The Freedom to Kill Horses, and What That Does

“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.”

G Man (Half Life 2)


The ongoing re-realization that Roger Ebert is dead and will remain so from now until I join him has been difficult for me.1 This is not because he managed to see every movie I ever have and more, and to write reviews for nearly all of them which, though never fully getting away from the malignant expectation of a star rating or a firm yes-or-no recommendation, managed to contain a level of consistent thoughtfulness which stood out from the majority of review-criticism.2 Nor is it that he managed to eschew much of the common ire and vitriol that plagues criticism in many circles today: I never got the impression that Ebert saw movies as some sort of obligation, or that his main focus was in trying to find movies that weren’t worth anyone’s time and then writing angry screeds about them. Nor is it even that he is a major reason that so many of the critics and filmmakers I love are who, what, and where they are. He did do all these things, of course, and they do make his death frustrating, but the relevant issue here is that this means there will never be a time when the person I and everyone I know immediately think of when we hear the word “critic” will be able to properly have The Video Game Discussion. And this is difficult not just because it has far too much finality in it for me to handle, but because one of the world’s foremost critics being actively engaged in the game community could have been enormously helpful indeed. Of course he didn’t singlehandedly spark the world’s interest in film criticism,3 but he was a big part in it, and this ability to both engage the public mind about something and also to reliably articulate a thoughtful position on that very thing is one thing among many that game culture needs right now. This is not to say that I would like to have seen him live long enough to change his mind, though.4 Rather, I would have liked to have seen him put his considerable analytical and writing skills together with an actual working understanding of the gaming medium, so as to come up with a rigorous critique of the medium. This is partly because Ebert had a pretty massive cultural reach which isn’t shared by even the most prominent contributors to his eponymous website,5 but mostly because his failure to do this makes me feel the need to do it myself, which I’m sorry to say is a bit of a step-down in both reach and ability.

But before I do that, I think it will save me a lot of time and (hate) mail6if I first clarify what this is not going to be about. Firstly, this is not going to be a discussion about whether games always, sometimes, used to, or may at some point in the future constitute art. The reason for this is simple pragmatics: that is an argument no human can win, and getting involved in it nearly always ends in pain and poorly thought out insults. As such, I’ll simply be laying out the definitions I’ll be using for the purposes of this essay. You or anyone else (including me) can disagree with these definitions as categorical absolutes, and we would all be well within our logical rights to do so. I’m only declaring them as such so as to be able to get on to more productive talk. For us, a video game (hereafter shortened to “game” unless I’m contrasting it with games in general) is any electronic, interactive system where a player or group of players do something, with a controller, their bodies, their brain waves, or basically any other input method, such that they receive some sort of visual feedback. Art is anything either intentionally created or intentionally displayed for the purposes of creative expression. One can see quite quickly that these are very broad definitions. In this view, “video game” would include the software I’m using to write this, and “art” would include, well, anything that anyone claims expresses anything. This isn’t just an overlong way of saying I don’t care about the definition (though to a certain degree I don’t), but to clarify where we’re starting, philosophically: right now, we’re being as inclusive as possible, assuming there’s no obvious logical reason why games should or should not be art. They aren’t art automatically, but they aren’t not art automatically. For us, for the next few pages, the two categories simply exist without any real dependence on each other. What we’re concerned with is the area where they intersect, and the particular challenges there.

Secondly, this is not going to be an argument that games are good for us or bad for us, either on an individual level or more collectively. If you want arguments in favour of games, check out something like Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. If you want those against, talk to a few parents about how much you love Grand Theft Auto and don’t really see why kids shouldn’t play it. Both sides will likely sound radically oversimplified and reactionary—I mean honestly, who would ask for such an evaluation of any other medium? Everything has its Don Quixotes and its Mein Kampfs, its Starry Knights and its One Nation Under Socialisms, its Citizen Kanes and its Citizen Kane porn spoofs—but if that’s your bag, have at it.

Thirdly, this will not be concerned with whether games are an artistic good in and of themselves, either in absolute terms or relative to other media. I may come out more or less in favour of certain specific games, but this is not the primary intent of this piece, and I am firmly against anyone who would try to postulate any sort of a media hierarchy where games in general are better or worse than other art forms by virtue of their particular strengths and/or weaknesses. In my view, if it is obvious how fatuous a question like “which is better, painting or sculpture?” is, it should be equally apparent that comparing games to movies or books or poetry in any sort of competitive way makes very little sense.7

And lastly, this will not be an outline of the various practical problems that a game developer might face today. It won’t be a critique of the so-called gaming culture. The social biases present in the industry aren’t unique to it nor are they a necessary aspect of it, and they certainly aren’t intrinsic to the nature of games. Likewise, the market pressures on games are as unrelated to their artistic potential as are the market pressures on film. That is, if we consider movies produced by a business to be, at least potentially, works of art, why would we not grant that this is a possibility for a game? Obviously there can be conflicts of interest between art and commerce, but even Michelangelo had a patron. And the technological boundaries that we run into are incredibly transient as history has shown us: if something’s an artistic impossibility now, check back in a few years and it probably won’t be.

