Breaking From The Path

By Josh Snyder

break-001

Borderlands 2 may have ended up being an entirely different game if the developer would have allowed gamers to break the balance of the game.

One of the many changes the seventh generation of games brought forward was the ability to patch games post-release. Patches often fix or balance a gameplay mechanic or remove bugs that hinder gameplay. This has been both a blessing and curse – Fallout: New Vegas benefited greatly from the ability to fix issues that were not caught during testing, but at the same time it has allowed publishers to push out a game before it’s ready, such as the case with Assassin’s Creed Unity.

Despite the issues surrounding them, patches are ultimately great for video games, but their emergence has led to some unintended consequences – developers can be relentless with patching out bugs and exploits, sometimes to a fault. Despite some recent favorable words, Destiny has its flaws, and it is held back because developer Bungie, Inc. is hellbent on stamping out every exploit gamers discover, when that time could perhaps be better spent giving gamers what they want most – more content. Developer Gearbox Software upset many fans of Borderlands 2 when they patched two items – the Bee Shield and Conference Call, a shield-shotgun combination that gamers discovered allowed them to absolutely wreck bosses. The patch significantly decreased the power of that combination, so much so that many gamers stopped using it altogether.

For years I simply assumed that developers patching their games was always a good thing, and looked at instances such as the Bee Shield-Conference Call as the exception, not the rule. But what would happen if these discoveries gamers made, which can sometime alter the way in which a game is played, were allowed to exist? Are developers too quick and overzealous in determining what is a bug and, therefore, what needs to be fixed?

But recently, a lowly office employee named Stanley may have changed my mind – perhaps developers should allow players to break their games, and gamers should continue looking for ways to break the rules and laws of the digital realm.

(Politely) Break Stuff

First things first – this is not a call for gamers to cheat or to exploit a game in such a way that they are given resources unfairly. Cheats and exploits may be fine when playing a single player game, but they do impact the balance of a multiplayer game. Bungie has been aggressively targeting exploits in the end-game raids for Destiny, and though I would prefer they focused on content, I also agree that raids shouldn’t be easy to complete (or in some cases, to solo, since the focus of these raids is on teamwork and cooperation). I also feel that cheating in a cooperative game devalues the experience – I will forever look at my achievements for completing Mad Moxxi’s arena in the original Borderlands with regret, because my cooperative pals were all using modded weapons to “speed up” the process.

That said, gamers should be breaking their games. To break a game is to push the boundaries and limits of the game world, to do things the developers may not have intended, but to do so without resorting to tactics found outside of the game. The best example of this is, again, the Bee Shield-Conference Call from Borderlands 2. This combination was found within the game, and no mods or cheats were necessary to take advantage of its full usefulness. It was unbalanced, but it was within the rules of the world in which it took place – players found this combination through extensive trial and error, a core element to the Borderlands series that developer Gearbox promotes heavily.

What value is there in letting gamers essentially tear apart all of a developer’s hard work? Why push the limits of a world and bend its rules? Why encourage this? By allowing gamers to experiment, to explore and interact with their games in ways not intended, developers may discover new insights into game design, and players may find new adventures to partake in.

Employee 427

break-003

The Stanley Parable begins with an empty office, but there is plenty to explore.

There are many concepts explored in The Stanley Parable, a first-person adventure game developed by Galactic Cafe. On the surface, the game is about choice, and what role the player has when making choices in a video game. Are they really making their own decisions, or are they bound to the whims of the developer? Digging a bit deeper, The Stanley Parable is also a commentary on narrative tropes in video games, often employing humor as a way to gently poke fun at the sometimes strange and odd plot devices employed by developers. But there is a third layer to The Stanley Parable – it encourages players to try their hardest to break the game.

The Stanley Parable is a game in which the player character, Stanley, works in an office, and is designated Employee 427. As explained in the opening cinematic, his job is to sit at a computer and wait for a prompt from his bosses to push certain buttons on his keyboard in a certain order. One day, he arrives at work and realizes an hour has gone by, and no orders have come in for buttons to be pushed. Curious, he exits his office to find all of his co-workers have vanished. This is when the player takes control of Stanley, joined by a narrator who follows along providing commentary on Stanley’s adventure and giving the player directions as what to do next. The player then must make a choice – do they follow along with the narrator and do what he says, or do they break away from that path and explore the rest of the office? Each choice leads to a different ending, many of which can be reached within 5-10 minutes, at which point the game resets and Stanley is back in his office.

It’s clear from this description how the nature of choice is explored – the player can either go along with the narrator and see the “approved” story and ending to the game, or they can follow their own path. Or is it their own? After all, every outcome has been programmed by the developer, so how much impact do the player’s choices really have?

