If an artist wants tell a story, why would he do so through a video game? Paintings are more immediate. Books are better at providing details and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with his own imagination. Movies give the creator more control over presentation. Television is better equipped to tackle sprawling or episodic stories.
But only video games are interactive. Video games are the only artistic medium designed to give the consumer control over content. This connection can exist in seemingly endless forms from controlling individuals within a linear narrative to steering civilizations throughout history. Understanding how video game developers can create, manage, and even limit interactivity, is the key to the success of video games as an artistic medium.
I don’t have a complete understanding of all the ways in which interactivity can be used. For one thing, I am not personally a developer, but more importantly, our understanding of how interactivity can be utilized is both in its infancy, and potentially of infinite complexity. Just as every means of crafting a compelling story through literature will never be known, neither will every means of producing aesthetic value through interactivity.
What I can state are two examples of applications of interactivity that have current and potential aesthetic value:
One of the most fundamental principles of storytelling is to have a protagonist with whom the audience identifies, or at least sympathizes. Video games are better at establishing a connection between the audience and the narrative subjects than any other artistic medium because unlike every other medium, the audience does not merely passively observe characters, but rather actively controls them.
It has long been observed, if not lamented, that video games have placed an enormous emphasis on “power fantasies.” The majority of video games are based around some form of violence, and many of the most popular games consist of controlling individuals in combat scenarios. Even outside of combat, video games have always found niches in simulated sports or large-scale military conquests. These genres all provide a means of granting their players a level of power which would be impossible or extraordinarily difficult to attain in reality.
Books (especially romances) and movies (especially action movies) have always offered a similar form of catharsis. However, video games are so heavily dominated by power fantasies precisely because interactivity allows players to feel a more direct sense of power via the characters or entities they control, than can be attained through passive mediums.
All gamers know the feeling of starting a game and being really bad at it. In the case of a mechanically-intensive and highly polished game like Call of Duty, early failings are typically a result of not having yet grasped the nuances of a seemingly simple gameplay dynamic. In the case of a massive strategy game like Starcraft, new players are overwhelmed by the staggering scope and depth of mechanical options before them.
The often long and arduous process of mastering a game offers a sense of satisfaction which has been one of the driving forces for the success of video games since the medium’s genesis decades ago. Players who at first could barely shoot straight develop lighting fast reflexes to land precision shots at miniscule targets. Players who would drown under the complexity of simultaneously collecting resources, building a base, and micromanaging a growing army, learn to accomplish dozens of tasks automatically through memory muscle all while consciously planning strategic maneuvers.
It is precisely this process which offers a sense of empowerment in video games which other mediums cannot hope to match. Players don’t just watch a hero shoot a bunch of bad guys and save the girl, it is the players themselves who shoot the bad guys and save the girl. Players don’t watch an army rise from nothing and conquer, it is the player who makes the logistical and strategic decisions which end in ultimate victory. Of course they player isn’t literally doing any of this, but he is going through the most visceral approximation of these actions currently available.
One of the short comings in video game development thus far has been the failure of developers to see beyond applying this valuable player-character connection to just power fantasies. There is no reason this connection can’t be used to immerse a player in more subtle emotional beats. A good example in practice is how player control switches between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. For most of the game, the player controls Joel, a large, strong, combat-skilled man who is tasked with protecting 14-year-old Ellie and subsequently forms a father-daughter bond with her. But part way through the game, Joel is incapacitated and the player takes control of Ellie. The game designers did an excellent job of accentuating the differences between the two characters through the mechanics and game feel. Joel’s strength makes him vastly more competent in melee fights and enables him to take more damage, while Ellie feels smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable in comparison. Later, when Ellie winds up in trouble, the player re-takes control of Joel to rescue her and feels another swing in character dynamics. That is, the player’s sense of control and power returns just as the narrative requires the player to protect Ellie. Thus a strong connection between the player’s sense of ability and his responsibility over Ellie is created by mechanically altering the player-character connection at crucial moments.
The Last of Us’s example bleeds into the next section on “mechanical narrative,” but the point is that the game successfully inculcates the player with story beats and ideas through the player’s connection with the characters grown from direct player control.
While The Last of Us is a classically structured narrative focused on a small group of characters, the player-character connections in video games can be stretched to remarkably abstract levels as well. Take the Civilization games in which the player controls an entire, well, civilization, throughout the history of mankind. This includes the civilization’s government, economy, military, expansion, technology, diplomatic relations, and culture. Compared to Civilization the player-character connections in The Last of Us seem easy to attain. We can all sympathize with a father protecting his daughter or a young woman trying to achieve emotional independence to some degree, but can most people identify with a civilization moving from the dark ages to the renaissance through technological development?
