S.EXE: Creatures Such As We

mooning

When Max Payne, the dark bullet-time Sam Spade-’em-up game came out in 2001, I thought it possessed a most ingenious game meta-narrative moment. (I was sixteen, and I was easily wowed.) If my memory serves correctly, at one point our raspy-voiced Phillip Marlowe stand-in Max is injected with an overdose of the drug Valkyrie, a heroinesque substance, and hallucinates for a few levels. At one point he remarks in horror that he can see his own health bar. He’s in a nightmare, he’s in a video game.

I am now twenty-nine and really difficult to please, but I can say confidently that Creatures Such As We is an elegant, intricate meta-narrative about player emotional investment and romancing non-player characters. Max Payne would do a Keanuface at it.

Lynnea Glasser’s Creatures Such Are We, a game that came second in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, is a choose your own adventure that is self-consciously many things, and the author lists them herself in a blogpost:

Dating sim? Tour guide slice-o-life? Sci-fi things-go-wrong adventure? Video game philosophical commentary? Zombie-ghost gorefest? A cohesive narrative that actually wraps all those different story elements together?

For my purposes it’s a dating sim, since there are six romanceable characters throughout the gracefully-written sci-fi-based narrative.

You are aware from the start that this will be a metacommentary, which does bring about a certain sense of critical dread: sometimes this means that as Emily Short notes, that characters can feel ‘manipulated’ into a certain situation just for the sake of a clever point.

Compounding the lull in responsibilities has been the temptation of finishing the final level of Creatures Such as We. Will you wipe out the last of the Traditionalists, or will Lauress elude your grasp at the last minute? Will you and Elegy have a happily ever after? The anticipation is giddily maddening. You hear chatty banter as you approach the passageway to the crew common area and laughter as you pass it. You hurry along. You’re about to save the day, be the hero, put everything together.

But happily Lynnea Glasser is a good enough writer that this won’t often bother you; this isn’t so much a didactic work as a wander through the philosophical ideas we can have about games as art. Your job as a reader and player seems to be to wonder in the metaphors and questions she provokes. If you haven’t played this game, you should take the time to play through to at least one ending – it will take about two hours, and from here in my critique there may be spoilers (although, I am of the firm belief that games like this are not about what happens, necessarily, but about how you get there – the journey).

‘Creatures Such As We’ refers to a game that you play in between your job as a tour guide of the moon, and is a device for many of the issues raised in the game about the framework of dating sims. The mention of tourism in the context of the game reminds me of the way that co-founder of Rock Paper Shotgun Kieron Gillen once framed New Games Journalism – games criticism as travelogues through mysterious and complex worlds. Although Glasser doesn’t mention this as inspiration for the game in her blog, it becomes clear that you have two roles in this piece of interactive fiction: as a tour guide ‘Director of Activities’ who becomes close to the designers of the game Creatures Such As We (you literally romance the creators of a game you are currently playing) and also as an actual tourist (by playing the game Creatures Such As We). In this way you are shown that the player has responsibilities, and also needs that can be fulfilled through the playing of games.

This is interesting to me because people are often reluctant to admit that players are asked to bring themselves to games, as well as take something from them. The reaction to New Games Journalism has often been ‘get your emotions out of our product review’ rather than the admittance that the giving is just as important as the taking, the experience just as important as the critical analysis, and that both come together like pineapple and lemon-lime stripes in a Walls’ Twister.

Glasser investigates this through many means, each of which she makes complex and interesting. ‘Bringing yourself’ to the game is investigated through the various options you have in composing your character and love interests: you can choose your genetic background, your gender, you can comment on the lack of gender options, you can choose what feelings your character is supposed to evoke in others, your name, how much makeup you might put on. This investment in your character, these days provided by most AAA games such as the Saint’s Row series, Bioware games, Destiny, obviously also brings the player a feeling of emotional investment, and this is meant to elicit more rewarding play. However, ironically none of this choice actually makes me feel a bigger investment in the game, since most of the choices are invisible. All of the choices that directly, recognisably change the course of my narrative strand are mostly unrelated to what I look like and what gender I am, and of course in a text game I can’t ‘see’ myself. In my head I am always roleplaying Cara and I always look like Cara (a scruffy, purple-haired, confused-looking blusterfest). Perhaps this ‘character creation’ is no more than a hat tip to the AAA Bioware games that the game is clearly, affectionately riffing on.

The most interesting theme to me is of emotional investment, something that is explored both in the micro and the macro narrative. In the micro, the person you choose to romance shapes your experience of the game and your response to them and choice to be around them is directly responsible for the ending you receive. It’s fairly easy to romance a person of your choice, although I note (in amusement) that in-keeping with many game dating tropes, your partner of choice is often defined by their job. In my favourite strand, for example, I romanced James, the QA tester, whose overt concern with and expectation of things ‘going wrong’ in space amused me greatly, given I have been a QA tester in the past and throw any risk assessment completely out of the moving car window of my life. Life has many bugs, and I happened upon them all with the recklessness of a sugared-up two-year-old who has been left alone in a white-walled room with some new crayons.

