You’re Not The Only One Playing Video Games By Your Own Weird Rules
I walk everywhere in games. When I play a game like Skyrim I configure the controls so that walk is the default movement speed and I have to actively force my character to run, usually by holding down an extra key or button. It’s not that I have a total ban on running in RPGs; it’s more that I limit myself to only resorting to a sprint when it would be appropriate for my character to do so. I’ll walk from Whiterun to Riften, but if a bear spots me then, of course, I’m legging it as fast as any Argonian can.
Pinpointing exactly when I started doing this is difficult. It may have been the original Deus Ex, nearly two decades ago. My JC Denton was a stealth-oriented UNATCO agent and thus spent much of his time squatting painfully to creep around Liberty Island. Perhaps this conditioned me to enjoy future first-person (and occasionally third-person) RPGs and immersive sims at a snail’s pace. All I know is that regardless of whether it’s Morrowind or Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption or Dishonored, I have been doing a lot of walking ever since.
But I don’t walk alone. We all invent these little arbitrary video game rules to play by.
Following The Road Rules
Earlier this year, game developer Elissa Harris tweeted, “I am almost always re-playing single player GTA V. But outside of missions, I tend to obey road rules, play as if the characters are real, play exclusively in first person, and without the HUD — I have to know the city and read road signs.”
Elissa later told me she had been playing Rockstar’s games in a “slightly less reckless than intended” fashion for some time, but first began to take this law-abiding approach seriously in GTA IV where it resulted in a more immersive experience.
“I mostly just enjoyed wandering around the world,” she says. “Once I could play in first-person, with the HUD off, I found the immersion increased manyfold, and with the ability to do various non-violent tasks and missions — such as taxi driving — it became even more fun.
I’ve played various Grand Theft Autos in a similarly less reckless than intended fashion, particularly IV and V where swerving through oncoming traffic or mounting the pavement can feel comically at odds with the graphically realistic cities both games depict. By the same logic, my Geralt doesn’t just walk, even when on horseback he’s more comfortable traversing the countryside of The Witcher 3 at a slow trot. For me, like Elissa, placing these limits on the way I move through the world makes it feel more like a real place. That is, if Geralt behaves in a believable way, I’m more likely to believe in everything else that happens in his world.
Placing these limits on the way I move through the world makes it feel more like a real place.
Brendan Keogh is a research fellow in the Digital Media Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology. He is, basically, a video game scholar. I figure if anyone could comment on why we enjoy such self-imposed rules when we play, it would be him.
“I think it’s not a coincidence that most of these examples are open-world games,” he says. “Open-world games are fundamentally about asking a player to make their own choices within existing systems, to make their own meanings to some extent, so it’s just natural that players want to find other ways to play with these games and systems.”
Mostly, I was just glad he didn’t laugh when I said I always walk in games.
“The walking instead of running thing is interesting, and something I do myself whenever I play newer Rockstar games because I really enjoy just being present in those games. It feels weird to jog everywhere in Red Dead Redemption 2 in a way it doesn’t feel weird in Grand Theft Auto 3. Which raises an interesting question: how much are these rules that we think we make up as players actually encouraged or discouraged by the game itself and its designers?”
Dean Longmore is a game designer who worked on L.A. Noire while at Team Bondi, and a vegetarian. He opted to play all the way through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a vegetarian Link, and he’s grateful that Nintendo’s designers did not discourage him to do so.
“I interacted with the world the way that felt natural, and the game was good enough to support that,” he explains. “Hell, look at how cute all the animals are. Can you be sure that playing as a vegetarian isn’t the right way to play?”
Not killing animals was one priority, Dean tells me, a task made slightly challenging by the propensity of Hyrule’s wildlife to panic when Link is fighting a nearby bokoblin. Another was figuring out what to do with all the meat he’d find in bokoblin camps.
“Is it more ethical to just leave it and let poor cute dead animals go to waste? Or is it more ethical to collect and sell, thus profiting from it?” he asks. “I alternated between both options, I think, spending most of my game feeling compelled to collect any found meat, so at least a hungry village person could make a meal of it.”
