Playing games

In the London Review of Books recently the novelist John Lanchester discussed video games (not that they have much to do with “video” as we usually understand the word), suggesting that here is a new medium almost entirely unknown to mainstream critics, though commercially the business is bigger than film.

Bearing in mind the likely ignorance of most LRB readers Lanchester goes over the usual preconceptions about these games, as well as their real strengths and weaknesses. He notes that as mindless entertainment goes, the best of them tend to be far more entertaining than the Hollywood blockbusters that aspire to the same condition. He is concerned about the influence of the money men on the young medium, but looks forward to a maturity in which the capacity of these games to offer an immersive experience of imagined realities is exploited to greater effect.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a serious gamer, I’ve been playing these games regularly since Doom in the early 1990s. Aside from the visceral pleasure of blasting a room full of aliens, and the frequent wonder of the visuals, I was drawn in by the possibiliies of narrative in a new medium, and one of the interesting ways in which they are like and unlike films (or novels) is how they are like or unlike games.

Games as we normally understand them have rules and constraints while their outcomes will depend on how well players perform within those constraints: the outcome of the game is the emergence of a winner. Although video games have very successfully developed mulitplayer modes (where different players go against each other via an internet connection) their roots are in something closer to the special cases of the card game Patience or the board game of Solitaire, where a single player takes on the game “system”.

A video game usually comes to its conclusion when you have succesfully completed its various challenges, but this is not so much like winning as reaching the end of a book or a film. In most real world games when you lose you’re out of the game. In a video game you can expect to be “killed” many times, but this is only a limited loss, forcing you to go back to your last save or checkpoint: sophisticated recent games like Prey and Bioshock have even incorporated this necessary game mechanic into their narrative structure, so being “killed” and then returning to the game has a kind of sense within the narrative.

What really drives you through such games is not so much the thought of winning, but of getting to the end. You struggle from level to level largely out of curiosity to find out what happens next, or in the best games to find out what’s going on at all. At the same time because these are games, and because what happens next will depend on what actions you perform, you will feel (up to a point) that the outcome is open and depends on you. I think this is why the games that offer a “first person” viewpoint, where you see everything through the protagonist’s eyes and so become the protagonist, are the most enjoyable and successful (though there are some interesting exceptions, most notably Max Payne and its sequel).

Game designers like to play with this sense of things being arbitrary and open. Far Cry gave unprecedented freedom to roam and find different ways to complete its tasks. Some also offer alternative endings, depending on how you choose to play the game. In the wonderful Bioshock – picked out for praise by Lanchester – there are two distinctly different endings, even if one of them is clearly “the right one” (essentially you can choose to be compassionate or ruthless, and compassion is duly rewarded).

This sense of relative freedom and potency can work to make a game more engrossing, more immersive, and as Lanchester notes, opens up new possibilities for creative imaginations; you can easily imagine how games could offer optional events or visions or activities which have little to do with the main narrative, but which all the same enrich or colour your experience of that narrative, without taking you into the shaggy dog territory of Tristram Shandy. But to be satisfying these games generally need to reach an end, and to get there certain things will have to have happened.

Because they depend on a narrative spine video games are more like films than traditional games, but in a commercial environment where alternative film endings are routinely tested against the reactions of typical audience samples, you have to wonder where this pressure for the narrative to be responsive to the viewer or player could lead us. I’ll be wondering some more about that in my next entry.

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