Sticks For Swords — Why We Should Sometimes Play By The Rules

Sticks For Swords — Why We Should Sometimes Play By The Rules

It’s a familiar story; at least it was when I was a kid. You gather your friends, split into teams. It’s war — Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers. Is it different nowadays — Gryffindor vs Slytherin? Vampires vs Werewolves? Team Edward vs Team Jacob? God, I don’t know! I’m so out of touch with the kids today and their… stuff.

But ultimately the names don’t matter, not really, the concept is the same. We come together as children and play — with pretend guns, swords, wands, bows and arrows — almost spontaneously a set of rules are created. If you’re shot, you die; you can’t go into the neighbour’s garden — that’s forbidden. You can’t go inside the house. You can’t switch sides.

There’s no real punishment for circumventing this artificial rule set but somehow, as children, we create these rules and abide by them — if we break those rules or operate outside them the illusion is shattered. The game stops being fun.

But there’s always that one kid. ‘No, you can’t kill me! I’m using my secret force field!’ ‘No, I jumped and dodged the bullets!’ He ruins the game. Once the rules are broken it collapses into chaos, all internal consistency dissolves. Suddenly we’re rolling around in the mud with sticks for swords.

If we’re smart, we don’t invite him to play again, or we politely remind him of the rules. Because when we play games we have to take responsibility for the way in which we play them.

Sticks For Swords — Why We Should Sometimes Play By The Rules

Nowadays in the discourse of game narrative and its many crushing flaws, ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ is a buzz word frequently unsheathed and used sans mercy upon all manner of video games. First a clarification: Clint Hocking’s piece on the original BioShock, where the term was initially coined, is an important one, and I fully agree with the sentiment. Games often provide you with a restricted set of choices — choices that push against the themes of the narrative resulting in disconnect between what you’re playing and what the story wants you to experience.

But sometimes, when we play games, we have to take responsibility for the way in which we play them.

Gaming is performance, and sometimes players have to remember to perform. As children, when we are shot we clutch our guts. We scream, in a final last stand we sink to the floor in a hyperbolic gasp. Fun comes from the performance. It comes when we play along, not against.

Perhaps this is just a personal thing, but when I play video games, I do my very best to perform. If I’m scaling up the highest tower in Rome as Ezio, I do my best to make it a beautiful climb. When I play Grand Theft Auto IV I try to avoid civilian casualties because I’m Niko Bellic, a troubled man trying to escape his criminal path. If it doesn’t make sense, I try my very best to have it make sense, through my actions in the game, because that’s what it means to play within boundaries — even if those boundaries don’t necessarily exist within the game itself.

Sticks For Swords — Why We Should Sometimes Play By The Rules

When discussing L.A. Noire (a game I didn’t particularly enjoy) Tom Bissell laments the disconnect between its linear story and the ‘game’ itself — a game he claims to have played like a psychopathic maniac killer with no regard for the rules of the road! According to Bissell, L.A. Noire was “tacitly refusing to address all the asshole stuff I was doing”. My response to that would be: if you want the game to make sense within context, stop doing all that asshole stuff!

Another clarification: gamers should be able to play games in any way they choose, but when we poke and prod with the intent of breaking down the internal narrative consistency of an video game, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when the fabric tears. At the very least we probably shouldn’t complain so loudly.

Because, ultimately, games are still games. There are moments when the spectre of ludonarrative dissonance descends on us and we have no defence (as Nathan Drake you must slaughter hundreds of pirates to proceed) but there are times when we as gamers feel compelled to shatter the illusion — and maybe we should take more responsibility for that.

As children we learn to play nice because, if we don’t, there is no game to be played — we have nothing. As adults we’re like the kid with the invincible forcefield — we expect to be told how to play, and then demand to be reigned in when we break the rules.

Can’t we just play along? Isn’t that the point? Otherwise we’re just bickering children, refusing to play dead, rolling around in the mud with sticks for swords.


    • The way I see it, Calvinball is just an extension of the performance. Calvin and hobbes never modified the game to win, they modified to make it more interesting. Sometimes they made up rules that just made everything very confusing, and they kept playing anyway.

  • I played GTAIV like you – never made sense for Niko to rampage through innocents.

    But LA Noire is kind of funny. One of the achievements for the game specifically requires you to run rampant for at least one mission, racking up $38000 damage or something. I played it straightlaced except when chasing this achievement.

