A video game designer responds to K Chess’ “Escape Worlds.”
It changed my life. These are the words that every working artist, no matter the medium, wants to hear at some point. Everyone has at least one piece of art—a formative album, a deeply felt novel, a visit to grand architecture, a powerful movie—that strikes them at the right time, in the right way, so that the impact lasts forever.
While a novelist or film crew have to do their best to make a story that is personal and honest and hope that it is relatable, game designers have the opportunity to co-author an experience with the players. This opportunity for participation is what drew me into the craft. A game can mold itself to make moments strikingly personal, unique, and, yes, life-changing. There’s less reliance on happenstance that the right person will meet your game at the right time; as a game developer, I have tools to reach out and meet each player where they are.
It was summer 2016, and I was slowly trying to cobble my life back together after a long period of crunch—a games-industry term for a period of 80-plus-hour work weeks (for months, in this case) leading up to a game’s release. I finally had time to return to my hobbies, including picking up games to play rather than only spending time making them. I played Firewatch, developer Campo Santo’s acclaimed 2016 adventure set in the Wyoming wilderness, and over the course of two evenings I found myself deeply invested in the relationship between the character I played and the woman he spoke to over the radio. I waited with eager anticipation to finally meet this virtual friend I had come to know through only her voice. But by the end of the game, we had never actually crossed paths. I never got to see her, never got to be with her, after all we’d been through together. I felt devastated and betrayed, and stewed about it for days until I could digest the experience and see my own real-life struggles in a new light. Between moving to a new city and working overtime, my social life had been mostly reduced to online interactions, including with friends around the country or across the world. The idea that these friendships might be a mirage that could disappear if I tried to make them tangible was threatening, but thinking through my reaction to the game also helped me consciously adjust my expectations and invest more time in seeing friends face to face.
Could Firewatch have been as effective for me at another time in my life? Maybe. Perhaps I would’ve connected with it in a different way. One thing I’m certain of, however, is that Firewatch wouldn’t have been as affecting if it weren’t a game. I might have related to the main character’s loneliness and disappointment if it had been depicted in film, and been moved, but the fact that it was interactive made the experience into my disappointment, and consequently my catharsis.
In K Chess’ “Escape Worlds,” the titular online escape-room game leverages different techniques and technologies to create a meaningful personal experience for our narrator, who finds her life in a tailspin after her husband murders an apparent stranger in a Subway restaurant, then dies by suicide. By detecting breathing, heart rate, blinks, and skin temperature, and tapping into her social media activity and networks, it’s possible that the game can identify she’s going through a major emotional upheaval. The game reflects her sense of isolation and entrapment by presenting her with smaller and smaller levels with fewer opportunities and resources to find a way out. The narrator expresses doubt that the game is so advanced, and it isn’t clear how exactly the data is used, so it’s hard to say if the game is adjusting itself based on heuristics, or if she’s projecting her internal mental state and trauma onto the game mechanics. After all, every wall feels like it’s closing in when you’re spiraling.
Assuming the game is literally adapting to the narrator’s biometric and social data, there are plenty of real-world precedents of games ingesting user data to craft a bespoke or responsive player experience. Before Your Eyes is a game controlled by blinking, requiring an active webcam. The worldwide-smash augmented-reality game Pokémon GO employs a step counter as you traverse your neighborhood and catch pocket monsters. I’ve even seen an experimental project developed at a game jam that connects to an EEG device, and a game could certainly tap into a commercial biometric reader like a Fitbit. The way that the Escape Worlds game pulls information from the narrator’s digital social networks to populate her game with nonplayer characters from the real world gives her further opportunities to project her offline emotions and insecurities. But the game is blind to the deeper social context of her relationships, especially those that aren’t entirely conducted online, leaving ample space for interpretation, like a jumbled dream.
