An irresponsible splurge recently had me picking up one of those HTC Vives and so I’ve been lost in a wonderland of Virtual Reality. I’ll write up an article some time about my experiences with VR but for now I’d like to write about one particular game, the recently-released Accounting by William Pugh (of Stanley Parable) and Justin Roiland (of Rick and Morty). Don’t consider this to be a review, but rather a jumping off point for a discussion about decision-making and player responsibility in games. Actually, no wait, I’ll give a short one-sentence review of Accounting right now. It’s very entertaining and terribly fun, but I don’t know if I would even call it a game.
Justin Roiland has become a big evangelist for VR and Accounting is the first release for his new VR game company Squanchtendo. The game was released for free and I downloaded and played it through shortly after it was made available. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the end of the game, including the time spent on much of the standard VR behaviours such as wandering about the environment, slowly examining particular items and throwing physics objects at NPCs. For someone not indulging in these activities the game would take maybe 10 minutes. After this there would be no replay value due to the extremely linear nature of the game; you move from set location to location, with one or two actions to do at each, and with only one way to proceed onwards.
I’m not one to complain too heavily about a free game. Indeed I shouldn’t because I very much enjoyed playing it. The environments were pretty and fleshed out with interesting custom-made content. The humour is legit and having both William Pugh and Justin Roiland simultaneously shouting at you is equally hilarious and bewildering. It was a good experience, I played it together with my partner and we had fun.
Yet I’d describe it more as an experience than a game, since there was a pronounced lack of actual gameplay mechanics. You have what could be considered the VR minimum requirements in that you can move around, pick up objects, throw them, push buttons. It’s simple and intuitive but outside of what are essentially user interface mechanics, there are no higher-level gameplay mechanics at work. You have no win condition, no puzzles to solve, no systems to master, no score to track, no novel interactions between elements, no strategy, no decision making and no resource allocating. According to the classical definitions of what a game is, Accounting can hardly be said to be one at all. Of course, even releasing a product at all for the new and untested world of VR (within a relatively short time period, too) is a strong effort in itself, and the large amount of content that needs to be created is likely to take up the majority of a small development studio’s resources. Is the game’s extreme linearity and limited gameplay a property of this new field of VR trying to find its feet?
Well I’d say it’s probably not the case when I look at the previous game by William Pugh’s studio, Crows Crows Crows, which is the also-free Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald, a game with none of those three items actually appearing in the game at any point. Here we see the same game design at play, although for a standard PC game instead of one aimed for Virtual Reality. You move from room to room in a guided fashion, following a very strict linear progression set to a predetermined schedule. There is an ever-present narrator that reacts to some actions you take and blames you for things going wrong. You progress the story with strictly defined and minimal actions such as pushing a button or picking up an item. The game is also similar to Accounting in that it’s hilarious and the voice acting is just perfect. It’s just genuinely fun to play. The game is also similar to Accounting in that it’s an extremely linear experience with virtually no replay value. There are very few incidental interactions aside from those progressing the game, with those that you do find similar to easter eggs that the game provides often-hilarious acknowledgement for finding. But you never have any real sense of agency or really any sense that you can influence the game around you in any meaningful way at all.
Why were games like Dr Langeskov and Accounting made if they contain so little of the user agency that makes gaming so special when compared to other media? What are the games trying to do? It can’t be about sharing a story because there’s very little overarching story actually present. I’d say that they’re instead about trying to share an experience with the player. The game’s designer envisions a scenario that is hilarious, or absurd, or interesting and intends to immerse the player into it. Really this is a noble goal, and in the case of Accounting is actually a great use of the unique properties of VR. In fact, this type of experience might have been waiting for VR to come along. Being immersed fully into an environment does much to enhance the scripted experience in many ways, including the delivery of the dialogue, the timing of the story beats and the focus of the player’s attention. The simplistic grab-and-drop mechanics match perfectly to the standard VR controls. Even if I look down on the linearity of the game, many other players may overlook this shortcoming in favour of taking in the experience of it all.
