Do you know what the Nuzlocke challenge is? If you’re interested, here’s a link (source of the above image, as well). Basically, though, it’s “hard mode” for Pokemon, something players impose on themselves to make the game harder. At its core is a rule simulating the death of Pokemon — if a pokemon faints, you have to release it. Why do we do this?
I thought of this while playing Dragon Age 2. I’m right at the beginning. I did a quest, and noticed a marker for another one. The traveling around the city isn’t complete crap like in the first one — it’s a map of regions that lead to relatively small areas. I much prefer this to the sprawling mazes of the first game. Anyway. I chose to ignore the quest marker. “I’ll go back later, it’s mom’s house anyway. I should see her” (really. It’s the main character’s mom’s place). This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the typical way of playing any RPG like this is to grab all the quest hooks possible and then do them all. Once as many as possible are finished, you go back to town and turn them all in. Rinse, repeat. This is a time-saving maneuver for a genre known to just make everything take forever. I’m bucking the trend for a vague sense of verisimilitude. I pursued one quest from beginning to end with no interruptions. It was important to one of my companions, so I didn’t turn aside to do anything else.
I’m also playing Fallout 4 right now. I came up with a different sort of restriction there. You can heal with food or stimpaks (the game’s basic health kit). I’m choosing to never eat food unless I’m in a safe place — a town, basically — or if I’m sitting down. So in the middle of a hostile area I have to clear out a room, sit down, and munch my packed lunch. Why? This makes the game slightly harder. I can’t pause, scarf down a dozen boxes of pre-bombing spam, and pop out again to shoot somebody in the face. I can use stimpaks, sure, but those can be hard to come by (ask a Fallout player — they’re not really that hard to come by, but partly because we all tend to eat our food first. They can stack up that way). Again, a little added verisimilitude that increases the difficulty slightly. This way makes for more exciting fights. I run from people, I hide around corners, I try really hard to get the best shots on people so I can end fights quickly because I have 5 hp and really need to sit down. It’s fun. FO4’s harder difficulties just add hp and such to the enemies, it doesn’t change the game mechanics at all. The previous installment, New Vegas, on the other hand, had a survival mode that requires eating and drinking. That was perfect for that game — it was all about people in a desert trying to find enough supplies to stave off death. Four, on the other hand, is filled with resources — the game’s partly centered around building homes, shops, and defenses for people. Building materials, money, and other supplies are just lying around, because it’s not a desert, it’s a city. It had stuff in it before the bombs. A lot of it’s still there.
I brought up the Nuzlocke challenge not because I’ve done it before, but because it’s one of the most famous examples of this. It has rules. Seriously, go check out the entire flowchart I snapped above. It has… a lot of rules, though the basics are simple enough.
There’s an impulse here, something a lot of people seem to spend a lot of time doing. It’s not just looking for more difficult experiences — we could just play different games. And it’s not just looking for more realistic experiences — if we wanted that, we wouldn’t be playing Pokemon or Fallout. We’re shaping the games to ourselves.
One of the things I learned — or had confirmed? You know those ideas you read and it’s like they were in your head, but you could never had phrased them as well as the thing you just read? Like a writer teaches you how to think your thoughts better? Well, that happened. Last year I was reading The Aesthetic of Play by Brian Upton. Among a lot of good ideas is this one, which is pretty central to the book — that the play that people experience while, well, playing a game isn’t in the game. It’s in their heads. He mentions noticing that people were very intent on the sections of Rainbow Six that were, basically, traversing hallways. They shot people and rescued hostages too, sure, but in the next beta when there were fewer hallway-walking moments people were disappointed. What Upton decided, and what research later confirmed for him, was that players were playing even when doing nothing, because they were examining everything in that hallway, looking for ambushes, deciding where support team members would go, and making sure they didn’t get killed before every busting down a door. That’s playing. It’s when the player interacts with an evolving set of “rules” that are, at first, presented by the game, but eventually created as much by the player.
(For instance, you could do a slow Zerg build, buying higher and higher level units until you have peak armament and then strategically position groups in lanes around enemy bases. You could, but why wouldn’t you just rush in the first five minutes? That’s not in the game, it’s a player-made rule: never take your time with the Zerg.)
Of course, this isn’t just games — if the definition of play seems odd and interesting, then you’re catching on to some of Upton’s final claims: we’re playing all the time. Reading a book is playing, because you take the static “rules” of a novel (character did X and Y, avoided doing Z) and playing with them, making up your own bits in between (they must have avoided doing Z because they’re a good person). Listening to music, watching a movie, whatever — it’s all play.
The conclusion writes itself, doesn’t it? The Nuzlocke challenge is a way for us to play games with new rules, rules we come up with based on the original, in the gaps between. We’re playing a game already beloved (notice one of the most popular sets of external rules, Nuzlocke, centers on Pokemon, the series that has a grip on so many souls). What games do is make overt and obvious the position of play in our lives and in our entertainments. Gaming isn’t the only hobby to use play — every hobby does — but gaming is a kind of meta-play, playing about playing. So it teaches you something very valuable:
Life is the Nuzlocke challenge. All the rules people live by are simply made up, ways to “play” (figuratively) within the bounds of the real “rules” (avoid dying, do that by eating and not freezing to death). In a way, this idea explains why, right now, certain self-identified “gamers” (as opposed to people who love and play games) are so defensive: they’ve constructed a canon that tells them how to live their lives. This is what we all do. But as with any canon tradition, there’s always a moment when people realize there isn’t one single canon, that canonizing itself is a form of play, play that creates personal identity. Look back over the history of music, movies, novels, and you’ll see transition points where angry, reactionary critics insist that A or B thing can’t be “good” because it isn’t… well… the stuff that everyone decided was good.
It’s a good sign, in a way. So far we’ve always gotten over these attempts to police the canon, and whichever art form gets over it is usually richer for it.
Next time you think something couldn’t possibly be good because you can’t see yourself conforming to its constraints, remember that you’re conforming to a different set of restraints you’ve put on yourself as a Nuzlocke challenge. And you’re having fun that way.
But some people wake their Pokemon up when they faint.