in Half-Life, I jumped back in ‘surprise’ when the test chamber blows up, even though I’d played it eight times before. In short, my play style is a forced affectation of spontaneity.
I’m not the only one. When I asked my richer brother Bunbury Brindle his advice, he told me he often quickloads simply because he’s pressed the wrong button. But if he accidentally stands up from behind cover when he meant to stay hidden, he'll think of it as not having 'actually' happened . "I was really crouching, so that guard wouldn't have seen me," he'll say to himself, like the unreliable Guybrush in The Secret of Monkey Island who tells and re-tells his story with a sheepish: “okay, so that’s not what REALLY happened…” Whether or not ol’ Bun-Bun does this to protect the diegesis or protect his pride is kind of irrelevant; I’m sure there are people who do both.
Where we tread, others have been before. We are all mere dilettantes compared to the hardened hairshirt freaks of the Thief community. They practice ‘ghosting’, the art of completing missions without leaving any sign of your presence: no doors open, no torches extinguished, no guards alerted or harmed in any way. But as Robert Yang points out in the penultimate part of his ‘Dark Past’ series, ghosting actually refuses to engage with the complexity of a game system, withdrawing from it as if the player were a naturalist determined not to pollute the object of study with her interference. Yang puts it this way:
“This is… a totally artificial, socially-constructed constraint that exists outside of the designed video game. There are no specific rules that enforce it. Less charitably, it might be described as self-imposed instafail mode. It always strikes me as paradoxical: Ghosting is a set of rules designed to guarantee the complexity and integrity of the game system, but they're actually already violating the integrity simply by existing outside of it.”This is more than merely ‘players making choices’ as they play – the kind of natural roleplay measured in this paper by the Tilburg Centre of Creative Computing, which mapped playstyles in Fallout 3 to personality profiles. Instead, these players lay down new rules, prior to the start of their playthrough, which constitute a new game played out on the substrate of the old. Everyone seems to be soft-modding Dishonored before they even boot it up; my self-conscious decisions and revisions are just a very pointed example.
But even within the field of ‘ghosting’, players have very different priorities. On the one hand, there’s this person, who says it doesn’t count when spiders or zombies see him because they’re hardly going to tell the watchmen. On the other hand, there’s this person, whose hours and hours of research into the question of how to sneak past spiders has borne the blatantly heterodiegetic discovery that “the stationary, unalerted spider sees with the butt.”
What we can see here is
It would be easy, then, to characterise my own play as prioritising narrative above challenge. I play on a World of Warcraft roleplaying server, where we prance around pretending our hunters and rogues are Elven revolutionaries and medieval doctors in total ignorance (and often contradiction) of their ludic function. I kill people just to make a cool story in Red Dead Redemption. But it would be more accurate to say that I value beauty of a very particular kind. When I really examine it, my play is designed to produce an aesthetic experience characterised by a mixture of order and chaos, moderation and excess, control and release, which I value in art and hope for in life. It corresponds to Alexander Pope’s depiction of nature “harmoniously confused” in his poem ‘Windsor Forest”: “where order in variety we see / and where, though all things differ, all agree.” It has parallels, too, with the blend of spontaneity and calculation involved the Situationist practice of Dérive – a form of urban exploration which requires “both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities” (Guy Debord, as it happened, aimed to “turn the whole of life into an exciting game”). But it’s also just like the winning strategy in Shadow of the Colossus: knowing when to hold on and when to let go, when to struggle and strive and when to ride things out (see Nick Fortugno's essay in Well Played v1.0). Or, as Leonard Cohen sang:
There is a crackOne way of seeing this is to say we are imposing ethics. Players come to these games, see choice spread wide before them, and give themselves an extra system of thou shalt and thou shalt not. In my case the notion of performance seems more appropriate (to whatever extent that’s seperable). I am self-consciously directing my play to create the kind of experience I think would be good. Whatever the model – and maybe both apply – such behaviour vastly complicates the ludic homo economicus of traditional game theory (and, arguably, modern optimality-focused theories like Keith Burgun’s). If winning or even just interacting with rules is what matters, our play is ‘impure’, polluted by a desire to perform or create or embody. Any game whatsoever is capable of being subverted or ‘polluted’ in this manner.
That’s how the light gets in.
Speedruns and griefing show that players will find ways to play with games as well as just play them. But that’s not to say these behaviours are independent of the rules of the game in question. It is those rules which give significance to the refusal of players to conform to them or to entirely ‘fill’ the space they offer. Even for a player who ‘performs’, refusing certain options has no meaning unless those options are actually present, and the choices a game allows– its phase space - transfigure the meaning of her performance. A conversation-centric Fallout playthrough depicts speech and negotiation as viable options in life. Trying to ‘talk to the monsters’ in Modern Warfare, on the other hand, would be an exercise in tragicomedy.
From this perspective, ghost players aren’t ignoring the beauty of the system but praising it like modern-day monks. They are reenacting the Christian idea that suffering entails virtue, that abstinence would have no meaning without sex and goodness no meaning without temptation. In fact, they’re performing (albeit without moral substance) the moral message of that bloody obnoxious Anglo-Catholic Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange: only if Alex is free to sin can he be accounted a truly moral being. Of this behaviour, all criticisms wielded against Christian ascetism can also be made – it is perverse, pointless and passive-aggressive towards the Creation – but it’s also pretty impressive and you won’t get threatened with hell for disagreeing.
“As consumers, do we actually want choice?” asks Goodwin. “Or just the comfortable illusion of choice?” The question is not whether we have more or less choice but what kind of choices are offered. These performances seem to arise when two conditions are fulfilled: firstly, when, there are a wide variety of options with only loose relation to the question of whether we win or lose; secondly, when these choices are strongly contextualised as socially or ethically meaningful. In these situations we impose our own rules not in spite of but because of the choices we are given. Pole vaulters do exactly what they think they have to do in order to win, and if they have creativity it is deployed to reach that goal. Dancers, however…
I want to close with some questions. If there is an opposition between ‘playing to win’ and ‘being playful’, what does the latter mean? Are those who play in alignment with the goals intended by developers playing any more ‘truly’ than others, or is their alignment of goals merely incidental? What is your playing style, and what does it say about what you value? And what does all this imply about the relationship of players with games? I’m very curious to hear what you think (yes, you), and plan to explore these questions further, on and off, under the ‘Quizzical Play’ tag. I know that’s a weak ending, but hey – sometimes you have to know when to let go.