As I write this, there sits on my desk an unopened copy of ‘Dishonoured 2’, still wrapped in shiny cellophane. I really want to play it. But restoring the young Empress of the Isles to her throne can wait.
Something you need to understand about your friendly amorphous grey blob, dear reader, is that I adore video games. If you’ve been reading this blog over the past week, you’ve probably gathered that I really love books and literature. This is true, but even that love pales in comparison to my love of games.
I’ve read a lot of books over the years. Nearly all of them could have been improved with the addition of a level up system and an ironman difficulty setting, is all I’m saying.
All games have the illusion of choice. Even when you’re dancing to the exact tune the development team devised, you still make thousands of micro-decisions every second. When and where to move, when to attack, when to hide. That control makes games utterly unique. They resonate in a way no other medium can ever even hope to come close to.
A book will never stop you from progressing because you’re bad at reading. Overcoming the challenge is part of the appeal.
That said, there is a particular genre of game that’s starting to gain a bit more traction. These games put the appeal of context above any other part of game design, being heavily story driven, often eschewing traditional mechanics altogether. This can go one of two ways. The first can feel alienating for a player, like the developers are more interested in their own story and would prefer to involve the player as little as possible. The second marries player choice and story to create a uniquely involving narrative.
To create the latter kind, one must be willing to keep one’s writing as fluid as possible.
It is on this note that I head to the National Video Game Arcade for two connected events. When the arcade opened a year ago it was a bit of a watershed moment. Games have always struggled to be taken seriously as an art form, partially due to stereotyping and partially due to the industry not always working especially hard to break those stereotypes. Having a museum devoted to them is a good step.
The first event is an exhibition devoted to short, almost poetic games, some attempting to find a new approach to interweaving video games with something more literary, some being more like virtual art exhibitions. Some are more successful than others. The best one I played was a result of the Off the Map competition, where you played as Juliet and got to choose her responses to Romeo, with varied and creative results. A second recycled sprites from the indie game Nuclear Throne, and created something entirely new them. There was also one where I was a tiny spaceship, and had to shoot little hearts to generate a poem.
I was really bad at this one. Clearly, they got the memo about the appeal ‘overcoming challenge’. I may have ground my teeth down into nubs, but hey.
The second event is a little more prosaic, focusing on how to play with rules of structure in a digital medium. When one writes for games, one must accept a certain loss of control over how the work is consumed. As such, the event involved a lot of little word games and worksheets. Word Jenga was a highlight. Take a grid, fill it with poetry and then rearrange it with a friend until you’re stuck with a little pile of awkward verbs that you can’t do anything with. It’s surprisingly fun, and can create some quite good chunks of poetry. A second game calls back to the Japanese art of Renga. Each person round the table writes a few lines of poetry then passes it to the next person, providing as little context as possible. Ask me about Jeffery the Slug some time.
It’s a reminder of the inherent fluidity of games. If you want to create one, you must be willing to let go, more than any other genre. We all create our own meaning from art, but with a form as uniquely personal as games that meaning goes even farther. Help the player create their own truth.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go save an empire with my magic powers. All in day’s work.