Built for Sin: Guilt as Gameplay

The agony of choice is all the rage in modern story-driven gaming. Moral and ethical decisions have become the go-to method of injecting substance and weight into interactive narrative, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, choice is unique to interactive media, and is arguably its most fundamental aspect. What is interactivity if not some level of choice in how one experiences an environment? Even something as simple as selecting the right weapon to slaughter a demonic posse in Doom demonstrates that agency is always at the heart of interactivity.

The exploration of agency has come a long way over the short life of video games as narrative media. While the possibility of games with multiple endings was already being explored in the 1980’s, from Nobunaga’s Ambition to Sweet Home, the concept of an ethically-driven choice system would develop through the 90’s, and particularly in the RPG genre. The offerings of Interplay and BioWare, including such classics as Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout, introduced characters with independent agendas who would react to the player’s behavior in the world. This could lead to all manner of emergent narrative developments, with characters abandoning or even attacking the player for veering too far along an opposing ethical axis. Morality systems even started to appear in some shooters, such as Dark Forces II, with the killing of civilians determining whether Kyle Katarn becomes a Jedi or a Sith. By the late ’00s, titles like Fable and Bioshock had cemented moral choice as a commodity within narrative design.

As the medium matured, however, there emerged a certain disillusionment with these dichotomous systems. The cracks began to show in its narrative applicability. The choice became less about immersive, situational decision making and more about commitment to one of two paths. BioWare’s Jade Empire provides a particularly egregious example, allowing the player to go through the entire game making small ethical decisions before the final decision rockets you all the way to one end of the morality scale or the other. While it can be great fun to choose between life as a saint and life as an utter bastard, it hinders interesting storytelling by glossing over the gray areas that makes morality so fascinating in the first place.

Active & Passive Feedback

When we talk about how choice has developed in games over the decades, what we’re really talking about is feedback. When I make a decision as a player, how does that affect the progression of my experience? Is it a simple matter of life or death? Does it affect my character’s personal arc? Are the ripples of my choice felt throughout the whole world? One approach to choice-feedback is to have an event-based system of consequences that actually changes the outcome of one or more of the game’s story arcs. It may be the death of a beloved character or the fall of an great empire, or even the unlocking of a unique ability or item. The more responsive the game world, the more likely a player is to feel powerful within that game world. We’ll call this “active feedback,” in which the game explicitly responds to a given player choice.

Another sort of feedback emerges from the design of interesting dilemmas in themselves. This means that the player is presented with a choice that is contextualized by the narrative substance of the game world. While this choice may or may not tie directly into an active feedback mechanic, the heavy lifting is done on the part of the player based on the ideas the ethical choice presents. Adventure games like SOMA and Kentucky Route Zero have deftly applied this sort of choice system, which allows the player to define the interior world of the character rather than the external game world.

For instance, in SOMA, the protagonist, Simon, learns that he is simply a copy of his own brain from a century ago, transfused into a robot body. In one of the game’s subtler moments of choice, Simon finds the computer where his brain scan is stored and can opt, with little prompting, to delete the file. The decision has no bearing on the outcome of the game, but it is given significance by the narrative context, and so it gave me lengthy pause when I came across it. I debated over what to do, and it’s a decision that still stands out to me. The game effectively communicated consequence without a direct supporting event. We’ll call this “passive feedback.”

From a narrative perspective, crafting an interesting dilemma is far more valuable than simply providing the player with the opportunity to “opt in” to either good or evil. There’s little drama in being presented with a flagrantly Good or Evil option and then having the outcome reflect the proscribed morality of the choice. Even in titles such as Fable III, where a sort of tragic irony colors the moral binary, it does more to demonstrate the latent sadism of a binary ethical system than it does to offer anything truly innovative to the concept of choice and consequence in games. We as humans are conflicted, doubtful, anxious beings, and in life we never come across simple moral binaries. Our ethical dilemmas are defined by their agonizing, tragic quality, and the passive feedback of an ethical choice should reflect that complication and depth. The pain of such decisions is  the spark of good drama.

But we can go one step further, and say that this pain is also central to morality itself, and how human beings experience satisfaction from making moral judgements. As game designers, understanding the philosophical basis for this satisfaction can be useful in constructing systems of morality within our games. For that, we should look to Immanuel Kant, the quintessential moral philosopher.