So, with all that ado, what are the main issues inherent to the medium itself? To answer this, we have to limit ourself to only those things that are absolutely necessary for something to be considered a game. Something like a points system, for example, though often present in games, is definitively not necessary. Numerous games have been made without any sort of points—the original Halo, for example.8 But even more basic things like the ability to win or lose have been called into question. So as to avoid the eye-rolls that often accompany references to obscure avant-garde-y games,9 I’ll just go as far as possible in the other direction and mention “Aftermath,” a level in Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4, in which all the player does is die as a result of an atomic explosion. One’s choices and input have no effect on the outcome, as the character will die either way, and there’s no real way to win or lose. You can make it through the level, of course, but you could hardly call this “winning” for reasons both thematic (horrible death scenes don’t usually scream “victory”) and semantic (there is literally nothing you can do to lose). Yet despite this, I didn’t suddenly feel as if I wasn’t playing a game, and I doubt many other people did either. This sort of thinking—gradually removing things from the “necessary in a game” pile and moving them into the “well, sometimes” pile—can go on nigh indefinitely, so I’m going to focus all of my criticisms on the one thing that is both part of my earlier definition and which seems most agreed on as a necessary part of a game: agency.10 Once again, pages and pages could be wasted on defining agency, but let’s just content ourselves in saying it’s the ability of a player to make choices, to act on or in the game world according to his or her wishes. This simple thing causes some interesting problems.

Agency &/vs. (Player) Character

Now, there are many ways to show what a character is like. You could, for example, have a narrator explain what the character is like. Or you could dress them in a certain way, with riot grrrl t-shirts showing one character to be a nonconformist and a well tailored suit showing another to be… there are many interpretations from “understands how to live properly” to “vain” to “reminds me of a banker and is therefore maximally evil.” I’m not here to discount any of this as “bad” characterization, as these sorts of shorthand can be helpful or just plain necessary within a given context.11 But I would argue that, at a point when two methods of characterization clash, some tend to win out over others. So, for example, if a narrator describes a character as “a thoroughly kind, uncontroversial, and welcoming person,” and we then see the character wearing a shirt that says “Fuck the Jews” and brandishing a forehead swastika, the majority12 of us will reinterpret the narration as ironic or else just wrong. What I would argue further is that, on this sort of interpretive hierarchy, choice—and in particular choice made under pressure—is what we (in general) see as being most indicative of how a character actually is.13 That is, even if we hear a narrator saying that a character is “just awful, honestly, like if corporate tax avoidance and a hangnail had a baby, and it was raised by that feeling you get when you’re about to fall asleep and then you jump,” and if this person looks exactly like we would expect such a terrible person to look, yet this person is honest and loyal to all their friends and family, donates time and money to both his local and global communities, and generally just does the right thing, most of us would write off the narrator as unreliable and view the appearance cues as, at least in this case, misleading.14 So far, if we don’t project this train of thought too far ahead, this is all pretty standard—enough that the entire preceding paragraph does not much more than combine a tired idiom and a tired aphorism to get “when push comes to shove, actions speak louder than words.” The problem, if indeed there is one, arises when we apply this sort of thinking to the one mainstream medium in which characters’ choices are not necessarily in the author’s control.

To hedge my bets here yet again, I am not just concerned here with games like BioShock, Fable, Mass Effect, or The Walking Dead, in which player choice is prominently bullet-pointed on the back of the box and used as a selling point. The issue isn’t that these games don’t include choice—you really can kill those little girls if you want—or that the choices offered are artistically poor ones,15 but that these games aren’t at all unique in their inclusion of choice. They simply offer a certain kind of agency (one which also happens to be immensely marketable), but every game has some sort of player choice, even a linear one like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. I can choose, as a player, to use the hunting rifle or the bow,16 to attack head-on or try to sneak around,17 or which path I’m going to use to sneak up behind that guy in the restaurant with the obscenely noisy broken plates everywhere. These more general choices are often not even noticed as such: usually, people just call this “good game design.” I agree, in the sense that allowing players this sort of choice is, at least for now, pretty much necessary in order for players to be engaged,18 but it does bring in an issue: what if I’m nothing like the character is supposed to be?

Take, for example, Bungie’s Halo franchise, in which I play Master Chief Petty Officer John 117, an unstoppable badass supersoldier whose cavalier attitude is matched only by his ability to 360 no-scope on command.19 Oh, and also he tends to occasionally get super timid, hiding behind rocks until enemies forget about him, then shooting them once and hiding again until they forget about him, repeating this incredibly time consuming process even in the face of galaxy-ending consequences which are supposedly time-sensitive. Coincidentally, this timidity tends to appear whenever a cutscene ends,20 and disappear whenever another cutscene begins. This is as much as to say that all the parts in Halo where I’m actually in control tend to directly contradict what is just about the only characterization of the Master Chief: a simply idiotic level of bravery. Or else look at Joel in The Last of Us, who is in cutscenes a not exactly cruel but tough and cautious guy who doesn’t take any unnecessary risks—who then immediately changes into a borderline psychopath who points his gun directly at his fifteen year-old companion and pulls the trigger just to see if it will kill her, and, finding that it doesn’t, contents himself with repeatedly running into her in an attempt to push her off a ledge. The resulting dissonance between who I make the character and who he is clearly supposed to be may be my “fault,” but that’s really beside the point, which is that, despite clearly having a specific characterization in mind, a game developer has no way of knowing whether I will choose to make the character that way. I have seen three, or maybe three and a half ways of responding to this.

