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How to Play Well
Pay attention to the judges; they determine which actions are safe to use. Grab the stamina boosting items. Unlock black market items as early possible; they're worth good cash. Pay attention to the weather; it changes which actions you should be using. Use attacks to keep racers from passing you. Use judge abilities to slow down racers who have passed you. Some racers are faster than others; late in the game, sprint ahead before shivving or biting to take out faster competition. To win the last race, a combination of shivving, rude gestures, judge distraction, and donations should do the trick. You can finish the race with everyone shivved.
Rhetorical Rules 1
Some games deploy rules because the rules work internally in their systems. Think of jumping on enemy heads in Super Mario Brothers. Other games add rules because those rules map to a simulation. Most racing game rules follow this pattern. Racing Comrade is filled with rules meant to ironically comment on certain real ideas and ideologies. It has rules as the core of its satire.
A giant, implicit gulf exists between the language in the game and the player's actions. The Marx's are true believers (right until the moment you bribe them). Black market profiteer Milton Friedman knows how to go along to get along and not rock the boat, although he double codes his speech. Meanwhile, by the game's end, the player has bit, cursed, punched, and stabbed the other racers, bribed officials, and sold firearms, alcohol, and cigarettes on the black market. This is an interesting game structure. The game says one textual / explicit set of things, but the game rules actually demand something else entirely from the player. You can't play the way its text suggests. That distance is the rhetorical point of the game.
Granted, Racing Comrade aspires to be as deep as an average South Park episode. I'm not claiming high art here. Still, rules fulfilling rhetorical roles captivate me. It's just such under-explored territory.
Most games I know doing interesting rules-as-rhetoric work aren't long or replayable. I don't mean that as critique; I thought Passage was amazing, for example. But the game design techniques for crafting long, replayable experiences seem to clash with these rules-as-rhetoric ideas.
This tension weighed on me when making Racing Comrade. Coming up with premises like September 12th, where gameplay futility is the rhetorical point, is not too hard. And Racing Comrade gestures in that direction, at first. If you never sign Milton Friedman's black market contract, you're locked in an infinite loop of tedious footraces you will never win. But instead of stopping there, I let players break out of the ideals and values the world claims to operate under (here, strident simplistic moralized marxism), and win by operating under the absolute worst aspects of that system in practice and the worst of another competing system (here, marxist bureaucratic corruption along with capitalistic black market vice and literal backstabbing). This freed me up to have normal gameplay progression and game fun while making my rhetorical point.
Rhetorical Rules 2
Racing Comrade, as originally conceived, was a piece of a larger project. Foot races were a simple system of competition and struggle onto which I could project the language, values, and implications of various ideologies: environmentalism, laissez faire capitalism, New Deal big business liberalism, radical feminism, fascism, fundamentalism, and more. This was the original reason the game uses the faces of famous philosophers as racers, in fact. I was infatuated with taking the language and justification of these systems of thought, as argued by their most strident, most aggressive, least thoughtful, most dogmatic adherents and foot soldiers, and then using the gameplay, system, and interactions to cheekily suggest that the behavior codes inspired by those abstractions seem to lead to unintended consequences that don't align with those purported values. It's exactly the sort of project where each element would be amusing to a member of the audience until the moment came when their particular ox was gored, at which point the bellows of "strawman" and "reductive" would begin. And in fact, when Racing Comrade made the front page of Kongregate, I did have some irritable socialist leaning folks gripe at me in the comments, calling me a typical brainwashed American who was only reflecting the lies of capitalist propaganda, which, I'll admit, amused me, and amused me all the more given how unfairly I treated Milton Friedman and how much nastier I intended to be in Racing Laissez Faire Capitalist, for that matter.
This specific space of rules-as-rhetoric just utterly captivates me.
Here's something I believe: We, as humans, tell ourselves just-so stories all the time to make sense of the world, because the world is confusing, we crave meaning, and we're faced with making permanent, irreversible decisions all the time for which we can't possibly have enough knowledge. And then we draw up rules of behavior using the abstractions from our just-so stories. And then those rules, and the degree to which they're followed, and the ease with which they can be followed, have consequences in the world. But those consequences are deeply complicted, and messy, and diffuse, and confusing, and, worse still, other people are running their own just-so stories with their own abstractions and their own behavior codes. And we come to believe our just-so stories, because we need to justify what we've already done and because of confirmation bias and because the consequences of everything we do are so messy and diffuse anyway. That doesn't mean our just-so stories aren't true, just that they're probably not the sorts of things we can actually ever know are true. Other people might not believe that, but I do.
Video games can't, yet, really deal with narrative, symbols, and meaning, because computers more generally have a nightmarish time with that stuff. As multimedia machines, they're fine at shoveling hi-def symbols and narrative onto screens, of course. But what we would call understanding simply isn't present.
What video games excel at, on the other hand, is stringently following rules and showing the implications of systems of rules. They don't do this by reasoning about those rules; they do it by running them.
People are surprisingly terrible at drawing conclusions about systems of rules, particularly systems where iteration and feedback are involved. One perpetual challenge game designers face is making systems simple enough, and clear enough, for players to reason about. It's surprisingly sobering to confront. As amazing as human brains are, that's not something they naturally do well at. It's probably related to the well understood paucity of natural skill we have with statistics; our instincts are just all wrong.
This combination of facts makes the rules-as-rhetoric idea so powerful, I think. We're great at meaning making. Our meaning making activities leads us to create systems of rules of behavior. We're astonishingly awful at reasoning about the consequences of our systems of behavior. And computers are great at letting us experience the implications of our rules. I'd love to see more people go down that road.
Simulating Rule Adjudication as a Rule
In day-to-day life, humans deal with different kinds of rules.
There are natural rules. Gravity just kicks in when we fall down stairs. Water gets stuff wet. Sound waves propagate through materials. Humidity makes the outside of water glasses damp.
And then there are human rules. You can't drive faster than the speed limit. You can't steal furniture of your neighbor's porch. You have to pay sales tax on internet purchases. You go to jail if you're busted with pot.
Human rules are not like natural rules. People speed all the time. They borrow stuff and don't return it. They dont't self-report internet purchases. And let's just say that drug policy is not evenly enforced.
Which is to say, we have an extra layer of meta-rules about human rules. We understand that rule enforcement requires the cognition of other humans. We understand that rules are hard to enforce if no one knows they were broken. We understand that bullying, cajoling, wheedling, flattering, bribing, shaming, scolding, threatening, and pleading can all alter how human rules enforced. We understand that different wielders of power might be differently susceptible to that list of actions. We understand that rules are often made for a reason, and we might be lenient when the letter of the law violates the spirit. And we might count on that fact in others.
Natural laws aren't like that. Shaming gravity in the hopes it won't apply itself won't work. Water can't be sweet talked. Humidity makes no distinction between the letters of its law and the spirit. It just is. Sound waves can't forget how to behave themselves if you hide from them. Sound waves don't have cognition. But then, gravity isn't vindictive, either. Water want to get objects wet. Humidity can't be bought off and unfairly over dampen you.
Rules in video games (but not board and card games) are like natural laws. With a machine running code to determine the consequeces of player actions, the rules might as well be gravity. The processor is unphased by complaining or threats. It can't be bribed. It doesn't know why it's running those rules.
Many people love this about video games. When humans are subject to rules enforced by other people, they can't simply optimize in the context of those rules. They have to look out for bias, corruption, stupidity, favoritism, cronyism, distraction, ignorance, confusion, and even physical exhaustion on the part of people enforcing the rules. And they need to figure out if other people are working the refs, and if they should be too. A computer processor running rules sweeps all that extra complexity off the table. A player can optimize within the context of the explicit, unbending rules. The extra social layer can be disregarded entirely.
As an aside, this line of thinking leaves me, as a video game designer, fascinated at the deep similarities between the appeal of a processor as an arbiter of rules, with perfect knowledge, perfect equanimity, and perfect dispassionate judgement, and certain popular notions of God as an arbiter of rules, with perfect knowledge, perfect equanimity, and perfect dispassionate judgement. I'm not making a theist or atheist argument here. But the structural similarities are striking to me.
