I, Fanboy.

There are some games I like a lot. When you consider that I feel most games are bad, you may start to realise why this is a big deal. Yes, there are some games I enjoy but most I tolerate. I am inspired and awed by the potential of games but so few approach that, or even attempt to, that it’s difficult not to be cynical. So when a game really gets to me it’s a matter of personal significance.

Sadly very few games have ever affected me in this manner, those that do often achieve this in spite of their design rarely because of it. These games I profess to adore are not without their faults, I like to think I’m unbiased enough to be able identify these flaws; but this recognition does little to detract from my respect for these games. All that is necessary is a single moment, one small spark of imagination or intelligent that shows me a glimpse of that potential . What is any amount of design flaws or technical bugs compared to that?

Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to play several such games. I’ve talked at length about some of them but still it’s difficult to describe the reason I hold these games in such esteem. I’ve described the fate of Frank Bilders but I fear in my attempt to personalise that account I may have sacrificed clarity. This was an event that actually caused me a moment of pause. I sat thinking, dwelling, on what had just happened. Through my actions I’d allowed another to die, somebody who had risked their life (albeit a virtual one) to save me on prior occasions. I felt something. I’m not trying to say I understand the pain of losing a friend (something I hope never to experience first hand), I imagine what I felt to be barely a shadow of that, a fleeting glimpse of a shadow of a concept of that. But it was enough. In that moment I saw the potential of what games could achieve. I’d been emotional affected by the game, something only a few works in other media have ever truly managed. It was different this time, stronger somehow for all it’s fleetingness; I’d witnessed the power and futility of my own agency.

Surely If I could get everybody else to play that game and experience a similar moment then that would put an end to the entire discussion of whether games could be art, whether they were interesting or worthy of study.  If I could convince everybody else that for that briefest moment I had truly felt a pang of guilt for the consequences of my actions then I believe they would understand the power of games. I understand that such things are subjective and maybe Far Cry 2 isn’t the game for everybody, but I can only speak from my personal experience so I had to try and get people to play this game, and appreciate it as I do.

If a moment like that could be attained in a era when games are still so focused on the juvenile concepts of violence and direct action what could be accomplished in the years to come?

It might seems ridiculous, asinine, that I could make such claims about a game like Far Cry 2. But no matter how much I wanted to be engaged I was utterly unmoved by the death of Aeris, unable to understand the appeal of the Zelda or Metal Gear series and left feeling stupid and frustrated by Braid. Something about Far Cry 2 drew me, held me, engaged me like so few other games have ever do. So that it was able in that one moment of holistic purity to me cause me to stop and really reflect on my actions; to offer me a look some of potential of games. How could I not want to talk about it, not want everybody else to share that experience?

And then, it only went and did it again.

I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get others to have the same experience I had with this game then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe what it is about a particular game that has such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that is not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful.

So with a fledgling critical language and incomplete vocabulary I strive to explain a moment that was at once precisely as simple as I’ve described yet orders of magnitude more complex. Out of context it is easy to explain but without the foundation of the rest of the game, the build up and the pay off can seem facile, meaningless; my reaction to it pretentious at best and comic at worst.

If I can seem overly intent in my praise or damning in my condemnations it’s born of frustration at my inability to get across how much of an impact something has had on me, or how close I feel it came to giving me one of those rare moments of clarity. I am a fanboy and I have something to really be a fan of. It’s is my privilege, it is also my curse.

Gameplay Contract.

Deus Ex - Invisible War 01
“Modify your behaviour.”

The request of The Omar, the cyborg black marketeers of Deus Ex: Invisible War, is made when you throw something at them, repeatedly. It’s a little strange to hear this retort each and every time you throw a lamp, or cup at their heads but if you are constantly bombarding them with junk and getting the same reaction is the problem with the game or the manner in which the you are playing it? Might it actually be sensible to do as you have been asked and modify your behaviour?

Reading Sande Chen’s article on Gamasutra (Towards More Meaningful Games) and especially the comments, started me thinking on the role the of both the player and the design in crafting a game narrative. Do players have a responsibility to abide by certain guidelines and accept certain restrictions in order to get the most from a game narrative? In essence should there be some implicit gameplay contract between player and designer?

Something akin to:

“Provided I act in a manner consistent with my character and their role in the world and accept certain limitations on my freedom, you will ensure that I am engaged, entertained and that all my actions have meaningful consequences.”

With films there’s a tacit acceptance of certain conventions and strictures of the format in the name of entertainment. Audiences will accept montages, flashback, slow-motion and even split screen if it aids the telling of the story. All too often it feels like games are seen as simulations over entertainment, instead of accepting certain restrictions both players and developers are more concerned with authentic simulation.

A simulation can be entertaining; but entertainment is not simulation. It’s simply not possible for a game to be good at everything, or to be able to respond meaningfully to every possible player action, unless those actions are heavily, often artificially, restricted.

All games feature boundaries, and the more realistic or simulation based the game the more obvious those boundaries can become. They have even become clichéd, the doors than can’t be opened, or the invisible walls. Players should be encourage to explore the possibilities of the content that does exists, but if they go off and try and explore an area that is far from where they need to be, or start to act in a manner that is out of context with the situation should the onus be on the developer to anticipate that action and cater to it? Should a player baulk at a brief lose of direct control if it actually serves to improve their emotional engagement?

Suspension of disbelief is an active thing, it requires that those who want to achieve it consciously turn off their more critical faculties in the service of entertainment. Sometimes in order to be effectively engaged we need to be looking in a certain direction or behaving in a certain manner. Is this why some are more willing than others to overlook the  sometimes odd conventions of a game like Metal Gear Solid, because they have made an implicit agreement with the game to accept it’s idiosyncrasies in the name of entertainment?

So might players not owe it to themselves be more forgiving, to enter into a contract with the designer whereby they will except some necessary restrictions in return for an enjoyable engaging experience?