The first is to go the route of thatgamecompany’s Journey, Fullbright’s Gone Home, and Dylan Carter’s Alz. In Journey, the player assumes the role of what I’ve most accurately heard called a “little dude in a robe.” This little dude has no name, no backstory, and no clear motivation, but the mountain you can see in the distance, with an unexplained beam of light emanating from its summit, seems like it needs to be climbed. And so the player proceeds to do, without any words spoken or read. On the way she will find hints of some lost civilization, and have visions of a white figure watching over her—and that’s about as specific as the plot gets. In Gone Home, the player character does have a name (Kaitlin) and some backstory (she’s been away for a year and is back to visit family), but not much specificity of characterization. Her gap year could be the result of rash impulsivity, or a deep seated concern for world affairs, or a career focus that lead her to pursue opportunities abroad. We know she is and has been close with her family, but not much about how she shows that. And throughout the game we don’t get much more—at least, not about Kaitlin—as the player must investigate the empty family home to find out where everyone is. In Alz, the character plays a nameless man with Alzheimer’s disease, and takes a walk.21 The common thread in each of these games, aside from their all being obscure indie art-games that are just fantastic for sarcastically rebutting the innocently false perceptions of people over fifty who just don’t “get” games, is that the player’s character is incredibly minimal, and basically secondary to the overall tone. Journey’s little dude(tte) could be anyone. Gone Home’s Kaitlin is arguably not even the point of the story (which I won’t spoil here). And Alz’s old man has nothing to define him except that he looks like a typical person with Alzheimer’s.22 The reason these games work, despite having protagonists that flutter just on the edge of character existence à la Marty McFly in the middle of a rendition of Earth Angel23 is that they make what points they do with other means. Journey’s aesthetic evokes a sense of the world’s harsh, desolate, occasionally inhospitable beauty and the perseverance it takes to make it through that regardless of how one chooses to play. Gone Home simply makes the interesting characters and relationships those of the non-player characters. Your choices, such as they are, amount to different ways of exploring those same, vibrant relationships. And Alz gently mucks around with both normal aesthetics and normal control schemes to give what, heartbreakingly, is almost guaranteed to be just a tiny glimpse at the experience of losing one’s grasp on and control of reality.

As with just about every solution, though, this one isn’t perfect. The main issue here is that it’s a very limiting structure in terms of game design. Minimizing the player’s character becomes drastically more difficult if you want this character to actually interact with others, which is as good an explanation as any as to why all three of the above games have basically zilch in the way of other characters to actually bump into.24 As long as this is the sort of game you’re interested in making, then fine, but it’s a bit cruelly ironic to ask makers of the most interactive artistic medium of all time25 to strictly limit any real influence a player might have on other characters.

An alternative to this, our second type of characterization, is to go the route that many RPGs26 take, and not force any preconceived notions about how a character “should” be onto a player. So, in The Elder Scrolls you can play as any of a variety of exotic or more recognizable races, from anthropomorphized lizards to various elves to standard humans, and all major conversational responses are player-chosen. Or in the Half Life series, the player character Gordon Freeman never says a word, and his face is never seen. In this model, no choice is really right or wrong, and the “character” is less a predetermined idea of what a certain fictional person is like, and more a blank slate onto which each player can write his or her own characterization. Many players enjoy this, as it allows for maximal freedom and a sense that you yourself are being injected into the game world. This is often cited, though of course this is far from an empirical fact, as the reason why Gordon Freeman’s eternal silence and the Master Chief’s mask make them such widely liked characters: there’s no other characterization to get in the way of however the player may want to see the character. This does happily remove any dissonance between the character as intended and the character as played. What concerns me, though, is that this dissonance is resolved by removing as much artistic intent as possible. At least in the matter of the player’s character (a telling use of the possessive) this can amount to an artist relinquishing nearly all control and responsibility and handing it over to the player. So when I, in Skyrim, spend around forty-five minutes finding the largest cliff off of which I can jump my horse,27 there is little to tell me I should be doing otherwise. Some may see little problem with this, and they would likely have good reasons for this. It could be that they don’t care about authorial intent generally, or that they see games’ primary purpose to be entertainment, and thus the lack of some overarching artistic purpose is relatively unimportant. Otherwise, they could argue that the larger thematic issues of a game should come from other aspects of it, such as non-player characters (NPCs), the rules of the game, the aesthetic, etc. I can’t condemn anyone for thinking these things, but I would note that whatever your views is on authorial intent or theme in art, many artists do actually have a specific intent and want to convey a certain theme, and that one way they may want to go about this is by fashioning the protagonist a certain way.28 This method of characterization more or less ignores such things in favour of letting me murder my horse however I may choose, which, so as not to appear elitist, I will admit that I did, repeatedly, but the question of what artistic purpose this would ever serve still stands.

