Do video games need trigger warnings more than other forms of media?

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Yep, I can already see the push back for this feature coming. Please leave all responses and comments until you have finished the feature. We good? Right, let’s begin.

Trigger Warnings – A warning attached to a piece of media regarding a specific piece of content that may cause distress. These are more specific than the general content warnings of Violence or Sexual Content you may find on an age rating for a piece of media. Rather than simply violence, you may be warned about something more specific like “graphic violence of a sexual nature”. As these go into more detail than your average content warning, many consumers may consider these spoilers for the referenced piece of media.

Trigger Warnings as a concept are one of those ideas often misconstrued in arguments and outright decried as negative by those who don’t need them. The most common cries against trigger warnings generally come from those who believe they are an excuse for people to bubble wrap their media rather than deal with the “real world”. Rather than deal with difficult media, it’s often argued that trigger warnings allow people to just entirely skip difficult works of fiction.

In practice, trigger warnings are far less insidious. Trigger warnings allow people who are likely to experience distress due to reliving a personal upsetting experience like rape or a failed suicide to make informed choices regarding when and how they interface with that piece of media. If a piece of media is likely to cause me distress due to a topic like graphic depictions of self harm, I can make the informed choice to psych myself up and tackle it on a day I feel up to the challenge, so long as I know the topic is going to come up from the start. This is the benefit of trigger warnings on sensitive or distressing topics, they allow control over when and how distressing media is consumed.

So, with the concept of Trigger warnings out of the way, let’s get down into why they may be more important to video games than other forms of media. Don’t worry, we will touch on how video games could implement them without posing a spoiler risk to those not wanting to interface with them.

Right, here we go. Video Games as an artistic medium are fairly unique in that a person interacting with them has control and agency within any presented narrative. While that narrative may still lead to the same end point for many or all players, the player has to actively progress the story and be a part of any chain of events that occurs.

While I’m certainly not going to try and suggest that this kind of player agency influences behavior or causes changes to mental state in any dangerous way, I think it is fair to say that the medium’s increased level of agency does vastly increase the connection between the player and their actions. In linear video games this presents as feelings of accomplishment tied to character progress. In branching narratives, this results in a sense of ownership over your choices and their outcomes. Both of these have their own consequences and effects on players, although perhaps linear narratives in a less direct way than those narratives that branch.

In linear narratives, player agency can manifest as forcing a player to perform an action they may not wish to perform in order to progress the plot. If you have a phobia of needles pushing through skin and a scene in a movie appears where a character has to stitch themselves up, you can cover your eyes and look away while the narrative progresses. If you came across that in a video game, you might be required to keep your eyes on screen to see button prompts in order to progress. Due to that agency within a linear narrative, that person might be left with the choices of never finishing a narrative they purchased, or actively causing the events that they know are going to cause them distress to witness.

In non linear narratives, player agency can end up much more closely mirroring real life events, and the emotions tied to the outcomes of those choices. As someone who has failed to talk a friend down from committing suicide in their life, I was left distraught when earlier this year I was caught off guard by a video game putting me through that same situation. I was put in the same position I had previously been in, forced to relive many of the choices I remember having to make, and unfortunately I was once again unable to save this person. The video game then did what video games do and told me what percentage of people could save their in game suicidal friend.

80% of people saved their friend.

I was in the vast minority who did not.

Not only did I have to have agency over a very distressing moment from my life in a piece of media, but I then got scored on my performance compared to how others would have done. That was incredibly distressing. You can read a more detailed account of that experience, with spoilers, here.

By closely tying your actions and agency within worlds to the narratives being told, video games are able to elicit stronger emotions in those enjoying the media, but they also cause considerably more distress to people with very specific triggers for experiencing negative emotions. Because you can’t shy away from what’s happening or place the blame for the consequences of your actions solely on to the character you are controlling, an additional amount of involvement sticks with you as a player.

I have watched plenty of movies that tackled the topic of suicide without feeling distraught myself. Having agency over that moment was so much harder to go through. This is why video games need trigger warnings more than other media.

Video games can elicit very powerful emotions. With that comes an additional layer of responsibility to allow effected players to prepare themselves before engaging with certain moments.

So, how do we incorporate trigger warnings into video games in a way that supports active informed decision making about media for those who need it, but does not reveal undue plot spoilers to those who do not want to engage with them. Well, I think that an online system like Steam could easily be updated to support such a feature.

