Author Archives: Stephen Rubio

The Proto-MMO: RuneScape and Unstructured, Massively Multiplayer Play

The website of Jagex Ltd. says that I first logged into its seminal MMO Runescape over twelve years ago, on September 11th, 2005.  It also says that I’ve spent 827 hours playing the game since then, a number that does embarrass me, but not enough to stop me from playing it.  See, Runescape doesn’t have any of the qualities of the games I spend most of my time playing.  While most of the games populating my most played list of 2017 have gone all respectable, with coherent and gorgeous art direction, game systems that engage and challenge, and well-crafted narratives that finally made me stop feeling insecure

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God, how is that even possible?

about dedicating my professional life to games instead of literature or film or whatever, Runescape is…basically a clicker game with a prettier coat of paint.  So, I have a hard time explaining why Runescape is interesting to me other than the patented nostalgia excuse.  But I’ve spent a decent amount of those 827 total hours playing the game in the past few weeks, and I think I’ve come up with a rough idea of why I keep coming back.  My arc with most games is as follows: buy, binge, give up, move on to the next game.  I don’t usually revisit games to complete side content, and I rarely replay them.  However, I engage with Runescape differently.  In Runescape, I might play for a week here and there, then go back to playing other games.  I make a bit of progress, complete a quest, grind some levels, then move on.  So, what about Runescape’s design is different from other MMOs?  How does it structure its expected playtime to encourage a more casual engagement?  And can we still learn something from it when the contemporary MMO is moving closer to “shared world” that “massively multiplayer”?

“Player freedom” has become such an overused industry buzzword in the past decade that I cringe just to mention it, let alone to make it the core of my thesis, but yeah, Runescape offers the least directed experience of any MMO I’ve played (certainly any made since World of WarCraft).  Once the player leaves the tutorial, they are basically given the freedom of a Bethesda RPG.  The game is so good at this that it actually struggles to give new players a clear direction when they start playing, and I think this is a very good problem to have.  WoW popularized this “theme park” style of MMOs that gives the player an exact path to follow through the game, so the player rarely has to decide what to do next.  And while there is some benefit to this system (namely, it’s relaxing as hell), Runescape shows how good it can be when you design for the opposite sensibilities.

Here’s an example of a Runescape play session I had the other day: “Okay, I really want to complete the Recipe for Disaster quest because it’s goddamn funny, but in order to do that, I need to complete the Desert Treasure quest to unlock Ancient Magicks.  And that would be easy, except finishing that quest requires killing this vampire boss who has been giving me a lot of trouble, but it looks like he’s weak to air spells, so I’m going to train my magic level to 60 so I can use this awesome magic staff that will let me hit him with my toughest air spell.  Magic is kind of hard to train, so I’ll pickup some good magic gear and complete a few quests that give magic experience while learning how to use the new magic system.  And then I can complete this quest I’ve wanted to do since I was 13.”

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Completing this was literally on my bucket list

This is a chain of events that I planned out on my own, a decent amount of which could have been swapped out for other solutions.  I didn’t need to do any of it to advance in the game, I just wanted to.  Where an average play session for WoW is “I need to do this quest so I can unlock the next quest which unlocks the next quest…” ad nauseam, Runescape’s play sessions are much more dynamic; constructed by players, not developers.  The game allows the player to set goals for themselves and accomplish them however they see fit.

The world itself, fortunately, is designed around this.  As a kid, I loved that I could never know everything about it.  There were entire areas I had never been to and knew very little about, and they carried an air of mystery as a result.  For example, the game has this elven city far off to the west, unlocked by an elaborate series of quests that I was never able to complete.  However, one of my friends *had* completed the questline, and told fantastical and almost certainly exaggerated stories about how amazing the city was.  That story was specific to me, but the game’s world design generates stories like this regularly, and it’s a type of story that other MMOs struggle to generate.  In World of WarCraft, my second massively multiplayer love, I have been everywhere in that world.  Thanks to dungeon finder, flying mounts, and a hefty amount of time spent unlocking the Explorer Achievement, I have seen all of the secrets Azeroth has to offer.  I don’t know if it was always this way, apparently the game was less forthcoming about the details of its world at launch, but contemporary WoW has lost this mystery.  This could be part of what makes going back to WoW less engaging: every corner of that world has already been explored.

Runescape never felt that way.  There was personality packed into every bit of that world, always waiting for me to find it.  And it wasn’t because I didn’t explore the wikis and YouTube videos, I remember spending hours reading about the game and its various locations I never ended up seeing.  Runescape’s world was created specifically to be exploredWoodcutting_Tree, maybe not to the extent that Skyrim was, but closer to that than any post-WoW MMO.  Like Skyrim, Runescape walks a fine line between a present- and absent-feeling designer. I never feel like I am being told what to do, but I do see the designer’s personality packed into every corner of the world, from the tongue-in-cheek dialog of the quests (that borrow more from Shrek than Tolkien), to the flavor text provided when using a herring on a tree (which is, of course, a Monty Python reference).  The designer wasn’t giving me a list of options, they were just responding when I acted out what *I* wanted to do.  They felt more like a dungeon master than a chore-giver, a distinction that a great deal of contemporary games, MMO and otherwise, seem to be missing.

Runescape has many, many problems.  Its combat is still infuriatingly boring, there is still too much grinding, and the control scheme will never feel natural.  However, because it gives the player the choice of how to engage with its world, those problems are much less present than they would be in many other games.  The combat is bad?  Well, the majority of the game’s content is actually non-combat, drawing more from adventure games than action RPGs.  Combat is just something else you can do, not the primary driver of the game’s content.  There’s too much grinding?  If you feel like grinding, you can do that, or you can experiment with more interesting ways to grind, or you can experiences some of the wealth of content that doesn’t involve grinding at all.  The control scheme is bad?  Well…okay, that one you can’t really avoid.  I guess you kind of have to live with that.  Regardless, when the game fails, it fails gracefully and often avoidably.  That’s one of the advantages of not being laser-focused on one path.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be a design philosophy that will be adopted by AAA MMO developers any time soon, but, for students and fans of the medium, it is still wonderfully preserved, just as it was in 2007.

I still kind of prefer Runescape 3 though.

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Friends & Fat Loot: Looking at Trick-Or-Treating as a Game Space

Every Halloween since I’ve gotten too old to trick-or-treat, I make a point of taking a walk around my neighborhood.  I obviously can’t participate in the actual acquisition of candy, and I don’t really know any of the other people walking around the streets, but the experience of trick-or-treating, of being in that space, has been one that I’ve valued even when I can’t participate.  Before I really got into game design, I had always chalked this up to nostalgia, and it’s true, there is a good deal of nostalgia involved in it, but what keeps me coming back every year isn’t just that.  Instead, it has a lot to do with how the social space of trick-or-treating works, with how, for a few hours, neighborhoods work differently than they do for the rest of the year.  And since anyone who comes with me on this walk is subjected to my pseudo-intellectual game design babblings about how, no really, this is just like a video game, and I’m running out of friends who will still come with me on this annual walk, I figured I’d try to organize the thoughts a bit and do something productive with them.  In short, trick-or-treating creates a social space that both predates contemporary multiplayer video games, yet is incredibly similar to them, and I think learning about one can help us better understand the other.

First, let’s look at how trick-or-treating actually works, and that starts with the setting.  Most people (who aren’t really into architecture) don’t actively look at and examine individual houses in our neighborhoods.  After we initially enter an area, they fade into the background because we don’t have to interact with them in any way.  Frictional Games has an excellent blog post where they talk about a similar concept in game design, where aspects of a game world that the player doesn’t have to engage with complexly aren’t a part of their mental model, and they eventually are ignored.  However, on Halloween, these houses that we previously removed from our mental model of a space are wonderfully returned to it with creative decorations.  This is also true on Christmas, but I would argue that Halloween’s decorations are more interactive and creative.  While walking around the space, trick-or-treaters are encouraged to marvel at the creations and designs of their neighbors, and they become the subject of discussion in a way that unadorned houses almost never are.  This sets the stage for the transformative effects of the trick-or-treating space by taking the mundane and making it unique, adding a sense of wonder to moving from house to house.  With the stage set, kids gear up and prepare to go out.  They prepare elaborate costumes filled with references they expect their friends to get.  They get bags to carry their candy, maybe flashlights if they’re taking it really seriously.  Then, they enter the space.  Maybe they meet up with their friends beforehand, maybe they start out hitting up the houses on their own block before meeting up.  With the party fully assembled, kids can take advantage of the entirety of the social space, and it is here where the comparisons to game worlds become the strongest.  Kids run from door to door, building up their mountain of candy, but in the process, run into other friends, compliment their costumes and swap locations of the houses with the best candy.  It is a space with a clear objective – get the best/most candy – that encourages kids to help each other in best accomplishing this goal.  And these systems generate stories, stories that I remember even years later.  I have trouble remembering street names in my own neighborhood, but give me a map of the few blocks surrounding my house, and I can show you the places that, ten/fifteen years ago, gave out the full-sized Snickers bar, the one house with the cotton candy machine, and the old train station that was handing out sodas.  It’s a hunt for loot, a hunt that everyone in your elementary school is participating in, and that makes for some great stories.  Throughout the night, conversations will range from costumes to candy locations to the design of various houses’ decorations.  Kids are encouraged to interact, to run into people, and to enjoy themselves while doing it.  And at the end of the night, they return home to count their candy haul, and start the week-long process of gorging themselves.

Just from the way I’ve framed these events, the comparisons to game spaces might already be obvious.  You gear up, get your party together, go looking for loot, talk about how cool the world design is, run into other players, swap tips, run away from some older kids (who I suppose would be higher-level players in this extended metaphor), then go home and check out your loot.  This is the exact same loop as you might get in Destiny or Borderlands.  I spend a lot of time trying to compare real-world spaces to game spaces, and while I often find many points of comparison, trick-or-treating is one of the only examples I can think of where real-world spaces replicate this particular type of game space.  It is explicitly a space that requires an online multiplayer environment for its video game application, and thus has existed for no more than twenty years.  But trick-or-treating has been around for well over eighty years (if my cursory Wikipedia search is to be believed).  That set of social systems has been iterated on and tweaked for decades.  And best I can tell, neither one influenced the other, it’s simply a product of dumping people into a space with these types of goals (get candy/get loot).  This makes trick-or-treating one of the most interesting intersections of game logic and reality, because, even though it predates those types of game spaces by half a century, it gives a glimpse of what a game social space would look like when populated mostly by people who don’t play video games.

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Leveling Up Ain’t What It Used To Be: Destiny, RuneScape, and Leveling Systems

I’ve been playing a decent amount of Destiny 2 over the past few days, and while trying to figure out its particular blend of MMO and “shared world”, I’ve found something interesting about its progression system: the actual player level is mostly insignificant.  This is first noticeable in a gameplay sense where, best I can tell, enemies and loot scale exactly to the player’s level.  Destiny isn’t the first game to experiment with level scaling by any stretch of the imagination (in fact, I’d say it’s more similar to Guild Wars 2 than World of WarCraft in that regard), but the intensity of the level scaling had some interesting outcomes: by the end of my play session last night, I had no idea what level my character was.  I didn’t know what level the friends I played with last night were either.  It just never came up, never really factored into any of the decisions we were making.  I looked it up later, and I was level 12 while my friends were level 6.  Despite Destiny-2-Titan-Sentinel-Screenbeing double the level of my friends, it just didn’t affect our experience at all.  Now, on the one hand, this level scaling meant that I could still play with my friends and make progress even though they were lower level than me, and I appreciate that design tradeoff.  But if the level doesn’t play into my decision making at any time except when I am picking skill points (of which, at level 12, I had already spent all the ones I needed for my build), what was the point of including it?  It’s pretty easy to breeze through in a few hours, so it serves more as an extended tutorial than a real marker of progression.

Strangely enough, the experience this reminded me of the most was that of picking up a new World of WarCraft expansion.  My character was already at max level, so the five to ten extra levels that each expansion provided served as an introduction to the content rather than the bulk of the game’s content itself.  People used to joke, “The game starts at 60” (or whatever the current level cap was at the time), but that was much more of a joke back in 2005 than it is today.  Now, WoW really does start at level 110.  The vast majority (like 90%) of new content released affects the max level experience.  The endgame isn’t an “end”, it’s really just the “game”.  And I see how WoW is stuck in that position now, the game has been out for years and they can’t exactly ask people to start over from level 1, but it’s interesting to see Destiny following that same concept with a new game.  Because in the original launch of World of WarCraft and it’s first expansion, there wasn’t an expectation that everyone was at the level cap.  Getting from level to level took *much* longer than it does today, leading to more grinding than anyone was comfortable with, and a player base spread out across a wide range of levels.  This had some benefits, for example, it was much easier to tell at a glance if a player was a threat just by looking at their level.  Now, if you want to see how powerful a player is, you have to inspect them and check their item level, which is the real measure of power.  And this highlights something important about the problem with WoW, Destiny, and other MMOs/MMO-likes: if everyone is expected to be max level, to the point where WoW is even selling level boosts, why bother with the leveling system at all?  Just to satisfy antiquated RPG conventions?