It is possible, of course, to go a half-step step further: to allow as many player decisions as possible, but to have the game dynamically respond to these decisions. This has been used extensively—though to some gamers’ minds not extensively enough—in BioWare’s Mass Effect series, a sci-fi trilogy (so far) wherein player choices affect which characters survive, how other characters get along, and (most importantly) which characters will have sex with the player. Telltale’s The Walking Dead does much the same thing, forcing the player to decide which characters get rations when there isn’t enough for everyone, or whether to allow a character who has been bitten by a zombie to kill herself. After these decisions have been made, the story may go one way or another, and characters will treat you accordingly. These games don’t differ dramatically in mechanics from those just above in which characterization is left blank, but there are subtle differences, at least to my tastebuds. The decisions one makes are often intentionally limited, most likely as a result of simple pragmatics since it’s somewhere between difficult, impossible, and perpetual motion to plan for everything a player might do. But more importantly, the outcomes of the decisions are limited, not just in plot or gameplay ways but also in terms of overall theme: no matter what a player does, something like the same theme is going to emerge. This approach is probably slightly more successful than that above in the sense of maintaining artistic intentionality, but it still has its problems. There is the issue of market pressure which, despite not being the main focus of this piece, still dictates that all paths in such a game be something like equal. One path might lead to more money, while another saves your dog, and yet a third will give you worldwide renown, sure. But it would be quite another thing for one way through the game to be dramatically limited in relation to the other two. Imagine for a moment a Sims-esque game in which the player is allowed to create whatever character they want, and guide this character through life. The only issue is, choosing for your character to be born gay would lead to him being bullied in school to the point of suicide, or else beaten to death in the street. The rest of the game consists of a cutscene in which the majority of the town says “what a shame” and pretty much moves on with their lives. Such a game might, if designed for something more than mere tragedy exploitation, have a very valid point to make with such a path, but it can’t be ignored that, from a gameplay perspective, this option stinks. Worse than just not being fun, there’s no challenge here, because the outcome is inevitable. Every choice made along this path would feel pointless, since it literally can’t influence anything. It’s quite likely that, even if the gaming audience viewed the depiction of such helplessness and inevitability as a valid artistic statement, it would rather play a game with multiple viable paths. Unfortunately, such a structure would undermine the exact point this game tries to make.29 The other issue I see with this structure is more of a speed bump than a brick wall, but it is true that, if meaningfully different paths can be taken, it is difficult to construct a specific intention in a game. What if I opted to make my Sims-esque character much like myself—white, male, heteronormative, about as privileged as you can get. Given that a profound lack of experience with minority viewpoints is one of the hallmarks of a realistic depiction of the privileged life, how would our hypothetical developer maintain its point about the difficulties of growing up gay, black, transgender, First Nations, female, disabled, and so on? True, maybe the marginalized paths would seem all the more striking in contrast with the privileged one, but there’s always the possibility that a player could go through such a game and, as in life, never see the marginalization that’s happening all around him. Giving players such choice can be empowering, but it can also empower them to work around uncomfortable realities.

Enter the fourth response to the challenge of characterization. It is to follow the example of games like Papers, Please or Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the former, the player assumes the role of an immigration officer for the fictional30 country of Arstotzka. The gameplay consists of reviewing the documentation of people who are attempting to enter the country, and trying to find any discrepancies. Missing these discrepancies causes the player to lose money from his already meagre paycheque, which thus can make the player unable to afford food, heat, or the rent of his grey, monolithic apartment. As the game progresses, decisions become harder, as terrorist attacks prompt more and more regulations, making it more difficult to succeed without any demerits. At this point, the bribes that many of the immigrants offer start to look a little more enticing. As does the mysterious, revolutionary rhetoric of EZIC, a subversive organization that attempts to enlist your help. Papers, Please doesn’t enforce specific choices on its players—it has a branching story structure that allows for different endings depending on what the player does. But it does enforce a certain kind of choice on its players: conflicted ones. In Amnesia we play as Daniel, a man who wakes up in a spooky castle with no memory of why he’s there or who he is beyond the name Daniel, his hometown of London, and the fact that “the shadow” is hunting him. Much backstory is revealed over the course of the game, but the important characterization thing to note is how the game as a whole pressures the player to play in a certain way. The player has no weapons to fight the monsters she encounters, so she feels helpless. The whole castle is poorly, creepily lit, and odd sounds  emanate from around corners and things, so she can sense there’s always something dangerous nearby. When the player stands in a more well lit area, her gameplay is normal, but she’s visible to the monsters; when she hides in darkness she can’t be seen, but her vision becomes distorted, she begins to hallucinate, and she generally goes insane which, of course, also attracts the monsters. The interesting thing about these games isn’t the depth or insight of their characterization, but how they go about it. Papers, Please gradually numbs and frustrates the player, pushing him to internal conflict and compromise. Amnesia makes the player feel scared, helpless, panicked, and alone. Both games use their rules, their aesthetics, and some basic plotting to put the player in the same emotional state that the character would be in, and thus to nudge the player toward making the same choices the character would. Crucially, this process is not optional. This is a very difficult thing for a developer to do, and it’s also quite limiting. Such single-minded devotion to a particular tone limits a developer’s ability to include anything else that might disrupt that tone. So, for example, Amnesia would be markedly less effective if it included in-app-purchases à la FarmVille so that players could buy sanity pills for an additional $9.95, or a rocket launcher for $99.95. It also tends to limit player choice: there’s no option in Papers, Please to quit the immigration office and go overthrow the communists. That both developers and players continue to pursue games like this despite their difficulties and limitations is a testament to how powerful they can be. The feeling of truly being in another world—and the illusion of making your own choices in it—is startlingly appealing, and when this is guided in such a way that, player agency be damned, it all serves a larger artistic purpose, well, hoo boy.

