Free Roaming

Why it can be better to escape a game’s constraints than to win on its terms

The music of the final cutscene fades, and my character stands alone in a field. I stare at him and he stares into the sunset. In my world, outside the game, it’s 2 a.m. I’ve stayed up to finish, and now I find myself glancing around, guilty. Guilty not because of the hour, but because of what I do next: The game’s over, but I don’t turn it off.

For years, I’ve been turning to open world role-playing video games — like Skyrim, The Witcher, and Assassin’s Creed — for precisely these moments, the moments when all the “content” promised on the slipcover has been exhausted, all the monsters exterminated, all the magic feathers and orbs of power deposited with their rightful owners, and every corner of the map explored. I am alone with the mechanics of the game. Free at last, I wander around the game world where towns still bustle and their inhabitants shout canned phrases I’ve already heard a hundred times. The in-game day-night cycle continues; but now, with nothing better to do, I notice it differently. Locations where major scenes took place provoke real nostalgia. This part of the game — the illicit, post-story part — is better than anything that might have preceded it in the name of story. In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time.

I discovered this unlikely pleasure by accident when I was a teenager. One of my first video games, called Redguard, took place in a small open world that reminded me of the fantasy books I loved — I didn’t want to leave. After I’d played through the story several times, I started experimenting with other ways to use the game. If you simply jumped off the ship where the final boss battle took place, you found yourself in a wireframe version of the game world where you could pass through walls.

In a world empty of fate, gone slack without a narrative, my character, alone and aimless, has a life for the first time

At first I hoped that the game developers had included this possibility on purpose, a trapdoor to the game’s backstage, a secret for the persistent and inquisitive to find. The best thing, I thought, would be to step out of the game’s story into a larger game with a bigger and more complex story. Of course, I hadn’t found a feature; I’d found a bug. The developers would have eliminated it if they had noticed it. But eventually I realized that if they had intended me to escape the game’s narrative, I wouldn’t really be escaping it at all.

Since then I’ve tried to find a way to escape the narrative of every video game I’ve played. These days, that’s why I play.

Even as I learned to pervert open world RPGs into something resembling the freedom of real life, game designers have been striving to destroy the distinction between life and games altogether.

The game industry’s mimetic aspirations touch every level of their product. Today’s hardware renders 2D images on a screen at frame rates that convincingly approximate real 3D motion. These images are composed of textures so complex that they seem, to my screen-addled, myopic eyes, more believable than the blurry beige wall of my own living room. But these visual effects, while impressive, are only the most superficial aspect of the gaming industry’s approximations of life. On the cutting edge, games pursue freedom. They feature stories where players make increasingly consequential choices, and they introduce randomness into the challenges generated for the player, so no two gamers experience quite the same puzzles. Contingency and choice have become the ultimate standard of simulation.

Perhaps the boldest experiment in freedom yet attempted by a game studio is No Man’s Sky, an exploration and survival game that takes place in a universe procedurally generated to include 18 quintillion separate planets. In the game world’s inexhaustible dimensions players can discover and explore places no one else will ever see. Surely this is the perfect embodiment of what I hoped to find when I first snuck away from the final boss battle in Redguard? No; I hate the very idea. The designers of No Man’s Sky have turned freedom into a task, making a game that goes on forever, an inescapable narrative of exploration. I will never play it. Unsurprisingly, many players report a sense of futility while playing No Man’s Sky: It generated enormous anticipation and enormous disappointment.

The freedom game designers seem to want for me and the freedom I want to seize from them are radically different. One freedom concerns choice. Game designers wager that the more they pack into their worlds, and the larger those worlds become, the more a game’s simulation will approximate the freedom of real life. The other freedom concerns autonomy. By exhausting a game’s content, I wager that I’ll find the pleasurably desolate state in which, whatever I do, I’ll be doing it on my own account and for its own sake. The first freedom requires a world built to accommodate it, a sumptuous palette of sanctioned choices; the second freedom depends upon a world it can defy.

Our collective awakening to looming catastrophe fits nicely with the idea that we’re stuck in somebody else’s computer game. Our dread demands an explanation

“Part of human life escapes from work and reaches freedom,” wrote Georges Bataille: “Play, which is as fascinating as catastrophe, allows you to positively glimpse the giddy seductiveness of chance.” In these two brief lines, he manages to sum up the whole point of my gamer existentialism. Work is effort expended as a means to something else, leisure, a hobby, the maintenance of a family, the freedom of private life; and freedom, by contrast, is effort expended for its own sake. This seems to me a correct and necessary opposition, particularly in a consumer society where the identification of freedom with choice is not merely a metaphysical thesis, but a mystification of unfreedom. We have never been simultaneously so spoiled for choice and so enslaved to work, squeezed for every last drop of productivity at the office and dizzy with things to do at home. Fortunately we have games, play, ways to indulge the irrationality of freedom without destroying society.

