I’m very interested in systems.
So the other day, after I talked with Raph Koster and read his essay, A Letter to Leigh, I wanted to respond to some of the things he says about systems. There are a lot of interesting points in that article that get tangled together because, of course, there’s no untangling the political from anything. But I can adjust my focus, and I’d like to focus on his starting point, which was that he saw a lot of recent art games messing around with player agency, and if messing around with player agency really had a future as a design technique. He asked whether or not those games weren’t using systems enough or in interesting ways or if that sort of trick could only get a couple of really good uses out of it before players caught on. He’s not wrong to ask any of these questions; they’re really good ones, so here is my answer.
I think the trick that these games use—That Dragon, Cancer, Dys4ia, Brenda Romero’s board game Train—games that appear to give choice but really don’t, just let you sort of helplessly experience what they have, is actually the only trick we have. There are not some games that subvert player agency, and others that grant it. Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways. The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayabilty” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.
I’m going to talk about Raph Koster but this essay isn’t about him at all. I question whether there is a difference at all between this games that subvert and refuse player agency and those that encourage and celebrate it. I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion. Koster implies that games are capable of create dialogue with their systems; I believe games can only make statements.
I would like to respond to his first question:
"Does choosing non-interactivity as the central defining characteristic effectively put you in a broadcasting position, and therefore turn the games into monologue rather than dialogue?"
What Koster chooses to define as interactivity here is choice. He believes that interactivity, as well as dialogue, are things that arise from giving players choice. Here's an abstract example of why I don’t believe it: I, the designer, give the player a choice between two premises. It seems I am offering the player the choice to participate in a dialogue, to vote yes or no. But I, the designer, got to choose what those choices were. I control the player's options because I control what their choices are. Dys4ia offers one choice. BioShock offers two. Some games offer millions. All the choices in these games exist as part of limited, self contained systems invented by human beings with definite agendas, beliefs, and politics.
Consciously or unconsciously, we can't help but limit the terms of dialogue as designers because we create them. This is why though a video game may appear to contain a dialogue between two different viewpoints for “the player to decide between” the entire terms of that dialogue are set by the designer, not the player. Designers can and frequently do throw their own prejudices behind these viewpoints. It may seem like a dialogue to offer the player two opposing questions, but it is in fact the opposite: by offering two opposing choices, you have made the claim, through your system, that only opposing binary choices exist in moral situations. Though a game with a good/evil morality system appears to be a dialogue between two points of view, it is actually a statement: that the world is a morally definite one. Your systems can never be infinite, so what makes it into your system can only be what you, the author and designer bring. Your system will be as flawed and human as you are.