Morality is Pain: Kant

Kantian morality is complex and multifaceted, and the philosophically inclined should read The Critique of Practical Reason to understand it fully. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that it’s less about what is moral and more about how morality is determined in the first place. For Kant, morality is a logical form, a set of criteria by which human reason determines an ethical course of action. This opposes Kant to the common assumption that what is “good” is determined by a goal or objective, i.e. happiness, pleasure, ensuring future good, etc. Kant argued that morality must be more than a means to an end. It must be universally and unconditionally good in itself,  regardless of the consequences. An individual person determines what action qualifies against this criteria though the use of their reason.

This formula is particularly interesting, since it separates moral choice from the rote, reward-based logic that generally governs how we think of game design. We can see this at play in a title like TellTale’s The Walking Dead. The game is an endless succession of “damned-if you-do” moments culminating in devastating tragedy, and yet we remain absolutely rapt even in the absence of a definitive win-state or reward. According to Kant, this isn’t a fluke. It’s the entire point. Given that a morality is opposed to any self-interested inclination, he determines that there is only one form of feedback that tells you without a doubt that you are being moral:

Pain.

Physical pain, psychological pain. It doesn’t matter what sort of pain as long as it hurts. It sounds brutal and sadistic, and it absolutely is, but it creates, as Kant notes, a quality of morality whereby we can appreciate it intellectually even though viscerally we experienced it as suffering. In his introduction to The Critique of Practical Reason, Stephen Engstrom explains that this pain gives way to “a feeling of respect for the moral law, a feeling that can come to have a positive aspect to the extent that we recognize that it is in the judgment of our own reason. Through this recognition, the feeling of respect takes on a certain elevating and ennobling character, insofar as its object is recognized to be a law that has its source in our own rational nature.”

To my mind, this concept perfectly accounts for the power of meaningful choice in games. Players are engaged by challenging, ethically complicated decisions against which they can apply judgment reached through their own reason. To have this effect, these decisions must confront us to some degree with a tragic pain. In the context of a game’s narrative, this pain manifests as  guilt. The way in which the player considers this guilt, from an intellectual standpoint, is what allows the experience to resonate with the player and gives depth to their engagement with the game.

Guilt as Passive Feedback

It is important to understand the primacy of passive feedback in the implementation of guilt as gameplay. While there can certainly be active feedback systems to support them, the narrative design and the implications of the choices within the context of the story must effectively convey passive feedback, ensuring that the decisions made have gravity, and stick in the player’s mind long after the deed has been done. An active feedback system that is devoid of any passive feedback, which allows you to simply select between desired outcomes, does little aside from propping up a superficial fantasy. By contrast, passive feedback can color a player’s experience by playing with how they experience the context of their journey. Well executed player choice fully embraces this, relying upon the cultivation of guilt for its emotional yield.

In his talk at GDC 2014, Unreal 2 and Dead Space 2 designer Matthias Worch explained how agency is afforded to players in combat scenarios through an interplay of complicating mechanics which can be learned and beaten through applied knowledge. This deployment of guilt in the context of deep, ethical dilemmas ultimately serves the same purpose, creating an emotional challenge against which the player can apply their rationality, thus granting the player ethical agency.

There is a caveat, however. We must not confuse the creation of compelling ethical narratives with simply piling on grimdarkness and feel-bad storytelling. The cultivation of quality guilt-based gameplay requires a deft manipulation of the benevolent and the brutal into nuanced moral constellations that involve the player at a visceral level and challenge their reason. With the rapid approach of The Last of Us Part 2, replete with its highly publicized dog-eat-dog (sorry) ethical philosophy, we may soon get a chance to see this painful art taken to the max. Will Naughty Dog succeed at creating a taught, compelling experience of the liminal spaces of morality, or will they slip lazily into nihilism?

P.T. and the Legacy of Silent Hill 4

In just ten days, our first game, Veiled, will be one year old. It’s fitting, then, that P.T., one of our chief influences in making our debut, has been on my mind. But in the design process of Veiled, we found that P.T. was only a jumping-off point. As we conceived of our game’s unique identity, we found that we could trace the ideas of P.T. beyond the teaser itself and into a rich history of horror games, and even ideas that had already taken root, though somewhat forgotten, in the Silent Hill franchise. 

