Nothing is true; everything is permitted or: BotRT 1

I have a general rule with regards to games: if the game pushes you to do something, you should do it.

I have a bad habit of playing games optimally. That isn’t to say I am good at games — I’m not — but I tend to play in the way the game most pushes me to play. This breaks a lot of games and in many cases highlights poor design and makes for trying experiences, but I can’t help myself. It’s what the game wants me to do.

I often think back to the cult of personality surrounding Skyrim and other Bethesda games. I think I’ve spent a collective two thousand hours in between the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games alone, but each time I play I’m met with a frustrating conclusion. I don’t really get them. New Vegas, though developed by Obsidian, is one of my personal guilty pleasure games. I like to impose rules and roleplay regulations on my characters to make the game more challenging or interesting. I think most people do this, as the games are about “making your own story”. Unfortunately, I feel like these games do a pretty bad job of conveying this to the player.

There’s a discourse in game design currently focused on whether or not Optimal Routing is a bad thing. Optimal Routing is an emergent property of game design where, due to various mechanical and structural balances, certain playstyles or mechanics become the ‘best’ or most efficient means of achieving a game’s projected goal or intention. That is to say if a game’s main goal is to get from point A to point B, the item or loadout or mechanic that allows for it to be done the fastest way is, player be damned, the Optimal Route. Many people deny the Optimal Route as an active rule while playing under the ideology that it’s about their experience rather than whatever the game offers, but I struggle with this idea. Games are a participatory medium, they require one to understand the rules (or how to break them) and be somewhat compromising in their ability to provide an experience. Game Studies scholars from Huizinga to Callois and Juuls would agree, I think, with this notion. Unfortunately this means taking what a game offers, even if it causes harm to the “game” environment itself.

So as I trek through the frozen tundra of Skyrim I am met with a distinct choice: Do I impose rules on myself, outside of the game, to have an interesting experience, or do I play as a sneaky argonian with a bow so I can murder everyone, finish every quest, and explore every nook and cranny as efficiently and undisturbed. This (brace yourself) ludonarrative dissonance between what the game offers and what the player perceives the game as offering is always frustrating. I read reviews heaping praise on Skyrim’s ability to create unique experiences, but I play a game where choices are invalidated by the game’s overall balance. Countless editorials have been written about how open-ended the game is and how vast the agency is, but I can’t help but think those are praises about the players rather than about the game. I can’t help but see the wireframe as I play games which, for better or for worse, gives me a unique perspective on them.

I try to take every game as they come without putting much focus on how they’re supposed to be, or what the developers described them to be. Instead, I pay attention to what the game presents to me. Nothing about the game is established until it establishes itself; everything the game allows and encourages is permitted. Even the stuff that makes it worse.

What I’m saying is a game and its player are different, and people often fall into one camp or the other when it comes to rules. I believe that the rules of a game should be respected even if they break the game or make it a worse experience, as that gives me a more pure understanding of the design and structure of said game. In a perfect world, this leads me to solutions and the possible creation of better games. Others fall into the category that believes the player dictates the playing experience, and that its up to the player to take steps to make an experience better. I don’t think this is necessarily helpful to games, and it feels like a band-aid to me, but I won’t deny that these people have valuable and interesting experiences due to their ideology in playing games.

I think the best games often strike a balance of providing player agency whilst maintaining rules to create a valuable experience on their own. That is to say I believe things like Demon’s Souls or Cubivore are valuable because they can exist in a vacuum, played by robots, yet still provide unique gameplay experiences where the player gains choice. I can’t really say the same thing about Skyrim, but then again maybe it’s just because I don’t like elves.

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