While these kinds of advanced data-mining and biometric technologies are available to today’s game designers, by far the most common type of dynamic adjustment in games involves using analytics on player performance within the game itself to make small adjustments to difficulty, leveraging a variety of design techniques. “Rubber-banding” is the practice of speeding up or slowing down computer-controlled opponents in racing games to better match the player’s skill level; “Trap doors” detect if the player fails at the same part of a game over and over (like a tough fight with a difficult boss, or a horde of enemies attacking all at once) and start making combat a little bit easier, often in subtle ways designed to escape the player’s notice. Part of the reason that using external data to make in-game adjustments hasn’t taken off is that the adjustments are hard for players to identify—as in the story, where the narrator isn’t sure what is customized and what isn’t except by comparing notes with her friends, and even that isn’t conclusive. If the player can’t tell how their experience is affected or enhanced, it’s difficult to justify the inclusion of external hardware or access to private social network data. Adjustments based in performance analytics, however, are meant to go undetected, and serve to smooth over the dramatic experience: A racing game would be less satisfying if an early mistake cost you any chance at catching up, while an early lead can spoil the experience just as profoundly by removing tension and the risk of failure.
Perhaps the most prominent example of integrating social data into games is at Nintendo, which has built a number of games that shuffle digital avatars of your friends and family, called Miis, into a variety of different settings. Nintendo has its own friend network it pulls these avatars from, so you know you’re opting in to having them appear in your game. The joy of these Mii-powered games is that they can draw players in with a unique and relatable context (“My mom struck out my best friend in baseball!”). The games that are available to play with the Miis are carefully curated to be approachable and comfortable no matter how your family and friends are shuffled together, for example playing sports or slaying a cartoon dragon. They’re not simulating speed-dating or a crime drama that might be inappropriately funny or upsetting based on people’s real-life context. Even with these guardrails, Nintendo’s system can summon uncanny, potentially upsetting digital ghosts, such as an ex or a deceased family member showing up unexpectedly if someone is not careful to remove them from their Nintendo friend network.
The levels in Escape Worlds seem to be procedurally generated—a technique that combines small pieces of worlds or levels to make a unique area and challenge. While games like Minecraft manipulate pieces as small as a meter across, I imagine Escape Worlds works more like the procedurally generated maps in the legendary dungeon-crawling series Diablo.
In this approach, a “kit” is made for each setting—like the space station in which the story’s narrator is so hopelessly stuck—with rooms and hallways that connect to each other like pieces of a puzzle. Designers could author multiple objectives (repairing ship parts, launching shuttles, rescuing astronauts, restoring power, sending communications), as well as different challenges to overcome (rogue astronaut, air leak, fire, meteor storm, power outage), and the computer might assign them at random—or based on biometric and social data, if the narrator’s suspicions are correct—so that different players get different experiences. Using different content at different times, the game can be tuned to approximate the dramatic arc the designers want—for example, gradually getting more difficult before a big finale. In this way, the computer functions more like a curator than a creator. In the procedural generation mode, the breadth of possibilities is still limited by how many premade sections, rooms, or objects human designers can make, but the combinations create more stories than anyone could author by hand.
Technology continues to expand the sheer quantity of content that can be created for games, as well as increasing the fidelity at which it can be built. With every game-engine update and game-developer conference comes a wave of new techniques and features. It’s impossible to integrate all of them into any individual game—and to make matters worse, video games take years to develop. Even if I start using the latest tech today, it will be three, five, or even more years before it makes it into the hands of players. But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about what kinds of unique gameplay could be developed with each advancement. Each feature becomes a new tool to shape an experience, elicit emotions, and forge new connections with the player.
Although it’s frustrating and occasionally threatening, the game in “Escape Worlds” gives K Chess’ protagonist a place where she could have some semblance of control. Even as the levels seem to get more claustrophobic and hopeless, the promise of a game—of art—is that there is a pathway to catharsis at the end. We never find out definitively whether the game is using every tool at its disposal to generate an experience that suits the protagonist’s emotional turmoil, social isolation, and unique skills and capabilities, or whether she’s assigning intent to random change—but regardless of the technological apparatus, she still needs to find her own path to emotional closure. Even with the most adaptive, customized, responsive technologies, our games rely on reaching the right people at the right time.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.