Dev log

Ludo-narrative Self-reflection

By Hugo Montembeault
Portal (Valve, 2007)

One major influence behind Bug Hunter is Portal (Valve, 2007). More precisely, its complex narrative, insightful metacommentary, and mind-bending gameplay. Recently, my interest in Valve’s iconic game pushes me to decipher its unique experience and write a book chapter on the topic. During my research, I read multiple game reviews, interviews, and academic articles while also replaying the whole game with developer commentary turned on. Cross-referencing this data allows me to better understand the ludo-narrative elements that sets it apart as a landmark video game. Consequently, it forces me to reflect critically on my own project and its potential shortcomings. Such a look in the mirror put some crucial questions at the forefront of my research-creation, namely about the interplay between fiction, gameplay, and discourse. This devlog discusses some of the recent hesitations I had and the thought process behind them. It also sketches out preliminary solutions to work around those problems.

Narrativity

While studying Portal’s, I was surprised to learn the game wasn’t supposed to be narrative-driven at first. The sinister story of Chell’s imprisonment and exploitation as a lab rat by GLaDOS, a rogue AI craving for science at the expense of human life, only comes after early playtest sessions. Realizing the dryness of a pure puzzle-solving experience, designers decided to develop a narrative structure that gives meaning, direction, and purpose to solving increasingly difficult test chambers.

This discovery really got under my skin. I was flooded with new design questions. Was my platforming-based gameplay concept too dry? Would it fall flat after 20 to 30 minutes? Is using funky glitches to kill bugs and explore glitchy environments engaging enough to motivate a deciphering of the deeper meaning? What narrative elements would give more depth to gameplay and sustain a better level of interest while also contributing to the main discourse of the game?

I approached these hesitations as a way to remedy another uncertainty. Bug Hunter wants to produce an ambiguity around the subjective positioning of players (not unlike Chell’s ambiguous backstory and identity). Simply put, the identity and role of my first-person character will be ambivalent. Are we embodying a playtester or a glitch hunter? A cheater or a hacker? A regular player or an artist? A producer or a consumer? Ultimately, I want this unclear identity to be invested personally by players and shift during gameplay according to actual interpretation and course of action. That being said, how can I be sure that this ambiguity is felt and invested throughout the experience? This is where narration comes into play.

This is still an embryonic proposition, but I imagine a scenario in which the game opens with a close-up overlooking a fictional computer screen (similar to those hacker games). Upon navigating the interactive desktop, it seems to be the workstation of a game studio in crunch time. Screenshots of the creation process (actual images of Bug Hunter’s development), calendar of tight work schedule, list of bug reports, game engine software open in the task bar, and the like. Closer inspection leads to a confidential chain of emails. Its content reveals an angry conversation between two producers. They complain about the shortcomings of the development process and the vaporware scenario on the horizon. The last email concludes on a sarcastic note saying that, at the very least, playtesting costs are reduced by fans freely catching bugs while playing a hacked beta version of the game. At the end of the email, a link redirects to a live feed of a game server monitoring a fan at play/work. When clicked, the first level of Bug Hunter is loaded and the participant gains control of the avatar. 

Between each level, I could bring players back to this fictional PC and further develop its narrative content. That would give me a space to highlight the ludo-political economy of glitches from the standpoint of game design depending on which playstyle has been adopted. Considering my time constraints and manpower limitations (I’m working alone to ship a small game in about a year), this narrative device would be tremendously helpful to steer the game’s message. Moreover, it appears as a strategy to create a sense of unity by integrating all my levels and their glitchy content into one coherent whole structured around the “troubled production” narrative trope.

Finally, this template can be used to overcome another of my design uncertainty regarding the end game states. Since the beginning of my project, I am haunted by the importance of distinguishing two main types of glitching. First, an exploitative glitching that seeks to overcome game challenges as quickly and efficiently as possible using glitches as commodities (neoliberal ethos). Second, an exploratory glitching based on the appropriation of glitches as creative artifacts to toy with game materiality, tinker new experiences, and reflect critically on game design and gameplay (anarchist ethos). To characterize these two distinct attitudes, I need a way to offer at least two possible scenarios with their respective outcomes. The suggested narrative structure would provide a solution to this problem. I could use simple metrics such as the amount of bugs killed, the total play time spent in a level, special variable declaration when secret areas are reached, etc. to roughly evaluate if glitching has been conformist or transgressive. Based on that information, I could adjust the email conversation in the fictional computer to fit players’ chosen playstyle. From there, the game can have two different endings. For instance, being hired as a playtester or taking the first step to become a glitch artist. Either way, taking insight from Portal, inclusion of storytelling elements can only help set up some “keys” to open the “door” of Bug Hunter’s meaning.

