Hacking & Jamming: Uplink, Guitar Hero, and Fantasy Through Abstraction

Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek’s essay on the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework cites fantasy, or games as make believe, as one of the core aesthetics a game can appeal to.  Fantasy, in their definition, isn’t specifically tied to the genre that also bears its name, but instead the idea of games enabling the player to do something that they otherwise could not in their regular life.  They list Quake, The Sims, and Final Fantasy as examples of this aesthetic, but in my experience, the two games that most embody it are Guitar Hero and Uplink.  These are radically different games with radically different focuses, but their embodiment of fantasy despite these differences highlights just how diverse the aesthetic is.  Uplink emphasizes mastery of complex systems, while Guitar Hero, for most players at least, focuses on using its incredibly simple, arcade-styled mechanics to create a way to engage with its many licensed music tracks.  Despite being such wildly different games, the two embody the aesthetic of fantasy with a purity that few other games are able to.  Skyrim, for example, focuses heavily on fantasy as well, but the player interacts with the game’s systems in a mostly abstract way.  Skyrim isn’t alone in this – vast majority of games are engaged with through multiple layers of abstraction – but this starts with controls.  This practice is so common for most people who play games that we rarely even think about it, but, for example, moving around a game world by pressing WASD or moving an analog stick feels vastly different from actually walking.  It’s an abstraction by necessity, because accurately simulating moving through a simulated world is prohibitively expensive, but both Uplink and Guitar Hero find ways around these abstractions to create an experience that feels incredibly authentic.

Uplink is the most obvious example, because the game has very few low-level abstractions.  The game is based on cinema’s representation of hacking as it appeared in the mid-90s, giving the game a strong stylistic grounding that keeps it from showing its over fifteen years of age.  Hacking games are a tragically underexplored mechanic set in gaming outside of a few abstract minigames, so Uplink’s commitment to exploring the genre already gives it the bonus of novelty.  It basks in its cyberpunk genre, with a narrative that emphasizes paranoia at every turn, and mechanics that match the narrative’s tension.  Uplink-3.pngAny botched hack or unscanned system could lead to a game over, which the game wonderfully contextualizes as the player’s in-game account being deleted, making retries a canonical part of the story.  The player types commands into a DOS-like terminal, going through a process that, while not actually resembling real-world hacking, makes enough sense in-world that it limits necessary suspension of disbelief, even for players who do know a decent amount about cybersecurity.  Most of the in-game programs have real-world analogs, like the brute force and dictionary password crackers, which are real world methods of breaking passwords.  These programs are necessarily abstracted, represented visually by the inaccurate movie cliche of a program solving a password one letter at a time. Nonetheless, this closeness to actual hacking grounds Uplink in reality, not by actually simulating the real world, but by simulating something that feels just plausible enough.  Like many of the good conspiracy stories the game’s narrative draws influence from, it gets just close enough to reality to pique the player’s curiosity, then lets their imagination fill in the gaps.

With this tone set, and the player’s suspension of disbelief expertly sidestepped, the game can allow them to more fully indulge in its aesthetic of fantasy.  Because the player already believes in the world, they can embrace the fantasy the game is trying to sell of being an on-the-run hacker breaking into the most secure systems on the planet with only their wits and their rig to keep them going.  In his review of the game, YouTube video essayist Matthewmatosis talked about how easy it was the let his mind slip into thinking that Uplink was real, like it was just a program he was running on his computer to connect to the Uplink network.  The game includes features to further this idea, such as a working IRC client that the player can use to chat with their real world friends.  IRC certainly isn’t as popular now as it was at the game’s release, but the module lead me to set up an IRC server of my own and connect to it through the game’s built-in client.  This is the only in-game mechanic that directly blurs the line between the game and the real world, but Uplink iterates on this mechanic by adding in-game chats with NPCs that take place through a similar interface.  This caused me to play Uplink differently than a very similar game, Hacknet, which is brilliant in its own right, but doesn’t use the reality-blurring techniques of Uplink.  While playing Uplink, I found myself intentionally taking more difficult jobs for the thrill of a challenging system, even though those jobs rewarded me less per minute than the easier ones.  I wasn’t playing the game for its numerical rewards, I was playing it because I felt like a hacker who wanted to break the toughest systems on the planet.  One of my metrics for measuring how engaged I am with a game’s core mechanics over its reward structure is to see how often I ignore systemic rewards in order to do things I find personally satisfying.  Progression and systemic rewards make up a lot of how and why I play games, so when a game can get me to ignore them, I know that something about it is fundamentally engaging to me.  In Uplink, I almost never pay attention to the game’s progression and reward structure.  I spend thirty minutes saving up credits to buy the equipment to break into a LAN system, which will take me another half hour, even though the rewards for those jobs are miniscule, because the satisfaction of such a complex job is worth far more than any reward might be.  Uplink helps the player to cultivate the mindset of a hacker, and goes through so much effort to let them believe in that fantasy.  For anyone who has ever idly daydreamed of being a hacker, of shouting, “I’m in!” after breaking into a complicated system, Uplink lets you indulge.