But of course there’s still quite a bit left in this essay, so there must be some problem with this approach or else my conclusion is horrifyingly drawn out. And there is: what if you want a player to disagree with the choices of a character? How could a developer create an experience analogous to watching Nightcrawler or The Wolf of Wall Street, in which characters make horrible and -fying choices repeatedly, continuously, and for far longer than anyone would want. Or what if you want a character to make choices the player wouldn’t think of, as Gollum/Sméagol do in The Lord of the Rings, and Sherlock Holmes does in Anything Sherlock Holmes Is In. This, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue: so long as a character’s choices are in a player’s hands, that character is limited to the range of things the player would think, do, or feel. Given art’s ability to foster empathy and understanding with those whom we previously have not understood (among many, many other functions), this is quite a limitation to have on every playable character. But moreover, it has the troubling implication that a game might only be as good as its player.

Agency &/vs. Accessibility

At the risk of repeating myself,31 I want to point out again that this essay isn’t primarily about gaming culture. If you are interested in hearing how gaming culture has a tendency to exclude new entrants, malign outsiders, and generally just be unwelcoming to anyone who doesn’t already “get it,” feel free to 1) try to ask an avid gamer honest and earnest questions about his hobby without drowning in the ensuing waves of sarcasm, 2) walk about three feet in any direction on any games website, or 3) play any online game that allows voice chat. If you’re in the right circles, the sort of thinking which spawned a designated pejorative for anyone who is new and not yet very skilled32 is everywhere. Nor is this about games being too expensive for many, or being inordinately difficult for people with physical disabilities, or even just being too hard.33 This is about the fact that, in ways distinct from other mainstream artistic media—movies, literature, theatre, music, and whatever the catch-all term is for things like Serial and radio theatre—the player’s own abilities dictate how effective a work is.

When watching a movie, I, who do so once a day unless some tragedy makes that impossible, am able to see connections between the movie I’m watching and other movies with the same director, screenwriter, or actors. One of my very close friends is able, when listening to music, identify aspects of it that I can’t even name, nevermind notice in a performance.34 Another is able to gloss the histor(y/ies) of any comic book you’re likely to have heard of or read. That those who have put years of effort into an art will be able to extract more significance out of it than those who haven’t isn’t new. But my inability as a musician or comic critic doesn’t substantially alter the phenomenon on display: the song or book stays the same. I am simply unable to perceive the nuances of it. Games are different. Cf. game demo videos like these, in which things happen at about the right time and in about the right way, so as to make both the characters and the environment feel appropriate. The sense that these demos show the game at its absolute best, a best in many ways inaccessible to most players, is very real. The players used for demo reels know how to play, where to look, how to make things look difficult or easy, etc. The decisions they make are informed by a great deal of knowledge about the game and its intended purpose, knowledge which I as a player might not have or care to act on. I might want the game to feel as cool as it looked in the video, but I don’t necessarily know how to make it so, or I might not be cognizant enough of the fact that I am responsible for making the game feel cool to even try.

This is by no means limited to intentional actions, either. In the Assassin’s Creed III video linked above, the player is on the brink of being shot by a line of infantrymen with muskets, only to have Connor (the main character) grab a closer enemy at the last second for use as a human shield. If I were playing, I might want to do the same thing, but since I’m not very good at games, I would probably fail to do so, instead being shot many, many times. Negative feedback like this is understandable and necessary in a game like Assassin’s Creed, but it fundamentally alters its aesthetic: Connor is a lot less of a badass when I play, even though I wish he weren’t. This problem extends to games as rightly lauded as Portal. When I play, the individual puzzles take me, on occasion, hours, which more or less destroys any sense of timing or tempo to the game, which is especially problematic in a game as short as Portal.35 Being better at the game isn’t always a help, either, as evinced by videos like this, wherein angelically skilled players are able to beat the game in around fifteen minutes, often not leaving time for the other character to finish her sentence, leaving me with a dropped jaw but almost none of the emotional impact the game has when played at a more normal speed.