Anyway, the games-rules-are-like-gravity approach is great and a valuable default. Simulating lousy, corrupt, fickle judges of rules, as Racing Comrade does, opens up fascinating game design possibilities, however. For some procedural rhetorical contexts, especially, it's a valuable tool. We expect game designs that strive to be as fair as possible, with interesting interactions taking place at the level of rules, not enforcement. But surely there are intriguing systems to be made, and experiences to be had, that hinge entirely on these unwritten meta-rules that govern humans applying rules to each other. And surely these games might gesture at patterns that happen out in the world.
Racing Comrade took Everquest and World of Warcraft as inspirations for its game play interface. EQ and WoW have real-time updates and free floating 3D cameras, but actions have a layer of intermediation with cool-down timers for action reuse. So, in combat, those games don't feel like real-time action games, although there is a strong real-time component. Instead, the design centers on players knowing when to use which of their abilities and resources.
This is a fruitful approach. These games eliminate real-time positioning, aiming, and dodging, and force long delays between using individual actions. This lets these games require players to use a wide range of skills and to have skill choices change tactical as context changes. Complexity for players is zero sum. This approach moves the complexity to action selection.
It's also more touch screen friendly. The day might come when touch screens do real-time spatialized player navigation well, but that day is not today. This style of input, on the other hand, maps very cleanly to what touch screens handle well - less frequent, more varied, discrete input.
I would like to see more games take this approach. Particularly, I felt like this design made it easy for me to add fun actions (saluting, biting, flipping people off) that would have been strange and extraneous with real time actions controls, while still having a strong time pressure component, with the action juggling and cool-down timers. Many game designs that we might normally default to real-time, spatialized controls for (boxing, cooking, doing a patrol as a cop, fire fighting) could be fun to explore with this kind of interface.
Racing Comrade starts as a foot race. Foot races have a simple, stable goal: get to the end first. The game never says that that goal will stay stable. But just by being a game, it implies it. Games normally do not change their goal structures mid-game, particularly not implicitly. Over time, of course, the play in Racing Comrade evolves organically, and the player grows more and more scrappy. By the end, the player wins races by stabbing everyone to death. At that point, the player's speed doesn't matter at all. It no longer feels like a race.
Many game designers consider clear primary goals vital for a game. That is indeed a good rule of thumb. Like any consistent pattern, though, players will make assumptions and stop paying attention if the pattern is stuck to too slavishly. Aesthetically, pulling the rug out on players gradually like Racing Comrade does with its win condition appeals to me. It's a technique that could go wrong or be unsatisfying if done poorly. But the reversal, the realiziation that you had thought you were doing one thing, but over time it turned out you were doing another... That's a possibly interesting experience.
Of all the writing I've done in my games, the humor and voices in Racing Comrade make me happiest. Amplifying that, though, is the humor that evolves from the gameplay.
Games have a rocky time with humor. Repetition is a hallmark of games, and humor does not survive it. Funny voice clips tend not to be funny the second time. Adventure games, which have gameplay that can avoid variation and repetition, tend to be the most successful at humor. Think of The Secret of Monkey Island. There are games with actually good, funny writing, of course. But there are far more without it.
Another kind of humor is more native to game systems. Play Civilization, and before long Chieftain Abraham Lincoln of the American Tribe will threaten your nuclear submarines with his triremes, then demand tribute. It is funny. A game I worked on, Heretic 2, has a weapon that turns enemies into small clucking chickens during deathmatches. Every so often, the weapon backfires, turning the target into a giant, stomping, powerful deathchicken. Everyone flees for their lives. This is also funny. If a player in Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is to unkind to random poultry, a raging chicken swarm will assault them out of nowhere. Funny. In Katamari Damacy, your giant ball of stuff collects cows and sumo wrestlers, their little legs wobbling frantically as you roll your giant ball around. It's funny. Racing Comrade works in this general space as well. Biting FDR, flicking off Mao, and, especially, winning races by shivving all your opponents, in the context of the art, writing, and gameplay of Racing Comrade, can be really funny. My saying that here isn't funny. But in the game it often is.