Letters to the Editor

The Industry’s Seedy Underbelly


In response to “The Devil Inside” from The Escapist Forum: I disagree with your framework here and think it’s problematic in a few ways.

I think your positioning of the game designer as a God figure is problematic. The game designer does indeed make god-like decisions about the world they are creating, but they lack the cohesiveness of the Divinity (what is actually represented as a “Game Designers” choice is actually reflective of a multitude of other people, and might not actually reflect what the Game Designer wants.) Similarly, the game designer must make strategic decisions about the aspects of the game to include, and which ones not to. While you frame the choice to not let the player stand on the horse instead of it as a malicious decision designed to force you into a specific mode of thought, it is reality more likely to be a matter of resources–A God figure would have unlimited time and resources, taking anything strategic out of the equation–which makes all decisions necessarily moral decisions because there are no other considerations. You cannot proscribe morality onto a decision that could just as easily be a strategic/resource driven decision as it could be a morally guided decision. (I’m using morality here in such a way as to imply a deliberate effort on the part of designer to ensure that the game is played in only one way, the way the designer intends.)

Finally, player agency really has nothing to do with being in line or out of line with the designers intentions (or, in other words, their morality). In fact, within the context of an open world, player agency effects designers exactly as much as it does within more structured, rigid worlds — ultimately, the player can only act according to how the designer dictates and never in any other way.

Within a game, the concept of Free Will is an illusion — the game can never be anything other than a pre-destined outcome. In essence, you’ve completed a game as soon as you’ve purchased because there is no other possible outcome except to win. We often like to think that we can “Lose” a game, but we can’t. The best you can do is “Not Win yet,” and even implies the eventual outcome of winning the game. Free will within a game is counter-intuitive because by playing the game, you are tacitly agreeing to the rules of engagement – that is, giving up your free will to act in any way that strikes your fancy, and instead decide to act in the way the game proscribes for you.

I think the sole exception to this would be something like SecondLife, where the game is literally defined by the player. The rules of engagement are defined by the player. But even within SecondLife, you can join other games where your free will is essentially stripped. SecondLife itself only provides a greater illusion of free will than other similar games – but never the truth that is free will. Only a game that contains no rules and no guiding principles can let you truly express your will, but then the game, which is essentially a set of behaviors guided by rules, actually ceases to be a game.


This is a tad silly, sorry. A game designer, in general, is more of a storyteller than a deity. He creates a world in the same way that I can create a world if I write a sci-fi story. Sure he may give the player freedom to interact with the characters in different ways, but that is not so different from the way it’s handled in a less interactive media – it only allows the designer to give much more thought to a particular character without hindering the main narrative.

That one series about RPG games once said that the DM is the devil – he creates a world, but more importantly he constantly antagonizes the players, creating conflict in which games thrive. Sure there are games that can thrive without obvious conflict – Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft, for two – but essentially most gamers will prefer to be lead by their hands to their next objective over wandering around godforsaken wastelands for hours, unless the godforsaken wastelands are particularly interesting.

(Then again, a good DM is closer to a real god, compared to a computer game, in which he isn’t as limited. If on my medieval campaign you want to go around killing people until the lord pays you to leave him alone, feel free to, I won’t force you to be a nice guy. Just keep in mind that while you’re improvising ways to fuck up the world I’ll be improvising ways for the world to fuck you up.)

(Curiously I guess a world-creating devil would be more similar to the Gnostic concept of an ‘evil’ god of materia that contrasts to the ‘good’ god of spirituality, a viewpoint I feel answers several of the spiniest ontological issues of religion. But that’s for another time.)

(Fuck, two parenthetical paragraphs. Three now. I think I’m getting an award for this one.)

I see nothing wrong with trying to enjoy a game the way it’s ‘supposed’ to be. I don’t see people starting to read books through the middle so that they can skip the intro, or blanking out pages to change how events play it. I guess the analogy to sin works if you think that the ‘morality’ of the dev is the congruity of the world and you’re breaking it, either by having your stoic saviour of the world jump up and down on a desk like a moron or by revealing the ways things don’t work how they should in the real world and using that difference to your advantadge. But it’s a strenous conclusion.

The Random One


In response to “The Thin White Line” from The Escapist Forum:

Brendan Main:
Here, the simple videogame actions of leaping, tumbling and ducking become codified, containing their abstracted meaning if not their literal fact. To someone new to the game, it would seem like meaningless scribbles across the screen. But to the trained eye, they serve as something else: a notation.

