All posts by David Russell Gutsche

Choice as Illustration

[This post was originally published by Plus10Damage September 17, 2013.]

“I was me.”

That’s the essence of many personal narrative games, and @Rokashi’s I’m Fine is no exception. Those aren’t the literal first words, but it’s absolutely the first thought. I was myself. Those of us that have trouble being ourselves — or embracing the idea our “selves” are not such shameful things after all — have been finding a home on the Internet. More specifically, the ones that like games have been finding a home in the home-brewed Twine community. We’ve been able to experience stories like Memorial, Kim’s Story, and Intake, just to name a few. There’s a veritable sea of them out there, and that sea is only going to spill further and further into the public consciousness.

Here’s why that sea matters: these stories are intensely personal, but they’re not just being told — they’re being played.

What this means is that, instead of just yelling a wall and hoping that the wall has an emotional response — which is risky — the vulnerable author here is telling a story by letting the player experience the story. Instead of saying “this happened to me” while you’re reading / playing I’m Fine, Rokashi will sometimes just say “this happened to you.” The addressed person changes from time to time, making it difficult to tell whether the story is happening to someone else, or to you.

That, at the end of the day, is at least one of the points of personal games. To help understanding, even a tiny bit, through empathy.

Well, games give choices. This is, of course, not the only thing that games can do to increase empathy or connection with a character, but it’s certainly one of the most fascinating. Games that Make the Big Money — Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fable — often have millions of public-relations-rave-parties in celebration of “meaningful choices,” which usually end up being something along the lines of save the world / blow up the world. Of course, those are meaningful. Yeesh. So meaningful. That sort of choice is a big deal. But those aren’t the decisions, the illustrative character choices, by which I am so recently thrilled.


Near the end of the aforementioned Kim’s Story, we’re given the chance to judge the author. “Do you think I’m pathetic?” That’s the question, and it’s a yes or no. No grey. No moral argument. Just a simple question. And, based on the story that precedes that question, making your choice is terrifying. Do you choose with honesty? With contempt? Do you pander? Does anybody even know what you choose? The point is not which choice is correct, but rather that Kim made you, the reader, judge. You had to pause, you had to think, and you had to pass judgment in order to continue the game.

That’s one thing a game can do that a book never can; content is literally withheld until the player moves.

Here’s another thing: games can use theoretical choices to illustrate character, in a way that feels clumsy or awkward in written fiction / film. I’m Fine will serve as a lovely example in this case, as the choices you make in the story are almost the polar opposite of “meaningful.” In the sense that Mass Effect uses the word, that is.

Look down there. It’s a choice.


None of these decisions really have any effect on the outcome of the story. Certainly not in a universe-changing, Biowarey sort of way. These options serve a different purpose. As the player, when I’m offered these choices, I know I’m being offered a perspective. I’m getting a glimpse of the author’s mind. Instead of merely being told that I washed my hands, I got to choose what I did after I went to the bathroom. A mundane thing, to be sure. Maybe the most mundane thing. But an illustration of what goes through the protagonist’s head, and one that has a notably different affecting nature than the phrase “I thought about not washing my hands, but I did anyway.”

Being given the choice shows us exactly what options we might be considering, if we were indeed occupying their shoes. And then, as in Kim’s Story, we’re forced to act. We embody some part of the protagonist’s subconscious, and we make the choice. It’s not a perfect example of how the mind works — obviously — but it’s an amazing and otherwise unapproachable window into the options a person might consider. Even the idea that our hero would consider avoiding The Hand Wash is telling.

Games offer choices. When the choices are huge and meaningful, games can serve as a sort of large, structural change experiment. But when they’re mundane, these choices have the power to prove that people are more complicated — and a lot more like us — that we might think.

That’s a valuable lesson, no?

Community Post: Dogs, Tails, and Co-op

Image uploaded by Flickr User TheGameFanatics


We use them in metaphors, often negatively. Granted, there’s the whole “man’s best friend” business, but otherwise we’re wading through piles of thoughts like “sick as a dog” or “puppy love.” They aren’t necessarily the most flattering of comparisons. Among this stack of idioms is the well-known “like a dog chasing its tail.” When we say this, its most often to imply that the subject is acting in such a way that yields no fruit. They are acting pointlessly, spinning in circles. This is, in almost all circles, a bad thing to say to a person. It’s insulting.

Bad News: Cooperative gaming — in board, card, and video forms — is a lot like a dog chasing its tail.

Good News: I think dogs are brilliant.

At the heart of most games is some form of competition. Whether it be against the difficulty of a game or against another player with a similar set of objects, games need something to “beat.” Even if the game doesn’t end, there has to be something we’re working against to achieve our desired ends (points, kills, apples, whatever). This is often another human being. In League of Legends, The Olympics, online shooters, most sports, and trick-taking card games, the opponents are other humans. They see you as an opponent, actually. This seems to me the most pure form of competition; skill against skill.