Guitar Hero, meanwhile, exists on the opposite end of the abstraction spectrum.  While Uplink strives to reduce abstraction as much as possible to enable fantasy, Guitar Hero seems to do nothing but abstract.  From a purely mechanical perspective, the player only performs three actions: press the correct buttons displayed on screen while strumming (or not, depending on the note), turn the guitar to activate star power, and use the whammy bar to distort the audio.  The core mechanics are closer to a quick-time event than a deep set of systems.  The simplicity of the game’s mechanics becomes shockingly obvious when you make one simple change: hit the mute button.  Suddenly, the game goes from an engaging party game to a boring, simplistic exercise in timed button presses.  Of course, every game could technically be abstracted to this level if you want to be pedantic.  Technically, Dark Souls is just an exercise in pressing the attack and dodge buttons at the right time, and Counter Strike is just about pointing and clicking on objects on your screen.  But all of those reductions have to be preceded with a “technically”, because the games encourage us not to think about our actions as “I am clicking my mouse button,” but instead, “I am firing my gun.”  Uplink didn’t need to bother with this abstraction because the non-abstract, actual actions that the player was performing were the same actions that the player character was performing: typing commands into a terminal.  Guitar Hero is on the opposite end of the spectrum where, despite its controls being so shallow, it barely asks the player to abstract at all.  The difference between clicking a mouse and firing a gun is pretty obvious (though, I suppose, with drones, that distinction is only getting smaller), but the distinction between pressing the right button on your guitar controller and playing the notes on an actual guitar, while significant, is nowhere near as significant as the gap between mouse-click and gunfire.  This lack of substantive difference is further highlighted by how well Ubisoft’s Rocksmith med_1505Guitar Hero Warriors of Rock  - Judy Nails.jpggames work, which function just like Guitar Hero, but with the player plugging an actual guitar into their PC or console.  So, Guitar Hero isn’t really asking the player to abstract their low-level actions, they’re asking them to abstract the context in which those actions are taking place.  The music is the most obvious change in context the game wants you to imagine, and it does a decent job of emphasizing this through minor interactions such as the whammy bar and star power that give the player at least some degree of personal expression.  The tracks also respond to player failure in an interesting way.  Guitar Hero stores their songs in multiple different music tracks, including an instrumental track that only plays audio from the guitar, which will cut out whenever the player misses a note.  Guitar Hero’s modding community will occasionally port custom songs over without this guitar track, removing the aural response to failure.  Songs played without this feature feel substantially less responsive, and break the game’s careful balance of contextual abstractions.  The expertly evoked game feel that Guitar Hero relies on suffers greatly from this lack of responsiveness, breaking the illusion that your actions are producing the audio coming from your speakers.  Many of games are greatly elevated by their audio – would Bioshock’s Rapture have felt anywhere near as atmospheric without the game’s incredible ambient sound design? – but Guitar Hero is almost completely defined by it.  If you remove all sound from Bioshock, you still have the game’s immersive sim-inspired systems, its competent combat mechanics, and its mostly stellar writing.  It is an undeniably lesser product, but it is still Bioshock in some sense.  If you remove the audio from Guitar Hero, the entire experience falls apart.  It exists for the sake of its audio.

With all of these mechanical and stylistic choices designed to prop up the audio, the game can let the player fully indulge in what feels like an unabstracted fantasy.  Practically everyone has dreamed of being a rock star, and Guitar Hero was created from the ground up to support that fantasy.  It’s why most of their budget is spent on licensing music tracks instead of creating their own for much cheaper.  It’s why they put a decent amount of effort into creating stylized 3D environments and models with complex lip-syncing and animations to match each part of a song, even though the player does not interact with these environments in any way whatsoever.  The mechanics and game feel of the series do the work of making you feel like you’re playing guitar, and the visuals and style make you feel like you’re playing that guitar in an actual rock band.  The game’s story mode has a loose frame narrative, and while it fits thematically with the rest of the game, it is structured like a conventional video game narrative, making it much more abstract and forgettable than the tightness of the rest of the game’s design.  Guitar Hero simply isn’t about the story, it is about creating a laser-focused experience of a rock concert, and little else.  Now, that experience is enhanced by the game’s fairly intricate character customization based on rock music caricatures, allowing the player to better express their presence in the world of that concert.  The game could have been bogged down by systems such as managing the band’s finances or working out the details and design for specific shows, or had a narrative about band drama with memorable characters.  The game does not do this, and, especially for a AAA game series in the late-2000s, Guitar Hero is surprisingly feature-light.  It has many of these elements shallowly implemented, such as the aforementioned unlockable costumes and guitars, but also gives you an easy cheat code to unlock all of it.  Guitar Hero is designed as an arcade experience, not a progression-based one, a quality highlighted by how little they had to change to port the game to arcade machines.  It has its fantasy, and that’s about it.  The result is a title that is begging you to ignore the mechanical simplicity of its systems and imagine yourself as a rock star.  Fantasy is an aesthetic games try to evoke incredibly often – escapism is the dominant aesthetic of gaming, after all – but so few games evoke it as expertly as Guitar Hero and Uplink.  Through their complex reexaminations of how to use abstraction, either completely or not at all, they allow for a novel engagement with the concept, intentionally cultivating the aesthetic in a way that most other games do not even attempt.

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