Picture the scene: When creating a Steam account, one of the available options is to tag your Steam account with selections from a preset list of common triggers. Options include suicide, graphic self harm, rape and targetted attacks on specific minority groups. Any you select will not be publicly displayed, but will be registered as tags on your account.

On the developer end, developers are asked when placing their game on to Steam to select any of these categories that may apply to their game.

When you as a player go to purchase a game on Steam, if the tags on the game and your account match, Steam brings up a menu saying “This game matches some of your listed content triggers. Would you like to see which?”. You can then make an informed choice to either find out which triggers apply to the game, or to play on without being spoiled on the experience.

For those players who have not opted into listing triggers on their account, nothing will happen.

I suspect a solution like this, if implemented, would likely solve the issue for everyone involved. Well, it wouldn’t fix the issue for those who think the very existance of trigger warnings as an option for others is harming the planet, but they’re a bunch of noisy idiots so we can just ignore them.

So, what do you think? Do video games have a greater responsibility than other media to allow people to choose how and when they interface with difficult topics? Does agency play a role in that? Would a system for optional trigger warnings across the board be viable? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Mass Effect 3 – Some Things Are Inevitable

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Mass Effect 3 didn’t end how I wanted it to end.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me unfulfilled.

Mass Effect 3’s ending stripped all choice and defiant agency away from me.

I think the ending to Mass Effect 3 was perfect at doing what it needed to do.

I think Mass Effect 3 was the perfect, tonally consistent ending for a series I love.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me feeling defeated and unrewarded for my actions.

I think that’s important.

 

So, I realise right about now a very large majority of you are already planning to click away from this feature, if you have not done so already. Since the release of Mass Effect 3, vehement insistance that it is to be heralded as the ruination of a beloved franchise has been by far the most widespread opinion on how the trilogy ended. Suggest the ending was good, tonally consistent or even beautiful, and expect to be met with scoffs or derision. it’s not always an easy position for me to argue, but I want you to understand why I think Mass Effect 3’s ending is one of the most important endings to a video game that currently exists.

Still with me? Right. Let’s begin.

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Mass Effect as a series has a few central themes that tie together the multiple narratives it weaves, and first among them I would like to discuss the idea of beating impossible odds. Shepard and their team upon the Normandy are constantly presented with situations where a series of correct choices will do the impossible and do what is right for everyone. Moral choices are presented, but there is always a moral or mechanical right choice to make that will ensure harmony is balanced

From small scale choices leading to the life or death of Wrex, to larger scale choices that can lead to the success or failure of what is largely considered a gigantic suicide mission, Shepard is always told by both the narrative and gameplay mechanics that there is a way to do the impossible.

The ending to Mass Effect 3 is Shepard being told that they cannot always do the impossible.

Sometimes, there is no way to save everyone without cost.

Sometimes, no matter the choices you make, there is only one way things are going to end.

Some battles are futile, and you sometimes really do only have your intentions to separate you from everyone else who could have reached the position you find yourself in.

This ending should not have been a surprise to anyone truly invested in the narrative of the Mass Effect universe. Mass Effect 3 spends its entire length building up these themes, giving you situations whose outcomes vary less and less, with the moral reasoning behind them becoming more and more of a consistent factor in how you look back on the impact of your adventures.

Mass Effect 3 spent almost thirty hours building up goodbyes and resolutions, ready for you to go and face the fact that some situations just end one way. You may be heralded by the universe as a god, but you are still only human. There are limits to what you can change, and sometimes there are no easy answers to be found.

Sometime in life you’re put in situations where there is only one way things can play out, and all you can do is make sure you take control of your reasoning for the choices you make.

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Thematically, Mass Effect is a series heavily reliant on narratives around cycles. Cycles of birth and creation. Cycles of death and destruction. Cycles of violence and revenge. Cycles of love and redemption. From its very beginnings we understand the Reapers destroyed all life in the past. They plan to destroy us in the present. They plan to destroy any existence that flourishes after us. The ending to Mass Effect 3 is in every regard an ending thematically focused on those themes of breaking or perpetuating cycles.

Mass Effect is a series about breaking an unbroken ouroboros. We know where the cycle started. We know if we don’t end it, the next cycle will have to endure all the same hardships we faced.

As a narrative about the unending spiral sentient life is trapped in, I find it somewhat poignant that, much like the earlier discussed inevitability of our actions and their consequences, the breaking of an unbreakable spiral largely lead to a single place.