The problem with this sort of competition is that someone has to lose. Now, losing is not a bad thing. Losing hurts. That pain can — and often does — propel us into success, and it very well should. Life is, after all, filled with failures and responses to those failures. However, losing hurts even more when you get to see your opponent, that person standing on the other side of the field, glowing with pride and satisfaction upon their recent victory. Or, if you’re playing any online game, mocking / shaming you with the intensity of a really sweaty guy asking you “for a glass of water, or some gatorade, or something.” Not the spirit, but the intensity.

This mockery sucks. I hate it. I hate it when I’m tempted to do it, and I hate it even more when I’m subjected to it. Losing is bad enough; losing to sore winners is one of the worst things that happens to me on a daily basis. But I love the shared experience of gaming. I love losing with a team, or winning with a team, or going through anything as a team. So I kept playing online. I kept being ok with the mediocre, less than dream-like state of competitive gaming.

But then, I started discovering video and board games that had cooperative mechanics. I was thrilled. Finally, we had figured out a way to eliminate most of the potential for Loss Shame.

See, cooperative games are like tail-chasing, because we invent opponents. Humanity, in its flawed but eager ambition, found a way to simulate strategy. Those simulations then act as our opponents. It’s amazing. When we win, we feel great, and nobody feels bad. When we lose, we can curse at the game as much as we please, and nobody feels bad. There are the occasional situations in which a teammate can feel as though they let down their compatriots, but other than those, cooperative gaming is one of the best ways to have a shared experience while still being able to feel the thrills of victory. Basically, if you take away the real opponents, you greatly diminish the chances that somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt.

Co-op gaming isn’t the end-all be-all, and competitive PvP is still absolutely a legitimate thing. But the ability to avoid pain while maximizing pleasure — the ability to chase my tail — is why co-op gaming has such a special place in my gaming ideology and my heart.

Post-Memorial Day Thoughts on Fake Guns, Using Them

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons User Duffman

Let’s start by observing two important and (hopefully) relevant things.

1) Recently, we celebrated Memorial Day here in this lifelong party we like to call America.  

That means that “The Troops” are on everybody’s mind, a fact which I am not at all lamenting.  Rather, I am harnessing it, taking that thought by the hand and saying, “follow me, new friend, to a group of people that might want to get to know you a bit better.”

2) There are a lot of violent video games.

Some attempt to address violence in sophisticated ways, some in straightforward ways, some in intentionally troubling ways, and others in unabashedly unempathetic ways.  The majority of video games don’t really even “deal” with the topic, at least not nearly so much as they simply feature violent action as a narrative impetus.

These two observations combine to form a brainchild in my brainwomb.  I think interactive experiences that feature violence as a central mechanic are an incredibly unique chance for us to think deeply about violence itself, especially when those experiences come in a virtual manner.

Watching films that feature violence — or reading a book that does the same, as long as the media is passive — is a somewhat legitimate way to encounter violence, and sometimes even brutal displays on screens are enough to push one’s tolerance.  At best, a non-interactive piece of media displays some horror, and causes you to feel some sympathy and — if it’s quite well-done — empathy along with it.  A non-interactive story can display something tragic in an emotional fashion, and make you think about the effects of those tragic acts.

I’m not saying static stories can’t be dramatically effective.  Books like The Yellow Birds and films likeThe Hurt Locker have dramatically changed the way I think about war.  I’m saying that Mass Effect 3made me think about violent conflict — and mortality itself — in a more profound and personal way.

Image courtesy of Flickr User JBLivin

Games are experiences that require agency within a set of rules.  They are active moments in our lives, not passive ones.  Many games — even thematically “violent” games like Risk — require conflict, competition, and confrontation.  Whenever I play Risk, I want to win it by “killing” the overwhelming opposition.  But “killing” those armies gives me the same feeling as taking virtual people’s virtual currency in Online Poker.  I never feel as though I’ve committed something violent; I’ve simply committed an act that granted me superiority.  I’ve won.

When the subject matter is on-screen, violent, and interactive, things get hairy.  When you have to make a decision between two groups of virtual beings, killing one cluster and saving the other, you have the opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the imaginary humans that would make those choices.  If you choose to sacrifice the one important gun to save a thousand children and risk losing the war because of that decision, you have to at least rationalize a bit, since you are stepping into a role.  Likewise, if you choose to save the gun and sacrifice the babies, you’ll have to rationalize all that blood on your hands.  When a decision like this is presented to me — and it’s a common one, at least in essence — I rationalize both, as I can only assume at least a decent amount of people do.  I weigh pros and cons.  I picture future strategies.  And yes, I “gamify” the decision, since I am actively gaming.

However, the grim reality of these decisions — and how difficult they are to make — is accentuated in the right interactive moments, especially those that involve horrific acts of violence.  Don’t get me wrong, here.  I am absolutely not saying that games in which you get to pull people’s spines out are good games because they are games in which you can pull people’s spines out.  Rather, making ME do the spine-pulling is really what has the potential to teach me about the horrors of violence, either in an illustration of desensitization or an induction of squeamishness.  For me, Telltale’s The Walking Dead was filled with the latter.

