Thursday, November 22, 2012

Desperate Gods and rules-forcing in video games.

Desperate Gods, by Wolfire Games, is a virtual board game made for Fuck This Jam; you have a bunch of virtually simulated tokens and cards, but you must process and execute the game rules yourself. You can easily cheat, but then what's the point?

DG is not the first game or toolset to do this, although it's certainly the most polished and nicest looking so far. LackeyCCG, for instance, gives you a deck builder, a table, some tools for keeping track of state, then walks away and lets you get to it. The rationale, from their FAQ:
Q: Does LackeyCCG force people to follow a CCG's rules? Will it allow me to do something that isn't legal?
A: LackeyCCG does not implement rules forcing. I have tried other methods of playing CCGs online and I have found that forcing rules adherence just serves to bog down the game and makes it much less fun to play. Lackey allows you to simplify your turn when not much interesting is happen (so you can get to the more fun parts of a game faster). LackeyCCG will allow you to do anything you could do if you were playing with real cards. It also allows for a more formal adherence to the rules if you want to play that way, but it doesn't force any particular play style.
There are a few implications that emerge from this implementation -- that game design is not a matter of programming, that cheating isn't "cheating" if you want to "get to the fun part" faster, and that games are mental constructs that we voluntarily create so why not voluntarily change their fundamental structures at any time?

Non-digital games commonly have a notion of "house rules", changes in balance or mechanics that rarely require any material changes -- limits on betting and handling blinds and buy-backs in poker, or number of re-racks and and edge-case handling in beer pong, or what the hell to do with "free parking" in Monopoly. They're called house rules because the host broaches them and the players, being guests of the house, are obliged to oblige. You don't argue with them. You just welcome the constraint with sportsmanship.

Meanwhile, in video games, a house rule is often a design impurity encoded in a context of perceived skill and player authenticity. You "break" the game design either because you suck or because you're so great that the regular game is too boring otherwise. "No rushing" in Starcraft is a house rule that only novice players would broach because they cannot balance the trade-off between early-game build-up and massing vs. later-game build-up and teching. In contrast, "ghosting" a level by never alerting or KOing guards is a house rule in the Thief community that only the most hardcore players attempt. (It's worth noting that the ghosting in Dishonored, as ratified in the game system, is fairly lenient compared to the original house rules.) Anna Anthropy contextualizes the house rule in Asphx, a platformer where the player is told to hold their breath if their character is underwater, as a welcome player handicap that still effectively operates even with peoples' different lung capacities -- again, a certain notion of difficulty and skill.

I argue that non-digital games, with house rules, are not necessarily tied to skill in this way. They're just different game variants that you accept, otherwise you're a stubborn asshole who thinks they're hot shit. It's like the American notion of organized religion -- it's your own business if you're practicing or non-practicing.

(See also: "Why are Rooie Rules Nice?" from Rules of Play.)

It makes me wonder whether hybrids are possible that combine these unique affordances better. I'm not talking about some silly "Eye of Judgment" augmented reality thing; I'm talking about something more like Desperate Gods, except what if there were AI players in this who try to hide tokens underneath the board, or purposely fudge the math on something, or move your pieces while you're alt-tabbed away?

What if you could argue with a computer about the design of the video game it's enforcing?

("Assassin's Creed, I want you to stop with this sci-fi foolishness and skip all the cutscenes forever, from now on... Well, I don't care... Look, I'm sorry, I... Stop crying, please...")