Let’s draw up a loose taxonomy of video games – not in earnest, just as a temporary tool, as something explorative rather than definitive. Let’s say that there are games that push you to act, and games that don’t. An example of the former might be a first person shooter. There are bad guys running around the place, and you have to respond proactively to their movements or you’ll get shot and lose the game. Time pressure is one element of this pushing, but it’s not all of it. Many turn-based games push at you too. Even if you’re not on the clock, you can still play your turn poorly and end up losing. There are still bad guys coming to get you – there’s strategic pressure, if you like. In both of these examples, the game puts you under siege. It pushes at you, besieging you with fail conditions. Time is one of the most obvious, although it doesn’t always threaten failure. Consider Stardew Valley – that’s a game with a very clearly defined time mechanic. You move through the seasons, the days – but you never really feel under siege. You don’t need money to live, there are no real deadlines – you can do a bit of farming, maybe go fishing – but the game isn’t really pushing at you – especially compared to something like a survival game, where mechanics associated with time and food do legitimately threaten to kill you.
Of course, as mentioned, in the broader sense this distinction between ‘games that push’ and ‘games that don’t’ can be contested. Every game shapes its player, determining the range of available actions and their various outcomes. That shaping can be understood as a type of pushing, as a way of configuring the player, orienting them towards a specific horizon. My definition here is more limited to the stability or permanence of the game-state – whether the game pushes at you with loss conditions that threaten to hurl you out of the game environment, or whether it’s happy to let you be. The Witness would be a good example of the latter sort – there are puzzles which you can fail to complete, but you’re never put under siege. You’re never threatened with expulsion. You can simply wander the deserted island.
So let’s accept this distinction – again, just as a temporary tool, as something that might help us think critically about certain games. For example, Tonight We Riot is a crowd-based beat-em-up where leftist punks fight off the police. There’s an interview with the developers that’s always stuck with me – they talk about how “If you start up the game, load up the first level, and then just take the controller and set it down, the first thing that’ll happen is riot police come in and beat all of you to death.” Within our framework, we can see that the game uses an aggressive type of pushing to suggest things about the real world – to suggest that police in the real world are readily violent without provocation, that peaceful protest is necessarily doomed to failure, and that armed resistance is therefore a legitimate course of action. Similarly, we’ve talked before about environmentalism in Don’t Starve – how scarcity is used to push the player towards systems of sustainable long-term survival, in turn suggesting things about natural resources and resource consumption in the real world.
This idea also gives us weird little niche cases, games that don’t fit properly into one category or the other. Take the Arkham games, for instance. In these games, there are two main types of encounter. Batman either fights criminals by hand in beat-em-up sections, or he sits in a stealth mode, picking off gun-toting criminals by striking from the shadows. The punch-up sections are obviously pushy – if you don’t fight, the bad guys kill you. You have to dodge and counter and do all your fighting moves in order to resist, in order to stop the game from pushing you out. The stealth mode, though – that’s a little different. There are some pushy elements – the bad guys obviously have guns, and if they see you, they’ll shoot you. You also have to get close to all of the bad guys in order to take them out – so there’s an element of sneak up on granny. If you’re too loud, or if they look in your direction, you’ll get shot. What’s interesting about the Arkham games, though, is the scope given to safety – that is, the ways in which these stealth sections actually aren’t that pushy. In most situations – almost all of them, frankly – you can find safe spots from which to observe the thugs going about their business. You can perch on the gargoyles, and really just stay there for as long as you like. Nobody looks up in this game. Your high level of maneuverability, the speed of your movement, and the ability to look over the whole environment mean you can wait and plan the safest moments for your attack. You can cause distractions – blowing out walls, setting off mines, exploding fire extinguishers – even attacking a lone thug in order to bring everybody running, either to lure them into a trap or just so that you can pick off anyone who lags behind. There are clear consequences for poor planning, but you select the time and manner in which you engage with those risks. Outside of that engagement, the stealth sections allow you to exist largely push-free.
And that’s part of the game’s power fantasy, right. You’re Batman. You shouldn’t feel besieged by a bunch of thugs. But the game also offers detailing about the exact dynamic of Batman’s power. He’s not bulletproof, not invincible. He’s not free of consequences. His power – and the player’s – is the knowledge gap between him and everybody else. If the thugs knew about his hiding spots, they’d be able to flush him out, or catch him attacking people. Often you’ll knock someone out, and the thugs won’t realise for half a minute. You’ll hear belated calls – he got another one, how’s he doing this – and it’s empowering, because they’re so late to figuring out what’s going on. You engage in risk management, minimizing your exposure to being pushed or threatened. If you experience the push directly, you’ve almost done something wrong.
This is honestly where these thought experiments become really valuable – they help us to articulate certain dynamics in games. The Arkham stealth sections are about negotiating your engagement with risk. They don’t push you, they don’t add lots of pressure – they offer you an environment, and allow you to sit above the danger until you’re ready to engage. They speak to surveillance, to knowledge, to the power of being able to wait. They’re tools for characterization as much as gameplay – those are all qualities of Batman’s character. By playing the game, you’re configured towards that characterization – ‘pushed’ towards playing in a Batman-esque way. The taxonomy might not be bulletproof, but it gives us a way to articulate the structure and experience of the game. That’s good enough reason to at least entertain them.