Games that feature an open world and allow for missions to be completed in an order that the player chooses, like Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Batman: Arkham City, and the upcoming Legend of Zelda game, have a story arc that the player, not the developer, dictates. There may be certain limits imposed such as being unable to enter a boss’ lair until you’ve secured the item needed to beat him/her, and of course the player can’t make things happen backwards, but the order in which a significant portion of the plot plays out is in the player’s hands. What sounds like fun and freedom is so, to an extent, but my ability to engage in side missions to make my character stronger, or faster, or more resistant to fire has knock on effects for the whole narrative. In Grand Theft Auto V, it makes a material difference when and whether the character Franklin has completed the skydiving missions. If the player waits until after a mission wherein Franklin and Michael have to rescue Michael’s son from a yacht which is being towed at highway speed, Franklin will still express hesitation about skydiving despite the fact that he has recently jumped from one moving car to another without any safety measures whatsoever. It would likely make more sense to do some skydiving first, and then work up to highway-speed, multi-car acrobatics, but this reasonable story progression is ceded in favour of the same freedom that lets me kill my horse any way I choose. One could argue, of course, that with a bit more time Rockstar North could have written an alternate path for one or both of these missions, taking into account the things the player has made Franklin do thus far, but beyond the considerable technical challenges this would pose when generalized to the (probably) thousands of ways a player could order the game, it still remains that a slightly different point would be made depending on the ordering of these events. Franklin either gets swept up into an insane world full of bizarro-Frogger,36 then decides he might as well go skydiving while he’s here, or else his skydiving prepares him for his promising future in transvehicular bodily commerce. I would argue that this is not an isolated example, and that how a story is structured is, in every one I’ve experienced, incredibly important, and that it may well be impossible to build a story in which it isn’t so without sacrificing any and all character arc at the get go.

Things as simple as weapon loadout can make such differences, too. Playing The Last of Us, a shootout could be a dramatic last stand against overwhelming odds, a plucky underdog vs. the powers that be, man against the world. Alternatively, I could have the bow and hunting rifle fully upgraded, a full stock of molotov cocktails, and thus through a bit of skill and proper packing undermining the very feelings of helplessness that I admire in the game and that it is trying to inculcate in me. Worse yet, I want to do this. Naughty Dog, being the talented studio it is, seems to understand this, and at various points puts the player in situations where much of his equipment or abilities are lost or unusable, reinstating the tension and inhospitability of The Last of Us’ world that is so crucial for its functioning. But what may seem at first glance like a perfect solution to the problem is but another example of it: this solution, successful though it may be in redeeming the narrative tone of the piece, ultimately happens by a reduction of my agency. I didn’t choose to lose all my weapons but my pistol, or to wait in an exposed cabin with David until dozens of supposedly brainless monsters launch a coordinated, multi-flanked attack. This choice was made for me, and the fact that I’m glad it was doesn’t change the fact that it represents a limiting of my agency.

The preceding examples bring up two crucial questions in my mind. Firstly, if games are serious, legitimate artistic statements, is there a wrong way to play them, or is the existence of choices that contradict the artistic point evidence of bad game design? But more importantly, if it’s up to the player to “forge her own story,” does this imply that some players will be more capable of doing this than others? I don’t know the answers to these questions, or whether they are the sort of questions that have answers, but I do know I’d very much like to hear Ebert’s opinion on them, as all of the above discussion involves one of the key issues he cites when it comes to classifying games as art: authorship.

Agency &/vs. Authorship

I believe games have authorship. For those unversed in the debates surrounding this, it might not be clear why I have to state this right away, but suffice it to say that claims to the contrary are numerous, and generally followed by spurious logic or dramatic misunderstanding of the current state of games. The practical implication of all this shoddy thinking is that even using the term “authorship” in some circles without being one hundred and ten percent on the side of authorship in games can make people ignore everything you have said or ever will say. So to be clear as a perfect vacuum, I am not saying that the existence of player input implies there is no authorship in games. What I am saying is that authorship as I understand it relies on limiting player agency.

Putting authorship in these terms might make it sound frustrating, elitist, oppressive, or worst of all unfun, but it holds up to scrutiny. A game with no limitations whatsoever would a) hardly be classifiable as a game and b) would be of questionable artistic merit, since art design, goals, narrative, tone, genre, and everything else would be in the player’s control. This could be fun—a sort of first person37 God simulator—but there could by definition be no artistic purpose behind it, or at least not on the side of the developer. And such a game might be a priori38 impossible for a human to make anyway, since anything a human makes is governed by the particular ways the human brain works.39 So the most perfected ideal of player agency is maybe impossible and definitely not an artistic statement,40 but that’s all on the extreme end of abstract and is currently an impossibility regardless. To bring the discussion back to a practically appropriate level I pose a conundrum to you: how does an author of a game tell a story the player doesn’t want to make, if not by limiting that player’s agency in some way? This is more than a restatement of the problem of choir-preaching and how easy it is to fall into, with the only people listening being those who want to hear their own thoughts repeated back to them. This applies to games, specifically, on account of the agency that they necessarily include. In Amnesia, for example, players are allowed to run and hide from the monsters, but not to attack them. The technology exists for a combat system, and could likely be implemented relatively easily into Amnesia, but this runs counter to its purpose of fear, and so it is excised.41 Voice or text chat would be possible in Journey, but it would make the landscape much less lonely and much more sweary, and so it is excised. I’m not making a plea for limiting player choices entirely, since that would end up as something like a movie, but I am arguing for limiting them in certain creative, purposeful ways. I see no reason why this cannot be artistic, as in sculpture where the art is revealed through a process of removal, though I am aware that I have just made the entire process sound a whole lot less fun.

