Groundhog Day as a Simulated Game World

[Readings] (02.17.09, 2:44 pm)

Groundhog Day is not in my reading list at the moment. Maybe it should be, and I could swap something out for it (so much for Foucault or Genette). Recently I started thinking about the qualities of playing and restarting in games, and some of the sorts of unusual player behavior that occasionally results. Groundhog day has been described as a sort of cyclic and layered narrative, but I think that the appeal lies in the phenomenon of the experience of repetition. To understand this, we need to look beyond the story itself to the world indicated by the story.

Groundhog Day features the protagonist, Phil Connors, reliving the same day, February 2nd over and over again. Initially, his reaction is shock and confusion,  then he begins to indulge hedonistically, and eventually becomes depressed and attempts suicide in a variety of ways. Finally, in an effort to win the heart of Rita, the love interest, he sets out on a course of self improvement. Phil uses the repetition of time to become a better person, learning to play the piano, and helping the lives of others. Finally he reaches a point where he can improve the world around him and win Rita’s affection.

The film reverberates with conventions of games, the struggle for improvement, perfection and mastery achieved through practice, repetition in the face of failure, and the intermediate freedom that lies between. Groundhog Day represents a simulated world, whose mechanics become more visible when seen in repetition, and are reinforced when perturbed by variation. Like Phil, the audience gains a sense of the depth of the world by viewing it while it is repeated with different perturbations. Murray says that the film “is as much like a videogame as a linear film can be.” (HoH p. 36) This is fairly accurate, but thinking of it like a game yields some interesting conclusions. Murray describes the pleasure of the viewer as savoring the variety of reactions experienced by Phil, but ultimately this is frustrated by thoughts of how the viewer would do things differently.

Players in videogames games often react very similarly to the way Phil reacts in Groundhog Day. When the player first is met with failure and doesn’t know why, they will try different approaches to succeed, and if they continue to be frustrated, will often test the game’s boundaries. Players come into playing games with many different sets of expectations. Some players might be ready to be immersed right away, but other players are less invested in considering the game world as a participatory illusion, preferring to experiment and play with it. These are two major types of activities that players engage in while playing games. I think that most players do some mix of both, but the latter category of activity is often problematic. The activity of experimenting with the world often involves attempting to break it, to find and identify where the boundaries of the world are, and how much change and control may be exerted over the world by the player.

In a game centered on storytelling, an experimenting player will eagerly go to the NPC who is to give the player the key to get to the next area, and punch or kill them. The experimenting player might try to climb on top of the highest building in the game to jump off it, just to see if they can. Playing Facade, the experimenting player will try to flirt with Grace and Trip in the second or third acts (if they can get that far). They will take every effort to perturb and upset the narrative direction of the game, just to see what will happen. Developers have mixed reactions to these sorts of players. On one hand, it is pleasing to have players so interested in a game world that they will experiment with it, but it also makes it very difficult for the developers to present a coherent story or experience.

It is generally thought that the use of cut-scenes in games was due to technical constraints (I don’t have a source for this, but this perspective seems reasonably sound). It is easier to have a cut sequence where a static narrative bit is presented to the player after some sequence of gameplay than to have some complex system of having the player interact with the narrative segments or be able to participate during them. Another way of looking at this is as a way of preserving the narrative structure from the interference of the players. After all, if the player is given freedom within these narrative sequences, the player will try to mess them up, and then the game will need to accomodate for that interference. Ultimately, it is not useful from a game design perspective to percieve player action as interference, but if games are to be used for traditional storytelling*, then the story needs to be protected to the player.

* Whether games should or should not be intended as a storytelling medium is not my point. Games are used for storytelling, as nearly every mainstream game title has a story which unfolds during the course of play. There are of course, many that do not, and those are not the subject of my citique here.

Often games protect the story from interference but limiting the player’s actions while a narrative segment is in progress, or in the case of cut scenes, by preventing input completely (save for maybe a skip button if the player is lucky). However, if a game does not do this, then the player will experiment and behave erratically, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. When he is given freedom without consequences, he begins to break implicit social rules, then explicit rules, becoming more and more erratic with each repetition. At his worst, Phil sees the rest of the characters as pawns or toys in a world which revolves around him, which is exactly the mindset of a player experimenting with a game, an exaggerated version of Phil’s already egotistical and jaded personality.

What is fascinating about Groundhog Day is the manner of its resolution. Much like a frustrated player, he eventually realizes that to progress and move forward, it is necessary to not only abide by the rules of the game, but also master them. At some point, he decides to treat the other characters as people and not pawns. Unlike the player of a game, Phil has no choice, and literally cannot continue until he figures out the rules of the world he is in.

What is at stake here is not a matter of figuring out how to stop or punish the player’s experimental behavior, the world must react to it of course, but it should not be seen as a problem or a thing to be insulated. Instead, it is necessary to figure out how to let the player earnestly want to progress and play by the rules of the game. Groundhog Day is interesting because Phil eventually decides to want to improve, to want believe in the world. It seems like it would be possible to put an experimenting player along a similar journey, to first see the world as a toy, and then as an expressive world which the player will want to participate in.

(Okay, I just put Groundhog Day on my reading list now. Now I need to find something to get rid of.)

Reading Info:
TitleGroundhog Day
Tagsnarrative, fiction, simulation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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