However, I think the solution to this problem could be much more interesting, though it is incompatible with the current, content muncher approach to multiplayer design.  Fortunately, this solution gives me an excuse to talk about one of my favorite MMOs, RuneScape.  In Runescape, hardly anyone is at the level cap, because, when mapping out the leveling systems, the designers never intended anyone to actually reach the per-skill cap of 99.  Each of the game’s 27 skills has its own level, independent of any of the others.  Leveling them works the same for each one, regardless if you’re leveling your attack Skill_screen_old10.gifskill or your farming skill.  However, the game does approximate a player’s combat effectiveness through a combat level that gives a rough sense of how tough they might be.  But, most importantly, other skills, items and strategies can be used to circumvent this.  In WarCraft, if you are a level 60 character fighting a level 70 character, you are going to lose.  No matter what.  It is mathematically impossible for you to do any damage to them because of the math behind the hit rating stat.  Doesn’t matter if you’re the best player in the game, if they’re literally naked and you’ve got the best level-available gear, you will lose.  In Runescape, a combat level 60 character could wipe the floor with a combat level 70 character if they had 1) better gear 2) better food 3) a better prayer stat 4) a better sense of the combat and movement statistics or 5) a high magic or ranged stat.  Higher levels do undeniably increase combat effectiveness, but it doesn’t make it mathematically impossible for you to lose.  This allows for more creative solutions to combat problems other than “do they have higher numbers than me, if yes, I lose, if no, I win.”  So, this solution solves both problems: players can get a rough estimate of an enemy’s power by looking at combat level in a way they couldn’t by looking at character level in WoW or Destiny, but that level also doesn’t mathematically guarantee a victory.  It improves player knowledge and increases variety.

Ultimately, I don’t expect this solution to be used at any point.  MMOs/shared world games seem to be following the same design principles that require all players to be at the same level of power and adjust their content to match it accordingly.  And I get that, designers want fights to be balanced to the player’s power level, and don’t want fights to be too easy.  But I feel like that kind of design doesn’t fully explore the potential of MMOs in the same way Runescape’s or a similar one does.  Runescape has a myriad of problems, not the least of which being that it doesn’t really work as a multiplayer game (which is kind of a deal-breaker for a Massively MULTIPLAYER Online game).  But I still think the way it plays with leveling systems to do something other than creating a nicely-balanced treadmill of numbers could be used to create much more interesting experiences.

The Mirror’s Edge Legacy

Introduction

When Mirror’s Edge released in 2008, the term “first person platforming” was met with, to put it mildly, a great deal of skepticism. Many foundational first-person shooters featured bits of platforming, chief among them Quake and Half-Life, but those sections were almost universally reviled by the time of Mirror’s Edge’s release. It made sense at the time as a way of adding a bit of variety to improve the pacing of these largely linear, single-player experiences. But the awkward controls and janky physics of those titles made those sections incredibly tedious to complete, and are to this day brought up as the worst parts of both of those titles. 3D platforming had become almost exclusively the domain of third-person titles, with old series like Mario still reigning supreme. And as far as first-person games went, movement was incredibly standardized, nothing like the bunnyhopping days of Quake. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s, saw the release of three shooter classics that codified the rules of first-person games: Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, and Bioshock. These three games were each wildly innovative in their own way, helping define what many consider one of the greatest years in gaming history. But despite answering the question of “How do you make a first-person shooter” with their own, unique answers, each answered the question of “How do you move in a first-person game” in a fairly similar way. Halo 3 is perhaps the most unique among them, continuing the series’ emphasis on lower-gravity, longer jumps, and at least some strategic value to bunnyhopping. But, largely, each of the games asked the player to move around a 3D space slowly, with a sprint button to speed up the process, and maybe a “vault over object” button if you were lucky. Cut to a decade later Halo 5 has jetpacks, Call of Duty has wall running, and Titanfall 2 has jetpacks AND wall running. Even Destiny, perhaps the biggest FPS in the current market, has movement that encourages jumping and ups the speed and importance of movement as a defensive option. I wouldn’t call any of these games platformers, but they all answer that question of “how do you move in a first-person game” with much more variety and much more complexity. So, what changed in the decade since? Well, I would argue, Mirror’s Edge came out, and developers finally started learning from it.

Mirror’s Edge released in 2008 to relatively little fanfare. It sold poorly, reviewed just above alright, and didn’t get a sequel until eight years later. Mirror’s Edge, commercially, failed, but it is still talked about today despite this. I believe that this is largely because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only dedicated first-person platformer ever released by a AAA studio. Since its release, a handful of indie games have tried similar experiments (Clustertruck, Deadcore, Refunct, Valley, A Story About My Uncle), and a smaller handful of AAA titles have been inspired by its movement system (Titanfall, Dying Light, Brink), but there has never been an attempt at first-person platforming as purely focused on the technical challenge of the platforming itself as Mirror’s Edge and its sequel. This makes it an incredibly useful reference point for developers experimenting with movement mechanics in first-person games. But, in all the borrowing, remixing and reinterpreting of Mirror’s Edge over the almost decade since its release, I believe that many developers have missed something core to the formula that made the game work, either intentionally to better fit its ideas to the game they were designing, or unintentionally as they simply failed to understand the game itself. And with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst both failing to recapture the strengths of the original and also doing poorly commercially, I doubt we’ll see another focused attempt at a first-person platformer for some time. With that in mind, I think it’s valuable to examine exactly what Mirror’s Edge did, why it worked, where it didn’t, and how other games have interpreted its bold and focused answer to a question that other developers are now answering with more regularity: “How do you move in a first-person game?”

Mirror’s Edge

One of the most commendable, and probably most damning, elements of Mirror’s Edge is its purity of design. In 2017, AAA games with purity of anything are nearly impossible to come by, so this alone makes it unique. Mirror’s Edge is a series of 10 chapters, each a continuous series of obstacle courses. It lasts about six hours on your first playthrough, though I recently completed it in three and I’m not even very good at the game. Its extra modes are a time trial mode that cuts up the 10 chapters into quick levels that can be replayed in 1-3 minutes, and a speedrun version of those 10 same chapters. It had one DLC pack that added a series of extra levels with a new visual aesthetic, and that’s about it. Mirror’s Edge does not have a sprawling open world filled with collectables, it has thirty runner bags hidden throughout the entire game. It doesn’t have a giant features list of multiplayer, single-player, and co-op, it has a linear, single-player campaign. It isn’t packed with new modes and options and torrents of DLC, expansions, and seasons passes, it just has one experimental pack. This dedication to its one, core idea is beyond refreshing in a year when even something as pure as demon killing in Doom comes with a multiplayer modes, a snapmap map creation feature, hundreds of collectables, optional challenges, and the list goes on and on and on. This isn’t to say that variety is bad, or that games shouldn’t try to experiment with their mechanics, but gaming in 2017 has gone far past that point. In contrast, Mirror’s Edge’s ability to know what the engaging core of its game is, and then focus on it, makes it so much easier to play and to think about. However, like I mentioned earlier, it means that you can beat the entire game in three hours. And must of the gaming community is not exactly receptive to a “quality over quantity” argument. Games with that short a runtime get crucified on forums and subreddits. So while I love that Mirror’s Edge is exactly as long as it needs to be and not a single hour longer, it contributed to why it didn’t sell well. And, it also lead to the inclusion of the game’s single worst feature: combat. Everything I’m about to gush about that makes the game flow and feel tight is completely broken during these stilted, awkward combat sections where the player spams an attack button to try to punch armed guards to unconsciousness. No one liked it, the developers didn’t even like it, they just included it because the game was too short without it, and it is the game’s greatest flaw. But, if you load up Mirror’s Edge today, set it to easy mode to make the combat as brief as you can, you’re in for an experience unlike any other. You’re going to experience Mirror’s Edge as a first-person platformer, and little else.

Mirror’s Edge is striking from the first moment you turn it on, welcoming the player with a bold visual aesthetic. Nothing before or since has really captured those same ideas, with its vision of a clean future symbolizing the control of an authoritarian government, contrasted against its grounded setting. Because the game uses almost entirely precomputed lighting and unmoving objects, it still looks gorgeous to this day. Couple 20170722133517_1.jpgthat fidelity with a strong visual aesthetic and accompanying political message and Mirror’s Edge feels fiercely contemporary. I’ll talk more about why Catalyst’s sci-fi aesthetic does not fit the design of the first game, but Mirror’s Edge did not feel like a fantasy, nor a stock reimagining of Orwell’s 1984, it feels like something that could happen today. It takes the idea of an authoritarian post-9/11 surveillance state and makes it real and uncomfortably plausible. Keeping the game locked to the first-person perspective made the player feel present in this world, and its commitment to keeping this perspective further enhanced its grounded feel, only cutting to third person in the beginning as the player assumes control of Faith, and the end as the player relinquishes it. The design of the parkour movement added even more to the feel that this was a game that interpreted realism as an actual imperative to design their game around, not a visual aesthetic that necessitated more grime, blood, and forced moral ambiguity. In Mirror’s Edge, huge falls will kill you. If you think you couldn’t make a jump in real life, you probably couldn’t make it in game. Faith isn’t a superhero, she’s just really good at parkour. The animations reinforce this, placing a great deal of emphasis on Faith’s limbs and body positioning as she moves through an environment. This realism lead to a level of mechanical transference that the other games I’m going to discuss simply didn’t. Playing Mirror’s Edge made me see real-world environments as spaces that I could parkour through, if only I had the skill. It encouraged me, in the real world, to try to climb or jump off of things, because Mirror’s Edge had conditioned me to look at spaces like that. Catalyst, Dying Light, Titanfall and Refunct, did not encourage that, because they weren’t as focused on realism as Mirror’s Edge. And it was through understanding this commitment to reality that I found what I believe to be the goal of Mirror’s Edge: to create a grounded, first-person platformer with tight levels that want you to traverse an environment quickly and stylishly, but also allowing you to slow down and think about environments as puzzle spaces. And from this foundational philosophy came the complexity of the game’s mechanics.

I know Dark Souls comparisons have long since passed the threshold of overuse, but while replaying Mirror’s Edge, I constantly found myself making comparisons. Mirror’s Edge requires a commitment to animations that no other game in this piece does. Jumps, rolls, landings and climbing cannot easily be canceled, and are required to play out animations before they allow the player to start their next move. This adds a strategic importance to every decision the player makes, discouraging sloppy play, but also adding a weight and heft to the animations. In general, movement in games isn’t supposed to be a challenge, it’s supposed to feel smooth and effortless. But in Mirror’s Edge, movement isn’t a way for the player to get from point A to point B, it is the core objective of the game itself. This means that conventional approaches to movement won’t often mix well with a game that emphasizes it in this way. For most games, the designer wants the 288236.jpgplayer to feel like they’ve mastered movement as soon as possible, but for Mirror’s Edge to match the arc of a traditional video game, it has to have a gradual sense of mastery, not an instant one. It does this, in part, through its animations. By preventing the player from easily canceling their moves, it requires the player to think more carefully about each move they make, making them engage with systems they might have otherwise ignored. And this is exactly how Dark Souls works, requiring commitment to every input, and punishing sloppy play (though Dark Souls is significantly more punishing than Mirror’s Edge). The result of applying this philosophy to movement, instead of combat, is that it turns movement into a technical challenge, not an easy means of traversal.

However, high-level play in Mirror’s Edge could hardly be described as cautious and stilted, if anything, it looks effortless and flowing. Flow is a concept and a term with a strong relationship to Mirror’s Edge; it’s even name-dropped in the opening cinematic. And I think it’s the only game I’ve looked at that fully commits to getting the player to the flow state. But it’s important to distinguish between flow, the mental state, and flow, the aesthetic. Flow the aesthetic, at least as far as movement is concerned, is a general, uninterrupted traversal. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is probably the best example on this list of that purely as an aesthetic, but the original commits to it as a mental state. That state is one when the challenge is high, but the player’s skill is just as high, and they match every challenge as they are presented with it, not effortlessly, but with focus. Mirror’s Edge commits to this by creating a robust set of mechanics that are constantly testing the player’s timing and coordination. Precise button inputs at the correct time are highly valued, and different moves are strung together to create a sequence of balanced challenges. This is where the level designers had to work carefully to chain different paths together, and balance the difficulty of each obstacle to avoid spikes. This must have taken a great deal of effort, but the result is a game that begs for speedrunning, because once it gets going, it makes the player not way to stop.