When P.T. unassumingly appeared in the Playstation Store in 2014, it changed the face of survival horror. Presented as an indie title from an unknown studio, its uncanny domestic setting and minimalistic design melded together into an experience that received overwhelming acclaim for its ability to create dread. Despite its notoriously obscure puzzle design, players dove into the game, with the first finishers cracking the mystery only a few hours after launch. 

Of course, this was no indie title. A full playthrough climaxed with an announcement trailer for a new Silent Hill release helmed by the legendary Hideo Kojima, but by the time anyone realized this, P.T. had already managed to transcend the nostalgia hype. Far from relying on the check-cashing iconography and adoration the series boasts, Kojima and co. created an experience that stood on its own two feet, igniting the Silent Hill fan community with a wholly new excitement for the beloved series.

This was a crucial move, as the Silent Hill franchise has been fraught since original developers Team Silent abdicated control of the series. Any meaningful new announcement had to demonstrate that the series was returning to a level of innovation and sophistication the fans had grown to love in the early entries. By masquerading as an unknown indie game (oh, to be a fly on the wall in those Konami marketing meetings), P.T. ensured that the rose-tinting of both Silent Hill’s and Kojima’s respective fandoms could not take credit for the hook. To this end, the mission was a resounding success.

Everyone Wants a Piece

Silent Hills was cancelled less than a year after P.T. was released, but the next five years of horror gaming were haunted by its ghost. P.T.’s elegant, minimalist horror served as a wellspring of inspiration for indie devs, with an outpouring of riffs on the theme coming from across the spectrum of production value. High gloss homages like Allison Road (itself subsequently cancelled) and Visage have stood alongside lower-fi endeavors like Infliction and properly avant-garde pieces such as Anatomy. In the AA world, games like The Park and Bloober Team’s entire oeuvre from Layers of Fear forward have proudly taken up the P.T. mantle. 

The ripples were felt in AAA as well, as Resident Evil abruptly veered away from the trashy TPS formula it had fallen into after failing to understand the appeal of RE4 and became a vibey, first person experience revealed in RE7‘s Beginning Hour demo. In many ways, we can thank the Resident Evil team for not allowing Silent Hills tragic death (at the hands of Konami’s diabolical pachinko empire) to be in vain. While indies have certainly carried the torch of P.T.’s project, it was the AAA sphere, where game design innovation goes to die, that really stood to lose or gain from Kojima’s work.

Everything Old is New Again

P.T. was hailed for being cutting-edge, winning the NAVGTR award for Innovation in Game Technology. Journalists and players lavished praise on the originality of the design, but it is important to look at the lineage that led up to P.T.

Perhaps the most clear path to P.T. starts with the release of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. With Amnesia, Frictional Games provided a pared down experience focusing on exploration and vulnerability. Gone was the arsenal of both classic and contemporary survival horror. The player was outfitted only with simple stealth mechanics to circumvent the threats in the environment.

P.T. followed this thread further, stripping out the stealth elements and deconstructing the horror experience down to two discrete moments: opening a door and rounding a corner. Also palpable is the influence of the walking sim genre, popularized with the release of The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther, an Amnesia contemporary. Both of these titles have served to define minimalist game design since their release, and their influence certainly created the fertile ground from which P.T. would spring.

Reaching further back, I would also point to point and click titles such as Hue Forest’s Amber: Journeys Beyond, Darkling Room’s Dark Fall: The Journal, and Senscape’s Scratches as examples of exploration based horror experiences focused on the creation of dread rather than generating fear from skill challenges. Even P.T.’s obtuse puzzles play as a nod to the “moon logic” of the old P&C days.

But while all of these titles contributed to creating the world in which it was designed, the true progenitor of the Silent Hills P.T. can be found without leaving the franchise.

The Room

Silent Hill 4: The Room was the last Silent Hill title developed by Team Silent, the end of an era and a contentious swan song among fans. The game puts the player in the existentially fraught shoes of Henry Townshend, who has been unable to leave his apartment in five days due to a surreal cat’s cradle of chains and padlocks blocking the door. Discovering a portal to other places has appeared in his bathroom, Henry begins to uncover the dark history of his apartment and its connection to the town of Silent Hill.

