Obey Street Art

The videogames that want to be disobeyed

Early in Far Cry 4 (2014), you sit at a dinner table across from the brutal antagonist, Pagan Min. While remaining unnervingly calm, he tortures a man by stabbing his back with a fork. As they leave the room, Pagan Min turns to you and says, “Don’t move, I’ll be right back.”

The cutscene ends and you soon learn that you can move with ease. A quest prompt appears and tells you to “explore De Fleur’s mansion.” Will you listen to Pagan Min’s instructions to stay still, or disregard them and obey the game itself? If you ignore this prompt and sit at the table for 10 minutes, Pagan Min returns and a short, new ending unravels—you have essentially beat the game without playing at all. The other option moves the main story forward and gives you access to Far Cry 4 in its entirety. It’s a clever, almost comical way Ubisoft explores, maybe even parodies, the role of compliance in videogames.

these games still tell you what to do, but the difference is you don’t have to listen

Typically, videogames fall into a vicious cycle of giving the player orders: Fetch these items. Kill those enemies. Press a sequence of buttons. Conforming to these conventions becomes ingrained in the player’s mind as second-nature logic or as a formula for success. In notoriously difficult games like Contra (1987) or Super Meat Boy (2010), failure to comply with directions results in harsh punishment, from an untimely demise to repetition of previously completed tasks. What happens when the reverse occurs: What if a videogame asks you to throw away said logic and rebel against its instructions instead?

Loved (2010) and The Stanley Parable (2013), among others, challenge this rule of thumb by turning these conventions on their heads with contradictory instructions and unreliable narration. At face value, these games still tell you what to do, but the difference is you don’t have to listen.

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A Monster at the End of this Book (1971) is a children’s book that coaxes the reader with reverse psychology. Narrated by the iconic Sesame Street character Grover, he begs the reader to stop turning the pages, all in fear of a monster lurking at the end. With each page turn, Grover’s panic grows. Illustrations depict him building brick walls that the reader crushes without trouble. He ties down pages that, once again, are easily “cut” by the reader. He jeers, “I’d just like to see you try to turn this page.” These taunts give the reader a sense of power through what they may perceive as rebellion, but the book expects this response to move the narrative forward. Once invested, the chances are slim that you would put the book down. The result has the reader experiencing a sensation of defiance.

Videogames can shape this concept further with deeper interactivity and sophisticated mind tricks. While reverse psychology is widely used as a child rearing method, it seems to have transcended into the digital culture of videogames. The Stanley Parable simulates player defiance with the use of an interactive, present narrator that adapts and reacts to the player’s decisions.

The Stanley Parable’s deserted bureaucratic setting is both lighthearted and insidious, which also adequately describes the witty, British narrator that follows and anticipates your every move. You, Stanley, are a character in this story and there is only one way it will unfold, according to The Narrator. When you face a set of open doors, The Narrator confidently booms, “Stanley entered the door on his left.” With this remark, the game is encouraging the player to consider defiance—the right door is wide open too, after all. Both doors are identical, but by ordering you to the left door before you’ve even stepped forward, player agency kicks in. You realize you don’t have to obey. It’s an approach that feels unfamiliar in videogames, where we are normally conditioned to comply with directions. However, certain social psychologists would go as far as arguing we’re wired to obey, even in instances where we don’t want to.

certain social psychologists would argue we’re wired to obey, even if we don’t want to

With the Milgram Experiment in 1963, volunteers were directed by a perceived authoritative figure to give electric shocks of increasingly higher voltage to what they believed was another subject. The majority of participants went as far as implementing a fatal shock when ordered, even if it went against their moral views. It entertained the notion that obedience is strongly innate in human nature, and that those who refused to continue were following their own moral values more rigorously. When it comes to defiance in videogames, however, to obey or disobey may not always be our choice to begin with. Jamie Madigan, a psychologist who specializes in videogame studies, believes that this sensation of rebellion is an illusion for the player. It’s not just the narrator that toys with you in The Stanley Parable, but also the man behind the curtain: game creator Davey Wreden. “What’s interesting about The Stanley Parable is that poking at the system to try and master it is largely pointless,” says Madigan. “Or rather, that’s the point of the game: your choices often don’t matter or are arbitrary.”

This is a concept that is continuously toyed with and parodied throughout the game. The Narrator is always one step ahead of you, regardless of your choices. With each wrong turn, he satirically tries to guide you back to the original path. In one instance, he paints a yellow line on the ground for you to follow; a literal “plot line” to return you to the supposed main story. Yet disobeying him is deliberately amusing; you become curious to see what The Narrator has up his sleeve next and what new, comical jeers he will throw your way.

loved 2010 screenshot

Loved has a similar ideology. This 2010 browser-based platformer by Alex Ocias is confrontational and kinky. The narrator begins by asking you questions about your gender and expectations. Whatever answer you give is spit out and rejected. If you say you are male, Loved refutes this by retorting that you are instead a girl. There’s a feeling of lack of control, as if you are at the narrator’s whim, just like in The Stanley Parable. The narrator views you as a puppet; something to be controlled. With this setup, there is an ongoing rapport between player and narrator, but your only method of communication is through obedience or disobedience. The narrator orders you to touch a statue to be forgiven and even demands you to commit acts of self-destruction, such as jumping into a pit of barbs. If you comply, the narrator praises you, but if you defy him, he degrades you and says, “Disgusting.”

