August 27, 2008

Don't Stop Now

Picture this:

You start the game as the pilot climbing out of the wreckage, you're in Antarctica in a snowstorm, you're freezing, flight suit torn, all the radio and navigational equipment is busted and so you start running. The cold is slowly killing you either way, but if you can't find shelter or if you stay in one place to think through your options, you're done. You have a pistol but it's frozen up and can't fire. You can't get rid of it anyway because the frost has glued your fingers to the metal. Soon, the cold will cripple your legs too, reducing your movement to a limp. You don't get any time to consider your situation. You have to move and keep moving or you lose. There is no HUD, no quest arrow, no progress meter: you are lost. You start out with 360 degrees of barren, level terrain surrounding you and immediately have to choose one path. As far as you know, you could be running forever and in the wrong direction. But either way, don't stop.

This is a game that doesn't exist called Don't Stop. To revisit the topic of context shaping experience, Don't Stop can take a couple of forms, each with different strengths. In one, gameplay and theme converge to subvert the traditional video game experience. The other one you can actually play. As a set piece introduction to a typical FPS, it's not bad. Instead of a stiff tutorial, the game opens with a jolt while requiring only basic interaction. Eventually the player hits a trigger point and transitions to the next chapter.

Imagine, however, if this was not an opening level but a short, self-contained game, where the emotions and themes within that level become the centerpiece. It's a game about trusting one's life to faith and to the hope that there even is shelter out there in the wastes and that the path you chose will lead you there. I like the feeling you first get in open-world games like Oblivion, where the fiction and mechanics are so overwhelming and foreign that the player initially struggles to keep their head above the water. By the end, you're so conversant and confident in its language that you're playing it like a slot machine. I'm more interested in a game that keeps the player under its thumb the entire time.

If the player knows Don't Stop is level one of sixteen, then they think about how to win. If they know that Don't Stop is all there is, they think about if they can win. Within the fiction, all the character has to keep them going is the faith that they will be able to find shelter. The player, while running as fast as they can against the chill winds and getting ever wearier, is also taking it on faith that the designers have made a game in which it is actually possible to win and not just about being thrown headfirst into a horrible unending oppressiveness. Their investment in this game must pay off, the character must survive, because games are intrinsically about rewarding the player. The player trusts in that conceit. Except so far it doesn't seem to apply this game, where nothing is happening, and pangs of existential uncertainty take hold. Maybe, they think as they keep running, that Don't Stop is some art game, an experiment, where there's no other option but to fail? Is the developer simply being a contrarian or teaching the player a lesson about perseverance? Maybe there is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is something over this horizon? Or maybe you should have turned left an hour ago?

The problem with this variation of Don't Stop is that it can't stop. What's the ending? The game is thematically strongest when it's predicated on the uncertainty of belief, which is undermined if the game flat-out answers the question of whether shelter can be found or failure is inevitable. The player's answer is the only one that matters and it shouldn't be wrong.

The only ending that preserves the integrity of the theme is that the player turns the game off when they get bored. Is the answer to Don't Stop that it must exist as one chapter of many within the conventional structure of an action game? It's the most practical solution. But is there a way to salvage the idealistic, metaphorical Don't Stop, or is that incarnation doomed to languish as a conceptual pipe-dream?

Nobody knows. That's the big mystery of Don't Stop.


Steve gaynor said...

There's always the possibility that the game is running on a hard timer (that isn't exposed to the player.) The character will die in 10 minutes (for instance.) If you don't find a warm shelter before you freeze to death, the game ends.

And maybe there is one, tiny, nearly-impossible-to-find-by-chance shelter out there on the tundra, that you can reach if you walk in exactly the right direction for 10 minutes from the starting point. Only one degree on the compass will take you there, and if you veer off course you'll never make it... but there is that very real glimmer of possibility that you could survive. Maybe once you reach the safe haven, at the 11 minute mark the sound of a helicopter approaching is heard and the camera fades down, implying you might be saved. This treatment would make the game about slim possibilities, instead of inevitability. Maybe that works.

Duncan said...

Yeah, I think that's the most honest solution to the problem, although I have difficulty reconciling that approach with current hand-holding design sensibilities. A game where 99% of players will lose seems so anathema in 2008. Maybe that's the point though, and maybe there's a way to make losing rewarding too.