The latter half of the game is often criticized for its escort mission structure, boasting incredibly frustrating friendly AI and taxing enemy encounters that brutally spikes the game’s difficulty, and naturally the substance of The Room is constantly compared to the series crown jewel Silent Hill 2. I would argue, however, that such a comparison is unfair, as The Room’s aims were significantly different from those of any prior entries in the franchise. Personally, I adore the first four original games, and could compellingly argue for any of them as my favorite, but where SH2 (and, I’d argue, SH3 as well) demonstrated the finest the traditional survival horror design had to offer, The Room aimed to push the limits and create something new.

Silent Hill 4’s namesake, the titular room, is the mechanism by which the game introduces its innovation. Universally praised (and rightly so) as a design element, Henry’s apartment is the emotional crux of The Room’s horror. Travesered in first person–a first for the series–the apartment serves as a hub world, from which Henry embarks into realms unknown, which each play more or less like classic Silent Hill games. The apartment is also Henry’s haven, to which he can retreat when these other worlds get the best of him. Ominous as it is, the apartment offers a safe space for the player to heal and save, store items, and just take a breather from SH4’s vicious survival horror gameplay loops, confident in their safety.

At least at first.

Around the midpoint of the game, the room is compromised. Spirits invade it and must be repelled using limited resources. Health no longer regenerates in the apartment and unexorcised ghosts can easily overpower poor Henry. The entire environment deteriorates, with all aesthetic trappings designed to be as oppressive as possible. The windows rattle, your item box is possessed, a hideous apparition leers through the peephole on the other side of the front door. The violations are relentless, and this is the brilliance of The Room: it gets the player comfortable in a space before sadistically turning that space of comfort against the player.

We’re Just Getting Started

It’s certainly not novel to draw a connection between P.T. and The Room. Visage notably features a replica of the Henry Townshend’s apartment as an easter egg, and has used a rendering of the chained door on its loading screens. Several members of the Silent Hill fandom have covered the aesthetic and design similarities between P.T. and The Room in detail, noting parallels in everything from the first person perspective to the presence of ghosts, from the motif of a confined and increasingly hostile environment to the scrawling of bloody messages across the entrances, from the ominous radio broadcasts to the holes in bathroom walls offering a view to an Other Place. All of this is certainly striking and worthy of continued discussion and analysis.

But for me, the core kinship between P.T. and The Room rests on this principle of the uncanny, in which an environment grows progressively more alienating, leverage dread and vulnerability to elicit a visceral fear within the player. As a far briefer game, and in keeping with its minimalistic approach, P.T. eschews The Room’s extended process of familiarizing the player with the apartment, foreign instead a rapid ramp-up. It relies upon its photorealistic suburban environment to provide a prepackaged familiarity which can be subsequently undermined to devastating effect. 

For years, complaints in the forums have indicated a fear that SH4 had abandoned too many of the trappings of its predecessors, but P.T. gives the lie to this argument, stripping away the jaunts into traditional survival horror altogether and isolating the concept of “the room” itself. The audience response speaks for itself: the least traditional idea from SH4 is enduring, now inextricably enmeshed within the Silent Hill public consciousness.

To this end, perhaps we can say that The Room was ahead of its time, and that P.T., bringing with it the lessons of Amnesia and Dear Esther, was the culmination of The Room’s project, at serving as a channel for its ingenious design philosophy to permeate the horror gaming consciousness. The influence of P.T. is only just beginning, and the horror design philosophy of weaponizing the player’s comfort zone itself will continue to evolve. The legacy of P.T., and of Silent Hill 4: The Room before it, will persist.

I can’t wait.

Brothers: All the Feels in One Input

In recent years, Josef Fares has become known variously for developing co-op prison break adventure A Way Out and his industry folk hero moment cursing the Oscars (among other things) at the 2017 Game Awards. Even with this exposure, his first outing in games remains his most magnificent achievement. I’m speaking, of course, about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

And before we get started, let me just say MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. I’m going to be talking about the most significant moment in the game, so if you haven’t yet JUST GO PLAY IT NOW. Forget the blog and go right to the source. I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.

Split Personality

The basic premise of Brothers is simple. Following their mother’s drowning, young Naiee and his older brother Naia live with their widowed father in a tiny seaside hamlet in a fantasy world inspired by Scandinavian folklore. When their father falls ill with a mysterious disease, the boys depart in search of the Tree of Life, from which they can acquire a healing elixir to save dear old dad. The setting is gorgeously realized, with the story conveyed through the beautiful animation of the characters. There is no proper dialogue, as all conversation is conducted in an unsubtitled glossolalia.

