Monday, December 13, 2010

Uncharted, One Chance, and Cheating

I don't have much more to say about Uncharted 2, as it turns out, because I didn't get through much more of it before giving up and sending it back to GameFly. I'm therefore not qualified to review it, but I'll tell you that the reason I sent it back was because I disliked (a) the combat (b) the parkour (c) the artifact-hunting, which leaves very very little to enjoy. All that remains is the game's cinematic components, the dialog and characterization and set-pieces. And there's the other problem: Uncharted 2 is, even more than its predecessor, far too movie-like.

Sony even marketed it by suggesting that it was possible to mistake it for a film:


(All this, by the way, makes it laughable that the franchise is actually being adapted into a movie.)

I don't know about you, but I don't want to play a movie. I want to play a game. I'm starting to see some big names publicly say this, and I've been saying it myself for a while now - "cinematic" is not a compliment when it comes to videogames.

I'm not going to claim that Uncharted 2 is a bad game. It did very well and I personally know several people whose opinions I respect in these matters who enjoyed it a great deal. And I only experienced a couple of hours of it, so I'm unqualified to make any statement of its overall quality. But I'm pretty confident it's not what I'm looking for.

Movies are static and noninteractive. They are the same experience every time for everybody. To emulate this in games is to discard the strength of games as a medium - their dynamism and interactivity and their ability to weave stories with the player, not for the player.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to One Chance.


One Chance is a short, simple Flash game (strongly influenced by Every day the same dream, by which I mean many ideas were lifted wholesale without so much as a nod in the Author Comments). If you want to check it out spoiler-free, you should do so before you continue reading. There really isn't much to spoil, though.

The central conceit of One Chance is that you are not intended to replay it. You get the ending that you get, based on the decisions that you made, and unless you know what to delete (or just go use another computer) the game won't let you replay it. The game is about living with the consequences of your actions.

(This, by the way, is why I used the screenshot I did. It's the only one I can take, now, since I've already played the game.)

It's an interesting experiment, and it deserves the praise it's getting. But there's an undercurrent here that bothers me.

"There was a time when consequence in gaming was firmer, but since it 'lessens the gaming experience' by frustrating the gamer, we see less and less of it these days."
Colette Bennett, One Chance: consequences in gaming

What's with the scare quotes? Frustration does lessen the gaming experience. And, by the way, consequence doesn't have to be frustrating.

"There's a problem with branching paths and moral decisions in videogames: even if
they are meaningful (few are), players can usually bypass the system by using multiple save files or other means to go in for another attempt and a different outcome."
Jordan Devore, You have one chance to save the world

Why, exactly, is this a problem?

To me, both of these quotes smack of an attitude that games deliver specific, designed experiences to players (see? I told you this connected to the cinematic stuff) and any player who goes against the creator's intentions is cheating.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and make a strong statement:

It is impossible to cheat in a single-player game.

What is cheating? It's when you break the agreed-upon rules. When one out of multiple players unilaterally changes the rules - that's cheating. The cheating player is playing a different game from the one everybody agreed on. If all the players agree to a rule change, then it's not cheating - it's house rules, and everyone is playing the different game together.

If there's only one player, then there is no cheating. There can never be cheating, by definition. There are only house rules.

Some might argue that while there aren't any other players, there is still the creator, and by altering the rules of a single-player game, you subvert the game they intended to make. To which I would reply: so what?

"To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final significance, to close the writing."
Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

They're not playing with you. There was no agreement on rules. It's your game to play as you please. You bought it. Why shouldn't you be able to explore its space? The creator may be disappointed that their vision is not being experienced as intended, but if they wanted their audience to receive their work rather than co-create it, they should have worked in a different medium. Besides, going to the trouble of exploring a world beyond its intended boundaries is a statement that the world is worth exploring - a high compliment to its creator.

House rules can vastly expand both the audience and the shelf life of a game. Many of us learned this from board games. Things that may commonly be called "cheating" allow players to find whole new games to play, or to magnify their enjoyment of the game already there. They can also be a safeguard against too-high difficulty - a player-driven, customizable easy mode, if the developers didn't put in enough of one for those that need it. At eight years old, I got far more out of Super Mario Bros. 3 with my Game Genie than without it. And that's why I'm sad that such things are on their way out.

