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.