If a piece of media makes me make the decision, I’m more likely to be able to see both sides.  

If a piece of media makes me commit the violence, I’m more likely to be disturbed by it.

If a piece of media makes me walk through a bunch of bodies that I chose to set ablaze, I’m infinitely more likely to feel personal regret.

Of course, none of these things even come close to teaching me about the reality of human violence.  I will never assume that.  Virtual interactivity is just another way that we can grow towards appreciating / appropriately fearing the human animal.  So, next Memorial Day, I want you to sit down, play a violent video game, and think.

[This post was originally published on Plus10Damage May 28, 2013.]

Immersion and The Breaking Of It

[This post was originally published on Plus10Damage December 19, 2012.]

Screenshot by Flickr user: brava_67

I began a ritual last Halloween.  No, not the Satanic kind.  The kind where I annex myself to my room, close the door, and shut off the lights.  I sat atop my bed, my laptop placed strategically on my lap, so as to occupy as large a percentage of my vision as possible.  The donning of my Grado SR-80i headphones completed The Preparations.  Well, not quite.  There was yet one integral element:  I had to open Steam, select Amnesia, and press “play.”

And for what?  Why take extra effort to frighten myself?  Why go to all this trouble, if I’m just going to end up breathing heavily and closing the game in a couple hours?  Why do I keep pushing back in, if I know my mind will be unable to withstand the isolation and subsequent terror?  Condemned, Amnesia, Dead Space, Anna, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, F.E.A.R., Alan Wake, and even parts of Bioshock have played a role in this strange ongoing quest to torture myself.



I cannot deny the appeal of thrills, at least to the extent that dangerous experiences give me some sort of rush.  Any game — no, any thing — that makes me excited is usually something I will engage.  But beyond the artificial, amusement-park-like “I might die at any moment, but actually I’m safer than driving in most cars” sort of feeling, there lies the comfort-transcending appeal of horror gaming:  immersion.

By genre definition, a horror game is meant to terrify or inspire “horror.”  This is accomplished by tricking the mind — much like in film — that something completely and obviously made-up is actually happening.  AND TO YOU.

This is immersion, and horror games have it.  They have to have it, or they fail.  Emphasis on atmosphere and psychological play are two of the most important elements to consider when creating the scarytimes.  Atmosphere pulls you in, and the way you interact with the atmosphere — the gameplay — has to be fine-tuned not for ultimate fun, but tension and fear.  I hate to say that it’s “more of an art,” mostly because I’m afraid I haven’t given such a broad statement nearly enough forethought, so I’ll stick with something simpler.

In my experience, horror games are consistently the most immersive.

Screenshot by Flickr User: FAN THE FIRE Magazine

That.  That is why I keep coming back to them.  That is why I perform tedious preparations — I actually lit candles once while playing F.E.A.R., so as to create further shadowplay — in order to fully enjoy the pants-peeing.  Horror games demand the most intense immersion from a player in order to be successful, and work hard to establish such an atmosphere.

There exists one problem in every tension-and-then-scare-you-to-death-fest I’ve ever encountered:

The immersion break.  

Death, specifically.  In horror games, death is the worst.  Let’s use Amnesia again to exemplify this concept, since it was while playing Frictional’s terrifying masterpiece that I wrapped my mind around this truth.

The water level.  Without spoiling much — if anything — there’s an invisible beastie capable of awful noises and splooshy steps coming after you.  But only when you’re in the water.  It’s terrifying, because every trip to the next platform is a tense race against the filthy aberration that constantly pants and sniffs in its search for your delicious meat-body.  In the moment, I was terrified of nothing more than ghostmonsterguy getting me from behind, and doing hell-knows-what to my poor, should-have-tried-harder-in-gym-class corpse.  In fact, it made my heart race literally more in sheer terror than anything ever has in any game.

It is nuts.  I hate it.  My nerves hate it.

But then the guy gets me, an interface pops up and basically screams “you’re in a game sucka,” and I have to try again.  All of a sudden, the creature that induced sheer terror has transformed an obstacle that I must outwit.  It’s still tense, sure.  But my brain has remembered something very important, something that — in the rush of immersion — it forgot.

It remembered that it was playing a video game.

Screenshot by Flickr User: Averyanov Ilya

While horror games are the industry’s champions in terms of immersion, that immersion is often fragile and, when destroyed, leaves a shell of an experience.  Without narrative to propel a horror trip that has no immersion factor — the F.E.A.R. sequels — the game falls pretty flat.  I want to have some great idea about fixing this from a developmental standpoint, but removing actual character death / failure seems almost impossible.  In fact, it’s that impending death that propels such terror in the first place.  Perhaps we lovers of the frightening will just have to deal with the fact that, after all, we’re playing stories.  And those stories are always going to have limitations.

But hey.  Come Halloween, I’m going to try to mentally transcend those limitations.

And maybe poop myself.

[This post was originally published on Plus10Damage December 19, 2012.]