Musings about innocence and being yourself

When I was reading RINE messages in Steins;Gate 0, I found myself answering as soon as I got them. But anyone that has interacted with me knows I’m extremely bad with email (though I’ve never really told anyone the reason behind that. And I won’t be telling it now, that’s for sure).

It made me think how I personally think we can’t fully be ourselves when given the choice in a videogame. This is because when you play a game, you get rewarded for doing good things. Of course, this is not the case with every game, for example those where you play as a criminal. However, in games with a bit more leeway in the morality scale, such as Catherine, or even Steins;Gate, and outside of the personal choices of the characters, I feel like there is no genuine way to make the player act like they do in real life.

Huh? Go on sempai.

For example, when you play Catherine, and knowing there are several outcomes depending on your choices, you instinctively seek for the good answers, those that go for the blue, the color of the nice people, instead of red – and this is only from a morality standpoint, mind you, because I know a lot of people would go red because that meant staying with Catherine.

When playing Steins;Gate, I answer messages as soon as I see them, and my only true, benign act when I do so is choosing what to say depending on the moment. If Okabe, the game’s protagonist, is having a very serious conversation, I would tell anyone messaging me that I’m busy. In real life, I wouldn’t even respond, yet in Steins;Gate I do, because that’s what good characters do and lead to a good ending, or so my brain thinks.

Another good example would be Persona (3 and up, because of social links), or any dating sim. In these games you need certain stats to successfully interact with the characters. One character requires that you have a good physical condition, so you can train with them or something, or require you to study a lot so they think you’re smart. In dating sims, you build these stats like you would in real life: dedicating time of your life to improve that part of yourself in order to advance. However, I know many people, including myself, who would never go out there and study willingly to pass an exam because “that leads to the good ending” or “this is my favorite character’s route” – most people study because they have to, or don’t because they don’t see any worth in doing it, or are lazy, etc.

Humans never act in real life thinking their actions will lead to a reward. Even the most driven persons, like the entrepreneurs who went from rags to riches, don’t make the choices based on the rewards at the end, only for the perceived goal (grow my company, change the world, etc.), or pleasure in the short term, like when you cheated on your girlfriend despite knowing it would lead you to the bad ending (if she’s into monogamy anyway).

This is one of the issues that prevented me from fully enjoying Undertale. I couldn’t play much of it because I knew a lot about the game. Not even spoilers, just that it threw a lot of curveballs and used video game mechanics as a tool to manipulate your emotions, or something like that. People compare it a lot to Metal Gear and NieR in that sense. However, once I got to play it, all I did was chat my way out of battles, because I  knew the game was gonna throw a curveball somewhere if I killed too many people, and sorta felt the best ending would come up if I was just a nice guy.

Sure, in real life if you don’t kill anyone, you are a good person… relatively speaking, but it still didn’t feel like a sincere choice I was making inside the game. It felt very deliberate because I knew it would lead to a good result, the best ending.

“You must be a very popular son of a gun, huh? what with not liking Undertale. Really, what a smart guy. If I had a fedora I’d tip it right now”

Granted, the game could be very different, since I didn’t beat it for the reasons above. But I think it’s some sort of “gamer instinct” that never allows me to fully be myself when I have the chance. A video game never makes me feel “safe” enough about my choices. People who act like me in real life can get a bad ending, a good ending, a mediocre one, but in videogames, as long as you have that “gamer instinct”, you already know the outcome of the choices you have in front of you. You’re always a good girl, or a really bad guy because you can’t be one in real life with real life consequences.

Some people tell me this was one of the flaws in Valhalla. That you didn’t really have much choice, and what little interactions you had only lead to a slideshow after the credits. While there’s a lot of merit in this criticism, this was just a small risk taken for a little experiment, in which there was no clear way to tell if you were “in the good route”, or doing the correct flags to get the ending you desired.

I feel like the most important choice in Valhalla is to pay your rent, because it has a universal outcome that not even videogames can avoid: If you don’t pay rent, you’re homeless. Easy as that. So when people said “I was too scared to go on because I knew I didn’t have enough money for rent”, even if they already played a lot of games before, it felt like we had achieved an important step forward towards an unusual amount of nuance in a videogame choice. They knew what was going to happen, and so they had to act like they would in real life: They’d need to work their asses off to keep a roof over their heads, or give in to that sweet fan you just needed in winter to cope with your crippling depression.

I still don’t know how to fully achieve this, but hopefully as we keep making games, we’ll be able to beat the “gamer instinct” and make players act more like themselves. And while I don’t consider Valhalla a full success in that regard, it did make me see where we should go to fully achieve that personal holy grail of player interaction.

