One of the strengths of “low-art” popular fiction like the comic book, the summer blockbuster, and the video game is how openly they explore themes on a surface level. Mike Joffe discusses this in a recent series on comic book characters:
I find super hero stories interesting because, at their core, they are about exploring real emotions and personalities through completely fantastical, often nonsensical, experiences and events… These concepts are all explored through metaphors that, when looked at in isolation, are some of the most ridiculous ideas imaginable (a boy tries to establish himself as a man by hiding his face behind a wrestling costume and fighting science goblins), and yet somehow that very ridiculousness allows the character and psychological studies to become heightened. (“Comic Characters – Cyclops”, Video Games of the Oppressed, 3 May 2014)
I think the same can be said about video games. I’m not bold enough to suggest that games aren’t capable of subtlety, but their subtleties don’t resemble the kinds valued in other media. Vocabulary and wordplay, perspective, and melody and tempo are pretty much directly transferable from their native artforms, but “gamey” nuance comes in exploration.
As integral as story (Nick Dinicola, “A Little Bit of Story Goes a Long Way”, PopMatters, 2 May 2014) or camera work (Eric Swain, “Cinematic Framing in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons“, PopMatters, 5 November 2013.) can be to a game, games are at their best when they are used to create context for navigating space. This is especially illustrated in Zolani Stewart’s exceptionally thorough “Let’s Critique” of Perfect Dark, in which he analyzes the unusual patterns and structure of Perfect Dark‘s level design. Much of Perfect Dark is set in casual locales like homes, airplanes and streets, but levels are filled with awkward, dead “useless” space and arranged in angular corridors. The added space gives a larger sense of scope, as if the level is more a home to be lived in than a level to be walked through. Meanwhile the bizarre angles give a sense of otherworldliness, which matches the campy, late ’70s James Bond tone of the game.
The key here is that the player is compelled to wander and observe. Similarly, the best moments of Deus Ex are those that most resemble Gone Home. Sleuthing through offices, scanning personal emails, eavesdropping on conversations and combing the streets for the next clue feel like participating in a world. Gun fighting is exciting, but it’s alienating because it punishes observation or movement that deviates from the objective. Both the first Deus Ex as well as Invisible War and Human Revolution are strongest when they permit — or insist — that players stop and stare at the world around them. It’s difficult to stop and enjoy a moment when a kill squad is emptying anti-aircraft rounds into your cool black trenchcoat (Mark Filipowich “Too Much Play to Pause”, PopMatters, 7 March 2012.). Alternately, Metroid Prime’s opening level provides almost zero exposition or instruction. Instead, the game immediately hurls the player into the experience so that that player can gradually discover that experience themselves (Steven O’Dell, “Metroid Marathon: Metroid Prime’s Magic Moments”, Raptured Reality, 21 August 2011).
I bring this up because games can be especially meaningful in the flow of information trickling in, in how clues connect to build a deeper, wider world (Stephen Beirne, “Exploring A Dark Room”, Normally Rascal, 11 March 2014). Christine Love’s visual novels Analogue: A Hate Story and its prequel, Hate Plus, while evincing all the qualities one would want from a novel, only really work as games because they are driven by exploration. The separate plot threads form a coherent narrative once the player does the work of connecting them together. Seemingly disparate strangers are seen to have profound unseen influence over one another as the player slowly discovers more of the game.
All of these games progress linearly and most of choices don’t change anything, but the moment-to-moment progression in each of them is driven by the player’s discovery. Even objects can be imbued with content to be discovered by a curious player (Oscar Strik “An Ode to Objects”, The Ontological Geek, 8 May 2014). Like comics, many games portray fantastical, even absurd worlds and over-the-top caricatures. Their silliness is a strength, though, when guided by a curious player quietly drinking in the spectacle.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in what a game should be or what it should look like, and nothing would do games more harm than coming up with a solid template. But all the swords and sorcery, spaceships, and power fantasies that modern mainstream games create are only a response to curiosity. Games are driven by a curiosity over what’s in the next level, what’s in the next chest, or who the next boss will be. It means so much more when games pique that curiosity instead of stringing players along a series of next big things.