Why Pathos is Pathetic by Sash

in Game Design, Our Games

I released Pathos Yesterday, and already it has had more comments than any of my other games… combined. It seems like people either love or hate it, in some cases both. I thought it would be worth writing up my own thoughts on the game and taking an inside look at the issues that have been raised online.

If you haven’t played the game, the post has spoilers and will ruin it for you so play it here first.

The player has very little control over the character
This is a game design flaw that is hard to overlook. As a player your only role is to interact in subtle and infrequent ways with the boy. It puts you in an environment where you are forced to watch the events in a world play out – there is no skipping, and no catering for people with a short attention span. And the further and further on you get, the less and less control you have. By the very last scene you have to turn out lights to keep him moving. Paul over on IndieGames.com/blog said:

this was remarkably shoddy. It had a really nice visual style, but it was torture to play. “Why do I go on”. Who knows…

But here in is the point. When you realise that you are a predator, your lack of control over the boy is cast in a whole different light. You aren’t playing as the boy, you are simply trying to “force him onwards” (cliff scene). You’re manipulating him and as the game goes on his fear makes him less and less susceptible to this manipulation. Adam on my blog put it perfectly:

“The whole thing was about control, to me. I was constantly fighting the kid for control the whole game—he would stop every so often and I just wanted him to get on with it. And then suddenly at the end, I had all the control…until I didn’t, because I couldn’t let him go. And then I kind of regretted pushing him forward, and chasing him down, but it was too late… I had to keep going.”

You are forced into being “evil”
There is a trend in modern gaming to let you choose how “renegade” your character is – Pathos gives the finger to this trend and forces you, in surprisingly uncomfortable way, to be evil. This is initially indicative of criticism,

“There’s no weight to it, because there’s no choice, except play or don’t. You can’t decide to not follow the rules, as then nothing happens.”

But its not your choice that is important, it is your reaction to your lack of choice. As SpinalJack on Rock Paper Shotgun said:

“Your reaction to the game says something about you. Whether or not that’s something you didn’t already know is a different story.
Imagine the Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, would you hesitate to electrocute a man to death if told to do so with enough authority?
Whether you felt bad/enjoyed/apathetic about hurting the boy in the game or immediately tried to do the opposite of what you were instructed to do is all part of the game/social experiment.”

Adam says:

“Sometimes art makes you uncomfortable. But sometimes you have to get uncomfortable to see something in a way you haven’t seen before.”

By forcing the player into uncomfortable action, I was asking a question. Why do we take a back seat with video game characters so blindly? Do we play, not because we empathise, but instead in the hopes that we will eventually have “fun”? DustbinK on my blog hit the nail on the head:

“It seems people don’t get that this is a “meta game” – it’s about you forcing yourself onto characters in video games without questioning whether they want you to make them do these things or not.”

Of course, there is always another option. You can always quit before the end – but really, how many people are willing to do that? And why not? Why would anybody want to play as a boy who is suffering? Consumatopia on Rock Paper Shotgun raises an interesting point:

“This game is actually more interesting if you interpret this game as a criticism of the “only way to win is not to play” genre rather than an instance of it. In what sense can we say that “you” are the one pushing events forward when the only other option is to halt the program? Am I also responsible for every death in every movie I’ve watched because I could have stopped the movie from playing?”

And why did I even bother making this a game?
The lack of control, both over the boy and over the direction of the game has definitely been an issues for a lot of people:

“This would have been better off as an animation. The bad design choices just distract from the message he’s trying to make.”

But there is one fundamental reason why it has to be interactive to pull its weight:

“The difference being that YOU’RE the one who is forcing this boy to go on even if you don’t have the option to do something else. It’s the difference between watching a video and pulling the trigger.”

So what DID you learn?
Also, I almost LOL’ed reading the author’s description “you will learn something about yourself”.

Yes, I am pretentious, I admit. But what I meant is that Pathos might just make you think about one of these issues.

As a video game, it is flawed. And it’s certainly not everyones cup of tea. But whether you hated it or loved it, or both, Pathos isn’t about having fun or being “cool”, it’s about making you think, and starting a conversation. Something which it has certainly achieved.

