Back in 2016 I wrote about this specific little detail in a game called Kingdom, a side-scrolling strategy game where you try to build up and sustain an empire in the face of the inevitable ravages of time. In this game, you pay for upgrades and tools and so on with coins, and there’s this really neat little trick where the coins shift subtly between the different levels of the fiction. When you go to pay for something, the number of required coins appears above the object, and you hold the down button to confirm your payment, and plug your coins into the gaps. You can see in the image below – there are three gaps, three coins required, and the first gap has been filled. Obviously that all exists on the level of user interface – it’s not something that the characters in the world can see, it’s just something there as a visual representation for you as a player. It’s like the arrow keys that pop up on the screen when you play through the tutorial. However, if you decide not to fulfil your payment – if you release the down arrow before all the gaps are filled, or if (like in the image below) you simply don’t have the coins to pay – then whatever coins you have used will fall down from their slots, falling out of the user interface and into the fictional world. They land on the ground, you pick them up, and you carry on about your business. That’s always fascinated me – just the way in which this element slides so fluidly from user interface back into the fiction, without any disruption or jarring seam between the two parts. The form of the video game medium allows Kingdom to blur the line between two components that might otherwise be considered quite separate. Today, I want to talk about another game that does something similar. Ever hear of Vision Soft Reset?
Vision Soft Reset is a 2019 Metroidvania from Mark Radocy, a programmer who’s published a couple games as side projects. The premise is that the world ends in twenty minutes, and your character, Oracle, can see the future, meaning you can explore all the different possible pathways through the world (seeing them as a series of visions of the future) and figure out how to save it. There’s a Braid-esque moment to moment time rewind feature, allowing you to undo damage, and then a broader structural ‘time tree’ feature, where you can revert back to key save points, rewinding your timer and allowing you to explore radically different paths. The twenty-minute time limit means you can only play for twenty minutes in one timeline without having to draw back and reset – so each pathway has to be relatively brief, or it needs unlockable shortcuts where you can use new techniques to skip chunks of the level. It can also have quite aggressive dead ends – so for instance in the tutorial, you can fall down a hole, and that’s it – you’re stuck. If you’re quick you can rewind back up out of the hole, but otherwise you have to return to an earlier save point.
And you can see how the ‘future vision’ thing works here. You play through the game, and if you do something dumb or get yourself killed, that’s just you seeing one possible future version of events. You move back to an earlier save and try again, or try a different path. The whole tutorial, actually, is one big fake-out – you land your ship on this planet, wander around for a bit, learn that the world is going to end, and then – oh wow, you’re back on the ship, and you were seeing the future all along. You tell your friend that the world’s ending, and there’s this funny little bit where the tutorial boss shows up again as you’re landing, and Oracle goes oh yeah, I forgot I had to deal with him, and runs offscreen and kills him.
In essence, Vision Soft Reset provides a fictional skin around the game mechanic of the fail state. It explains how you can lose the game and then try again, incorporating those failed attempts into the overarching narrative instead of just disregarding them. Normally, a failed attempt would be treated as almost non-canonical – we talked about this when we were looking at Rogue Legacy. If you’re describing the plot of Halo, you don’t include the bits where you died a bunch of times to the Flood. That’s not part of the canonical story – it’s a narrative pocket that’s almost overwritten or negated by your successful attempts. However, some games, such as Rogue Legacy and Vision Soft Reset, manage to bring your failed attempts back under the core narrative – for whatever we think that’s worth.
In the case of Vision, that fictional skin around the fail state also becomes something of a double-edged sword. Things that previously could be understood as failures of skill now become embedded in the narrative as failures of thought. Why would Oracle think about jumping in front of bullets, or about failing to jump out the way? Why would she bother seeing those futures? They’re just visions, right – so why would she focus on the visions where she botches things? In normal games, the narrative cul-de-sac of a fail state actually serves as a sink for poor play. When we suck at games, we can write those losses off as not really part of the story. Vision doesn’t have that option. The failed futures are specifically things that Oracle has thought about – and it’s not really clear why she’d do that.
The problem here is Vision‘s specific form of fluidity. Where Kingdom blurs the line between user interface and fictional world, Vision blurs the line between action and thought. You don’t really control the main character – rather, your actions represent her visions of a possible future. What you do is what she thinks about doing, what she foresees. In other games, your actions inform the actions of your character – if you push the buttons to make your character fall off a cliff, that’s what they do – they walk over and off they go. But here, your actions inform the movements of a mind. You stop acting as an individual embedded in a fictional world, as both your character and the environment are reduced to visions, specters of the future in the mind of the protagonist – who, again, you do not directly play. You only play the hypothetical future version of herself that she sees in her visions. The line becomes blurred between your actions and Oracle’s thoughts, meaning as you play badly, it becomes part of the narrative that Oracle keeps focusing on stupid futures. It’s not something that necessarily jars as you play – it doesn’t seem weird or disconcerting – it’s just one of the odd little implications of blurring lines that are maybe there for a reason.