    Great article though, I love the idea that we place artificial constraints on the way we play to maintain the illusion of coherence and immersion!

    • The pedestrians didn’t make my job of trying to avoid them in GTAIV any easier with their habit of crossing the road right in front of my car! I normally try to play in the manner that most makes sense with the story, at least for the first playthrough.

  • I love it man but I would have loved a link to completely understand ludonarrative dissonance as it was used in the Bioshock article – so I didnt have to google it. I am lazy etc.

    Also, as Nathan Drake, slaughtering those henchmen is fine – to me, Uncharted is so much like a movie that I always feel like once I have exited the set-piece area, those ‘dead’ henchmen get up and walk back to the extras trailer, wiping the fake blood from their shirts and skulls. The illusion is already shattered in Uncharted by other gameplay mechanics and situations that dont “make sense”. Uncharted also doesn’t let you break the rules of the game – it makes you adhere to them. Sometimes you can fall 2 metres to the ground but the game does not appreciate that you have stunted its progression and thus you ‘die’. If you want to break the illusion of video gaming, you should be allowed to – its a luxury you are not afforded in other forms of entertainment.

    I agree with your closing statements to a T, serrels. As soon as that illusion is broken, you, as the player (the forcefield guy) should no longer be able to complain about it.

  • Reminds me of my experience of TES: Oblivion. A game with so much freedom, I felt a little disappointed when the game left a gaping hole for me to boost my character skills through. Yes, if I’d played by the rules, I wouldn’t be able to use that friendly animal to get my sneak skill up to 100 in no time. But my feeling was that the game didn’t reward enough for the effort it took to grind it up the proper way. Bit off the main topic here, but I probably wouldn’t have grasped that issue of effort/reward had I not boosted.

  • “The kid who’s always breaking the rules” or your brother. Then the game became finding the best new rule.
    Indeed, Trjn, Calvinball.

    • The problem with my brother was that he was more concerned about winning the game than actually enjoying it, and having fun. So, of course, I always had to play the bad guy.

  • I agree, too often do people forget that the games are designed by the makers as a story, as an entertainment, as an escape, as an art (if you will) and people bitch and moan that they can’t do this, can’t do that. Ultimately, its not about what the gamer ‘wants’, but what the makers want to give.

    LA NOIRE is a pretty good example of this, it really made you try and conform to its story, its perimeters, by making you score badly for running rampant, crashing your car, killing civilians and i loved it.

    The stupid part, is people are never happy, id hate to be a publisher. Skyrim gives you more choices to do what you want, and people are still not happy.

    Too bad, the rules were changed for you and expanded so you could have that force shield, dodge the bullets,steal everyone’s shit, murder people, ignore the story.

    Still not happy, go make your own game?

    Good article.

    • First I’ll admit to not having played through LA Noire so I can’t include it in what I’m about to say…

      I agree that if the game designers have taken the time to build a character, backstory and motivation to perform the game in a certain way then it’s you’re own fault for breaking that.

      But that also means the makers need to take responsibility and properly implant that into the game, they have to give the gamer (‘Actor’) their motivation or they can’t play the character right when the big scene comes. Red Dead Redemption, while being a great game to play, totally failed to set up the protagonists motivations so can you blame the gamer then for not caring about saving his wife?

      • Excellent. I look forward to your take on it. The conversation is only just kicking off over at ThePunch, I hope your piece likewise stimulates (no matter how one-sided the discussion is likely to be)!

        Might be a time to take some Devil’s Advocacy pills…

  • It’s a probably that is only made worse by games trying to allow us to make choices. Take the original Mass Effect;

    My first play through I played Shepard as a jaded and angry military vet. He played by the rules unless you got sassy (yes. I punched the reporter, and it was good). The problem was that the larger narrative sometimes forced me to act as the noble chivalrous Shepard that the game was actually designed for

  • It’s fun pretending to be Batman in AA or AC, especially if you use Bale’s Bat voice, and coming up with (lame) one-liners.

    Goon: “It’s the bat!!”
    Me: “Yeah, it’s me.”
    * freezes the guy, ice take down*

    • I played Arkham City on hard, and left the armour upgrades until last, just to make the fight scenes harder, so I could only afford a couple of mistakes before dying.

      This forced me to use all gadgets and tactics at my disposal, and the end result were beautifully choreographed fight scenes.