The idea of breaking the game stems from this, and is better explained in exactly how the player is able to break off from the main path. But before exploring those dynamics, we have to go back to the opening cinematic. Stanley’s job may seem odd and random at first, but in reality Stanley is doing what every gamer does when they play a video game – we wait for prompts from the developer to tell us which buttons to hit in which order and for how long. Stanley’s absolute compliance with this task is a metaphor for gamers – if we enjoy a video game, we will rarely, if at all, question how the developer asks us to interact with the world. Quick-time events are the most obvious parallel – I do not understand why hitting the triangle button during God or War results in the player character Kratos ripping the head off an enemy, but I accept that I have to do it in order to progress through the rest of the game, and I willingly agree to do this task, over and over, without question, because the developers want me to do so.

break-004

It’s never clear why, but hitting the X button hear means “rip out the eye of a cyclops.”

Following this metaphor further, one might conclude that Stanley’s unseen bosses are the developers, however, as the game unfolds it becomes clear that the narrator is the developer, questioning Stanley’s (the player’s) motives. But what is intriguing is that the narrator only questions the player when they break off from the main story – the narrator never questions the player’s actions if they stick to the script, a commentary on the current state of video game design. To summarize – if the player blindly follows the narrator’s path, or blindly presses triangle to rip off an enemy’s head, then, from the developer’s perspective, there will be no problems, and the player will experience the story and gameplay as intended.

Of course, there are problems with this line of thinking. For one, gamers are not autonomous machines – they are critical thinkers, unpredictable agents who will go off script at any moment. I am just as guilty of this as any gamer – I’ve spent more time in the Tower, the central social hub in Destiny, running around and trying to get into areas that are seemingly blocked off, than I have turning in quests and buying new gear (in a slight nod to this behavior, Bungie will occasionally drop a few soccer balls into the Tower, which turns an ordinary Destiny session into the most convoluted free-for-all soccer game, and proves the point that sometimes gamers are willing to do anything except experience the content the developers spent hundreds of hours crafting). This point is further illustrated in The Stanley Parable – if the player follows the order of the narrator, they experience the main plot points, and complete the game, but the ending is both abrupt and uninspiring. But this is intentional – Galactic Cafe is commenting on how boring video games are if the player just follows the story from point A to point B, without ever thinking on their own. To drive home this point, when the narrator’s version of the game comes to an end, he reminds the player that, although they are free, there are still many questions left to answer. This is the prompt for the player to try and answer those questions on subsequent playthroughs, and the only way to attempt this is to break from the approved path. When the player attempts this, the narrator (as a stand-in for the developer) openly questions both what the player is doing and why, since going off script will result in the player seeing a “non-approved” ending, therefore breaking the game.

Stanley Walked Through the Door on His Left

In order to explore how players breaking a game can lead to a more fulfilling experience, The Stanley Parable asks that players disobey the orders they are given, and to make their own choices and deal with the consequences. These choices start out simple enough – the first one finds Stanley in a room with two doors, and the narrator says that Stanley walked through the left door. Going through the left door moves the story along with no problem, however, choosing the right door causes the narrator to go off script, and try to explain the actions of Stanley. You can hear the puzzlement of the developer through the narrator – the only reason the narrator can see for the player choosing the right door is to cut through an employee break room, but once there, the player finds nothing to see or do. So the narrator rationalizes that the player will continue on, exhibiting signs of frustration if the player simply remains in the break room. Eventually, the narrator relies on name-calling in a futile attempt to push the player out of the room and back onto course. This name-calling is representative of a mechanic developers commonly use to forces players to proceed – infinite spawning enemies that will only stop appearing once the player has progressed.

Of course, there is no danger for the player to disobey the narrator, which is where The Stanley Parable excels as a discussion on this topic – if the player chooses the right door, there is no penalty, and in fact one could argue there is a reward in that the player gets to hear some unique, funny dialogue. Eventually, if the player opposes the narrator’s commands often enough, they reach one of the many endings to the story, and in almost every instance these endings are commentaries on the relationship between the player and the developer.

In one example, the player will come to a room filled with soothing music and calming lights, and the narrator, proud of his work, just wants to stay here, in this room. Why leave? From the narrator’s point of view, this room is perfect – there is no danger, the music and lights are soothing, and it allows Stanley to exist within the world the narrator has created (and to exist in it on his terms). Of course, since the player is an independent thinker who demands to be engaged by these virtual worlds, they will eventually head for the exit which leads to a tall room with a staircase on one end. That staircase leads to a platform, and the only thing the player can do is jump off the platform to their death. The narrator is stunned – why is the player willingly putting themselves in danger? And as the player jumps to their death, the narrator mourns the loss of not just the player, but the ending of the experience, before the game is abruptly reset, and the player finds themselves back in Stanley’s office, ready to go make more choices. The commentary from Galactic Cafe here is simple – developers work really hard on creating these virtual worlds, and want nothing more than for the player to experience them, but sometimes, developers just have to let the player do what they want to do, at the service of engagement, even if that means the player meeting their demise and restarting from a checkpoint.

break-005

The Stanley Parable Adventure Lines is just one of many ways the game suggests that developers should encourage gamers to break off from the main path.