Gameplay

Another important layer of meaning in Portal lies in the ludo-narrative tension between imprisonment and liberation, behavioral conditioning and physical disobedience, illusory agency and subjective emancipation. On one hand, Chell has to comply with GLaDOS agenda up to a point where she is forced to burn her beloved companion cube into an incinerator to finish test chamber 17 and continue the game. On the other hand, when it becomes obvious that her nemesis wants her dead, Chell has to rebel against GLaDOS and hijack the Portal Gun to escape a burning pit. Then, she has to turn the tool of the system against the system by using all her acquired knowledge and navigational tricks to find and destroy the AI. After a massive explosion that throws her out of the Aperture Science facility, liberty seems two fingers away. Suddenly, she is drawn back into the building leading to the end credits where a song interpreted by GLaDOS brags about the success of the experiment.

From a ludo-narrative standpoint, this scenario is brilliant. The physics-based puzzle-solving skills which are the by-product of the player-character subjugation become essential know-how to get vengeance and seek liberation. At the same time, players need to come to term with the fact that their liberation is necessarily illusory. Not only in the sense that Chell didn’t manage to escape, but because the rebellion in itself was planned by the designer who is the real architect and puppet master. Thus, Portal forces players to become conscious of their place in the video game apparatus as puppets whose agency and apparent transgression are always already coded by those who set the rules and own the means of production.

This complexity made me rethink the winning conditions of Bug Hunter. The original ludic proposition is a rather unidimensional “seek-and-destroy” scenario. Players have to find a hidden crack by which flying creatures (the Bugs) enter the simulation and mess with its physics. The goal is to use the 4 glitchy mechanics to kill these bugs. Finishing this task spawns a patch-like artifact needed to repair the fissure and go to the next level. When re-evaluated in light of Portal’s complexity, those winning conditions don’t do justice to the discourse of Bug Hunter. This formula only rewards the non-critical use of glitches while allowing progression only through a subservient and neoliberal ethos. This undermines Bug Hunter’s discourse and research question where the objective is to valorize the anarchist ethos and test how it could be triggered and maintained by glitches. Imagine Portal ending with Chell being burned during the last test chamber. It would lose its deeper meaning.

To overcome this one-sided ludo-narrative structure, I will design an alternative way of ending each level that rewards close reading/playing, in-depth exploration, creative thinking skills, and craftier appropriation of gameplay mechanics. To answer this call, I will hide a second crack in each level. However, this one will already be patched with loose and breakable wooden planks. Players will be allowed to use their slingshot to unpatch and reopen the rift. This new opening will let news bugs settle in the game world while creating a gateway toward the next level. 

To reach this backdoor, participants will have to try certain jumps that seem impossible at first or climb thin ledges to manage their way around obstacles and discover secret areas. Otherwise, I have some trickier acrobatics in mind inspired by the flinging and double flinging techniques of Portal. In Valve’s game, flinging is a boosted jump where Chell has to use gravity to fall into an entry portal to be propelled through the exit portal with augmented velocity. The double flinging first implies to fling yourselves in the air and then relocate the entry portal mid-air to land in it a second time to double your momentum. With this in mind, I envision a passage where the Uncollider has to be used to remove the collider of a surface in order to jump or fall through it. Right after this first step, the same glitch will have to be shot on another surface mid-air to prolong the trajectory toward the second crack. The idea is to reward curious players who think outside the box, explore the limits of the game space, and adopt a more experimental and transgressive attitude toward the simulation.

Implementing this alternative route will give a more nuanced outlook to the ludo-political tension I want to explore between: 1) the conformist exploitation of glitches in the service of the system versus 2) the rebellious appropriation of glitches against the system. Still, it misses a clearer connection to the economic dimension of glitching in its relation to game design. The first idea of killing bugs to magically spawn a patch in order to fetch it and apply it now seems out of line discourse-wise. To rectify the matter, I will code a simple virtual economy. Each time a bug is eliminated, a certain amount of coins will fall on the ground to be collected. Players will have to use their money to buy wooden planks from a machine called Debugger. With enough material, they will be able to repair the crack themselves. 