In the macro, the allusion to the Mass Effect ending controversy, and the player’s ability to demand a different ending from game designers, is something that Glasser seems determined to deconstruct. Throughout there is a line of questioning that goes like this: Who is art for? Is it for the artist? Or the audience? Whose interpretation matters? The artist’s? Or the audience’s? Who gets to call the shots? If the meaning of art lies in the artist’s hands, have they failed you if their ‘meaning’ is not communicated to you? Does every work of art have to have ‘meaning’? Is it art only if it has ‘meaning’?

The looming spectre of a takeover of the game company by ‘big money’ seems to be an acknowledgement that soon the sequel to Creatures Such As We will have to please more players, threatening to wrest narrative control from the developers and give it entirely to the players. But what does that mean in term of games? What is ‘giving narrative’ to players? It’s really something like DayZ: providing a world and a way to interact with it that means that emergent behaviour, the actions available, make the story. The story becomes less explicit, but the stories have more impact and the player gets more emotional investment. You work the systems; the systems do not work you (as much).

But it seems to me that with the Mass Effect controversy that no ending was going to be satisfactory: people bought into that franchise precisely because of the systems that the narrative designers had put in place, and those systems were ill equipped to give the player the satisfying outcome they wanted from their emotional investment. This was short-sighted of both players and designers. The players chose that kind of game because it offered a rigorous sense of dialogue and player character investment, romances, narrative bells and whistles. The designers chose it because they wanted something cinematic, talky, space-opera-type, a soap their players could get lost in, that they could hang suspense on.

But Mass Effect got too big to close off. As Creatures Such As We shows, there’s only a post mortem by the designers to be given, a melancholy dialogue between the designer and the player about their failure to communicate with each other. Give the player the ability to choose their own ending, and they will feel as if it is not the real ending. Force an ending on the player, and they will feel betrayed.

And this leads neatly into Creatures Such As We’s discussion of NPC consent. In one conversation, my dear QA love interest James tells my character he is worried that NPCs cannot technically ‘consent’ to a relationship with the player, since they are built to please the player. They are there to be ‘gamed’, even if you fail to romance an NPC you can restart and play a role until you get in their pants. It’s like the Groundhog Day conundrum: the more I watch it the more I think, HEY – BILL MURRAY! SHE DOESN’T WANT TO SLEEP WITH YOU. STOP GAMING THIS WOMAN. IT IS REALLY REALLY WEIRD.

Glasser says on her blog:

To me, one of my biggest concerns around creating a romance game is how to deal with consent when NPCs are programmed to say “yes”. (I ended up using this philosophical problem in James’ breakfast conversation.) I feel there are meaningful solutions, but I’m definitely interested in hearing thoughts or examples on other ways to better model consent. I’m not exactly happy with how current dating sims / graphic novels are dealing with those kinds of topics, and it’s something I’d really like to see improved.

But to me this reads a lot like the designer/player power struggle too. Who gets to call the shots in that romance? Does the designer decide that some characters will not be available to a player at all? This makes players incredibly (I’ve read the forums) angry. Like a guy you just turned down at a bar.

It’s all about player entitlement. What are players entitled to? Should we be giving players more tragic endings? More NPCs who disdain our pickup lines? Should we be looking at stories that commit to one powerful narrative, rather than try to cater to every ‘type’ of player?

To me, this game is about one thing. Rejection. Though it’s easy to romance every NPC in this game, it made me think about how often games have become terrified of making players feel rejected or unwanted. Of how even when you fail to romance someone in Dragon Age: Origins, for example, there’s no outright piece of NPC script that is straight up disgusted with you and has profound consequences. We enter these things as a consumer of NPC sexuality, it’s a buffet of hotties we are free to pick up at our leisure. I hear encouraging things about Dragon Age: Inquisition with respect to NPCs who are unwilling to engage romantically with players for a variety of reasons, so things are evolving, but slowly. (I’d be interested in what your opinions on romances in DA:I are.)

I’ve been rejected romantically fairly often in my life. As much as my successes with men, I’ve been harshly and frequently turned down. All through school, and still now. Some of the harshest rejections have merely been the absence of replies after a night together, just the dude dropping off the face of the earth. Sometimes they decide that they will avoid you forever. You never see them again. Unless it’s to see them awkwardly shuffle away.

Imagine if you were rejected like that in game. Imagine if you liked someone a little too much, and the NPC ostracised you or ridiculed you. Imagine if every time you saw that person you could see them palpably get uncomfortable and slink off, no closure. Imagine the NPC spread rumours about you. Imagine the NPC you’d once liked just dated your best friend NPC instead. Maybe you’d go into a tavern and there they were, just ostentatiously, viciously making out by the lionfaced paladins, eyes clearly trained on you, the sad loser of everything on love’s battlefield.

