What Games Don’t Teach pt I: the Kelly Chambers Incident

Since Gee’s idea of Affinity Spaces is a major part of my dissertation’s conceptual frame, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff about the power of games as learning tools. (Also I date a Filament designer, which tends to bring with it a good dose of similarly themed conversations.) These arguments had been interesting in the abstract, but really came to life for me when I started playing myself. Because video games can be really complicated these days! Matt started me out relatively slow, with Knights of the Old Republic as my first fighting-style RPG, but even that felt dauntingly complex at the start. But the game made me want to play it despite the anxiety I felt about all this, and with a little help from Matt I learned the ropes before I was even off Taris. And now I’m playing Skyrim unassisted with only occasional anxiety about figuring out the skill trees.

Playing these games made me appreciate the conversation about games as uniquely powerful learning tools in a new and much more concrete way. Many of the games I played this past year are complicated by any definition, and yet make learning to harness and navigate those complications not only manageable but genuinely pleasurable. But in addition to teaching you the systems and rules specific to the particular game, video games also teach you how to navigate the rules of the genre overall. You learn how puzzle games work by playing a few of them, and then you have a leg up on the next one you come across. You learn that shotguns are for close range and rifles for long (or you’re supposed to – sometimes you’re an idiot and need your boyfriend to point it out to you); that sometimes you solve puzzles by trying every combination of action and object until something works; that levels and dungeons are usually one-way, and if you’re spending a lot of time backtracking through already-cleared environments you probably took a wrong turn. These conventions aren’t completely universal, of course – and expecting them to be sets you up to be caught by the inevitable moment when a game deliberately breaks them to mess with you (a practice that reached its purest and most meta form in The Stanley Parable).

But generally, by playing a bunch of games you learn not only how those games work, but what you can reasonably expect from other games like them.  This is both cool and useful, as it essentially gives you a headstart, even some shortcuts, for learning these new games in the future. It means that when you start a new game, you can, as Gee puts it in an account of playing real-time strategy games, “already know something, have a small foot up.”  Each game is “a precursor for later learning” as well as a learning experience in of itself. When you arrive at that later learning opportunity,  you’ll be able to make useful and cautiously dependable assumptions about new systems and situations even before you’ve finished learning the specifics.

Most of my game experiences (at least as measured in hours of play) are with RPGs, in a genre I’d describe as “combat/narrative blends” – they have a lot of fighting, but a decent chunk of story as well (sometimes very good ones). Over the last 18 months, I’ve experienced a lot of these “small foot up” moments Gee talks about, with the result that each new game I pick up is easier to learn – and, maybe even more important to my overall play experience, navigating their environments and situations is more and more intuitive. The best example I can think of deals with level conventions: I’ve learned that I can reasonable expect each dungeon/mission/whatever to have one relatively obvious route through it from start to finish, and how to recognize the conventional visual signals used to mark it. I used to get painfully disoriented in even simple level layouts, to the point that it was embarrassing; I’d be looking over my shoulder hoping no one was witness to my getting lost in the Presidium again. But now that I have a few more RPG notches in my belt, I have a much better instinct for the conventions and goals underlying level design, and (usually) have no trouble finding my way unless I’m supposed to. This, and a host of other accumulated lessons, suggest that by and large, combat/narrative RPGs are good at teaching about their genre as a whole as well as themselves.

Except there’s one convention that video games have completely failed to teach me – that of the time-sensitive mission.

In most RPGs, time-sensitive missions are the exception rather than the rule. Taking out the mafia kingpin, storming the lab on Virmire, starting up the water purifier, scoping out the dragon burial site for possible resurrecting dragons – no matter how high the narrative stakes for these tasks, or what your NPC companions are screaming in your ear, you’ve got all the time you need to take care of it. So check out that random hallway. Search every inch of the base. Heck, wander off on a side mission for a few days if you feel like it. It’ll be there when you get back, and no one will actually be any worse off than if you’d taken your sidekick at their word and raced through like this was all actually unfolding in real time. Unless there’s some kind of visible timer on the screen, or screamingly explicit narrative cue, there’s no rush.

