Suppose suppose

Videogame Thought Experiments

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1. Narrative

Suppose bright and early one day, a documentarian were to set up their camera in the middle of an empty street in the laziest part of town. They rig the camera to its microphone so everything is working perfectly, and steady the tripod so it stands perfectly firm and well balanced, and the whole setup is ready to start recording. On the camera is a timer which, when activated, will wait an indeterminate length of time before beginning the recording, record for an indeterminate length of time, and then delay for an indeterminate length of time before signalling to the documentarian that the recording has finished. The documentarian triggers the device and promptly leaves the entire area until the timer calls them back.

On returning to their camera, the documentarian removes the tape and packs up all their gear. At this point, they may do one of two things: they can either throw the tape into a fire to be burnt to a crisp, or they can pass the tape off on a random stranger they meet on the street, who might at some point go home and give it a watch.

Now, assuming the camera recorded for a duration longer than zero seconds, most people would accept that the tape contains a narrative, meaning a sequence of events connected by presentation. In the latter case of someone watching the tape, this is confirmed, but even in the event of the tape never being watched prior to its incineration, the same tape with the same contents would still have that narrative. This in spite of the fact that the narrative—an accounting of events—has not and will never transpire. The involvement of a future viewer or audience member in interacting with the tape to allow its narrative to unfold on a screen has no bearing on the narrative’s existence in the present tense.

Further to this, when can it be said that the tape first has a narrative? Is it when it’s being watched for the first time, is it right after the recording has ended, or is it while the recording is still ongoing? If it’s while the recording is still taking place, what marks the contents of the tape as a narrative as opposed to the actual events on the street being recorded? Conventional wisdom suggests the simple act of being observed and framed transforms events into narrative through the process of presentation, that in being recorded an account is taken of these events, to be regaled later or never at all. (Surely an event is not itself a narrative, but an account of that event by definition is.) So by this, as a series of events are unfolding do they constitute a narrative by the fact of a witness observing and storing in their memory all that they perceive, prior even to the narrative’s original recounting?

Lastly, if a narrative’s existence predates itself, in what way is an audience member important in actualizing it?


2. Agency

Suppose an android stands at a window of an otherwise boring room, looking out onto a beautiful grassy meadow. Somewhere off in the distance some vague figures stand in various states of toppling over and facing in all directions, but they’re too far away to see clearly. Below the window is an array of buttons, some of which are lit up. The android has never pressed buttons of this kind before and has no idea what they might do prior to giving them a try.

Far off in the meadow, a crew of men and women lie prone in the grass, unseen by the android. They have been given instructions on what to do. When the android presses a button, the selection is relayed to the crew through a monitor, and they must consult a chart to orientate the figures accordingly. Some button presses ask them to move certain figures to stand upright while leaning other figures lower, and face some figures eastwardly while pointing others westwardly.

Every button press has some combination of these effects according to the chart. But for a certain third of the button presses, the crew can mess around and move one figure of their choosing however they want, but only one. If they can get every figure into a leaning position at the same time, they get to go home for the rest of the day.

As it happens, the figures themselves are another crew of men and women. They’ve been instructed to act like statues, but also to allow themselves to be moved around by the prone crew when required.

The android has been programmed in an unusual way to have preferences of order and neatness (as opposed to chaos) depending on yesterday’s weather. If it was rainy yesterday, the android prefers things that point west. If it was overcast, the android favours the east. And if it was sunny, the android enjoys things that point upwards. As you know, when the android presses a button some of the figures turn to the west, others turn east, some straighten upright and a few topple over, but also the sequence of lit buttons changes according to what was last pressed. What nobody in the room or on the meadow knows yet is this: half of the lit buttons give the prone crew their one free move.

So who is the player?


How Yorda’s Uselessness Ruined Agency in Ico

Destroyer of agency, queen of crap

In philosophical terms, “agency” is the capacity for a person to make decisions and act according to those decisions. The ability to decide one’s own actions entails a substantial degree of self-expression and so is quite a significant power to hold, both pragmatically and existentially.

In videogames, however, agency becomes a tricky thing. Virtual actions are the products of the agencies of multiple participants: the player who acts, the developer who enables actions, and in cases of story-based narrative, the player-character whose actions drive forward the plot. For instance, players often distinguish between things they did and things their character did. When these agencies line up in agreement, a game is poetry in motion.

Not so much when they collide, as occurs in the puzzle platformer Ico, a game haunted by the agency quandary. The illusion of choice granted the player only survives so long as the player wishes to act according to the developer’s guidance, and when the player’s desire on how to act strays from this guidance, the illusion shatters beneath an unveiled deterministic game design. With the player’s actions largely being governed by the whims of the developer, player agency becomes something of a problem. Continue reading