Video Game Theory: No Way Out Of These Rules

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

Sorry for my absence this past month – I have had a bit of a busy time at work.

Part of it has been finally updating the model that we’ve been using here on these blogs so that the terminology fits talking about digital games rather than texts. Here is the updated version:

Modified by Mikkel Lodahl from an orginal source here:

I am still not entirely happy with it, but we’ll soldier on for the moment.

(Here is what I dislike: the interpretive act arrow might need to be double-headed to reflect the interactive nature of interpretive acts in a digital game environment; and the colour coding could be used as a signifier instead of just making the model slightly more pleasing to the eye)

But I promised way back in the last post that we would take a look at how rules can act as formal elements in getting a message across. One of my favorite easy examples of this is the controls scheme of the wonderful game by Pippin Barr Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment. You can play it following that link. Go on, it’s…well, fun might be too strong a word, but enjoyable…is also a bit strong, so let’s say enlightening and interesting.

The title screen of Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment by Pippin Barr


In the game, you choose between a series of mini-games portraying situations from Ancient Greek myth and culture. Each game is controlled in basically the same way as illustrated here:


The rules for playing the Danaids game in Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment by Pippin Barr

You simply press the G and H buttons alternately to perform the same repetitive task again and again. You can have a certain perverse fun by using the deliberately clunky animation to make small spasmodic Danaid-dances, but otherwise your only alternative to the repetitive control scheme is to not play. If you tire of a mini-game, you also have to re-load the entire game to select a new one, effectively forcing you to rage quit to keep on playing.

The message told by these controls is that the player is trapped in a repetitive world that looks like a game, but where the goal can never be reached. This is analogous to the famous paradox detailed by Zeno of Elea and included as a level in the game: whenever you attempt to travel a distance, at some point you have traveled halfway to your goal. This applies to any distance, so since you can keep splitting any distance up in smaller distances infinitely, you have to get to an infinite number of halfway points before you reach your destination. Thus, motion is an illusion.


Once you reach the halfway point, the rules dictate that your erstwhile runner is moved to the left of the screen again to begin the journey to the next halfway point

The rules of Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment seem to say the same thing about the games within: their goals are illusions because ultimately they will never be reached. You are given a task and rules, but the rules do not help you accomplish this task and the only way you can “win” the game – that is reach a point where the repetition stops – is by abandoning it.

The rules as formal elements involved here are:

  • A simple, repetitive basic input method
  • Variable rules that use the same input method in different narrative scenarios
  • Clear goals that cannot be reached through the rules
  • A lack of traditional menu navigation, encouraging resetting the game like on early consoles

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the broader themes of the scenarios narratively presented.

The identification via text (another formal element) of the scenarios with specific Ancient Greek myths all detailing gruelling eternal punishments of humans that broke the laws of the gods, as well as the eternity paradox mentioned above, shows that the rules are being used to comment on this view of the world.

If you buy into the Ancient Greek world view – or similarly autocratic views of the place humanity has in the cosmos – the rules of Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment tells you that this is the consequence. Life becomes repetitive and goalless, even though it seems there are clear rules and worthy goals.

This was a first pass on how rules can be used as formal elements to express conceived messages of a narrative nature. Next time – he said, covering his back – we’ll take a look at how rules as formal elements express and transmit conceived ideas about gameplay.

PS: Pippin Barr has recently written a little about Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment, if you’re curious as to the developer’s own perspective.


I’m an associate professor at the Dania Academy of Higher Education in Grenaa, Denmark. We offer two AP level educations focused on game development, one for programmers and one for designers. I teach a flurry of different analytical disciplines, and I will be blogging about various forms of analysis from gameplay and narrative analysis of games to marketing analysis and even occasionally object oriented analysis in relation to game development. My focus is on making analysis a practical skill. I hope to produce insights and lessons for use in further design, rather than analysing for pure fun and knowledge – though that certainly also has its place. Oh, and a warning: I have a weird background for games – philosophy and the study of religion – which may bleed through from time to time. I will try to blog at least once a week – always on Thursdays, occasionally also on Mondays.

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