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The Groundhog Day effect in video games


Have your ever had that feeling of being repeating the same actions over and over again in a video game? I'm not speaking about the same set of mechanics within a game (which, in fact, can also make you feel that way), but repeating the very same actions and killing/collecting/running through the same enemies/items/corridors. Dark Souls, for instance, could be seen as the paradigm of this particular Groundhog Day effect, but almost in every game you have the chance to feel it. Here's an example of this kind of experience based on Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (in the last attempt almost got it, or that's what I thought, but at the end I failed miserably - once again):


Another good example would be Gods Will Be Watching. Actually , all the game is designed with that idea in mind, you fail and repeat all the time. An endless and painful trial and error process. Even the mechanics are designed to be repetitive, day after day, task after task. You can only manage contextual menus to perform the actions required to progress in the game in a turn-based game. It can be frustrating, but that's the core mechanic of the game: learning the proper strategy, the adequate sequence of actions. Somehow, it makes you keep trying and trying again until you succeed. If you're patient enough, obviously.





The interesting thing is how the mechanics merge into the narrative during the game. Near the end, you realise that all this Groundhog Day vibe is justified and is a fundamental part of the story (and also explains why some characters reappeared even if they were dead, well, sort of). There are random events in the game, little variations that echo through the continuum space-time, but it's always the same situations, performing the same actions.

Is this Groundhog Day effect frustrating? It is, indeed. But why do we keep trying? Do we pursue the temporary relief experienced after overcoming a groundhog-day's segment, even if we know it's just a question of time to bump into the next one? Is it all about a sense of achievement or of a controlled safety? This makes me return to known subjects that are constantly appearing in my research: are video games interactive experiences used for a temporary escapism (the exceptional) or do they belong to the mundane activities we carry out in our daily lives (the ordinary)? On the one hand, video games can be seen as breaks from reality, the quotidian one, because they let us experience unique universes - fantastic or realistic - in which we momentarily detach ourselves from what surrounds us. On the other hand, video games have been integrated into everyday life as part as the many actions, including dull tasks, we carry out on a regular basis. 

What happens when these two situations are closely intertwined in the same experience? In other words, what happens when the Groundhog Day effect makes an appearance? Are we escaping from the monotonous aspects of everyday life just to enter into another land of repetitiveness? Are this repetitive quests and actions reassuring in some way? Is this effect that, sooner or later, we all feel playing video games what makes them exceptional? How do we know we're playing any more? Are video games subverting their own playful nature?

I have recently come across Twelve Minutes, a video game in development that its main mechanic seems to be principally based on the Groundhog Day effect:
TWELVE MINUTES is a top down “point-and-click” adventure game in real-time. You are doomed to live the same twelve minutes inside your apartment unless you use your knowledge of what is going to happen in order to change the outcome and break the loop.






This means, along with the other examples mentioned, video games are starting to include, more or less explicitly, the Groundhog Day effect as part of their core mechanics, logic and narrative. They're playing with it. Subverting the subversion?

[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Deus Ex Machina]

16 comments:

  1. I feel you, my friend, I feel you... What a nightmare that Dark Souls!

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