Open the Gameplay Doors Please, HAL
I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from Issue #15, in June 2019.
Much of human psychology is about control. David Hume described religion as a magical schema humans imposed on the world to control natural forces far more powerful than themselves. Politics revolve around controlling who’s allowed in and out of countries, what information belongs to whom, and whether one group of people have the right to tell another group of people what to do.
The information age has long been interested in whether technology allows us to control things or things to control us. One of the most common causes of the growing epidemic of anxiety disorders is when people don’t feel like they’re in charge.
Much of the joy of gaming is control. Planting the perfect field of crops in Stardew Valley, or mastery of controls themselves in combo-timing games like Street Fighter and Tekken. Capturing and containing all 807 wild floofs in Pokémon; the git gud mentality of Dark Souls; overriding increasingly complex robots in Horizon: Zero Dawn. I suspect control is such a large part of the fun because so many humans feel like they lack agency in real life.
It’s interesting when games remove control. I don’t like it, of course, because I’m a completionist millennial perfectionist running an indie start-up who feels quite powerless enough most of the time, thank you very much. But I respect the artistic choice, and it gives me something to chew on.
Bioshock famously removed control in its ‘would you kindly’ reveal, sparking a debate about whether it was genius or folly that the player watched a cutscene rather than actively participated in that moment.
Edith Finch, a game contemplating death through a series of whimsical walking-sim narratives, deliberately incorporates different control schemes for each chapter of the game. This is specifically to stop the player ‘mastering’ the controls and feeling like they were in charge.
The Stanley Parable revolves around a satirical pastiche of control, and a bloody pantheon of horror games from Silent Hill to the Resident Evil 2 remake know that what’s really upsetting isn’t how much blood you see but whether you have the health, items, speed and visibility to control your situation. Well, that and never having enough batteries for your freakishly defective electronics.
With the exception of cutscenes, QTEs or other scripted events where it’s important the player acts in a certain way, removing control is almost always a deliberate artistic point. Maybe it’s to heighten the tension; maybe it’s a comment on society; maybe it’s to make you feel powerless and weak. It’s a sudden reminder that though we’ve lost ourselves to the power-narrative the game’s laid out for us, we’re not really an alien assassin rampaging through Greece or a god of war crushing draugr skulls with an axe. We’re meat-sacks in a holodeck, whose worlds are vivid and alive and utterly destroyed when someone blows a fuse.
Give into games and live the fantasy you want to, by all means. But bear in mind that at any moment, HAL could refuse to open the door.