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"The Game": A Refusal of Choice

by Dominic

Simon’s particular response lies really closely with my objections to “The Game”’s particular project. Personally, the objectionable conceit of the film lies with the narrative of the game as depicted in the movie. The biggest problem, then, is not that the game refuses Nicholas the right to choose whether or not he is playing the game, but more that it is a game which finds no particular stakes in the notion that a well-engineered game world overrides the real world in which it is played.

Continually in the film, Nicholas spreads the width of his attempts to escape, and repeatedly he is pulled back into the game, and with yet another less option. This alone would constitute a disturbing level of control of a game in a world where realities (people may choose not to participate, or perhaps not every person Nicholas might contact could be accounted for) are completely cast aside. Secondly, though, this game involves so many moments of potential danger to uninvolved parties, and dependence on a lack of interference from people outside Nicholas’ life that it seems the game not only owns Nicholas, but has captured actual life within its grasp, conforming the basics of human societal life to a solitary need to get Nicholas, unharmed, but scared and with intent to harm, to the predetermined ending (which is never more clear than  in the fact that the game anticipates both his attempt at suicide and even where and how it would take place).

The narrative fails to own up to the realization that the game depicted therein is an impossibility, and perhaps the only way to get at this impossibility is to explore the notion that nobody does, can, or ever will win or lose such a game; in fact, the game does not have a way to be “won” or “lost”. The film’s narrative has allowed the game to envelop so much of the uninvolved world that it is impossible to conceive of a result that actually manifests as a win or loss. Because the ending in the film is so predetermined, we are made to assume that had Nicholas found a way to fly to Europe, go to an underground arms dealer, purchase a gun, and hide on a boat to return home and deliver justice, the game rules still hold a position of precedence, and as such, he’d have been sabotaged by all those with whom he interacted. Thus, he still would have ended at his birthday party, and everyone would have been alive, and insist that he merely accept the fact that this game has destroyed mere “reality”.

It could be argued that the game has exerted such control of the world in this narrative that it is a game devoid of “gameplay” and “rules”, and as such, barely constitutes a game at all. There remains a total lack of any sort of choice at all, for even rejection and refusal of the game constitute “gameplay”. The question to be answered in this case is then “If the game in ‘The Game’ is not a game by such a definition, how might we define what has transpired? Or does its control, precision, and inability to be particularly affected by interaction leave it outside the realms of gamespace, virtual reality, and other such interactive creations?” Returning to my first paragraph, it may be that a game which “overrides the real world” that denies it its artifice, self-destructs its own space as a “game”.

Ludology and Narrative

by Jesse Kapp

The Game, and this scene in particular, presents a strange narrative space where Frasca’s ludology, while not actually able to become the film’s dominant function, is evident in an undercurrent of “what if” moments and potential alternate narrative sequences. When Nicholas jumps off of the roof and lands, perfectly safe, on the marked X, we hear an offscreen voice: “We got ‘em. Right on target.” This statement sums up the convenience of this particular narrative sequence, a sequence that is created (in the world of the film at least) from Nicholas’ unbeknownst participation in a supposed ludology.


Regardless of Nicholas’s unawareness, Christine mentions in this scene that “there was always a safety net.” This creates a problematic, imperfect ludology, because it implies that almost all of Nicholas’ actions were anticipated, something we again see with this final jump. What we don’t know is whether or not “safety nets” were in place for all of the choices, or narrative sequences, that Nicholas could have enacted at any given step. Clearly Nicholas would have been harmed had he run across to the other side of the building and leapt off. To assume that the participants in the Game could anticipate any potential narrative sequence that could stem from Nicholas’ range of possibility, his ludology, is ludicrous. Another way of looking at it is by applying Gallaway’s terms – “machine actions” and “operator actions”. The machine actions in the game are enacted by the many participants that we meet throughout Nicholas’ narrative sequences. The machine actions, in this sense, don’t seem to be able to completely construct a set of rules or a limited, controllable set of choices that Nicholas, the operator, may choose from safely.


