Not holding the player's hand: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) begins with a bold statement: 'This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand'. Why have its developers decided to include this sentence at the beginning of the game? It seems obvious they want to distinguish their work from those of others by means of implying that most video games hold players' hands. In other words, video games would tend to spoon-feed players, treating them as if they were just more or less passive recipients and relatively incompetent individuals who should be guided accordingly. That's maybe why there are so many in-game tutorials, reminders of what is your next objective, and autosave points just in case something happens; or why there are so many built-in ersatz google maps  in any video game, even though the GPS technology constitutes an anachronism or a mere functional dissonance in the game's universe. But were not interactivity and the player's agency what make video games different? Something is rotten in Rapture.

In order to shed light on this issue, I think it is of the most interest to delve deeper into some of the thoughts expressed by Adrian Chmielarz, creative director of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, about his vision on designing and developing video games at The Astronauts blog. In a text entitled The truth about challenge in games, Chmielarz poses the following question: 'What’s the difference between game challenge and a real challenge?' The answer is clear and simple: 
When you challenge yourself to climb a mountain, the mountain does not give a rat’s ass about you. When you challenge yourself to finish a game, the game does everything it can to help you.
After mentioning a long list of elements that are there to ease the gamer's transit towards the end of the game, which includes, among others, self-regenerating health, in-game hints, grenade indicators, and adaptable AI, he concludes: 'it’s not the challenge, but it’s the lack of it that is the reason why people love video games'. Video games desperately encourage players to overcome every obstacle in order to reach the end. In the end, it's an exercise of over-empowering video gamers that, paradoxically, tames them and makes them malleable. Video games become overprotective and, in doing so, divest the player of their initiative, of their ability to face challenging situations, solve problems, overcome barriers, or avoid difficulties. After all, video games guide us constantly, as if every day they were whispering how much they care about us in our ears: There's no problem, you can reload your last checkpoint. Or wait a minute; your health bar will regenerate in a moment. Watch out, they're shooting you from above! Hey, turn to the right now and then you go straight on; you only need to follow the highlighted lines on the ground. Look, there is your aim, you know what you have to do; if not, don't worry, I'll remind you. That's how it is; in general, video games don't seek to frustrate you as a gamer and stop playing them. The subject subjected.

We face thus a paternalist approach that emerges from the video game and its design. It infantilises the player to a great extent by offering them the illusion - joyful and fun, I won't deny it - of the powerful agency, the one able to make a difference in the world that surrounds them. However, the path of power, agency and freedom is full of pitfalls, as Foucault knew well (2003). How to break with this tendency or, at least, offer an alternative to it? How to let the player loose by giving them only the minimum amount of instructions, and let them cope with the universe on their own? In this sense, Chmielarz gives a plausible answer - one that he tries to apply in his works - in another blog entry. Emulating reality, obstinate like those  Kafkaesque nightmare worlds - because of their ordinariness, and elusive like Haraway's Coyote - that 'protean trickster' (2004: 68), why not create game worlds that don't care about the player at all? 

It's about building game worlds that be indifferent to the player; worlds with their own agency and agenda. The aim is to create universes as if they had already been there before the player arrived. That's why they shouldn't submit to the player just because he or she has showed up. According to Chmielarz, the player must be considered an intruder. And if the intruder wants to survive and progress in that world, know what has happened and what could occur in the future, they will be the ones who must adapt to the environment and not the opposite.
First, a lot of our environments are taken from the real life and put into to the game without the world bending to the player. (...) It’s just you and the Red Creek Valley. And the valley is indifferent, disinterested, real.
I agree with Chmielarz that the universe of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Red Creek Valley, sits there, silent, hardly giving you instructions. You are the one who moves around its landscape; laconically beautiful, photorealistic, crowded with things that once were and don't exist anymore. It is your responsibility as a player to unveil what happened, but there would be no one to tell you if the story (or stories) you concocted are correct. When you finish the game, which you will know because the end credits will start rolling on your screen, Red Creek Valley will have shown and said everything it had to say to you or what you have been able to learn from it. But there won't be anything else; you will be the one who must take full responsibility for the interpretations you make. How are all the stories we found intertwined? What is fiction and what is real? How were the relationships between Ethan's relatives? Stories inside stories? Stories of stories, maybe? What role does Prospero play in all those events? What happened in the end? Life, death?