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However, sometimes it does stop. Be it for narrative pacing, trying to squeeze more hours of their limited amount of levels, or because the designers genuinely find it interesting, the game does have many sections where the player is asked to stop moving quickly. Combat is obviously one of those, but the more successful lulls in the pacing comes from the more puzzle-focused sections. Now, arguably the entire game is a puzzle of exactly which obstacles to travers and in what order, but some sections in the game feel much closer to a traditional puzzle game. In these, the player is asked to give up some of their momentum and really engage with the mechanics at a low level. This puts the player into a planning phase where they figure out a sequence of moves that might work, then try to execute them perfectly. The game wants the player to look for unique solutions, to think of how the mechanics might be used differently, or to see the space they are presented not as a real-world place, but as a series of game pieces. This seems completely out of sync with a game about flow the aesthetic and flow the mental state, but somehow, it works incredibly well. It does help even out the pacing, as previously mentioned, but it also expands the possibility space of the mechanics. If the player is always moving at top speed, they don’t have time to slow down and think about the implications of the mechanics. Giving them these slower sections helps them master more complicated ideas in the faster sections. That is part of the brilliance of these puzzles: once the player knows the solution, they can fly through them just as fast as any other section of the game. They’re almost like invisible tutorial sections, letting the player figure out a specific move or series of moves so that they can recognize sections later in the game that use the same idea. These sections, however, only work in a game that treats movement as something interesting in and of itself, not as a means to an end. And its sequel, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, largely does recreate these sections, but does so with much more compromises.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

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Catalyst is a sequel (prequel, reboot, whatever) that I never thought I’d get. Released eight years after the original, it makes me genuinely wonder how this game even got made. Sequels to poorly-selling eight-year-old IPs just do not happen in this industry. So, no matter how much I’m going to tear into Catalyst in the paragraphs to follow, I am still incredibly glad that it exists, and the majority of my complaints about it come from it being a sequel to Mirror’s Edge. Because, unfortunately, Catalyst fell victim to the same style of Ubisoft open world that claimed a sizable chunk of AAA titles in the past few years. In contrast to the original Mirror’s Edge,’s grounded, mechanically-focused approach with careful level design, Catalyst is a sci-fi open world game that treats its platforming more as a cool navigational gimmick to move quickly than a mechanic set in and of itself. And while there is a lot to unpack in the subtle differences between Catalyst and its predecessor, I think the genre change is a good representation of the misunderstandings Catalyst has about what Mirror’s Edge is. Because Mirror’s Edge is not sci-fi. It isn’t set in the future, it’s set in the near-future, and that may seem like a semantic distinction, but I think it’s core to what made Mirror’s Edge work. Catalyst is filled with gadgets, sleek, future buildings, and cyberpunk corporations conspiring to spy on every citizen. The original was thoroughly grounded in the realities of a post-9/11 surveillance state. It felt uncomfortably plausible, like you could see it happening in a city you knew. The city it was set in wasn’t even named, it was just referred to as “the city”, allowing the player to project any city the might be familiar with onto its clean-but-not-too-clean surface. Catalyst, however, is wildly creative with its setting, using vibrant sci-fi architecture where the strong blacks and whites of the original are filled with bold, primary colors. Mirror’s Edge had a very limited color palette, even famously so. But Catalyst is a bustling sci-fi metropolis, filled with strange and varied buildings. Part of it feels like the art team spent so long working on the Battlefield games that they used Catalyst to run wild. And, while I disagree with this particular choice for the Mirror’s Edge series, I want to stress that this is a gorgeous artistic decision. It makes navigating through the game exciting just to see what you can discover next. The overworld feels, in a word, slick. Everything is polished to a mirror (heh) sheen, guiding lines are smooth and flowing, and Faith’s feet make little squeaking noises as she sprints across various surfaces. And, in a similar way, the movement feels great to control. Animations that had long delays in the original now finish instantly, jumps feel tighter and are accompanied by beautifully polished animations and sound design. Out of all the games I’m going to talk about, Mirror’s Edge included, movement feels the best to control in Catalyst. But, to create a game that is outwardly more welcoming to the player, a great deal had to be sacrificed. And here is where Catalyst’s problems begin to emerge.

Perhaps the best example of what separates the tone, mechanics and setting of Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst are two moments I happened to play back-to-back while recently replaying them. The first happens in the original Mirror’s Edge, which begins in a sequence where Faith is being chased by a pack of cops, and is running out of escape routes. However, glancing up, the player sees two cranes, painted in a shade of red the

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The crane in Mirror’s Edge

game uses to highlight objects the player can run off of. Then it hits them. The game wants them to jump between those two cranes. That’s insane! The player has pulled off some crazy jumps before, but nothing like that! As the player climbs to the top of the first crane, dodging gunfire along the way, Merc, the player’s “man in the chair” over an earpiece, warns Faith not to do what he thinks she’s going to. But the player reaches the top of the first crane, holds their breath, then makes the leap. The barely make it, skidding down the side, as Merc shouts in disbelief over the earpiece. The player’s heart is thumping, and the charge towards the nearest rooftop, leaving the cops behind them in disbelief. I finished this sequence, switched over to Catalyst for a bit, and chained a leap over a giant chasm between buildings with a grappling hook ride up dozens of feet in the air, landing with an easy roll to continue moving. I can’t remember much more than that. If the crane jump happened in Catalyst, they wouldn’t even draw attention to it, since actions like it happen so often that it wouldn’t be memorable. Catalyst does draw attention to how crazy of a jump the player is making at one point, where they are walking a tightrope between two huge skyscrapers, gazing down at the vast expanse beneath them. It’s like something out of an action movie. The player could never imagine doing that in the real world.

So Catalyst has a problem with not being grounded. In the same way its sci-fi aesthetics extend wildly beyond the original’s near-future setting, its scope and scale is much more grand. Mirror’s Edge had, to put it charitably, a forgettable story, but it mostly took a backseat to the platforming challenges anyways. Catalyst has cutscenes. Well-animated, voiced and scored cutscenes. Yet the story is a totally forgettable hero’s journey where Faith needs to learn to accept that she’s really a superhero who needs to fight the evil corporations. The original wasn’t entirely realistic, it ends with Faith

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kicking the big bad out of a helicopter on top of a skyscraper, but the story doesn’t end with her taking down the entire government, it ends with her saving her sister. And, well, Catalyst technically ends the same way, but it makes a much bigger deal out of its revolutionary aspirations. Now, this shift in genre and scope could still be true to the original and be a great game in its own right, but this lack of grounding unfortunately applies to two more areas: the level design, and, most disappointingly, the mechanics.

I mentioned earlier that Catalyst has the best feeling mechanics out of any of these games, and that definitely is valuable in its own right, but it sacrifices a lot to get that better feeling. I’ll be going into more detail about the level design shortly, but I think it might be where a lot of these changes stemmed from. Open worlds, specifically Ubisoft-style open worlds, aren’t a great fit for complex movement mechanics, because the player spends so much time just getting from objective to objective that additional complexity added to the movement system adds work and tedium. If new movement mechanics are included, they need to justify their existence by making traversal easier, not harder. The original Mirror’s Edge has traversal that is, by nature, more difficult than the majority of games, but that’s where it draws its depth from. Catalyst still does this to some extent, but that extent is much lesser than its predecessor. Perhaps the most noticeable change to the movement is that the windows for specific inputs to be entered is much more generous. Where the original might have given the player a one-second window to hit the roll button before hitting the ground, Catalyst would give the player two or three. This, on the surface, seems like it would make traversal easier all around, but I think it might end up making it more difficult. Because the window for input is more generous, the player doesn’t learn the exact timing through muscle memory, which often leads to them playing sloppily, because the game never trained them not to. This can result in the player missing a lot of jumps, rolls and wall runs, because they haven’t been trailed properly to use them. But in addition to occasionally making its systems more unreliable, this change also removes some of the depth and satisfaction from them. Some of the improvements are objectively better than the previous game, with more polish and responsiveness, and I don’t want to undersell that, but the added control sacrificed some of the depth. Now, it would be easy to equate inconvenience with challenge and call it a day, but I think the satisfaction that came uniquely from Mirror’s Edge was a sense of technical challenge that kept you grounded in the movements of Faith as a physical human being, not a video game avatar. When some of that difficulty is removed, the satisfaction inherent to the game’s mechanics is lessened. And, to enhance the problem, the game has an upgrade system that gives the player stat bonuses to running, and unlocks some of the most valuable skills. I’ll touch on this more in the Dying Light section, but, in an open world, if you give the player the option of upgrading to a better mechanic, then you have to design most of your world around the player decided not to unlock it. This means that, because, for example, the quickturn is not given to the player by default, that areas can’t be designed with it specifically in mind, and thus using it makes the environments feel too easy. The result is a mechanics set not suited for anywhere near the amount of depth of the original, and while it does feel better in parts, it overall feels less robust, less satisfying, and less carefully designed. Unfortunately, these mechanical failings are enhanced by the open world the game is set in, and for all the benefits of having an open world game where moving is satisfying on its own, the style and design of the open world does not quite live up to this promise.

The most noticeable impact of the open world in Mirror’s Edge’s design is the longer load times. This is a simple technical reality that will be completely obsolete when Catalyst is as old as its predecessor, but is incredibly frustrating now. Time trials, speed runs, and other trial-and-error sections of the original would often lead to the player falling to their death, causing the game to reload the level, but because the game was just reloading a single level, it didn’t take that long. On modern hardware, the delay is almost unnoticeable. But Catalyst has to reload a chunk of an open world every time the player dies and, even on an SSD with, still takes a decent amount of time to load. This makes every death and mistake even more frustrating, and drives the player away from retrying old levels. Ten years from now, advanced hardware will almost certainly remove this problem, and I really wonder what Catalyst will play like with the removal of those load times, but for now, it stands as a major reason I so often return to the original over Catalyst. And this feeling of compromise and frustration carries into other aspects of the design, namely, the tightness of the design. Mirror’s Edge was a very pure game about very specific challenges. It had exactly one thing it wanted the player to do (I suppose two, if you count the optional runner bag collectables), and that was it. Catalyst gives the player a world filled of instanced challenges, collectables, and story missions, and designs the world so you can more easily get between those objectives. Each of those individual activities is fun in its own right, but it feels hampered by the open world. Obstacle courses aren’t as tightly designed because they have to serve as both that instanced obstacle course, and an easily traversable section of an open world. This would be okay if the game encouraged you to find interesting routes between points, letting the player gain a slow sense of mastery over the world and use those paths more efficiently, but the the racing start and stop points all seem arbitrary, so that mastery never forms.

Additionally, two mechanics designed for ease of use in a traditional open world game kill any familiarity the player might gain with the world: objective pathing and fast travel. Much has been written about how fast travel can prevent the player from engaging with the world in open world games, and it’s doubly true for Catalyst. Fast travel skips the traversal so the player can go to other areas and solve traversal challenges. It’s skipping the core gameplay. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about why people play a Mirror’s Edge game in the first place. If they want to skip moving from place to place, then they aren’t engaged enough with the mechanics as is. But it also creates a loop of play where the player is fast-traveling between different instanced objectives, so they never get a chance to just be in the world and explore it organically. With this approach, creating a pack of levels instead of an open world would have been much more valuable. And secondly, the game implements an objective pathing system similar to the Clairvoyance spell in Skyrim or the breadcrumbs in Dead Space, having a wispy red line show the player the exact path to take to their next objective. It prevents the player from figuring out where to go or how to navigate the environment. Sure, the player can figure out more interesting ways, but it is usually best to just follow the line. This can be disabled entirely, but without it, the environments are difficult to read and it is incredibly easy to get very, very lost (Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit did a video on this subject in more detail, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in open world design). The world Catalyst creates is simply not designed for you to engage with it as a platforming game. Yes, the original let you press a button and be instantly pointed towards your next objective, but it only showed the player the direction, not how to get there. Finally, the last example of how Catalyst flirts with solid design but isn’t able to commit is how it handles collectables. These have, sadly, become a staple of open-world design, and Catalyst mostly implements them poorly. The most common collectable is an item that requires you to walk up to it, stop moving, press an interact key, watch a couple of seconds of an animation, then return to whatever you were doing. It is totally antithetical to the momentum of a Mirror’s Edge game, killing any sense of flow that the game usually works so hard to preserve. Most of their collectables are like this, but one of them, the gridleaks, actually work very well. Gridleaks are glowing orbs that appear in the world for some sci-fi reason, but are scattered so broadly that they end up serving as little challenges in their own right. Some of them, the player can just run right through on their path to the next objective, but others are tucked away on a seemingly unreachable surface, goading the player into figuring out how to get there. They don’t break the flow, they fit in with the running, and they encourage clever thinking about the mechanics. And it’s the fact that the game still manages to capture some of the puzzle solving of the original that keeps my opinion of it positive, despite all the criticism I’ve been levying against it. It has these wonderful gridNode challenges to unlock new fast travel points, which are basically puzzle sections from the original, but as soon as you finish them, there don’t seem to be any puzzles left except for a few collectables. Some of the designers at DICE clearly know how to make a good Mirror’s Edge level, and some of them clearly know how to create good Mirror’s Edge mechanics and animations, but the greatness in those aspects is so often trumped by an open world design that commits to convenience over challenge.

