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In Age of Decadence1, a 2015 RPG, before you even create your character, you are informed by the game itself, that “it is a very different game from what you are used to. Its world is hard and unforgiving, and it really doesn’t take much to end up dead. In fact, it’s painfully easy[to die], especially if you try to play the game the way you normally play RPGs, when you role-play Superman, able to handle any challenge and smite evildoers by the dozens.” This portion of the whole statement (which is quite interesting in its entirety as an object of analysis) makes certain suppositions, namely that:
1. The player is used to a certain type of computer role-playing games, all of which are very different from AoD.
2. Those games feature worlds that are not hard and unforgiving, in contrast to that of AoD.
3. In the other games it is not easy for the Character to die.
4. There is a certain way to play those other RPGs, and their players follow this way of playing. This way of playing, however, is not further analyzed in the statement, though it is implied in the assumption that in all other RPGs you role-play something akin to Superman, namely a character extremely more powerful than all the others in the world, that overcomes both challenges and enemies without breaking a sweat.
5. In other games you fight and slay evildoers, creatures that engage in evil acts.
Those assumptions/suppositions suggest a certain level of elitism on the writer’s side, as well as a sense of scorn for “nowadays RPGs”. Elitism is evident as the writer groups indiscriminately all modern RPGs in a category which he endows with a host of general characteristics that are obviously repellent to him, and though they are only implied, are assumed to be common knowledge for RPG players. Beyond stuffing all modern RPGs in a category, the writer assumes that the players of those games are forced to a certain way of playing them, implying that there is no other way for them to be played (though the way is not made explicit beyond the vaguest references and allusions), that their easiness is so compelling that players are helpless to resist this unspecified mode of going through the game world.
There is much to be criticised about this stance, but such a thing is beyond the scope of this text. What I want to accentuate here is the fact that the game recognizes and directly addresses the player as a gamer, as a person that has played other RPGs, and beyond that, it explicitly recognizes the existence of a universe of other games (the meta-game) and elaborates on it, a thing going contrary to what more other RPGs try to avoid, namely the breaking of player immersion via direct reference to his Player ontological status.
Beyond that, as it becomes evident during play, AoD requires the player to proceed through the game as a meta-gaming entity, namely, it is almost mandatory for the player to know beforehand what choices to make as far as both stat/skill point distribution and dialogue choices are concerned. In order to have this knowledge, the player must either use a large number of save files, or restart the game a number of times, so as to know what to expect, and what are the viable choices she can make. It is a (from first-hand experience) fact that if you don’t make the right point distribution in skills you can easily face dead-end situations (combat and other skill checks that are impossible to beat), not only during the first part of the game, but also much later on, in which case you either load a much older save and replay a large part of the game with a more optimized build, or you just restart. If one does not want to frequently reload/restart, he is forced with two options: either check a walkthrough guide, or use cheating. The game’s structure is such that it leaves no space (apart from improbable luck) for not using a meta-gaming tool: the save/load/restart routine, the out-of-game walkthrough, and/or a trainer hack. One may argue that the save/load/restart routine is an in-game feature, but that does not prevent it from being a meta-gaming tool when it is used as a mandatory-for-overcoming-challenges one. More will be written later on the status of the save/load/restart mechanisms.
Meta-thinking and RPGs
Meta-thinking in RPGs, in the context of this text, is the thinking «outside the game world frame” of the person who plays the game, namely thinking as a Player and not as an internal part of the game world, as a Character. I will briefly elaborate on the impossibility (at least for the moment) of tautological (on an ontological level) identification between Player and Character (which differs from what is referred to as total immersion in Brown & Cairns or spatial presence in Wirth et.al., as will be discussed below).
If, hypothetically, one was completely identified with his in-game representation, then some things are to be mentioned, depending on the game world’s universal (physical, social, mental, etc) laws: -If the game world was presupposed as being a world in which some general facts of our reality were also dominant there (namely the irreversible existence of consequences for an act, them being legal repercussions (incarceration, execution), social (isolation, scorn), emotional, physical, mental, and so on) then if the Player was completely identified with the Character, he would experience this kind of gaming as a real-life activity that would create in him the same reactions and thoughts, in the same degree, as if he experienced the in-game situations in our world – anxiety, real fear, major excitement, etc. In fact, it would not be trivial for someone to choose to start playing, having in mind the experience-to-come, as well as the possible (real-life to him) consequences. -If, on the other hand, the game world was ruled by other laws of cause and effect, or not ruled by them at all, then the completely identified player would have to undergo a radical change of mind in order to be totally immersed in it, accepting the reality of totally alien cosmological laws.
