Running in video games is a concept that’s dense with meaning. There’s the idea of running away from something, wherein your assailant controls and limits your world by binding you to a troubling situation. But outside horror games where the point is to evoke that specific mood, this isn’t a motif games are all that interested in emphasizing. A far more common depiction is running as a liberating force. Here, it’s presented both as a claim of ownership over one’s self and an act of power against a world that might encroach on that self. It’s saying to the world, “I refuse to accept whatever limits you’re trying to place on me.” Hence its popularity in a number of games, like endless runners, the Bit.Trip games, Mirror’s Edge, Sega’s movement-oriented games, Runbow, etc.
I’m not going to discuss why freedom and running are so tied together, why games invoke both so often, or even whether that logic makes sense as applied to video games. These topics are all worth digging into, but that would be beyond the scope of what I can achieve here. Rather, I want to discuss how these ideas manifest in one particular game: Buffers Evolution, a small WonderSwan game released early in the system’s life. On the surface, its mechanically focused, fun-for-fun’s-sake approach to game design appears to prefigure the rise of indie games in the late 2000s. However, I’m not comfortable reducing the game to that level. What I see in Buffers is a deeply personal interpretation of running; one that enables people to challenge the world they inhabit and to find value in themselves, even if only a little bit.
Although the game’s moments of explicit storytelling are brief – just one introductory cutscene before the start of the game – they’re concise enough that there’s no ambiguity concerning Buffers’ cruel dystopian vision. We begin with a stark contrast: off in the distance, we see a futuristic city. The buildings, with their deliberate angles and pristine surfaces, project an image of prosperity; the kind that would feel right at home in Mega Man 7’s opening stage. Yet any utopian tones this scene might hope communicate are violated by what we see in the foreground: an ocean of trash far beyond the city’s limits. It is from this ocean that our heroes are fished out and revived so they can participate in a Running Man-esque televised sports event. Some of their limbs are missing. They’re almost certainly corpses thrown out with the rest of the city’s trash.
Although we still see that city as prosperous, the nature of that prosperity changes. That wasn’t achieved by solving the major problems (poverty and environmental sustainability) that modern society faces, or even by addressing their causes. Instead, those problems were simply quarantined outside the city so that those affluent enough to enjoy what the city offers could maintain their illusion for as long as they want. The heroes’ situation reveals further injustices. The moment they were thrown out, it was made clear that they were never people at all, but objects the powerful could use and dispose of at their leisure. Their current situation doesn’t change that; it only gives them a new role to fulfill.
So far, the game seems eager to commit to its cynical dystopia vision, and looking at the game further would appear to confirm that. Consider the play premise: your avatar must reach the end of an obstacle course, dodging all sorts of hazards to get the best time. (There are also several items to collect, but as far as I can tell, they’re not necessary for beating the game.) Like Super Smash TV, Buffers creates a strong link between truth and power and denies its protagonists access to both. The obviously artificial nature of these environments – the electric barrier at the top of each level, the arrows directing you to hidden items, the empty halls that give you split times – not only robs them of their agency in navigating these areas, but also reminds them that their very real struggle for survival is just entertainment for a faceless mass of uncaring spectators.
So how is it that Buffers manages to stay so optimistic in the face of all this? So far, all we can say is that the game doesn’t achieve this by saying the characters can or will change the world they find themselves in. Given that they’re not in any position to do so, Buffers is smart to remain quiet on this point. However, it also notices that this inability to change the world doesn’t preclude the characters from finding personal value in the act of running itself. After all, their alternative to participating in this sport would be to remain in the trash heap; broken, forgotten, and unable to change their lot in life. True, judging along these lines means their lives are only marginally better than they were before (choosing not to participate isn’t a real option), but there’s one key change this would overlook: in choosing to play the sport, the characters gain a greater range of power to define themselves. To be a bit more specific than that, they gain more of an ability to resist the understandings others read into them and to make their own understandings of themselves manifest in the world.
I’ll admit that a lot of this is personal interpretation (me filling in whatever gaps I find), but in my defense, it’s personal interpretation that the game can support. In giving its characters the ability to change their body into different forms, Buffers celebrates their changing identities as they embrace their newfound freedom. Each transformation imbues the character with a power and force that wouldn’t be present otherwise. Rockets blast upward at breakneck speed. Guns tear through surrounding blocks with ease. The wheel vehicle dashes through areas like they weren’t even there. Yet this approach isn’t limited to the characters’ transformations, at least if their confident gaits are anything to go by. For Buffers, running allows one to transcend the physical limits one encounters as they focus all their attention on the act itself.
There’s a therapeutic quality to running, then, almost like in the Bit.Trip games. I say “almost” because of the subtle differences in nuance between the two of them. Where Bit.Trip directly states that therapeutic quality, Buffers is content to imply it, letting it teem just beneath the surface for the player to dig out. And in that vein, where Bit.Trip offers up that therapy for the player, in Buffers it’s given primarily to the characters through whom I’m playing. True, expanding their capabilities through various upgrades also expands my range of actions within the game, but I’m not sure the latter receives as much focus as the former.
This brings me to a significant problem that running games often encounter and that Buffers tries to avoid. In presenting running as a liberating act and offering that liberation to the player, games have to contend with the fact that this running takes place within very strict limits made specifically for running. In other words, while running may be a rebellious assertion of freedom for the character the player controls, it can never be that for the player themselves. Fortunately, games have come up with several methods of addressing this problem. They can limit their exploration of these ideas to only within their own fiction, as is the case with Mirror’s Edge, or they can just avoid discussing it altogether like with Bit.Trip.
Buffers’ solutions, like adding a layer of meta-narrative and a more character-centric perspective, come close to fulfilling its needs. I specify that it comes close because a large part of the game involves collecting hidden items scattered throughout the level to unlock new pieces of equipment (the rocket, the gun, the wheel vehicle, etc.). With this addition, we run into the same problem I’d just outlined. The meaning I read into the game is no longer sufficient as I become very aware of the limits placed on me by some outside force. And I want to stress that these are limiting. Before I even enter the level, I see my options shrink as I force myself to consider which pieces of equipment are necessary to collect these bits and baubles.
I’ve seen similar complaints lobbed for or against open world games, depending on the critic in question. In that respect, I guess issues like these could apply to a wide swathe of video games. Open world or strictly controlled runner, I see a common theme of asking for games that not only center our being, but make that centering feel natural, objective, and directly written into the world. It’s never enough that we just have these abilities; they have to allow us in some way to exert our will directly on the world around us. It’s a sort of contradictory double move that allows us to have our cake and eat it, too. Buffers, accidentally or not, says differently. It argues that having a definite effect like that isn’t necessary; that the actions we can – the fact that we can even take them – can be an ends in themselves.