As games financially eclipse other media I’m starting to understand them not as films or prose with added button pressing, but as unique experiences in their own right. Focusing on their interaction rather than storytelling simply makes it obvious they are distinct from other media.
A game is a different animal to a film because it primarily engages me by granting control of proceedings rather than telling a story. This affects everything about them, from what we should expect to get from them, to when we play them, how immersive they are or how they move our emotions. Well written prose and dramatically rendered storytelling play a part but they are secondary to the main currency of interaction. Games connect with me not by telling stories, but by granting me control – they let me act out my dreams.
The difference can be seen in terms of uninterrupted directed experiences or films and books as opposed to the coincidental segmented interactive time we spend with video games. They work a different emotional seam to that of traditional storytelling. When I play a game I’m more a subject of my own imagination and distractions than I am of the developer. Although restricted and contained by the game’s limits, it can no less control me than it can make me proceed at a particular pace.
Compare this to the dictated experiences of movies and books that lock us in to a highly directed story and you see how different they are. Games offer playful spaces that work with the player rather than dictating the action. Films however, create unchanging solid narratives that demand the viewer’s full attention.
That’s not to say that games can’t draw on all those years of film making and writing experience. One game I recently fell for was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. If ever there was a game to engage the emotions with storytelling, this is it. Here I found a peculiar phenomenon, cut scenes I didn’t want to skip and storytelling that connected on an emotional level. In fact I recently realized that I had a slight disappointment each time a cut scene ended and I returned to the action.
As you know, it’s the quality that Naughty Dog achieves that has set Uncharted 2 ahead of the pack. A raft of skills comes to bear here, but maybe the most telling is the commitment to record live voice and action in one take. The actor’s performances are captured in all their glory and result in believable characters and relationships.
But for all this, I have to admit that I’m less emerged in the story than I am for a good film. As the game switches between the controlled and watched segments the chance of that magical moment of immersion is diminished. Of course it is, Uncharted 2 is built around interaction rather than narrative. An emotional story wasn’t the priority here it was engaging compelling game play.
As well as draw on the old traditions, I think games can also create something entirely new. A seed of this is found in another of my recent favorite games, Flower. In terms of story telling you couldn’t get much further from the dialogue of Uncharted than the wide open undirected landscapes of That Game Company’s game. But here is a game that engaged my emotions more than any other in recent memory.
Flower embraced the fact that I could dictate its pace, structure and direction. Keeping its traditional gaming mechanics under wraps, it got on with the job of granting me control. It was up to me to define who the hero and villain were in this world, what needed fixing and how to go about doing that.
The simple absence of direction removed a layer of interruptions and left me to play. Watching others encounter this world for the first time is an unsettling experience. Everything in me wants to tell them what they ‘need’ to do as they floundered around the world. But here, who can dictate the right way to play the game? Is it to collect the petals, find the hidden flowers, or simply to explore and enjoy the space?
Although Flower‘s mechanics don’t hit the detailed high notes of Uncharted 2, Flower got to me on a much deeper level. Although it abandoned much we have learnt from books and films, there were moments when the interactions faded away and I felt a real emotional connection to what was happening in front of me.
The game’s light hand on events granted me ownership of the story, and I was all the more engaged with it. My involvement in this way felt like I was co-authoring the story as it happened.
The irony here though is that underneath its open exterior Flower is a pretty traditional videogame with a familiar fetch quest conceit. It has levels, bosses, collectibles, and a scoring system they just aren’t apparent at first. Flower could be much more of an emergent experience were it to offer some of the sandboxing and online play of games like Halo 3. Then consider how this could take its time to unfold rather than be just the few hours currently on offer and you have a pretty exciting proposition.
I’m excited to be living through these days when games come of age and find their own identity. Rather than being defined in relation to films or books, they are seen for what they are: entirely new interactive experiences. While I love games that capitalize on storytelling like Uncharted, I’m most excited about emerging fresh expressions that play to the interactive strengths of the medium. And for me, Flower is one of these that gets it right.
Games as ‘interactive movies’ or ‘choose your own adventure’ books are always going to struggle to compete. But thankfully they don’t have to. They are a completely different animal. They contact the emotions through offering us control rather than by storytelling.
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