The worst thing that could happen is that, because of this writing, your “gamer instinct” will make you avoid our next games, just like mine didn’t let me enjoy Undertale.

Food for thought:

What are some games that fooled your “gamer instinct”? I can think of several examples on my end, but I’ve already written enough for today.

8 thoughts on “Musings about innocence and being yourself

  1. At some point in Persona 4 the game lets you choose to kill a character or not, in any other situation I would choose to not do it because it really sounds like something that would screw your playthrough and leaves you with a bad ending, but for events in the story that happened before that I felt like the guy totally deserved to die.
    That’s probably the only time it happened to me, it felt kinda weird.

    1. It felt kinda weird because it was TOTALLY the thing that screws your playthrough and leaves you with the worst ending, lol.

  2. It’s probably the wrong kind of example but when I think of the MGSV side ops about Paz I think does something like that. Or at least, it plays with a similar idea where the players follow their desires and instincts in order to complete her story arc. Whether for curiosity, emotional investment (my case) or just wanting to complete the side op list.

    It’s a pretty straight forward process so there isnt really a choice but a player gets invested with the story progression and, at least to me, it took priority every time you could make progress towards her ending.
    Then when you reach it it turns out it is a heavy twist and for some a painful yet somewhat beautiful experience, depending on your sensibilities. And also one where you were happier not having experienced really. I’ts bittersweet. The game has a bunch of those moments I guess.

    I think it’s pretty cool how they used our drive and desire as players and spectators to strive for and realize something that in retrospective we’d rather not. And if you play it knowing it, it’s likely you’ll then go against your otherwise natural choice as a player to do those side missions till completion in order to preserve the status quo until you absolutely have to.

    Idk, its not really fooling my gamer instinct into making the choices the real me would take. But it is using those instincts in order to blind you from the hints and deliver that blow.

    Expectation created by the continuous rewarding of completing the missions meets the reality of having done so. Like using my nature and purpose as a player to pull my strings and put me in that situation. I think that’s a job well done.

    But then again, I think MGSV is less about you being yourself taking personal choices and more about Snake who happens to fight in the style of your choice. :V So I hope I didn’t miss the mark entirely XD

  3. I made like a giant comment that apparently just never posted…

    I’ll make a shorter one. But, yeah stuff like hidden dating points and such in games like Persona intimidate me. I hate seeing behind the curtain, it was a lot more fun when I was ignorant about those variables in games like Suikoden or Final Fantasy 7 or even Chrono Trigger (which had a surprisingly large amount of variables, and used “game mechanics” to really screw you over during the Trial scene for just playing a videogame like you normally would.) I also thought it was interesting how the Zero Escape series worked game mechanics directly into the plot to explain things, I know it was particularly frustrating in Virtue’s Last Reward where the game was mostly set up “on rails” with very little room to go off the path because of all the locked scenes you needed to unlock by getting other endings even though it gave you the illusion that you could.

    I too never got around to Undertale because I already had preconceptions of how I was “suppose” to play it. I’ll get around to it someday, but I feel as if I’m not going to enjoy it as much as the people who bought it during the first couple days and went in blind.

  4. To be honest, I rarely ever have that experience with videogames. I’m not entirely sure I would want to, either, though the possibility is intriguing.

    Relevant background for me: I play videogames, but I also am heavily into roleplaying (with experience in both freeform and tabletop).

    I definitely have vague memories of ‘my gamer sense’ being fooled once or twice, not that I can recall exactly in what games. What I do know is that when it happens, I have legitimately no sense of how the decision might affect the endgame, so that I am forced to only consider only my sense of desire in the moment.

    Now that can be an interesting space to play around in, most definitely: but my primary goal in a videogame is rarely to ‘be myself’ (although exploring concepts close to my heart are often welcome). Rather, videogaming allows me to engage with stories and people in a way that I can’t access otherwise.

    Take my current videogame fixation, Splatoon 2, for example. Like, what would a movie called Splatoon even be? It wouldn’t be fighting alongside teammates for injury-free glory, it’d be…. something different. Perhaps related, but nonetheless never truly able to recreate the experience. And you can’t replicate turning into a squid in real life… though I’d love to see LARPers & cosplayers attempt to.

    I mentioned roleplay because that…. bridges the gap a little. When I roleplayed at a young age, I was yearning for a lot of things, with only a very flimsy separation between character and player. And your only options for validation, for ‘reward’, are other people– so in that sense, social dynamics ensure that you act to some degree as you might in real life. (Especially if you have a weak grasp of characters vs players, as I once had.) And especially with freeform roleplay, where the only overarching goal is to… have your character interact with other peoples’…. there’s no real win condition. The goal is the play.