Do you know – if a game had done that to me, if more than one game had done that to me throughout my life, I might invest less in the fantasy that other people are interested in what I think. I might have understood that people do not have ‘systems’ that you can game, that they are run by chemicals and self-obsession. I might have understood that the world does not, in fact, rotate around me. I might have understood earlier in my life that my goals are not other people’s goals. Perhaps if we were all better at being rejected, then people would go out of their way to give a clear and fearless ‘no’ more often. No I do not want to date you. No I do not want to see you. No I do not want to hang out. I regret ever wanting to be around you. I’m sorry, but no. No. And you’d believe that no.

Sometimes I think NPCs want to say no. But thanks to the ability to reload, some NPCs never will say no and get to have the player honour it. Isn’t that sort of sad? Don’t game designers feel this too? I’m sure they do. They’re creatures such as we. They are too similar to us, I fear. Much too similar.

52 Comments

  1. Lobster9 says:

    It’s always going to feel like choosing a costume from a wardrobe, but I do think Inquisition shows some growth on Bioware’s part. All the character options feel unique, and there are a greater number of flirtations which go unrequited.

    On my play through, I was initially expecting to partner my dwarf with Dorian, as the early Act 1 main quest involved the two of them bonding over some shared time travel tomfoolery. As things turned out though, it was revealed that Dorian was straight up gay, and things were going to remain purely platonic between he and my glum heroine. I was okay with this, and decided my character would probably remain an asexual mystery to the end of the game, but then I got caught up in Josephine, and the next thing I know I am dueling a french guy for her honor.

    One thing I liked about her relationship subplot, was that there was no singular unlockable “scene” at the end of it. For all I know, the two characters only ever kissed, and I was far more interested in the smaller moments that came from it. There is a scene where Leliana warns you against hurting her best friend, and a scene where you meet Josephine’s sister during a main mission, and have an awkward “meet the family” moment which made me smile.

    Overall it felt like a positive improvement over the awful friendship meters that Origins had, and having watched my fiance play through things differently, there are characters who will straight up reject you.

    • Drake Sigar says:

      Aside from characters gender preferences (sexuality no longer being interchangeable), there also seems to be a number of optional flirtations which never evolve into anything more. Nowhere have I found the kind of rejection Cara describes, but I’m god’s chosen so that’s hardly surprising. Be mean to me and you’ll go to hell, or something. Yeah that’s probably how it works.

  2. Melody says:

    One thing I’d like from romances, now that Cara makes me think about it:
    Often in dating sims, you have to answer “correctly”. The correct answer is usually a sort puzzle, about how closely you paid attention to that character, to what they were saying, so that if they ask you “Do you like X?”, you should be able to answer, not truthfully, but according to whether the NPC likes X or likes people who like X.

    So, a few corrections to that model: a) Have NPCs reject PCs based on their race, gender, class, body type, hair colour, eye colour, height, stat allocations, weapon of choice, clothes, or decisions unrelated to the romance. b) Instead of making the questions/dialogue choices secretly about the NPC to be romanced, ask those questions about the player BEFORE giving them any hint about what the NPC they want to “get” likes, what their personality is like. Funnel the PC down a romance road based not on any explicit decision, (don’t even let the player be aware they chose a specific romance initially) but based on randomness and/or an expression of their personality in a completely unrelated context. c) As Cara said, don’t make characters’ personality an expression of their jobs, at least not in romance. Make them unpredictable, strange, quirky, make them love stuff for no apparent reason.

    All that notwithstanding the fact that games are closed, predictable system, and having a romance system that cannot be broken down into stats and “correct answers” is incredibly hard. But what matters is not so much the player who will look up a walkthrough to get to the ending they want as much as the player who genuinely sets out to have an aesthetic experience.

    Perhaps that’s what we should focus on: games’ obsession with stats and the like led us to a mentality of completionism and min-maxing that is suited to strategy games and RPGs, but not to more ‘human’ experiences, such as romance. The issue may not be that games can be broken down into numerical, predictable systems, but that gamers have been trained to think of every game that way, and not to enjoy the aesthetic experience, even if that means getting the ‘bad ending’ or being rejected.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      it’s not just a romance thing, it’s too easy just to be agreeable in Biowares dialogue, the words are disconnected from actions 90% of the time and you can pretty much do what you like as long as you tick the right conversational boxes.

      To fix the issue just remove the approve/disapprove notification, we don’t have such a direct feedback of approval in real life(they could use a few more facetious characters), to bring it back to romance, instead of the ‘i win’ button of the perfect chat up line, have 4 romantic lines for example with hidden modifiers, allow us to flirt ineptly.