“Now we get to my complaints about the game,” I say, as though I haven’t been complaining for this entire article. But whereas I was critical of the games qua games, yet was happy to accept and enjoy them as being experiences, now I have an issue that definitions can’t clear up. These games share a lack of true player agency that forbid all deviations from the precise actions that progress you along a linear path. Fine. But then the games later hold you responsible for these actions and then the issue comes right to the forefront. You are criticised, or guilted, or characters react in shock to what you’ve done. In fact the name Accounting is chosen on this theme, in that you perform a heinous deed at each set piece and then have to face an accounting for your actions. But these actions were never really a decision in the first place. These actions are the only things presented to you, they are the only way to proceed, and the game will patiently wait for eternity until you take them. Should a tree demon be allowed to criticise me for my actions under these conditions? When they are actions without any alternatives except to turn off the game? Needless to say that these criticisms don’t cause me to be actually offended in any way. None of it is real. But when a character (or the narrator) berates me for doing something that was never really a decision then this interaction feels forced upon me and I disassociate from it, as it feels empty of any real meaning.
Compare this to the final mission of Command and Conquer 3, where you have the choice of unleashing the overly-devastating Liquid Tiberium Bomb on your enemies, or otherwise taking the time to defeat them the gruelling, old-fashioned way. If you use the bomb you win the mission and then your superior officer excoriates you for the mass civilian casualties that resulted. You can feel guilt for what has happened or defend your actions as the way to bring a terrible war to a swift end (perhaps a historical analogue) but either way you accept them as your actions because the game gives you a real decision and this gives you an ownership of the decision that makes the officer’s criticism have genuine impact.
Yet also compare this to the excellent Spec Ops: The Line, the video game that sees you plunge a ruined city further into chaos and commit war crimes as you progress through the game’s also-linear story. In this game you are confronted by twisted wreckage and charred corpses as the results of your actions, with subordinates growing gradually bolder at questioning your leadership until the point of mutiny. Your character pushes ever further into denial, claiming that the actions were forced upon him and he had no choice, but as the player you feel like a monster for the actions you’ve taken. However whether Captain Walker is right or not in claiming that he had no choice, it’s certainly true that you, the player, have no choice. The story just doesn’t progress until you commit these war crimes, and there are no alternate paths by which they could be avoided (indeed the plot relies on these war crimes). These are the same conditions that I faced in Accounting but whereas I criticised them earlier, here Spec Ops gets a free pass. I wonder about the source of this apparent double-standard.
I suppose the important factor in Spec Ops, at least for me, is that the game is completely aware of what it is doing. The thoughtless goal of Captain Walker to achieve progress at any price is the central theme of the game and so the game’s story, dialogue and important interactions are designed with this goal continually in mind. The game adopts its theme consciously and mindfully, and sets out to demonstrate the unintended consequences of a man fighting against a series of progressive adversities without stopping to consider the bigger picture, or to consider whether he should even be fighting or not. There is an engineered attempt to foster the player’s empathy towards Captain Walker by mirroring his situation. The player follows commands on screen just as Walker follows commands from his superiors. Walker kills perceived adversaries simply for existing in his way, just as computer gamers have unquestioningly done to video game adversaries for decades. The player takes the questionable actions presented to him because he thinks they are the only way to further the game’s story, and Captain Walker takes the actions because he thinks are the only way to further his mission. Walker is told that the atrocities would never have occurred if he had simply stopped his three-man crusade, and the player is presented with consequences that would not have occurred if he had simply stopped as well, by which I mean stopped playing the game.
Needless to say, Accounting has none of this deliberate thought in its design, but then again it doesn’t try to and shouldn’t be expected to. It’s a comedy game, and perhaps a very successful one due to being very funny and well-delivered. But it’s just not funny enough to prevent me from raising an eyebrow when a character harangues me for something I had no choice about. I’m not offended, but I’m not really interested either. I suppose the previous paragraph takes a long time to say that I don’t mind such unavoidable criticism if the game consciously adopts it as a deliberate theme and incorporates it into its design. If the game doesn’t assume this responsibility, and if it doesn’t provide me with any alternatives for avoiding a questionable action, then it falls flat when it begins criticising me for it.
Ideally, a game should give the player legitimate agency about the important decisions during its progression. This agency is part of what makes games so special when compared to traditional forms of storytelling. Near the end of Accounting a cartoonish courtroom judge questions me on why I murdered the king. I’m earnestly wondering this myself, and it pulls me a little out of the game.