Discussions of the norm often prompt us to think about deviations from the norm. In reading Ian Schreiber’s article on Game Balance, I found myself most interested in his mentions of intentionally unbalanced games. Though not explored in depth in this article, Schreiber remarks that in rare cases, the ultimate design goals of a game can require unbalanced gameplay to achieve their objective. In the context of single-player serious games, Depression Quest and Papers, Please are two potential examples of this phenomenon. Both games attempt to immerse the player in the experience of being trapped by circumstances beyond their control, thus subverting the idea of games meeting players at their appropriate challenge level.
Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game designed to take players through the experience of an individual struggling with depression. As such, the player enters the game in a disadvantaged position, unable to engage in certain behaviors that may seem to the average player as reasonable or productive. This is demonstrated by the crossed-out options for proceeding, which often consist of actions that someone without depression may take in a given situation. Within the game, this mechanic constitutes a certain removal of agency from the player, and more broadly delivers the experience of powerlessness.
This is in direct contravention to the tenets of a balanced game, that is, providing the player with a challenges that are appropriate to their skill level. Rather, Depression Quest tells the player there are no skills they can develop, no skills they have, that can prepare them or assist them through this experience. As it is in reality for individuals with depression, the player has to struggle through the experience.
Papers, Please can be loosely described as a puzzle game, in which players are immigration officers in a dystopian state called Arstotzka. Though the player may think of this as a role with power and authority, the game brings them to the realization that they are just as much at the mercy of the state as the people they choose to admit — or not to admit — to the country. The player experience is further complicated by the guilt of denying people entry to the country based on the seemingly arbitrary stance of the Arstotzkan nation that changes day by day.
Although the game provides scaffolding in terms of gradually adding complexity to the rules by which players must choose to admit a traveler to the country, it does not appear to be balanced in the sense that the player can utilize these skills to address the true challenges of the game — that is, to ensure one’s survival and the survival of one’s family. The player can attempt to process travelers faster in order to make more money, but with the changing immigration laws, this holds a higher risk of making mistakes, which can lead to monetary penalties. In the player-system relationship, it is clear that the system holds the bulk of the power at any given point.
This is evident in the twenty possible endings provided by the game as well, only three of which allow for the survival of the immigration officer and their family. These endings are difficult to achieve with any kind of strategy or skill, as they are all one wrong choice away from death, and there is no feedback mechanism or logical framework to tell the player which decision brought them to this loss.
It is interesting to note that even the so-called victorious endings are accompanied by an almost mocking victory theme, as the player has either escaped to a suspiciously similar nation, helped overturn Arstotzka and hand it over to a suspiciously similar regime, or helped Arstotzka retain power. In the end, the game tells the player that the system always had the power, regardless of what the player perceived, which is meaningful in terms of the game’s overall message.
A Window In
As Ian Schreiber noted in the aforementioned article, some games are intentionally unbalanced because they need to be in order to achieve their true objectives. It’s true that many players may not make it to the end of either of the games discussed. Interestingly, that does not seem to compromise the game’s message. These departures mean something — that it is difficult to go through life with depression, that it is difficult to live within systems of oppression. If a player does not make it to the end of these games, it likely means they felt that, which seems to be in line with the intent of the game creators.
And if the player does make it through these games for the moment of understanding at which the game experience culminates, that is significant in its own way as well. The player has lived a tiny, condensed version of an incredibly painful life. Through that window in, they saw something that helped them understand that life. Such an experience is well-suited to an unbalanced game. The experience doesn’t feel fair because it isn’t.
Glory to Arstotzka!