Games are difficult to begin. I don’t mean that in the ‘sitting down to play’ sense, although depending on how much free time one has on their hands, that may indeed be a problem. Rather, the beginning of a game has to convince the player that it’s worth playing, draw the player into the game’s world, explain the game’s mechanics, and do it all in a way that’s not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game. A good example of this problem is in Final Fantasy XIII, which has taken a lot of heat, deservedly so, for taking so long to get to the actual parts of the game which feel like a Final Fantasy game. Games need to fill players in on how to play them, but at some point it becomes tiresome. Not only that, but a constant interruption of instructional windows can break the flow of both gameplay and narrative.
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It may be safely said that most people with even a passing interest in the video-gaming hobby have at one point or another heard of Metal Gear Solid. It is one of the iconic games released for the PSX—a game so well-liked that it was given a complete overhaul and update with the release of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the Gamecube. Now I will freely admit—cheerfully admit, even—that the visual style of the old Metal Gear Solid left a bit to be desired.
I was reminiscing the other day about my intense love for Conker’s Bad Fur Day when a peculiar thought struck me: namely, that when you get down to it the end of the game is a real bummer. Sure, Conker saves the day, discovers a glitch in the game, and gets the programmers to solve his problems, rewriting the world in which he lives, but he completely forgets to bring back his girlfriend while he’s at it. So despite the best efforts of the player, the main goal of the game (win back Conker’s girlfriend) goes unfulfilled. Conker fails and sinks back into a deep depression. The game ends as it began, a drunken squirrel stumbling off into the night. No happy ending, just a failed attempt to get back home.
Watching the end of the game, I remember being surprised at its downright depressing conclusion—a group of my friends and I were playing at the time, and none of us realized what a vicious kick in the pants the ending of the game had in store for us. We sat through the credits in shock, quietly hoping that there would be something afterwards, such as a last sting where the game told us ‘just kidding, she’s actually okay, he’s actually okay, happy endings all around,’ but it never came. Conker had gotten distracted from his main quest (get home to Berri) and when the game had given him the chance to make everything right he’d forgotten to actually fix anything beyond the immediate problem of the xenomorph in front of him. It was one of those moments where a game actually felt mature, and not just because the characters swore and there were a bunch of jokes about tits (the measure of what was ‘mature’ and not to a teenager). Hiding behind the singing pile of feces was a black comedic sensibility, and while we all were more concerned with the tit jokes as kids, a second look at the game reveals a far more sophisticated plot than we’d given it credit for having.
Every once in a while there is a moment in a game which becomes the defining experience for the player. That moment which, if it is good, makes the player forget they are playing a game, and if it is bad, it breaks immersion or proves such a frustrating experience that the rest of the game becomes tainted by association. Mass Effect is a game that is arguably made with these sorts of moments in mind, but a lot of those moments seemed telegraphed—your crew’s disappearance, for example, was clearly supposed to be a Big Deal which would stick in the player’s mind. I knew better, of course, which is why I acknowledged that my crew was missing, yes, but no big deal. I would rescue my crew after I finished all the missions still waiting around for me. The crew could wait. This would prove to be a mistake that would haunt me for the rest of the game, although I didn’t know it.
A few years ago, a writer by the name of Christine Love released Digital: A Love Story quietly into the wilds of the internet. Set in a idealized vision of late 1980s computer culture, it told the story of two people who meet on a BBS and fall in love—albeit with a few Gibsonian complications thrown in for good measure. The story was well written, capturing the feel of not only the first stumbling steps into adolescent romance but also the contradictory connected isolation of the early internet. The story on its own would have been interesting enough, but Love’s decision to present the story via an old looking interface added to the immersion of the story as well as pushed the right nostalgic buttons for some members of her audience while also evoking an idealized image of the past for others. In short, Digital was a period piece, set during those infant days of networking when stealing long distance codes in order to connect to a remote BBS was done without a second thought (I suppose it goes without saying that it was also set during a time when long distance phone calls were actually a big deal—before cellular telephones made the concept archaic).
Digital had its flaws, which are mostly courtesy of its occasionally clunky interface and a few design decisions that were symptomatic of Digital’s short development cycle, but the strength of the writing and the charm of its unique presentation were more than enough to make it something of a critical success. Here was a solid example of what electronic literature could do, something which hadn’t really been in evidence since the days of Patchwork Girl or Twelve Blue—and Digital’s youth meant that it was better able to take advantage of the electronic format than its predecessors. Thematically the narrative was exciting as well, as it provided an interesting, if idealized, view of the role of technology in forging new relationships and ways of relating to one another. Setting it in the early days of the internet (back before it was the internet, really) better helped to highlight these themes by restricting the interaction to text on the computer screen—no pictures, no face to face conversation.