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not the only title that tries not to hold players' hands. There are other narrative-driven experiences that leave players on their own when it comes to putting all pieces together, such as Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013), Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015) or Home (Benjamin Rivers, 2012). Beyond these narrative experiences, there are other video games that follow this idea of creating game worlds indifferent to players like the Dark Souls saga (From Software), Minecraft (Mojang, 2009) or Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013). The player must be a proactive agent in all of those games; players cannot rely on the game world to ask for help. They can turn to the community, though.

These kinds of game universes and the type of active player they help to form encourage what Henry Jenkins coined as participatory culture. It is a culture that 'absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways' (Jenkins et al., 2005: 8). Jenkins suggests there has been a major transformation between a previous culture dominated by a passive audience of consumers and a current culture where is becoming hegemonic a more pro-active attitude towards consumptions, blurring the boundaries between production and consumption (Jenkins, 2006: 60). Thus, it is possible to draw a line that connects active subjects to participatory communities.

Having said this, almost every video game can be analysed through the lens of this type of culture. Whether the game holds your hand or not, it's normal to find communities around them, which interact at different levels: discussions on their plot, strategies to progress or defeat specific enemies, wikis, mods, fan fiction and so forth. What those games intentionally achieve is to go one step further: they introduce the necessity of getting actively involved in the very experience of play. In a way, these video games are rewriting the relationship between developers, video games, and gamers. All of them are active agents that influence each other. Even if the hierarchies between those agents don't disappear completely, they are blurred and the interactions become more complex, dynamic and, potentially, enriching.  In this regard, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter couldn't be anything less and there are already multiple interpretations of what happened.

At the beginning of this text I said that something was rotten in Rapture. If you have played Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007), I'm sure you remember your encounter with Andrew Ryan and the (in)famous 'Would you kindly' plot twist. Bioshock is an outstanding work that teaches us a lesson about power, freedom and agency. It should be studied in Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science courses among others. The irony is Bioshock gives us the lesson from within a video game.  Maybe it's the best medium to approach those topics. In fact, we have witnessed the appearance of meta video games for some time now, such as Portal (Valve, 2007), The Stanley Parable (Galactic CafĂ©, 2013), The Magic Circle (Question, 2015) or There Is No Game (KaMiZoTo, 2015). These games explicitly address the relationship that is established between developers, video games and video gamers, dealing with the notion of agency and the ability of players to make decisions.

The fact that a video game announces it won't hold your hand at its very beginning might be considered paradoxical. Is not a statement that contradicts itself in the same moment it's been enunciated? If you tell me that you are not going to hold my hand, are not you holding my hand in a certain way? It's like that imperative to practice one's freedom: 'Be free!' Should I obey and then I will stop being free? Should I exercise my freedom to not obey but then I will stop being free again? Could this be a more sophisticated form of controlling our actions after all, like in neoliberal political rationalities (Rose, 1999)? 'Govern yourself!' 'Use your freedom to be regulated!' Nevertheless, as Deleuze (1990) wisely pointed out, among the lines that articulate the dispositifs that dominate us, there are also the lines that help to break them. Not everything is lost. 'A man chooses, a slave obeys,' Andrew Ryan proclaimed. When we play, do we choose or obey? It is a difficult question to answer, but the fact that there are games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that try not to hold (too much) our hand while we play is a promising start.

  • Deleuze, Gilles (1990). “What is a dispositif?”, in Armstrong, Timothy J. (editor). Michel Foucault Philospher. New York: Routledge, 159-168.
  • Haraway, Donna (2004). “The Promises of Monsters: A regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others”, en Haraway, Donna, The Haraway Reader. Nueva York: Routledge, 63-124.
  • Jenkins, Henry (2006). Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.
  • Jenkins, Henry; Purushotma, Ravi; Clinton, Katherine; Weigel, Margaret; Robison, Alice J. (2005). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation.
  • Rose, Nikolas (1999). Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.