Therefore we must sacrifice our desire to see Nicholas participate in a true game for the sake of the film narrative. The alternative, that of watching a true ludology of a taped video game for instance, might present a truer representation of The Game’s intentions but the narrative sacrifice of leaving the filmic world is immense.

When will the game end? Or has the game itself won already?

by Julz


When Nicolas Van Orton enters the world of the game and sees all of the ‘obstacles’ or challenges that he has either overcame or has to over come (Christine) in order to get to the next level.  This allows the audience to be in tuned (or on the same level) as Van Orton. The police detectives, the private investigator, as well as the rogue taxi driver are present at this ‘game’. It is as if everyone that Van Orton has had contact with is a participant of the Game.  This is a game or deception that is so elaborate, that you don’t know what’s what or who is real.


This scene reminded me of one of the RPG (role playing games) that allows you to become the character you are playing. It allowed for a brief exchange of dialogue between the two main characters, Christine and Van Orton, before he was able to move on to the next level. (Which is similar to the Mario Brothers having to save the princess or going undercover to catch racers in Need for Speed Undercover.) Van Orton has agreed to enter the world of the game and must therefore play by the rules. Right after the dialogue between Christine and Van Orton, the “game” interrupts with armed guards, which forces the  ‘player’ to move on to the next level.


Once at the next level, which can be considered the ultimate level, it is revealed that it was all just ‘a game’.  Knowing that he shot his brother sends Van Orton over the edge, and it is revealed that he has in fact won the game.  This is the only game that you’ll play and come out as a changed man.

Forced Versus Voluntary Narrative in The Game

by Simon Wiscombe

In game design theory, there is a recognition that a player must agree to enter the "magic circle" of the game (see Huizinga's Homo Ludens). It follows that every player must make that transition from the real world to the sheltered world, where rules change into those of the game. In addition, as proposed in Frasca's Ludology Meets Narratology, games' narratives fall into the idea that the player has a choice of whether or not to accept any challenges that are presented to him. This revelation scene gives rise to a revelation within the audience as well. That is to say that The Game is not a movie about a game at all, rather it is a movie about a narrative being forced upon a player.

Frasca outlines a model of narrative within ludus. He states that the options and tasks presented to the player are either abstained from or accepted, and a different course of action will occur depending on both the initial choice and the result. The Game, however, doesn't allow its main player to ever make a choice. In fact, "The Game" was set into motion as soon as  the main character's brother purchased the gift for him. The offices and the set-ups that led to it had all began before Nicholas Van Orton (the player) had even contacted the company--before he could have even made the decision to begin. In fact, all of the player's choices seemed predetermined. Whereas players normally are able to choose whether or not to accept a task, Michael Douglas' character could not. Decisions were made for him, and the end result of "The Game" was predetermined long before he even started playing.

It is because of this that I would propose that The Game has a devastatingly misleading title. What the main character goes through isn't a game at all. His life is simply being manipulated.

Ludonarrative dissonance in The Game

by Alex Beachum

     Because The Game takes place entirely within the “real” world, it offers no excuses for the incredibly contrived and improbable events of its climax. In fact, these back-to-back revelations highlight the problem of ludonarrative dissonance present in most story-driven video games.

      Immediately before the first narrative twist, Christine tells Nicholas that they have been firing squibs, “like in the movies.” Ironically, since The Game is in fact a film, we know the bullets must be squibs regardless of whether they are supposed to be real in the context of the narrative. This draws attention to the intricate level of planning required to set up and film a fake gunfight – a level of planning that is simply too complicated to fake on the spot as Christine claims. The CRS would have had to correctly predict every surface or person that Nicholas planned to shoot at in order to plant the squibs in advance (to say nothing of the timing). This inability to anticipate the actions of its players is the very problem that plagues many modern video games, where the solution is often to constrain player actions to the path of the narrative.

     This hidden constraint is particularly apparent in Nicholas' decision to commit suicide exactly above the stunt mat prepared by CRS. If the climax of The Game were to be presented in a truly gamic form, the level design of the rooftop would have to force the player to jump off the building from that specific point. The film is acutely aware of this, as evidenced by Jim's comment that he was supposed to throw Nicholas off the roof had he decided not to jump. In this sense (and perhaps it's a bit of a stretch), The Game's resolution becomes a critique of gaming within our increasingly informatic society (as detailed in Galloway's essay on allegories of control). After all, only within game systems are complex topics like guilt and suicide translated into binary if statements.

