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.