You’d be forgiven for thinking that I don’t really like games – it’s not as though I’ve had good things to say about them for the most part. The truth is that I think games are an extraordinary phenomenon, with the potential to do a lot of good for the world. Similar things were said about the television though, and I’m not sure that has quite lived up to its potential yet. That isn’t to say incredible things aren’t done with television, but it didn’t earn the name ‘idiot box‘ for nothing. The point is that although there’s a fair amount of drossy entertainment in gaming, there is also an equivalent amount of engaging, challenging and interesting stories and experiences too.
I have enjoyed gaming since I was very young; I grew up with games consoles and computers and handhelds, and have watched gaming’s development alongside my own. Mine was probably the first generation that couldn’t imagine a world without gaming in it, much like the children of today who have witnessed the incredible ascent of the internet into being a fundamental part of human existence – a human right! Gaming was as normal to me as reading, or watching TV, or listening to music, and just as important and interesting.
Despite issues with representation, and attitudes both inside and outside of gaming, games still have tremendous contributory potential. There are marvelous people doing fantastic things in the space this medium occupies. Games are capable of doing things that other mediums just can’t. As interactive media, games have a scope that hasn’t even been fully realised yet; unlike the passivity of television and literature, players actively influence their own narrative – even within the systemic confines of a game, that is an incredibly liberating power to have over a medium. Narrative becomes completely nonlinear, even in the most linear of games, because with games came the introduction of the ‘fail state‘ – Game Over – which even just by itself is a complex concept. In multiple readings of Romeo and Juliet, there aren’t occasions when Romeo is slain by Tybalt, ending the story (or continuing it, along an entirely new thread). This is just one of several extraordinary factors that makes gaming so unique.
Going a step further, games like Knights of The Old Republic and Freelancer allow you to progress through the story in a variety of ways, sometimes changing the story’s progression entirely dependent on how you play the game or through defining decisions that you make, leading to a plethora of possible outcomes. This feature is actually fairly standard in modern games, but that doesn’t stop it from being used in new and inventive ways all the time. The game just linked to – Spec Ops: The Line – is a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator‘ taken to the next level; like any other game, it requires the player to act and make decisions based on their experiences – how trustworthy the perceived version of events are, and what that means for the actions the player takes, makes for an unparalleled denouement.
For me, the most interesting games move even further away from traditional narratives, and simply provide a world or setting in which players have the freedom to create their own stories. Two examples that spring to mind are EVE Online and Day Z. EVE is so complex it almost defies categorisation, but the most basic description would be an online multiplayer space-simulation role-playing game. Players assume the role of spaceship pilots/captains, existing within an astoundingly detailed virtual universe, complete with its own currency (ISK) and open economy, and with no real governance of player interactions. For the most part, there are very few rules or ‘laws’, and that regularly leads to interesting emergent narratives. Ponzi schemes, dodgy dealerships, corporate espionage, epic space battles – EVE has more space-intrigue than the entirety of Battlestar Galactica. Day Z, on the other hand, takes place in the fictional post-Soviet state of Chernarus, where the population has succumbed to an unknown virus that has turned them into naughty people-hating zombies. What elevates Day Z above similar games like ‘Dead Island‘ or ‘Left4Dead‘ is that there are no objectives other than to survive, which is much more challenging and interesting than I’ve made it sound. Players must keep warm, and stay well-fed and hydrated, and in order to do that they need to occasionally venture into towns – and you know what they’re going to find there. Aside from hypothermia, starvation, dehydration and zombie-hugs, players can die of diseases caught from consuming rotten food or dirty water, poisoning (don’t drink disinfectant), and are also at risk from other survivors, and this is where Day Z creates its most tense moments. Interpreting the motivations of other players is 90% of staying alive – there are no laws in this post-apocalyptic landscape, only the selective morality of its inhabitants. Just because you see one person, doesn’t mean they don’t have a friend watching over them from the nearby treeline. You might give them the benefit of the doubt, offer to team up with them, but they might stab you in the back as soon as you come across a particularly juicy-looking satsuma. The reason player interaction in Day Z is so tense is that if you die, you’re back to square one – no food, no water, no matches, no tin-opener, and without so much as a butter knife to protect yourself with. There are no save-games or checkpoints, only the blank screen of oblivion, and your fresh survivor washing up on the shores of Chernarus. This is players writing their own stories – tense and dramatic narratives emerging from player interaction. If you want to talk about Death of the Author (and I do, so please let’s), you’ve got all you need right here.
