Is a Game Esoteric in a Vacuum?

This writing begins the conversation of individual player movement toward connoisseurship, the personal meaning-making that leads to some very esoteric games, and the thought that player subjectivity could be examined through an interweaving play history.

When a player finishes playing a game, they have a variety of options. They can choose to stop playing that type of game (or any games). They can choose games of the same, greater, or lesser difficulty. They can choose to play that same game again, a very similar game, or a totally different game. In any case, the player is making a game choice that is progressively tuned to their tastes: becoming a connoisseur and making ever more personally esoteric choices. This is consistent with the work of Grimes and Feenberg (2009) on rationalizing play. It seems reasonable that this “esotericness” can take many forms. If a player’s physical play skills improved while playing a game, that player might select a physically more challenging game next time. If the player enjoyed the setting, they might search out games with similar worlds. There is a group of players1Since these players are not well defined in the scholarly literature (though people are studying them: Klimmt et al., 2009; Milolidakis et al., 2009; Assmann et al., 2009; Begy and Consalvo, 2011; Wohn and Lee, 2013), an example of a series of game choices will act as explanation for where these players come from. Certainly, this will not be representative of all players, but it need not be. The intent of this example is to illustrate the increasingly esoteric choices of a video game player as they move toward their perfect game, and how strange that game may appear to others. that are making this increasingly esoteric choice, likely, after playing their last AAA MMORPG, and I am one of these players.

Bard’s Tale screenshot showing the exploration panel, text description panel, list of characters, and basic statistics
Bard’s Tale screenshot showing the exploration panel, text description panel, list of characters, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.gamersglobal.de/screens/61661).

It began with the Bard’s Tale (Interplay, 1985). With little context, no instruction manual, and no internet, I struggled mightily. Someone overheard me wondering what a bardiche was and asked me if I wanted to try the tabletop role playing game Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax and Arneson, 1974) also known as D&D. Since Bard’s Tale seemed very difficult and limited, I was happy to make the switch. I greatly enjoyed D&D, but I quickly discovered that I wanted to play more and talk less, so when I came across the computer role playing game (CRPG) Pool of Radiance (SSI, 1988), which seemed to give me much of the good in D&D and none of the bad, it was an easy choice to switch.

Pool of Radiance screenshot showing the exploration panel, text description panel, list of characters, and basic statistics
Pool of Radiance screenshot showing the exploration panel, text description panel, list of characters, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.myabandonware.com/game/pool-of-radiance-1u2).

I played through a series of computer role-playing games, and I enjoyed them thoroughly, but I was looking for a persistent world (though I didn’t know of the concept at the time) and a system that was harder to cheat. CRPGs were extremely easy to hack, and while I enjoyed smashing through the games with a party of Incredible Hulks, I was aware that the game was more fun if I was kept honest. That’s when I heard about Ultima Online (Origin, 1997).

Ultima Online (Second Age) screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, mini-map, inventory, and basic statistics
Ultima Online (Second Age) screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, mini-map, inventory, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://condograyskull.com/2014/07/coming-closet-ultima-online/).

Ultima Online or UO had the flexibility of a skill-based progression system, but the skills were all capped, so I ran out of skills to master. Further, after playing fluid, fast-paced first person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D (id, 1992) and Doom (id, 1993), I felt limited by the isometric view and the stilted combat action.

Wolfenstein 3D screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, inventory, and basic statistics
Wolfenstein 3D screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, inventory, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.giantbomb.com/wolfenstein-3d/3030-7694/images/).

I also learned that a game that does not end after a few hours (like a traditional video game) can easily take over your life. The appearance of EverQuest (Verant, 1999) solved my game problems but did nothing for my time-management problems. I enjoyed the creativity-through-constraint experience of D&D-style classes and the freedom of gaining as many skills as I wanted, and the 3D world certainly felt more alive and interesting.

EverQuest (Planes of Power) screenshot showing the exploration panel, chat window, available spells and actions, targetting info, and basic statistics
EverQuest (Planes of Power) screenshot showing the exploration panel, chat window, available spells and actions, targetting info, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/everquest-the-planes-of-power/screenshots/gameShotId,34136/).

