So there’s this game called Voyageur. It’s an interactive fiction game released on PC in 2018 – it was a mobile game before that, but I’m not sure when it was originally launched. In this game, you fly along past a string of planets, heading towards the center of the universe on a one-way trip to increase the total of humanity’s knowledge. Each planet has a text description, and they’re just really good. I’ll write out the description of this planet from the screenshot below, to make it easier to read.
“Your ship lands in [a] beaten circle of earth carved out from a grove of orchard trees. Your descent to the spaceport is flanked by spiralling and curving biomimetic skyscrapers. The streets are flanked with geoengineered trees growing oblong striped fruits, an edible public amenity. Sunlight glints off the roads; you found this world on a perfect springtime day.”
That’s wonderful! Apparently, Voyageur generates these descriptions randomly, from a pool of possible options. You can find streets flanked with trees laden with bulbous colourful fruits, instead of oblong ones – but they’re still an edible public amenity. You can find dolphins “moving around on the land on a harness with sturdy metal legs,” and you can find whales “moving around on land on a harness with sturdy metal legs.” In my most recent run, on four separate occasions I was “caught off-guard when a passer-by’s platinum-coloured eyes turned out to be the glowing monocular camera of an android’s face.” It’s, ah – it does get a little samey.
This aspect of the game was picked up on in reviews, where it was treated pretty harshly. As always, the problem with randomly generated things is that they turn into procedural oatmeal. If you’ve seen one planet, you’ve seen them all. As the RPS review has it: “After a certain point, their randomness offers no narrative meaning, and you stop reading them. And after a longer while, I stopped reading almost everything in the game, having read it all so many times before.” I get that, for sure. I found that in my games. I’d start off reading everything religiously, and over time it all just sort of slipped away. The RPS review sees that as a strike against the game (“this is a piece of interactive fiction that can be effectively and successfully played without actually reading it”). I’m not going to disagree, per se – what I see here is an opportunity to think about how text and system relate to each other in video games.
Let me ask you a question. I’ve been playing Shadow of War again lately – I’ve played it quite a lot in the past – and in this playthrough, I can say with confidence that I haven’t stopped to admire the environmental art. I haven’t really been staggered by the execution animations. The writing, if anything, seems worse. But I would also say that I’ve really enjoyed replaying it. It’s satisfying. I enjoy the mechanics, the systems. I have an affection for the game in itself, for the pure ludic core that sits at the heart of Shadow of War. In some ways, my feelings resemble the ones identified with regard to Voyageur. Both games involve a falling away of the aesthetic wrapping, be it textual or visual, and a renewed focus on the ludic core. With a little reflection, I think we can identify similar processes in most games. Nobody plays chess to be startled by the look of a bishop. Nobody really cares about themed Monopoly sets. The question, with all of that in mind, is what do we make of these games? Is it right to complain that the text in Voyageur becomes samey? Isn’t that sort of like complaining that water is wet? If it’s the nature of games for the aesthetic wrapping to fall away in favour of the core gameplay loop, is it fair to criticise a game when that process takes place?
In thinking through this question, we might start by noting that the aesthetic elements don’t exist in isolation from the ludic core. In the screencap above, we’re about to fly to one of three new worlds. The textual descriptions tell us things about what types of worlds we’re looking at. One has an industrial economy, meaning they’ll pay more or less for certain types of items, and one has been “lobbying us for economic relief,” meaning that their market has crashed and they’re unlikely to pay high prices. That planet will be good for buying stuff cheap, and bad for selling things. These descriptions all tie into the ludic core of the game. They are aesthetic markers of the underlying system. By contrast, the planet descriptions don’t mark anything in the same way. They’re disconnected from the game system, which is why they’re easy to ignore. There’s no ludic incentive to pay attention to them.
Of course, that’s not to say that visual or textual objects have to be entwined with gameplay systems. There are plenty of instances where they’re entirely separate, and where that separation is positive and compelling. For instance, think about literally any cutscene. It’s a video clip that most often has no relationship with gameplay systems. You’re not required to ‘play’ those moments. You can just sit back and enjoy. And it’s probably fair to say that the way we engage with these non-gameplay visual or textual artefacts is quite different to how we engage with the game. Like any book or film, these elements can have their own form of replay value quite aside from the pleasure that we take in playing another game of chess.
The question, then, is not whether we should criticise games for the aesthetic elements dropping away in favour of the core gameplay systems. That’s just a fact of how games operate. The deeper question is how games structure themselves in response to that fact. How do they balance the gameplay and non-gameplay elements against each other, given that non-gameplay elements will often or maybe even inevitably fade into the background? One response is to arrange those non-gameplay elements into a narrative, which has its own sort of longevity. There are other, similar responses that equally lean into the traditional strategies of visual or textual modes. They can be poetic, or have great characters or strong pacing. In the case of Voyageur, a game about exploring new worlds, the obvious narrative strength lies in the newness of each world, in the sheer imaginative variety of an infinite universe. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Voyageur doesn’t have. The machine that generates world descriptions from a pool of possible options only emphasises the limits of that pool. It speaks to boundedness, rather than to the unfathomable and unending. If we stop reading, it’s because the text fails to articulate a thematic vision relevant to the game. It’s not just that it’s disconnected from the gameplay, or that it fades into the background. Those things aren’t necessarily problems. Arguably they’re very normal parts of games. But the text doesn’t have enough substance either in itself or in relation to the gameplay to remain compelling when those shifts take place. That’s a problem.