In either case, the Player would have to forget the existence of the real world (and consequently its rules, if they were not similar to our own world’s), or at least to push it back to an imaginary domain, accepting the reality of the game world and also, in the second case, its different set of natural and social rules as real. Once in the game, the mindset would be perhaps akin to that of dreaming, if total identification is to be expected. Like in dreaming, one could sometimes be vaguely aware that this world/reality is not the real one, but in most cases this feeling would be hidden beyond direct consciousness. In both hypothetical instances mentioned, the gaming experience -as we now know it- is transcended/discarded, in favour of a much more intense real-life experience, on which we can only hypothesize for the moment. Thus, a Player cannot be completely identified with the Character, unless he undergoes a radical thought and perception change, which for the moment is unattainable, as far as contemporary digital entertainment is concerned.
Meta-thinking thus, up to a certain degree, is a normal and essential part of the gaming experience as we currently know it. Most of us enjoy the fact that we can try and do things in-game that we are hesitant or just unable to do in the real world, and (most importantly) with almost non-existent consequences in the case of failure, virtual apprehension, death, etc. It is true that one could argue that if she could live such an experience, she may well choose to undergo it, but as pointed out above, this would be a real-life one, transcending the gaming genre. The fact remains that meta-thinking is something we all do in a certain degree, be it the acknowledgement of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, or just the knowledge that we play a game. It is true also that there are gradual stages to it, quantitative and qualitative variances, which may well shape (or undermine one could claim) the gaming experience, in varied degrees.
It is obvious, that since we are not, as Players, parts of a game world’s society (or societies) for an amount of time large enough to make us knowledgeable about it, we must learn certain basic things about it, its physical laws and mechanisms on the very least, via out-of-the-game-world sources: the game manual, site or guides (though in the first two cases information may be disguised as documents belonging to the game world – letters, bestiaries, journals, etc), a tutorial (which is usually implemented via advice that comes “from outside” the game world – although certain games (like the Ultima series) suppose that the Character is a newcomer to the world, and thus implement the learning process from inside the game world), and the options menu (the key bindings in the case that no tutorial exists and the manual is not present or does not mention them). These sources are usually necessary in order to not being completely lost in the game world upon entrance in it. This, along with our knowledge/experience from previous, similar games (which is the deeper level of meta-knowledge, one we cannot consciously discard from our being), consists the most basic meta-thinking level, one that is almost impossible for a game to be rid of. From there on, however, all other meta-knowledge of the game world is (or at least should be) optional, as far as the Player’s experience of the game is. This means that ideally one should not be forced to the use of knowledge gained via meta-thinking mechanisms, even Save/Load/Restart ones, in order to successfully navigate the whole, or at least the main part of the game. While most of us have learned to avert our eyes to the meta-thinking nature (which will be analyzed below) of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, this does not mean that it is not there. The fact that one can learn of the outcome of a decision and then use it to make this decision, is (almost universally) outside the logic of any game world.
A book containing lore about the empire of Tamriel, presented as originating from the game world (from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion special edition)
Immersion and Meta-thinking
Ernest Adams refers to the term “suspension of disbelief, as used by the game industry, that has come to mean immersion: losing track of the outside world. Immersion is the feeling of being submerged in a form of entertainment, or rather, being unaware that you are experiencing an artificial world. When you are immersed in a book, movie, or game, you devote all your attention to it and it seems real. You have lost track of the boundaries of the magic circle. The pretended reality in which you are immersed seems as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world.”. I will add that you never lose track of the realness of the real world, something implied in the “as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world” part. He then demarcates (at least) 3 types of gaming immersion: tactical, strategical, and narrative. By immersion I mostly mean in this text narrative immersion, which is “the feeling of being inside a story, completely involved and accepting the world and events of the story as real. It is the same immersion as that produced by a good book or movie, but in video games, the player is also an actor within the story”2.