P.S.: It’s OK

What I’ve said thus far may come off as an attack on the very core of what makes a game a game, but I swear it’s not. As a person with a passion for narrative art, the existence of a novel, relatively untested form with what looks like a cavernous well of potential is very exciting indeed. But vast potential is a double-edged sword, and we need proper discussion if we want to figure out which sorts of potential we consider to be the most worthwhile. And that is why I wrote this, not as a list of reasons why the gaming form can’t work, since of course every medium has obstaclesbooks face the very real problem of illiteracy; movies face the issue of a fixed runtime despite an audience with variable interpretive speeds; rhyming poetry faces dialects even of the same language in which rhymes no longer work but as an enumeration of the issues we have to face if we want people to make art with this medium. And boy do I want them to.

  1. I suppose he’ll remain dead after I am as well, but I doubt I’ll mind as much then.

  2. I am, with the term “review-criticism,” enforcing what is largely an artificial separation between it and what one could call longform criticism. But regardless of the distinction’s artificiality, I find it useful to keep in mind that some reviews are written more or less as buying guides—the operative question always being “should I pay money to see this?”—while others are written without such concerns—the operative questions being myriad, complex, and usually far too wordy.

  3. Pauline Kael helped, obviously.a

    a Though, notably, only semi-film nerds will know who that is or understand that it’s tongue-in-cheek.

  4. For those who are somehow simultaneously interested enough in game criticism to read this, but not interested enough to know Ebert’s history with it: he was firmly in the “games can’t be art” camp.

  5. NORMAL PEOPLE, CALLING ALL NORMAL PEOPLE: do names like Matt Zoller Seitz, Anthony Lane, Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Peter Travers, Armond White, David Edelstein, Mike D’Angelo, Dana Stevens, A.O. Scott, André Bazin, and the aforementioned Pauline Kael mean even one twenty-fourth of a thing to you? Exactly: most of these people could find a cure for cancer in one of their pieces and we wouldn’t even notice, and this despite many of them being excellent writers and thinkers. This is more our problem than theirs, of course, but it’s illustrative of why having a big mouthpiece like Ebert on your side is helpful, for marketing if nothing else.

  6. Although then again, that would require someone to actually read this.

  7. See also: the thoroughly ungenerous pseudo-concession that while games might “technically” be art (though under what technicality I have no idea), they still fall short of being “high” art, which is just about the most obvious example of goalpost-moving I’ve ever seen. It would serve quite well to discredit those who say it if only those debating them weren’t so willing to go along with it.

  8. I’m referring to the campaign, obviously—though then again the lack of a points system didn’t stop many an older brother declaring “I did way better than you” after a co-op level (which is just ridiculous I mean we’re powering through “The Library” on legendary why can’t we both just be proud of ourselves here?).

  9. I’ll save those for just a bit later.

  10. The two people in the crowd praying that I’d be focusing on the innate problems of electricity use, as was also mentioned in my definition, are probably super disappointed now. Sorry guys. How about I say that the electrical plug/socket system is essentially phallic and reinforces the notion of the phallus being the active party? There, that’s better. Fight the power.

  11. For a good example of the dangers of never using shorthand, see: this essay.

  12. Or possibly all, but art seems like a game of averages to me. You can’t win ‘em all, and all that.

  13. I’m not sure of the legalities here so just to be safe I’ll admit that even thinking this way might be trademarked by Robert McKee. I am sorry, Rob.

  14. Or, in some stories, these appearance cues may be shown to be entirely wrong in principle, as in e.g. most of Severus Snape’s arc, that whole Boo Radley thing in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Good Samaritan, etc. Notably, these challenges rely on our interpretation of choices taking precedence over hearsay, appearance, and the like.

  15. Though let’s be honest: how much critical reflection was inspired as to whether murdering a young girl for the sake of upgrading your superpowers is justified? Don’t get me wrong, I killed them all, but I was never for a moment tempted to think that such actions might be A-OK in the real world.

  16. Bow, obviously.

  17. Initially sneak around, but then get caught every single time, then give up and resort to running in guns blazing over and over until I happen to make it through.

  18. For those unaware, there are games (or sections of games) where this choice is not given, and the options amount to “press X” or “wait around until you realize there’s no other option and press X anyway.” Gamers generally hate this.