I’d just like to close with a comment from MisterX on IndieGames.com, which I think sums up the experience nicely:

At first I was also a little afraid of what was to come, like the boy. But, then, it becomes apparent that you are in control of him, and that he is actually afraid of *you*, suddenly erasing all suspense and turning it into empathy for the little guy.

Comments were found here:

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NOOBY93 says:
February 21, 2011 at 3:03 am
God I felt sorry for the boy, but my curiousity made ME move on. I felt like the boy, I was about to quit because it would give me nightmares, but I didn’t… Curiousity is sometimes a bitch.

Confusatron says:
February 21, 2011 at 7:16 am
I liked the game and I agree wholeheartedly with your view on player choice. I think it’s the most overrated element in gaming and people often rant about having choice without really understanding what that means.

Interactive gaming is NOT about choice. That can be part of the mechanic but the more narrative-led games have always been a lot deeper than games in which you had some illusion of a choice. All this fake choosing really does is make the story shallow and have no substantial interpretation. So kudos to you for making this!

I do have one piece of criticism however, and that is concerning the ending. I love what you were going for with the game but I think you didn’t go far enough. By giving the player control over the ‘villain’ you’re basically undermining the point you’re trying to make, I think. It’s like you’re inches from making an interesting point about the player but in the end you kind of turn the other way and just make it another character. It is an interesting narrative ploy, but it didn’t really drive home the idea that the player himself has to question his motives.

I started to realize what the game was about in the part with the bridge when I had to press the button to get the boy to move on. This is when you realize that you as the player are doing something the apparent protagonist doesn’t want to happen, or that there is a certain gap between you. However, by giving the player a fully-controllable character by the final scene, the player is relieved of ‘blame’ so to speak, because he was playing a character after all. And it also raises more questions as to how was he controlling everything from far away. I might be complicating things but that’s exactly the point; the ‘evil’ character was an over-complication.

Still, a great little game and I hope you understand my critique is with the best intentions. People like you will move this medium in the right direction!

dan85poindexter says:
February 21, 2011 at 2:38 pm
This is the most thought-provoking game I have ever played. Thank you.

There are probably many different ways to analyze this game, but here’s something I got from it that’s a little bit different from what you intended. I originally identified with the character as though it was an avatar for myself, like as in an RPG. My directions to the character were purely in the interest of exploration – to see where the rabbit hole would take me.

The game itself presents a form of manipulation. Text directs the player how to direct the boy which gives the player a sense of assurance that the creator of the game has predetermined the outcome. By placing trust in the creator, the player moves blindly forward and accepts all choices as morally neutral.

The difference between this game and real life is the set of assumptions that are present. Real life experiences teaches consequences for actions and creates morality – a system of judging between good (beneficial) and evil (destructive) actions. In a video game, actions are amoral, since virtual actions have minimal implication in the real world, and any influence transferred between worlds is mostly an internal effect. Ironically, this game ended up have more direct influence on me than perhaps any other game I have ever played.

Rasmus Wriedt Larsen says:
February 21, 2011 at 2:46 pm
It definitely was a great game!

I played it on FGL at some point, but don’t think I got around to put a comment on it.

dan85poindexter says:
February 21, 2011 at 2:51 pm
P.S. Even up to the end, I didn’t expect anything bad to happen. I trusted the creator to provide a catharsis to all of the previously induced anxiety. Of course, since the screen cuts to black and the climactic moment, the issue of guilt and conscience is neatly side-stepped.

Sash says:
February 21, 2011 at 4:40 pm
Thanks for your comments guys.

@Confusatron, I see your point. By giving the player control of the shadow at the end, I revert to the “default” game/player interaction. Although I don’t think this undermines the message – I think it makes it more explicit.

The game is a satire of this type of player/game interaction – In most games you are asked to chase and slaughter mindlessly because it’s “fun”. By the end of Pathos the player is engaging in the same activity only there is now context behind what he/she is doing. I’m hoping the obvious contrast between the two styles of play highlights what is a fundamental shortcoming of many games – control without empathy.

Wow that was wordy. Hope it makes sense.

@dan85poidexter I’m really glad you liked it so much. I think you have a really good point about amoral actions in video games. Like I was saying to Confustration, I feel like control without empathy is a short coming of many games. It’s a tough trade off – the more control you have, the less you can empathise with your character simply because it is acting as a empty shell – you become conscious of the fact that they aren’t making their own decisions.