It is the game’s controls, however, that are truly innovative, making brilliant and elegant use of the gamepad. Brothers requires the player to simultaneously control Naiee and Naia to overcome obstacles. To this end, each brother is controlled with one analog stick for movement and its corresponding trigger for interaction. The player is responsible for coordinating solutions to environmental puzzles and combat challenges. 

It’s a fun gameplay loop that provides just enough difficulty to be engaging, without ever feeling clunky or unfair. More than that, it elegantly uses UI to create a connection between the player and the characters, both individually and as a duo.

Stronger Together

Each of the brothers has his own beneficial qualities–Naiee is small and nimble, while the older Naia is stronger and braver. Small environmental challenges may cater to just one of the brothers’ abilities, but larger challenges, such as maneuvering a rowboat or flying an ornithopter, require them to work together. The result is a beautiful and tangible fraternal dynamic conveyed almost entirely through gameplay itself.

Nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than through the swimming mechanic. Naiee is terrified of water after witnessing his mother’s drowning and can’t swim. Naia, doesn’t struggle with the same phobia, and so Naiee must cling to his brother’s back as he swims for the both of them. The player is involved in this action at every level: Naiee’s interaction input must be engaged while Naia handles movement input. The presentation involves the player in the dynamics of Naiee’s trauma and his relationship with Naia at a tactile level, a perfect example of the kind of storytelling techniques that are exclusively available to games.

Torn Asunder

Brothers’ intense ludonarrative consonance provides an incredible opportunity for character development through the controls themselves. In the course of their journey, Naiee and Naia encounter a third companion, a mysterious young woman set to be executed by a mountain tribe. 

After rescuing the woman, she attracts the affections of Naia, who in turn begins to neglect his younger brother’s concerns. When the woman turns out to be a monstrous spider-creature in disguise, the brothers must work together to defeat her and escape her web. Tragically, Naia is brutally wounded in the struggle.

For the next brief stretch of the game, Naiee becomes responsible for literally supporting his other brother as he limps along. It’s a heart-wrenching inversion of the swimming mechanic, and it provides a genuine character beat perfectly realized through gameplay. Through hardship and tragedy, Naiee is growing up. 

This personal growth is fully encapsulated when Naiee must leave Naia at the base of the Tree of Life and ascend alone to secure the elixir. When he returns to Naia, it’s too late. The older boy has succumbed to his wounds and Naiee is left alone.

With Me in Spirit

Naiee’s journey isn’t over yet. He manages to hitch a ride with a friendly gryphon back to the shores of his village, but his path back to his home is blocked by an inlet from the ocean. With no Naia there to carry him across on his back, Naiee must swim for himself. 

When attempting to swim across, the player will discover that Naiee’s navigation won’t cut it. His analog stick will take him waist deep, but no further. It is only when Naia’s analog stick is used in conjunction that Naiee fully commits and launches himself into a breaststroke. The moment is absolutely staggering. 

Through just a single input, Brothers creates the experience of Naiee using the memory of his brother, held deep in his heart, to find the courage to overcome his deepest trauma. It works on the player by evoking the memory and association of this character through his input commands, while at the same time implying a “wholeness” achieved by Naiee through adoption of both sticks for movement, something approximating the more traditional third-person controls. The design succeeds in blending the ludic and narrative elements into a single, deeply impactful moment. I’m hard pressed to think of a more perfect and elegant example of emotion through gameplay.

Pushing On

After playing Brothers and being blown away by its quiet genius, I was eagerly awaiting the release of A Way Out. As a diehard couch co-op lover, I wanted to see what sort of innovation the creators of Brothers would bring to a proper two-player experience. And while A Way Out is quite good, it is at its best when it is emulating its predecessor. Working your way through the rapids in a rowboat, coordinating with your friend as you each work your respective oars, or keeping a lookout for each other as you sneak around the infirmary or chisel your way through your cell walls, all of this is great fun and creates a feeling of genuine collaboration.

But nothing in A Way Out achieves the singular heartbreak, the overwhelming emotion of that lone, fateful input as Naiee summons the spirit of his brother and pushes off to conquer the abyss of his fear. This is the benchmark to which we as game designers must aspire if we are to truly realize the potential of our medium.