Writing Subversive Games: Pitfalls and Potentials

Mez Breeze

Posted filed under Experience.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

One rainy evening somewhere at the early end of 1997, I found myself hepped up on adrenaline while zigzagging through a dungeon. Even though I was being hunted through mazelike hallways by grappling-hook-flinging assailants, I still somehow managed to maintain my grasp on a large red flag and ebony nail gun.

…and thus was my introduction to “Capture the Flag” (CTF), a multiplayer game mod – or modification – of a tremendously popular video game called Quake. Although now considered outdated by contemporary First Person Shooter (FPS) standards, in its day Quake was considered highly influential, especially in relation to the concept of emergent gameplay.

Emergent gameplay occurs where players employ various workarounds – which are not necessarily scripted by the game’s creators – in order to further game progression. One such instance of emergent gameplay popularised by Quake players (but originating in Quake’s FPS precursor Doom) was the rocket jump.

The rocket jump allowed Quake players to utilise an in-game weapon in a quirky and unorthodox fashion: “rocket jumping is the technique of pointing a rocket launcher or other similar explosive weapon at the ground or at a wall then firing and jumping at the same time. The rocket’s explosion propels the player to greater heights and distances than otherwise possible. The aim of this technique is to reach areas that are either unreachable altogether, or unreachable from that position on the map quickly and/or efficiently.”

The Game Designer and Educator Warren Spector views games that produce emergent gameplay as “engines of perpetual novelty.” When participating in such novelties back in the 1990’s, I was struck by the subversive aspects of such player-directed (as opposed to strict developer guided) behaviours. I became intrigued by the idea that if a scripted game mechanic failed to work to a player’s satisfaction, that player could then effectively hijack such mechanics to suit their own agendas.

While I was racing around in multiplayer game environments rocket-jumping my way out of (and into) various shades of trouble, this idea of fiddling with (or subverting) the very mechanics of such a system was being mirrored in another of my creative practices termed mezangelle.

The initial development of mezangelle – a method of poetic writing influenced by, and incorporating, code – coincided with a steep learning curve involving programming and online communication. As David Prater says of mezangelle: “In an online world where more and more of us are exposed to the vagaries of computer code, Mezangelle chews up that code, parses it with human language and spits out art.” Mezangelle fuses traditional poetics, programming code, social commentary, and digital communiqué: it now manifests in all areas of my creative life, including my captivation with online gaming.

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In 1999, I fell headlong into the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game EverQuest. While learning the intricacies of the MMORPG genre, I happily reappropriated aspects of the game to suit my creative purposes, including the use of mezangelle during “Poetic Game Interventions”. This subversion of intended game pathways continued to evolve during my time playing World of Warcraft (both individually and as a member of The Third Faction Collective), and when crafting transmedia projects such as co-writing New Media Scotland’s Alternate Reality Game “Cryptic Nights/Alt.win.ning” in 2009.

In 2011, my level of involvement in subversive game development increased when Andy Campbell invited me to write the text for a literary (also termed “synthetic”) game. Andy is the driving force behind Dreaming Methods, a website described by the Times Educational Supplement as “a semi- cinematic, semi-literary blend… a distinctive voice that couldn’t be replicated in print.” Since 2011 Andy and I have worked together to produce The Dead Tower, #PRISOM and Pluto (which is currently in development). While writing for each of these non-conventional, or “anti”, games, we took great delight in crafting deliciously subversive angles for each storyworld.

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In The Dead Tower (or TDT), a player is presented with minimal cues concerning best ways to progress, where in-game navigation depends on deciphering instructions that are actually embedded directly into the game text. The challenge when writing the scripts for TDT included the insertion of textual clues without sacrificing aesthetic cohesion: function and mystique were deliberately blurred in order to increase a players’ curiosity.

When entering TDT, the player finds themselves enveloped by an ominous 3D landscape where phrase-snippets hang suspended in the claustrophobic terrain. The focal point in the landscape is a looming stone castle. As Leonardo Flores states: “Like the proverbial moth, the reader’s attention is drawn towards the brightest things around [in TDT]: white words float in the air, static or rotating. And the lines of mezangelle verse both heighten the dread by telling fragments of a ghostly narrative prefigured by the bus crash site the reader finds herself in, and soften the tone with hints about the interface that nudge the fourth wall.”

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While it can be fascinating to short cut, or at least heavily modify, many of the conventions – and muscle memory based habits – that traditional gamers expect as part of their gaming experience, it can be risky in terms of execution. Alterations to standard dynamics may impact significantly on a player’s overall sense of agency (the amount of perceived control a player experiences whilst in- game).

One significant challenge that subversive game writers face is the lack of financial/industry support for non-traditional, non-commercial games. A current example is the Australian Government’s decision to suddenly defund the Australian Interactive Games Fund, a fund that has help support the creation of many smaller scale games.

Another downside of writing for subversive storyworlds is the risk of alienating players who have had no, or little, customary gaming experience. There’s also the risk of frustrating expert gamers who might bristle at the reduced, or inverted, functionality – a significant challenge we faced when constructing #PRISOM.

#PRISOM is a synthetic reality game that’s set in a 3D space in true First Person Shooter style. Unlike standard FPS game creators, we actively attempted to repurpose a player’s ability to engage with the gamespace. When a player first enters #PRISOM, the navigation appears to mirror FPS conventions (space bar to jump, arrow keys and “wasd” to move, and c to crouch). However, as a player begins to move around the prison like environment, it becomes apparent that functional elements and subversions of these standard FPS actions are woven tightly together. Instances of this include some – but not all – of the travel platforms being marginally difficult to jump on, or when players seek to shift into areas that they assume are safe, but their movements instead trigger explosive glass walls.

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As a writer, juggling this game and “anti-game” orientation can be tricky. If you finely balance the writing alongside other subversive game variables/assets, you’ll create strong narrative(s) without sacrificing a player’s sense of agency (or reducing the likelihood of emergent gameplay instances), resulting in a world that successfully caters for a general sense of player fulfilment.

Regarding the overall benefits of writing subversive (or anti) games, the artist Alan Bigelow pinpoints just how delicate and important the results can be: “Thanks to #PRISOM, I am now successfully indoctrinated…This took a bit of navigation, but the payoff is definitely worth it. The environment is easy to get into, especially with the supporting audio, and once I got into the hang of what I was supposed to do…all went smoothly. I was actually entranced by the whole experience, and felt that I just HAD to get to the end. This is [a] most ambitious work…with a piece that delivers a political message within the framework of a game that is actually no game at all – it’s the serious business of where do we all go from here.”

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