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Video Games & The Art of the Mundane

Back in June, I started playing the Grand Theft Auto V story mode for the first time after owning the game for two years (and I loved it, in case anyone was interested). As I got into it, I began noticing a lot of the rather mundane things that players have the option of doing while playing. That got me thinking about the use of such tasks within this game and others. For this article, I’m going to looking at and analyzing the effectiveness of the utilization of similar mechanics in games such as Detroit: Become Human, Life Is Strange, Until Dawn, and GTA V. I will be comparing them on the basis of narrative and mechanic uses.

What Makes Mundanity Effective in a Video Game? And What Makes It Ineffective?

When it comes to video games, especially ones that are story driven or contain a lot of action, mundanity is something that comes from the completion of an incredibly simple or underwhelming task when compared to the other action in the game. There are few games out there that can accomplish making the mundane stand out in a positive way or in a way that doesn’t make game-play tedious.

Detroit: Become Human is not one of those games. As wonderful as the storytelling and characters are, the game-play is tedious in every sense of the word. Every minute action is a quick time event or is, in some way, interactive. While, yes, it can be quite entertaining to make Connor fumble with a doorknob for twenty minutes, this tedium is… annoying in a certain sense. Not only is it unnecessary but it also removes you from any sense of immersion you might have had within the story, which isn’t great in a story-focused video game. I suppose this is the hubris of David Cage’s vision for video games, which seems to be just a desire to create interactive movies or, as he calls them, experiences. That’s not necessarily a problem but making a player sit there for five minutes with their fingers clamped down on both trigger buttons of the controller just so a character can open a door is a problem. It’s more about how David Cage goes about making those movies interactive for the players. His vision prevents the game from having compelling game-play and mechanics. The game struggles in the realm of game-play because of the movie-like quality. When the game is something that you are spectating, instead of participating in, it is much harder to find a good excuse to give the player control. The tedium serves in no way to push the story forward in any meaningful way. It serves no purpose, especially in the later parts of the game. It would be different if the tedium were confined to establishing a status quo before it is changed with the events of the game. But that’s not what happens. Even after you’re past the washing dishes and doing laundry, you still have to quick-time-event every little thing.

When it comes to other games like Life Is Strange 1 and 2, the mundane tasks that you perform in either game do serve a purpose. In Life Is Strange 1, you spend a good part of the first chapter walking to Max’s dorm room to get a flash drive. You also spend time in other chapters doing rather simple things like putting a CD in a stereo or picking up car keys. In Life Is Strange 2, you spend time picking out snacks and beverages for a party. The reason these kinds of things work in these games is because these games don’t present themselves as anything more than what they are.

The things that I’ve mentioned here are meant to establish a status quo. A status quo is simply the state of the character’s lives, or just what their day-to-day looks like before the story begins.  It’s the basic structure of adventure stories to establish a status quo for the main characters so the audience can see just how much that person’s life changes when the inciting incident happens. The calm before the storm, if you will. Picking out snacks or putting a CD in a stereo works because the world building in either of these games doesn’t present the game as anything more than normal people being put into strange circumstances. There is no reason to believe a character would do something out our definition of ordinary because they live in a perceivably normal world. The status quo contrasts with the other events in the game, making the events that much more exciting and giving them even more meaning within the context of the story.

With Detroit, the major problem with the way mundane tasks are presented is in the promise of the what the world building presents for potential players. You’re playing a game set in a futuristic world where androids and other automated systems have become the norm. However, the player is stuck playing as an android that has to wash dishes and can’t open a door without your help. When you have to do absolutely every single little thing, it isn’t as fun as simply seeing a before and after of what a character’s life looks like after the story has already begun or has ended. There wasn’t a change in the status quo. The android that you’re playing as, that is supposed to be this exciting character, still needs your help to open doors after all that time.

