Games are problem generators. They create streams of challenges that we love to solve – over and over and over. It is this, rather than narrative or emotional engagement that defines a good game – the other stuff can be left to films and books; they do it pretty well.
On these terms, the really great games are those that engage us with problems in such a way that they don’t become dry or boring – even when we encounter the same premise multiple times.
Maybe you, like me, have gone to bed and closed your eyes only to be confronted by an immovable vision of the game you’ve been playing. This is very different to the emotional and moving aftermath of a film. Instead of a lingering emotion, games leave us more with the memory of acting.
If I tell you that Tetris is kind of a big deal in my life, maybe this perspective makes more sense. I have lost weeks and even months to that simple game. From having to see all the spaceships in the original 90s Gameboy version, to keeping my Nintendo WFC ranking in Tetris DS, the addiction has been fueled by the desire to create order out of disorder. To solve.
Tetris is powerful for me because it taps directly into the part of my brain that directs my actions. It creates miniature challenges and then offers a myriad of ways to solve them. Whether my strategy is to keep the pit empty, shoot for back-to-back clearances or even land the tricky t-spins, I’m motivated by imposing order on the messy stream of bricks.
Sid Meier creates a similar premise in his simulation games. The genius of Civilization is that its open world scenario creates a context where I choose how to solve problem after problem. The game as a whole is enjoyable not because of some overarching narrative, but because the function of applying a solution satisfies. I remember reading some time ago (although I can’t remember where) that this was central to his game design – for him the player needs “an understandable and enjoyable stream of decisions.”
Once a game succeeds in creating this experience once, it simply needs to give you a valid reason to repeat the process and have a sense of progression.
For me, Halo excels at doing this. Although I actually couldn’t tell you very much of Master Chief’s story, closing my eyes after a long Halo session and my brain is still a whir of calculations.
Halo, like Tetris, is built around the discovery of one enjoyable event – two soldiers encountering each other in combat. Bungie’s genius is that they managed to create an environment where this can happen again and again and in very different ways. Each bit sized puzzle contributes to the sense of progress and overall battle.
There are so many different factors involved in each stand-off. Which weapons do I have, and which do they have? Shields, environment, teammates, equipment, terrain – these all have to be factored in as time drains away and you decide whether to advance or retreat, switch weapons or call for help. Not a million miles away from that Tetris experience.
While the cinematics and story of Modern Warfare, Battlefield 2 or Resistance 2 remind me strongly of many good films and books, it’s Halo 3’s ability to create a stream of intriguing, perplexing and finely-balanced encounters that stays with me when I dream.
And my hopes for Halo Reach remain the same. I’m not fussed about a dramatic story or drama – that’s can be left to their live action shorts. I want Reach to deliver one more time on that simple encounter where hunted and hunter both vie for supremacy in the a few seconds of battle. Those are the moments that will stay with me.
Like my previous thoughts on games and films/books being different animals, this perspective of games is worth understanding. Without it we risk delaying our hobby from emerging with its own clear identity. I’m attracted as much as anyone to the likes of Heavy Rain, Uncharted or Mass Effect. But for me, these aren’t as exciting as those experiences that stand as something entirely other, something not defined by previous media.
It’s most clear when either media excels. My favorite books tell stories that move me and change how I feel about the world. My favorite games alter how I view myself as an agent in my world. The former is about experiencing stories that motivate us to dream of possibilities, while the later speaks more about solving life’s problems and working smarter to achieve what we hope is possible.
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