Death of the Player

Players are overrated.

Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games lies the assumption that the player is paramount. Much of criticism writes to inform players, games are designed with the player in forefront of the developer’s mind. There is even the idea games are completed by players, that without players, there is no game.

I want to propose that not only do games and play exist without players, but sometimes, it is preferable to purposefully make them auxiliary or absent from craft and interpretation. Just to be clear, I don’t think there should be a blanket destruction of player-centric experiences. Rather, we are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?

My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.

As a little window to a fictional world, Encyclopedia Fuck Me doesn’t have the player’s needs in mind. You either submitted to its logic or left. This is different from games that have a brutal, ‘masocore’ difficulty, because they make themselves known and welcome to players wanting that experience. They allow players room to be themselves and eventually dominate the game. There is no room for domination in Encyclopedia Fuck Me, because that’s the game’s role. Recently at the Queerness and Games conference, Jack Halberstam talked about escaping the tyranny of agency in games. He made a point that agency is always coded and designed into games, given to players by the developers. There is no such thing as agency in games. Agency is a lotus and we’ve all been asleep. I think The Stanley Parable strives for us to look at this issue, asking why we continue down this narrative of player agency. Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?

Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.

This becomes even more important when we consider social politics, especially the kind that comes along with gamers. Gamers are trained to expect certain things from games, like explicit rules, goals, visual quality, and of course, agency. To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system. A bestowed agency. Many games that emphasize personal experience as design tools come from creators who are marginalized identities. Instead of the qualities listed above, their lives are more often community-reliant, without power, and restricted. It’s about survival. If these games were playtested, they would, most surely, get feedback about not having clear enough avenues to control and victory. It would be whitewashing a particular experience that doesn’t really get light or validation in our current landscape.

I experienced this recently with my game EAT. I made it for my partner who wanted to know more about my financial struggles and how there wasn’t a simple fix for it. EAT is very hostile towards players, because impoverished life is hostile. Much of my feedback wanted me to edit the game so people could actually play it. This was a misnomer; people could very easily play it, their life would just become a lot more strenuous. Because you can’t experience being poorer without being inconvenienced. You can look at EAT and see how it generates play, and not actually play it. It’s an experience that might just need a mental understanding to succeed. This reminds me of an anecdote I remember Brenda Romero describing about Train. She said a person went to go play it, but with just looking at it, understood what it was all about and refused to play. Instead, Brenda thanked her for playing, because the actual act of physically interacting wasn’t necessary. The player isn’t needed for play, the player is more someone who can perceive play. I know that EAT is painful to play, and most won’t do it, but that act alone should communicate something to those who encounter it. It’s demanding because that’s what’s needed to have that experience; how do you have a ‘fun’ experience of being poor while a non-white, queer woman who’s a student? How is agency and the player’s wants important when the system that impoverishes doesn’t care of the person’s feelings? Giving someone the agency to ‘solve’ the game is like positing one person can game the system and vanquish poverty in reality.

What I hope for now is to see more projects that are purposefully iterative and noniterative. To not take the iterative process as a given, to consider alternatives to player-centric design. Sometimes, it’s about us, not them. Sometimes, it’s about the experience, and not their sedation. I don’t want to drug people with their own chemicals, rather, encourage them to step outside of themselves and connect with what I have to say, as separate people.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

The Stanley Parable Review

(Spoilers??? for The Stanley Parable)

q

stanley

3¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup warm whole milk
1/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons honey
1 envelope instant yeast

calling

q
q
q
q
q

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

It was like any other day. I don’t know how I got here, but I have the memory of living. The oatmeal in my rice cooker beeped every morning, 10 minutes after I wake up. I don’t drink coffee. The shower drain is clogged again no matter how many times I get someone to fix it. I always have an important meeting to go to, the one that will change my life. My name is Mariella.

I pull my hair back into a ponytail as I slip into my shows for work. I don’t really like my hair this way. A man, or maybe many of them, said I should wear it this way. Behind my reflection in the mirror, there is a bowl full of apples. They look bright and sickly at the same time. I take one and leave.

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

Escape

He never liked being where he ought to be. He ran and I chased, with my legs bound and arms stiff. But now, like Nyx, I am the black in everything and can no longer touch him. Kiss or kill? The greatest gift would be to put him to rest. My eyes are forced closed when his are open. I don’t have hands anymore; when the time comes, can you press the button?

Eat this blessed bread

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

calling

1.
adjust an oven rack to the lowest position and heat the oven to 200 degrees
maintain the heat for 10 minutes
turn off the oven

2.
mix 3½ cups of the flour and the salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook
mix the milk, water, butter, honey, and yeast
turn the machine to low and slowly add the liquid
increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and satiny
turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface
knead to form a smooth, round ball
15 seconds

q

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

It was like my life so far was for this moment. I crouched, knees at an angle to keep my skirt from rising, to place my briefcase on the cement. His body was perfectly sprawled on the ground, like it was his job to be dead.

Standing back up, I couldn’t shake a sense of home. He smelled like bread. My house always felt like it was made for two, but didn’t think until now that someone was missing. It feels like I created myself in someone else’s world.

I leave the body to its own story. I take a bite of the apple, and I feel better.

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

The fall of man into knowledge.

There is a trail of breadcrumbs we are all following. His goes in circles, and makes me dizzy. I am irrevocably grafted to his story, like hanging on to driftwood out at sea. He floats on without any regard for my splinters. Can I really be blamed for burning it all down? And though I am released from my porcelain casting, I am evoked to serve in this nightmare patriarchy. Which is why I need you; only the living can make choices.

Stanley’s always been dead.

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

3.
place the dough in a very lightly oiled large bowl
rub the dough around the bowl to coat lightly
cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the warmed oven until the dough doubles in size
40 to 50 minutes.

4.
gently press the dough into a rectangle
1 inch thick
roll the dough firmly into a cylinder
turn the dough seam-side up and pinch it closed
place the dough seam-side down in a greased 9 by 5-inch loaf pan
press it gently so it touches all four sides of the pan
cover with plastic wrap
set aside in a warm spot until the dough almost doubles in size
20 to 30 minutes.

5.
keep one oven rack at the lowest position
place the other at the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees
place an empty baking pan on the bottom rack
bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan
pour the boiling water into the empty pan on the bottom rack at set the loaf onto the middle rack
bake
195 degrees
40 to 50 minutes
remove the bread from the pan
transfer to a wire rack
cool to room temperature
slice and serve

calling

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

I arrived at the usual meeting room, room number 104. I fidgeted in my chair, the only one, again, staring a large opaque pane of glass. I was hyper-aware of my clothing, a toupe I would have never chosen for myself. I felt the temperature of the room, the dull shine from the light above.

I stood up, took the chair, and smashed the window. No one was there. There was a body-shaped void of noise behind the door of the room, waiting for me to open it and enter. There was a gross familiarity to this scene.

And that’s when remembered him, the person who was supposed to live with me: Stanley. I vaulted through the window to save him.

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

But listen to me, you can still save these two, can stop the program before they both fail, push escape and press quit, there’s no other way to beat this game. As long as you move forward, you’re walking someone else’s path. To stop now would be your only true choice. Whatever you do choose it, don’t let time choose for you, don’t let time-

black frame
loadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloadingloading
black frame

q

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.