February 2nd, 2011
As long as we're endlessly comparing games to cinema anyway, let's see what we can come up with by analyzing something other than that dusty old Orson Welles epic. Personally? I'm holding out for the Groundhog Day of video games.
I've come to believe firmly that the concept behind Groundhog Day makes for one damned amazing game, through means and methods that the greater design community idealizes and yearns for. Unfortunately, this concept was developed decades ahead of its time, and as such was mistakenly rendered in the inferior non-interactive medium of film. Join me for a while on a hypothetical retrospective of what might have been but never was: Groundhog Day, The Game.
What's key here is how the game is anticipated: what's actually in it is kind of a secret. The movie, in this hypothetical timeline, was never made (because that would give everything in the game away, obviously) and the game hardly marketed at all. Maybe Jonathan Blow developed it and he's being tricky, maybe a small indie studio slaved it out and couldn't afford to market it anyway beyond hoping someone at Rock Paper Shotgun likes it, but regardless, most people hear about it through a thread on Something Awful or NeoGAF or something and decide to check it out with a minimum of expectations. The glowing, tragic reviews of another Pathologic-esque flawed PC gaming diamond turn many people off, but they drive many more to torrent it. (Groundhog Day didn't sell well, and copies are hard to come by.)
The player trepidatiously starts a new game.
He's been led to believe that this is some kind of adventure game maybe, except he read the word 'sandbox' a bunch of times also. Within the first few minutes the player quickly learns all he thinks he needs to know: he's a weatherman, named Phil but otherwise predictably a cipher. His first stated goal is simply to travel with his crew to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the Groundhog Day festival. Nothing too intriguing, but what catches his attention are the mechanics of the introduction - he's given brief but unbelievably free reign of the television studio he works in. He can approach and talk to anyone, and the dialog options seem endless.
There are tantalizing possibilities for mayhem deeper in that dialog, but the player isn't quite gutsy enough at this point to try any of them out, and there seems to be time pressure of some kind because he's already got to be on his way. He develops the eerie feeling that he's missed lots, and is already planning on a second playthrough. He's conscious enough of how games work that he knows this little intro was all the tutorial he can expect - he's figured out how to steer his guy around the world and the means of interaction he gets, which is largely choosing actions and dialog from a surprisingly wide library to inflict on NPCs - and then it's off to February 2nd.
He's still not quite sure what his real goal is at this point - none of the forum threads made it clear and neither, so far, has the game - but he knows he has a job to do within this world so he just sticks to what he imagines the script is and tries to resist wandering off into town, or telling his producer he wants to screw her (because one important rule he's learned already is that the other characters aren't blissfully forgetful like most adventures - if he hoses something, it seems permanent). The van ride home to Pittsburgh, however, is turned back by a blizzard not far out of town, so it's back to Punxsutawney. The player squeezes a little exploring in before the game makes it clear that it's bedtime with a strangely insistent fatigue meter (always with the time pressure, this game), and then it's off to February 3rd.
Warren Spector once expressed a desire to create a game that perfectly renders a single city block and everything in it. It's a clever answer to the problem of scope - alter the breadth of your game to accomodate the depth you want to reach for - and Groundhog Day solved it perfectly eloquently in 1993. The main road leads to a snowy roadblock, and side roads all dead-end at places like the local rock quarry or just continue into the countryside so far that it's impossible to go anywhere on them before night falls and the player's character falls asleep from fatigue. Oh, yes: about that.
Still on his first sitting, the player quickly notices that something's bugged: he's respawned at the beginning of the same day. He'd read about this. Well, not this exactly, but the whole game is pretty unpolished. There's a lot of manky art and it's hard to even get the game running because it was completed in such a rushed way, probably because the developers clearly bit off so much more than they could chew. He didn't read about this particular bug, but, whatever. To even notice the bug he's already ventured far enough forth into the day that he kind of just keeps going out of curiosity.
He realizes quickly, though, that he doesn't want to repeat any of this mundane stuff after all, because the carrot-on-a-stick mystery of where all this weatherman business was going was the only thing helping him endure the seemingly slow pace. He hits escape and tries to reload from a checkpoint or something, and finds that not only aren't there any saves, there's no save/load system at all that he can find. Great.
The player starts to screw around.
He experimentally flubs his weather report, finding that the sarcastic, dickish dialog the developers wrote for Phil is too entertaining to resist. (There's some vaguely sappy fare in there also, but he ignores it.) He goes further, hitting on women to see if he can go Commander Shepard on any of them (after checking to see that his roommate is out) and finding that NPCs' behavior towards him runs as deep as he wants to pursue. There's a lot here, and people were right to insist it was worth the difficult installation. He's back in a stride now, and today he doesn't even bother to try and leave Punxsutawney.
