Videogames Without Players

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I made a Super Mario Maker level recently called “You Need Two POW Blocks” (7A92-0000-00EB-B2CB). It’s an autoscrolling level, so you can’t go back towards the beginning. At the end of a corridor is a door floating in the air, two grid cells up from the ground. The only way to enter this door is to place two POW blocks on the ground underneath it, one stacked on the other. The only POW blocks on the level, however, are back at the start, and you can only carry one at a time, and you can’t throw a POW block without destroying it. I made this level once I noticed that if a POW block or P-Switch falls on your head while you are already carrying one, it will bounce forward until it lands on the ground. If the player is very careful, they can move a falling POW block by headbutting it down the corridor, and thus end up with two POW blocks at the end of the stage.

mx9uuywThis is probably not a good level, in the sense that no one who has played the stage on Super Mario Maker’s online community is yet to actually complete it. It is frustrating and obtuse, and it is not entirely clear what you are meant to do. Indeed, no one has completed the last four levels I’ve uploaded. Each of them require fairly intricate and fiddly combinations of Super Mario World mechanics that the original game never actually required. On one stage you have to throw a red shell in the air, then do a spin-jump to catch the shell in mid-air and land on a piranha plant to spin-bounce over a canyon with the shell in hand. On that same stage you have to jump on a P-Switch in mid-air, and somehow get a POW block to the top of a beanstalk.

I’ve also made several levels that aren’t this arbitrarily complicated and unforgiving, most recently I made this one for my friend and fellow game scholar Todd Harper. This stage was a deliberate attempt to use some of the same features I use in my difficult levels but in a more progressive and actually-enjoyable-to-play manner. But for the most part, I’ve discovered this deep satisfaction in designing stages that are afforded a certain systemic intricacy through their general ambivalence towards the player. It’s a satisfaction of making a game level that is beautiful in and of itself, distinct from the concerns of the player who is not going to find it beautiful at all.

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Here’s two ways to think about the player’s role in videogame play:

1) The player as the centre of the world. The videogame should provide the player with opportunities to make meaningful choices and to exert their agency in a meaningful way. The game should be fair to the player and provide challenges that grow in difficulty alongside the player’s own ability. Without players there would be no videogame play; therefore, players are of the utmost importance.

2) The player is the weakest, slowest, and most flawed component of an otherwise perfectly efficient cybernetic circuit. Designed without a human player, the system would work perfectly, without hiccups, and much faster. While the computer can smash out thousands of decisions and act on them in a microsecond, the player has to drag their lumpy fleshy digits from one button to another and press it while also pushing on a thumbstick and thinking about what to do while also not being distracted by a barking dog or the afternoon sun glare on their television screen. Without the burden of the player, videogames could do wonderful and miraculous things. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the need for artificial intelligence in videogames to not be as intelligent as possible (an easy project) but to be plausibly and deliberately fallible so the human player actually stands a chance. Creating a bot that doesn’t win every single round of Counter-Strike I imagine must be as difficult as losing to a toddler in a 100m sprint.

Obviously there are other ways to think about players as well, but I find 2) particularly enticing in how it fundamentally challenges the in-grained stability of 1). 1) represents the dominant way of thinking about videogame players that you see in both videogame marketing material and reviews. That ‘walking simulators’ and Twine games often don’t share the same view of the player as 1) leads to discussion about them being less than ideal games. 1) sees players, largely, as customers of a commercial product, and the customer is always right.

2) is less a practical a way to approach game desing and more just an interesting conceptual counter to 1) that highlights its arbitrariness. No shortage of recent altgames and indie games and other non-commercial games don’t go quite so far as 2) but do destabilise the ubiquity of 1) by seeing the player not as a paramount actor but as just another component of videogame play, acting and acted upon. Others have written manifestos in recent times that speak to this sort of approach to game design. Back in my early days of blogging, I tried to make a similar case through the notion of ‘Player privilege’, deliberately but ham-fistedly contrasting how the assumptions players bring to games (that they will be fair, afford agency, and ultimately be beatable) can be compared to invisible societal privilege. I didn’t make that argument well (this terrific essay made it much better), but the question of what videogames become once you devalue the role of the player (or, perhaps, revalue the role of the non-player components of play) has continued to underline a lot of my work. Once videogames stop being just commercial products, they are able to facilitate different sorts of relationships with the player as other than ‘customer’ or ‘lead actor’, and we are seeing that mentality towards videogame design emerge in recent years and it is real exciting. It’s not that player-as-customer is wrong, but simply that it isn’t the only possibility.

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But back to 2). It is an interesting way to think about videogames as a conceptual exercise. What sort of things would videogames be capable of if they didn’t have to worry about players and all their fleshly flaws? Tool-assisted speedruns provide one potential avenue. The sorts of superhuman (or perhaps more accurately ‘machinelike’) stunts pulled off in Spelunky and Kaizo Super Mario-esque Super Mario Maker courses provide other avenues (where a human player is still required but the spectacle of that human doing what will be impossible for most players is the true pleasure).

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Most compellingly, and something I think about a lot in relation to my own player-antagonistic Super Mario Maker courses are the games proposed by Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide. Here are a series of vignettes that ask the player to imagine playing videogames that are impossible to play. “This prison door is meant to lock you in this room for an hour,” Davey tells us about one of Coda’s games. “But let’s skip past that.” Another of Coda’s games drops the player in a room with no exit, but Davey lets us clip through the wall to see what else is past there. The Beginner’s Guide gets to have its cake and eat it as well. It provides us with videogame concepts that fully embrace 2), but it also allows us a way through them. It says “Imagine a game where you had to do this!” but then, thankfully, does not force us to do that. But we get to imperfectly imagine that.

Imagine a Mario level where you had to headbutt a POW block down a corridor? Nintendo would never make that level and put it in a commercial product because it is unfair, not fun, and from an imperfect human player perspective incredibly frustrating. But imagine it!

Of course, Super Mario Maker is itself a commercial product and stops short of entirely embracing 2) as a course must be at least theoretically completable to be uploaded and played by others. But through its opening of the toy box and providing them to player-designers, it provides an opportunity to appreciate the satisfaction of designing for design’s sake that The Beginner’s Guide’s Coda seems so compelled by. The pleasure of doodling. The satisfaction of creating not for an audience but for yourself. Most digital works, as commercial products, don’t have the freedom to embrace this. Artworks and doodles are not similarly limited.

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I am not making an argument here for a return to the sort of videogame design that celebrates arbitrary challenge (itself a persistent hangover of when videogames sucked in a coin every few fails) and which embraces a certain sort of technological prowess. Really, such traditional sort of videogame design only ever catered to the player conceived by 1) where every challenge, no matter how hard it seems, can be surmounted by hard work and a computer that lets you win.

Rather, I am merely echoing what others have already said in various manifestos and what both Super Mario Maker and The Beginner’s Guide have allowed me to appreciate: sometimes videogames don’t have to be made with players in mind to be worthy videogames. Sometimes, the player doesn’t matter.

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