Home > Musings > Self-reflection on artistic messages in my games

Self-reflection on artistic messages in my games

May 26th, 2012

I’m preparing a talk for the Indie Games Expo in London 4th June on “Art in the @: Lessons from Roguelikes on Pure Artistic Gameplay”. It’s related to something I’ve discussed on rgrd in the past, and something I’m hoping to speak with Jeff Lait about on Roguelike Radio in the future. How does the pure gameplay deliver an artistic message? I’ve consciously put work into this in Broken Bottle and some other games, with the specific thought of conveying emotions like guilt and despair, but without wanting to give a direct message. However in preparing the presentation for next week and reflecting on my own works I’ve come to some startling realisations about common threads in all of my games, even ones I thought I had designed as pure games.

In every work I’ve made power has a cost, and is labelled as dangerous or outright evil. Most of them do not have simple bump to attack, the traditional “easy power” in roguelikes that you can use for free. In most of them you are weak and fragile, able to die very easily. And in most there is zero or minimal progression, though the world becomes harder. A breakdown:

  • In Gruesome you are easily killed at any moment, and you can’t assault enemies directly.
  • Toby the Trapper is about an exceptionally weak character, who again cannot attack directly. There are more powerful abilities later in the game, but they are hard to use and dangerous to yourself. The ultimate power found in the game is outright deadly, and if used will produce negative endings. A high kill count also tends to give more negative ending text.
  • Unstoppable gives you ultimate power from the start, but with the caveat that this power will come back and destroy you.
  • Broken Bottle gives a cost to melee attacks, with stronger weapons demanding more stamina to attack. Alcohol is empowering in the game, restoring stamina and a little health and letting you attack children, but the theme of the game makes it clear that this is a very negative thing indeed. Part of the mechanics of the game is to test whether the player will become “addicted” to this power cycle or will wilfully shun the alcohol.
  • Run from the Shadow has you constantly on the run from an initially unassailable foe. All powers in the game are represented by negative icons (lies, denial, passing blame, etc) and the ending for achieving victory through power is meant to disturb.
  • Harrowed makes you more powerful than the enemies, but with their superior numbers death is inevitable. There is no winning in the game. The idea was to give a feeling of a lion being brought down by wolves.
  • sick peter makes you unable to attack and has you weaken as the game progresses. Even moving costs a resource, meaning there’s nothing powerful you can do. The game deliberately goes against the usual feel of WW2 games glorifying war, instead giving the real experience many people had at the time.
  • Rogue Rage gives immense powers, but in short bursts, and the theme of the game portrays them negatively. The basic bump attack costs a resource.

Now it could just be that I like to make challenging games, and these features all fit with that, but it does so happen that I have strong feelings about power and its misuse. I’m very anti-war and anti nuclear weapons. I also believe that the gratification in violence in many games is a very negative thing. But I never realised until I sat back and reflected on my games that these feelings have made their way into the mechanics of all my games. With games like Toby the Trapper I never intended to have any artistic message, but I’ve ended up incorporating these reflections of myself without even realising it.

I wonder if other developers have this? When we make mechanics, are there subconscious parts of ourselves we put into our games? It’s an interesting thought…

  1. June 7th, 2012 at 09:55 | #1

    @Brazen Artifice
    You should know that I do a lot of writing for ToME4 and there is *much* worse stuff in the game than the assassin lord. Lots of difficult decisions, grey areas, etc.

    I think you should man up and face these things! It’s good that you can feel guilty in a game, and you should feel happy in yourself that you feel like that and don’t just ignore your emotions. Note that in Broken Bottle you can choose the good path, but it is much harder. This is the ways games should be in my opinion.

  2. June 7th, 2012 at 04:11 | #2

    I only discovered your blog very recently, and I was impressed to see how fast you could write a playable roguelike. Then I looked into which of your games I wanted to download and try out, and instantly saw how depressing they all sounded, at least from your written descriptions. As in, it would make me miserable to play a game with such themes, rather than the more typical “heroic” games.

