Player-centrism in a massively multiplayer world
…which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is.
For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says ‘You are here.’
As he stood and stared bleakly at it, a sudden inhuman wail of terror emanated from it as of a man having his soul burnt from his body. It screamed above the wind and died away.
Zaphod stared with fear and his blood seemed to turn to liquid helium.
‘Hey, what was that?’ he muttered voicelessly.
‘A recording,’ said Gargravarr, ‘of the last man who was put in the Vortex. It is always played to the next victim. A sort of prelude.’
At that moment another dismal scream rent the air and Zaphod shuddered.
‘What can that do to a guy?’ he breathed.
‘The Universe,’ said Gargravarr simply, ‘The whole infinite Universe. The infinite suns, the infinite distances between them, and yourself an invisible dot on an invisible dot, infinitely small.’
‘Hey, I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox, man, you know,’ muttered Zaphod, trying to flap the last remnants of his ego.
The elevator began its descent.
‘I must get myself into the right frame of mind for this,’ muttered Zaphod.
‘There is no right frame of mind,’ said Gargravarr sternly.
‘You really know how to make a guy feel inadequate.’
‘I don’t. The Vortex does.’
At the bottom of the shaft, the rear of the elevator opened up and Zaphod stumbled out into a smallish, functional, steel-lined chamber.
After five seconds there was a click, and the entire Universe was there in the box with him.
The door of the Vortex swung open.
From his disembodied mind Gargravarr watched dejectedly. He had rather liked Zaphod Beeblebrox in a strange sort of way. He was clearly a man of many qualities, even if they were mostly bad ones.
He waited for him to flop forwards out of the box, as they all did. Instead, he stepped out.
‘Hi!’ he said.
‘Beeblebrox…’ gasped Gargravarr’s mind in amazement.
‘Could I have a drink please?’ said Zaphod.
‘You… you… have been in the Vortex?’ stammered Gargravarr.
‘You saw me, kid.’
‘And it was working?’
‘And you saw the whole infinity of creation?’
‘Sure. Really neat place, you know that?’
Gargravarr's mind was reeling in astonishment. Had his body been with him it would have sat down heavily with its mouth hanging open.
‘And you saw yourself,’ said Gargravarr, ‘in relation to it all?’
‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’
‘But… what did you experience?’
Zaphod shrugged smugly. ‘It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby, I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!’
The Retaurant at the End of the Universe
by Douglas Adams, pp. 57-63
‘Oh and in case you were wondering,’ added Zarniwoop, ‘this Universe was created specifically for you to come to. You are therefore the most important person in this Universe. You would never,’ he said with an even more brickable smile, ‘have survived the Total Perspective Vortex in the real one. Shall we go?’
p.71 of the same (my emphasis, obviously)
“This Universe was created specifically for you to come to”
In most traditional games, you are the centre of the universe. I mean games like Super Mario Bros., R-Type, Pitfall, Prince of Persia, 1942, Populous, Lemmings, Asteroids, Super Monkey Ball. Games like that: pretty much any of them, but the specific common thread I’m interested in is that there’s a player character, or at least a player entity, however abstract, and a game world, and the relationship between the world and the entity is that the world is created for the entity and vice versa. Mario’s platforms are all conveniently at the height of Mario’s jump (or they’re specifically not), and Mario’s jump is just perfectly high enough to reach the platforms.
If Mario’s platforms were too high, if R-Type’s levels required you to fly left, if 1942’s bullet patterns were undodgeable, or if you didn’t have enough bashers for a Lemmings level, the games would be worse. It used to be that the player entity was always, and necessarily, at the centre of the universe.
Those universes were created specifically for you to come to. You were therefore the most important person in those universes.
Game narratives tended to reflect that, too — you’re the hero, the champion — and it was all a lovely kind of escapism.
A world made for you. Oh, wait — and for you, too.
That idea starts to get poked at a bit when more players are introduced. Can two people be the centre of the universe? The world still suits all the players — player abilities and the game world are still defined in respect of each other — but you can’t be the one and only star of the universe if there are two of you.
If you’re co-opping, maybe you can keep the illusion going. You can be part of a team and the team can be the star. But things get interesting if you start competing.
That’s the brilliance of the flip at the end of Double Dragon’s (1987) two-player co-op. Suddenly (and astonishingly, when my child self first got there) you find that only one of you can stay on the pedestal as the hero of everything — there can only be one most important person in the universe. The sudden switch from co-op to competition changed it all. For one player, the I’m-the-hero escapism was given a fantastic real-world boost — you are the best! — for the other, it was left battered in the gutter.
The social invasion
I remember a vague trend around the late 90s where some people started moaning about games being judged too often on their multiplayer options, and about every game needing to cater to that. Lonely gamers starting feeling left out. Then, when Xbox Live brought online multiplayer to the masses, even lonely gamers could have friends — on a list labelled “Friends”, so you knew — and the floodgates of interconnectivity were open.
In Everybody’s Golf 2 (1999), I was the golf champion of the entire universe. In Everybody’s Golf 6 (2011), there’s a national tournament every day, where the top 200 places are held by players who are better than me and got lucky on a few holes. I bet it would feel great to be number one.
