The other day Liz Ryerson made this great tweet:
#1ReasonWhy VIDEOGAMES ARE ESCAPIST FANTASIES OF CONQUEST AND MASTERY AND I’M INTERESTED IN SOMETHING ELSE OTHER THAN DELUDING PEOPLE
— Liz Ryerson (@ellaguro) November 27, 2012
Liz wasn’t being entirely serious, and she later noted she doesn’t think “conquest” games are necessarily BAD, but, I thought this was interesting to consider. Video games do overwhelmingly tend to fall into narratives about domination, “beating” something, power fantasies of one type or another, and it’s easy to make a game fundamentally about this without realizing you’ve done it.
I started wondering: What are my games about, exactly?
So I made a list. Here is the basic player motivation / plot impetus in every game I’ve made (whether I released it or not):
- “Jumpman” Try to escape a pit.
- “Angels” Consume, but do not be consumed.
- “dot” Consume.
- “Impression” Try to escape a pit.
- “The Snap” Kill player 2.
- “You Don’t Fit” Try to escape a pit.
- “pongx8” Beat player 2 at tennis.
- “My Own Footsteps” Find an artifact.
- “Day & Night” Escape a wall of lava.
- “Template” Descend ever further into a pit.
- “Reverse Tarot” Write a story.
- “Unplayable Asteroids” Cause as much property damage as you can get away with.
- “Markov Space” Write a story.
- “Xaxxaxoxax” Try to escape a pit.
- “A Dark Place” Descend into, then escape, a pit.
- “The Shadowland Prophesy” Try to play a video game.
- “Breathe” Descend into, then escape, a pit.
- “7DRL” Descend into, then escape, a pit, while killing everything you see.
- “Flipper” Try to escape a dreamworld.
- “Luanauts” Save the world?
- “Fall” Kill everything you see.
- “Fall2” Carefully climb into a pit.
- “The World Hates You” Try to escape a pit.
- “The Nervous System” Consume.
- “Death By Chocolate” Try to escape a dreamworld.
My games probably aren’t representative? But I notice, I did kind of fall into a pattern about what kinds of narrative I make. A good half of these games are, fundamentally, games about being trapped in some kind of hostile situation or deceptive reality and trying to escape. (Hm.) And without having really thought about it at the time, a good 33% of the games I made wound up being some kind of domination narrative, assuming you count Tennis. (One thing I’ll note, counting it out: Only 20% of my games, at some point, give the player the option of killing something.)
You know what? Never mind the power fantasies thing. I think this is an interesting exercise by itself. So I challenged the indie dev community (or the portion of it which was reading Twitter at 2 AM this tuesday) to make their own plot inventory lists. Here’s what I got:
- Leon Arnnott / @WebbedSpace: “I think about half involve defeating some animate thing.”
- James Hofmann / @TripleFox
- Kyle Reimergartin / @mooonmagic: “This was surprisingly difficult.”
- Sergio Cornaga / @corneaga: “Colour-coded based on @ellaguro’s allegation.”
- John D. Moore / @thesycophant
- Noyb / @realnoyb: “Perhaps a bit too cagey with spoilers.”
- EffBee / @gt_effbee
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is whether video games constrain you in terms of what kind of stories you can tell– obviously you can make a game about anything, but at some point you have to marry your narrative to a mechanic, so unless your story is in certain ways goal-oriented, unless you’re clever maybe it won’t be a very interesting game or you’ll find your story and game design goals fighting each other at some point. Coming back to Liz’s point, between the eight people listed above– and remember, we’re indie devs making mostly small experimental games, so we’d expect a broader range of kinds of games here than you might see in say commercial games– we made 345 games and 150 were what I’m broadly defining as domination narratives. Under half! That’s not so bad. Thesyncophant had the smallest proportion of “conquest” games (22/70) and Kyle had the highest (8/10). KYLE REIMERGARTIN: CONQUEROR OF GALAXIES.
Game devs: Send me your plot inventories! I DESIRE DATA.
UPDATE: More lists:
- Snapman: “I also [color-]highlighted key words related to fundamental actions.”
- Switchbreak / @switchbreak
- Porpentine / @aliendovecote: “Hard to pin down a running theme.”
- Christopher Whitman / @SeeBeeWhitman: “I am going to do this while drinking vanilla tea and eating an entire bag of dried mangoes.”
- JP Whiting (see comment section below)
- Niall Moody / @NiallEM: “Organised roughly into shared categories.”
- Alejandro Grilli J. / @alegrilli: “I originally wrote a super egomaniacal rambling here, but I’ve opted to save you the eye-rolling.”
- Electric Stories (see comment section below)
- Nanosity / @nanosity_: “Here’s my collection of games. I need to make some more.”
- Anna Anthropy / @auntiepixelante: “i’ve made a lot of fucking games, so i’m restricting my list to those games that appear on my selected games page, meaning the games i’m the proudest of that weren’t lawsuited out of the app store.”