      • jezcentral says:

        I think a large part of the problem is the game doesn’t know if you are sincerely role-playing the romance (pretending to be the perfect partner) or cynically gaming the romance (pretending to be the perfect partner).

        Put like that, it is easy to see the problem the game dev has.

        Also, I don’t think the NPC gives a rat’s arse about consent.it’s not as if sex is had anyway. Just some reproductively-irrelevant clipping of static meshes.

        • Cinek says:

          Problem with Bioware games are crossroads like that:
          – Ignore NPC (= negative reputation)
          – Comfort NPC (= sex in next scene)
          And TBH I can’t recall last time when Bioware game let you cynically game the romance. Any attempt doing so ends up with a sex scene and love. (that said though – I didn’t play latest two Dragon Age games so I might be wrong).

      • Kala says:

        Dragon Age was the best (worst?) one for that really.

        HERE, HAVE A PRESENT AND YOU WILL LIKE ME.

        Money can’t buy me love? Well, apparently it can…

    • LogicalDash says:

      Literally randomizing the outcome is perfectly feasible, and you can make the random choice happen at a non obvious time to make it impractical to savescum around it.

      Players would hate this. If a game ever does implement it I expect it won’t be long before someone works out how to hack the save file.

      Of course the other option is to make it multiplayer. Bientôt l’été did this, I guess?

      • Melody says:

        I fear that randomizing certain things would make the characters lose any coherent personality.

        As for saving the game, you can simply implement an autosave feature, like many games have (Dark Souls, most roguelikes, Xcom’s ironman mode), and not let the player manually save, so that you can’t go back.

        I still think teaching players to appreciate the aesthetic experience over winning would be more valuable though.

        • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

          I think that, for such a game, having a system that forces players not to cheat their way into relationships would be like having someone follow golfers to smack them with a two by four if they try to fudge their balls. A player who does that is a player who doesn’t want to play the game as it is, so let them play the game as they want to if they’re curious.

          • gwathdring says:

            Very much so. It’s great to create systems that are more pro-social and organic and interesting. But trying to prevent meta-gaming is a fools errand. It’s not our job to prevent players from cheating the system unless that is explicitly the primary premise of our game and/or we’re in a competitive situation.

          • LogicalDash says:

            Cheating means playing against the rules or spirit of the game. I can conceive of games where that’s not a contradiction of the premise but it takes some work.

          • Cinek says:

            LogicalDash – and that would be perfect if always all of the options would make your character do what you want it to do. Meanwhile brutal reality is that you pick dialog option A, and your character says “BBBBSEXSEXSEXBBBABBBB” then you’re like…. WTF?! And automatic rollback to the previous save is guaranteed.

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          I fear that randomizing certain things would make the characters lose any coherent personality.

          You are quite right, unless they get random personalities or the randomisations are limited to fit their existing personalities.

          • Cinek says:

            I think what they guy meant by randomizing was actually a procedural generation – something that’s possible, and within somewhat logical borders of what real person might have done. ;)

    • tormeh says:

      Well, as long as I can make a character that’s more attractive than me in real life, then that’s OK.

      That’s an idea: Rate characters faces based on deviation from the golden mask and have romance difficulty levels based on that. If you’re too ugly you can’t get the NPC you want regardless of how you try.

      • cederic says:

        Only if some NPCs have a randomised mix of priorities in a partner – looks may be important but that doesn’t explain squat ugly rich men with young attractive partners.

  3. Thrippy says:

    I too have long thought that once past a certain level of investment, predictably no ending is good enough.

    Battlestar Galactica 2009
    Lost 2010
    Mass Effect 3 2012

    All three endings sucked! All three were outrageously nonsensical. All three were deeply unsatisfying. All three absolutely demanded creative fans to fashion superior, alternate fan fiction endings. These fan fiction endings were praised by disgruntled disenfranchised fans. In the long run, all three endings live in abiding infamy.

    There is a pattern there. I’m not sure there is any pattern or assocation among three diverse groups (very large groups of individuals) who created the original works.

    • lomaxgnome says:

      The problem with Lost and BSG is that they really were just making it up as they went along, and that doesn’t lend itself well to good conclusions.

      • Morat242 says:

        Precisely. At the start of every episode of BSG, it said that the Cylons have returned “and they have a plan.” Except that they didn’t. They never had a plan.

        It’s the flaw of a lot of shows centered around big mysteries, the writers never bothered to work out what the answers were. So as clues accumulate over the seasons, they close off possible answers one by one until there’s no plausible answer that hasn’t been already ruled out by some previous reveal. And then they realize they’re in the final season, and just make something up. By contrast, I don’t think that Mass Effect had built up the cruft that would have made any sensible ending impossible, it’s more like the writers just had some dumb ideas that didn’t get shot down.

