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The Nanny Game

August 4th, 2010

I was thinking of the unreliable narrator in games a bit more, and began to consider it as another layer by which the author removes themselves from the story. The unreliable narrator is remarkable in that it's an exception to a rule: usually the narrator is the author, in some form. He sees what the author wants you to see and realizes what he wants you to realize, when he wants it.

This is pretty much the rule in game design right now, too. You're on your very important mission, and always there by your side is Sergeant Commander Whoever, whose live feed is always screwed into your ear. And boy, that guy is smart, isn't he? He's got detailed blueprints of everywhere you will ever go, and even though you can see no outward signs from your environment of what your next step should be, he can figure it all out for you and knows just what you should do.

He knows all this, he has the blueprints to every level because he's built them. He's the designer. He's just hired a voice actor (someone fatherly and trustworthy, like the President on 24) to speak for him and pretend to live in the game world, so that the player doesn't realize that the designer is leaning into the experience and telling the player what to do. That the designer's hands are reaching in at every opportunity to shore up the sand around the player so he doesn't get lost. That the designer is ensuring that the player cannot possibly fail in any way other than the narrow set of designer-approved possibilities.

You see, you used to be able to fail in games in so many ways. There was running out of health, sure, the hard game-over reset, but there was more than that. You could run out of ammo, you could be too low on health to proceed, you could get lost, you could get stuck on a puzzle, you could find the red door but not be able to find the red key, you could find the red key and forget where you saw the red door ... all failure states of some kind. And because every one of those failure states isn't accompanied by an obvious game over screen, game designers have felt the need to blame themselves for their presence. Every one of those have been carefully weeded out in a decades-long quest to turn games into little self-contained nanny states.

I think we lost something along the way.

When we as players would fail in those ways, generally we recognized it, backed up, and did something different, and we didn't need a game over screen to convince us to do so because we understood the game we were playing well enough to know what was up. At the time it could be frustrating, which I'll willingly acknowledge because I don't think it's a problem. Not because the frustration of the "terrible, unforgiving design" gave us Stockholm Syndrome, but because we understood at the time that those were the small and occasional prices we paid in order to play a game designed by someone who trusted us. We still look back on such games fondly, after all, and there must be more to it than undiluted nostalgia.

"The Void" is waiting patiently in my Steam library. I'm eager to play it for one reason: I once heard it referred to as a game brave enough to lie to you. It's got an unreliable narrator. It's the complete opposite of the current Western linear design vogue (and I include so-called sandbox titles in this category, since those are essentially empty worlds populated with minigames and a single big linear mission thread that you follow through it). It's the opposite on the surface, in that it's open and not linear (truly open - you don't just play in the world, you play the world), and it's the opposite all the way down to the core, in the very designer mindset that invents a game like The Void: Ice Pick Lodge trust their players. They trust them to think for themselves, make decisions, remember what they learn, and they trust them to fail.

This is why I grew bored of video games: they don't trust me any more. (Apparently I'm a game design libertarian.) I grew up with them and always feel like they failed to grow up with me. They're not really getting any easier, just less challenging. Movies like this bore me, too - it makes me ache deep in the soul when someone tells me to just "turn my brain off," and every major blockbuster game I've put off playing and finally given in to has ultimately disappointed me the same way. In trying so hard to make sure I have fun, games have stopped expecting anything from me, which ... just isn't any fun.