The only way to end that cycle was to break it. To break the cycle requires a new start. A new start can only lead on from the destruction of the old. No matter how you destroy the cycle, you’ll leave its end and start your new beginning from the same place. Once again, what is different is your intentions from that point onward.

Yes the ending might be three different coloured roads that take you to the same destination, but you know why you picked the road that you picked. You understand the meaning behind the choice you made, and ultimately that resolution is what is important.

You are faced with a chance to end the cycle. If you do so you’re making a moral choice. You’re understanding why you made it. You understand where that leaves the galaxy going forward for you.

And if you chose not to break the cycle? Well, Mass Effect 3 makes it very clear you’re just leaving this choice for someone else to make.

As much as is may not be the multitude of branches you’re used to, this is the series most telling moral choice.

This is the moral choice you make when nobody else is around.

This is the moral choice you make when there is no reward to doing what is popular.

This is the moral choice you make to set the direction that sentient life moves forward.

Life is going to be in one defined place five minutes from now. Ten years? The reasoning behind your choice is going to have wildly diverged existence.

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“But Laura”, I hear you ask, “Where was my resolution for the stories of those I left behind?”

“I wanted to see the impact of my choices on those I left behind”

“I deserve to see the consequences of my final action and how it effects those I love”

No, you don’t.

I have a couple of different issues with this argument that Mass Effect 3’s ending was flawed due to what it chose not to show. First of these issues, the whole point of the ending is that Shepard makes a choice about the fate of existence, knowing full well they won’t get to experience that future themselves. They are not choosing their own fate, they are choosing the fates of a world they never have to personally face again.

It’s a galaxy of faces they have cared for, loved and saved countless times, but it’s a galaxy they never have to, or get to, see again.

Shepard doesn’t get to see if they made the right choice.

Their only option is to make a decision, confident it’s the best choice they had available, and walk into the night comfortable with the uncertain choice they were forced to make.

Your only option is to make a decision, confident it’s the best choice you had available, and walk into the night comfortable with the uncertain choice you were forced to make.

Showing you how things played out following your choice defeats that entire thematic element.

Shepard didn’t get to see the consequences of their actions. They had to find peace with that.

You are Shepard.

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Lastly, and this is squarely aimed at those who got annoyed they didn’t “get a proper epilogue” where they could see what happens to their crew, did you not play the entire Mass Effect trilogy?

Mass Effect spends three lengthy games letting you get to know every member of your crew. Mass Effect spends three games allowing you to grow close to these characters and understand their motives, their desires and their personalities.

If you finished Mass Effect 3 and didn’t know exactly what every surviving crew member planned to do going forward in their lives, you did not play Mass Effect properly.

Mass Effect 3 as a game is entirely a series of goodbyes to characters, determining if they survive and what they plan to do with that life should it continue. Mass Effect 3 was the fucking epilogue you demanded.

 

Mass Effect 3’s ending is a very bitter ending. It’s an ending about truly impossible choices, the importance of intent, the breaking of cycles and the end of an adventure. It’s the story of someone having to make a choice with no right answer. A choice they will never see play out. A choice they will have to come to personal terms on, and make without ever being able to justify that intent to those left behind. It’s a story of needing to be so confident in your convictions that you can make a decision for every sentient being, comfortable they will understand why you made the choices you made.

 

Mass Effect 3 didn’t end how I wanted it to end.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me unfulfilled.

Mass Effect 3’s ending stripped all choice and defiant agency away from me.

Mass Effect 3’s ending was the perfect, tonally consistent ending for a series I love.

Mass Effect 3’s ending left me feeling defeated and unrewarded for my actions.

I think that’s important.

I honestly believe any other ending would have been a disservice.

I think this is how sprawling artistic epics are meant to end.

 

Review – Pussy

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From the first time I saw that pussy, I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Your smooth exterior, the damp wetness that invited me inside.

You’re 100% natural, I can tell that just by looking.

I crack out one of my finer wine glasses. A drink as exquisite as this needs to be treated right before we dive right into the action. I’m going to pull out all the stops.

I place my finger under the edge, smiling as I slide my finger along and expose your opening.

The time has come to see what you’ve got in store for me.

I fill the wine glass with a clear, sweet nectar. My mouth waters at the sight. This pussy is everything I had hoped it would be.

I place my lips on the rim of the glass, allowing my tongue to lap at the fruits of my labour.