Another scenario involves Stanley stumbling upon a portion of the game that is not supposed to be seen until the end. The narrator is upset that the story has been spoiled and restarts the game, only this time there is a yellow line on the ground, labeled The Stanley Parable Adventure Line, that the player must follow. However, the line begins to behave erratically, moving up along walls and zig-zagging at an alarming rate, until suddenly Stanley and the narrator find themselves back in the same room that spoiled the story to begin with. Here, Galactic Cafe is coming right out and saying that following a linear path in a game will often lead to players missing out on a game’s true potential, and that they should break away from the linear path as often as they can. By having the line behave illogically, they are also commentating on how ridiculous it is for developers to expect gamers to follow a narrow path, and the end result for both parties is a bit of a letdown – the player feels as if they have no agency, and developers want the player to feel engaged, not bored.

Through these choices, The Stanley Parable not only asks the player to break the game, but rewards them for doing so, and in each instance sheds some light onto why this is a good idea. Developers need to be comfortable and confident that the player will eventually find their way through a game, even if it is not the intended path. In being so quick to patch everything that could be seen as a bug, developers may be missing the point, that the journey is just as important as the end, and that players should be able to experience the journey in a way they find most engaging.

Not A Collaborative Effort

However, this line of thought can lead to some controversial territory, such as the very nature of art itself. Who decides what is art – the artist or the viewer? That is another debate for another time, but it should be mentioned that The Stanley Parable makes a comment on this debate, at least as it applies to the player’s ability to break a game. Throughout the numerous scenarios, one interaction comes up time and time again – the narrator comments on how Stanley needs the narrator just as much as the narrator needs Stanley. However, Stanley, despite his ability to bend the rules and make his own choices, still only makes choices and bends rules that the narrator provides.

Gamers should try to break a game’s rules and laws, and developers should be accommodating of this, but developers should also remember that this is ultimately their game, and they get to decide what the player does and doesn’t get to experience. But the mistake many developers make comes from where they make these changes – in many instances, the developer changes or alters content, when in reality they should be focused on the rules and mechanics. When faced with either following the narrator though the left door, or going through the right door, the player may feel like they are making a choice about which piece of content they want to explore, but in reality the right door is a new rule Galactic Cafe has introduced into the world. Up until that point, the rules of the world were such that Stanley had no choices, he only had a linear path and a narrator to follow. Now, the player learns that there can be branching paths, and that choosing to ignore the narrator is the player’s way of bending these rules.

Wider Acceptance

Allowing gamers to break a game is certainly not a new idea, but it is one that could be accepted and incorporated into more games. EVE Online is perhaps the most popular example of this philosophy – instead of meddling with the game’s economy, developer CCP Games has taken a hands-off approach, allowing gamers to dictate the value of items and their usefulness. Unfortunately, the more common example is the approach Gearbox took in reconfiguring the Bee Shield-Conference Call. By doing so, Gearbox ensured that all of their post-release content would feature boss battles that were bullet sponges, which would have been a problem if they left in the above combination of shield and weapon that was seemingly designed to destroy those types of bosses. Instead of allowing that combination to exist and adding in new elements to boss battles that required more than the player simply dealing a massive amount of damage, they patched it out, and continued down the same path, resulting in boss after boss that was, essentially, the same experience. If they would have adapted to gamers breaking the rules or balance of the game, they could have created outside-the-box post-release content as a reaction, encouraging players to further explore new item combos in search of the next great havoc-wreaker.

At the same time, it’s hard not blame Gearbox – developers are told by both publishers and fans to patch flaws in a game as soon as possible, and so things that really aren’t flaws get thrown into the pile and removed from the game. If anything, developers should see The Stanley Parable and the way it encourages players to break a game as a sort of test – will this new patch block off a potentially exciting and fun new avenue for the game, or will it really fix a fundamental flaw? Polishing up a game is fine, but there is such a thing as too much polish. Remove enough elements from a game and it becomes sterile, no more compelling than sitting at a computer and pushing buttons all day. Sometimes, the player needs to stumble out of the boundaries of the game in order to fully appreciate what is located inside. In the end, the developer still has full control over the game, but the focus should be on the rules of the world – establish those, place content within those rules and let players run wild.