The Heart of Gaming — 2

The quest for the heart of gaming needs to begin with a distinction. Games are not films, nor are they novels or paintings. They may borrow and use elements from other arts, of course. There have been wonderful attempts at elevating gaming beyond mere spectacle over the past 30 years. Metal Gear Solid 4, Ico and Planescape: Torment spring immediately to mind. As good as each of these games are, though, they can’t compare with a Dickens novel, a painting by Cezanne, or the Vitameatavegamin episode of “I Love Lucy.” That’s because each example transcends their chosen medium, offering experiences that can’t be replicated in any other way. No text description of a Cezanne work can possibly equal the experience of viewing the actual painting. Reading an “I Love Lucy” script just isn’t the same as watching Lucille Ball’s impeccable comic timing. Thus games need more than just good writing, better plots and great artwork (though these would certainly help). Games need to deliver an experience that can only be found in a game.

As Newsweek writer N’Gai Croal once pointed out, we “see” videogames with our hands. In other words, games are an active experience reliant on kinesthetic sympathy and muscle memory as much as the information absorbed by our eyes and ears. That’s why so many people remember Street Fighter combos long after they’ve forgotten the name of their former algebra teacher or what they had for breakfast on Monday. Games engage your sensory apparatus in way that can’t be replicated by any other medium. For gaming to truly find its “heart,” then, game creators need to find ways of engaging players in ways beyond merely providing a good narrative. They must guide players into having specific sorts of experiences that they will quite literally remember in their bones.

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The problem for game designers is that this isn’t exactly easy. It’s elemental to “games” (video and otherwise) as a category that they offer players complete freedom within hard-coded boundaries. The more visible the boundary is, the more “game-like” the experience. Football players voluntarily agree to keep the action between arbitrarily set limits. Taking the ball outside of those limits to score a touchdown isn’t clever, it’s cheating. That said, there is no set “narrative” for football or Chess or Tetris. The “story,” as such, is written on the fly by players who have complete freedom to choose their actions and try different strategies within the mutually agreed-upon rules. It makes every game different and this very randomness is what makes sports and pure game experiences enjoyable and replayable.

The problem with this is that that same freedom plays merry hell with trying to provide a truly emotional experience. If a particular revelation is required for the experience to work as the designer intended, how do you make sure that the player gets to that point at all, much less when they need to? Many videogames don’t even try, opting instead to place very obvious rails and boundaries that force the player along a certain path. This is the essence of the adventure, and to a lesser extent the RPG genre, where obscure puzzles and equipment and player stats are the arbitrary boundaries between one cut-scene or story bit and the next. Taken to its logical extreme one ends up with Metal Gear Solid 4, which for all its virtues is really a movie masquerading as a game.

The real trick is to try and obscure the boundaries and give the player the illusion of true freedom — the idea that anything is possible. “Soft boundaries” are ones so organic to the nature of the world that players may not even realize they’re there. Portal, for example, works as a story experience because the walls, blockages and puzzles aren’t just arbitrary boundaries placed by Valve’s game designers. They’re actively malevolent obstacles symbolic of the player’s struggle with an insane supercomputer. Players could not form a very real emotional attachment to the Companion Cube if they didn’t accept on some level that the world of Aperture Science Labs was somehow “real” and that they really were trapped in the place with no companionship save an artificial intelligence that’s trying to kill you. One of the reasons that sequence works so well as humor is that on one level GlaDOS is pointing out that lonely test subjects get attached to an artificial object and you’ll be no different, and on another you’re laughing at your own reactions to what is by definition an artificial situation… a puzzle in a videogame.

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