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.