Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The "I" in games

Games are awkward and inefficient for telling stories, yet video game players are often quite story-oriented. Why? In any case, the consequence is more and more games where the player has a human-like avatar, an often-customizable "I".

The heart of a novel is characterization, though there's more to it than that (such as plot, dramatic tension, etc.). The heart of a game is gameplay, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.) The heart of an interactive puzzle (many one-player video "games") is challenge, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.).

A considerable part of gameplay is challenge, but the challenges tend to come from other players in games, whereas in the interactive puzzle the challenge comes from the computer (and ultimately, from the designer).

Games are not entirely linear, so it is harder to tell a fine story with a game, because the author has less control over what happens. Trying to use a game primarily to tell a story is like trying to use Excel as a word processor. You can do it, but it's awkward and inefficient.

Yet many people appear to play video games for the stories (consider especially Japanese RPGs, especially Final Fantasy). Yes, often the story is only what sells the game,and provides an excuse for the action, but doesn't matter in the gameplay; but there are many younger people who really care about the stories in games.

You can make an argument that stories have become much more important in games than was traditionally the case, for three reasons:

1) people just don't read books as much as they used to (statistically well-known); books are "too much like work" to many people accustomed to completely passive media like TV and movies. The acronym "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read) is a recent but oft-used invention. As books went "out" as a way to spend time, games came "in" as a way to spend time.

2) people are much less accustomed to using their imaginations than two generations ago. Instead of reading words and imagining, or seeing pictures and imagining (comic books), they are used to photo-realistic moving images (in color TV and movies and video games). And many are unable or unwilling to do it "the old way", which requires more imagination.

We could suggest further that people accustomed to using their imagination are also more capable of making up their own stories (which is what happens in rules-emergent games). Even our toys used to be simple things that often required us to make up stories; now so many toys are tied to well-known stories--films, novels, TV, and so forth--that the stories are ready-made, not ones the "user" of the toy must make up. We now expect others to make up stories for us.

Many video game critics regard the look of the game as vital to satisfaction--a lack of imagination, I'd say, but then I'm not a visually-oriented person.

3) With the rise of role-playing games, first on paper with Dungeons and Dragons, later in computer games, we see the player's avatar, the "I", become a vital part of many games. There is no "I" in checkers or go, nothing that represents the player (though the king in chess could be seen that way). There is a kind of "I" in Monopoly, but not in Scrabble or Pong. We began to have a mild form of "I" in video games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Now there is definitely a human-like "I" in modern role-playing games, shooters, and more, and players often want a great variety of customization options in order to make that "I" exactly what the player wants it to be. As games have more "I" in them, players can become more involved in the story of the game, rather than in the play of the game. Many video game designers regard photo-realism as a major goal of game-making so that the player "can feel like he's there".

Insofar as games are as games are often played for escapism, the emphasis on "I" clearly facilitates the escape.

On the other hand, you can point out that video gamers want to DO things, not merely be passive as with TV and movies (and even, to an extent, with novels). Perhaps this is a consequence of the World Wide Web's ability to allow interaction with the user. Insofar as consumerism, letting things come to us, is a feature of the modern world, something that has people *doing* something can be lauded.

Where does this get us? Well, a realization that "I" is important in games can influence designers. I design board and card games (where I have almost complete influence over the game, which is much less likely in video games). Lately I've gone more toward games where there is a king of avatar of the player, something I have rarely done in the past. This works with young people, certainly.

Otherwise, I'm not sure where it gets us. And that's a big reason why it's in this blog rather than in a formal article.

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