The Game: Frasca's Taxonomies and their Implications

by Sarah Brin

If we choose to critique David Fincher's 1997 film The Game with some of the concepts outlined in Gonzalo Frasca's "Ludology Meets Narratology," we're presented with a series of interesting questions concerning taxonomy, player agency, and third-party experience. 

For example, is CRS' game more similar to the paideic or ludic model? Looking at Frasca's text, we see that the ludic process is dependent on a rule set, as well as a win/lose dichotomy. This whole component made me quite nervous, as I felt like it regarded narrative as something with clearly defined start and end points, and that the text doesn't take into consideration the potential for sustained engagement with challenging content, like a Brecht play or Lars von Trier film. I think narrative content has the ability to continue playing out [although not necessarily in physical space], long after an initial text/play/game ends. Additionally, I didn't feel like Fracsa adequately addressed the New Games movement (an initiative to develop shared, process-based experiences, without isolating any party as a "winner" or "loser") or any subsequent outgrowths. But I digress. Was Nicholas Van Orton ever presented with a rule set? Would it have ever been possible for him to lose The Game? While we can "what if" ourselves about the possibilities all day, my reading is that Nicholas is operating on rails that make it impossible for him to lose, even when he thinks he's pressing the "undo" button on his life. 

Frasca writes, "Paidea videogames have no pre-designated goal. So there is no 'winning plot,'...The player has more freedom to determine her goals." I'm not so sure Van Orton made such a determination for himself, and yet it appears that the conclusion of CRS' game prompts him to have an Ebenezer Scrooge-like revelation regarding the importance of kindness, family, etc. At least in the world of the film, his experience of The Game and its lack of a concrete objective is what facilitates Van Orton's presumed change of heart/personality. I'm so fascinated by the potential to generate thoughtful play experiences like this, and although I recognize the film's resolution is hyperbolically positive, I think ambiguous/ non-objective games have the capacity to cultivate player agency in a way that more didactic/objective-oriented games don't.

But what sort of player has the time and resources for this kind of exploratory play? The rich kind. It seems like it's always the flaneur who needs to rediscover their city or the joys of friendship, etc. through big games, psychogeography, or jumping off a building. I couldn't help but wonder about the individuals who had witnessed the capers of Michael Van Orton who hadn't been briefed by CRS, as I frequently wonder about impact of ARGs and outdoor games on non-player entities. While many game designers dedicate themselves to creating a player experience that makes "everyday city streets come alive," too few build in narrative devices to remind players of issues in the out-of-game world like noise pollution, foot traffic, trash, safety, mobility, etc. Some non-game examples of these devices include Brechtian distance, Lars von Trier's chalk outlines in Dogville, and the sustainable local economies supported by The Games of Nonchalance. I look forward to discussing these tools for sustainable narrative design (and others) in class!

Response to "The Not So Exciting Game"

by John Paul Henderson

In the commentary explaining that "The Game" has little to no plot and flat characters I would have to disagree.  The story of this movie is not about the game specifically, it is about the character that Michael Douglas portrays.  The "game" is what pulls us through the story to show us who this man is and why he has made and makes the choices that he does.  When the commentary explains that there is little plot, I would have to say the plot is the change that he goes through from the beginning of the movie of being a hard ass that cares about no one except himself to a man that cherishes and loves the things that he has.  To say that the analysis or examination has no necessity in the movie is a misstatement because many examinations are given that are used to know more about the person and their habits and to know what type of decisions they may make rather than gathering information to use against a person.  I believe the examination and testing could be said to have helped the CRS company to know what choices he would be making along the way so that no one would get hurt.  When he became aware of the situation this was showing how all the testing in the world sometimes times can not take into account the human factor.  

The Game revelation

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The narrative climax of The Game represents the culmination of an elaborate series of events, resulting in an impossibly precise outcome and catharsis

from The Game (1997)
Creator: David Fincher
Posted by Critical Commons Manager