Saturday 20 October 2012

Quizzical Play #1: How to Not Play Dishonored

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 a spider butt a fault line where different priorities are revealed by mutual exclusivity. For the first player, the narrative of ghosting takes precedence over its strict rules. Ludically speaking, the game doesn’t model guard behaviour after the end of a mission any more than it models spiders weaving ‘SOME THIEF’ in their subterranean webs; only the diegesis implies a difference between them. The second player, conversely, values the rule-based challenge of ghosting even when it makes a mockery of any diegetic justification. Neither player simply values one or the other (doubtless both love the challenge), but when their values clash, they pick one to follow.

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 crack 
A crack 
In everything 
That’s how the light gets in. 
One 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.

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.


  1. Often, I find that the story I want to tell (My narrative framework) and the story the game will allow me to tell (The Ludic Framework, in your ponce-tastic words) vary considerably, which often leads to horrific clashes. For instance, in Skyrim, the player starts off completely incompetent in all respects, struggling against enemies even the peasantry refer to as laughable. So if the character I wanted to play was a former member of the Blades, exiled after completely failing to protect the Emperor, I need to explain why it is that I had to spend a few weeks swordfighting rabbits, crabs, small deer, and the occasional possum before I regained my skills with the sword. And of course, heaven forbid that I abuse the craft system to level up many times faster than I should to accumulate perks- While admittedly, having more perks than the random-peasant-ascendant would make sense for my character, stopping and travelling the country amassing iron and leather and then making three hundred and sixteen daggers makes absolutely no sense for my character, so there's this tug of war between Ludic and Narrative goals.

    Another example: In Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, there's an ability called Pounce, which allows you to perform your regular attack routine at the end of a charging attack, rather than only one attack. That is to say, an ordinary man might be fast enough to swing his sword three times, but if he charges, he only swings it once that turn. Even if he has four arms and each one is holding two swords, he could still only attack once at the end of his charge if he doesn't have Pounce.

    The trouble is, Pounce is hard to come by. You can be an anthropomorphic tiger, a psychic warrior, or a spiritually enlightened member of the Lion Totem Tribe which grants you a tiny lion spirit that floats over your shoulder and grants you insight into throwing multiple punches after running really fast.

    If you had envisioned your character as being highly mobile and making a lot of attacks (Or even just one extra attack because he has two big axes and he wants to swing both of them at once) then you're forced to choose between either having a character that is less competent in a very real sense, or a character that's had his backstory heavily edited to hamfist in one of these three bizarre origins.

  2. Thought provoking piece John and one that touches on a number of things I've thought (and spoke) about in the past, most notably the idea of 'performing', something which Joel brought up after we discussed our time together playing Portal 2 co-op.

    I'd say being playful is experimenting with whatever systems are on offer with little regard to the 'spirit' of a game and what's expected of you. Kids are brilliant at this! I remember watching a friend playing the original Command and Conquer and he bought (probably) hundreds of sandbag barricades and chained them together all the way to the enemy's base, barricading its harvesters in (or out?), effectively -- and non-violently -- cutting off their economy. Playful yes, the 'correct' way to play? Probably not. It was an exploit, but a very funny and ingenious one at that.

    It's rare for me to consciously 'perform' or roleplay in games. I chuckled last night at myself closing doors behind me in DX:HR, which is more of an instinctive thing (probably from my Thief days) and probably shows how much I'm personifying Jensen or a virtual person without really realising it. I find that trying to roleplay can sometimes be detrimental to an experience though because most games aren't capable of understanding the context of certain actions and occurrences. I'm specifically thinking of Fallout 3 here. A friend and I discussed some of these topics on his blog and, rather than copy/paste chunks of it here, it's probably worth taking a look at the discussion in-situ!

    1. I'll take a look at that! Roleplaying can definitely be detrimental. I've worked myself into a real state of dissatisfaction by playing and replaying sections of a game because I didn't feel I'd done it the 'right' way. By the end, any prospect of doing it right has disappeared, and I just feel exhausted, like what I've really lost was some original, authentic, spontaneous, 'true experience'. A fallacy - but that doesn't always stop me fetishizing it.

      Your C&C example is really interesting as it shows that 'playfulness' can't be pinned down to 'not bothering to win'. It was, as you point out, an exploit, a 'winnable' strategy. It was optimal, but only given an condition of non-violence. That suggests playfulness means creating your own rules which stand in an oblique relation to the original ones - which is a rather unusual way to think about it when we more traditionally regard playfulness as involving an ironic, subversive or transgressive relationship with rules.

  3. Interestingly, I played Thief however I wanted, sometimes killing, sometimes sneaking and knocking unconscious, but always taking my time to explore and think about what I'm doing to do. But whenever I played it again, I played in different ways, and found that playing the game in a different way makes it fun because I am experiencing the exact same plot, game, graphics, etc, but the experience is different.

    I am wondering about Dishonered because it actually has Trophies for many different playstyles, telling the player the many different ways you can play the game, and I wonder what some players will feel about that, or if they will attempt all of the different ways you can play through it.

    1. Yeah, this is a crucial point that Robert Yang made - Dishonored actually does give you ludic feedback for 'ghosting', so my reading of ghosting as performance unnecessary to the game doesn't quite apply to that game.

      The question is whether we consider trophies to be rewards/acknowledgement within the game system, or just 'prompts' offering different styles of performance. But then, my post was never about opposing 'performance' to 'trying to win' in a simple way; rather it was about adding new rules to the game in a self-conscious way. In this light the trophies are optional mods, like modifiers in Unreal Tournament: invitations to add a few extra rules to spice things up according to your preference.

  4. I tend to treat a video game on the terms it wants me to treat it.

    Are most modern video games about playing to win? Some are, sure. But it seems that most video games are either guided tours, where difficulty derails the narrative, or theme parks, where too much challenge would spoil the creativity of the player. The former leaves no room for playfulness and the latter is concerned with little else.

    I like stealth games and a big reason for it is that they give you a lot of options and opportunity for emergent gameplay in the pursuit of a challenging goal. They specifically tie being playful (as I understand your usage of the word) and playing to win.