  19. A no-scope is a maneuver wherein a player shoots a faraway enemy with a sniper rifle without using the rifle’s scope. As you can’t properly see your enemy, this is quite difficult. Doing a 360 before no-scoping an enemy has little to no practical value, but it serves to make you just that much more Xtreme.

  20. A cutscene is a non-interactive, narrative scene

  21. Alz is available here and honestly please do play it as it is as short and beautiful as it sounds

  22. Though for the sake of public awareness it’s worth pointing out that the typical Alzheimer’s patient is female.

  23. Joke explainer

  24. Journey apologists take note: yes I am aware that Journey does sort of have a cooperative mode, but this actually dovetails nicely with my overall point. Nearly every mode of interaction had to be removed from this, such that your partner is an anonymous person on the other end of an internet connection, with whom you have no other method of communication besides a simple pleasant call. Allowing anything else would invite hate speech, language barriers, incompatible personality styles, jokes that don’t land, etc. For my part, the cooperative experience of the story paled in comparison to the solo journey, as the extent of my cooperative interaction was my seeing another little dude(tte), running over to it, our circling each other tentatively a few times, then my watching as the other dude(tte) performed the call animation right next to me, which the call animation consists of a sort of crouch followed by a jump, but this dude(tte) held the crouch so it looked like he was looking up my robe. Then he made a bunch of quick little chirps and ran away, leaving me thinking “yeah sure bud.”

  25. Except Whose Line, of course.

  26. Role-playing game. This is an incredibly poorly defined genre in video games, possibly as a result of its incredibly uninformative name. RPGs tend to employ things like levelling systems, wherein a player character gradually improves his abilities; an open world, such that players can go where they like when they like; character customization; “loot,” which is to say collectible power-ups or equipment; and, quite often, dragons. Representative examples include the Elder Scrolls, Fable, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Legend of Zelda series, as well as online RPGs like World of Warcraft and Runescape, Oddly, however, on Wikipedia the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series currently don’t fall under this category, despite fulfilling all the above requirements except the dragons thing (though I’m sure you can find a mod for that somewhere). And Assassin’s Creed is out too, despite Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor—which is essentially the same thing but with improved combat taken from the Arkham series of Batman games—being in. This is all a long way of saying this is probably a debate not worth getting involved with.

  27. There are a depressing number of examples.

  28. And also that it’s debatable whether the notion of a work of art that conveys no message at all is even possible (and therefore that an abdication of all fictive responsibility ends up saying something anyway) but that’s a whole other can of worms.

  29. It can be argued whether this game is making a point of any real value. It may well not, but it can at least be seen that what it was trying to do, good or bad, doesn’t work with paths of equal viability.

  30. Though vaguely Soviet or east Europe-y on account of cyrillic text and the colour red all over the place.

  31. Well, not a risk, really, more of a guarantee. Perhaps at the risk of sounding repetitive.

  32. The word is newb/noob/n00b/nub, and yes I am aware that some will claim there is a difference between a newb and noob, namely that a newb, though unexperienced, is at least willing to learn and try hard, and thus the term newb is not as negatively connoted as noob. Of course, much in-game chat happens orally, where newb and noob are homophones, and so it is impossible to discern whether you are a newb being informed of your relative lack of experience in a well-meaning attempt to help you play more effectively, or whether you are a noob and the person on the other end of the line is actually, as they claim, going to murder your entire family. Moreover, newbs nearly by definition won’t understand this most subtle of distinctions, so the effect of saying either of them is the same: the new kid gets hazed.

  33. Though all are worth discussion. Re: the latter there is much frustration at games’ difficulty meaning that a solid portion of the population simply can’t play them, which is, with some caveats, totally understandable from an artistic point of view—if you have something to say to everybody, why not let as many people as possible see it?—but it can’t be denied that there are players who are simply more skilled than others, and they, like most of us, crave a certain challenge in what they do. It is hardly surprising, then, that these hyper-skilled players react frustratedly when faced with the possibility of making games easier for the sake of accessibility. See this article and its related comments for a disordered mess of relevant, occasionally insightful, often inflammatory thoughts on the issue.

  34. I mean there’s the key, and the tempo, and the time signature. Plus a bunch of things that end in -issimo?

  35. IGN cites Portal’s length at two hours, though I can confirm that it takes idiots like me closer to fifteen.

  36. Joke explanation

  37. But also simultaneously third-person

  38. A priori is latin for “from the earlier,” and refers to the sort of knowledge that emerges as self-evident, without any empirical proof. For example, two and two making four is a true relationship a priori, since the concepts of two-ness and four-ness necessarily exist in that relationship. A priori knowledge stands in contrast to a posteriori (“from the later”) knowledge, which is gleaned from experience (e.g.’s being evolutionary theory, historical data).

  39. There is probably some theological point re: God’s artistry just under the surface of this, but this essay is already about 8,000 words as it is.

  40. Though it would probably be a very, very successful product.

  41. Yes, this can be and has been debated. No, that doesn’t undermine the point: decisions are made for a purpose. Whether those decisions are successful is another matter entirely.