However, there were finicky things about EQ that were annoying. For instance, the quest interface was not very kind and many parts of the game were unforgiving. If you were killed and your avatar’s corpse fell into a deep ocean, you just lost all of your hard-earned equipment, and the experience penalties for deaths caused by lag were just as extreme as the experience penalties for deaths caused by attacking too many dragons. Enter World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004).

World of Warcraft (Burning Crusade) screenshot showing the exploration panel, chat window, available spells and actions, mini-map, and basic statistics
World of Warcraft (Burning Crusade) screenshot showing the exploration panel, chat window, available spells and actions, mini-map, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/world-of-warcraft-the-burning-crusade/screenshots/gameShotId,261537/).

For me, WoW was a better, kinder EQ. However, by the time I reached this point in my playing career, I simply did not have the time to play an MMORPG. Thus, I started searching for a game that scratched the MMORPG itch for endless progression and grinding but did not punish me overmuch for not playing 20 hours per day or for wanting to essentially ignore other players. That’s when I was introduced to Urban Dead (Davis, 2005), a game, representing a genre of games, that is nearing the end point of my journey to my own personal, esoteric RPG.

Urban Dead screenshot showing the exploration panel/mini-map, available actions, inventory, and basic statistics
Urban Dead screenshot showing the exploration panel/mini-map, available actions, inventory, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://www.mobygames.com/game/browser/urban-dead/screenshots/gameShotId,350608/).

It is text based, and it is played in the browser. There are other players, but they only provide a light social context and there is no in-game requirement to socialize or group-up. Your actions in the game are limited such that you can really only play for a few minutes per day. There is a whole skill tree for both humans and zombies, and many useful items to find and collect. To the casual observer, Urban Dead doesn’t even look like a game, but to me, it is near perfect. It feels like a game that takes more time and requires more effort to progress in.

The perfect game is, unfortunately, a moving target. Not only does the game itself change, to attract new players and to keep older players playing, but the tastes of the player change also. Currently, I play a little Torn City, a little eRepublik, and a little Pardus, all of which are quite similar to Urban Dead but have much longer progressive arcs.

Torn City screenshot showing the available locations, available actions, avatar image, and basic statistics
Torn City screenshot showing the available locations, available actions, avatar image, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from https://www.torn.com/forums.php?p=threads&f=16&t=15921050&b=0&a=0).
eRepublik screenshot showing the available locations, available actions, avatar image, and basic statistics
eRepublik screenshot showing the available locations, available actions, avatar image, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://mmoparadise.com/games/eRepublik,56,g,v).
Pardus screenshot showing the exploration panel, available actions, inventory, and basic statistics
Pardus screenshot showing the exploration panel, available actions, inventory, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://warriornation.net/Forum/showthread.php?t=574852).

Torn City for instance has taken eight years of play to reach the end of the money game (I have more in-game money than I will ever need), the three-quarters point of the level game (I have reached level 70 of a possible 100), and probably the midpoint of the battle stats game (I have 180 million stats points and many top players have over 400 million). This way, I get the pleasure of slowly progressing and filling up bars without having to start a new game every 100 hours. The mix of games is simply to give me my desired number of minutes per day. One such game was not enough. 3 such games seems to be about right: 15 to 20 minutes per day. Finally, I add a game that requires some physical skill. Currently, it’s Dynasty Warriors 7 (Omega Force, 2011), which, many would argue, does not take much skill, but, like the games described above, mimics difficult progression. It feels enough like a skill-based game that I am satisfied.

Dynasty Warriors 7 screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, inventory, and basic statistics
Dynasty Warriors 7 screenshot showing the exploration panel, avatar image, inventory, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://monstervine.com/2011/04/dynasty-warriors-7-review-2/).