Dying Light

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But what would happen if a team approach those mechanics solely as auxiliary to the main game, and designed its platforming with that in mind? Well, Dying Light is a great example, an open world game with so many features thrown in that “kitchen sink” barely covers it. It treats its platforming not as a challenge in its own right, but as a cool navigational gimmick for avoiding zombies. Loosening rules and easier movement felt like a compromise in Catalyst, but in Dying Light, they feel appropriate, because the player isn’t just focused on the movement. The movement in Dying Light just feels good to control, and a lot of that comes from the easier traversal. By the end of the game, the player can climb unrealistically high walls, jump from insane heights, and vault over a horde of zombies. I wouldn’t want to play the game just as a parkour game, but it works well as a fun way to get from place to place, so much so that I miss it in other open world games. When using the Ubisoft open world design philosophy, even a little bit of depth to the movement makes the hours of traversal so much more fun. It even turns the obligatory tower climbing sections in every one of those games fun! It doesn’t integrate perfectly into combat, which usually ends up with the player just spamming the attack button, but it doesn’t really have to. It does allow for some great moments of jump-kicking zombies in the face, but it doesn’t really deliver on the idea of the combat that Mirror’s Edge and Catalyst hinted at. Those games attempted to make a melee combat system about chaining combat moves into parkour moves, but never really delivered on it. The easiest strategy was to just run up and spam attack. Dying Light’s dropkick move at least tries to do this, but doesn’t get very close. The movement works as a way to manage the horde, not to be explored deeply. So, here is a game that is clearly inspired by Mirror’s Edge and benefited from including some if its ideas. The developers asked themselves how first-person platforming and parkour could improve their game, and they found out that including it as a side option worked fairly well. But what are the limits of taking the ideas from Mirror’s Edge and applying them to a game where platforming isn’t the focus?

At the start of the game, there aren’t many problems. The controls feel tight and grounded, the player character struggles and is overwhelmed by intimidating challenges, they even have a scene where he jumps off a crane and freaks out about it. But, while Mirror’s Edge takes about 6 hours to complete, and Catalyst takes 8-13, Dying Light can last anywhere from 16-40. And twenty hours of running around an open world with platforming not being the focus can start to get tedious. After a certain point, I just want to get to my next objective. So, the game offers stat upgrades, some of them interesting, some of them just pure numerical increases. On the interesting side, the game gives you c8tdcmxh96plgmkmg2yta roll move to let you jump from higher buildings, it even gives quickturns, a move that added a great deal of depth to Mirror’s Edge. This has a similar problem to Catalyst where, in an open world where you can unlock different abilities, the designers have to assume you haven’t unlocked them. However, they work well as ways to increase the skill ceiling on movement, while not breaking the system. But some of the upgrades are just raw stat boosts. Run faster, jump higher, survive higher falls. The problem with this is that it takes the system from a grounded and tight one and turns it into an unrealistic and floaty one. If I was designing Dying Light and absolutely had to include linear stat upgrades, I would start the player out with mechanics that were a significant amount clunkier than the starting state it shipped with, then have them reach that point at about the mid game, getting only a bit better by the end game. But the actual game starts out at about a Mirror’s Edge 1 level of control then jacks it up to a Catalyst level, then keeps going. By the end of the game you’re zipping across rooftops with a goddamn grappling hook, surviving every fall, flying over every obstacle. It feels great, but it also feels mind-numbingly easy. To their credit, the developers put a lot of work into making this system feel good, with extra bits of polish to animations and sounds, but at the end of the day the core mechanics themselves feel broken by this stat upgrade. At this point, the player feels less like a physical human being with limbs that have weight and and organic positioning, and feels more like a box that zips from place. It does create flow in the aesthetic sense, but never approaches flow, the mental state. It is firmly camped in the “control” mental state, with the player rarely being challenged. The game wants you to relax while moving, to feel good, but not really engaged. And that’s okay, as a design decision from their own open world game, but it does make me wish for a game that really did commit to skill-based movement, that took its AAA budget and applied it to a system as tightly- designed as the original Mirror’s Edge, and did tried to integrate combat well. Well, fortunately, that game exists.

Titanfall

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Titanfall and its sequel feels like the games Mirror’s Edge was destine to inspire. First-person shooters are no strangers to skill-based movement, with early examples going as far back as Quake. So, when a developer comes up with a new design for first-person movement, it’s only natural that a that an FPS would try to adapt it (I’m not talking about Brink). Titanfall does this wonderfully, succeeding in its attempts to create a first-person shooter that wants to emulate the crazy-fast movement of old FPS titles, with parkour and jetpacks to improve map versatility and for defensive movement. From the get-go, it is easily the fastest-moving game I’ve talked about so far, letting the player get up to a frankly ridiculous speeds if they chain enough wall runs together. Titanfall emphasises momentum in a way even Catalyst really doesn’t, with the player’s starting speed being the equivalent of a sprint in a normal FPS, and their top speed being the equivalent of maybe the original Doom? However, the player is hard pressed to stay at this top speed for long, so they’re encouraged to plot routes through the map to give them this high speed when they need it. However, because of this speed, mixed with affordances for aiming with a gamepad, aiming in Titanfall is incredibly difficult, and usually requires slowing down and aiming down sights to hit and target farther than a few feet away. This means that there is a constant back and forth between moving fast defensively, and slowing down to line up a few shots. A fast moving player may be able to avoid death for a decent chunk of time, but they won’t be racking up any kills while they’re doing it. However, this movement system isn’t perfect, and often times a player who is just better at aiming can take you down no matter how fast you’re going. Also, while gaining a lot of momentum is incredibly satisfying and strategically valuable, when the levels don’t give the player a clear path to their objective, they can spend the time awkwardly hopping around. Titanfall 2, fortunately, addresses this problem, with the addition of grappling hooks and slide jumps. The grappling hook is an optional ability for some reason, and with how much it adds to the game I am genuinely amazed it wasn’t made standard for all loadouts. It has a strategic depth that the grappling hook in Dying Light simply did not. While that game’s grappling hook mostly existed to skip over parkour segments, Titanfall 2’s exists to speed movement up even more. When used correctly, it becomes another way for the player to create paths through the level, letting them make up some lost momentum or quickly navigate open spaces. Slide jumping also greatly improves this, though is a bit more difficult to master. It requires the player to jump, press the crouch button right before they hit the ground, then jump again before their slide animation completes. I think. I haven’t quite gotten it down yet. Regardless, the process makes the player harder to hit and move faster while crossing open environments, raises the skill ceiling, and allows players good enough to reach it a constant boost to speed.

Unlike Dying Light, Titanfall feels a bit closer to the purity of the original Mirror’s Edge. The combat and the movement are designed around each other, and that really shows in the way it handles upgrade. While Dying Light and Catalyst had stat upgrades to their movement systems, Titanfall’s stays mostly the same, the only exception being an ability

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that lets the player shoot while sprinting. The designers at Respawn created a tight, skill-based and expansive movement system, then kept it the way it was, allowing for a purity of design that is admittedly rare in AAA circles. Of course, it has a cacophony of guns, gun upgrades, combat upgrades, titan upgrades, and cosmetics, but movement wise, it is fairly pure. It isn’t the core of the game, combat is still the most important part, but unlike Dying Light, it doesn’t feel tacked on. Titanfall could not exist without its parkour mechanics and still be identifiably Titanfall. Dying Light probably could.

Unfortunately, Titanfall got a great deal of bad press for being part of the 2014 anti-hype cycle, and its sequel sold poorly for a number of reasons, including being sandwiched right in between the launch of the annual Battlefields and Call of Duties. But its influence is still strongly felt. Halo, Destiny, and Call of Duty all have implemented some form of movement that borders on parkour, with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 even featuring a parkour obstacle course mode. This mode could not have existed in earlier Call of Duty games, and the fact that it does speaks volumes about how much movement in FPS games has changed since 2008. Titanfall is probably still the most visible inheritor of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas about first-person movement mechanics, but that influence has seeped into other games, and is now firmly established. Despite selling poorly, the game’s design philosophy has a foothold in AAA design. But what about the indie scene?

Refunct

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Refunct is a game that clearly would not exist without Mirror’s Edge, but also has a wildly different goal. Rather than being a skill-based parkour game, it’s a relaxing platformer about moving at a brisk pace from platform to platform. Its goal to be a relaxing game is apparent from the moment you open it, with chill electronica playing in the background and a hazy, abstract visual aesthetic. If anything, it feels like the developer is putting their own spin on the Pure Time Trials DLC maps that released for the original Mirror’s Edge. I’ve gone on and on about how Mirror’s Edge being grounded was so important to its design working, but the Pure Time Trials DLC shows that the formula is able to be bent a bit before it completely loses its punch. Refunct is an exploration of an abstract take on grounded mechanics, like the DLC, and uses its laser-focus to rebuild those mechanics around its goal to be relaxing. It does this by altering Mirror’s Edge’s low-level puzzle solving loop, one borrowed from more conventional platformers. Where that mode wanted you to carefully consider each moment, Refunct wants to to keep moving at a brisk but not blinding pace. This means that the fast parkour sections and the puzzle solving sections don’t feel like two separate modes like they did in Mirror’s Edge, it’s a single state of gameplay. The puzzles in Refunct are never complicated enough to have the player seriously considering the implications of the mechanics, they more exist to let the player have a quick moment to say, “Oh, that was interesting.” It lacks some of the more complex mechanics of Mirror’s Edge like the wall run or quickturn, which would have added more complexity than Refunct really needed. It does have a wall jump, but it’s used in situations that don’t require perfect timing. Where Mirror’s Edge wants the player to consider the exact timing of each move, Refunct simply wants the player to know what the correct move to enter is. And while this removes some of feelings of viscerality that Mirror’s Edge was so successful in implimenting, it, again, works with the goal of being calm. The player isn’t getting stuck, or trying the same jump over and over, they just keep moving from objective to objective. That’s not to say there are no pauses to the game, sometimes it’s not great at telegraphing its next objective and I’m left missing Mirror’s Edge “Press Alt to Look at Next Objective” button. However, it mostly keeps the pace at a comfortable level. Refunct’s only failing, if you can call it that, comes from its budget. It’s a $3 game made by a solo developer that can be easily beaten in twenty minutes your first time (the speedrunning achievements have you pushing four minutes). This means that it lacks the polish of the AAA games I’ve been discussing so far. While all other games on this list have emphasized the physical body of the player character, Refunct does not have one, removing a great deal of the physicality associated with this genre. Some mechanics feel very artificial, like you have entered a trigger box, the game stops your momentum, moves you up a few units, and deposits you at the precise location it was programmed to. Of course, all games work like this, but without the sound and animation polish that comes with being a AAA title, Refunct is unable to replicate this. Still, as a game to relax to with an interesting spin on movement, Refunct is an interesting and valuable experiment, and one that would not have existed without Mirror’s Edge.

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Conclusion

Despite its own series struggling to find a foothold in the industry, it’s clear that Mirror’s Edge has influenced designers from all different genres. From AAA FPS games to open worlds to indie passion projects, its emphasis on skill-based movement, physicality and flow have lead to what I believe is a much healthier market of first-person games. First-person games just have more complex movement than they did in 2008, be that a result of callbacks to the movement of early FPSes or a reinterpretation of Mirror’s Edge’s ideas. Movement is a part of every first-person game, and when designers are encouraged to experiment with the assumptions that define it, we get games with different focuses, different goals, and different possibility spaces than we would have when these actions were standardized. Mirror’s Edge, unfortunately, never got a true sequel or spiritual successor that carried the torch on its ideas of a more realistic approach to that movement. However, while I wish such a game had been made, I would much rather see a healthier market of games inspired by Mirror’s Edge, but not constrained to it, than a market flooded with Mirror’s Edge clones. I’m glad that developers can apply these ideas to entirely different genres and be confident enough to stray from the genre-defining work. 2007, the year before Mirror’s Edge’s release, saw the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a brilliant game in its own right that inspired an incredible amount of stagnation in FPS market, crippling innovation because of how wildly innovative it was. Designers emulating Modern Warfare rarely deviated substantially from its formula. It took a much longer time for Mirror’s Edge’s influence to be felt, but now that it has, it exists as a jumping off point, not a template to be copied. And, as a fan of first-person game across genres, this makes me hopeful for the future.