The purest distillation of this thought is perhaps Curiosity — What’s Inside The Cube? (2012), where thousands of players engaged simultaneously in the most mundane and rudimentary gameplay, tap tap tapping a cube until one of them — and only one of them — tapped the very last bit of it, revealing a secret prize. The prize turned out to be inauguration as “the sole, all-powerful god” at the centre of the universe of 22cans’ next game, Godus, reigning supreme and unchallenged over all other players.
The champion of a universe like that can feel fantastically special, but it’s a lottery: a drastically smaller chance of a much bigger prize than when it was just me and a pretend golf course. With a game like this, my lonely, introverted, egocentric escapism has gone.
Of course this is all good news. Games have changed and grown, despite my typical moans to the contrary. Even obvious, mainstream examples will show you that, but once you look at the true variety of games that are out in the non-AAA world now — out there to the chagrin of the now-rotten hardcore! — you can see that we need barriers like this to fall, and for videogames to keep becoming new things as fast as they can.
Fun as multiplayer is, though, sometimes I do still want to be the centre of the universe, and so I’ll play single player. (How uncool am I? Everyone’s talking Desert Golfing, and I’m still on Everybody’s Golf.) But now, and unavoidably forevermore, that lonesome option has a context. Now, I know that I’m only the centre of the universe because I chose a universe that was suitably limited. I had other options.
The landscape has changed post-MMO. Player-centrism is no longer a necessary feature of a game, it’s a design choice. And the doors have opened for games to play with that realisation.
Our new worlds
And play with that realisation games have. Looking at things in this way, I think, opens a rich avenue for critical interpretation of games from the last few years.
The Stanley Parable (2011) emphasises the limitations required for us to be the protagonist of a story. It makes explicit the ways in which the world and our own potential must be restricted — and in some ways stripped of meaning — for us to be the centre of everything in a story.
Thomas Was Alone (2012) — a game that’s just so “quotable” in terms of it’s design — features a player character who remarks on his own position in the world, and the fact that the world seems to be made just for him. He then starts to ask why that is, which is a question that’s far more meaningful if the world might not have been made only for him. (I’ve written about this before.)
Curiosity — What’s Inside the Cube? (2012) exaggerated the phenomenon to the point of absurdity, although it wasn’t the deepest game, with its extreme separation of one supreme and final (arbitrarily decided) champion and many thousands of exactly equally meaningless minions.
Then there’s Journey (2012), which gives the thrill of completion and expertise to players in a shared universe, but does so in a quiet and humble way which harmonises with the new quests of others joining the same universe. Success here is not a zero-sum game. It’s multiplayer, and cooperative, but somehow retains the one-player privilege of player-centrism by allowing each journey to be personal and unique — it’s your journey, so you are the centre of it.
Even DayZ (2013) explores (albeit, perhaps, unknowingly) the fear and oppression of survival-of-the-fittest laws of the wilderness when the player is unlikely actually to be the fittest. (I wrote another post on DayZ in this context.) Instead of making a way for you to succeed as hero and champion, the whole game works because you won’t succeed like that. If there’s a game where you need to be ready to embrace failure — unfair, sudden, wasteful failure — it’s DayZ. (Is this the Total Perspective Vortex of gaming?)
No Man’s Sky (release TBA), although we don’t know much of it, looks like it must answer a question about non-player-centrism and the Total Perspective Vortex. If you’re one explorer of many in an infinite universe, will you be in danger of perceiving your own insignificance? Will that be interesting? The website describes what might be a neat answer. Apparently, you’ll be able to put your name to the locations and life-forms you discover, and so leave a lasting mark on the universe for other players. I wonder whether a player’s self-worth in that framework will come from communal achievement, individual public recognition, or some kind of private story, unique to each player. One to watch (which, fortunately, everyone’s watching).
There was a great piece by Mattie Brice last year on player-centrism in games — “Death of the Player” — in which she questioned the need to be hospitable to players. “Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games,” she writes, “lies the assumption that the player is paramount.” She argues that making a game world hostile, unpleasant, not fun, and even unsolvable are legitimate artistic tools in the designer’s box. Designers having license to think like that is going to be part of the future of games.
We went through the early days of tough arcade games, which used sticks more than carrots to get more coins from us, on into equally tough console ports, which used brutality to achieve longevity, and through an era, in response to that, of handholding game design, which raised questions of being too easy and made a running joke of tutorial levels. I think we’re in an era, now, where designers can comfortably make game worlds inhospitable or imperfect deliberately, and we can treat that as a dimension for creative expression in games. In turn, games can be deliberately, decisively, and meaningfully accommodating of the player — again, as an act of artistic expression, not just by default or by presumption.
One crucial aspect of that dimension for expression will be the metaphysical standing of the player in the game world.
Is this universe created specifically for you to come to? Are you therefore the most important person in it?
Is the world made for your enjoyment? For your frustration? Will it accommodate you at all? We’re on such an exciting trajectory here.
Anyway, back to my nice, private golf.