  • In some games, it makes sense to role-play the game as it was designed in order to get a more cohesive narrative, and in other games there is no penalty for trying to break things.


    RPGs: Skyrim is the first TES game in which I’ve completed the main quest before doing most of the side quests – I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about ignoring such world-changing cataclysmic events in order to kill a scamp in an old lady’s home or root around in a miscellaneous dungeon.

    Most FPS games: I’ll glady screw around in an FPS, as there are no perceived consequences to doing so. The majority of the time, the stories are constructed in a segmented manner that coincides with the necessity of ‘levels’ or ‘missions’ in such games, and your actions in any one level are completely independent of any other level. Want to kill all your AI allies? Go ahead! Spend an hour trying to escape the level? Why not!

    To me, it’s all about the context of the story – are my actions intended to be fulfilling a role, where there are consequences for certain acts, or is the game enough of a sandbox to accomodate erratic behaviour without impinging upon the flow of the story?

    • This reminds me, I need to finish my slaughter everyone in Deus Ex: HR, and be a total bastard and try and end the game with as few allies as possible in Mass Effect 2 playthroughs.

    • I’m actually sort of the opposite. In RPGs I do all the side quests before I tackle the bulk of the main story. With games like Skyrim I do sort of find myself playing the role of my character and setting myself rules, such as not going on a random murder spree, but at the same time I’m perfectly happy to be both the noble dragonborn who slays evil monsters and helps villagers but also be an assassin with the dark brotherhood who will murder you for gold. I think part of me being fine with doing that is because I don’t really want to re-roll a new character to experience all the different quests the game has to offer.

      With FPS I’ll always follow the ‘rules’, at least on my first play through. That means no randomly shooting AI team mates or trying to escape the map.

  • Great article. I agree completely, I always play by imaginary rules so the game makes more sense, I will even reload an old save if I accidently hdo break the rules almost Like I am punishing myself.

  • Awesome article.
    You have a knack for words Mr Serrels.

    I always try an “play the character” that the developers designed, they put alot of effort into bringing the consumers a story (or the ability to create-a-story in games like skyrim/fallout etc.)

  • Whenever I played Half-Life I always felt and acted as if I was the character, complete with muttering, and even on the odd occasion talking at the screen (had a few choice words for G-Man at the end of HL2) It was that immersive and I wanted to go with the flow.

    Then when watching friends play it, going around, trashing Kleiners lab, throwing books at friendly NPC’s, it just feels jarring. 🙁

  • sorry to say, i am ‘that guy’ in games. my shepherd in ME had extremely inconsistent values, my vault dweller killed everyone simply for the xp (after they gave me a quest of course), and the street was not a safe place with niko belic in town.

    honestly, its a odd thing when faced with the other type of player. my previous house mate for example was one, his characters in LA, GTA, or red dead etc would all walk, simply because that was what the character did. and it was really bizarre to him when he saw my characters in the same games run at full speed at all times.

    i dont think its that bad to be my type of player like the article is suggesting. we’re just having fun in our own way, if a game ever forces me to walking speed, or in anyway refuses to let me play how i want to play, straight to ebay it goes

  • Think of Woody Harrelson’s character in Zombieland. That’s me. If there are monsters/bad guys whatever in the next room, I am gonna make a big fuckiing entrance. Why wait for the party to begin when you can start it?

    Pedestrians in GTA4 – they were put there to run over and rob as far as I was concerned.

    I like being evil or unrepentant in these games, whether the game let you or not, I usually find a way. I appreciate the endeavour and the stories the games designer created, but everybody is different, and will approach it differently.

  • I’m having this exact problem in Arkham City. Who’s more important, save the Riddlers hostages or save Mister Freeze? The whole ignoring side quests thing can get hard!

  • I like your imaginative tone, Mark, and to some extent I agree. I and the other folks who push the rules to see whether they bend or break have that unfair artistic scrutiny about us, though. It’s always to the extent that we have to first test something to see how far we can acceptably push the game world’s rules, mostly so we can stay within the boundaries and enjoy it.

    If we can’t enjoy the game in the way in which we desire to, it can definitely be a deal-breaker. If the hype of a game misleads to the point of the player having expectations that the game does not, or cannot fulfill, we as gamers will still experience that disappointment no matter how accepting of reality we are.

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