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Revisiting Soma: Another Kind of Adventure Game

Ten years ago, Frictional Games made their first foyer into the horror genre when they released Penumbra: Overture; they’ve been iterating and refining that formula ever since.  The Penumbra series didn’t break any sales records, but it carved out a comfortable niche for the company of first-person horror games heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (their in-house engine, the HPL Engine, is even named after him).  But the company achieved widespread fame in 2010 after the release of the Amnesia: The Dark Descent.  Even though it was little more than a polished iteration on the Penumbra series, it was released at just the right time to become an internet sensation, leading to the creation of YouTube videos reacting to its many jump scare, and helping kickstart the Let’s Play genre.  But when I played Amnesia in 2010, and the Penumbra games soon after, the jump scares that had made them so popular weren’t what drew me to the series.  Instead, I was drawn in by, well, everything else.  The Amnesia and Penumbra games are dripping with originality, atmosphere and mastery of design.  Yes, their horror is effective and well-crafted, especially considering the budgets they were produced with, but they are packed with genuinely good writing coupled with carefully-considered puzzle design.  With the exception of Penumbra: Overture, their very first game, Frictional’s games do not have combat, which would ordinarily invite cries of having “not enough mechanics” from the self-proclaimed hardcore gamers who deem any game that doesn’t meet a minimum quota of murder a “walking simulator”.  But Frictional’s games avoid this criticism by basically being 3D adventure games.  With a precious few exceptions, I’ve never been able to get into adventure games, however, so it took Frictional’s meticulous design sensibilities to get me to even play the games.  I loved their approach to puzzle design in Penumbra and Amnesia, but in 2015, they released Soma, a game that championed their design philosophy with even greater confidence, even boldly rejecting the jump scare horror mechanics that made Amnesia a bestseller.  I genuinely loved the Amnesia and Penumbra games, but Soma has become one of my all-time favorites because of how it approaches the idea of an adventure game, seeing its puzzles not as arbitrary problems to be solved, but as extensions of the setting.

Soma’s basic plot is too deviously complicated to give a quick summary of, but, in short, the player spends most of the game navigating a decaying, underwater research station.  They restore power to different areas, reroute around cave-ins, fix electrical problems, and, of course, avoid being killed by the horrific creatures that roam the station.  Soma’s excellent writing and voice acting would normally make it the kind of game that I play for the story, and use guide to get through any of the trickier puzzles.  However, I found those puzzles to be some of the most engaging parts of the game, largely because of how they were framed.  I struggled to explain what distinguished Soma’s puzzles from that of other adventure games, which is largely what prevented me from writing about the game in the past, until Frictional posted an article about this exact design idea in an excellent blog post.  It doesn’t talk about puzzles directly, it instead talks about narrative choices, but I think the fact that they frame their gameplay decisions as such is part of what makes their approach to puzzles so much more engaging.  Narrative choices in most games, much like puzzles in classic adventure games, are very removed from the game’s core mechanics and verbs.  In Mass Effect, if the player is going to make a decision, they are pulled out of the game’s normal controls and into a conversation system, which gives them a list of options to pick from.  Given how difficult simulating conversation has proven, this is probably necessary, but it does make the choices feel very explicit and very, to borrow Frictional’s term, digital.  Analog choices, as they define them, are choices that use the game’s existing mechanics set instead.  They use the example of Spec Ops: The Line’s approach to choices, which eschew the menu-based choices of dialog trees in favor of using the game’s existing mechanics, namely, shooting.  Applying this philosophy to narrative choice is incredibly valuable, but Frictional also applies this philosophy to every mechanical and puzzle decision the player makes.  The puzzle equivalent of the “press button to make decision” narrative choice is something like the puzzle panels in The Witness, where the player clicks on a panel in the world, and their controls are rebound to those of the specific puzzle they are solving (though the game’s best puzzles subvert this).  Soma, however, never changes the player’s controls.  They are always given the same set of verbs and controls to solve every problem the game presents them with.  Frictional builds out these basic first-person controls with a physics and control system that feels fresh even when played today, despite being pioneered almost a decade ago in Penumbra.  If a player wants to turn a wheel, they click and hold on it, then rotate their mouse in a circle, mimicking the player character’s physical actions.  If they want to open a door, they click and pull back on the mouse.  Complex physics interactions aren’t treated as a novelty, they’re simply how the player interacts with the world.  Pulling out electrical cables, throwing switches, moving components around, all become a natural part of the player’s toolkit.  The result is a world that the player models complexly, where every item could be potentially useful and could interact with others in interesting ways.

This combination of dozens of small interactions lets the player engage with the world in a way that feels satisfying on a very low level.  The puzzles themselves are rarely complicated, which would ordinarily make the game feel rote and boring, but because of the physicality and complexity of every interaction, I found incredibly engaging.  Oddly enough, the activity it reminded me of most was building a desktop PC.  While PC construction occasionally requires nightmarish Google trips into arcane manuals and ancient forums, I usually know exactly what I need to do, and I just need to find out exactly how to do it.  Traditional adventure games go for an “Aha!” moment, where you figure out the solution with a great deal of work, and execute easily, but Soma, Amnesia and Penumbra rarely obscure the solution, and instead present the player with the mechanically satisfying task of executing it.  Difficulty and challenge aren’t really important to these games the same way they are to the vast majority of other video games.  In a previous piece, I grouped Soma under this genre of “will and wits” that I had invented, with an emphasis on a very procedural form of procedural problem solving in a poorly-maintained environment.  However, as I’ve been replaying both Soma and Near Death (another game I group in that genre), I’ve noticed that while both games have failstates, they don’t dictate the majority of the player’s actions.  Usually, the player is processing an environment, looking for objects to solve problems, and then solving them, with little in between.  This creates a satisfying loop of activity that the designer can subvert when necessary to keep the player on their toes, aware of their environment in a more detailed way than most games ask for.  Doom might ask you to be aware of the positions and projectiles of a dozen or so demons, but Near Death and Soma ask you to be aware of all the objects, switches, lights, and loose panels in a room.  It takes the awareness that games often demand and shrinks the scope.  Soma is probably one of the most influential games for me as a designer (hell, I even made a HTML pretty heavily based on it), because it shows how to encourage players to engage with spaces on a scale that feels both more manageable and more intricate.  Games still struggle with making systems other than combat interesting, complex and marketable, but I think Frictional Games and its contemporaries have carved out a design niche where we can engage with spaces more cerebrally, and create problems that require procedural, logical thinking, grounded in the setting, instead of arbitrary challenges for their own sake.

Soma 1

Critical Rebellion, Critical Revolution: An Exploration of the Group Dynamics of GamerGate and the Gaming Community

Note: This was my senior thesis, which I finished in May of 2016.  As such, some of the references to more contemporary events may be outdated.  I just never got around to posting this.

Introduction: Division

In early 2012, I joined an online community of gamers after playing a few rounds of an online game, Guns of Icarus ​with them. The group was made up of thirty to forty people, and, following my joining the group, many of us would hang out nearly every night using a voice chat program called TeamSpeak. For around an hour or two a day, we would log into TeamSpeak, play some games, talk about our lives, and generally just laugh, relax, and enjoy ourselves. The group started as a fairly casual coalition of online friends, none of whom knew each other outside of this space, but eventually grew into a tight-­knit group of friends. As the hours I spent on TeamSpeak increased, I grew closer with more of the members of the server. Over the course of three and a half years, I friended many of the members on Facebook, swapped real phone numbers with them, and became closer to what might regularly be called “real friends”. The group became incredibly important to me. I met one of the members at an In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, since we both happened to be passing through at the time. One member was the best man in two of the other member’s weddings. We stopped using our in­game handles and started referring to each other by our first names. In short, this TeamSpeak became my core friend group.

As of today, April 2nd, I have not logged onto their server in four months. I occasionally talk to one of the members over Facebook, but our conversations rarely go beyond, “So what games are you playing these days?” As far as I know, most of the core members still spend time on the server, but I have all but left that community. The reason for that is complicated, but it began in late 2014 after the cultural event of GamerGate, a ­social media harassment campaign against women and minorities in games. This has been the single most divisive event in the history of the gaming medium, with a very clear line drawn between those who support and oppose GamerGate. GamerGators, as they call themselves, are not an organized group; they congregate on forums and message boards such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, and for about half a year, made it their goal to harass women and minorities with an overwhelming amount of highly­specific death and rape threats. The movement forced multiple women to leave the industry as a result of the harassment, forced four women to leave their homes when their address and personal information was released, and has polarized the community to a degree never before seen in the medium’s history. GamerGators see themselves as fighting against the corrupting influence of social justice in games media. They believe that developers, journalists and gamers themselves are being forced into accepting progressive politics, when, in their minds, these issues are simply not a problem. GamerGate has made it very difficult for me to say to others that I love games. It has divided the community so thoroughly that any discussion I find online can quickly devolve into a virtual shouting match. And it found its way into my community, on TeamSpeak. I rarely discussed political issues with my TeamSpeak friends, but after GamerGate, the topic came up much more frequently, and the arguments became much more vicious. There were three women in my TeamSpeak community before GamerGate, already an alarmingly low number. All three of them have now left. There used to be a diversity of beliefs and political views in the community. Now, all of the members who opposed GamerGate, myself included, are gone. However, these discourses and fierce opinions did not come out of nowhere; they had been growing for years before GamerGate began. The GamerGate movement was a response to the growing cultural and social criticism of a medium that had, for most of its lifetime, faced almost none of either, and the mundane events that started it served as a scapegoat and a catalyst to allow the gaming community to release years of pent up anxieties about the changing world and market that games now face.

 

Section I: A Climate of Distrust

Long before the prime movers of GamerGate were even well­-know, others were setting the stage for its arrival. Games writer Katherine Cross linked the origins of the movement to events that happened long before the foundation of the internet communities that would eventually start it, such as lawyers and politicians attempts to ban and censor games in the 1990s. Like with all new mediums, games were, at first, viewed as a corrupting influence, and many attempts at adult content were met with great hostility. The earliest major attempt to censor games came as a result of the controversy surrounding the 1992 game, Mortal Kombat​, a fighting game which featured graphic violence through their now infamous use of fatality finishing moves, in which, in a particularly gruesome example, the winning character would rip off the head of the losing one, with his spinal cord dangling underneath. Such violence was pixelated and almost parody by today’s standards, but still made a large impact.

The controversial fatality in Mortal Kombat​, 1992

Games were, and in many cases, still are, viewed as a child’s toy, something aimed at a younger demographic that should not be presenting such content. Graphic violence, nudity, drug use, and other traditionally adult themes were not seen as acceptable subjects by the general public. As a result, the game was banned in many countries, and lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a self-regulatory organization that issued rating similar to the MPAA, in order to prevent government censorship. Additional attempts at censorship followed in the early 2000s, as politicians and lawyers such as Jack Thompson attempted to legally censor and ban such games on the grounds of obscenity laws. Thompson’s major target was the often controversial Grand Theft Auto series, which, in its third installment, gave the player free reign over a city where they could, infamously, hire a sex worker, then kill her to steal their money back. Such activities were optional, player-selected actions allowed but not encouraged by the system, but its presence in a medium still struggling to shake off the label of child’s toy was enough to cause a stir. Though Thompson was never successful or even really taken seriously (he was subsequently disbarred for unrelated allegations of professional misconduct), the threat of him and the lawyers and politicians like him created a climate of fear among gamers. While no game has ever been banned in the United States, American gamers still felt that their medium was under siege, and they were not entirely mistaken in this regard. Video games never faced any true threat in a real court, they did face a great deal of scrutiny in the court of public opinion. Today, over 50% of American adults play video games ​(Remo, 2008), and the stigma against the medium has mostly subsided, but in the early 2000s, it was at its strongest. The medium was, in the public eye, thought to have no artistic merit, and the men, women, boys and girls who played video games are often viewed as immature, emotionally stunted, and wasting their time. Each of these factors resulted in a generation of gamers who grew up feeling that their medium of choice was under attack, and that they would constantly need to defend it. For many gamers, this was an opportunity to teach others about the greatness and potential of the medium, but for others, this lead to the belief that those outside the gaming subculture did not understand it, and that the only reaction towards games from non­-gamers would be ones of condemnation, belittlement, and censorship.