Brown & Cairns on the other hand do not go for a strict, narrow definition of immersion, but approach it as a dynamic, three-leveled procedure, which consists in the Player’s engagement, engrossment, and total immersion 3. What is of interest here is total immersion, which is defined as Presence. Wirth et.al. regard Spatial Presence as “a two-dimensional construct. [Its] core dimension is the sensation of being physically situated within the spatial environment portrayed by the medium (“self-location”). The second dimension refers to the perceived possibilities to act: An individual who is experiencing Spatial Presence will perceive only those action possibilities that are relevant to the mediated space, but will not be aware of actions that are linked to her/his real environment [the manipulation of game controls]. However, the list of phenomena defining Spatial Presence does not need to include the user’s experience of nonmediation, i.e., the deactivation of cognitive information that defines a given situation as a media exposure [in other words the acknowledgement that we play a game is compatible with Spatial Presence]”4.
Moving on from these definitions, the fact remains that the immersion of the player as a (usually advertised) feature of games is in opposite terms to, and negatively influenced by meta-thinking (i.e. thinking as a being outside the game world). As was explained above, total, tautological-level immersion is contrary to the contemporary concept of video-gaming, as well as our machines’ capabilities.
Role-playing games in general are on especially bad terms with meta-thinking, since immersion in a role is a desired effect of engagement with the game, explicitly implied in the genre title. In fact, in tabletop RPGs, meta-thinking from players is frowned upon in many a rulebook. The fact, however, that computer RPGs implement on the very least the Restart mechanism, is the first crack in the immersion armor. From there on, whatever detracts from the Player’s suspension of disbelief (as the immersion in the game world can alternatively be called), obviously expands the cracks.
The interesting thing is that we consider meta-knowledge an enemy of immersion because we take the Character’s way of gathering knowledge to be similar to our own, and restricted by the same things. In other words, we tend to consider meta-knowledge about the game world to be “realistically” unobtainable by a Character, because a Player cannot obtain (to our knowledge at least) meta-knowledge about the world she lives in, namely the real world. She may well make assumptions made on probability, intuition, or any other kind of prediction, yet she can never be sure about some future actions, unless she performs them, unless they transform from future to past events. More important than the meta-knowledge content, however, is the mode of acquiring it. A Player (or a human in general) cannot acquire (to our knowledge at least) knowledge from a source that is not part of the real world; we probably cannot even think of a way of how this could happen, apart from nesting our world as a game world of a higher order “real world” (which only transfers the problem to another level, and does not solve it), or doing a similar correspondence. Thus, we tend to suppose that this kind of “knowledge-source” restriction applies also to the game world, mostly because we just cannot think of an out-of-the-world way that we can obtain it, and consequently, if our Character obtains knowledge through meta-thinking, our suspension of disbelief weakens.
The meta-thinking essence of Save/Load/Restart mechanisms
As mentioned above, the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms are one of the earlier and most integrated meta-thinking (“I know that I can try again and again, that this is a part of the game world’s structure”) features of electronic games. First and foremost, they are obviously grounded, in the purest sense, in replayability; if a game could not even be replayed it would be a product which is to be experienced only once, losing much in the way of long term value (imagine that you only have one try on the game – who would invest in an experience that could well end before you could get to know the basic mechanics?).
These mechanisms are integrated in the game, as behind-the-scenes mechanisms, ones that are non-perceivable by an entity belonging to the world in question, just like dice rolls, and exact numerical stats and skill values. Knowing that one can always load a previous version of the world, opens up possibilities to the player which are unimaginable to a denizen of a world that does not contain such mechanisms “in front of the scenes”. It is quite probable that human beings would behave much differently if they had the option of loading a previous version of the world, with them retaining the knowledge of what happened in the temporal space between save and load, taking more chances, optimizing (as far as their goals are concerned) their actions and choices. In a lesser degree, the knowledge of how other world mechanisms work would also affect the behaviour. Imagine that we knew what dice is rolled about the outcome of an action we can take in the real world, and what exact modifier would be the result of any supplementary action we could make to influence the result of that primary action.