        Of course, it’s also completely okay to just not explain some of the smaller mysteries, particularly if they either don’t really matter to the overarching story or have a plausible answer sort of built in. But if you’re going to give the viewers some big intricate mystery whose answer you’ll hint at for years, you have to decide the answer right there. It’s perfectly fine to change the answer as you go along (see Babylon 5, the initial plan was not very good), but you have to know where it’s all going, or two seasons later you’ll be out of options. Then comes a season of spinning your wheels, and then an ending that’s pure word-salad.

        • Geebs says:

          Wasn’t the Cylons’ plan just “blow everyone up”? The problem they had was that their plan succeeded beyond all expectations, and then they were kind of stuck for anything else to do.

          I think it’s best to explain all of the small mysteries and none of the big ones. Lost did the exact opposite, which is why it sucked.

          • Morat242 says:

            Except that the toasters repeatedly do things that utterly contradict that goal. So that’s clearly not the plan. They sold it as one of the big mysteries, what do the Cylons really want? And the answer is, the writers were making it up as they went along. Every time you see a Cylon behave strangely, you think, ah, this is a cryptic clue to their real motivations, and if I put enough of them together, I can figure out what’s really going on. Nope. It’s just inconsistent writing.

            It’s like if you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story and after clues are revealed that rule out every possible suspect, Holmes just says, “Oh, the victim was just murdered by some guy. Guess we’ll never know.” Not very satisfying. It wouldn’t be a problem if these 2000s era shows didn’t sell themselves on the Secret Mythology that they spend seasons building up and teasing the viewers with glimpses of revelations. If they were doing episodic TV, or stories focused on the characters rather than a huge overarching plot, it wouldn’t be a problem.

            airmikee says: “The Cylons didn’t have a plan?

            link to en.wikipedia.org

            Oh that’s right, they did.” Did you actually watch it? It’s half clip show, half Dean Stockwell chewing scenery. Yes, the title suggests that it’s about The Plan, but it just isn’t. It’s revealed that it’s straight up Underpants Gnomes. Step 1) Nuke the humans. Step 2) ?????. Step 3) Profit!

            Crikey, listen to RDM’s podcasts, he’s quite open about just throwing things in without bothering to work out what they meant. That is why the ending made no sense, because there was no ending that wouldn’t blatantly contradict something they’d already established (yet again), and they left it to the last minute.

        • airmikee says:

          The Cylons didn’t have a plan?

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          Oh that’s right, they did.

          • Kempston Wiggler says:

            “kill All The Humans” isn’t that much of a plan. And I’m betting you haven’t even watched “The Plan”; while it did tie up some loose ends and oddities from the earlier seasons it didn’t really explain much of anything at all, really, just like much of BSG’s “you’re making this shit up as you go along” finale.

        • Kempston Wiggler says:

          Which is why when it comes to TV show endings you don’t get much better than J. Michael Stracynski’s, Babylon 5. He plotted out the five years of his story in adavnce, including a thematically satisfying ending. this was broad strokes, mind you. For detail he left enough room to be able to give actors a choice at the start of a season of where they’d like their characters to develop next, or if he needed to chop and change story elements, giving some beats to characters not originally envisioned or similar tweaks. While not perfect it is a literal masterwork, which no other TV showrunner/producers I’ve ever seen has been able to duplicate.

          When you see the overall tapestry JMS created to pull off Babylon 5 on-screen, the likes of Ron Moore seem lazy and/or untalented. It was painfully obvious that BSG had no plan whatsoever and went episode to episode completely at the mercy of the on-the-spot inspirations of the writing staff, just like a certain formulaic, reset-button Star Trek series Mr Moore famously criticised.

          • Cinek says:

            Babylon 5 was one of the best sci-fi series ever for many reasons. From coherent storyline, through satisfying ending, down to tiny great things like physics, or episodes about random people just living their life in space.

            I re-watched all of Babylon 5 (including movies) 4 years ago and I was absolutely amazed by just how great this series is – yes, graphics did date, I remembered them to be much more beautiful than they really are, but everything else either was as great as I remembered or even better!

          • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

            When you read about what happened in production, executive meddling, actors appearing and disappearing… sometimes I’m amazed B5 made any sense at all.

    • airmikee says:

      I haven’t played ME3, but I liked the endings of BSG and Lost.

      Having watched both series at least six times each all the way through, there were very subtle clues throughout each show that pointed directly toward their endings. The 2003 BSG ending couldn’t have been all that surprising, based on the 1978 BSG series arriving at our Earth and continuing a second series, BSG 1980, where the first left off.

      I didn’t know there were people still confused about the ending of Lost, but since you’re willing to admit that, this should clear up any confusion you had/have. link to screenrant.com

      I’ve never seen any fan fiction endings to either show, and I probably wouldn’t care anyway, since the original endings were great, in my opinion, and made perfect sense based on the rest of the show.