As a result, gaming grew up with very little serious outside critique. While other mediums emerged with a great deal of serious cultural and social criticism, gaming ended up devoid of much of it. By the late 1990s, games were roughly sixty years old; by this point in the history of cinema, film had long since reached the mainstream, garnering cultural acceptance and criticism, and having produced many of what we now consider the medium’s masterpieces. But because of gaming’s evolution as a subculture, it did not receive much of the same criticism that film did, and, largely as a result, did not grow in these areas anywhere near as much as it could have. Rather than social or artistic critiques, the criticism games did receive was usually in the form of technical analysis. The game industry was born out of the software industry, and as a result, games were often viewed more as boxed products than works of art. Early games journalism discussed games in this manner as well, asking questions like, “Did the game run well?” “Do the gameplay systems work?” “Does it look alright?” rather than “What are the core themes brought up by the work?”. This is not to say that great games that embraced the artistry of the medium did not exist, however. The 1970s saw the creation of early text-­based adventure games, such as Infocom’s Zork. These essentially functioned as playable novels, later earning them the moniker of “interactive fiction”. This later evolved into graphic adventure games, such as Roberta Williams’s famous King’s Quest​ series. These titles were popular and well-­received, and the adventure game genre they created was very lucrative for much of gaming’s history. While most games focused on with system mastery, quick reflexes, and pattern memorization, adventure games focused on mood, themes, story, characters, and complex, if convoluted, puzzles. Gaming journalists of the time praised these works, but often missed the artistry and craftsmanship of the work.

This disconnect between the emerging potential of the medium and the planned, product ­review style of the journalism is largely a result of early games journalism not really being journalism. Hobbyist, enthusiast magazines were common enough on their own, but the majority of games content written before the explosion of online journalism was almost entirely the trifecta of product­-based journalism: previews, reviews and interviews. Many of these outlets were owned by the publishers of the games they were reviewing, such as Nintendo Power, Official Xbox Magazine, and Official Playstation Magazine. This created an enormous conflict of interest for the magazine’s writers, mostly crippling the institution for decades. As games increased in popularity, much of this writing was able to shift towards independently ­owned outlets, but these publications still had very strong ties to the publishers and developers they were covering. The market for games content required exclusive content and preview issues, which would be much less plentiful for publications that were more critical of these games. As a result, independent games journalism was largely viewed as an extension of the marketing for a big ­budget release. Gamers wanted to read this content, and enough of them paid for it to sustain the system as it was, but this lead to many of them developing a hesitance towards the integrity of the publications they were reading from. Many gamers had at least a suspicion that there was too much corruption in journalism, even well into the late 2000s when the internet allowed independent publications to become more profitable. These suspicions were justified in 2007, when GameSpot editor Jeff Gerstmann was infamously fired from his position for giving a game, Kane & Lynch​, a low score (Plunkett 2012). GameSpot had a marketing deal with the publishers of the game, Square Enix, and after Gerstmann’s low score, the company demanded that he be fired. This became the most visible example of corruption in the industry, one that is still referenced today. It is perhaps the biggest contributor to the belief among gamers that the games press was not acting within even the loosest journalistic standards, creating an air of distrust that undoubtedly set the stage for GamerGate.

 

Section II: Anita Sarkeesian & Feminist Frequency

Criticism, as a whole, was something that the gaming community was very skeptical of. Growing up in a climate where the rest of the world seemed to want to censor and ban games, and the gaming press was beholden to publishers, gamers held a strong distrust of criticism of their games both from outside and within the medium. So, the idea of serious social criticism of games was not something gamers were likely to react positively to. But it was into this climate that Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic with a focus on geek culture, entered to create her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games​. The series began with a Kickstarter campaign on May 17, 2012, with a modest goal of $6,000 to create five videos critiquing the depiction of women in video games. While she had created feminist content in the past, Sarkeesian had largely gone unnoticed by the gaming community as a whole. She had attracted a modest following, but was by no means popular. Academics and advocacy groups had been making feminist critiques of games for years, such as Women Against Pornography’s criticisms of the 1982 game Custer’s Revenge​, which allowed players to rape a captive Native American woman (Dworkin). But focused, and more importantly, popular, critiques, were almost nonexistent. The average gamer had most likely not heard much feminist criticism of games beyond an easily ­refutable claim of, “All video games are sexist and turn people into women­-hating, basement­-dwelling sociopaths.” So, as games critic Ian Danskin explains in his series on GamerGate, Sarkeesian’s points were not new, and, in the larger context of feminist thought, they were certainly not radical, they were new and radical to an average gamer who had never heard a feminist critique that they could not easily ignore. However, Sarkeesian was not a high-­profile media critic who suddenly decided to turn her eye towards video games, she was a self­-proclaimed geek who was critiquing a medium she loved but felt excluded from. She wasn’t writing in academic journals or on popular websites, she was posting videos to her small YouTube channel. By all accounts, she should have gone unnoticed; her campaign should have reached its goal, she would have made her videos, and not many people outside of her existing fan base would have seen them. But that is not what happened.

From a casual observer’s perspective, Sarkeesian’s campaign seemed to be going much better than expected. She reached her requested $6,000 by the end of the day, and twenty­-two days in, was at $48,000, 600% of the original funding goal. However, with a few weeks remaining in the campaign and all of her funding and stretch goals far surpassed, Sarkeesian posted an update to the campaign website detailing a loosely organized harassment campaign against her as a result of her project. She linked to thousands of angry Tweets and YouTube comments, filled with hate speech and personal attacks, showed that her Wikipedia page had been vandalized with pornography and racial slurs, and posted traffic showing that her website had been taken down by a DDoS attack (Sarkeesian, 2012). This was overwhelming and unexpected, but it was nothing compared to the harassment that followed her post. Several news sites began picking up the story of the harassment against her and the campaign, leading to a huge influx of backers that saw the campaign close at $158,922 (Sarkeesian, 2012), over twenty-­four times the campaign’s initial goal. However, it also brought in an even larger influx of harassment. This cycle has continued in the years since her campaign beginning, where Sarkeesian will post references to threats and attacks against her, news sites will pick up the story, and even greater harassment will follow. Her attacks are filled with angry, violent death and rape threats, include content that is unquestionably misogynistic, and are unrelenting.

Tweets directed towards Sarkeesian

To this day, Sarkeesian receives multiple threats daily. Her personal information has been hacked and posted on forums and other websites (a process referred to as “doxxing”), leading to highly-­specific death threats that Sarkeesian now forwards to the FBI as part of an ongoing investigation (Crecente). Some of her harassers created a video game where players could beat up a picture of her face (Sterling). Others sent a bomb threat to the Game Developers Conference if they gave her an award, which the conference later did in spite of the threat (Totilo). The harassment against Sarkeesian is so broad and far reaching that it would be impossible to document all of it, but suffice it to say that this campaign was unlike anything seen in gaming before.

Perhaps the biggest question asked in the wake of this harassment was simply, “Why?” Sarkeesian was a largely unknown personality, and it was unlikely that her critiques would be heard by many outside her existing community of fans. She was not the first feminist to critique games, not the loudest and not the most radical. So, “why her, and why now” (Danskin)? In a vacuum, this question is nearly unanswerable, but in the context of the larger history of gaming, it starts to make a great deal more sense. With a history as problematic as that of gaming’s, this seems bound to happen at some point. Here was a medium with an almost nonexistent history of strong, literary criticism, one where women as a demographic were considered unwelcome, even as they remained present as both developers and players throughout its history. Here was a medium that had faced the stigma of being a toy for children, and, as a result, had largely been ignored by cultural critics, leaving it with the critical base of actual children’s toys. Gaming had not been thoroughly examined by brilliant media scholars the same way film had, and thus generations of gamers grew up without ever having to apply the skills of literary analysis and media literacy that they learned in high school and college to the games they spent so much time with. Games, in short, went unchallenged and uncriticized, evaluated as apolitical, boxed products. The only criticism the medium faced was from outside of its borders, by uninformed reactionaries whose critiques were so baseless that they could be ignored. Gamers learned about games in an environment with weak, ignorable criticism, so, in their minds, any criticism towards games would continue to fall under that banner.

But the gaming landscape was not going to stay that way. Improvements in technology and distribution, the enormous growth of markets, and the increasing age of the average gamer meant that gaming was, at some point, going to have to face criticism as a real art form. And it was wholly unprepared for this. Gamers reacted to cultural criticism that would have been considered healthy in other mediums with a ferocity rarely seen outside its own medium. Critiques of trends in their medium were seen as attacks on the medium as a whole. This is why so many of Anita Sarkeesian’s critics say, unironically that she “wants to destroy games” or “ban all games”; they refuse to understand the difference between criticizing and banning, because the only critiques they had experienced towards games in the past were calls for censorship and banning. Sarkeesian was not unaware of this predisposition, and it is why, in the description of the series itself, she states, that “that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects” (Sarkeesian). Gaming was a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment due to the messy combination of a history devoid of criticism and the growing demands for that criticism to finally be recognized. However, Sarkeesian’s videos and the horrific response they received were not what finally set it off. If anything, it only helped to further prepare the industry for something bigger.

After the first few months of Sarkeesian’s videos and Kickstarter, lines began to be drawn. Sexism and representation of women were now talked about issues in the gaming space. Sarkeesian received an Ambassador Award at the Game Developer’s Choice award (Makuch, 2014). The gaming community was now actively discussing these issues, when before they had been mostly silent. But this only served to further intensify the divides in the culture. The worst parts of the gaming community now knew that their critics were inside of the community, as well as outside. This lead to further polarization of the community, with fierce debates breaking out wherever Sarkeesian, sexism or feminism were mentioned. In many ways, it set the stage. GamerGate most likely could not have happened the way it did without Sarkeesian bringing these issues to the forefront. If the gaming community had not already been discussing these issues, and if they had not already begun to polarize, those events might have played out very differently. But gaming culture was already deeply flawed before Sarkeesian’s work further divided it, and the next time the issue of social justice was brought to the forefront, the response was more organized, more focused, and much, much, worse.

 

Section III: A History of GamerGate

Like Anita Sarkeesian, game developer Zoe Quinn was not a particularly well­-known figure in the game world. Her most famous work, a game called Depression Quest, was first released in February of 2013 with initially little fanfare. Depression Quest is a work of interactive fiction, meaning that players spend their time reading passages of text and making decisions about what the protagonist should do next. The narrative reacts to the player’s choices, though not always in the ways they might expect. The game puts the player in the shoes of an

A screenshot of Depression Quest

undefined man in his mid-­20s who is struggling with depression and mental illness. As the game progresses, players are given choices based on how depressed their characters are, and are asked to role­play as the character, making decisions they think he might make. The game has almost no discernable feminist content, and focuses almost entirely on the mental illness and how to deal with it. Regardless, Quinn was faced with a wave of harassment in response to the game when she entered it into Steam Greenlight, a program that allows lesser-­known developers to publish their games on Steam, the world’s largest PC gaming distribution platform. The harassment centered around the idea that, as Quinn eloquently summarized, “women can’t be depressed what a cunt”. The harassment came primarily from a site called Wizardchan, which describes itself, quite seriously, as “an anonymous community for male virgins” (Wallace). Quinn publically talked about the harassment, the distress it caused her, and how she believed internet culture as a whole as, in part, responsible for this kind of behavior. Her comments and the story of her harassment appeared on a few news sites, but did not traffic very highly, leaving her with a bit of fame, but nothing significant. By and large, the internet should not have cared on August 16th, 2014 when Zoe Quinn’s ex­-boyfriend posted a 9000­-word attack against her, but, for some reason, it did.

By all accounts, Eron Gjoni’s blog, The Zoe Post, should have gone ignored. It was the self-­indulgent ramblings of a heartbroken ex, littered posting of personal information, gross hyperbole, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance. In it, Gjoni goes into disturbingly personal detail about his allegations that Quinn had cheated on him with five different men at different parts of their relationship. He provides screenshots of personal text and facebook chat logs with Quinn, convoluted timelines, and personal pictures. The writing is dramatic, to say the least, which each section of the post carrying a title such as, “Whereof One Cannot Speak, Thereof One Must Be Silent” (Gjoni). Again, most of this seems forgettable; allegations of the unmarried infidelity of a small-­time game developer. This certainly does not seem like something that could serve as the starting point for a huge sub­cultural movement. However, at one section in the post, Gjoni alleges that Quinn had an affair with Nathan Grayson, a contributor at gaming website Kotaku. With the timeline he provided, Gjoni also alleged that Grayson wrote a piece about Quinn’s game, Depression Quest, during this time. Long after the post blew up, Gjoni later called this “a typo” (Gjoni). Further investigation, mostly a series of quick google searches, revealed that Grayson did write about Quinn, but it had nothing to do with Depression Quest, and instead was him reporting on a game jam that Quinn and others had organized. This article was written before Quinn and Grayson’s affair and barely received any views. This is all that The Zoe Post, despite all of its flaws, claims; something that, again, should have gone unnoticed.