Cooking plays a large role in Breath of the Wild as various meats, fish and critters can be thrown into a pot to create health-restoring meals and ability-boosting potions. Restricting himself to only fruit, vegetables and whatever the heck a lizalfos is meant a host of useful tools were out of Dean’s reach. In the end he’s not sure if his Breath of the Wild experience benefitted from a lack of Gourmet Meat Stew but, he adds, “On the flipside, if the game had mandated the killing of wildlife, or didn’t give me the freedom not to, it would have been really difficult to enjoy.”
The Pacifist Gamer
Self-proclaimed “game hacking Youtuber” Lance McDonald finished Watch Dogs without firing a single bullet because, in his words, “it made the game a fuckload more fun.” He tells me he felt this might have been how the game was originally intended to be played.
“Guns felt like they just existed because AAA games are meant to have guns, even though they just made the game worse,” he says.
“There’s heaps of times in Watch Dogs where you need to hack some object deep inside a massive building. You can just go in and shoot everyone and get to it, the same experience you’d get in any AAA open world action game. But there was always an alternative approach that relied on the mechanics that are entirely unique to Watch Dogs: hacking cameras, hopping from node to node, trying to find a way to traverse the networks in the buildings to reach the goal without even entering the building.
“Avoiding guns really helped me see the huge amount of effort that had been put into setting up the game world to be a playground for hacking,” Lance says. “It highlighted the things that were actually really fun in that game: the hacking and infiltration.”
Finding New Ways To Play
Some players impose restrictions on their play for very different reasons. Steph Bendixsen, better known as “Hex” when she hosted ABC’s Good Game, tells me when she was a kid she and her friend would invent “horrible challenges” for each other during their video game sessions.
“In Mario Kart 64 [we devised a rule] where we had to win races while deliberately running into every obstacle in the process — moles, the chomp thing on Rainbow Road, whomps. It was like some masochistic handicap.
“We’d also play Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, but we’d only allow ourselves to use one move and a block,” she adds. “I always played as Cammy and used this sweeping ground kick. We later banned it because it was too over-powered in the circumstances.”
For Steph, these invented rules didn’t just make the games more fun, they were born of a very real childhood need to squeeze every last drop out of a limited selection of games.
“Back then we didn’t have a whole lot of games so it was about finding new ways to enjoy the ones you had,” she says. “I think [these restrictions] added to the enjoyment for sure. It was ludicrous and frustrating and, in turn, hilarious.”
Playing by self-imposed rules is about playing a game with a video game.
When I ask him why we enjoy rules, Brendan Keogh says it’s because rules create possibilities.
“If I told you to put a golf ball in a hole, that would be an easy task to achieve,” he says, granting me a somewhat undeserved vote of confidence.
“But if I told you that you had to put the ball in the hole without touching it, now you have something interesting to achieve. Now if I said you can hit it with this stick, and whoever hits it the least times is the winner, now we something at stake and a possibility space within which cool stuff can happen.”
Players have a lot of leeway to determine what that cool stuff might be. Or perhaps a better way of phrasing that is to view all that leeway as the cool stuff itself. Adding new rules and restrictions inside a game’s possibility space doesn’t mean less cool stuff – it can mean more. It can mean living as a law-abiding cab driver in Liberty City. It can mean laughing with your friend as you crash into every whomp on the track.
“An interesting thing to think about is how digital games don’t really have rules,” Brendan continues. “If I’m playing soccer in the park with my mates, I can physically pick up the ball in my hands and run away, if I wanted to. It’s not allowed, but it is possible. If I’m playing a soccer video game, on the other hand, chances are picking up the ball is impossible. In non-digital games, some actions are allowed and others are not allowed. In digital games, some actions are possible, and others are impossible. No matter how much I might want to, I can’t talk to the monsters in Doom.
“Playing by self-imposed rules is about playing a game with a video game. ‘Vegetarian mode’ is a game played with Breath of the Wild just like soccer is a game played with a ball, two nets, and a field. It’s about taking a group of objects with which different things are possible, and adding extra rules of what is allowed. That’s really what all games are.”