An argument for video games

I enjoy playing video games because they allow me to experience stories that are a consequence of my own actions and decisions. On the most basic level, a video game provides the player with systems of rules which dictate how the game world works, and allows the player to heuristically interact with the game world. If the mechanics and game world are complex enough, a story sort of emerges as a result of player action without a narrative presence dictating how or what is happening. The most satisfying video game stories come from the interplay of player action and consequence.

SimCity, for example, lays out the needs of a population and provides a budget within which the player is tasked with satisfying those needs. Every city becomes a story not because the game tells you that you’re doing a good or bad job; the stories emerge from the ways that players solve certain problems or overcome certain obstacles which arise naturally from decisions that they make. I was the mayor of a city struck by an earthquake during an early stage of expansion, and the elation of triumph came as I was able to manage emergency services and maintain infrastructure so that industry and commerce could continue to provide funds with which I cleaned up and repopulated destroyed city blocks. I felt good because I had used mechanics provided and mastered the rules of the game, not because a window appeared to tell me that I had done a good job.

An extreme end of the spectrum is Dwarf Fortress, which is almost entirely a game that consists of very detailed systems and sets of rules. You are given individual game pieces (the dwarves) which have certain sets of skills; the player directs those pieces to use their skills and interact with the game world. The game throws challenges at the player, such as vampires or goblin armies or famine, and the player must use their resources to overcome these challenges – but the game does not dictate in any way that one method should be used over another. Here, the stories arise from the ways in which players use logic and imagination to solve problems and maintain a society of individuals, each of which have their own needs and emotions. Players have stories about frenzied, discontent dwarves that threw society into upheaval; they have stories about the mechanisms built around fortresses to repel invasion, and the unexpected management disasters that occur when these mechanisms or social systems operate unexpectedly.

This is every story: that unexpected challenges happen upon an individual, and that individual tries to deal with things as befits their personality. And in doing so, they learn something about themselves. Movies and books have been known to be able to do this pretty well, and maybe video games could do it more consistently if it was really a priority. But do they need to? Video games are, really, the only powerful ‘unauthored’ medium. It is the only medium capable of generating memorable fictions within the mind of the player as a reward for imparting some of their own imagination and personality into the problem-challenges of the game world. Personally involving the audience is always the best way of communicating a moving story, and video games should be more interested in just taking their hands off and letting the player get so knee-deep in the game mechanics that they cannot remove themselves from the progression of the game since they are now the main character.

I spend almost all of the time that I involve with video games bemoaning the fact that there isn’t better writing or storytelling in these things. I enjoyed the Metal Gear Solids almost more than anything else, but this is probably just because the games are so absolutely insistent on the consistency of its idiosyncratic weirdness – an extremely, defiantly “authored” experience, but an extreme example nonetheless and unlikely to ever happen again. Maybe video games should look into dropping the pretense of narrative progression altogether (again, since they only seem to want to emulate the lowest-class action-thriller and horror genre conventions, anyway). Maybe video games should think about running completely wild by focusing on the mechanical complexity of their games, since this is going to be the means with which we get engaged anyway – I sit down with these things because I’m interested in learning logic skillsets, and not because I’m interested in guiding a faceless non-character between Michael Bay-esque cutscenes anyway, right? Go crazy with the mechanical consistency of video games, and focus the writing on creating a living universe that we’d ever care to engage with. “Flavor” the settings and mechanics of the game so that we would have some personal compulsion to actually feel one way or another about the things that we’re doing or problems that we’re solving in these things. Don’t write any more of these epic ‘saving the world from ancient evils’ things that we’re so saturated with. No one is ever surprised by how those things end. Just paint me the landscape and populate it with living things and let me experience something based on how I feel when I can change the world.

A few notes on Jedi Knight

Jedi Knight is a video game that predates the modern era of first person shooters’ preoccupation with realistic or rational settings. The first level, for example, is set in some sort of dense spaceport docking station, because this provides the video game with a reason to force you along narrow ledges, running along moving cranes or scaling tiny ramps that scaffold an empty shaft that spirals down into nothingness. Most of the levels are essentially challenges of vertical traversal; there’s the spaceport, there’s a refueling station, there’s a level that only involves scuttling along narrow ledges on the exterior of this immense tower and along elevator shafts. What I remember best about this game is a joyous feeling of vertigo, staring down into these vast empty spaces.

This game came out the year after Quake, and I think that developers were finally allowed to enjoy the possibilities of video game environments. They were capable of handling anything more complex than the traditional constructions of corridors connecting larger rooms full of enemies. So they went nuts and actually thought about the architecture of these worlds as more than monster-containers. Quake was the real champion of this new capability of design, since it had so much fun with an abstract design philosophy carried over from the bizarre days of Doom. The walls and floors of levels became shifting platforms, transforming into new constructions; a pool of water might open to a small room with a low ceiling, but a button on the wall would split the ceiling, which then became the floor of a much larger room above.

I’m interested in what these games did with architecture because the environments themselves are a more effective communication of my progress. The shifting platforms of Quake are the moving pieces of a mysterious puzzle that invite me to explore through the revealing of its constituent parts. It’s a successful design because the desire to find the exit to a level is subconscious. And I find it more satisfying than modern first-person shooters, which have reverted to a philosophy of single rooms, connected by corridors, which contain enemies. Except that now the single rooms have become “realistic” set-pieces which exist to deliver waves of bad guys I’m supposed to kill, and I only know that I’m doing it right when I reach a checkpoint and the game tasks me with some other objective. The design of the world itself has ceased to become part of the challenge. The levels no longer want to kill you.

Both Jedi Knight (and Quake) were successfully designed because the architecture of their worlds promoted a very free sense of movement. They understood the absolute value of fluid kinetic movement in a game with a first-person perspective. My character moves like he’s on a skateboard. Jedi Knight is a sort of Super Mario Bros analogue in which the challenge sometimes involves having the discipline to not hold down the ‘run’ button all the time, lest you throw yourself to your death. Much of the game involves leaping from precarious heights, but bile does not rise in my throat the same way that it would during “platformer sequences” in other games since I’m never making unlikely jumps because, I think, Jedi Knight just wants me to have a good time and feel like I’m an accomplished Jedi adventurer, rather than punish me with arbitrary challenges of movement. There is even a Force power dedicated to jumping.

Jedi Knight is successful as a video game because it is a game foremost concerned with the mechanics of a good first-person shooter rather than a game that must self-referentially flaunt its Star Wars license. It’s the story of a man understanding his own powers and avenging the death of his father and it happens to contain Stormtroopers and lightsabers as decoration for the satisfying feeling of using magical powers to push enemies off of cliffs. The story involves saving the galaxy, but for once it resists shoving a billion space ships and armies on the screen to make us feel like we’re involved in some epic struggle. The lightsaber mechanics themselves are badly dated and feel clumsy, unsatisfying, but the game doesn’t force me to use it so that I get The Guaranteed Jedi Experience. If I want to run around with the basic blaster rifle, then the game says – so be it.