not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed

Risky games

It's always a bit of a bittersweet moment when I get mentioned on Radio 4. A flurry of texts from friends and family members, excited to hear my name, which is cool, but does have the downside of reminding me that, for normal people, their pal/nephew/son working at the Guardian isn't cool. You know what's cool? their pal/nephew/son being briefly mentioned on Front Row.

(The only other media that I've had this experience with, oddly enough, is Pod Save America, the political chat show that features four indistinguishable Americans, one of whom did not direct the Iron Man movies, having affable conversations about why Obama was great. Got a lot of texts after my brief mention there.)

Anyway, a conversation with my pal, and occasional Front Row contributor, Jordan Erica Webber, ended up becoming content on the radio, and the texts flooded in.

Jordan's a master of conversational prompts about gaming, and in the last week she's dropped two that I found fertile veins of thought.

One – the one that ended up on Front Row – was about which games constitute "risky" art. My initial suggestion, taking it at its word, was a little-remembered curio from 2009 called Lose/Lose.

The game, originally released for MacOS X, was literally risky: a simplistic top-down shooter, where each of the enemies is a file from your own hard-drive, and where shooting it deletes the source. Play the game long enough, and your computer is guaranteed to crash, and you had better hope that it is able to boot up at all after that. The global high score is 412.

But while it's risky, and certainly "art", there isn't much to Lose/Lose beyond the initial gag. It's best documented today not by the gaming community, which moved on, but by the cybersecurity industry, which continues to keep it in their antivirus databases as an example of malware that should be deleted on sight. Which, in a way, it is.

The games I found more interesting to focus on as "risky" were those that take a particular risk that is, I think, unique to games – that of hiding their true nature in some way, taking the risk that some portion of their audience will never see the actual game. I can think of five examples off the top of my head: Nier Automata, Frog Fractions, Doki Doki Literature Club!, Year Walk, and A Dark Room.

Nier is the clearest example of what I mean. The game sits players down, and presents them with a sizeable action RPG, with a storyline that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Then the end credits roll. Then, a message appears exhorting players to do the whole thing again. 

I've played plenty of games that shove bonus scenes behind arduous challenges in the name of replayability, and it wouldn't be difficult to believe the same was true of Nier. In fact, as the credits roll for the first time, the game is only halfway done. It takes at least two more playthroughs – thankfully, each is shorter than the one before – to actually see what the game is going for. According to the counts Sony makes available of how many people have earned in-game trophies, 53% of players have finished the game that first time, but only 40% gave it a second playthrough, and just 25.7% actually finished the game. That's a pretty big risk!

Year Walk, a lovely iPhone game from 2015, plays an even more interesting trick. The game, an adventure based on Swedish folklore, comes with a companion app that details the historical background to the myths on display. But buried in the main game are clues to unlock a companion narrative in the app, which then feeds back into the main game and unlocks the "true" ending.

Hiding the ending of a narrative behind clever quirks is a risk, of course, but also something that's fairly fundamental to video games. After all, any game that has a difficulty curve will block some players from seeing it to completion simply because they can't finish the damn thing.

The more interesting examples, to me, are those games that hide their very nature. Frog Fractions is perhaps the clearest example of what I mean: the flash game is available for free, and if you've an hour to spare, I'd recommend you play it now.

If you have no interest, or time, I'll just quote from the opening of Wikipedia's summary of the game, which has a certain neutrality of tone that sells the madness:

Frog Fractions begins with a frog sitting on a lily pad. The player controls the frog, and must use its tongue to attack insects, while collecting and protecting fruit. The game later introduces upgrades that the player may purchase, including lock-on targeting, a cybernetic brain, and a flying dragon. When the player collects enough fruit, they can buy a warp drive, which lets them ride their dragon through an asteroid field to Bug Mars, where the player then battles an alien robot squid. The player is then sent to Bug Court, where they sign for a work visa.

If the wacky tone is off-putting, A Dark Room takes similar twist to the gameplay, but with a richer background. The brower/iOS game begins as an idle/clicker game: click to light a fire. Click to gather wood. Click to build huts.

But the game hides three major changes from players at the outset. One is a matter of tone: a single word changes in the user interface, forcing you to recontextualise your actions up to that point. The other two are moments when, as with Frog Fractions, it becomes a completely game altogether.

And then there's Doki Doki Literature Club! I honestly don't want to talk too much about it, in part because, unlike the other games here, it's difficult to say anything interesting about it without fundamentally ruining the experience for those who want to give it a go, and in part because the developer is so eager to stay in character that the game's own website keeps up the act entirely. The only hint to its true nature – and the only thing I'll say – is the warning at the bottom of the page:

This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.

Age verification

Speaking of children, the UK is embarking on a very interesting regulatory pathway today, with the publication of the final draft of the Age Verification code of practice. In my day job, I've been reporting on this for some time, and the thing I find fascinating is how few people seem prepared to accept the obvious hole in the middle of things: we have absolutely no workable proof of age system online and no plans to build one, yet there's a growing consensus amongst regulators worldwide that we need to treat children differently on the internet.

The US's rules dominate the field, and require extremely strong protections for kids under 13. The UK, when its rules are implemented in 2021, will require comparatively weaker protections, but will apply them to kids aged up to 18.

So far, COPPA – the American regulation – has been fairly weakly enforced. Most companies comply with it simply by asking users to select their age, then blocking those that say they're under 13. Some (like Twitter) skated by for years without even doing that. But a couple of FTC actions, against YouTube and TikTok, suggest that might be changing. 

Meanwhile, companies operating in the UK have a year to decide: either they work out how to keep children off their site; or they make their entire site child-safe by default. Neither is a great choice, particularly if you're a company like Facebook, and finely-grained data processing of every user by default is how you make your money. I can't wait to see how this shakes out.

A Pokémon update

Following severe losses in the fourth gym battle, my Pokémon team is slowly growing back up to strength. Numbering four individuals, I'm currently doing absent-minded grinding on the tube to get a level 10 fossil up to strength. 

That's enough of that,

Alex