I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting this post written. Two of the adjacent apartments have become vacant, and that can only mean one thing, renovations! The dogs love the symphony of slamming doors and circular saws, so rather than plumbing the similarities between Mochizuki’s proof of the ABC Conjecture and Jason Rohrer’s A Game For Someone (yeah… that doesn’t sound like a good read to me either), I’m going to talk about the (tired) idea of morality and games.
Wait! Don’t stop reading yet! This isn’t yet another talk about meaningful player choice, or lack thereof. We’ve all been Fabled, Jedied, and Mass Effected sufficiently at this point. I was going to include Bioshock, but I think the only people who harvested little sisters were people who hit the wrong button on their controller, at least the first time through. So without arguing the morality of force choking a Krogan Battlerager, I’d like to move on to something a little different.
It was a happy accident that I wound up buying Don’t Starve. I had checked it out earlier in its development and watched the trailer with Kristin. I gave the demo a try, but limited to 20 minutes of playtime and only half of its systems in place, I wasn’t super impressed. Though I kept hearing all sorts of nonspecific good things about the game. So I just kind of forgot about it for a while.
As the beta was drawing to a close, Kristin prompted me about Don’t Starve banner on Steam. She said that the art style reminded her of Maurice Sendak (I thought Edward Gorey, but both influences are there), and that it really looked interesting. One of the main concerns I have is my ability to accumulate copies of games that I can’t get anyone to play. As buying the beta came with a copy for a friend, I was even more hesitant to buy. So when Kristin said she was interested in playing Don’t Starve, I decided to take a chance.
Now just to be fair there are some extremely light spoilers coming up but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
So after playing separately for a couple of days, Kristin and myself compared notes. One interesting element was that we were both playing our characters as vegan, as we both are in reality, eating only what could be gathered or farmed. There’s no implicit endorsement of this play style and there are no in-game consequences for discarding it. And things go fairly well. It’s easy to thrive and even to figure out less obvious methods of obtaining animal products that don’t involve stabbing something (and it makes you a better player in general/feel super smart).
That is until winter sets in.
In winter, plant growth either stops or slows, so your berry bushes and farms stop producing food. It’s not insurmountable to overcome with some planning, patience, and a little luck (e.g. berries spoil in your inventory, not on the bush). But this unconventional play style has resulted in some extremely valuable (and uncomfortable) play experiences.
One game, I was huddling around my campfire, wounded and running out of food, having harvested all plant resources for a day and a half in every direction. Building a rabbit trap is one of the earliest things you can do. So hovering my mouse over the live rabbit in my inventory, staring at the text saying “RMB Murder”, I was genuinely upset. If I were in that situation in reality, and I’ve thought about this one a good bit as people enjoy asking vegans silly questions like that, I’d be eating rabbit kabobs in no time.
But this time I was clearly distraught. For the first time I felt like a game was actively telling me that I was not welcome. While I’m not great at fighting games and real-time strategy/social games aren’t my cup of tea, as a straight white male nerd, I’ve never actually gone into a game and been met with such hostility to a fundamental part of my identity. So that started me firmly in the upset direction. I saved and exited the game and thought about it for a few days. Eventually I came back to it thinking, “This is an arbitrary rule set I’ve imposed on myself. The developers have created a robust world that allows me to explore all sorts of wacky self-imposed rules, and that’s pretty cool. My cyber-guy can eat a cyber-bunny and then go back to being cyber-vegan, he can become a bloodthirsty woodchipper of animal parts, I can stay the course and risk death to find some food somewhere, or I can just start a new game and try again. This isn’t so bad!” So then I felt pretty good.
Then I thought, maybe this is what people experience when they’re excluded by video games, and they don’t have the luxury of an arbitrarily defined rule set. So something that brings me such excitement and joy becomes something so gross and abhorrent. For a long time I’ve always taken the positive approach to including people in video games. By having a variety of experiences and types of people during development, your product is enriched and the user experience is better. Making more, better things to drown out all the bad stuff that’s out there in the world. But I was ignoring the negative impact of these games, thinking that it was enough to not buy them and denounce them publicly. But this experience showed me that that’s not enough.
I’ve been stuck on this last part for about 6 hours now and I haven’t really come up with anything to take some of the venom out of video games and its associated culture. There’s lots of high-minded rhetoric and even a lot of small steps that people should be able to do on their own: Whether lowering the bar to game production through things like Twine or Unity, writing publishers letting them know they’re losing your business, subsidizing the positive artists, discussing video games in a critical fashion, etc. I’m wondering if anyone else has any ideas in mind, if you do, please leave them in the comments below.
Don’t Starve is a fantastic game by Klei interactive (who also made the amazing stealth game Mark of the Ninja) and Kristin and myself have a total of 60 hours put into it so far, and have only scratched the surface. You can check out the demo from your browser at the linked website above. It’s genuinely fun and you shouldn’t hold anything I’ve said here against it (In fact, that this game has given me this experience makes me value it even more).
So that was the inaugural edition of The Weekly. If you have any examples of games challenging your morality or ethics, either in-game or out of game feel free to comment below. I’m still in the process of working out some of the kinks – formatting issues (blue backgrounds behind images with captions, extremely illegible orange links), the fact that the Android WordPress App defaults to “post” rather than “draft”, and weird post saving stuff when you have the same thing open in multiple locations. I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you back here next week.