Thought engendered by my return to computer gaming after an absence of two and a half years
I was an avid computer gamer for about fourteen or fifteen years. I played all sorts of games– realtime strategies, MMORPGs, first person shooters, turn-based games–but my most favorite games were usually role playing games (Fallout 1 and 2, Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate 2) or point and click adventures (Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey, Still Life). [As most gamers can probably tell from that list, I’m mostly interested in games with good stories]. Then, about two and a half years ago, my desktop suffered a mysterious malfunction. It started freezing after a few minutes of operation.
And I never bothered to fix it. For the first time in my life, I was working full time. And I was also struggling to recommit myself to my writing. Every night, I got home, watching an hour or two of TV, read a book for two hours, then tried to write a thousand words. I didn’t have any time to play computer games, so fixing my desktop didn’t seem particularly important.
At various intervals in the last 2.5 years I’ve tried to fix that desktop, usually with the intent of using it to play some game. I have a copy of Dragon Age that I’ve desperately wanted to play for like three years now.
Finally, though, I am game-enabled again. I just bought a huge brick of a laptop that has more than enough power to play any game on the market. And today, I installed Fallout: New Vegas–the latest installment in what is definitely my most favorite video game franchise.
And, man, it is weird to play electronic games again.
The experience of playing an electronic game is, for me, very different from the experience of consuming any other form of entertainment. As a player, my relationship to the story feels entirely different than when I view a TV show or movie or when I read a book.
And that’s because of gameplay. I’m mostly interested in games for their stories. But even the most story-driven games are not mostly composed of story. They’re mostly composed of gameplay, all the parts of the game that involve running, jumping, shooting, killing, exploring, collecting items, gaining experience, and doing all the other random crap that propels you from conversation to conversation or from cutscene to cutscene.
Even in the best games, I find gameplay to be pretty mind-numbing. I think that Gameplay is supposed to feel like playing a sport or solving a puzzle. But it rarely does feel like that, because gameplay is usually not very hard. But gameplay is not boring, either. It does involve the mind. Gameplay is a bit like walking around. In most RPGs, it’s just a way to drag out the process of looking at alot of scenery. It involves just enough brainpower that you become really focused on what you’re looking at, but not so much brainpower that it gets too hard and you give up.
And it really works. Fallout NV is really immersive. It’s not precisely fun to spend hours wandering around, looking at this postnuclear wasteland….but it’s definitely creates this weird feeling that you’re actually wandering around, looking at a postnuclear wasteland. After a few hours, I started to feel like I was really there.
And that’s not a feeling that I get (or even attempt to get) from most other entertainment. Most entertainment is about telling a story about some people…some other people. It’s just like the stories your friends tell you about their lives, except with music and audio and pictures.
Games try to do something different. They actually put you there. They use those pictures and that audio to put you there, in some other world.
This is especially true for representational, open-world games like Fallout, but I think it’s even true for fairly stylized, closed-world games like PacMan. These games hypnotize you. Who hasn’t felt that sense of panic and claustrophobia whilst playing PacMan? Who hasn’t felt anxious and rushed for time during the final moments of a game of Tetris? These worlds have very different rules from our world, but when we play them, we internalize their logic, and we learn to live out a life in which gobbling down some dots is a matter of deathly importance.