Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole considers gaming verbs beyond walk and shoot
When analysing the range of action available to the player of a videogame, analysts sometimes talk about the ‘verbs’. Walk, run, crouch, shoot, hijack car, hack CCTV camera – these are all familiar verbs in videogames, which just means that if you manipulate a control in a certain way, your onscreen avatar or perspectival point will shift in a certain way, or something else will happen in the gameworld. Less common verbs in games are shudder, caress, kneel or daydream.
To remark on the paucity of common verbs is one way to point out the amazingly stunted simulation of human experience in most of today’s videogames, even or especially those that aspire to be the most mature or cinematic. What happens in them is that vaguely recognisable human interactions happen in cutscenes, and then one is thrown back into playing with the ordinary handful of verbs available to the kind of supposedly charismatic psychopath who counts as a hero.
To speak of player ‘verbs’ in a videogame is, of course, a metaphor. Verbs are parts of language, not of behaviour, virtual or otherwise. So it is salutory to be reminded of the possibility that the menu of verbs could be far longer and richer in the kind of game built with words rather than polygons. The poet John Redmond makes this implicit point in his remarkable long poem from 2008, MUDe. It takes the form of a fictional transcript of several MUD sessions.
Often the player in the poem types in ordinary commands such as ‘look’ or ‘drink’. But in one interaction between user and system Redmond makes a subtle general joke about player verbs: ‘>ack / You ack’. What does it mean to ack? Perhaps the player means to say ‘ack’ in an expression of annoyance or disgust. But we can’t be sure, and we are given no indication whether the system understands the verb ‘ack’, or whether it is just parroting it back to the player. The point may be that it doesn’t really matter, as long as the player feels that successful expression has occurred.
This ‘ack’ is evidently the kind of verb that one cannot imagine being assigned to a joypad button in an open-world city-based murder simulator. Similarly impossible to build in such a game would be the eerie and disturbing sequence in MUDe in which the player meets Death. “Your mouth is forced open as wide as it can go. Then wider. Death tumbles inside with his six wet arms.” One could watch this happening to a player avatar on a screen, but it wouldn’t be happening to you.
Redmond’s poem is not merely an assertion of the power of language to get at you where you live, so to speak, although in a subsequent explanatory note the poet does riff on some of the properties of language, and particularly verbs, that make a wordbuilt world so flexible. “MUDs attract special kinds of language use,” he explains. “One example is the so-called ‘emote’. An emote occurs when a player demonstrates an emotion theatrically rather than merely reporting it. So, for example, a player who is feeling chirpy might type ‘bounce’. The other players in the same room will then read ‘John bounces around’ instead of ‘John says: I am excited’.” In MUDs, then, language is often performative, in the terms of philosopher JL Austin: words do things.
The point is not that word-built games are simply superior, although it is likely that they will always do interiority better (Death climbing into you) than visual games, in the same way that novels do interiority better than cinema. But perhaps the fact that the text adventure is again resurgent (under the rubric of Interactive Fiction) bespeaks a dissatisfaction with the verbs available in mainstream videogames. In Watch Dogs, for example, it is literally impossible to sit down on a park bench. And after a few sleep cycles in my scummy hideout I seriously wanted to brush my teeth.
It would of course be much more work to build many such apparently trivial possibilities of action into videogames that are already extremely complicated. But the danger is that as long as players are limited to not much more than movement and condescendingly contextual action-button pushes, they will never really feel that the person representing them in the gameworld is a human being. Instead, that figure will remain a remote-controlled android, somehow mutely saddened by its own embarrassingly poor vocabulary of verbs.