Similarly, BioShock‘s Rapture turns what might be arbitrary roadblocks into boundaries against instant death by drowning. Indeed, one of the reasons that various kinds of dripping and flowing and flooding water were so omnipresent in the game was in order to get the player to accept on some level that the game’s corridor-filled environment was a real place surrounded by a real-world hostile environment. Players needed to suspend disbelief enough that they thought that somewhere out there was a real world they might be able to escape to. If the player can only overcome the machinations of Atlas and Ryan and get to the end of the game, they’d be able to break the surface and see the sun.
The brilliance of BioShock as an experience is that it uses the very artificiality of the game experience as a springboard to comment on freedom itself as a concept. There are several key moments in the game, but one of the most important is when you finally meet Andrew Ryan and the game arbitrarily wrests control away from the player to present a cut-scene. The game uses the very conventions of gaming itself to force the player to confront questions about what freedom is and exactly how much of it a person really has versus how much they think they have. “A man chooses” Ryan says just at the moment when the game itself wrenches choice out of the player’s hands.
The experience of BioShock’s ruminations on freedom isn’t one that’s easily replicated, but it’s also one that can’t be duplicated in any other medium. A player can watch a film about being in prison but a game can give the player the visceral experience of being a prisoner. The classic Seven Cities of Gold, a game in which the player played as a Conquistador exploring the New World, let players make choices of their own free will that shed light on the point the designer was trying to make without ever getting in your face. Seven Cities of Gold doesn’t say “Spanish Bad, Natives Good.” It lets the player appreciate some of the historical pressures that drove the events of the Age of Exploration and tries to give him or her the freedom to make different decisions. As I pointed out in my Seven Cities of Gold write-up in our Greatest PC Games of the ’80s feature, the beauty of that game was how it allowed me — not a character I was playing, but me — to become Cortez without even realizing that that’s what was happening.
That’s the real “heart” that’s missing in gaming. It’s the one thing that gaming can do that no other artistic medium can. I can truly become a space marine, President of the United States, a wizard, a scorpion, a vampire or (possibly as the medium evolves) a divorced alcoholic dad trying to reconcile with his wife, a bumbling detective trying to solve the theft of a giant diamond, a refugee fleeing from an African militia or a virus attempting to penetrate the wall of a cell.
That’s not to say that spectacle, abstraction and escapism should become things of the past. I like big explosions and mindless entertainment as much as the next geek. I simply believe that this medium is capable of much more than that. Just as the world of film has within it space for romantic comedies, nature documentaries, political diatribes, cartoons, educational materials, dramas about cancer, art films about existentialism and, yes, big silly summer blockbusters featuring giant robots punching each other, so too is there room in gaming for things that go beyond endless retreads of “Aliens” and “The Lord of the Rings” to things we can’t even imagine yet because they have no parallel. That’s the heart of gaming. It’s out there and we need to find it.