So glad you picked up on this. I love music and really enjoyed games like Vib-Ribbon and Lammy, but I have some kind of brain-block when it comes to actually understanding musicality. I have nothing but admiration for musical people, but left to myself I struggle to judge which of two similar notes is higher, or even to tap a beat. Is there a music dyslexia?

What games like those, and Guitar Hero and the ilk do is take music and translate into something familiar, something I can partake of. It can be revelatory. I realise, of course, that playing these games is a long way distant from playing an instrument, but what they provide is a way of perceiving something I couldn’t previously comprehend.

I take an interest in languages and etymology. What these games remind me of is when you track an unfamilar word’s history and find relationships between it and its counterpart in your own language. Its a way of looking past the surface of a signal and exploring its meaning.


I learned about Vib-Ribbon from a Cinematech spot back in the G4 days. I’m a bit ashamed to say that despite my love of music, the game’s visual aesthetic looked so much like something out of my nightmares that it still frightens me, to this day.

A very cool game and well worth a cult classic status, but I admit I can’t bear to look at it. Something about the way the avatar is designed and the weird sounds it produces just freaks me out (dsepite my usual love of minimalism and retrogaming).



In response to “Shooting for the Sky” from The Escapist Forum: I found BioShock almost aggressively uninteresting, with bland writing, unbalanced gameplay and an art style which only redeeming quality was all the stuff it shamelessly stole from Fallout – mediocre across the board. And yet, it was made by the same guy who was behind System Shock 2, one of my all-time favourite games.

To me, it seems as though the same people who liked Fallout 3 are the ones who liked BioShock – those who missed out on the infinitely better titles that these two games blatantly fail at superseding.

If Ken Levine really wants to show his skill then he should be making a new, original title instead of extending BioShock’s story in the same way that BioShock 2 tried to do it. But alas, he’s only interested in the money.


The Random One:

The other day I was thinking about how Bioshock is good because it criticizes a liberal viewpoint. Games, and most art forms I guess, as well as those who enjoy them, are usually liberal, as far as they’re willing to articulate their political beliefs anyway. If Bioshock had based its gameplay on a conservative scenario it would be essentially preaching to the core. Of course Rand’s Objectivism of ‘if I’m paying for these roads I don’t want those poor freeloading bastards to use it’ is essentially the strawman of the left wing, but it’s still more appealing than if it had just echoed the ‘following tradition and limiting freedoms is bad bad bad!’ the genre as a whole already has.

Well the thing is that if you look in-depth into Bioshock’s overarching themes, it actually comes across as supporting elements of Objectivist philosophy. Rapture only really goes to hell once Ryan starts to surrender his principles and slowly go mad. Ryan’s final cries of “A MAN CHOOSES, A SLAVE OBEYS” is pretty much a founding principle of Randian logic. Although early on, Ryan’s philosophy is seen negatively, the second half of the game pretty much reflects this concept. Fontaine controlled you, forced you to obey, and now, you have a choice in what you will do. The second half of the game doesn’t really have anyone ordering you around like Atlas did, more just telling you what to do. If anything this seems to be based off of Objectivist liberty, where you control your destiny and no one else does.

At least that’s what I got from Bioshock, I noticed a really big tonal change after Fontaine reveals himself.

Blind Sight


In response to “Enjoy the Silence” from The Escapist Forum: Great article. Spot on, too. Not just games but films use music incorrectly, especially mainstream horror films. What should be a scary scene can be easily ruined by tense strings, etc signifying the approach of the killer/monster.

However it was expertly used in Jaws, leading the audience to believe an attack was imminent, when in fact, it was throwing us off completely. That is when soundtracks can be used to toy with emotions and expectations properly.

I’d love to make a horror film of some kind relying purely on the action to deliver an emotional response.

I also know that “Enjoy the Silence” is an awesome song by Depeche Mode:)

And also amazingly covered by Lacuna Coil.


I totally agree about silence. Music or audio in general need to be used more (well, less) depending on the situation and the dynamic. For instance, look at what happened to Alan Wake. Whenever enemies spawned onscreen they started the music to either startle the player or just say “Oh hey guys! I just thought you might want to know that a bunch of ghouls have been spawned and are coming to eat your face.” So from the first time on from that, all we have to do is walk around practically knowing we’re safe until that music starts up again. It also serves to tell us when we defeat the last enemy so we can relax again…though in some cases it gets freaky when you’re running around and the music is still going, so you know that there’s one more out there lurking for you.

In relation to movies, Hitchcock’s “The Rear Window” and “The Birds” had the most suspenseful moments when there was hardly any sound at all. I mean for sure no music, but no dialogue, and sometimes no other sounds either. And it worked really well!


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