February's Topic

Taking one of the many wonderful articles from January's round table, build upon it. The goal is to enrich and personalize the original post's intent.

In January, Nerje from Ludic Thoughts wrote about bringing the relentless logic of Richard Dawkins to a game he titled Super God Delusion 64.

SGD64 challenges a player to question all manner of faiths. It provides a small handful of papercut-inconveniences as a push to discover a deeper world in the game of internal consistency and rational thinking. The core assumption of the game is that players might be lead by the game to attempt to realize that the logic of the game is based on sound empirical thinking that might equally apply to the real world.

There is some inherent irony in attempting to present an argument for a godless, empirical universe in the form of a game. The presence of a designer or designers in a game's sculpted world is often quite apparent. To some extent I'm fascinated by the conundrum of trying to suggest a world without a designer through a designed virtual world. One possibility would be to posit some sort of very procedural world, but such a beast is perhaps beyond the scope of current technology.

I've also been thinking quite a bit about the designer's voice in a game. Various conversations lately have been about the use of an unreliable narrator in a game and the extent to which a game can be "not fun" and still played. There have been people wondering how well a game might be received if it were designed particularly to be challenging in the literary sense; many books with high regard are hard to read, but benefit the reader in their own ways and can be as interesting as they can be at times un-enjoyable.

My own current ideas on how to approach an examination on the world of faiths flows out of the two threads above. First, let me restate that my ideas presented here are not meant to be "superior" to Nerje's original, but solely my own interpretation upon the themes. I should not need to restate that, as it is the core principle of this month's round table, but felt it necessary to repeat that as I plan to dive into somewhat dangerous waters. Particularly because the game I'm about to describe may not be anyone's idea of fun, and certainly may be "inferior" to Nerje's original, but yet superficially doesn't stray terribly far from Nerje's starting point.

My main conceit for a game about atheism is to use the "designer paradox" and the designer's voice in the game as assets in the conversation. The core concept being to present one or more game worlds that are metaphors for or parodies of some of the arguments and trappings (in both senses) of religion. The end goal being to use an intentionally poor designed world to ask players to question any "certainties" about the nature of the design of complex systems.

I see the design, rather than introducing players to complex, baroque systems that don't quite resemble logic or reason and asking them to apply logic and reason to their surroundings, taking a player accustomed to following arbitrary systems of logic (as most games and game rules are) and attempting to follow something complex, rigorous and not quite within the bounds of logic and reason. I like the idea of placing the player directly inside of some byzantine belief system and asking them to experience it and to question it, early and often: Why is the Designer of this game requiring this? What do these rules signify? Why does the Designer hate me and my sanity?

I am obviously somewhat taken with the idea of a game's designer as the overt antagonist of the work. It's not a new idea; to some extent the designer has always been known to be a bias in a work. It is very easy, with just about any game, to play armchair designer and criticize a work for the flaws that you see in it and to complain when sections are too tough, too easy, to repetitive, or whatever else you feel is the matter.

Nerje's push to the player to truly explore the game boundaries and to question NPC logic is a set of simple inconveniences: the NPCs refer to some score that is non-obvious to the player and the NPCs deluge the poor player in a wash of spam that the player can't entirely ignore. I see these mechanics, in some twisted fashion, as both emblematic of my own interpretation of the game and representative of it.

I particularly see the score mechanic as a useful core model for the system of the game. Games are often, to some as if by law, internally consistent and it's with the score that I see a wonderful opportunity to forgo consistency and let in lies and contradictions. Score tracking widgets are such common gadflies in the heads up displays of games that I think there is some useful core shock in an unreliable narrator, an "evil" designer, placing lies and misdirection so close to a player's home. If you cannot trust the score, who can you trust?

I can see a "buggy" score readout recording points for actions the player hasn't made, being entirely absent for odd stretches of the game or weirdly flickering between error states and bizarre score values (what does a score of "PICKLES" mean?). I can see leaderboards that vary from non-existent to non-implemented to outright lies and back over the course of the game. (Your game says that you are beating my score? Weird, my game says the opposite.) I can see achievements (or trophies or triumphs or what have you) for completely impossible tasks that may never be unlocked by any player.

I certainly think that such inconsistencies might be incorporated into the rest of the game, albeit that much care would need to be taken to keep the game playable. Too much inconsistency might hinder a player's ability to stomach the game, having lost all semblance of guide posts in navigating the game's boundary space. One more particular thing that I could see easily subverting into inconsistency/lies are RPG-style "statistics floating over thing's heads". What does "+5 XP" mean in a conversation-focused game? Why couldn't a character that is inwardly angry at the player pop up a bright smile and a "+10 Happy With You" to keep you from knowing the truth of their emotion (and hide the inevitable backstab)? [1]

Of course, and perhaps finally, the true power for a designer to make a game truly horrid to the modern player, and perhaps truly guide a player to debating the design goals of any potential deity are the tools of "realism". The horrors of no saves, no restores, no undos, no continues, no checkpoints and one-shot kills mostly seem like old school fairy tales to many a modern gamer, and "traumatic flashbacks" to those that do remember such things. Very few people actually want to play a "realistic" game in any of those listed fashions. Certainly gaming has reached a default state of a somewhat Buddhist [2] view of death and mortality. Assuming a player can get over the absolute shock of being trounced out of a game for "death by natural causes", they might yet ponder good old unreliable reality and their own personal dwindling hourglass...

[1]I'm notably a hater of slavish CRPG spreadsheet mechanics, but in writing this I'm more and more gleeful at the thought of a truly subversive, lying CRPG.

In some ways better than Buddhism. Who hasn't wished that life might come with an undo button?

Ludotopian has been defined as "the belief that through games the world can be a better place", and I'm in the mood for a word that means "the recognition that in games the world often is a better place". Ludoptimism, perhaps? Let's try it: "The ludoptomistic view of death is generally where the player may see some short setback, but otherwise reappears at whatever and whenever the last save or checkpoint may have been." That might work.

For more twisted tales of literature and gaming: