A recent replay of The Day The Laughter Stopped (2014) got me thinking about the new voices that are emerging in game design, but also the new mechanics. Increasingly, both indie games and blockbusters flirt with non-interaction, and deprive their players from choice. This is a fascinating mechanic that I’d like to unpack for a bit through different indie games, including Night in the Woods (2017). If games are characterized by goals, rules and meaningful choices, what is left when we deprive them of any of these elements? And what happens when players are downright forced into a choice?
The Day The Laughter Stopped and Non-Interaction
The Day The Laughter Stopped is a hypertext game created in Twine for Ludum Dare #28. Its content comes with a trigger warning. It tells the story of a teenage girl, who is attracted to a boy. Not so much a game, as an interactive fiction, the options are presented in a minimalist design– white text on a black background, created in the hypertext tool Twine. All paths of the story lead up to a summer barbecue. The player is offered a variety of choices that supposedly create the narrative, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
The choices of the player, however, matter very little – drink or don’t drink; kiss or don’t kiss – since the conclusion the game is always inevitable and the same. Finally, the player is given two choices: “fight back”, or “freeze up”. Once clicking fight back, however, it turns out that the text is not a link and cannot be clicked. No matter how many times the player tries to make this choice, the only real choice is “freeze up”.
At the end of a game, there is the option to press “continue” but a text appears. ‘There is no starting over. This happened.’ The Day The Laughter Stopped provides a unique persuasive rhetoric. Through rules, mechanics and game interaction, it makes a point that only games can do, because they explicitly allow us to make choices on a character’s behalf and identify with them. By giving the player agency, and finally taking it away from them, the game explicitly portrays rape as an act where the victim does not give consent. Being aggressively forced by another human being is literally the theme of the game as well as the core of its mechanics.
Depriving players of choice is a powerful tool for emotional and violent game play. Even the big blockbuster games have experimented with. Bioshock Infinite (2013) uses this mechanic, for instance, by giving you no other option than to be Christened at the start of the game. Even dating sims dabble in it. Hatoful Boyfriend has a moment where a character forces you into saying that you love him. Non-interaction can go so far that the player can be cast in the role of a non-character. You may want to read this essay on an interlude of Kentucky Route Zero (The Entertainment) which positions you as a spectator of a theater play, without agency or personality: ‘Your actions aren’t required; the story just goes on around you.’
Night in The Woods and How Adults Can’t Always “Choose”
Lack of choice draws attention to games, their artificiality, and their conventions. Games rely on branching, dialogue options, personalized ways of exploring stories. But what does choice really mean? An indie darling that reflects on this is Night in The Woods, where the main character (a cat named Mae) quits college and ends up back in her home town. This game is all about what it means to be an adult, as The Verge adequately states. Mae has problems with finding a job and functioning in adult life. Throughout the game, she gets support from her friends though. For Mae, it is hard to own up to her choices. She cannot even speak about the most difficult decision that she made, namely quitting college, and she has problems owning up to it.
Through her interactions with others, Mae learns all about choice. The hard-working crocodile, Bea, takes care of her father’s business not because she wants to, but because she has to. She wants nothing more than to go to college, but there is no way that she can let her father down. Your dialogue options stress that Bea should do what she wants, and that she should go to college. But your words have no effect – you cannot talk her into this. During a fight that you have with her, Bea emphasizes: ‘A lot of times folks can’t just “choose” to do, whatever it is you decree to be the right thing. A lot of times people do the things they do, because they can’t do anything else.’
Taking responsibility – and doing what you must sometimes do – is the essential theme of Night in the Woods. Choice is not always an option, there things in life we must do. Sometimes we can’t have it all. That is exactly what it means to grow up. Mae learns this lesson the hard way. There is no real resolve for her or the other characters – life just happened. These motifs come to a close rather allegorically when Mae has to face a cult and the “Black Goat” being that they worship (see below). The creature represents the mental anxiety that she endures. Mae realizes that she needs to live through her pain, rather than defy it, and survives.
There is a power in not having a choice, but also a very real, existential fear that Night in the Woods captures very well. In fact, all these games come close to life by echoing the powers and structures that control us. By defying choice, or even creating non-interaction or forced interaction, games can point out something very humane. Yes, you don’t always a choice, and you can’t always get what you want.