Save/Load can be used in two ways: a. to break up the gaming experience in manageable temporal segments, in which case the course through the game is fragmented, but fragments do not overlap with one another, and b. to re-experience a temporal snapshot of the game world, in which case the the course through the game is again fragmented, but this time the fragments overlap with one another. The overlapping that occurs in the second case, can be translated into player meta-knowledge about the game world, a knowledge that is non-existent in a world of perceived objective temporal linearity.
Player as the meta-thinking accumulator of knowledge
In games with normal Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, accumulation of knowledge about the game world usually happens via successive “passes” of it with a multitude of Player incarnations. What I mean here with “incarnation” is the combination of in-game Player vessels (be it different Characters or just the same one being loaded again from a previous save file/point) and the Player personality, experience, and knowledge. An incarnation thus is the sum of: i. shell (the Character) and ii. driving force/invoked consciousness (the Player). The Player is an entity that by default can not interact directly with the game world, being able to do so only via the Character, which in the case of loading/restarting may, from the standpoint of an in-game entity, be the same being that existed in the pre-load/pre-restart game world state (since from in-game these mechanisms are imperceptible). But in fact, each Character incarnation is a vehicle for accumulation of knowledge/experience about the world and its mechanics. It follows that the Character (i.e. the shell) can be considered as a tool which is unrestricted by temporal restrictions, gradually turning the Player entity from an explorer-of-a-newfound-land to a citizen-in-secret of the world. Each of the Character incarnations is, from a phenomenological point of view, the same entity ontologically, crystallizing each time in a more knowledgeable entity aspect. In the end, trial and error reign supreme as a mode of knowing the in-game world, at least in traditional cRPGs.
An interesting thought is that after loading a part of the game that we have already been through previously, a strange deja-vu would not be amiss to both the Character and the NPCs participating in any sort of interaction (conversation, combat, etc) with it, any interaction that had already taken place before loading. This, however, is something quite weird to be implemented, it being antithetical to the base meaning of Save/Load: that you load the world as it exactly was on the moment of saving – obviously games with elements of randomness in each loading are a different case. That exactness is supposed to include everything shell-wise (even the Character’s journal/stats/choices) apart from the Player, who is now (after loading) empowered with the knowledge of a situation (with previously unfavorable outcome usually, but not always so – for instance there are times in which we load to experience the outcome of a different conversation option) via a new incarnation.
The interesting thing about the Player is his being an entity that, besides the in-game-world experience avenue, also collects power/knowledge/understanding of the game world through the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, as well as through out-of-game resources. It is an entity that can change without spending any temporal currency in-game, something quite unfathomable from a real-life point of view. For how could anyone change in any aspect, if no time was consumed towards this change? It is a truth, that in order for a being to change in even the most non-significant part of itself, it would have to experience something (mentally or otherwise). This something, in order to be experienced, must be placed upon a temporal terrain, since we cannot make a thought in a zero quantity temporal space. Even an apparently spontaneous thought takes an infinite-small amount of time to form itself and to be registered by the thinker. Or, in other words, we cannot think of/about anything without this thinking taking us even an infinite-small amount of time. Thus appears a paradox, from the in-game perspective: there is no “material” impact emerging from the accumulation of knowledge via the meta-thinking avenues ( in other words, no currency of any kind is traded for knowledge), aside from certain niche cases (Dark Souls for instance, or Darkest Dungeon), and apart from player time – a currency whose concept is beyond the game world, or rather, outside it.
Tangential upon the previous discussion is also the concept of min-maxing, namely optimizing the Character, stat-wise, and/or the party, member-wise. Creating an optimized character means essentially that you know what skills/stats/build are necessary/obligatory for finishing the game, or even for experiencing most of its content. This knowledge obviously comes from either previous experience with the game world, or from out-of-game sources. Min-maxing, as a concept, is pure, cold rationality; all aesthetic, emotional, or just whimsical preferences of the Player are ignored in favour of an almost cynical efficiency. Adopting this concept reveals a Player mindset which possibly favours optimization of their playing time, the least challenge possible (even in hard difficulty levels), and generalizing, probably favours solid goals and their overcoming, over a fluid and somehow intuitively articulated experience of the game world. Min-maxers may well be modernity incarnated, as far as video-games players go.
2. Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest, 2010 ↩