Playing the Player:
Before I start this post, I want to face up to the facts: as much as it might pain me to say it, most gamers don’t need a game to include complex, multi-layered plot, or a fully-realised self-consistent world in order to enjoy themselves. Hell, they usually don’t need a plot at all. This is totally fine, and I’m okay with it. After all, mindlessly blasting away at alien scum with only the barest of context given is a tradition stretching back to Space Invaders. As Farhad Manjoo notes in his Slate article:
“Games ask us to save the princess, save the country, save the world, save ourselves—but no one plays games to achieve those ends. We play for the puzzle, for the physics, for the sense of being embedded in a fully realized world. [...] Thus I can’t really explain why my character is doing what he’s doing. The real answer is he’s doing it because I am making him do it, and I am making him do it only because I am having fun.”
It’s a valid argument, but I did want to ask one question of Farhad: why is he having fun? Why is pressing buttons and seeing a character move on a screen so much fun? Would he be enjoying himself as much if there were no context to his actions? Would a game consisting of abstract graphics and a voice telling you you’ve achieved something be as much fun? As usual, the Internet community is already way ahead of me in satirising such ideas, as you can see by this Penny Arcade comic, ‘The Bar Mitzvah’:
This SMBC Theatre sketch, ‘MMO’:
And to a lesser extent, this demotivational poster:
I’m going to make as broad a statement as I probably ever have here, but I hope you’ll follow along with me as I try and explain what I mean by it: the gamers that these satirists are making fun of will never be able to appreciate video games as a storytelling media. But listen, it’s not their fault. It’s just a mindset that is perpetuated by games companies and gamer communities, and, yes, teenage rivalries around the world. According to these gamers, you don’t play a game, you beat a game. When presented with what is almost a purely story-telling experience such as Heavy Rain, they don’t know what to do. What is the button combination they should press to get through this quicker? How can they manipulate the rules of the game into giving them what they want more effectively? They are meta-gaming, rather than immersing, trying to figure out the structure behind the game in order to more effectively ‘win’. When a player is actively looking for the limitations in the architecture behind the façade, you’ve lost them already. Unless of course the game is produced with such a truly deft touch as to take them in unawares, rather like a great movie is still able to immerse students of film.
So perhaps it is too late to convert these (dare I say it) hardcore gamers. But if video games are ever to be considered more than just a construction to test one’s skill against, as I think they should be, it’s important to understand how that might come to pass. For my money, that understanding is going to come through exploring the potential (and limitations) of fictional immersion in games. Last post I talked about the similarities and one major difference with regards to storytelling in traditional literature versus video games. While most of the devices that stories in other media use can be easily translated to their video game counterparts, the ability of the player to interact with the game is something that other mediums do not offer, and is therefore of primary importance when considering how a story is to be told within a game. However, I do not believe that the relationship of fictional immersion to freedom of interaction is a linear one, and in the following section I’m going to try and show you why.
The Price of Freedom:
Selmer Bringsjord states in his paper ‘Is It Possible to Build Dramatically Compelling Interactive Digital Entertainment’  that one of the biggest challenges in building the titular digital entertainment is artificial intelligence, and the inclusion of some artificial ‘director’ in order to procedurally generate and manipulate the dramatic arc of a story line. Now, to me that sounds a little bit too much like the Roald Dahl tale regarding the story-writing machine. And I don’t think that the day where a machine can adequately reproduce the dramatic twists and turns of a plot penned by a human writer is going to come any time soon. But the paper still raises (or at least, raised in my mind) an interesting question; do we really need the kind of branching storyline and implied infinite freedom of interaction that such an intelligence would achieve–and that current generations of games are trying their best to emulate–in order to be engaged by a story?
The short answer, I believe, is no. The long answer is, well, it depends on what you think video games should be trying to achieve. To explain the short answer, there are plenty of games that offer compelling storylines that offer no freedom whatsoever. From the 2-D, four-button, pixellated story of love versus material gain in Passage, to the vast and complex linear narratives of many Japanese RPGs (The Lufia, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest series are all favourites that spring to mind); these are games that offer little freedom in the story to the player, and yet manage to deliver engaging narratives for us to become involved in. To those of you who have played these games, this should come as no surprise. The method of play of such games is akin to reading a book, albeit a book played aside pretty graphics, and broken up by interactive elements that serve to provide thumb exercise before the next tiwst in the plot is revealed. And in fact, there are many ways in which games borrow from other media such as comics to accomplish a good story. JRPGs in particular are notorious for using the ‘aspect to aspect’ establishing shot of every new location that the player encounters.
Of course, there are caveats to this supposed linearity of story. Usually characters are able to be customised, or the path forward is not immediately clear and needs some investigation before being revealed, so the linearity can be somewhat hidden behind these mechanisms. But when all is said and done, the stories cannot be manipulated, and play out exactly as their creators had intended them. There aren’t any surprises, and if fellow gamers were to compare their experiences with the game they would be able to do so very closely, with only a few variations in their journey owing to choices in customisation. And that’s all well and good, these stories are no less potent for their singular nature. But now to explain the long answer, which I said was dependant on what you think video games should be trying to achieve. While video games can indeed provide the kind of memorable stories that traditional media have done for many years by limiting themselves to linearity, the question is whether they should be. I said in part two of this series that I considered the ability to let the player interact with the video game and alter the way events play out to be a unique ability of video games. In order to set video games apart from other media, that uniqueness should be taken advantage of in new and exciting ways. In the next part of this series, I plan to talk about some ways in which the freedom to affect a storyline has been used to great effect in the past, and explore some directions it may take in the future.
 ‘Is It Possible to Build Dramatically Compelling Interactive Digital Entertainment?’ by Selmer Bringsjord, accessed at http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/bringsjord/index.html