The respawn bug persists, but the player, for the time being, rolls with it. His attempts to find new ridiculous things to do in this town are topped only by the superficially unpolished but deceptively deep game's ability to match his imagination with implementation. It's insanely rewarding, and he's having fun. He robs a bank, he steals cars, he tricks all kinds of people into all kinds of things by exploiting the way they never remember anything from the previous "day," he kidnaps the fuckin' groundhog even, in the process accidentally blowing up a pickup truck with him in it. This is his first death, and it mentally thrusts him out of his crime spree - he figures maybe now the game's finally over and it's time to have an earnest try at a less bugged playthrough.
Well this is cool - that respawn bug persists even if you die.
The player burns maybe another hour finding all the neat ways his suicidal imagination is, again, rewardingly matched by implementation - jumping off the tallest building in town, toaster in the bathtub, playing chicken with a train - before directionless boredom sets in and he calls it a night.
This is where most players will give up.
A few, mostly new-games-journalism types, will realize that this bug is entirely intentional, and that the game really was shipped as just an endless experiment of social interactivity and its consequences in a small constrained setting. Maybe it was envisioned as more and the other six days of the story arc were just never finished, because the repeating day thing doesn't really make any kind of story sense on its own and the developers clearly had enough trouble filling one day with this degree of content let alone seven. Presumably the explanation for the weatherman hook was to appear in that missing content as well, but regardless, Phil does provide a familiar everyman for the player to inhabit and helps explain why everything in the game is as new to him as it is to the person playing without resorting to amnesia for the tenth time. There's no save system because there's nothing in the game to save: the day always resets no matter what the player does, and the only things that need to be retained from one playthrough to the next are the things the player himself learned on the previous go.
The exploration of possibilities in Groundhog Day becomes a quiet blogosphere darling over the next few months. Someone creates a wiki to host step by step walkthroughs for bedding all the women, and a few of the men, in the village, and some of the instructions are surprising and wryly true-to-life. (Notably absent is the site's white whale: Rita, Phil's charming and selfless producer.) Someone else discovers the old bum dying and starts a blog indexing his various failed attempts to save his life, trying to find the secret golden path through the game's dialog and action options that helps the poor guy see the sunrise, and slowly evolves into a must-read meditation on accepting death.
A third person, inspired by the previous blog, is intrigued by something different. The sarcastic, dickish, criminally insane choices and their hilarious consequences are numerous and readily available at the game's surface, and 99% of the chatter about this game revolves around those. This person, however, draws inspiration from contrarianism, and decides he's going to blog about all the ways in this game he can find to be selfless, to see if the developers put as much work into filling their game with altruism as they did with antagonism.
He turns out to be spot on. Every day he shares a new discovery - a kid falling out of a tree, some old ladies with a flat tire, Brian Murray choking on some steak - but what keeps his readership entertained is a crazy no-respawning-in-Far-Cry-2 style challenge he's publicly issued to himself: he's going to repeat all the philanthropy he uncovers every in-game day, and every time he finds a new opportunity, he has to add it to his daily agenda. That's his rule.
As the schedule grows, he has to make increasing mental leaps to keep it growing. Once he's run out of opportunistic rescue and assistance, he turns to conscious enrichment through music and poetry, then starts targeting specific NPCs and exploring what subtle and brilliantly-written happiness triggers the developers secretly programmed into them, finding that the game still keeps up with him even as he changes the very way he thinks about other people to keep up with it. (It's a surprisingly endearing blog, and more than a little touching.) He begins discovering synergies between the items on his schedule, ways that they reinforce each other, and begins to suspect that he's on to something.
After about a month, he makes an alarming discovery: he's beaten the game. Rita's in love with him and he's woken up with her on February 3rd (he posts excitedly on NeoGaf) (along with a screenshot of the game's credits for proof). A suddenly revitalized player base immediately sets to work trying to replicate his results in their own instances of Punxsutawney, and find that this ending had been waiting there within the dense web of dialog and action the entire time. It's amazing enough just to read about, but they can only wonder how good it felt to be the guy that found it.
The robberies and suicides and sex and escapism - they were all guilty pleasures, selfish, but they had to be in there to make the discovery of selfless pleasures in the same world meaningful. It was the authorial intent always lurking there in the open-ended design, there to discover for a willing adventurer. Never handed to the player, barely hinted at, an outcome designed not as an enemy of the player's choices but as a culminating expression of them. There is no documentation or assistance provided by the game to indicate that this is how its mythology works, that this is how one breaks the strange time cycle that nobody even realized could or should be broken, because there's no way to make its discovery any more amazing and any more personal for that one intrepid player who arrives at it first.
And hopefully it makes him cry!