However, for the sake of challenges, there will be an anti-production dynamic interfering with this economy. When players trespass beyond the illusionist space of the representation to reach the glitch archive, it will be possible to interact with art works by shooting at them to create random aesthetic effects (changing colors, adding glitch decals, deforming the armature, trigger animations, etc.), thus acting as a co-creative agent through subversive gameplay. These interactions will generate new bugs on location, thus costing money. This design proposition has a better chance of producing a dilemma between: 1) stay disciplined and keep playtesting to earn money and patch the game to move forward or 2) be insubordinate and start interacting with glitch art pieces to reshape their plasticity regardless of the bugs being generated, the money being lost, the poor performance metrics, and the supposedly “main” objective not being fulfilled. Compared to the initial set up, this gameplay loop has a lot more to contribute to the discourse of Bug Hunter in terms of creating a link between game design and the ludo-political economy of glitches.

Metaludic Discourse

In Ensslin’s (2013) terms, metaludicity “refers to aspects of a game whose purpose it is to make players reflect critically upon game mechanics and gameplay” (pp. 84-85). Clearly, Portal is a deeply metaludic game as it produces a clever metacommentary about the processes and effects of game design. Many game scholars have dedicated their efforts to highlight this self-referential nature. Some have studied GLaDOS’ guiding voice, verbal motivation, gradual inclusion of danger, and empty gratification (the promise of a cake at the end) as mise-en-abîme of tutorials, feedback system, game balancing, and achievement. Others see test chambers, surveillance cameras, offices behind blurred windows, and GLaDOS’s monitoring activity as a reflection on how designers track players’ activities to gather data on their gameplay and develop the game accordingly. Several articles interpret the educational nature of test chambers as a mirror of how game design is about conditioning players to behave in a certain way. The antagonistic yet necessary relationship between Chell and GLaDOS is often seen as a comment on the shared ludic contract between player and designer.

All these examples of metaludic markers “thematiz[e] and problematiz[e] game mechanic features typically occurring in commercial blockbusters such as high-speed action, navigability, achievement, and reward, and interweaves them with plot and character development” (Ensslin, 2013: 77). In the final analysis, they all contribute to the cultural value of Portal as a gaming artifact that is conscious of its own materiality, creative processes, medium, game structures, cultural practices, and so on. Portal’s metaludicity has not only brought to my attention the various ways in which a game can foreground its own materiality and discuss its conditions of production and reception. Above all, it makes me understand the importance of doing so in order to push the medium forward, expand users’ mediatic self-consciousness, and contribute to an ongoing cultural effort to situate the medium-specificity of video gaming.

To follow this path, my design approaches glitches as metaludic markers intended to make players reflect critically on glitches and glitching as vital agents of video game art form, culture, and economy. Highlighting this reality within the ludo-narrative structure of Bug Hunter is my own way of thematizing and problematizing the glitch’s ludo-political economy which is at play behind several game-related practices such as game design, exploiting glitches, glitch hunting, surveillance of players, patching games, and game-based artistic interventions. Through an embodied mise-en-abîme of those cultural practices and the possibility to navigate between them, players will be encouraged to question their own relationship toward glitches and level of compliance with the system and gameplay conventions. Ultimately, as in Portal and many other games like The Stanley Parable (Galactic Café, 2011), and The Magic Circle (Question, 2015), players might come to realize that even their subversion was designed and that their glitches were parts of the illusion all along. This is a desirable outcome as it will indicate a self-reflexive and critical thinking process triggered by the glitching experience. In the end, this is the main goal of Bug Hunter

The integration of modifiable references to other art forms related to the artistic appropriation of noise (dadaism, Fluxus, video art, glitch art, game art, etc.) will push the metaludicity to another level. By exposing the connection between glitching in video games and glitching in the art world, I will blur the boundary between art and game, creating and playing, past and present. This will show how the spirit of various glitch-based artistic traditions are the real ghost in the video gaming machine. It is in my intentions to haunted players with this specter. The idea is to make them realize that their glitching activity by which they challenge authors, rules, and conventions take place in the continuity of avant-garde art and techniques. From there, one can start to see that art can be everywhere, even in everyday gaming practice. Maybe such experience can plant the germ for future anarchistic glitching activities hijacking videoludic materiality for the sake of poetic emancipation and ludo-political empowerment; where lies the true untameable agency of players.

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