      • Josh W says:

        I think the problem with Lost’s finale is actually more a problem with it’s final series; up until the last series, the various mysteries did a lot to create interesting character dynamics, and you would be fascinated to see what happens to their relationships. The last series instead focuses on explaining mysteries to the exclusion of character development. This means that everything but the mysteries starts to empty out, and the mysteries have to be better. If you stopped watching at say series 3 or 4, where people are just on a weird island, there’s more than enough going on there to still be happy to say “I suppose we’ll never know”, twin peaks style. When you start building up to “and now we’ll explain the fundamental mysteries, and how it all began”, even implicitly, you put a lot more requirements on yourself to make it awesome.

    • MaXimillion says:

      The problem with TV show endings is usually due to the way they’re produced. When you don’t know how many seasons you’re going to get to make, having a fitting ending is quite difficult. Some shows do pull it off pretty well even after several seasons though, The Shield is probably one of the finest examples.

      The ME3 ending sucking was probably more due to the fact that it’s hard to account for all the branching choices a player can make during three games, although even taking that into account it was still particularly poor.

      • Cinek says:

        ME3 ending sucked for many reasons. Partially because it went down to essentially 3 buttons (in the final version), partially because the whole interactive part of final battle sequence was very much underwhelming, partially because of what they tried to create with with whole mix of religious-mythological-bullshitting.

  4. Wulfram says:

    That’s a lot of overthinking for an ending that was simply very bad

    The notion that no ending would satisfactory is very much an over-simplification. Many endings would have been far more satisfactory, even if any would have left some people disappointed.

    I’d question why the issue of consent is any more of a problem than in any of scripted medium. Can any fictional character say no? Only if their writer wants them to. Perhaps the occasional emergent issue might complicate things – something might happen that should result in the character saying no, but the writer failed to account for it – but it’s essentially the same.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I think that the ending wasn’t great (was very cliched, could’ve been better foreshadowed, are specific aspects I would point out) but I don’t think that effects the theme of the metanarrative. I think it might even strengthen the theme. Even if the one ending isn’t great, at least you feel closure that it is the end. When you can pick your ending from literally any, you lose that sense of closure, of the “real” ending. If I simply pick a happy ending, how is that satisfying? If my actions lead to a happy ending, that would be satisfying, but sometimes a story is more satisfying without that possibility.

      Personally, in a game with multiple endings, I usually feel that the first ending I get is the “real” ending for me. I’ll usually replay to check the other endings out, and it’s fun, but the truth, to me, is always the one which would result from my actual choices, rather than “I like this one best”. But if your personal ending isn’t satisfying, isn’t this the same problem as if there were only one ending, unsatisfying to you? I suppose that problem is because of my perspective, but that’s how I feel.

    • nunka says:

      Why is consent in video games more problematic in than in other forms of media? Because we, the players, make the choices. We are actors, not observers. As I see it, and as Cara has alluded to, consent in video game romances is a question not of authorial intent but rather player omnipotence, and how such omnipotence may shape real-world attitudes toward consent. Now, I don’t think anyone is saying, “taking advantage of an NPC makes you an awful person who will also take advantage of real people.” But consider this: as video game writing has matured over the past several years, player choice has expanded. Character depth has skyrocketed. Characters today can bring us to tears with their stories. They are so subtly crafted and humanlike as to evoke real, raw emotions in us… but they’re still incapable of telling us “no.” In many cases, we are actually encouraged to game the system in order to force their consent. I find that a bit troubling.

  5. Jamesworkshop says:

    DA:I i think has done it pretty well, my favorite was flirting with Vivienne for her to effectively say she saw no political gain for doing so, which is great because the modern romantic conception of love does brush over that these things had often been political or more simple expediency in business dealings, you don’t marry in the game but most people would really be married off to someone in the same village of reasonable suitability.

    although even that was gamey because i’m already aware of which characters are interested or not in advance (dramatic irony) and I simply pick the heart option just to see what happens for the non romancable ones.

    As for consent well npcs are not really people, they are non players as much as they are non-humans, although this is a text adventure in a DA:I kind of game the voice and writing is already crafted, they are digital puppetry they have no literal thoughts and their lips are synced up to someone else voice.

  6. Serrit says:

    One of my Dragon Age 2 playthroughs was as a gruff angry Hawke who sees Aveline as a kindred spirit, and starts to fall for her. Sadly despite Hawke’s efforts to romance her at every opportunity, Aveline either didn’t pick up on the hints that Hawke was interested, or was ignoring them. As a player it was quite nice to have a bit of heartache instead of the expected “will give in eventually” outcome.

    • Grygus says:

      I also tried for, and was perversely pleased to fail at gaining, Aveline’s affections. Dragon Age II had major flaws but I thought the companions were generally top-notch, even better than the first game.

