What’s in a game? This is a question which has prompted a great deal of debate, particularly with the rise of video games, and it is difficult to say definitively what actually comprises a “game.” With regard to the new media, many will cite traits such as gameplay, graphics, sound, etc.—but perhaps the most important and fundamental characteristic which comes to mind, particularly in respect to storytelling, is player agency.
Visual vs. Written
Let us back up for a moment and consider the setting of agency, specifically in a context of observation and the senses. To begin framing a proper picture for this, compare the use of a staged play, the radio, or television to convey drama and narrative with that simply of a play published in a book. Given that a radio or TV show is based upon a script and is performed by human actors, it should be understood that the use of modern audio-visual media in many respects is not far removed from the traditional production of a play on stage. Next, consider that the script of The Lone Ranger or of Casablanca may be written down and enjoyed on its own, as with most works of literature—yet with these particular examples it is quickly clear to one who knows them that the delivery and presence of actors adds something to the tale. Although actors are self-contained, and typically do not interact directly with the audience, there is a greater immediacy in the drama when human agents carry it out. To see and hear Prospero deliver his final soliloquy in the Globe Theater is, to put it mildly, a somewhat different experience than reading it in a collection of Shakespeare’s plays; to absorb the resonant timbre of the announcer’s voice as he narrates Adventures in Odyssey is likely a more powerful experience for most than it is to hear it silently in their own minds; and a filmmaker’s tools and techniques will bring out aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life that a novelization of the film could be hard-pressed to replace.
Now, it must be granted, above all, that the written word alone of human tools is matchless in its ability to tell a tale, unconstrained by the trappings and weight of reality. Words alone can evoke a fuller bloom of color in the mind than a screen can display for the eyes; no close-up of an actor’s face will so fully convey the depth of emotion that his character feels, nor the entire range of his thoughts in an instant, as can a masterfully-crafted paragraph on a page. Perhaps it is for this reason that adaptations can so rarely match an original work: to tamp and compress a nebula of meaning and expression into a snapshot of perspective is to prune away so much profundity and so many layers that such an endeavor must not be undertaken lightly. Suffice it to say that truly great literature (Shakespeare, Don Quixote, The Silmarillion) will nearly always be of higher quality and more timeless than even truly great film—but a film can still do some things more easily than a novel, and this particular point is its own world of difference worth consideration.
The Literary Dark Side
It might be said, with tongue firmly in cheek, that movies are the Dark Side to literature’s Light Side: “Quicker, easier, more seductive.” How much quicker is it to watch a two-hour long film than to read a four hundred page book? How much easier simply to watch all the Israelites pour out of Egypt in The Ten Commandments (1956) than it is to construct such a vast scene in one’s own mind, and to play out the string of events, conversations, shifts in perspective, and grandeur which the movie presents on a silver platter in the course of several minutes? How much more seductive to sit back and let the force of an audio-visual experience flow through you than to exercise the mind and task oneself to follow the words on a page, which require a singular attention in order to fulfill their purpose? Take these contrasts as you will: but to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven. Speaking for film in this regard, some stories are by nature better suited for a quick and easy medium than for one which is dense and hard (relatively speaking), whether on account of their content or the skill of the particular storyteller.
But when it is film season, movies can shine. John Wayne’s drawl, Humphrey Bogart’s mumble, Charlton Heston’s flinty glare, and Audrey Hepburn’s peerless grace bring a life to their stories that a reader would be unlikely to muster on their own. True, the reader might envision something else, possibly even grander in its own way, but the fruits of such an imagination couldn’t be shared with others in precisely the same way as when an audience observes the same object together; nor would it likely be the same experience each time, which also enables a consistent discussion over the course of time. To be sure, such little moments and hooks provide a glimpse into the power of different media to convey a story by presenting it in a form which is both accessible and memorable—even touching on a visceral level, whether through deftness or brute force. And this, perhaps, is one of the great strengths of audio-visual media, for good or ill: the ability to draw the audience into the experience and carry it away in the tale.
