In the early days of man, the invention of writing brought with it such promise. It gave people the ability to share history, experiences, and ideas with others beyond direct verbal communication and time. It allowed information to be shared directly from the source to others even generations later. Additionally, it gave people the ability to share ideas and stories in a way that allowed the imaginations of a few to be shared, unfiltered and unedited, with many.
Pictures brought with them a different promise by allowing the artist (and later photographer) to convey an idea or an experience to the viewer without them having to merely imagine it. In modern times we’ve enhanced this process with moving pictures along with the technologies to reproduce sounds. We’ve even dabbled with technologies catering to the other senses. We’ve gotten to the point now where we can present virtually any experience, real or imagined, to a viewer. But this is the limit.
Up until this point, all human media has been able to do is “show and tell” to the person experiencing it. It’s been effective because humans are intelligent, learning creatures with imaginations. We can read a book like Sophie’s Choice and imagine what that kind of experience would be like. We can relate that situation to our own lives and suitably understand the horror of the situation that the author is trying to convey.
But video games (and much interactive media) bring with them a new promise, the promise of the experience. Unlike written fiction or motion pictures that simply present an experience to their audience, video games allow them to actually experience it themselves.
When I first saw Star Wars and watched Luke Skywalker flying his X-Wing fighter and dogfighting with Tie Fighters in space, I thought it was unbelievably cool and my brain buzzed with thoughts about how intense that experience must be. Years later, the first time I played LucasArt’s X-Wing on the computer my mind was again buzzing, but in a different way.
This time I was able to actually experience what it was like to dogfight with Tie Fighters in space. Instead of the Tie Fighters shooting at Luke and creating anxiety for me due to my concern for Luke as the protagonist of the story with whom I sympathized, now they were shooting at me. I had to concern myself with evading enemy fire, balancing and redirecting shield/engine/weapon systems, and trying to take them out before they blew me out of the stars and ended my experience.
If the developers wanted me as their audience to better understand what it was like to fly this imaginary ship from and imaginary universe that George Lucas thought up, I’d say to a certain extent they achieved their goal. I had experienced the mechanics of space combat in the Star Wars universe, but did I really know what that experience was like?
After all, my life wasn’t in actual danger. It wasn’t my real friends and compatriots getting blown to pieces around me. I wasn’t actually killing other people in the name of a cause that I was fighting for because I had felt the oppression first-hand and was so enraged that I needed to fight back.
Some would argue (and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree) that this is what makes it fun. The fact that you can experience the rush of combat and the experience of warfare without all the heavy and morbid reality. If you take away death and any other real consequence, what is war anyways besides a competition of skill, strategy, and desire to win?
But what if you want players to experience these things? What if you want your audience to really understand oppression or feel real loss? What if you want players to know what it is like to be emotionally invested in a situation so strongly that they feel the difficulty of making a choice like Sophie did? For the first time in history, we are working with a medium where this is possible. But have we been living up to this promise?
Video games have been around for decades now but very few have come close to living up to the real promise of the experience. I feel this due to several factors.
Obviously, some video games are simply an electronic extension of a card or board game not meant to convey an experience beyond the game itself. Many puzzle games fit into this situation.
In other cases, many video games are based on real sports, an experience that is based almost entirely on one’s physical performance. In these cases the closer one comes to trying to simulate these experiences, a la wii sports, the more like playing the actual sport the experience becomes. At this point the need to use a video game to convey this experience becomes rather pointless and the games are more of a crowd/attention experience simulation. However, it should be noted that one’s ability to play other non-sport games such as Starcraft or League of Legends has become its own sport and has managed to unintentionally bring that experience to the players who compete.
To some extent, technical limitations have existed that make it difficult to create an experience believable enough to make the appropriate impression. The most obvious of these situations is visually but also includes things like NPC interaction and meaningful choice.
In most other cases, video games have been built off of an existing intellectual property (movie, TV show, or even novel). In these cases the goal is usually, like with X-Wing, to give you the chance to experience some part of the source material that is indicative of that media. Also like X-Wing, most often these experiences don’t fully live up to the video game promise because the context has already been provided for you. You already know who the “bad” people are and how you are supposed to treat them. The why has been given to you and often you can do very little to deviate from the source outcome.
This is not to say that there haven’t been some good examples of video games delivering on elements of the promise of the experience. WARNING: The following paragraph contains spoilers.
In Half-Life 2 the player is introduced to a world where the people are being oppressed by the Overwatch and the player is made to feel this most pointedly at the beginning when they are ordered to put a can in a trashcan by a masked Overwatch officer who beats the player if they disobey. In Portal, the player is given the opportunity to form an attachment with an inanimate “companion cube” that they must bring with them and use to help solve puzzles. The player is then given a chance to experience more substantial loss when they must destroy the cube in order to proceed. In Mass Effect, after playing with your team of NPC squad mates for the bulk of the game, there comes a point where 2 are in danger and you must choose which one will live and which must die (a virtual Sophie’s Choice).
In all of these examples, the games not only achieved commercial success but remain some of the most well-regarded and “favorite” experiences of those who have played them. While there are many other factors involved and it is sometimes difficult to corroborate strength of experience with enjoyment, I believe this is no accident. I also believe that we, as developers, can do much, much more.
It is true that when making a game we must balance other factors such as entertainment value, difficulty, and fun. We’re trying to sell games right? But is that all we are trying to do? Is it even possible to create experiences that truly convey the emotions of other experiences? Could we legitimately make players fear for their lives? If we could, should we? Could we still sell these types of experiences and would people buy them? These are big questions so I will explore the answers in future writings.
For now I simply hope I have given you something to think about and have properly conveyed what I believe to be the defining characteristic of our medium. It is my belief that the more we realize and embrace this fact, the more it will set us free.