    In real life, the same applies. The goal is the living, and the quality of such. (Well, my goal, anyway. A big picture one.)

    And…. yanno, after years of both participating and running freeform RP…. after quite a few years of unrelated health & life issues…. I don’t actually like freeform RP much anymore. It is all encompassing, engrossing– I act as I would in real life, and I *want to be there* all the time. That’s…. hard to balance with work, and university, and anxiety. There are real people who are real predators and really actually capable of messing you up emotionally.

    I don’t want my games to be able to do that. I’m never going to give games that sort of potential destructive power in my life.

    (Not to say that you can’t freeform RP healthily– simply that my experience, mental state, and weaknesses are not conducive to doing so.)

    I do a lot more tabletop roleplay now. There are rules, and dice, and usually set times where you come together with a couple of people for a couple of hours once a week. And I like that for the same reason I like videogames: it’s a safe place where I can explore things I couldn’t–or wouldn’t–otherwise. A “virtual machine” inside the OS of my life, wherein effects are limited in scope.

    I find that when people act “as they would” in real life, it’s because there are other people and interactions that are unbounded, leading to strong social components within the game. (The exception might be that you don’t often kill your friends in physical spaces…. but if your friends could respawn, I think it’d be a different story.)

    And that stuff is exceedingly difficult to mock up in advance, especially in a “choose your own adventure” style format. The closest I’ve ever seen has been Emily Short’s fantastic Galatea ( http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/emrhyy7pp0c8bjkjeuhs-g/galatea ), but even that is limited in its ability to model an entity that feels like more than just code and clever writing.

    Consequences, insofar as you can write them into story-based games, are limited by the very nature of games being finite. And, well– that’s okay. It helps me to know what place I can fit them in my life, and how much time I can expect to spend on them, and all sorts of other cool things that make videogames a positive part of my life instead of a potentially frustrating and unpredictable drain on my resources. My ‘gamer sense’ is part of the buffer between my self and the game world, and that’s exactly what allows me to enjoy and learn from games in a way that is *impossible* for me to do in other aspects of my life.

    (Whoops, I think I posted this nested in someone else’s comment instead of just as a reply to the blogpost. Feel free to delete/ignore the other one.)

  5. I have an interesting experience with a game leading me towards a certain playstyle. With Red Dead Redemption, everyone I knew went into it knowing it was “Cowboy GTA”, and all the implications that had. So I saw friends mostly putting people on the train tracks, shooting it out with police, and throwing dynamite throughout the town.

    However, when I picked up the game myself, I noticed that John, the main character, was a very gentle and reasonable man. He was violent, but only because he was forced to continue a life he left behind. Had his family not been kidnapped, he would be farming instead of chasing criminals.

    This characterization really affected how I played the game. Instead of getting into trouble or taking risks, I decided to play the way I thought John would act, even if playing as the “bad guy” would be easier or more entertaining. As odd as it sounds, his personality impressed me enough to want to play AS him, and not simply push a desire onto the avatar.

    Perhaps this was Gamer Sense. I don’t think I had any illusions that there would be a different ending due to good actions (given how Rockstar’s games do encourage you to mess around). There weren’t many gameplay defining differences for being nice, like in Undertale. It just felt like the path that would be made by the character, so it was the path I took.

  6. Undertale is probably worth finishing, and is probably worth trying to play in a few different ways. I can absolutely say that less-than-perfect endings in Undertale are more interesting than most games’ neutral/bad endings.

    As for games that do the unexpected, LISA: The Painful RPG has to be up there for surprises. Mother 3 does things that are common in many RPGs, but are framed in such a way that they had a larger emotional impact. I’d rather not spoil these by saying too much more here, in case other people want to check them out.

    The first Fallout game surprised me on replay – a lot of content is locked by stat checks, morality checks, or by the fact that you can solve many problems in more than one way. My desire to ‘do good’ meant that the tone of my playthroughs were similar – but as I learned more about the world and what was possible to do, I almost felt like I was incrementally playing the game in a more heroic way each time. Another interesting facet was that as you play through and find more resources and get more familiar with what sorts of gear/skill/stat checks exist, you can find leaner ways of doing those with fewer points in the relevant stats – you can min/max your stats even harder next time, allowing you to discover even more content. I enjoyed combat and the writing of the game, so it was a pleasure to replay several times.

  7. Her Story made a gamer instinct utterly useless, simply by having a single ending and letting players get there in literally any way they want. Journey before destination, indeed.

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