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Look, a monkey: the value of cheating

Goals and limits invite subversion, and perhaps that’s where true playfulness happens. Continuing our ‘games and stories’ season, CEO of Failbetter Games Alexis Kennedy finds that bending the rules opens up some creative possibilities.

I like that we’re starting to cheat more at books. When I was ten years old, I would regularly flip to the last page of a novel and get a preview of the ending. I had the vague sense that this made me a worse person, but I kept doing it until I hit a particularly incendiary spoiler, and now I’m glad that I did. It gave me a calmer perspective on stories, and it helped me begin to understand that a book can be variously interesting from different angles – not just head-on – pursuing a plot at a constant speed like a train on a track.

Technology allows us to cheat harder. Project after project offers a lean-forward, peek-across, remix, new-perspective approach to texts – either existing ones, or those custom-created for the purpose. Even at the simplest level, when a character I like maybe-dies in an ebook, I can search ahead for their name to see how far ahead they’re next mentioned, to find out if I can get a resolution in the next half hour or whether I should just go to bloody sleep and finish it on the bus the next morning.

Is it possible to cheat at a film? I can’t see how that would work. Reading a book is an act of engagement in a way that watching a film isn’t. More than that, it’s an act of exploring, even claiming, territory. Films are fundamentally lean-back, non-geographical experiences. No-one feels they’ve cheated if they watch the last ten minutes of a horror film. But there’s enough meat in the interaction between reader and text to require rules, if only self-imposed rules: and rules are what allow cheating.

You can, of course, cheat in games. Cheating in the  original competitive multi-player sense of the word, at chess or cards or an e-sport, is weaselry and not to be encouraged. But ‘cheat codes’ which unlock invincibility or allow players to jump between locations are a developer-sanctioned way of adjusting the game experience to your own preference – skipping ahead, or avoiding duller content or evading a bug or a design decision you don’t like. Books, as it happens, also have lists of cheat codes, which we usually call a ‘table of contents’.

This kind of benign, single-player cheating is often proto-innovation. I used to know people who refused to use a walkthrough to finish a game with puzzle elements. I don’t think I know anyone like that any more, and the venerable IFComp, the longest-running interactive fiction competition, now actively encourages competitors to submit a walkthrough with their game so judges don’t get blocked on puzzles. Many people enjoy modifications and remixes of games more than the original. Hide and Seek have remixed traditional board games to fascinating effect. Dwarf Fortress, an elaborate, fascinating, all but incomprehensible simulation of obsessive underground societies, owes much of its cult following to a tradition of sharing and swapping saved games – ‘cheating’ by any mid-nineties measure of gaming etiquette.  Even chess has over two thousand variant rules; benign agreements between players to cheat mutually. Games are a framework of rules, and following rules is not necessarily a creative act: but eventually a player begins to understand the reasons why the rules should or should not exist, and the effect of stepping outside them.

We ran a little treasure hunt in our choice-based game/story, Fallen London, recently. We sent several hundred players an in-game item – a river in a box – and hinted that they could somehow use it to acquire a more valuable box. The solution was not to use the item in the game, but but to find the most important word in the box’s description and feed it into a URL in a relevant format. A few players later complained that this seemed like cheating, but even they recognised that if it was cheating it was an established form of cheating with a two-decade pedigree. Most players recognised it as one of many alternate ways to approach an interactive text.

Again, in Fallen London, we allow players to replay some choices, or take choices that narrative wouldn’t normally permit. We charge them a very small sum of money for the privilege. Our current project with Random House, Black Crown, takes this further: charging a minority of players to sidestep narrative orthodoxy allows everyone else to experience the story for free.

Last month saw the launch of Bioshock Infinite: a great-looking, thuggish, silly game about shooting racists, clumsily spliced to a smart, solemn narrative about identity and choice. It was duly acclaimed as great art, the coming-of-age of video games, before the backlash began and commentators began to ask if this was really the best we could do. (If you’re a gamer, you’ll know that this happens every six to eight months). Forty years after the birth of games, ten years after the birth of ‘art game’ as a term, the games industry is still rightly haunted by self-defensive prickliness about being ‘dumb’. I don’t want to bang that particular drum too hard (though I love games, and it makes me sad) because there are whole blogs devoted to hand-wringing on the subject.

But I do want to suggest this: games have been soaked in the grammar of films for four decades – naturally enough, since both absolutely entail images on a screen. Now that books on a screen are no longer strange, can we start to learn from the similarities between books and games – turn to books for approaches to dialogue between game and gamer?

It’s always tempting to end a blog post on a question mark and shout ‘look over there! a monkey!’ but let me suggest specific ways in which this not only could happen, but already is happening.

1. Text. I enthusiastically agree with Emily Short that text is a powerful and versatile mode of expression in games, not just a cheap one. There’s a quiet renaissance going on in text games right now. They can’t compete directly with CGI renderings of exploding helicopters, but they don’t need to, any more than novels compete with Hollywood blockbusters.

2. Goals. Many of the new breed of literary apps are charmingly directionless prestige toys, the digital equivalent of fridge magnet poetry. Novels have a basic goal: reach the end, learn the story. This doesn’t need to be the only way you can experience it, but it gives you a basic direction to orient you. You know which way’s up.

3. Limits. I don’t think the new breed of literary apps need to be full-fledged games, and I sure as hell don’t think they should be ‘gamified’. But again, novels have basic limits: you can’t enjoy the end until you’ve consumed the middle, you have to obey the pacing unless you decide you want badly enough to cheat. Allowing a story to be viewed from many angles sometimes opens too many doors. Timelocks on progress, geolocks on content, simple non-puzzles, limited resources, choices that open one narrative strand by choosing another – all these are arbitrary but fruitful limits. Until you have a goal and limits that prevent you from achieving it, there’s no way to cheat.

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