Too Much Play to Pause

[7 March 2012]

By Mark Filipowich

Much of the discourse from proponents of the “video games are art” position is centered on the medium’s interactivity as its distinguishing advantage. Audience participation, as it were, is the reason why games exist. No other mode of storytelling so often depends on the actions, reactions, and experiences of its audience as the work is engaged with. Even the most linear or simplistic game is communicated through the player’s progress in the world, not through passive consumption. But fixating on how the player experiences a work means that the player’s continued entertainment is necessary for the story to progress. In other words, there must always be something for the player to keep doing, leaving only the briefest moments to reflect.

Any form of language requires that a thing is “doing something” in a sentence and any story must communicate in some form of language. Therefore, any story must be about a thing doing stuff. But the way that an introspective paragraph, a lingering shot on a scene, the expression on an actor’s face, or the illustration in a panel in a comic tells a story is a way that often seems too slow for games. Specifically, games seem like they must be fast paced and straightforward. There are plenty of logical plots, interesting settings, strong characters, and poignant themes in games, but they must all be rushed through to serve gameplay [Unless you are Hideo Kojima—ed.]. The assumption seems to be that the player must always have a carrot dangling in front of them at all times.

Consider an extreme example: both Taxi Driver and Crazy Taxi are works about taxi drivers, both of whom could be fairly considered crazy. One is a slow burning character study about a man with a fragmented psychology, the other is a cartoonish romp through an over-the-top city with a high-energy, goofy atmosphere. There’s nothing wrong with Crazy Taxi, but it’s clear which work is a film and which is a game. A game can’t have long scenes of a man practicing threats into his mirror or staring at a crumpled twenty dollar bill.

Games tend to have plenty of direction, it’s just that while we’re keeping the Covenant from finding Earth, building an army to end the blight, or rescuing the princess, we must be continually distracted by the next level, the next sudden objective, the next set of keys that we need to unlock the next set of doors. Any change happens rapidly and continuously.

Even in games where there are only a few major changes in the setting or plot, the immediate takes precedence over the destination. The ultimate goal is only a context for several loosely connected events flashing by. The most breathtaking moments of Half-Life 2 happen in between the action sequences. Seeing the abandoned cottages flanking a radioactive river or the ruins of Ravenholm really strike the player with exactly the kind of world that they are living in. Moments of reflection like these really set the atmosphere and tone, and they make an already well developed cast seem even stronger by giving the player a sense of what’s happened in the world between the first Half-Life and the second.

However, the moments to pause are brief, and before very long, the player is back to hovercraft chases, zombie shootouts, and storming prisons. Even in Limbo, which is probably the slowest paced game that I’ve ever played, the slow industrialization and opening up of the world happens literally in the background. The focus is on each puzzle as it comes up and is left behind.

All stories need a direction of some kind. But all that is important that ever happens in Kafka’s Metamorphosis is described in the first sentence. But the novella is still one of the most important stories written in the last century not because of what it happens, in the way that it happens, who it’s happening to and the meaning that can be extrapolated. It isn’t just about the rush of events as they flicker by. Similarly, the aforementioned Taxi Driver is more about Travis Bickle as a person and the situation that he’s in rather than what he does. In other media, slowing the pace of the crawl does not necessarily make it unapproachable, in fact many masterpieces demand full attention to every incremental step toward the climax.

Games don’t seem to be able to do that, or at least there aren’t many examples of it being done intentionally and with great success. Games, it seems to me, must be fast-paced. There must be something for the player to always do. Players can’t passively absorb and reflect on material while the text is in progress. I get stymied any time that I try to think of a game that successfully demanded that the player take their time with the plot. I have an even harder time imagining what such a game would play like.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/155499-/