  7. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    That game (or at least the screenshots shown) makes me think of Aevee Bee’s story in Ghosts in the Machine. I’m not sure why.

  8. Grygus says:

    Just finished playing Creatures Such as We (and in the game) and really enjoyed it. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I would replay it to try for a different ending, but I’m afraid that would be me missing the point.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Interesting game, great characters. I romanced Diana, the writer. She was obsessed with telling stories and death. I liked her a lot.

    • ensor says:

      My favorite character in my one and only playthrough, though I ended up falling unintentionally into another pairing. You really do have to pick one or two characters and stick with them through a single play to really get a handle on who they are.

  10. Monggerel says:

    Perhaps one day we’ll see a game that manages to achieve what Jedi Academy Multiplayer did with romance.

    Pairbound gladiators of propriety, unburdened by self or extent, hallowed intent arcing neon death between them.
    …then there’s always that one guy that absolutely HAS to spam the god dam fucking flipkickgrargh

    Oh yeah. Reminds me.
    I’ve never played a proper “dating game” before, only experience with the genre has been Bioware’s outings, maybe a few other RPGs (which inevitably boiled down to “feed them cakes until they <3 you for some unfathomable reason").
    When I was a wee li'l teenager (so like yesterday) I went for the romance options for… I don't know? I have no clue what reason I had. I know I didn't care for the idea of romance, and the fucking "sex scenes" made my hair stand on end with how uncanny and cringy they were so I just skipped right through them. I guess the option was just there and I didn't think about it much.
    Bit later I decided to just flat-out refuse romance and roleplay characters that never hooked up with anybody.
    Normal? Probably not. Who cares. Don't feel like I lost out on anything.

    • Wulfram says:

      I think from what developers have said, most people don’t romance anyone in Bioware games.

      • Kitsunin says:

        Bwuh!? Really? As a young cis male replaying Fire Emblem: Awakening with a female avatar, I’m still loving the process of picking my man-waifu. Even if it’s pretty shallow, that type of thing is a very fun experience…

        Just thinking here, Bioware games have never grabbed me enough to devote any serious time, but maybe they actually make the romance less interesting by not leaving much to the imagination, while the story itself doesn’t do enough to make the romance feel meaningful? Perhaps it feels more meaningful in Fire Emblem because your imagination is allowed to fill in the story beyond the meager four support scenes?

        • Monggerel says:

          Actually, now that I think of it, fuck romance.
          Everybody should die alone and abandoned.
          And in the game.

          Yeah, that’s it. Epiphanies for everyone! Everyone. EVERYONE.

  11. blind_boy_grunt says:

    i loved my first playthrough of the game, because after the arrival and introduction of the developers, i was like “oh right, that’s ment to be my sexy time partner”, basically because of phyiscal compatability. But i didn’t push it and after some random conversations with the group someone else had stepped out of that fog of vague aquaintance to manifest before me as a person. I hadn’t chosen her, it just happened that we talked and i liked talking with her and she liked talking with me (she came out of that stargazing thing), and we talked like friends and than dramatic stuff happened and we grew closer. So in that playthrough it seemed more like she chose me and through random chance we hit it off. When i replayed i found out i had missed an interesting conversation about women in it, but the romance thing had become a game again, something you play to win to get the thing you chose at the beginning.

  12. ensor says:

    Similarly, I did not pursue any characters for romantic reasons, preferring to go where conversation took me. The introductory scenes, where all the characters drop little details about their personality, is supposed to be the “selection” section; I was sufficiently intrigued by most of them to want to spend a little bit of time with each character. But the game doesn’t quite give you the space to do that in a single playthrough – eventually someone you talk to becomes your “match”, whether by your choosing or not. Even though I’d have liked a little bit more room to pick their brains, there’s already a great deal of (pretty damn good!) writing that just isn’t findable without multiple plays, which is very much in keeping thematically as well as replayability. My only gripe is that the final adjective-based input could use some more work – I never could find a satisfying ending, even though I was searching for ambivalence, so perhaps even just connecting more input words to existing endings would work just as well.

  13. Josh W says:

    Also, I don’t think any form of rejection can stop you caring what other people think of you, wanting to please them or connect to them, unless somehow it breaks something fundamental in how you relate to people.

    All that happens if you fear rejection is that you end up being conflicted between that same desire to connect and worry that you are over-extending yourself. It’s much better to know it’s a possibility, know how to deal with it, then cultivate some awesome relationships and some personally creative things that make you feel fulfilled in yourself. Then you’ll be more ok with rejection, because you’re not in survival horror mode, you’re in …. diablo loot mode or something, only someone else could also be treating you as loot, that is very nice, but just doesn’t fit their build.

  14. Ditocoaf says:

    When I played through, I was mostly trying to choose “what I would do/say in this situation”. I paid particular attention to a character I was interested in, but a DIFFERENT one ended up pursuing me, probably based largely on the opinions I had expressed. She ended up being my “match” for the endgame content. It was rather disconcerting.