The other class of games that I play for a little physical fix are sports games (NFL, NBA, NHL simulations, mostly by Electronic Arts), but I do not play online or against friends. I play the manager mode, and despite not having the appearance of an RPG-bone in its body, the manager modes of sports games are exactly this type of game, with a delightful twist.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are playing Final Fantasy VII (and if you have not played it, stop reading this and go breed some chocobos to race). Your carefully trained and equipped characters are battling it out with some nefarious creatures. Suddenly, the battle takes a bad turn, and your health starts to drop while the bad guys cackle maniacally. In the real FFVII, there is little you can do but accept your fate.

Final Fantasy VII battle mode screenshot showing the battle ground, avatars, enemies, and basic statistics
Final Fantasy VII battle mode screenshot showing the battle ground, avatars, enemies, and basic statistics (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://level1.over-blog.com/2014/04/1997-final-fantasy-vii.html).

If FFVII was designed like a manager mode, you could hit a button and jump into a button-mashing, combo-filled, fighting game to bend the outcome to your will. If my team starts the season by losing 5 games while in manager mode and they are down several scores to a better team, I can jump in and turn the tide: coming from behind to win and starting a winning streak!

Madden NFL 17, Connected Franchise mode screenshot showing a free agent selection/negotiation screen. While the developers have tried to jazz it up, the numbers are what the player is focussed on. This is a really snazzy spreadsheet
Madden NFL 17, Connected Franchise mode screenshot showing a free agent selection/negotiation screen. While the developers have tried to jazz it up, the numbers are what the player is focussed on. This is a really snazzy spreadsheet (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from https://www.easports.com/madden-nfl/news/2016/madden-17-franchise-big-decisions-and-community).

You can rely on your resource management and strategy in manager mode as much as you want, and you can rely on your physical skill when you need/want to, and of course, if you prefer to be on the field rather than in the manager’s box, you can “manage” from the field as well, largely ignoring the managerial aspects or letting the game’s AI do it for you. Manager modes of sports games provide a way to find the perfect game for yourself, within a pro-sports-simulation context. Part of the fun of a pro sports simulation is connecting to the real-world sports context. For instance, winning championships with your under-performing home team or running your league rivals into the ground feels much better than using the unnamed orange pixels to beat the unnamed red pixels. Here, I’m evoking something like Juul’s fiction (2010), but instead of being within the game, the meaning-making context is outside the game. It is also connected to McGonigal’s “playing alone together” (2011) in that through the existing pro sports context, I get the feeling of being connected to others and of social context without having to interact with anyone. In the end, pro sports management simulations are a complex and extremely esoteric style of game.

Madden NFL 17, on-field replay screenshot showing Vance Walker about blow up a Panthers running play. This is more akin to the action in Dynasty Warriors 7
Madden NFL 17, on-field replay screenshot showing Vance Walker about blow up a Panthers running play. This is more akin to the action in the screenshot for Dynasty Warriors 7 (used under Fair Dealings exceptions for academic use from http://maddenhead.com/madden-17-nanos/).

In conclusion, esoteric games are games that you keep playing and rationalizing, but they are also connected to each player’s game history. Certainly, “history” is a simplified angle with which to understand the deep subjectivity of games, but it is one approach to such a complex problem. Not only are players rationalizing within games (as Feenberg and Grimes suggest), but players are rationalizing outside games and within their own game histories.2At this stage, this line of thought could easily be dismissed as “me-search” which, it could be argued, has little relevance beyond my own life and meaning-making. However, I make no claims to have solved video game subjectivity. The purpose of this work is hypothesis generation. Video game scholarship has, to this point, treated games as generally static things and singular things. For instance, both Turkle (1995) and Nardi (2010) make a point of the rigid nature of the game, as it is a nice contrast with the fluid nature of the people and cultures that both researchers are interested in. Nardi goes as far as calling the game a “software artifact” (2010, pg. 62) which does not well encapsulate the changing nature of the game itself, especially in MMORPGs. Pearce (2009) encounters the concept of the “play history” as her subjects move from game to game, looking for that perfect experience, but her focus is again on the culture of the game and not the rules or the player’s rationalization of them.

Go forth! Read of the esoteric journeys of others on our site. Share your own. Together, let us expose the fluid, culturally integrated, personally constitutive, and deeply subjective nature of our own game experiences.

 

Notes   [ + ]

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