    So while I was impressed with your ability, I felt like the games themselves would not appeal to me. Which just goes to show how much game design is like art (“I like what I like”). And how small independent artists like yourself can explore themes that “mainstream” companies cannot. I play roguelikes for the fun of exploration and finding cool treasures (the “hunter-gatherer” imperative, I guess!). But a short, well themed game has the potential to make me think, in ways a bigger game cannot.

    It was interesting to see that you hadn’t noticed the themes around “power corrupting” that you’ve been exploring in your games. Sometimes we don’t notice the subtleties of what we are doing til we have to teach it to someone else. Or describe it at a conference.

    A pen and paper rpg that explores similar themes is “Violence: the roleplaying game of egregious and repulsive bloodshed” by Greg Costikyan/Designer X and published by Hogshead. It is available at http://www.costik.com/Violence%20RPG1.pdf I couldn’t bring myself to read the whole thing, but it served its purpose in making me think about the us-and-them attitude in most rpgs. I’ve been playing rpgs since the late seventies, and very rarely does a game ask me to empathise with the goblins in the dungeon I’m “clearing out”.

    If someone wrote a game about the highland “clearances” in Scotland, what moral player would choose to play the role of the mercenaries who were paid by the Scottish Lairds to drive their own tenant farmer families out of their cottages, and burn down the buildings so they could not return? Surely we’d all want to be the brave resistance fighters rebelling against such cruel and tyrannical overlords. But give us the trappings of high medieval chivalry, and we’ll happily don plate armour and two-handed sword and slaughter the poor kobold who is wearing scraps of untanned leather and waving a bit of burnt stick.

    Not that I’m immune. I’ve been playing TOME4 a lot lately, and love the beautiful graphics, and the cool magic devices, and I get my Dwarven Bulwark kitted up in his best tank-like armour as soon as possible, even while killing harmless white mice. But I really had to think about whether I wanted to agree to obey the Leader of the Assassins, even at the cost of character’s life. “It’s only a game”, I told myself as I agreed to do his bidding, but I still felt dirty. My later characters have all tried to kill him instead, to make up for the stain on my soul for doing something that felt so wrong.

    So thank you for exploring your own attitudes to violence and power in such a public and though-provoking way, even if I personally will never feel emotionally thick-skinned enough to play those games.

  3. June 6th, 2012 at 13:43 | #3

    This empathy and moral imperative only works if enemies feel like living beings, not obstacles which are a part of the game mechanics. I know that you have tried, but somehow it did not work on me…

    The approach in Iji is that violence seems to be rewarded, but actually is not. You get XP for killing monsters, and become more poweful, but actually, the only thing this additional XP helps with is killing monsters. If you just ignore everything, you get a much nicer game. In-game text is very different, and pacifists get friends who help against bosses.

    Interestingly, from what I have read, it was not designed as a game with a pacifist message from the start: the author did write lots of text for the game, and noticed that it is possible to win the game as a pacifist and the text did not match.

  4. June 6th, 2012 at 11:41 | #4

    Broken Bottle is far from perfect, and all I can say is I tried. The alcohol is meant to help against the enemies – you’re supposed to *want* to drink, paralleling gameplay optimisation with the ease of slipping into an addictive behavioural pattern. One problem I find with a lot of games is that they reward good behaviour with power-ups or materials, but this doesn’t happen in real life. It’s the bad behaviour that rewards in the short-term, and it’s only our moral imperative and empathy for others that stops us. Games should rely on players *wanting* to be good, not making them good because its rewards them.

    Did you even drink alcohol to kill piranhas? That’s bad, man :(

  5. June 6th, 2012 at 04:01 | #5

    Have you played Iji? It is a platformer about fighting aliens, so probably not your style, but I love its original take on several conventions commonly found in such games. Violence is one of them, it is your choice whether you attack the aliens or not, and the outcome depends on your decisions. I don’t want to spoil anything, and your mileage may vary, but the pacifistic message it delivered to me was very strong.

    I have to say that I did not get such a strong message from Broken Bottle. It is hard to exactly say why Iji succeeded for me and Broken Bottle failed, but even though I am strongly against alcohol personally, I feel that the game did not have enough things to say that this is a wrong thing. Enemies felt like obstacles, not like live creatures, and alcohol only helped against them.

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