"There was a time when 'cheats' were synonymous with videogames. Whether skipping levels or granting invincibility, cheat codes and 'Easter eggs' were a developer's way of allowing legitimate access to locked content. They were a core part of their designs. Now the Konami code is all but forgotten and the few remaining cheats exist to enhance a game after completion rather than aid you in getting there."
John Szczepaniak, Cheating the System

Players have less and less control over their games as time goes on, and game companies have more and more. This is both a good and bad thing. When every gaming machine is an internet-enabled computer, you can do some amazing, fun, convenient things - but other things can happen too, like devs screwing up leap year detection resulting in every PS3 in the world being unusable for 24 hours. Control is lost more slowly on PCs, but as the industry model moves through digital distribution toward straight-up streaming, it's happening there too.

Alongside this, there's been less and less inclusion of "cheat codes" and the like. I was able to use codes to see the cinematics I wasn't skilled enough to earn in Warcraft 2, but the option isn't there in Dawn of War. The mainstream game industry is treating games more and more like movies instead of toys - prepackaged experiences instead of tools with which to create fun.

9 comments:

  1. Nice thoughts about linearity and cheating.

    I guess you are aware of the discussion whether videogames are art initiated by Roger Ebert.
    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html
    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/okay_kids_play_on_my_lawn.html

    Did you notice this quote:
    "There was no agreement among the thousands of posters about even one current game that was an unassailable masterpiece. Shadow of the Colossus came closest"

    Isn't Shadow of the Colossus as movie like as it can get? The more linear a game, the more it is considered art?

    Btw, "One Chance" reminds me a lot of the movie "The Fountain".

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  2. @flocu:
    That's a really interesting connection!

    In a twisted way, it makes sense. If you want to show someone - particularly a member of the old guard - that your stuff is as legitimate as their stuff, you'd naturally reach for an example of your stuff that's as much like their stuff as possible. Ebert clearly believes film is art, so show him a filmlike game to make him accept games as art too.

    (Incidentally, I chimed in to Ebert's discussion - though given the staggering number of comments he received, I am unsurprised he didn't reply to mine.)

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  3. As someone who spent significant time writing a saved-game editor for Fallout: New Vegas, I really miss cheat codes.

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  4. Obviously I completely agree with you when it comes to "movie" experiences in games, as a lot of what I've written about attests to.

    I also essentially agree with you when it comes to cheating in single player games. However, is any videogame really completely "single player" anymore? As soon as you have some kind of online enabled Achievement/Trophy system, and you have something that I can actually describe as a challenge or a competitive game, then suddenly you do have the possibility for real 'cheating'. As almost all games these days have such systems, then it's no wonder that suddenly people (& by result the games devs) care far more about cheating nowadays.

    And here's the the ultimate cheat mode ;)

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  5. @Remy77077 -

    I've seen games that deactivate achievements/awards whenever you activate a cheat. And when we talk about 'cheats' in this context, we're really talking about user-controlled/developer provided cheats. Like typing 'IDDQD' into the console while playing Doom2.

    So, it's pretty trivial to prevent those cheats from impacting online achievements.

    Other cheating - things like AIMBOTS or modifying the game process's memory while it's running; those are a problem whether or not the devs include 'sanctioned' cheats or not.

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  6. @anonymous

    That's a fine solution of course, and whilst I agree it =should= be trivial, so many games already completely fail at designing their achievements systems to not be 'cheatable' (or 'boostable' - even more likely) that I'm somewhat wary about this.

    Still, the main point is that very few games are truly single player experiences these days, so I thought it deserved more consideration.

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  7. Oh and of course, include anything like online high score charts and online ranking systems & stats in the above. Anything that could've been the potential competitive long-term incentive at a game, is heavily damaged by bad systems and ways to cheat.

    It's impossible to stop the cheats? I don't agree - current case study would be StarCraft II. Or on consoles, XBox 360's SF2HDR's ranking chart.

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  8. I have to disagree here. If you intentionally "cheat" in a game (meaning, you subvert the designer's original rules), you are having a different experience than originally intended. It may end up being an experience you enjoy more, or maybe not. Whatever it is, you're probably not getting the intended experience. No biggie, and no one's going to stop you, but your loss.

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  9. I agree with your talk about cheating and house rules. There's a strategy game called Wesnoth that used to keep all its data; maps, units, abilities, campaign scenarios, etc; in .txt documents. When there was something that I didn't like in one of the campaigns I got around it by editing the files to remove it. This didn't hurt anyone, it wasn't subverting the message of the game, it was just removing an element that I didn't want to have to deal with.

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