Until Dawn is another game using some of these same mechanics. While it might seem like it’s in the same club with Detroit: Become Human, there is a major difference in how these two games use simple mechanics like turning door knobs and other “full controller use” tasks. In Detroit, like I’ve mentioned, mechanics like these don’t really add anything to the game, except a reason to call it a game. In Until Dawn, those same tasks serve a purpose, whether it seems like it or not. Until Dawn is a horror game. Yes, it is almost like an interactive film or show but it has interactive elements for a very distinct purpose. In a horror game, sometimes the most important part isn’t the monster chasing the protagonist. Sometimes, it’s the atmosphere, the tension in the air as you wait for something terrible to burst from the depths of your worst nightmares. From personal experience, that’s always what makes my anxiety shoot through the roof while playing games like this. When you’re playing Until Dawn, the simple tasks that might have annoyed you in Detroit: Become Human are the ones that now heighten the atmosphere and immerse you in the tension of the story. Something as simple as retrieving spray-on deodorant from a bathroom cabinet can be kind of freaky because, not only do you know this is a horror game, but the slowness at which you open the cabinet door makes you scared for what kind of horrors could be awaiting within. Most, if not all mechanics like this in the game serve that same purpose, to immerse you within the atmosphere and tension that the characters might be feeling, giving you a sense of urgency or understanding of the situation.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, Grand Theft Auto V is another game that actually manages to accomplish the mundane without bogging the story of the game down at all. I think what makes it so successful is that, aside from a few required missions, the mundane tasks are a choice and never something that you absolutely have to do. You can do yoga. You can go to therapy. You can go drinking or smoking or even on a ride on a roller coaster or play tennis. Compared to the heists, those things are rather normal. But they also make sense because that is how the world is presented. It is presented as a normal world. There’s nothing special about the characters or the world that we, as players, are presented with. There are no androids or people with superpowers. There are just three completely (comparatively) mundane main characters who live in a normal world. Doing those normal tasks don’t remove you from the immersion into the story because those mundane tasks are still normal in the world that you’re exploring as you play. There is no reason that someone living in a normal world would avoid doing those things because they are normal.

With none of the world-building indicating that the world is in any way fantastical in nature, it is much easier to accept the mundane tasks. If anything, it adds to the immersion, especially since it is an open world game. Aside from that, it works because it adds another layer of humor to the game that wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have these normal and random tasks included. It serves a purpose. Having Michael do yoga with his wife in their backyard as a required mission is funny especially because you don’t expect it compared to other missions in the game. It is presented as if their normal lives are continuing outside of their heists and that makes it even better. In addition, normal tasks like going to a bar or riding a roller coaster are never part of the main story of the game. Those mundane tasks don’t bog down the nameplate or remove you from your immersion because the accomplishing of those tasks or even the thoughts of doing them are to be expected in a normal world where there is no hyper-advanced technology or superpowers or magic.

How Should Games Utilize Mundanity & Why Should They Be Careful About It?

Mundanity in video games is a slippery slope. The success of using them depends entirely on the way that it is being utilized in the game. If it is being used for the purposes of fleshing out the world building or being used to genuinely change or affect the story of the game, then mundane tasks like grocery shopping or yoga are perfectly acceptable. They have a purpose in the game that you are playing and, as long as they don’t get in the way of the storytelling capabilities of the game, they really aren’t a huge problem.

Go to intensely into incorporating them into the game, though, and you could end up in the same boat with David Cage. That’s why it’s a slippery slope. There has to be a balance between those kinds of tasks and the actual story so they don’t get in each other’s way. That’s David Cage’s problem. There is no balance between the simple tasks and the story because the simple tasks get in the way of the story. It violates a very simple commonly accepted idea about storytelling. Detroit completely ignores the unspoken rule that things that are unnecessary to the story should be removed. You can describe someone walking through the door without describing to the audience how that person turned the doorknob. Knowing that detail is completely irrelevant to the plot and wastes the audience’s time because they’ve likely already guessed that the character turned the doorknob. There is an unspoken understanding that those kinds of details don’t need to be included because it just feels like fluff. With Detroit, it just makes it look like they wanted an excuse to call it a video game instead of making it into a movie.

Why Was Until Dawn’s Use Effective While Detroit’s Use Fell Flat?

Mundanity should be used in a video game to add something to it, whether that be to create an experience, add to world-building, or put a clever spin on storytelling conventions. Despite David Cage’s intention in creating experiences instead of games, he seems to fail even at his one goal. Well, maybe failure isn’t the right word. The game certainly is an experience but not necessarily the kind of experience that he’s likely hoping that we, as players, have. When everything is interactive, the novelty of it isn’t as fun further down the line and it becomes tedious when the only thing we experience is frustration. The reason Until Dawn succeeded, despite similar game-play, and Detroit failed was because the things that were interactive actually did create an experience. Like I mentioned before, the small things that you do in the game like turning on a phone flashlight or opening a cabinet add to the experience that the player has by creating an atmosphere for them. In doing those things, the player is gifted with a sense of urgency and placed right in the shoes of the actual characters as they are inundated with horrors beyond their wildest imagination.

Final Thoughts

I think that using simple tasks in a video game can be incredibly effective but only if you utilize it in the right way. I love storytelling games but the experience can be ruined when the mechanics do not work to add something to the story. Overall, I think using these mechanics can be a balancing act and I think more game developers should be more careful about using them.