If you leave Mario 64 unattended, Mario will take a snooze. If you leave Taco Harry unbashed, it will assume an error, and reset. If you don’t pick up the gun in Point Blank then the timer ticks down with your score on zero.
Inaction is a move available to the player of any game, and designers do tend to account for it in these sorts of small ways. But inaction can be a surprisingly intimate way to engage with a game, and some games really leverage that.
The Stanley Parable
It’s about time I wrote something about this game. It explores the import of player actions, and treats inaction as one of the actions available. In the making-of gallery at the end, we get this lovely note:
“THE TWO DOORS: The set of two open doors was the very first concrete piece of The Stanley Parable’s design. Once this room was created, the rest of the game emerged as an extension of it, an exploration of the contradiction this room posed.”
That “contradiction” is between the author’s desire to tell a story and the player’s desire to choose your own actions. And it really is a contradiction because those two things are absolutely at odds with one another. I won’t go over my own problems in that area again — I’ve done plenty of that before — but fundamentally, the author faces a dilemma: tell players what happens and they lose their freedom; give players freedom and you can’t tell them what happens.
This tension torments the author of The Stanley Parable, and that provides the substance of the game’s narrative. The mysterious, disembodied narrator becomes the author — he shows the player the game he has made, and ostensibly changes its fundamental nature in response to the player’s demands, striving to tell the story but also to permit the player to control it. Likewise, the bland, empty shell of a protagonist that is Stanley becomes the player: a leaderboard for the game shows “Stanley” as the player’s name, and the author, through the narrator, addresses Stanley as a proxy for you, the player, seeking feedback on the game’s design. The author speaks to the player through the narrator, and wants the player to answer through Stanley’s actions. But the game isn’t satisfied only to represent a dialogue between author and player: it wants to be that dialogue. A mere allegory just won’t scratch the author’s itch to get through to you.
So how does the game go about tackling this contradiction between player freedom and authorial control? The author is authoritarian and dictatorial at first, controlling the player by punishing unwanted choices. You’ll go along with this for a time, while it’s novel, but eventually, in the face of tedious repetition, that structure has to give way to keep things engaging. The author’s need to deliver novelty but still to demand repetition until the desired path is followed leads to a strange game of cat and mouse, where the structure of the game must be modified one step ahead of the player tiring of it. It’s an exhausting pursuit driven by brute-force imagination.
“We would both be so much happier if we just stopped”
But in one section, the author sees a solution to this endless chase. He starts pleading with the player, offering a compromise, a truce, something that could work both for him and for you. The compromise is for the player to stand still on a platform suspended in space. In return, the author presents a scene of beautiful glowing lights, swirling around as harmonious ambient sounds swell and sooth. Of course, this can’t be forced: the player must have his freedom or the dilemma is not dissolved. So the player can leave the platform at any time, through a little door down some steps.
But you stay for a while. The author’s happy, so you stay longer. He’s really happy now, and calm. You stand there, together, having found peace, equilibrium: you’re not asking questions of the author through your choices — “What happens if I do this? What about this? What’s down this way?” — but neither is the author removing your freedom. Through the door, you could go and throw yourself off some high stairs until you die and restart the story, or you could just stay here in the tranquility of the lights and sounds. You stay, and it’s your choice, and the author doesn't need to work at infinitely reimagining the game to substantiate your agency in endless new ways. The tension has dissipated.
Far Cry 4
In the opening cutscene of Far Cry 4, you’re captured by the king of Kyrat, who seems pretty nasty but might be your dad. He pops off to torture someone, and asks that you stay and enjoy the Crab Rangoon, saying, “Don’t move. I will be right back.” End of cutscene: game starts here. After sitting and watching all that for ten minutes you’re itching to move, so wouldn’t this be funny:
Looks like Ubisoft Montreal also thought it would be funny:
Yep, if you just sit there at the dinner table and wait like you were told — if you do nothing — the evil king comes back and gives you a lift in his helicopter to take care of your mother’s ashes, which was your goal all along. Saves you a good few hours.
So inaction has a pay-off. It doesn’t feel like a deserved pay-off, though. It’s the lazy way out, but it does do something quite useful for the story: it demonstrates the struggle of the freedom fighter. You could turn a blind eye to tyranny, and if you did, you, personally, would be just fine. But no, regardless of the hardship to yourself, you’re going to sit down every night and slog through the whole game. Just like a real freedom fighter.
Monkey Island and Prince of Persia
OK, so the Far Cry thing was an Easter egg. So’s this next one, but then after that there’s another really good bit of inaction.
In Monkey Island, Guybrush boasts that he can hold his breath for ten minutes. Later, you are thrown off a dock with your leg tied to a heavy stone idol. Since Guybrush is fine for “ten minutes”, you basically have unlimited time. You know you can’t die in Monkey Island, so no sweat — the ten minutes claim just tidily explains away this little puzzle’s silly logic. Or does it? Wait ten minutes and you drown. Not a fake drown — not like when you fall of a cliff later and the game prompts you to “reload” — you really do die and really do have to reload.
The Far Cry and Monkey Island examples are really just easter eggs dispensed in exchange for waiting. But even so, they legitimise inaction so that inaction becomes another action you could take within the rules of the game. In so doing, they reinforce the player's expectation that you should be rewarded for absolutely any choice. And it’s this sense of player entitlement, this player-centrism, that puts a burden on the author to account for and pander to the player’s every explorative whim.
So those were some fun facts, some fun secrets, but not the most fun sequences to actually play. A more playable example of inaction is way back in Prince of Persia (1989). When you fight your reflection, who escaped from the mirror on level 4, the only way to win is to put away your sword. In a sequence set up as a sword fight, sheathing your blade is the ultimate non-action, demanding courage, not merely patience, as you have your reflection’s sword at your throat.
You’re actively not acting, and it goes down as a legendary gaming moment. (Hands up if you tried the same against Dark Link in Ocarina of Time, hoping to repeat it. … Just me?)
Whatever it was I didn’t do, ’twas I who didn’t do it
So, four examples of inaction in games, and despite their differences, all those sequences draw you into the game world. They draw you in because whatever the controls of the game, or the supposed abilities of the player character, inaction always belongs to you, the player. Your own inaction is for you to determine, whether you are playing a game or not, and so no game can exclude inaction from its control scheme. When the in-game action is inaction, it is the action of the player as much as the action of the character. Player and character are fused in perfect identity for that moment, however long it is.
So staying out on the star platform is an agreement reached not between Stanley and the narrator, but between the player and the author. The writer reached out and touched you, and you stood there together.
Then you jumped to your death from some high stairs. But what a moment.