I, like many, many other game players recently, have begun playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR). I am not really any good at aiming on a console. I’m very much a mouse and keyboard kind of person. And even then, I stick to games that have a low reaction time requirement. So why did I decide to play DX:HR? Part of it was because I saw everyone else playing it, and part of it was that my roommate played it and it looked like some fun. But what really got me to playing the game was that it was a game that supposedly let you play however you wanted. I was interested in seeing how they did it. I was also interested, keenly so, in breaking it.
I don’t know what it is about games. Some of them, I’m content to just go along and play it the way that it wants me to. Some games, though, just beg me to subvert them, to play them in a way that they aren’t meant to be played. So, for example, in DX:HR, I am playing the game non-violently. The game rewards you for playing non-lethally, and you can take it a step further by never being seen (but you still can knock people out, as long as they just never see you). I took it even further, stating that I will never act in violence unless the game will not move forward.
As an aside, there have been a number of other bloggers who have pointed out that the boss battles in DX:HR are counter to the game’s design of letting players play the way they want to (they are forced, violent combat situations). I won’t rehash this here, other than to say that I think that the other bloggers have it well covered.
Subverting games comes at a sudden impulse. I think it happens when I figure out something that the game is trying to do, and then become consumed by the desire to want to break what it is trying to do. I wouldn’t say it makes the game more fun, or that it is more challenging. Simply, it gives more of a purpose to my play. In EverQuest, I used to log out while sitting on top of things. In Oblivion, I would scale mountains by jumping and strategically falling onto rocks or other outcroppings. These were simple subversions. They just added a bit more flavor to the game or made me feel like I had done something I wasn’t supposed to do. My roommate was playing DX:HR just now, his second time through. He took three cardboard boxes and stood on top of a turret and dropped them in front of it, providing cover. I don’t think the designers intended for this to be a viable way to pass in front of the turret, but it worked. This kind of subversion feels like cheating, but it is cheating in a way that you feel good for having done it. Game designers call this emergent play (where unexpected styles of play crop up) and is generally considered desirable by designers.
My desire to play DX:HR non-violently is a deep subversion. Deep subversions don’t feel at all like cheating. Instead they feel like taking control of the game and authoring a bit of it yourself. These kind of subversions, for me, follow a metanarrative. I provide a reason for me to be playing a particular way. For DX:HR, I have added onto the main character’s backstory. In the main character’s backstory, they often refer to an incident in Mexicantown, which prompted the main character, Adam Jensen, to leave the SWAT team. In my version of this story, Adam Jensen not only left the SWAT team but also left violence altogether. During the course of the game, Adam Jensen is given cybernetic augments, against his will, and essentially turned into a weapon. He resents this and strives to do his best to do no harm.
DX:HR is a great example of adding metanarrative to a game, in order to facilitate subversive play. But DX:HR is a very open ended game. It is designed to be played however you want to.
What about a more rigid game, though? Probably the most rigid game I can think of for this discussion (that I have played) is Final Fantasy V (FF5). In FF5 there are four main characters. They are essentially equal in capability. FF5 also has a job system, where the characters are assigned a framework for battle skills and statistic progression. All four characters have access to the same jobs equally, and can do each job equally well. The characters’ personalities, though, suggest that a particular character should be a particular job. Leena, for example, is a kind and caring individual who has a deep emotional connection with others. She seems to be best suited, by way of personality, for healing jobs. I notice this and subvert it. Leena becomes my warrior instead.
This is subversive play, but it is not deep. I don’t have any reason for Leena to be a warrior, other than the fact that I could see the game suggest that she be a healer. Another character Faris, has a personal connection with a sea dragon name Syldra. Syldra is lost early in the game, but can later be summoned in spirit by someone with the job of “Summoner”. In every game, I make Faris into a Summoner, because I add a metanarrative to the story (Faris chooses to be a Summoner because of Syldra, hoping to connect again in spirit with him). This is deep play, but it is not subversive (in fact, I strongly expect the game designers expected Faris to be a Summoner, why else have Syldra be something that can be summoned?).
There are some people who play a game like FF5 with certain constraints. The most common of these is a solo game. FF5 is meant to be fully played with all four characters, but some players intentionally kill three of them and leave them dead for the whole of the game. These solo games are certainly subversive. They can be deep if there is a reason to do it beyond just the thirst for a challenge. For example, one could add a metanarrative that three of the characters died permanently and one of them is the last hope, fighting to avenge the fallen. With this metanarrative, you would have to find a way to reconcile all the interactions the characters have through the rest of the game (perhaps the main character imagines the interactions, dreaming what it would be like if the others had lived). This deepens play, and it remains subversive. It is also highly challenging (far too challenging for me).
I don’t know why I enjoy subverting games. I must if I keep doing it. And while I enjoy both the triumphant cheating style of subversion as well as deep subversive play, I find that the deep subversive play is more lasting. It stays with me and is more of a reason to keep playing. Perhaps I just like testing limits, or perhaps I like to take control of a game and rewrite it as my own.
For right now, I am going to go play my pacifist Adam Jensen, and enjoy the inner turmoil he will face when he is forced to fight.