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Freedom/Determinism and the Plot Twist Trope

February 20, 2016

Most modern mainstream videogames are about escapism. You feel as if you have enormous freedom, the challenges are easily completed and the rewards great, and the world revolves around you, the player. Alternatively, the game is very difficult, and it is a struggle but still you attain mastery, which is equally or even more satisfying to your ego. This is superficial freedom, both lacking an analogue in the real world and not even true in the context of these games, which are after all hard-coded, designed objects.

The illusion of agency that is created for open-world games is obvious (and these have, among AAA games, unsurprisingly displaced linear narrative games in the last decade or so), but linear narrative games have also always focused on generating this illusion. Even Portal, among the most coherent of linear narrative games—a game whose story seems to have been designed around the inherent limitations of its form (a linear puzzle game)—turns out to be a (literal) escapist fantasy. It’s more believable than many others because it’s justified by the narrative, but the escape of the second half is just as linear and constructed as the first half in spite of what the narrative may pretend and thus fantasy. It mirrors the usual structure of linear narrative games where the player is weak at the start but grows in power by obtaining upgrades and getting better at the game over time.

Some linear games invert this structure and justify the combination of linearity and the illusion of free choice using a common trope of a “clever” plot twist that is placed at the very end (Bioshock, Half-Life 2, the Metal Gear Solid series, even Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, among many others). The player is asked to suspend their disbelief about the game’s fundamental linearity throughout in order to experience a power fantasy (usually with some foreshadowing that it’s all false) before the rug is pulled out from underneath them—showing, on a plot level, that they’ve been manipulated into doing everything they thought they were doing, but also, on a meta level, de-suspending their disbelief by saying that this game was an artificial construction (in which case Andrew Ryan, the G-Man, the Patriots, etc. are stand-ins for the game designer).

What makes the twist seem fatuous is that the power fantasy remains dominant until the very end, which makes you wonder why you needed to play all of that first just to get the “real” point. But this is also a somewhat uncharitable characterization in some cases: Metal Gear Solid, for example, has constant points of tension between choice and determinism throughout. What is the purpose of all those cutscenes other than to constantly interrupt the player’s fantasy of playing out the role of an action hero and show that they are not the one who is really in control here?

In Emily Short’s response to a common theme of the talks at PRACTICE 2015, she asked how the player could be made to experience something closer to the real experience of a participant in democracy—not determinism (because people usually don’t have no agency) or power fantasy but minimal agency:

So I’ve realized from this discussion that there’s another kind of player agency experience that I also want to explore. […] Specifically: the situation where you have limited but not zero power.

This is, I think, the reality of democracy. I am morally responsible for the actions of my government and for the oppressive social systems I belong to. I did not design them, but I have not dismantled them. It is, of course, impossible that I could dismantle them singlehandedly. In fact, it’s unlikely that I will ever make any visible difference. To the extent that that there are obviously effective ways for one person to change a large system, most involve extremely violent or disruptive actions that would be a net negative. Nonetheless, the difficulty of making a difference does not remove the responsibility to try to improve both the immediate situation of the marginalized and the system itself.

Corrypt, in my mind, conveys an experience truer to this reality than many others: it grants you freedom only to show its limits in a world that is ultimately determined by its game designer and the code underlying it. The experience is of a more sustained, more complicated, more honest mediation of freedom and determinism than that provided by the plot twist trope. VESPER.5, another game by Michael Brough, could be described as being about coping with what you don’t have control over by bringing a meditative ritual to it.

In her essay on The Witness (only the most recent game to use the plot twist trope), Liz Ryerson writes about Corrypt and Starseed Pilgrim, “The tragedy is that these two games, and others like them, feel more self-contained and well-realized than many of the more widely celebrated games in the culture. They hint at the computer as a strange, distinct new organism — not something that should or really can be tamed.” Computer programs are by nature determinate universes: their possibilities have already been spelled out by the code that is there. But it’s only when you are confronted with this fact, not handed the illusion of escape, that you start to see, in the pressure points in the space between you and the game—while writing poems in Kentucky Route Zero maybe, choosing among only a few choices but feeling each reverberate in your head in infinite ways—any of the real possibilities that exist outside these universes.

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