This is pretty standard across the RPG genre (at least in my experience), and so presumably is something these games should be teaching players along with level conventions and appropriate small arms use. But if so, it’s in a way that my learning style doesn’t recognize, because I cannot seem to internalize it in any meaningful way. Like, at all.

My (admittedly limited) gaming lessons have consistently presented urgency as something explicitly signaled through visual markers (as in the very first Mass Effect mission, when the bombs must be disarmed before the timer reaches zero). Sometimes that marker isn’t precisely time – it might be shield strength, or a companion’s health – but it gives some visual cue that I can’t be screwing around. On the other hand, they’ve also taught me that narrative matters – that what people say and do around me has implications for what I will be able to say and do subsequently. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 taught me that the cues characters give about themselves and the stories around them are important for making decisions that build the narrative outcomes I want. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite taught me that even seemingly insignificant background details in dialogue and story can turn out to be majorly important. These experiences have primed me to take narrative, including character dialogue, seriously. They have failed to teach me to ignore that dialogue when it’s rushing my character along – despite that being what I’d argue is a pretty necessary lesson.

Because this learning failure has a definite adverse affect on my play experience. I rush past gorgeously rendered vistas and valuable equipment upgrades. I miss entire side quests and quirky characters. I sometimes experience something akin to actual stress over reaching an objective I’ve been told is pressingly urgent when in reality I could wander off, clean my entire apartment, have a leisurely drink with friends, and then come back and finish the mission to exactly the same effect as my instinctive 15-minute bull rush. Just a few days ago I caught myself abandoning a Skyrim questline I was enjoying immensely because a character I’d just met told me I had to meet her at some random location right away. This didn’t have any negative effect on that original questline (of course). But it had an effect on my enjoyment of the game – I felt rushed and resentful. By the time I remembered that urgency is just a narrative trapping in RPG quests I was already at ground zero for the new quest’s first mission.

I’m not sure why I have so much difficulty resolving these conflicted learning objectives – why I can’t seem to learn that narrative tags about urgency are decorative and not declarative. I’m pretty sure it’s not a widespread problem; if it was, designers would already have switched up how they’re coding and scripting these moments to improve their games’ ability to teach both lessons effectively. I have a fairly conventional learning style – traditional school worked fine for me, I’m not unusually visual or tactile or anything like that. So the sensation of falling through a learning-styles crack (even one so laughably insignificant) is kind of a weird (and, because the stakes are so low, interesting) experience. It makes me wonder what a game would look like that did teach me this effectively. Additional tags about the importance of being thorough and exploring? A section in the tutorial mission that explicitly says “sometimes missions are timed; here’s what that looks like”? The latter seems clunky; the former could be too subtle. But then, even if such a game existed, there’s a chance I still wouldn’t learn. Because sometimes bad design reinforces the wrong lesson – and as Skinner taught us, inconsistent reinforcement is the most powerful kind. Which brings us to Mass Effect 2 and the Kelly Chambers Incident.

In its final stages, Mass Effect 2 breaks the rules that urgency gets exceptional markers: once the final mission becomes available a hidden clock starts, and the longer you wait before starting it, the more of your captured crewmates are killed by the enemy. This includes the peppy and, in Matt’s words, “really attractive” Kelly Chambers, a character who (if she survives) plays a role in the following game. A role I will probably never see, because my Shepard’s Kelly is Collector paste. I’d grown used to people telling me missions were urgent, vital, pressing; and nothing about the dialogue surrounding the final mission cued me to think it was any different in this regard, that this time it really was urgent.

So I dicked around and finished a few sidequests, and Kelly died, and I’m still super pissed about it. The ONE time my natural instinct to rush to the rescue would actually have been correct, I ignored it. Consciously. Because I remembered what the game(s) had taught me.

