The drastic life changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have engendered many societal phenomena, though few have been more inspiring and reassuring to me than the effort from artists and artistic organizations to make content more easily accessible.
From streaming content being provided for free to dance lessons offered remotely to anticipated movie releases online, the artistic community has come together to encourage audiences to stay home and combat the virus’ spread. Even one of my professors and her husband, a professional chef, have started a delightful series of home cooking videos.
These changes have helped kick-start a massive democratization of art. In a world where ever-rising prices of admission to theaters and the like and scarcity of access to new content threaten to turn art into a commodity of the upper class, these steps toward accessibility — even if only temporary — are remarkably heartening.
Video games, as a medium of entertainment, have ranked consistently low on the accessibility scale. Games are sold at a reliably high price point. The typical PlayStation game normally costs $60, not to mention the hundreds of dollars required to purchase a console on which to play it. Along with these costs, games require a monitor or television, access to reliable electricity and, increasingly essential in recent years, a stable internet connection.
Once the technical barriers to entry have been overcome, there is the question of “video game literacy,” the degree of commonality across game controls and design that makes gaming harder to break into for new players.
Once someone makes the considerable effort to enter the gaming world, it is my belief that game designers should try their hardest to be accessible and intelligible in their design. For this reason, I can think of no greater crime in game design than the moralizing system of alternate endings found in games like 2012’s “Dishonored.”
The first-person stealth game puts the player in the shoes of a royal bodyguard-turned-assassin named Corvo who seeks revenge for his murdered queen and attempts to rescue the captured princess. To this end, the game uses an overarching, hidden mechanism called Chaos, accumulation of which is to be avoided. Chaos increases based on a number of factors, but it chiefly depends on the number of enemies Corvo kills on any level. Kill 20% of the game’s enemies and you get the “Medium Chaos ending,” 50% and you get the “High Chaos ending.” These endings cause harder late-game play as well as a generally more negative ending to the story, even outright castigation of the player by allied characters.
At face value, this doesn’t seem like a terrible mechanism. A game that places value on human life and dissuades excessive kills is a positive, especially juxtaposed with wildly popular and deeply cynical game franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto” that, while meritable in their own ways, tend to present violence in a disquietingly comfortable way.
In “Dishonored,” however, the Chaos feature is deeply hypocritical. A vast majority of the powers, level design and story design are centered around Corvo killing his opponents. Anyone who’s attempted a “Low Chaos” run will tell you how difficult and oblique the game is when played without killing. The game presents the player with a game play method driven by defeating enemies, yet it chastises the player for killing too many enemies by altering the ending of the game. This feature not only makes “Dishonored” seem hostile to the player, but also ultimately makes the game more inaccessible to anyone trying to glean messages, themes or artistic value from the game writ large.
Even so, it is not impossible for games with multiple potential outcomes to be implemented effectively. While in “Dishonored” this feature makes the game less approachable, other games use the same tactic in ways that contribute to the work as a whole. Games like “Undertale” and “The Stanley Parable” found ways to weave multiple endings seamlessly into the very core of their game mechanics. Players are not punished for playing like most people would, but rather are rewarded for trying novel, inventive ways of beating the game.
Being given a bad ending for using game mechanics normally, like in “Dishonored,” is a frustrating, punitive experience. Meanwhile, in “Undertale,” the only way to achieve the “worst” ending is by abusing game mechanics and playing the game in unintended ways — which is an exploratory, rewarding experience regardless of the curveballs thrown by the game itself.
Games shouldn’t punish players for using the systems the game provides them with in the first place. Games shouldn’t hide content, themes and messages behind obscure, joyless and unnecessarily difficult ways of playing the game.
In a medium already so permeated with inaccessibility, game designers should take care to make the value of their work more immediately accessible to the player. And for all of our sakes, if game designers are going to implement multiple endings to their games, they should keep in mind that self-defeating formats like “Dishonored” make the player feel just that.
Mac Riga is a junior in the College. START/SELECT will appear in print and online every other week.