The Escapist Re-Visited

The Escapist Re-Visited
The Secret of Monkey Island

Rob Hearn | 19 Feb 2008 12:05
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Why is this? Why hasn't Citizen Kane, a film made by a director with almost crippling technical limitations, been washed away by subsequent tides? Could it be, as V. F. Perkins argues in his book Film as Film, "mechanically imposed limitations act as a spur to ... creativeness"? And could the same be true of videogame developers?

It's certainly true that games have used cinema's discarded templates. Like early filmmakers, early game-makers were unable to use audible speech and so employed printed titles. As in silent films, the visible action in early games is broadly divided between long shots, in which a fair amount of material is visible at the cost of visual fidelity, and extreme close-ups, wherein the emotional state and actual facial appearance of a character is briefly evinced at the cost of everything else. The Secret of Monkey Island employs both tricks.

No doubt its makers drew heavily from the lessons of silent film, but the secret of Monkey Island's enduring success is more interesting than the methods it employed to overcome its technical limitations. The real secret is the limitations themselves.

The vast majority of videogame jewel-cases feature the word "interactive" somewhere on them. Interactivity is one of videogames' primary selling points, and there's no doubt that when a person plays a videogame, he is interacting with it. He acts by pressing buttons on the keyboard or moving the mouse, and the avatar he is controlling reacts. In turn, adversarial sprites respond by aggressing, while friendly sprites respond in some other way. The videogame and the player act upon one another.


However, the word "interaction" has another shade of meaning; you'd probably characterize it as an imaginary or constructive process. This is the kind of interaction that occurs between a reader and a book, or an impressionist painting and its audience. In the case of a book, the writer provides the reader with cues in the form of words. For example, take "the man walked into the green room." Everybody who reads this sentence supplies his own man, his own room, his own shade of green. He constructs the scene largely from the store of his imagination, so that the resulting memory is a joint production. Similarly, while appreciating Monet's "Impression Sunrise," the viewer is really supplying much of the scene himself. Monet provides the colors and, to an extent, the form, but the precise appearance of the three daubed-boats retreating from the foreground, the adumbrated chimneystacks and amorphous structures in the distance, belongs to the viewer. The audience of a black-and-white silent film, meanwhile, provides its own sounds and colors, engaging in a kind of sensory interaction with the filmmakers, collaborating with the creator to construct the scene.

A videogame is physically interactive; whatever way the form develops, it will always be the case that the greater the limitations on the freedom of the player to exert his will in the game-world, the greater the basis for criticism. However, the overwhelming majority of game developers have enthusiastically taken the opportunity to divest their audience of any imaginative collaboration in the story. Both sight and sound come pre-packaged.

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