This seems like bad design to me. What good are stakes if you don’t know they’re there – and can’t reasonably be expected to have guessed it? By changing up a basic rule of the genre without warning, Mass Effect 2‘s final mission undercuts the lessons taught by the rest of the series, and other narrative-based RPGs as well. I would argue that this is an example of bad design on their part – of letting a narrative shock outweigh the game’s consistency as a learning tool of the genre. This is not to say games should never play with or flaunt our expectations – not at all. But that they need to do so in a way that’s consistent with the rules the game’s taught us govern its systems. In a good game, we shouldn’t be overly comfortable about what’s coming our way, but we shouldn’t feel cheated by it either.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I was told several days ago that I’m desperately needed at a dragon burial site, so I should probably look into that.


Reflecting on Telltale’s Walking Dead: Stakes, Death and Narrative

[Warning – this post contains minor spoilers for Season One of Telltale’s Walking Dead and Mass Effect 3]

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

This is a centuries-old and much-loved Christian prayer. If you swap out “courage” for “basic manual dexterity,” it is also a pretty good summary of how I felt playing much of Telltale’s Walking Dead. And while I got better at all three as the story progressed, the anxiety I felt over the stakes of my agency remained the defining characteristic of my experience.

Here’s what I knew about Walking Dead going in: that it was widely recognized as Really Awesome, that it used the medium to do some sweet things with narrative, and that Matt thought its narrative/game blend would make a good start on getting me used to using a controller. I hadn’t played a new video game in almost a decade, and so I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions of what to expect going in.

I was therefore somewhat surprised to find myself playing a point-and-click adventure game much in the style of those I played as a child. It took me awhile – longer than I like to admit – to notice the connection. Even though I know classic genres have been making resurgence, it hadn’t occurred to me that my old-school playing days might have relevance here. The tension and immediacy of the real-time sequences contributed to the disconnect; that kind of “oh shit oh shit QUICKLY” is something I associated with point-and-clicks only by absence. But nerdery, like blood, will out: despite it being clear pretty early on that the “look” action is only useful in specific and pivotal situations, I still found myself compelled to look at Every. Single. Thing on the farm in Chapter 2.

See this farm? Because I have. In great detail.

The other big surprise was how deeply unnerving my character Lee’s death was, every time I let it happen. Even I have played enough video games to know that dying is part of the process. In fact I came into Walking Dead on the tails of playing through about half of Limbo, a game that’s literally been described as “trial and death.” You try something, it doesn’t work, you head back and try something else. But in Walking Dead, I found myself right from the start incredibly on edge about the prospect of letting Lee die. The first time he’s threatened with death, I was mashing the hell out of those buttons to get the cuffs off and the gun loaded. And there was a genuine sense of relief, of tension passed, when I managed it. The encounter with the zombie babysitter at Clementine’s house took me considerably longer to bring off safely – I think I died three times before I managed it – and by the end I was stressed. When Lee dies it upsets me. Even as early as those first few scenes.

The first time I let Lee die - traumatic for us both
The first time I let Lee die – traumatic for us both

Everyone knows stakes are high during the zombie apocalypse. And with writing this good it’s no surprise that you get emotionally attached to characters, and are affected by what happens to them. But when your character dies, you just come back to life and try it again, until you manage to survive the zombie teenager/crazed farmer/dangerous parcour in question. So why did keeping him alive stress me out so much? It’s more than just that potentially lethal scenarios tend to play out in real time (though that’s certainly a factor). The game manages to communicate a very real sense of stakes very quickly, both in terms of the environment – there are horrifying animated corpses ready to eat you everywhere and at any time – and in terms of character, and to blend those stakes together in a way that gave Lee’s deaths an atypical resonance for me. As I desperately tried to make my all-thumbs controller hand load and fire the rifle, my thought was not just “shit, I can’t let him die in his very first zombie encounter” but also “shit, I can’t let him die with all those demons on his chest.”

Since playing Walking Dead, I’ve played through most of the Mass Effect trilogy. I adore those games (post forthcoming), and like most fans of the series have an intense connection to my Shepard. She’s the product of 90+ hours of battles and narrative decisions, she looks like a hot Russian version of myself, and I am going to be so sad to let her go. Violet Shepard and I have a thing going at this point. But when she dies, I just sigh and boot up my last save. Of the many things in Mass Effect that make me feel (Mordin! NEVER FORGET), her dying in combat isn’t one of them. But in Walking Dead, Lee dying makes me feel something unique, a kind of nervous tension that I don’t get from any other moments in the game.

