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Who's the Boss: Player Choice, NPC Consent, and the Designer's Unseen Hand

Last week, we discussed the spectrum of allowance - a way to describe how allowed a given action is within a game, ranging from impossible to required. A key point is that the game’s designer places each action on the spectrum. Aside from bugs (which violate the designer’s intent) and hacks (which partially override the original design with another), in a game you can only do what the designer lets you. This is true even when you have freedom of choice - that freedom was granted by the designer.

Some games understand this well and play with it effectively - see for example The Stanley Parable, especially the confusion ending (warning: spoilers). But not all games that examine player choice understand the designer’s role.

The Journey Of Me is a free browser game. It’s a 2D platformer and it takes about fifteen minutes to play. I am now going to spoil the hell out of it, but honestly I don’t think you should be too worried about spoilers in this case.

The Journey of Me title screen

That Which Is Not Forbidden: The Spectrum of Allowance

When Grand Theft Auto III came out, it introduced a new interaction to the series: players could now solicit prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back.

“To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. . . . Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she’d exited.”
—Samantha Leichtamer, The 5 Most Shocking Grand Theft Auto Moments

This capability has persisted in later games in the series, and gave rise to a lot of discussion. Much of the commentary is careful to point out that murdering prostitutes is not required at any point.

“After a player pays for services from a prostitute, they can run over, beat, and even kill the prostitute and then simply take back the money that was paid. . . . It’s worth noting that this controversial element in Grand Theft Auto is not required by any part of a mission, side quest or storyline: it is something that [is] available due to the open world/sandbox style gameplay.”
—Michael Klappenbach, Grand Theft Auto Series Most Controversial Moments

“[You can] pay a hooker to talk dirty and service you in your hooptie. It gets better: After you get your rocks off, you can run her over with your car or riddle her with bullets – it all depends on how you roll, ya big stud. . . . It’s important to note that GTA players don’t have to kill prostitutes, although they certainly can if it occurs to them.”
—Tracy Clark-Flory, Grand Theft misogyny

“Grand Theft Auto is known as the game in which you can pick up a prostitute, have sex with her, then kill her and get your money back. You never have to do that to advance in the game; the world is simply so open-ended that you can do it.”
—Chris Baker, It’s Not Just About Killing Hookers Anymore

Of course Grand Theft Auto games are exactly that: games. You don’t have to play them at all. And they’re known as games where a lot of the fun comes from messing around in the sandbox, going on murder sprees that are also thoroughly unrequired. So is there a meaningful distinction to be made here?

I think there is. Merely pointing out that you can do something in a game is incomplete. It treats it as a binary, with the action either allowed or disallowed. But game design is much more subtle than that. There’s a wide range of how allowed an action can be.

I Wrote This So You'd Know I'm Smart: Games Criticism and The Beginner's Guide

The Beginner's Guide

Spoiler warning for The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a short (ninety minutes or so) narrative game by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden. I like it a lot and recommend it to folks interested in how we create and talk about games. If you’re intrigued by the game but haven’t played it yet, you might want to do so before reading further. The game has generated a lot of analysis and discussion - my personal favorite being Ian Danskin’s video essay The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide - but there’s a trend among some critics that I find troubling and want to dig into.

Who Frustration is Good For

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy went fairly viral so you may already be well familiar with it. If so, feel free to skip down past both pictures; I’m going to spend the intervening paragraphs explaining what the game is and how it works.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Bennett Foddy is a connoisseur of frustration. His first hit game, QWOP, took the simple act of running and made it nearly impossible by wrapping it in a seemingly-straightforward four-button control scheme with each button dedicated to a thigh or calf muscle. He’s made a few other games along similar lines, but his latest work, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, takes things to a new level.