A mixture of aromas and flavours hit my palette. The combination is difficult to place.

A delicate floral fragrance. A hint of elderflower swirls around the cavernous expanse of my mouth. Perhaps a hint of Lychee.

I find myself filled with an all encompassing energy. As it turns out, Pussy can fill me with an energy unlike any other.

I try to restrain myself to small sips, tiny tastes, but I can hold myself back no longer.

I throw caution to the wind, abandoning my attempts to slowly savour the Pussy and allow myself to consume with wild abandon.

Before long, I find myself satisfied. That light, classy, subtle allure allowing me to drink you down as if you were water.

I walk away pleased, and slightly ashamed.

I hope my parents never discover how much I like Pussy.

Review – Mario Maker

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Mario Maker is one of those games that I’m amazed took as long as it did to exist. Designed around the idea of giving players tools to create their own Mario levels and share them with their friends, it’s an official toolset designed for everyone from the kid drawing Mario levels in their notebook to ROM hackers looking for quick level prototyping tools. Nintendo has finally opened up level creation tools to the masses, and the results have been pretty mixed. While some aspects of Mario Maker are fantastic, there are also some very noticeable missing features that limit what the toolset is useful for.

So, what does Mario Maker succeed at? Well, Mario Maker is a great source of ultra difficult, single instance, Mario Levels stretching from Super Mario Bros. to New Super Mario Bros. U. So long as you’ve got an internet connection, there’s a daily turnover of Mario levels that, while difficult, are technically possible. Make a single mistake, you’ve lost. No checkpointing, just you and the challenge to flawlessly traverse a world. If you’re looking for near impossibly tough Mario levels on a daily basis, Mario Maker seems set to provide that for a considerable time to come.

While the manual level discovery tools on offer are lacking, the daily highest rated leaderboards have been doing a good job so far of providing interesting and varied levels to explore.

So, where does Mario Maker fall apart? Right now, the game’s biggest drawback is the lack of ability to create, package, distribute and download multi level packages. Right now you can only play single Mario levels with no checkpointing, with no curated progression built in. You can place 1-Up’s into your levels, but they currently only add to an ancillary extra mode in the game, not the level you are currently playing.

The lack of ability to package levels together and create your own campaigns currently is a really big missed opportunity, and one I hope is addressed sooner rather than later.

The actual level creation tools in Mario Maker are very simple to use. Levels are created by dragging and dropping elements onto a grid. Hide items in boxes by dragging and dropping them onto the box. Increase enemy sizes by dropping mushrooms on them. Create warp doors by creating a pair of doors with matching symbols and placing them in your world. The tools quickly and easily allow for experimentation, with the ability to test your level from any point at any time. While the toolset is a little limited at times and has to be unlocked over a couple of hours of spamming items onto your map, the end result is a level creator that is simple enough for beginners to pick up quickly, but deep enough for seasoned creators to produce high quality levels.

Simply put, Mario Maker is great if you want to play tough as nails Mario levels and share your creations with those who already follow your work. If you want to create Mario level campaigns or share your creations with a wider audience, this might not be the game for you.

Video Game Narrative Accessibility – Let’s Cut Some Mechanics

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A few months back I was introduced to an indie sci-fi horrror game called Spirits of Xanadu that really caught my attention. Set on a dormant spaceship above an unknown world, the game tasks you with exploring the ship, picking up guns, blasting away robots and unraveling a well written mystery regarding the fate of the ship’s crew.

However, none of that was what made the game stick in mind. As well written as the narrative was and as interesting as the environment was to explore, I was most intrigued by the game’s inclusion of a “peaceful” mode. When you play on Peaceful, the puzzle and exploration gameplay remain intact, the narrative remains cohesive, but combat is entirely removed from the game.

While probably not the core reason for its inclusion, the fact the game offered a mode with features stripped out got me thinking about the potential for increasing video game narrative accessibility through optional reduction of mechanics.

So, let’s address the obvious elephant in the room. This is a hard idea to sell to game developers. I’m basically asking developers to create entire sets of mechanics, then give players the option to completely ignore them. That’s scary from a development resource standpoint. Still, I think it’s an interesting enough game design concept to look at in some depth.

The concept of increasing video game accessibility through mechanic reduction isn’t an entirely new concept, but rather something that a number of games over the past few years have dipped their toe into. While surface level examples like Guitar Hero limiting the number of buttons required by the player are plentiful, examples like Spirits of Xanadu are far fewer and further between. Spirits of Xanadu removes an entire genre from its mechanic set, allowing people who struggle with FPS gameplay in real time to still be able to explore the games other mechanics at their leisure.

