The Iterations of Punxsutawney Phil

‘sup, Phils?

Remember Groundhog Day? It’s that 1993 film about Bill Murray’s character, Phil, who keeps reliving the same day, February 2nd, in the Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, where on that day, the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will predict when winter’s going to end. No matter what he does during the day, the human Phil keeps waking up the next morning to the same song playing on the radio, the calendar having reverted back one day, and landing on February 2nd again. Evidently, he is doing something wrong, failing to overcome some challenge that will allow him to progress, to move on with his life.

It’s an awful lot like the way we tend to play video games these days. Faced with challenges in a game, we have the quicksave and quickload buttons close at hand, ready to revert to an earlier point in the game to try again. If you get to replay a section of a story over and over again, any challenge inherent in the original situation quickly morphs into a matter of trial and error. Like Phil in Groundhog Day, we get to try out every interaction, every conversation option the world allows us. More importantly, in a typical collapsing together of character and player, Phil – like us – retains (meta)knowledge of everything he did earlier.

What’s left becomes more and more like a puzzle, an exploration of which succession of steps leads to the result desired by the player or dictated by the game. Failure is ultimately out of the picture, unless it is the failure of becoming bored and frustrated with the complexity of combined options available and/or the opacity of what it takes to ‘win’. Get frustrated enough, and you fail by ragequitting. For Phil, of course, this wasn’t an option. Being player and character at the same time, his only way of quitting was suicide, which merely led to another reload.

What Phil wanted, ultimately, was the affection of his colleague Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. During most of the movie, he tries to impress her with his wit and arrogance, but that doesn’t get him far. Only after a multitude of reloads and trials does he try, as per Rita’s suggestion, to start working on himself as a person. In the end, he uses his metaknowledge not to directly further his own goals (e.g. scoring with women), but to help the other people in Punxsutawney out in whatever way he can. And lo! and behold, suddenly Rita likes him a whole lot better too. The reload loop is finally broken as Phil wakes up on February 3rd, Rita next to him in bed.

This is all well and good – a puzzle is a challenge in its own right – but sometimes the discrepancy between the problems represented in-game and their real-life equivalents can be glaring. In life, there are no takebacks, and certainly no magical reloads where everyone except you forgets what happened.  In other words, real life is, in this respect, much more of a challenge, or at the very least a different kind of challenge. Of course, games are not obligated to present challenges that accurately reflect real-world ones. On the other hand, many designers strive towards a high-level of verisimilitude. Perhaps, then, it is worth thinking about how we could achieve such life-likeness in games when it comes to challenges of communication and interpersonal relations.

CRPGs tend to feature such challenges heavily in their quests and storylines. As Alexandra Geraets pointed out, these games play with our expectations of the other characters – or at least they try to. We base our moral decisions on what we have to go on, on the impressions characters make. Sometimes, those characters can deceive and betray us, leading to outcomes in the game’s story that are unexpected, and morally unwanted. It’s usually possible to move on with the game regardless of these consequences. Sure, your relationship with the character(s) in question might change, and if the game is particularly well-written and responsive to its own branching storylines, other characters and the society around you will take into account what happened earlier and change their disposition towards your party. All the same, there’s usually no reason why you couldn’t move on with the game. Cause or allow a genocide to happen in the game, and there are no massive armies to hunt you down and stop you. And if there are, it’s the game’s way of saying: “You screwed up. Time to reload.”

The same goes for romantic relationships in RPGs. Kim Moss argues that many romantic interests in games are dressed-up dispensers: you put ‘kindness’ in, or whatever the right conversation options are, and romance (sex) comes out. In addition, I would say that combined with the practice of reloading savegames, figuring out what to say and do is again reduced to a puzzle, more than a meaningful representation of a relationship between two persons. Try enough times, and you know exactly what buttons to press in order to bring a romance to a successful conclusion.