Or do we? Thanks to the good-hearted — and from my perspective wrong-headed — efforts of game designers, with every new release it becomes harder for me to reach my post-story game world. It took a month of work to wring out the last drops of story from the RPG I played most recently.

It would be wrong to say that I play games in order to reach the post-story game world: in fact, until I’ve reached that state, I’ve not yet begun to play. The whole trend of game design seems likely to infiltrate this outpost of freedom with new and clever forms of work, to turn the nine to fiver who escapes into his video games into a five to niner at work on his second, virtual job.

Perhaps my pleasure in misusing games has something in common with my childhood love for burrowing into bushes and boxes and beneath piles of dryer-warmed sheets. Or perhaps it is a satisfying metaphor for the over-determined loneliness of a homeschooled nerd. But, honestly, I didn’t really interrogate the pleasure until just a few months ago when I heard that Elon Musk thinks we’re all living in a simulation.

With the insouciance of wealth, Musk made famous in the course of an interview a thought experiment developed 14 years earlier. In 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrum suggested that a technologically advanced civilization might take it upon themselves to run simulations of their ancestors. For all we know, he suggested, we are such simulations. Ever since Musk took this speculation mainstream, everybody keeps noticing things that suggest to them we’re in a simulation. “Were the Oscars and the Election proof we’re living in a simulation?” asked a recent headline in New York Magazine. Every deja vú, statistically unlikely happenstance, and destabilization of the established order gives rise to a new round of simulation quips — which are, whether flip or not often a telling window into the zeitgeist.

The real question is not why everybody’s joking that we live in a simulation, but why we ever stopped talking about the world’s unreality in the first place

The moments that bring the simulation meme to mind are precisely the moments game designers have committed themselves to eradicating from their games: moments of improbability, repetition, and unreality. The best simulation wouldn’t give itself away, if our own best simulators are anything to go by. Moreover, Bostrum’s thought experiment and Musk’s belief depends upon the assumption that our feeling of reality is indistinguishable from a sufficiently advanced simulation. It makes no sense to point to ostensible glitches in this very advanced simulation to prove that it is a very advanced simulation. So why do we keep making those jokes?

Perhaps because our collective awakening to looming catastrophe fits nicely with the idea that we’re stuck in somebody else’s computer game. Environmental, political, and personal disaster seems increasingly inevitable despite our best efforts. Our dread demands an explanation. The idea that we’re living in a simulation would justify an even deeper feeling: the need to take back control. My private pleasure in wringing freedom from simulations has become a cultural obsession on a much larger scale.

But is the feeling really new? Around 380 BCE, Plato asked his readers to imagine the human mind as a prisoner, tied immovable in a cave, watching shadows on a wall and mistaking them for life. In the 13th century, Bonaventure, a medieval theologian, referred to all creatures as “shadows” and “vestiges.” In 1710, George Berkeley proposed that each thing is an idea in the mind of God. In the 1800s, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a sonnet that begins:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe…

The real question is not why everybody’s joking that we live in a simulation, but why we ever stopped talking about the world’s unreality in the first place.

So we’re entertaining an ancient and perennial notion, and like everyone else who has ever entertained that notion, we face a stark choice. If my experience is anything to go by, the absurdity of finding yourself in a simulation need not issue in despair or acquiescence. There is another possibility: Embracing the existential lesson that absurdity is always an opportunity to stop playing along and find a different way to play. The world is in our hands, simulation or not. Society does not run on rails, and where it seems to do so, it lies within our power to live another way.

The best RPG games are graced with soundtracks that ratchet into trumpets and massed strings when combat is imminent, or ease with pleasant fluting the passage between points in a quest. A soundtrack cleverly melded to player actions makes gameplay cinematic, so you feel as if you are both watching a scripted scene and acting it out yourself. Naturally, I hate this imposition.

So when the story is over and my fun really begins, I like to turn off the music. Not only is it old by then, but it has become ineluctably associated with interpretations of my character’s movement that I choose to reject.

In the sonic space cleared by this adjustment, I hear environmental noises better, the susurrus of virtual breezes, and the crunching of my virtual boot-heels in virtual loam. Maybe it’s because I’m tired and because my ears crave peace at 2 a.m., after a long evening hard at work on a game, but the silence that follows turning off an incessant soundtrack is sweet as only stolen silence can be.

Robert Minto is an essayist, writer of speculative fiction, and nomadic traveler currently residing in Pittsburgh.