Initial reactions to The Zoe Post were fast, explosive, and chaotic. Reddit, Twitter, 4chan, and other social networking sites and message boards exploded with links to the post, usually with sensationalist titles along the lines of, “GAME DEV SLEEPS WITH JOURNALIST FOR POSITIVE COVERAGE!!!!!!!”. A handful of YouTubers created long, meandering videos, such as the now­-removed video by Internetaristocrat, titled “Five Guys: The Quinnspiracy”. The reaction, obviously, was accompanied by a torrent of misogyny and hate speech, but before this solidified, many members of the gaming community saw only the headline, namely, “sex for positive coverage”, and were not immediately opposed to the concept. In the early days and hours following the post, the lack of information meant that many people outside of the explicitly misogynistic were angry at Quinn. The general low quality and expectation of corruption in games journalism meant that even reasonable onlookers could see just a headline and not underlying sexism that had created it. At the time, the backlash was chaotic and unorganized, but Quinn was hit with a wave of harassment that far exceeded that which she had received earlier for Depression Quest. In less than two weeks “[on] August 27, actor Adam Baldwin became the first person to use a hashtag for the movement (#GamerGate) when he linked to two videos attacking Quinn” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p208), comparing it to the infamous Watergate scandal. For whatever reason, the community settled on its name. #GamerGate was, officially, created.

In the days following the post and the initial reaction, GamerGate quickly began to radicalize. As members of the games press began to examine the narratives of the posters, and fact-­check the post itself, the holes in the story quickly emerged. As soon as it became obviously apparent that the worst of the allegations could not possibly be true, any rational foundation for the movement had collapsed, and the growing community surrounding GamerGate began to produce more and more ridiculous theories. After a few weeks of radicalizing and establishing, GamerGate mostly settled around a narrative that Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, all of the staff of Kotaku, Polygon, and other social justice-­focused games sites, were engaged in “a conspiracy to destroy video games and the video game industry” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p210). This conspiracy, so the narrative went, was designed to “infect” the industry and the medium with social justice, and any attempts to make the industry more inclusive were the actions of others trying to force their politics on others. That fact that the majority of their targets just happened to be women or people of color was purely a coincidence. “Targets” was not an accidental word, supporters of GamerGate deliberately used militaristic language, most apparently in their “CENTRAL OPERATIONS ARCHIVE”, which is linked in the references section. They named each effort with militaristic, revolutionary titles such as “#OperationVoxPopuli” and “Combined Arms”. A great deal of these operations were attacks of specific targets in the gaming community, almost exclusively women. Their primary targets were Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, though that list quickly expanded. After their personal information, including home addresses, were posted, Quinn and Sarkeesian fled their homes after highly-­specific death threats and pictures of their houses were posted. Both of them still receive such threats at the time of writing. This continued to intensify, destroying any notions that the movement would eventually burn out, and was eventually picked up by mainstream news media, including the New York Times, who wrote an investigative piece on the issue that many hoped would serve as a nail in the coffin of GamerGate, but seemed to be nothing of the sort. As the general public became more aware of GamerGate, the movement radicalized further, insisting that any site that had written negatively about them was colluding with other Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), as they derogatorily referred to them. The message kept increasing in severity, but somehow they still had enough members to continue it.

GamerGate, the harassment group, has largely not gone away. But “GamerGate, the cultural event is over” (Danskin). It is difficult to find an exact end date, but the end began when late­-night television host Stephen Colbert invited Anita Sarkeesian onto his show and publicly skewered GamerGate. That public mockery essentially meant the end of a larger involvement in GamerGate by more average gamers. They still held the same belief, but found participating in GamerGate itself to be too publically humiliating. And so, while the division in the gaming community is stronger than ever, the overwhelming, targeted harassment has died down significantly. This is not to say it has stopped; many of the women deal with harassment and threats daily, but the cultural event itself has slowed to a stop. It still regularly flares up, when a developer publishes a game with particularly egregious representation of women or people of color, many outlets will respond, and many former­-GamerGators will respond more loudly. Gaming sites and communities are heavily defined by which “side” they are on, and neutrality has become an increasingly difficult position to take. GamerGate may be over, but its effects are stronger than ever, and the gaming community has become increasingly radicalized and divided as a result.

 

Section IV: Why and How?

While the context of gaming’s history and the world’s changing approach to social issues did provide a perfect setting for GamerGate to happen, it still does not explain the immediacy, ferocity, and focus with which the event started and continued. GamerGate, while its goals were scattered, did not feel like a purely random grouping of people, it seemed to have at least some direction. The core of this direction is, surprisingly, not very difficult to find. In the weeks after the harassment campaign against her began, Zoe Quinn investigated chat rooms and message boards run by the higher-­ups in the GamerGate community, and what she found was more disturbing than even the ferocious public face of GamerGate would imply. While it is difficult to find an exact beginning to GamerGate, the earliest and most often pointed­ to source is this one from the website 4chan:

TLDR Zoe Quinn, a rabid feminist SJW GAMUR GIRL who made a shitty non­game called Depression Quest, just got outed for BRIBING THE MEDIA INTO LIKING HER SHITTY NON­GAME WITH HER VAGINA BY cheating on her boyfriend with 5 other guys, including Kotaku staff members who defended her online and reviewed her game and HER MARRIED BOSS. She is a manipulative liar and a sociopath. (Archive.is)

This post demonstrates the clear misogyny and disregard for facts that became emblematic of the movement, but further investigation in private IRC chatrooms revealed more sinister motives. The chatlogs Quinn posted were filled with some of the following messages from higher­-ups in the 4chan and GamerGate community:

Aug 18 20.10.06 i couldnt care less about vidya , i just want to see zoe receive her comeuppance

Aug 21 17.23.31 The problem is that making it about Zoe sleeping around amounts to a personal attack which, while funny and something she totally deserves, will hurt our chances of pushing the other point …

Aug 21 17.23.38 ./v should be focused on the implications of gaming journalism … Aug 21 17.23.47 Because SJWs will cherry­pick the /b/ shit posting and say “See? It’s sexist MRAs!”

Aug 21 17.48.06 I’m debating whether or not we should just attack zoe …

Aug 21 17.48.29 push her… push her further….. further, until eventually she an heroes …

Aug 21 17.48.51 … What makes you think she has the balls to kill herself? Aug 21 17.48.57 I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably horrible …

Aug 21 17.49.45 The more you try to attack her directly, the more she gets to play the victim card and make a bunch of friends who will support her because, since she has a vagina, any attack is misgony

Aug 21 17.49.48 ./v should be in charge of the gaming journalism aspect of it. /pol should be in charge of the feminism aspect, and /b should be in charge of harassing her into killing herself (Futrelle)

While GamerGate reached far beyond these chatrooms and message boards, these were the ones who ran the movement, set the tone, and, from there, organized the events. There are not contained opinions, either. For example, 4chan’s /pol/, or politically incorrect board, is run by a self-­identifying white supremacist, holocaust denier (Outlaw10), a move that makes even GamerGate’s most ardent supporters uncomfortable. This highlights an important distinction between two groups of GamerGate, namely, the extremists, and the more moderate members that they surrounded themselves. The extremists are the ones who actually want Quinn and her allies to commit suicide, who are white supremacists, and who actually could not care less about the state of games journalism, and only want to use it as an excuse to force women, minorities, LGBTQ people, etc. out of the medium. The average GamerGater, however, was not like this. They genuinely believed in the cause of “ethics in games journalism”, even if the leaders of the movement did not. The leaders played on fears that these average GamerGators had about the emerging presence of feminism, social justice advocacy, and progressive politics in the medium, and packaged it with an issue that actually is a problem in the industry to make it more palatable. “Ethics in games journalism” eventually became a joke for this very reason, as GamerGators would claim that their attacks and arguments were not about harassment, but ethics, with a justification so flimsy that GamerGate’s opponents mocked them for it. “No really guys, it’s not about excluding women, it’s about ethics in games journalism” is, to this day, a running joke in the anti-­GamerGate community.

However GamerGate would not have reached the intensity that it did if “ethics in games journalism” was not an actual issue. The most recognizable ethical violation is the previously mentioned firing of Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot for his low score of Kane & Lynch​,but there are many, many others. Games critic Leigh Alexander helpfully documented a great deal of them in her piece, “List of ethical concerns in video games (partial)”, which serves as a searing and continually relevant critique of the games press. In spite of this, Alexander was one of GamerGate’s main targets after she wrote the piece, “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.”, explaining that the traditional stereotype of a gamer is no longer the only audience in gaming. Ethical concerns in games journalism are massive, widespread, and completely valid, and it is precisely for this reason that “ethics in games journalism” worked so well as a frame narrative for GamerGate. While many of the average GamerGaters did honestly believe that they were fighting for ethics in games journalism, the narratives fed to them by the higher­-ups was tinged with sexism, and the targets of GamerGate were almost exclusively women and people of color. This specific type of online phenomenon is distinctly new, but the group psychology behind it, however, is most certainly not.

The study of group formation, one of the core aspects of social psychology, asks questions about why people form groups the way they do, why different people join different groups, and how different groups function. The website Fractal Sauna explores these ideas and tries to categorize different reasons why people join groups and the different kinds of groups themselves. Many of the points provided are very relevant to GamerGate and the way its various groups formed. Fractal Sauna lists one of the reason people join groups as, “Cognitive: needs to understand the environment: The theory of social comparison says we clarify our minds by comparing our world­views with others in similar situations” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). In this method of group formation, people join groups to help understand the world by finding like­-minded people and comparing and contrasting ideas. However, the site warns of “groupthink”, where there is strong pressure towards unity of thinking inside the group” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). These ideas are very apparent in GamerGate’s formation. The gaming community as a whole had, by the time GamerGate happened, developed a mindset of a group under siege, worried about outside influences trying to tear them down. This lead to the creation of a worldview that was hostile towards outside criticism, or indeed criticism of any kind, and created a cognitive need for validation among the community, a need that was filled by members of GamerGate when the group began to form. The allure of a group that provided that validation, that helped members frame their insecurities towards the changing social climate as an attacking force, could allow them to look past the disdainful actions of other parts of the group. Many of the more moderate GamerGaters argued that there was nothing they could do about the group’s harassment and more radical ideas, and argued that those outside of GamerGate were refusing to listen to them because of the actions of these radicals. This belief created a tone of complacency towards harassment, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in their community, where otherwise, these same people might not have tolerated it.

Fractal Sauna also offers a useful framework that could help in understanding GamerGate’s progression as a group. The site references psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman’s outline of these stages, namely:

Forming: People are confused, goals and leadership are unclear, if there is a leader there’s strong dependence on that leader

Storming: Conflicts arise, different opinions, rebellion, leaders and goals are challenged, unclear roles and norms

Norming: Conflicts are being handled, norms and roles are established, people start to support each others and learn how to work in openly manner

Performing: Beneficial structures of human relating are forming, division of work is optimized, roles are flexible.

Adjourning: Tasks are finished, goals are achieved (or not), people move on to new challenges, celebrations and remembrance. (Fractal Sauna, 2013).

Each stage traces fairly cleanly to GamerGate’s progression. The early days of the movement were filled with confusion and lack of central focus, allowing the acts of extreme harassment to go unchecked as the group was not centralized. The Storming phase did address these issues in some ways, such as some GamerGaters condemning harassment, setting new goals and trying to make their movement more socially acceptable, but the lack of organization and formal structure of the movement made this difficult, and many of these problems continued. By the time the Norming and Performing stages were reached, the movement was so divided, publically disliked, and fragmented, that it was hard to consolidate as a single movement, as they had only a hashtag and a loose set of beliefs to gather around. Finally, the Adjourning stage was reached, sometime around when Anita Sarkeesian was invited onto the Colbert report and GamerGaters were publically mocked. To a certain extent, this phase is ongoing, as the movement, while much smaller in size, is still planning and acting. For example, on March 30th of 2016, Nintendo employee Alison Rapp was fired after a months-­long, GamerGate-­related harassment campaign against her. While the majority of GamerGate members stopped participating in the movement and entered the Adjourning phase in in late 2014, many of the group’s more radical members are continuing their campaign as vocally as ever.

 

Section V: Conclusion

With the field of social psychology continually working to understand how group formation has changed with the ubiquity of the internet, GamerGate serves as fascinating case study. It touches on topics such as group formation and cultural conflict, that are essential to social psychology, but provides an understanding of how they are have both changed and stayed the same over the internet. However, what I find most important about GamerGate personally was its ability to massively shift the dynamics of an entire culture. The culture surrounding video games was always problematic, but GamerGate brought those problems so strongly into the forefront that these topics cannot be discussed in the gaming world without an explosion of controversy. And what makes this intensification of previously dormant beliefs so important to me is that it affected me personally; it caused me to leave a friend group. The world of video games is a difficult one to love, and I have had much more difficulty loving it since GamerGate began over a year and a half ago. It has made discussion that would be commonplace in other media become polarizing, uncomfortable, and difficult. It has forced groups to pick sides, and allows for very little mixing of worldviews and room for compromise. These phenomena have been documented before; it has happened to an untold number of groups throughout history, but GamerGate affected my group, my medium, and my friends, and that makes it all the more relevant to me. As I said before, the cultural event may be over, but the damage has been done.