Its also really interesting that there is a subconscious trust developed between the player and the game designer – they know that when they die, they will be able to replay. They know that justice will be served, and that they’ll ultimately prevail. This type of assurance is morally blinding – actions don’t have the weight of potential consequences.

I’m glad the game had such an impact on you! It’s exactly the reason I made it, to get people thinking. Thanks man, you’re comments are really inspiring 🙂 .

NORT says:
February 21, 2011 at 7:20 pm
I had a pretty different interpretation of the game. Rather then seeing how the player controls the character to do things they dont want to do, this is what I thought you were getting at: After turning off the computer and setting his alarm there was a light under the computer. Almost as though it was calling him back to it. So I thought that the moral had something to do with the computer. To further get me thinking it had to do with his computer habits was the clicking noise he heard after he left his “evil room.” Also the evil room made me think that this world that he fell into was some kind of mirror world that represented what his future would be. Note the lack of a computer. In the evil room he tries to push the clock so he can go back home but the darkness drags him out of the room(note that the darkness pushes him in the direction of the computer desk). Could the darkness be symbolic of the computer?

To push the point home the kid at one point shouts out “I really am Impossible!” and it seemed to me as though he was regretting not listening to his mother and “falling into the computer” instead. Why would the kid be blaming himself if something else had control of him like the player? Obviously the kid chose to jump into the computer of his own free will. There was no clicking noise at that point, and the kid was pretty excited.

And the kids doom was not some horrible monster or something like that, but he himself is the bad guy(except he was black, just like the evil rooms darkness). I thought that I was really controlling the kid as he plunged deeper and deeper into his addiction until he finally sees what he has become but by then it’s too late. He tries to run back to the regular world but he’s in too deep now and his addiction overwhelms him.

So in the game you play as the kids addiction. His addiction is controling the kid, pulling him closer to it and farther from his home. And while the kid is expresses regret, he has no control over what is happening. As a matter of fact the only times you DONT have control over the kid is when he expresses his regret and when he is running away near the end. This leads me to believe that only when the kid sees himself does he snap to his senses and regain control. He really wants to go back home and have everything be nice but he can’t do it, and in the end all that is left is this “shadow” of his former self. Pretty sad story.

Though I guess you had a pretty good moral too. I have to wonder though. Could it be that a little bit of you has shined though your game? Might you be regretting spending too much time on the computer? In any case you could have made the point a bit clearer by not having a computer be such a big part of the plot in a game about what you do on a computer. XD

So that’s why I thought it would have been better as an animation, but I guess I was wrong.

Confusatron says:
February 22, 2011 at 9:36 am

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way you interpreted the game at all. That’s the beauty of narratives which have a more delineated path – they can be interpreted in multiple ways. It doesn’t matter if this wasn’t “intended” – once it’s out, it’s open to interpretation.

I like your understanding of it! 🙂

Sash – your ideas on the topic of control and empathy in games are very interesting. I actually think that the problem is not the designers but the gamers themselves, as you can see by many of the comments on your game, as well as general gamer attitude. The average gamer (at least from what I’ve experienced) always sees the game protagonist as an extension of themselves, which is why they always want this feeble illusion of choice and they don’t want to be ‘forced’ to do something they don’t like or don’t approve of.

In terms of narrative, this is why most game stories are weak. But that’s also why designers keep making these games, because it’s seemingly what the majority of gamers want and what they perceive games should be.

sh0 says:
February 25, 2011 at 9:59 am
It was similar to Braid in that you realize at the end that you have been the bad guy all along.

hyujgtyh says:
March 1, 2011 at 5:47 pm
It was a great game, but it could portray what the “thing” was that is “you”…

Nick Kerklaan says:
March 7, 2011 at 12:32 am
This was neat, but honestly, interactive fiction has been exploring these same ideas of player control vs. character action since the 90s, so it wasn’t anything new to me. I apologize in advance for sounding like an asshole, but to me this game isn’t exploring territory that’s particularly revolutionary, and I’m surprised that people aren’t “getting” it, as it’s handled in pretty much as simple a way as possible, compared to IF games like Rameses or Photopia.

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