    For a bit there, I thought this was part of a larger statement about NPC relationships, like what James was talking about at breakfast. It’d be interesting if a game purposefully matched you with a character other than the one you were apparently focusing on — if the systems conspired to take away your agency. You start the game thinking you’re the dating game protagonist, but you turn out to be one of the “options” for another character, who chooses you, and your character falls in love with them whether you like it or not. It’d be extremely uncomfortable.

    • Kitsunin says:

      That would be fantastically interesting. In a game which otherwise does a good job at putting you into the shoes of the protagonist, that could be one of the most jarring ways to pull the curtain away I can think of.

  15. Kala says:

    This was great – I especially loved your twister simile (though it’s disappointing the linked wiki article does not have an image – http://www.unilever.co.uk/Images/450—Walls_Twister_Mini_Green_Naked_tcm28-298104.jpg !) and I enjoyed your observation re: endings as “a melancholy dialogue between the designer and the player about their failure to communicate with each other.”

    Re: entitlement in games (and I think there is definitely entitlement in demanding the ending you want, rather than simply criticising the ending you have) this part “We enter these things as a consumer of NPC sexuality, it’s a buffet of hotties we are free to pick up at our leisure,” made me think of how this might carry over, and in part, underlie some of the cosplay harassment that happens… I wonder if there’s sometimes…a feeling of pre-existing claim or relationship over the character that person is emulating? That often those characters already inhibit a kind of deliberately pleasing fan-service that then certain people are unable to separate clearly?

    Just theory crafting, mind. But this and your later riff on rejection made me think about it.

  16. arisian says:

    TL/DR: the roots of “entitlement” need a closer look, and works of art both difficult and easy to consume should have a place at the table.

    Lots of good issues here. I think one that is rarely recognised is that a big part of player “entitlement” comes down to an expectation of consistency. In other media, this might be the difference between a tragedy (which the audience can see coming a mile away) and a downer twist ending (which is intentionally designed to prevent the audience from seeing it coming). In effect, the second changes the genre of the narrative at the last second.

    I think this is a big part of what bothers people about things like the ending of Mass Effect 3, or the scripted fate of some well-liked NPC. The term ludonarrative dissonance gets thrown around a lot for this kind of thing, and that’s certainly a part of the issue, but it does deeper than that. At the core is the violation of a set of expectations which have been built up in the mind of the audience. These expectations are primarily influenced by the game itself (up to the point of the disjunction), but are also influenced by our overall cultural knowledge (e.g. similar games we’ve played in the past influence our expectations). The gameplay itself (the “luddic” part of the term) is an important source of expectations; if the player is told that any enemy can be beaten with a sufficient amount of skill, it is jarring to find that some particular enemy does not obey this rule (e.g. the final enemies in Creatures which dynamically scale with player skill so victory always remains just out of reach, or just an enemy that defeats the player in a cutscene in a way that could never happen during normal gameplay).

    Mass Effect worked so hard to give the player a sense of agency that when that agency was taken away, players revolted. The “entitlement” players felt was largely a result of the game series up to that point; the devs worked really, really hard to create that feeling of agency for players! I would argue that to dismiss the reaction of players on the grounds of them being “entitled” actually does a disservice to the artists who worked so hard to create that sense of power.

    The ending to ME3 also violated audience expectations in several other ways, including things like the apparent genre shift (which has been compared to replacing the ending of Return of the Jedi with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey). The problem is not so much the ending itself, it’s that no one saw it coming. If nobody sees it coming, that means their expectations were violated.

    This is not to say it should never be done. Violation of audience expectations can be a useful tool for an artist looking to, for example, disrupt normative paradigms within their discipline, but the immediate reaction is almost always very unfavorable. A lot of art that we look back on now as the beginning of some new artistic movement was, at the time, highly disruptive, and most viewers hated it (see, for example, the beginnings of the various non-realist painting movements).

    So, if you’re looking to push the envelope of your artistic discipline, then this sort of thing is great. But if you’re trying to produce works of art that large numbers of people find enjoyable, you’ve got to be more careful with this sort of thing. There’s a reason that most big-budget AAA games aren’t too disruptive; it’s because they need to sell a lot of copies to get back their investment, and the best way to do that is to make games that are easy to enjoy. Call them “fun”, or “escapist”, or “mainstream”, whatever you like. Indie games, which have smaller investments, can afford to target the smaller niche audiences who are willing to step outside their comfort zones in the pursuit of something unexpected, and perhaps more “meaningful.”

    Different people come to games looking for different things, and at different times. It doesn’t serve any of us to disparage people who really need something upbeat and escapist right now; nor should we allow market demographics to crush all the more difficult ones (in the sense of consuming them being a challenge to our expectations, not in the sense of standard game “difficulty”).