GamerGate did a great deal to weaken my faith in the gaming community, but, despite the movement’s intentions, brought forward aspects of the community that I do value. The emergence of a fiercely anti­-criticism group lead to other members of the community listening to voices with powerful forms of criticism. It forced those who care about games to focus more on issues of social justice, and to keep demanding that we look at games with more criticism. GamerGate’s actions amplified the voices of those on both sides of the issue, but that amplification of GamerGate’s opponents lead to many of them simply being heard in the first place. Much of the community now makes a great effort to listen to writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ. In short, by creating an environment where criticism as a concept was under vicious attack, GamerGate brought out defenders and advocates, thinkers and critics. In his video on Anita Sarkeesian, Ian Danskin says that, in what he thinks was accidental, Sarkeesian’s harassers would inadvertently create the next week’s Sarkeesian talking points, making harassment that had previously been ignored become the focus of discussion. In spite of all of the damage it did to the gaming community, GamerGate may have accidentally strengthened the critical community surrounding games. The group dynamics of GamerGate and the gaming community are complex, twisted, and often, deeply flawed. But their actions may have brought forward some of the very things they were trying to destroy.

 

 

Works Cited

Alexander, L. (2014, October 3). Retrieved April 02, 2016, from http://leighalexander.net/list­of­ethical­concerns­in­video­games­partial/

Chess, S., & Shaw, A. (2015). A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,59​(1), 208­220.

Crecente, B. (2014, September 17). FBI investigating death threats against Feminist Frequency creator Sarkeesian. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from http://www.polygon.com/2014/9/17/6225835/fbi­investigating­anita­sarkeesian­threats

Cross, K. (2014, July 29). The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games. Retrieved

March 05, 2016, from https://www.polygon.com/2014/7/29/5947661/the-nightmare-is-over-theyre-not-coming-for-your-games

Danskin, I. (2015, July 13). Why Are You So Angry? Retrieved March 05, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJA_jUddXvY62dhVThbeegLPpvQlR4CjF

Dworkin, A. (n.d.). Letter From a War Zone. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/WarZoneChaptIVG2.html

Fractal Sauna. (2013, May 04). Social Complexity in Groups – A View to the Macro Level of Interaction. Retrieved March 12, 2016, from https://fractalsauna.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/social­complexity­in­groups­a­view­to­the­macrolevel­of­interaction/

Futrelle, D. (2014, September 08). Zoe Quinn’s screenshots of 4chan’s dirty tricks were just the appetizer. Here’s the first course of the dinner, directly from the IRC log. Retrieved April 02, 2016, from http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/2014/09/08/zoe­quinns­screenshots­of­4chans­dirty­tricks­were­just­the­appetizer­heres­the­first­course­of­the­dinner­directly­from­the­irc­log/

Gjoni, E. (2014, August 16). Thezoepost. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from https://thezoepost.wordpress.com/

Jason, Z. (2015, May). Game of Fear. Retrieved March 5, 2016, from

http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2015/04/28/gamergate/

Klepek, P. (2016, March 30). Nintendo Employee ‘Terminated’ After Smear Campaign Over Censorship, Company Denies Harassment Was Factor [UPDATED]. Retrieved April 02, 2016, from http://kotaku.com/nintendo­employee­terminated­after­smear­campaign­over­1768100368

 

Makuch, E. (2014, February 11). GDC Awards to honor Feminist Frequency creator, Riot Games founders. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from https://www.gamespot.com/articles/gdc-awards-to-honor-feminist-frequency-creator-riot-games-founders/1100-6417669/

Outlaw10. (2014, November 2). King of Pol going full holocaust denial on IA stream. Retrieved from https://np.reddit.com/r/KotakuInAction/comments/2l1fma/king_of_pol_going_full_holocaust_denial_on_ia/

Plunkett, L. (2012, March 15). Yes, a Games Writer was Fired Over Review Scores. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://kotaku.com/5893785/yes­a­games­writer­was­fired­over­review­scores

Ramano, A. (2014, January 09). ‘Depression Quest’ gets some cheerful news. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/zoe­quinn­depression­quest­greenlit­steam/

Remo, C. (2008, December 9). Study: Over 50% Of U.S. Adults Play Games, Platform Choices Split By Age. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/112380/

S. (n.d.). #GameOverGate (with images, tweets) ∙ strictmachine. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from https://storify.com/strictmachine/gameovergate

Sarkeesian, A. (2015). One Week of Harassment on Twitter. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from http://femfreq.tumblr.com/post/109319269825/one­week­of­harassment­on­twitter

Sarkeesian, A. (2012, May 12). Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes­vs­women­in­video­games

Sterling, J. (2012, June 07). New game invites players to beat up Anita Sarkeesian. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from http://www.destructoid.com/new­game­invites­players­to­beat­up­anita­sarkeesian­230831.phtml

Totilo, S. (2014, September 17). Bomb Threat Targeted Anita Sarkeesian, Gaming Awards Last March. Retrieved March 05, 2016, from http://kotaku.com/bomb­threat­targeted­anita­sarkeesian­gaming­awards­la­1636032301

Wallace, A. (2013, December 15). Depression Quest Dev Faces Extreme Harassment Because She’s a Woman. Retrieved March 22, 2016, from http://www.gameskinny.com/o3t09/depression­quest­dev­faces­extreme­harassment­because­she s­a­woman

Hacknet and Games as Software

Video games are pieces of software. They are executables that you run on your computer, just like Google Chrome or Spotify or LibreOffice. For such an obvious fact of the medium, not many games do much with this idea. I previously cited Uplink as a game that did acknowledge this idea by treating the game as a program the player runs to connect to a fantasy hacking world. I briefly mentioned in that piece that Hacknet, a game inspired by Uplink, didn’t try to evoke this aesthetic, but after recently playing their excellent Labyrinths DLC, I was happily proven wrong. When I launched the game after installing the DLC, I found it interesting that, instead of opening the game’s executable directly, it opened a Windows command prompt, which then ran the game’s executable. This seemed like a trivial chain of events that I initially wrote off as bad design, but later, I discovered why it was implemented: to force the player to think of the game itself as a piece of software in order to further the hacker fantasy the game was trying to create. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time I have seen a game directly force this acknowledgment, and how it builds up to this event and executes on it is nothing short of masterful.

Screenshot-Hacknet-5.jpg

Hacknet, like Uplink, styles itself after real-world hacking just enough to give a tech-savvy player a loose sense of verisimilitude. At the game’s lowest level, the player is typing text instructions into a UNIX command line. If the player is familiar with these commands, such as cd, ls, rm, scp, they will enter the game with a wealth of knowledge for navigating its systems already at their disposal. Tricks I learned from using the terminal on my Mac, such as hitting tab to autocomplete a word I was typing, transferred over to the game with a surprisingly consistency. Uplink used a similar trick, but offered additional UI elements that had to be operated outside the command line. Hacknet offers similar, time-saving UI elements, but each one is a shortcut for text commands the player could type out if they wanted. This results in the UI feeling less like, well, a game, and more like an actual UNIX terminal that the player is using. Now, this won’t mean much to someone who doesn’t already know some of the jargon the game is throwing at the player, and a lot of my respect for this game comes from frustration with how poorly films and games usually represent hacking. However, I think it still holds value, even to non-technical players, because it teaches them, at least slightly, real-world computer skills, and doesn’t break the player’s immersion the more they learn about the subject. Additionally, the genuine effort put into making the game feel accurate adds a great deal to its ability to blur the lines between the game and reality, allowing the player to slip into believing its fiction more easily. The base game uses these elements to great effect as the player joins various hacker groups, completes contracts, and improves their hacking arsenal. The player builds up a skillset over the course of the game, and that skillset is put to the test during a beautifully-executed moment where a rival hacker breaks into the player’s system and nearly destroys it, removing all of their acquired graphical aids. The player is forced to revert to only typing text commands to recover their system and take revenge on this rival hacker. This sequence relies entirely on the player’s skill at command line, creating a high-tension moment that similar to the common action game trope of taking away all of the player’s weapons before a climactic encounter (ex. Half-Life 2, Dragon Age: Origins). This is easily the game’s most effective moment, and, like the safe rooms in Resident Evil, serve as a culmination point for all of the game’s systemic and thematic elements. If the rest of Hacknet wasn’t set up to support it, this moment wouldn’t work, but the game’s systems naturally lead to this exact cocktail of emotions.

So, when I picked up Hacknet’s latest DLC, I wasn’t expecting them to be able to top this sequence. It was everything Hacknet was trying to be, how could that be improved upon? The answer the dev team settled on was to take an existing thematic element, namely, the blurry line between reality and the game, and forcefully acknowledge the game’s role as software on the player’s computer. Mid-way through the DLC, the player is hacked by another anonymous hacker, who, again, wipes out the player’s system, forcing a reboot. However, this hacker is more experienced than the one from the main game, and installs a virus that prevents the player’s system from rebooting. So, a friend from the player’s hacking group sends them text instructions on how to remove the virus, which seem fairly straight forward…until the game crashes. Hacknet.exe quits, leaving the player with an actual Windows command prompt, cmd.exe, opened to the folder where the Hacknet game is installed. Everything I have described up until this point was happening fictionally, within Hacknet.exe, but for the next few minutes, the player isn’t engaged with Hacknet.exe at all. These events happen entirely on the player’s operating system, using the same applications they would use outside of the game. Using cmd.exe, and the commands they learned in the game, the player opens the text file sent to them by a fictional character in Hacknet. This opened in Sublime Text, my default text editor, appearing as a text file sent from a real-world friend might. It tells the player to search 2773556-hacknet_screenshot6.pngfor a .dll file hidden inside the Hacknet directory and run a few commands on it. Until they do this, Hacknet.exe will not start; it will only re-open that command prompt. The player has to engage with the game as a piece of software with .txt, .dll and .exe files, and until they can do that, they cannot continue the game. This raises a myriad of metatextual questions about if the player is technically still “playing” Hacknet, as they are carrying out instructions that the game is giving to them, but the game itself is not running. But these feelings are taken even further by how the game contextualizes this hack.

My understanding of real-world hacking is severely limited, but from what I have read, the majority of them don’t do their hacking directly from their local machine. Instead, they run a virtual machine of an OS dedicated specifically to hacking, so that all their illicit activities are separated from their physical computer. The developers of Hacknet seemed aware of this, and explain Hacknet.exe as a hacking dedicated VM, so that the player can imagine themselves running it like a real hacker would. Thus, when the rival hacker attacks their system, the player poking around in their actual OS doesn’t feel like a dissonant removal from the game’s fiction, it feels like someone broke their hacking VM and they need to fix it. With all of the attention the game is drawing to this recontextualization, it should break the player’s immersion by forcing them to examine the game-software distinction that is so often unexamined. But because of the efforts to contextualize each action in the mechanics of real-world hacking, the game’s illusion is maintained. I’m hesitant to bring up the “games can do this but other media can’t!” argument, since it usually doesn’t provide any interesting conclusions, but in this case, the game forces the player to understand it as a piece of software before they continue. Other media cannot make sure its audience understands a thematic point before proceeding, but games can require it. Hacknet does this by expanding the boundaries of its fictional world, and in doing so, bumps into a concept that is decades older than the medium of video games itself.

The concept, called the magic circle, was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in his book, Homo Ludens. He described the circle as the dividing line between the world of the game and the world of reality. Inside it, concepts like points, teams, winning and losing are all given a value that, outside of the game, is entirely worthless. Points don’t actually mean anything in the real world, but inside the magic circle, they become the keys to magiccircle01.jpgvictory. Good game designers are consistently using each element of their game to reinforce the magic circle, to avoid breaking the player’s belief in it, the same way writers and filmmakers try to avoid breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief in other media. In Hacknet, I have no earthly idea where the magic circle ends and the real world begins, but I somehow still fully believe in it. Acknowledging that games are pieces of software should completely shatter the magic circle, and I can think of dozens of games where this happened due to graphical glitches, game crashes, or mis-firing quest triggers. Hacknet, by positioning itself so close to reality, preserves its magic circle, while simultaneously calling attention to it. I don’t know if the possibility space of acknowledging games as software is vast, yet unexplored, or small, and Hacknet is using one of its limited applications. Regardless, it is something unique that the medium is capable of, and I’ve found exploring it to be fascinating as both a player and critic.