Crispy Gamer

The Problem of How to Treat Players


To the first game that treats me as an equal instead of a button-pressing fool, I shall give the prize. It's probably not the kind of prize that you'd want; indeed, the term “prize” may be something that really should not apply. Nonetheless, it is the pride associated with earning my alleged “prize” that a game designer should be interested in. 


This is in no possible way a representation of the prize that you can win.


I once had a discussion with another gamer during which he claimed he wanted less control in his games. He wanted to play a single character, tossed into a harsh world of harsher consequence, in which the only thing he'd truly control would be his own character's actions. He craved for the game's world to be entirely separate from him, to be something akin to the real world in its opacity and disinterest. He wanted to reap the rewards, and suffer the consequences, of his decisions, but only while having power over those decisions themselves.


This type of game does rouse my interest, assuredly. As it should any gamer with more than the most shallow interest in games. (Yes, that's right, agree with me or be called a non-intellectual philistine.) But I find myself asking, why does the game need to be so limited?


Games have an unfortunate tendency to treat the player as little more than a monkey, to be trained with the proper responses to built-in stimuli. The player is not working, playing with the game; he or she is playing against the game. The game is not the player's friend; I know because it told me so. It's really quite a catty little bitch, when you get down to it.


But imagine a game that hands more power to the player, and treats the player as master, not hopeless schmuck, or mere audience member. This hypothetical game, which we shall heretofore call THE HOLY EFFING GRAIL, would feature a plotline determined by nothing so much as the player's decisions. To better enunciate what I'm trying to say, imagine, if your limited mortal minds can, the following example.


Delta Squad. Four written, defined characters. Not necessarily the most interesting of fellows; their primary motivations appear to be strongly linked with "killing some bitches" with those utterly unnecessary, and yet gleefully attractive chainsaw bayonets (you have no idea how much I wanted to write "Bayonettas" there). But they are well-known enough to be satisfactory for our purposes here. Gears of War follows their stories, and does so with a certain amount of flair and skill. But (SPOILER ALERT), imagine if GoW 2 had turned to the player and said, “Is Dom's wife alive?” Now, this most pivotal moment of the game would have its meaning, its very nature, not predetermined by the game's writers, but determined in the instant, by the player him or herself.


What do we lose in this version? Well, we lose a certain aspect of tragedy. The effectiveness of this one moment of GoW 2 lies in the player encountering implacable tragedy, over which he or she had no control. The player has spent the entire game fighting for this one moment, only to find that it was all for naught, from a certain point of view. If the player had the opportunity to choose that Maria were still alive, well, it might rob the game of this powerful tragedy. It would transform an emotional moment into a simply happy reunion, which, for some reason, seems to be generally considered less emotionally powerful.


Except, imagine if the player did choose to have Maria be dead. Just...imagine the power of that moment. No longer is it the player suddenly encountering an external, unstoppable it's the player himself who is to blame. Now, the tragedy is the result of nothing except for the player's own decisions.


Admittedly, using GoW as an example is mildly problematic. GoW isn't, in general, all that much of a story-driven game, quite frankly; there's far too much steroid abuse and gun smoke for the game to have a wholly powerful story. But my point remains, however. Imagine if the game gave unto the player the ability to make some of the most important decisions of the game's story, not through the decisions of the player's avatar, but through the player's choices of how to direct the game.


The transformation of player from “he-who-overcomes-challenges” to author is, I think at the heart of where games can go. Expanding the player's role in a game to something of an authorial position can only help to make games, as a medium, greater. That which games can do and movies or books cannot is to give players power over content. Embrace it; there the future lies.


Or, y'know. Stick with simple, railroaded FPS's or fighting games. Like burying your head in the sand, you uncultured fools.