This week, Paste Magazine’s Austin Walker wrote a fascinating article about sanity systems in games. You can find it here and it’s well worth a few minutes of your time if you haven’t read it already. Having dozens of urgent jobs to do this evening, I decided instead to take a few minutes to think about how I’d deal with portraying a slow, uncontrolled descent into madness if I were a AAA game developer.
Eternal Darkness is the game most commonly trotted out when screwing with the player’s head is discussed. The Eternal Darkness wiki gives a full breakdown of the game’s many and unusual moments, and some of them, such as faking blue-screen errors and game exits have cropped up since in AAA titles that attempt to seed confusion. As Walker points out, many of these are simply ‘pranks’, but the genuine terror of seeing your game files apparently erasing before your eyes is for many gamers the stuff of nightmares.
For me, if you’re going to screw with a player’s head, you need to look at the things players take for granted – Like the questing system. We all know how it works, you get a quest, usually from an old man in the corner of a tavern, or from an ubiquitous audio-diary if you’re in the far future. This quest gets added to your logs and you doggedly tick off your objectives in the vain hope of being rewarded with a pile of bottlecaps or a shiny new weapon.
But what if you’re mistaken? What about getting back to that old man with the gold key and finding that the quest log you thought you’d read now says something completely different? The old man didn’t want the gold key, he wanted the blue key. You talk to the old man and he asks if you’ve found his blue key yet, furthering your confusion. Of course he wanted the blue key, it’s to go in the blue lock. Did he ever want the gold key, or were you just not paying enough attention? You peer closely at him. Didn’t he have a beard the first time you talked to him? You’re sure he had a beard.
Opening your inventory, you look for the gold key, figuring if the old man doesn’t want it, what could it be for? It’s not there – the gold key is missing. You check all your bags doggedly, but the gold key is nowhere to be found. There’s a blue key though, that could be useful.
Digging it out, you return to the bar to find a young man sat in the old man’s space.
“Have you found my red key yet?” he asks.
Thoroughly lost on the forest path, you pause at a junction to check which way you should be going. To your left, a small bridge crosses a river and to your right a cobbled road runs up a hill. You open your map, looking for some helpful information. Head left and over the bridge – it definitely says to go left and over the bridge. You close the map.
To your right, a small bridge crosses a river. To your left a cobbled road runs up a hill.
You kick down the door to the dungeon and stab an orc through the chest. “Princess!” you yell. “I’m here to rescue you!”
The orc gasps, clutching at his gaping wound and coughing blood from his lips. “Princess..?” he coughs, “I think you’ll find we live in a Democratic republic. Ultimate authority and power is derived from our citizens…cough… the government itself is run through elected officials…urk.”
You drop your sword, utterly confused. It clatters off the stone floor and only then do you realise it’s not a sword, it’s a broom.
The orc is your sister, she’s now got a big bruise and is crying for your mother who is in the kitchen making tea.
“I’m not playing with you any more Kevin,” your sister screams. “You always take things too far.”