Cheating and Video Game Narrative

In all too many books and movies, the hero is saved at the last moment by the hand of God. Luck, fate, or some almighty force stands in and maintains order. Perhaps the hero finds an impossible last measure of strength. Perhaps he finds another weapon hidden among some debris. Perhaps she discovers that her enemy is standing in a puddle of water next to an electrical cord. No matter the circumstance, we are all too familiar with the tired literary refrain of deus ex machina– the notion that the writer has intervened because the hero and by proxy the story could not resolve itself in a logical course without an unsatisfying tragic ending.

Thy Will Be Done

This happens in games too, usually in cut scenes. But unlike in books or movies, in games, the player has a heavy hand in what happens. In any good game, the weight of the narrative is always upon the player. Whether or not the heroes succeed in their endeavor is entirely in the controller and in the hands of the player. The dramatic tension artificially injected into the game by its story drives the story forward, but only as a secondary device. It merely compels the player to push the story by progressing successfully to (one of) the writer’s intended endings.

With the player’s will established as the driving force behind the story in any video game, the question for video games as a form of literature becomes about not what happens solely when the writer chooses to defy logic to get his or her hero out of a quagmire that the story is impotent to resolve on its own, but what happens when the player does this.

The Rise of the Cheat Code

Cheat codes became prevalent during the 8-bit era. Many games had them and they ranged from passwords to keystrokes made at specific times. Some were merely ‘Easter Eggs’ which unlocked additional game modes or content and others were full on cheats which gave characters invincibility or the ability to walk through walls. A great and famous example of this are cheat codes in DOOM and Wolfenstein 3d, which gave the player a variety of advantages such as infinite health, ammunition, the ability to move in three dimensions (ignoring gravity), or the aforementioned ability to walk through walls. This made playing the game a formality. Instead of developing evasive skills or tactics, the player needed only move through the game like an unstoppable juggernaut, slaughtering whatever computer controlled characters who happened into his way.

These codes arose largely as a response to poor game design. It is not simply that adding cheats made a game bad– but rather that game design was so primitive and artificial that cheat codes were often necessary for players to circumvent torpid parts of a game which were unnecessarily difficult. These sections of games, in absence of cheat codes, lead players to abandon the game and never ‘finish’ it. From both a literary and business perspective, this was bad news. It is a tragedy for any creator if an audience puts down their work simply because of one difficult to digest portion. Furthermore, the player is not likely to purchase further materials by that publisher or in that franchise or to recommend such titles to his or her friends.

Many game makers, Nintendo in particular, reject the notion of cheat codes and never insert them into their games. In the 1980’s and into today, products like Game Genie or Game Shark enabled players to artificially overlay cheat codes onto a game. For example, one cheat code might give you infinite lives in Super Mario Bros. These products often came with unexpected side effects, but at their height, they were extremely popular.

The Finesse of Game Design

In recent years cheat codes have largely disappeared. This is because game design itself has matured and in absence of those “choke points” in game play design, players have no need for cheat codes. They can complete most games with their wits and abilities alone. Many players decry games as being too ‘easy’ now, but instead it is probably that the games are designed so that the players can succeed without having to perform the same tasks over and over because of one single difficult trick.

This effect is heightened by an increased reliance on narrative within the games themselves. In the original Legend of Zelda, the story had to be read from the game manual. Otherwise, it was never completely clear what was going on, so therefore, there was very little dramatic tension compelling the player forward. In more modern games, case in point, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, one need not read the game manual at all to pick up the story. The story is experienced in its entirety through the game.

Cheating, Take Two

Many players today still cheat, but not in the same way their predecessors did by pressing in codes at key times or by using hardware or software hacks. Many people rely on websites, such as GameFAQs, for the solutions to puzzles or how to circumvent specific difficult areas. In this regard, the Internet has also lessoned the necessity of cheat codes and replaced it with expositional cheating. The solution to an impasse in a game today is not whether or not a player can pass a point, but if he or she can figure out the answer to the riddle at all. This cheating betrays the maturing game design option, as the player is either unable or unwilling to complete the puzzles left by the game designer.

The Narrative

The result of cheating, for the most part, is that the story unfolds exactly how it should. Just like in the literary device Deux Ex Machina, the player has intervened to ensure success because he or she was incapable of moving the story forward simply using ability and logic. The narrative may have then unfolded in a positive way, but this came at the expense of the dramatic tension. When all the answers are provided for you, there is only slightly more satisfaction in completing a game than in simply watching a television show or film. If all video games were so effortless, would it be as popular a medium as it is?

The Sandbox

The exception to this rule, of course, is the Sandbox. This is the term used for a ‘cheating’ scenario in which the player uses a cheat code, or an implicit mode within the game, to bypass the game’s primary storyline and to go off on a tangent of his or her own. Many games without storylines, such as SimCity, use the sandbox mode simply to use the game as an outlet for experience or creativity. In SimCity, unlimited funds allows the player to construct a city in whichever fashion they want without having to be tethered by the constraints of the game. However in games with plots, the sandbox mode allows players to create scenarios of their own design and to play through them at their leisure. In this way, the cheating is not a matter of making up for a deficiency in the game or one with the player, but rather it repurposes the game as a creative tool for the player. This is in keeping with the interactive nature of the game as a form of media.

Video games are distinct from their counterparts in many ways. Cheating is simply another example of how their interactive nature presents literary questions which apply to dimensions that do not exist in more conventional media. One cannot ‘cheat’ at a novel except to possibly skip to the end. But in doing that, as in a game, the loss would be that of the reader or player, as he or she surrenders the joy of reading or playing the story out, and allows curiosity to sideline what could be a moving experience.

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