The Audience Becomes the Actor
Interactive media is much the same in this respect: the immediacy, ease, and allure are there, as well. But video games introduce a level of active engagement which can’t be matched by other media outside pure imagination. All that happens in a movie is pre-determined by the director, the producer, the writer, the film crew, and the actors; no matter where, when, or for whom the movie is shown, it will remain the same tale and will play itself out completely independently of the audience. But in a story-driven game built upon a narrative, although it too has a script and (generally) discernible actors on a screen, the audience is absolutely integral to the execution and completion of the story. Yet the role of the audience or player in this media is not limited merely to a mechanical requirement, like a monkey grinding a street organ. In a video game, a fictional character’s accomplishments and failures are not simply his own, but the player’s as well. In some senses, the audience becomes the actor(s) by taking an active agency in the events of the tale. At the simplest level, this takes the form of a (possibly implicit) win-loss state, where, for example, the hero either rescues the princess or is defeated along the way; likewise, the player either “completes” the game and prompts the credit roll, or he receives a “Game Over” screen. The deeds of player and character are one and the same—or perhaps two sides of the same coin, bound up in a narrative.
Choose Your Own Adventure
But on a deeper meta-level, the player becomes involved with the characters and the story beyond observation, the bare physical act of pressing buttons, or the accomplishment of an arbitrary objective. Giving the player an agency in events offers him the chance to make an investment and to exercise his own character—like a child playing with his imagination, he can invest his mind and emotion in a scenario where his own choices have an impact upon both the quantifiable outcome (win-loss) and the personal outcome (ideally, in most cases, satisfaction and learning something from the experience). For instance, to place a player in a situation where he may choose whether to show mercy to a fallen enemy or to destroy him in an act of prudence (or perhaps vengeance) steps beyond mere mechanics and begins to ask questions of the player as a person. It is not simply “Generic Fantasy Lead” holding the sword to the throat of a foe; it is “John Smith,” on the other side of the screen, who holds the sword and may strike a killing blow.
By way of example: the classic Knights of the Old Republic is a Star Wars RPG which offers the player myriad opportunities to respond to the game by taking actions which are broadly classified as Light-side (“Good”) or Dark-side (“Evil”). Though the developers’ vision of this particular paradigm is susceptible to critique, it nevertheless serves for the purpose of illustration. In response to programmed, branching conversations and interdependent interactions, selfless and merciful decisions take the player and his character along the path of the Jedi, while ruthless and self-centered deeds lead to the embrace of the Sith. These actions in turn affect both what situations the player finds himself in and how NPCs (non-player characters) respond to him. All of the player’s choices and actions, determined by hundreds of interactions over the course of forty hours (or more), are thus the ultimate factor in determining how the story plays out. On the one hand, the player will be hailed as a savior and hero of the galaxy; on the other, he becomes its new conqueror. Clearly, no movie or even book offers this level of detailed and complex participation to its audience; the closest match would be something along the lines of the Choose Your Own Adventure series or genre, but these typically lack the depth and pay-off seen in a well-designed and executed game.
The Game Designer is Plato
Granted, there are still limits to how much control a player has over any game story. Because a video game is a finite object or framework run by software, it can’t respond to the creativity and ingenuity of human beings in the same way as another human might (such as a Dungeon Master in a tabletop role-playing game). But it is worth remembering that a central tenet of the western tradition is the understanding that freedom is best exercised within defined limits, and this form of interactive media confines the player to the story that needs to be told. An illusory level of responsibility for the events in a game creates a far more intense and personal experience than passive observation, and this presents opportunities for the storyteller to draw his audience into the tale with a singular focus and subtlety. A well-crafted video game, with this in mind, can become a conversation where both parties are engaged, like a Socratic dialogue moving with a definitive purpose, where the player is a Socrates or even a Glaucon and the game designer is Plato.