Yes, players can. Civilization players develop remarkable bonds with their abstract, timeless nations. Players sustain the loss of a city in a desperate war with anger or regret, they marvel at the growth of borders into previously unknown lands, and they proudly watch their great civilizations build wondrous monuments which stand as the envy of a digitized world.
Player-character connections create attachments and transcend boundaries in ways literature and film cannot. I would even go as far as to say that video games have the potential to be objectively better at creating relatable characters and entities better than any other medium.
Papers Please is a low-budget indie game in which the player controls a citizen living in a fictitious communist country at the height of the Cold War who is tasked with evaluating the legal documents of incoming visitors and immigrants for the purpose of accepting or denying entry. Even by, (or really, especially by) video game standards, this is a strange plot.
Papers Please attempts to convey a lot of complicated and inter-related ideas at once. It wants to make a statement on the dog-eat-dog nature of living under an oppressive government. It wants to show the inherently convoluted nature of bureaucracy, especially when the people making the bureaucratic rules are not the same people enacting them. And it wants to posit a unique form of storytelling in which the protagonist plays a minuscule, yet crucially important role in dozens of people’s lives by merely stamping a passport with “approved” or “denied.”
Maybe this story and its goals could be told through other mediums, but I have no doubt that any transcription of Papers Please to a book, movie, or tv show would be less effective than its current form as a video game. This is because Papers Please masterfully conveys its ideas through gameplay as a form of “mechanical narrative.” Rather than tell its story through long cut scenes or extended expositional dialogues, most of Papers Please consists of receiving documents from hopeful entrants, examining said documents, having a short conversation with the applicants, and then accepting or denying their entry. The game tells its entire story through these simple mechanics.
Sometimes desperate, shambling refugees come to your station and beg for entry. As the player, you know you can allow them entry, but you also know their passports are forged based because their state seal is incorrect. The refugees beg you to let them through. They tell you they will be killed by their home country if they have to return. They tell you about their children, about the suffering a rejection would put them through. But you also know that if you give the refugees a pass, your bosses will find out and dock your pay. That’s means less money with which to buy food for your own family, which consists of not just your wife and kids, but also your uncle, and recently your niece after your sister was killed by the government for whom you work. The choice is yours, do you “approve” or “deny”?
We all know how annoying and inane bureaucracy can be. Papers Please knows too. At the start of the game you only need to check the country of origin of each potential entrant before passing judgement. But as time goes on, you need to check work permits, and then vaccination forms, and then supplemental information forms, but some people have refugee applications, and others have diplomatic files, and occasionally you have to do “random security searches.” Before you know it, every applicant is handing you four separate forms which can’t help but overlap as they clutter on your small desk. And then you have to check dozens of details between each and every file. Are any of the forms expired? Do the reported dates of birth match? Are they vaccinated for polio, or just measles? Which one is it that you can let in again? You’re sure that each and every one of these forms and details on said forms are perfectly sensible to some distant politburo official who has never stepped foot in a border post (after all, prospective workers should have to report how long they intend to work here so they don’t illegally, permanently immigrate, and diplomatic officials do need specific identification codes so imposters can’t replicate their forms, etc.), but for the player-character who actually has to deal with all of this shit, it is pure chaos. (See Shamus Young’s perfect description here.)
A movie could have a scene where a refugee tells his sob story, or a character complains about how complicated his job is. A book could describe the refugee’s backstory, or exhaustively list the requirements for each and every applicant’s admission process. But neither medium can make you choose whether or not to send a refugee to his probable death for the sake of your own family, or make you actually deal with the convoluted bureaucracy yourself. Passive films don’t allow the audience to make choices for characters and can’t make the audience sift through TPS Reports.
Of all the available artistic mediums, only video games can tell stories through mechanics because only video games have mechanics. Unfortunately, most major video game developers still primarily eschew mechanical storytelling for a sharp divide between mechanics and story which leaves the entire narrative in the hands of movie-like cut scenes. While said cut scenes can be competently crafted, and likely have their rightful place in the video game world, they cannot support the apex of video game narrative creations. Only a merger of narrative and mechanics can create true masterpieces.
Player-character connection and mechanical narrative are two very important aspects of interactivity in video game aesthetics. Over time, I will write more posts to explore greater and lesser aspects. But for the time being, these two concepts in particular do an adequate job of demonstrating the importance of interactivity in video games.