If you were in Lee's shoes, you'd be angsty too
If you were in Lee’s shoes, you’d be angsty too

In both Mass Effect and Walking Dead, narrative is a strong part of the game’s reward system. That feeling of investment you build in your Shepard, and in Lee, is bound up in the game’s nature – it’s your reward for playing, part of what’s driving you to finish. In Mass Effect though, this narrative reward shares the stage with the rewards of a good shooter – levels gained, battles won in style, weapons upgraded, etc. You’re here for the story, but you’re doing other stuff as well – and it’s only in those “other stuff” moments, the moments when the game is not so much about narrative reward, that Shepard can die. Her death doesn’t end the narrative – it ends the battle. In Walking Dead, the narrative is pretty much the whole reward. And though Lee’s potential deaths tend to come during the most “gamelike” moments, for lack of a better term, those sequences remain firmly connected to the narrative progression. There’s no clear line separating the shooting and the story, as there tends to be in MA. When Lee dies, you feel the stakes of that death for the storyline – because you’re very much in it all the time. What happens to Clem now? Oh god, is everyone going to get eaten? By humans??? I have *got* to work on my button-mashing skills.

My feelings towards Lee were a weird blend of identification and readerly distance. Right from the first conversation in the police car, I found myself choosing answers according to my own values – what I hope I would do in his place. Sometimes this involved thinking ahead to the impact my choice might have on the story – but more often my choices were simply (if you’ll pardon the cliche) from the heart. This made the game a very revealing look into my own values, sometimes uncomfortably so. It created a stronger sense of empathy for his character than I think I’d have felt if I’d chosen more “results”-mindedly; it also increased my sense of responsibility for him.

It starts - the comfortable lie or the tragic truth?
It starts – the comfortable lie or the tragic truth?

This might become simple identification in another kind of game, but Walking Dead reminds you at just the right intervals that Lee’s not you. He often uses slightly different language than that of the player choice, for example – though a small thing, I found this to be one of the most effective means of underscoring his nature as independent from mine. And of course, Lee is a black man, an identity whose attendant stereotypes and prejudices, the game argues, survive literally to the end of our world. These reminders that Lee ≠ Becca heightened the stakes for my role in playing through him. It’s not myself I’m letting down when I die – better not mess this up.

This all means that while yes, I enjoyed the game, the predominant feeling throughout was one of stress and emotional exhaustion.*  Matt pointed out to me early on (probably in an effort to reduce my stress) that hey, this is a zombie realism story, not Grand Theft Auto: Zombie Narratives! – no one’s getting a happy ending. Intellectually, I knew my answering truthfully about this or that when a lie might have been more diplomatic had no impact on the central events of the story – the gang would have taken that field trip to Murder Farms in the next chapter either way. But somehow I was still fretting halfway through Chapter 2 about my readiness to have Lee step into the trap, wishing I’d been more cautious, even though I knew it wouldn’t have mattered.

I would argue that’s what makes Walking Dead such a successful example of its genre. It combines the walking narrative of games like Dear Esther, Gone Home, or The Stanley Parable with just the right amount of active risk, creating multiple levels on which to build the player’s emotional stake in the experience. Lee’s narrative choices (and some choices in real-time) shape how the main, unavoidable events of each chapter play out. But by providing the possible (if temporary) dead ends of in-chapter death, the game also gives you agency stakes in progression through those central events. If Lee dies, he’s not ever going to make it to Savannah. Even what coding dictates as the only path forward thus becomes, in a sense, the responsibility of the player. And while it can be intense, I found the result very rewarding.

*In retrospect, this feeling was heightened considerably by its being my first experience with a controller in almost a decade. When I play the second season now, the anxiety is less, the stakes feel a bit lower; I attribute a lot of that to my increased (though still limited) competence with the controller. But I also think Lee’s story was more intense in many ways as well. For all she drove me in Season One, I’m just not as connected to Clementine yet.