This leads me to wonder where the real challenge in character interactions and conflicts is if you can redo them. If you have an eternity to figure things out, like Phil, eventually you will end up with the right approach, because the world never seems to change. No matter how many evolving iterations of Punxsutawney Phil we get, everyone else is still the same, enigmas at first, but ultimately predictable bundles of cause and effect. Is there any valuable moral lesson at all that we can take away from this? If the real world doesn’t work this way, why then should games?

Are there ways of breaking out of this mould? The issue of ‘no takebacks’ – within one iteration of a whole game – has been amply addressed by many games in history, from Chess to Super Mario Bros. You fail, you have to start over. Recent games like Dark Souls and FTL play on the ‘old school’ and ‘hardcore’ connotations of this permadeath feature. Of course, player metaknowledge remains and is a crucial factor in beating such games, but there is at least a distance from the small-scale quicksave/load loops of many other games. For obvious reasons, however, such hardcore modes work best in games with little roleplaying and character development. Or rather, in cases where a long-standing character is lost to permadeath, the dissonance between “It’s just a game” and “Damn! I’ve invested so much in this character” may severely challenge the fun factor of a game for all but the most masochistic of players. It becomes it bit too much like failing in real life, in other words.

In real-world challenges, where permafail (and permadeath) are givens and we (or most of us) have no past-iteration metaknowledge to go on, if we want to succeed we really have to do things right the first time. You have to be able to think on your feet and stay cool in unexpected and complex situations between people. Ironically enough, a practically representation-less game like Super Hexagon might train us to do just that, on a very abstract level. The only way to succeed at Super Hexagon is to attune yourself completely to the motions and rhythms of the game’s rapid patterns.  Of course, you ‘fail’ many, many times in the game, so what am I talking about? What I mean is that perhaps Super Hexagon stimulates us, in a safe environment, to become more in tune with the rhythm of the universe, and subconsciously process knowledge and observations so that we can respond fast enough to meet the challenge posed.

Let’s go out on a limb then, and imagine how we could do something like what Super Hexagon does for ‘pure’ gameplay, but with a focus on character interaction and story. A game that pushes you to weigh all options and make the right decision the first time around, because there are no second chances. It would have to be a game, possibly RPG/adventure-like in its conversation design. It would have to contain permafail, at least when it comes to the choices made in social interactions and conversation; no takebacks. If the game, in addition to deep character and story development, features violence and combat challenges as well, as most RPGs do, then perhaps permadeath is not ideal for most players, for reasons outlined above. What we need then, is a hybrid system where you can redo battles that go wrong without having to start the game from scratch, but which holds you to the character interaction choices you make. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yeah, this sounds quite a bit like The Walking Dead, and I can only commend the game for taking significant steps in this direction.

Of course, like Super Hexagon, but on a vastly longer timeframeyou could replay this hypothetical game in a new iteration, in order to try out different options. In the end, you’d be ‘gaming’ the whole system again, and we’d be back to the puzzle model. In order to counter this, the game has to introduce more unpredictability, like the semi-random wall patterns in Super Hexagon, but for characters and conflicts. Perhaps character X will respond differently to your same acts in a different iteration of the game. Well-written characters, like real people, will act according to their general personality, but still be unpredictable to some degree. You can’t take them for granted, just like real people.

This results in a game where every choice has a meaningful consequence. Things can go wrong, and players may fail in their intentions, but if this failure is presented as a natural result of their choices, they might be less inclined to interpret this in a gaming state of mind as not having found the right solution to a problem yet. Sometimes in life, there are no right solutions to particular situations, and you have to move on. If the game presents enough meaningful alternative goals to strive for, these failures can be taken in stride, as we try to do in real life.

These ideas were explored to some degree in Moss’ article above and the responses to it, and I think exploring these issues will be extremely valuable to the future of game design. Permit me this cheesy sign-off: one of the biggest challenges facing designers is to go beyond the Punxsutawney Phil-model of static iterations, and towards more dynamic character challenges that allow video games to represent real-world challenges even better.

This article was written for the January 2013 edition of Blogs of the Round Table – theme: “challenge” – over at Critical Distance.