“My philosophy was that involvement needs choices and for a person’s choices to matter, their choices must be acknowledged, and acknowledged violently,” says Ocias. Loved’s confrontational mechanics of obedience and disobedience resemble dominant/submissive BDSM power dynamics and sexual practices. It places you in the shoes of a submissive by putting you under the spell of the narrator’s dominance. Even if you disobey, there’s an impression that you are nonetheless being led by the narrator’s leash. Ocias says: “Sexuality is one lens I design for, and it would almost be weird to make a story dealing with relationships and power and not examine a BDSM perspective.”

“Maybe it’s supposed to be like a contract, obey and we’ll deliver fun?”

Ocias created Loved six years ago, and in his perspective, older games kept masochism integral to play. Loved takes these conventions and twists them into a more thought-provoking commentary, by being self-aware of its own masochistic undertones. You contemplate the connection between player and game. “Thinking about it now, instruction and obedience are really the assumed default in games, sort of divorced from play in ways like maybe saving and loading is, which is weird,” says Ocias. “Maybe it’s supposed to be like a contract, obey and we’ll deliver fun?”

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GLaDOS, the passive-aggressive, robotic narrator from Portal (2007), enjoys deprecating humor much like The Narrator in The Stanley Parable, but she is also a serial liar. She promises a cake that’s never delivered, gives instructions that deem the ninth test chamber impossible to solve, and she even lies about lying. GLaDOS’ unreliability is quickly understood by the player. By beating the ninth test chamber, you are challenging those false instructions. Of course, that’s entirely expected of you. Undertale (2015) and Tale of Tales’ The Path (2009) have similar façades, but they take them to a further extreme. These games start the player off with tutorials or instructions that act as hindrances rather than guidance. You are deliberately told to do what the game perceives as wrong or a failure. It’s an unconventional approach that forces you to leave behind preconceived perceptions from other games. On this, Madigan says: “We’re used to having our literacy with games (that is, our way of thinking about them and understanding them) be useful from situation to situation. When it isn’t, that’s interesting and presents us with a rare challenge: learn to play the game in a way that we’re not used to.”

Undertale screenshot flowey

In Toby Fox’s Undertale, you’re swept away into a realm of monsters that often don’t want to fight you. It’s an unusual approach for a role-playing game, where combat is normally equated to killing. Flowey, one of the first characters you meet in Undertale, gives you false instructions when calling harmful bullets “friendliness pellets,” and using the term LOVE as an analogy for levelling up. It is later revealed that LOVE is actually an acronym for “level of violence.” Early on, it can be difficult to discern Undertale’s underlying message of peace. But when progressing through the game, it becomes clear through your interactions with monsters that killing is the last thing Undertale would encourage. Every monster can be spared through compassion and patience. “The message from Flowey’s tutorial is that things are out to get you, and that you should interpret what’s going on in the game in that light,” says Madigan. “This, of course, turns out to not necessarily be true and is the key to the whole pacifist playthrough approach.” This concept forces the player to think outside of the box: if killing is not the answer, what is? It’s a subtle way of prodding the player to disobey the initial guidelines. It asks you to set aside past ideologies of traditional game mechanics to achieve a “good” ending.

The Path, a horror adventure game from 2009, achieves this same notion of false instructions. As a re-imagining of the classic fairytale Little Red Riding Hood, you play as one of six young girls on their way to Grandmother’s house. As you begin the game or choose a new character, the message “Do not stray from the path” appears. The game stays true to the fairytale—you must leave the path and encounter the wolf to progress the full narrative. “As designers, of course we realized that the forbidden holds a certain attraction,” says Michaël Samyn, developer of The Path. “But it wasn’t a trick: we were simply following the fairytale.” Each time you conclude the game, a scoreboard appears that grades you in terms of item collection, exploration, and whether you encountered the wolf. A failure grade is given when directly entering the grandmother’s house as instructed. “The goal of the game is to reenact the fairytale,” says Samyn. “And in the fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood does not stay on the path.” Samyn explains that “success is very relative” in the game. Leaving the path means encountering the wolf and reenacting the fairytale, but it also leads to each young girl’s death. In The Path, disobedience and death are key to success. This uproots the conventional concept of compliance and survival in videogames.

there’s pleasure to be found in both obedience and disobedience

This approach to rule bending seen in The Path isn’t necessarily new, not even back in 2009. To turn to the extreme, sandbox games, for example, eradicate the idea of rules almost entirely, by empowering you with freedom, creation, and customization tools. However, what connects the games mentioned earlier is how, through toying with disobedience, they envision a Kantian view of anarchy. For German philosopher Kant, anarchy was defined as a mix of law and freedom, but without enforcement or punishment for the unlawful. These games attempt that same outlook—rules are presented, but compliance isn’t obligatory to succeed. These confinements are malleable, but only as far as the game’s world permits, which has you contemplate your true level of control.

There’s pleasure to be found in both obedience and disobedience. In both cases, you move the the game forward as its designer has planned. The difference is that the act of disobedience, even if it remains an illusion, can feel empowering or rebellious. From the workplace to societal laws, it seems strange that after following orders daily, we continue to do so as leisure within videogames. By being self-aware of their own mechanisms and encouraging the player to acknowledge them too, either through narration or specific instructions, these games invite you to set aside your comfortable routines. It is then that you can explore the meaning of play through a more anarchical lens.

Header image: obey mural detail via Susan Williams