Take the indie-developed Papers, Please, released in 2013. In Papers, Please, the player is an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint in a fictional country which clearly evokes an authoritarian Eastern European state in the early 1980s. The mechanics of the game (that is, the ways in which the character interacts with the world) are simple: the player must verify that immigrants are who they say they are by checking their documentation and identity (comparing passport pictures, visa dates, addresses, fingerprints, performing x-rays and searches, etc.) in order to keep out criminals, smugglers, and terrorists. Allowing an unwanted individual through the checkpoint (that is, a failure to “detain” him) results in a paycheck penalty—which has a direct impact on the player’s end-of-day ability to pay for his family’s heating, food, and medicine. Failure to pay for these needs results in illness, starvation, and death for his parents, wife, and children. The player’s pay, however, is directly proportional to the number of correct entrances which he authorizes, so he must balance accuracy with speed in order best to do his job and care for his family. As the political situation in the fictional state deteriorates, the complexity and difficulty of the bureaucratic process becomes overwhelming, and the player quickly finds himself participating, however unwillingly, in a dystopian gauntlet of paperwork and in the invasion of both privacy and personal liberty—and failure to do so will kill his family all the more quickly. This game could not make a point to the player about government oppression more clearly than this. Succinctly, “It’s a game with mechanics that work perfectly with the message, with art that wraps you in the desperation and smothering indifference of the Eastern bloc…in Papers, Please the mechanics are the message, and the result is a wonderful example of communicating through play…Silent Hill is scary, but it’s nothing compared to the realization that the events of this videogame aren’t that far from actual things actual people do in the actual real world.”
On a more uplifting note, the Myst puzzle series presents its own message of wonder and the satisfaction of accomplishment by engaging the player with its setting, structure, and mechanics. In its gorgeous and inspiring environments filled with complex devices, locks, and systems, Myst and its successors not only show the player how enjoyable it is to complete a perplexing and frustrating task, but also how important it is to pursue a solution in order to fulfill one’s goals (which in the game has the effect of continuing the story and protecting both the character’s friends and the fruits of their labor). But here also, narrative plays a substantial role in conveying to the player something of critical meaning, which he otherwise finds himself living out without even realizing it. In Myst, the D’ni people write books describing worlds or “Ages,” to which they can then travel in physical form by touching the inside page of the books themselves. These Ages, filled with puzzles and clues, are the settings for the games’ events. In the series’ backstory, provided by in-game journals and other writings, it is explained that, according to D’ni philosophy, the writers do not create the worlds which they describe, but merely build the doors to them through their Linking Books. The worlds themselves are pre-existing leaves on the “Great Tree of Possibilities,” made by the Creator, whom the games name as Yahvo. This mythology is a wondrous expression of sub-creation, where imagination is given tangible form, in which J.R.R. Tolkien would likely have taken great pleasure and satisfaction: it is a vibrant and dynamic myth in which the player finds that, no matter how self-satisfied one might be in his own accomplishments, these little deeds and feats merely point to a Greater work in which our own lives play out according to a far grander Design. Myst, in a word, provides the player who recognizes this fact with an important sense of perspective on reality as only a participatory story can.
Into the Human Mind … and Heart
Immersion, player agency, and world-building are perhaps the touchstones of narrative-driven video games. Together, they allow and nurture an experience which can present a topic or theme in a manner unlike that which could be accomplished in most other respects: that is, to totally draw the audience in and make the story their own. How much more deeply will an experience touch someone if he truly becomes a part of it, instead of remaining a detached observer untouched by the consequences of a character’s decisions? Who among us would spend less time considering and exploring the relationships of fictional characters if we thought we were responsible for them, here by playing and protecting them? The traditional tools of interactive media (music, visual presentation, gameplay, etc.) ideally serve this cause by complementation and reinforcement without slowing or weighing down the content using superfluous exposition. Distinct leitmotifs, characteristic of opera, are typical for characters in a game with a strong narrative focus, telling the player more about their nature and their role in a wider world; aesthetics and art-style underscore a tale’s message at every moment, drawing the player’s attention with the degree of subtlety or vigor that the designer deems fit; mechanics can emphasize both the player’s freedom of action and its results (good or ill) while maintaining his place in the narrative. There are many tricks, old and new, in the storyteller’s bag, and these are only a small sample of those found in video games which seek to convey meaning to those who participate in their narratives.
As stated previously, the merit of presenting a fantastic and unusual setting to an audience is to highlight what stays the same in any true story: human nature and that of the created order. These great tales draw attention to the familiar through contrast, inviting one to ponder and consider what is truly real; in any novel, play, film, or show, they pique interest in, provide signposts for, and imbue a familiarity with the language of proper ideas. Can a tale be any more fantastic than when the audience itself becomes an actor on the stage? If the story itself is worthy, then the means of its telling should be given due regard—particularly when these means may carry it so potently into the human mind and heart.