Games can also challenge the very idea of narrative, and explore it in exciting new ways. The Stanley Parable is a terrific example of how players attempt to challenge and subvert narrative expectations and systems through play. A disembodied narrator guides the eponymous Stanley through the game, but the player can choose to ignore/intentionally disobey each prescribed action, which leads to a number of interesting and amusing conclusions, as the narrator-‘designer’ reacts to your choices with calm or incredulity dependent on your choices. It’s an intelligent meta-commentary on narrative systems in games, as well a hoot to play through a good few times. It’s the sort of game that challenges people’s perceptions of what a game is, and what they can do, and I’m all for that.
Going back to literary theory for a moment, let’s talk about the relationship between form and meaning. Anyone who has studied Shakespeare, and is familiar with the damnable words ‘iambic pentameter’, will know what I mean, but for those who don’t, let me clarify: the way in which something is written is as relevant to its interpretation as what has been written. It’s a fundamental aspect of literary study, and the greatest works of literature use form to great effect in supporting the meaning of the text. Enter Braid, Jonathan Blow’s mind and time-bending platform game. Without getting into spoiler territory, because I genuinely believe if everyone in the world could only play one game in their lives this should be it, the game is about regret, and the main mechanic of the game revolves around being able to slow down, stop, and even reverse time. It’s a deeply contemplative game, with layers upon layers of allusion and meaning built into both the content, and systems which operate around it. In stark contrast to the bombast and intensity of other modern games, Braid is distinct in that it resembles a painting come to life, and the music is quiet and relaxing – a welcome change when coming up against the game’s more cerebral puzzles. Aesthetic is built into every aspect of this game, and it is as close to whatever definition of art you choose to subscribe to as any game has ever come.
Games can take players beyond empathy – make them feel real guilt or sorrow for their actions. Imagine Sophie’s Choice, but YOU have to choose, and your decision is final (so very, very final). “It’s not real, though”, you may say, but I say it is as real as the feeling. What’s the point in drawing an arbitrary line between reality and virtual reality if the feeling is genuine? The capacity to experience deep personal feelings as a result of playing a game does not preclude a person’s ability to have those feelings about real experiences; in fact, I’d worry more if they didn’t have such human reactions whilst playing games. Complicity in the tragedy or joy of a game is powerful and unique, and the feeling is no less real than with any other work of fiction. Now go and watch Optimus Prime die 10 times, whilst I dry my eyes, and come back afterwards to talk about how emotionally affecting works of fiction can be.
Games can be adapted for several important purposes besides play. Games are incredible vehicles for education, capable of engaging students with a variety of useful disciplines, such as working in groups, working with computers (duh), communication, and digital citizenship. Games can be, and are, used for important assessments. Games are even used for medical research! It really is an exciting medium to be involved with.
Most of all, though, games are meant to be shared – that’s when they’re at their best. Beating that boss in World of Warcraft with your mates, swapping tales of treachery from the shores of Chernarus, or waiting for precisely the right moment to elbow your friend’s rib cage as you prepare to finish them in a particularly competitive bout of Street Fighter 4 – the greatest value of games is in sharing the experience. Gaming is an intensely social space, and if you don’t believe that then you haven’t been paying attention.
The tired media stereotype of the recluse gamer simply doesn’t apply anymore. Don’t make me start another blog to prove it.