So, let’s talk about another interesting example of this that actually only came to exist earlier this month. A couple of weeks back on August 19th, Square Enix released a port of Final Fantasy VII for iOS. What was particularly notable about this port of the game was that it has an optional mode where all of the non story combat is removed and leveling progression is adjusted to accommodate. You only fight narrative related boss fights, you still gain your normal skills and abilities. The battles are still as difficult as they originally were. The only difference is you cut out the level grinding, leaving only boss battles.

Imagine a world where grinding is a thing of the past.
Imagine a world where grinding is a thing of the past.

While I was mainly interested in this as a fan of the game looking to quickly replay the narrative, I recently realised that it also opens up this particular JRPG to a whole host of players who simply didn’t have the seventy hours in their schedule to experience it in its original state. It’s all well and good stating that people could play through the game over a number of months if they’re short on free time, but that can highly dilute the play experience and narrative pace compared to the experience others get.

By giving players the option to remove content from the game, Square Enix have opened the gameplay, it’s most impressive moments and it’s narrative to a whole host of players who might otherwise have been able to experience it. It’s not accessibility as we normally consider the concept, but it’s hard to deny that it’s allowing a wider net of players to experience the core of the experience and discuss it with their contemporaries.

Lastly, indie survival horror game The Forest features a mode called Vegan Mode, which allows players to disable one of the game’s enemy types until the start of the next game session. What this allows players who are feeling overwhelmed to do is to gather resources in safety, building themselves back to a point where they feel up to once again engaging with the cannibals on the island. While the mode removes cannibals, it still leaves sharks and hunger as potential threats to the player. The player still has challenges, but they are able to opt into having a more relaxed experience until they feel ready to start engaging with that enemy type again.

This not only allows players who feel overwhelmed and might otherwise quit playing to get back on their feet, but also offers a respite from some of the game’s tension for players in the mood for a more relaxed experience while still progressing.

No thank you cannibals, not today.
No thank you cannibals, not today.

While these examples by themselves might not seem like anything impressive, I think we as an industry woefully underestimate the potential value of allowing players to opt out of mechanics to better access the narratives and interactive experiences we all love. Ours is the only industry that mechanically restricts players from completing the works of art and commercial products we create, and we need to start thinking about ways to work around that. While books may have vocabulary usage as a barrier to entry, there are resources available to explain the meaning of words and enable continued progression. No such accessibility enabling resources exist for those lacking video game mechanic literacy, and I wonder if the examples listed above might pose a potential solution for that particular issue.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting every video game in existence needs to adopt the idea of mechanic stripping accessibility increasing measures. Games like Bloodborne rely on an understanding of core literacy within the video game medium in order to do what they do. In much the same way A Clockwork Orange is deliberately obtuse in it’s language use in a way that impacts the plot, Bloodborne with mechanics stripped out would somewhat lose what makes it the frustrating, stressful, brick punching experience that it is. Still, a lot of games could really benefit from this kind of optional mechanic stripping.

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Imagine a mode in South Park: The Stick of Truth that removed quick time events, opening up that particular RPG up to players with carpel tunnel, or just players like me unable to tap quickly enough to get through them. Yes, I had to get help in order to progress past at least one QTE in that game.

Imagine a mode in Journey where you can disable the tilt camera controls so players with movement conditions are able to play without the camera making unexpected movements.

Imagine a mode in Bioshock Infinite with a vast chunk of the combat removed. I know I’d have enjoyed that game a lot more with the option to strip out non set piece combat, replacing some of that with more relaxed exploration of a fascinating world.

While this certainly isn’t applicable to every game, I think we need to start thinking about mechanic stripped gameplay modes as an alternative to traditional, numbers based difficulty modes when it comes to bringing new players into our medium.

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There’s also the whole topic of adding additional mechanics to game to increase accessibility, like adding a pause menu to Dark Souls as an option. I think that’s best addressed in Joe Parlock’s feature for Polygon.

So, what do you think? Is there value in offering players the option to remove mechanics or gameplay content and systems from their experience of narrative heavy video games? Is this a silly idea? I don’t honestly know, but what I do know is that I would love to hear what people think on the topic.

So, let’s start making games more accessible by picking mechanics to optionally remove.