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Press X to feel accountable

Press F to pay respects. Press Triangle to reflect on my uncle. Press X to pause the killing for a while and feel something. A curious trend in games that try to bring some emotional depth between two fights.

These inputs feel particularly weird in violent games. (Or at least games that are keen on depicting physical violence and be trivial about it.) Violence can make you feel various things — in AAA violent games there’s a lot of emphasis about the fun of brutalizing any moving object in a game setting. Sometimes… Sometimes yeah there’s some discomfort, pain, even rage when the devs try to put some ‘humanity’ into these moving objects. Another strange trend that I won’t explain today, but will probably be explored at some point during my PhD. Today I want to take more time to ramble about when you have to press a button to feel something deeper in these violent games and how it feels to me.

I’m going to call these ‘Symbolic Inputs’ for now, for a lack of a better term. Symbolic because these inputs are not your usual gameplay inputs. Let’s say that a gameplay input requires some decisional process from the player (when to press it, where to press it, how to press it sometimes, while being able to anticipate what’s coming after if there’s a chain of inputs to perform) so they can progress the game (and story). But what I’m calling Symbolic Inputs do not require any decisional process. Most of times they are even optional.

And that’s quite fascinating right? Yeah I know you’re thinking about this post’s title. Press X to feel accountable. In these troubled times, I haven’t chosen that phrasing out of nowhere. Especially when you think about these games, the kind of people who may be leading their creative processes and decisions especially in terms of narrative design.

There are two things that feel odd to me about these Symbolic Inputs: the fact that they are often optional, and something less obvious about the Cartesian views of feeling VS thinking, the body and the mind etc. that come with them.

Let’s talk about the optional aspect first. There has been (and there will be) a lot of debates about challenge in games. Many games, especially violent games, have gameplay systems that are meritocratic. You have to earn your victory. You have to work hard for it. The more difficult a problem is, the more rewarding it is to solve it. What difficulty means is a vast topic, and I’m certainly not the best to talk about it — better check some of the amazing work from the disabled gamers out there if you can. All I’ll add is that difficulty is often tied to physical challenges (being quick, responsive, precise enough in the way you use inputs) and cognitive challenges (being strategic, able to chain reactions, find causalities, anticipate things within a specific time frame, etc.)

When you decide that being reflective on your emotional journey is optional, and not difficult at all — it’s not ‘hard’ to press X to feel something in these games — within a meritocratic system that rewards difficulty, well… It does say the complete opposite of what you may be trying to achieve. Paying your respects to someone’s death, thinking about your family, your mistakes, your past — of course it’s goofy to use a press X to express these complex emotional processes, in a game system that’s relying heavily on how quick and relevant and good you are at pressing X in other contexts. Basically you’re saying that it’s not hard, at all. To pay your respect to someone. It’s not physically, it’s not mentally, it’s not even emotionally hard. One may throw the word ludonarrative dissonance here, yeah, maybe. But to me it goes a bit deeper than that.

That brings me to the second thing I mentioned: Descartes. Yeah I’m French, so I have to see Descartes everywhere, but it’s a shortcut, I should even mention Plato’s Cave et al. It’s about how the body is a lie (like the cakes we’re seeing everywhere these days) and ideas are ‘truth’.  It is also so Christian, so Western (if I may) — to separate the body from the mind, and to consider the body (and its feelings) less relevant, important, or even less noble than the mind (which is rational, thinking). So many people out there have explained all this much better than me by the way, about how this relates to toxic masculinity, colonialism et al.   

Where am I going with this? I’m not exactly sure. But there is something… twisted about how we think about emotions in games, and how we hide everything behind the word ‘fun’. Mainly, the feeling of having fun… Damn I could write a whole thesis about what this exactly means and why it’s so oppressive at times. Maybe I will. But to go very quickly about what I’m thinking here, having fun in violent games is about power fantasies — you progress because you are more powerful, you are more powerful because you progress in the game. That loop is supposed to be “fun”.

Fun in games is on the noble side of the mind, it is either an intellectual joy or maybe the only feeling worth experiencing in them (and I believe this is such an ableist point of view by the way). But anyone who has experienced mourning, deep thoughts about the past, regrets — these complex mental processes are usually deemed as feelings. And feelings in our current Western world are often more on the body side of things than the intellectual, rational side of things (the mind).

Hence, there is nothing powerful about mourning someone or thinking about someone in the context of these game systems. There is nothing rewarding doing that. Even more so, taking the time to mourn or think may impede your progress — because they’re technically slowing your progression (and unless you have an infinite time to play, one could see this as ‘wasting time over something that does not give you anything’) Which, I believe, says a lot about the worldview these games are accidentally (or not) promoting.

PS: I’m leaving aside the “Press X to Jason” case in the end, I think it could use a separate thread of ramblings because it may be slightly different.

Published in Narrative Design