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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.