What makes games special? Why do they hold such near-and-dear spaces in the hearts of millions? These are ideas I consider and mull over fairly often, and while it’s not a perfect answer, I think I have something.
Each form of media brings to the table various features that make it better at conveying certain ideas and feelings than others. Books rely upon a vast selection of diction and syntax to craft the perfect sentence in a perfect paragraph in a perfect novel to let the reader see through the eyes of someone else. It allows for introspection and reflection—both from the characters and the reader. Films do a better job of setting the stage of circumstance to understand the plights of characters. A single frame of a scene in a film can tell you all you need to know about the relationship between characters or what someone values, based solely on framing and misc-en-scene, or what is in the scene.
Video games offer something rather unique. While the audience at most interacts with books and films through introspection and discussion with peers during and afterward, video games require direct interaction with its audience. Even the most linear, narrative game imaginable requires the player to be the one responsible for getting the next scene started. This directly places the player in the shoes of the character they’re controlling. If you put a movie on and leave the room, it still plays from beginning to end, while if you start a game and walk away, it remains in limbo until the player returns and provides stimulus.
It’s this fundamental difference in interaction that’s drawn me to games. I still love books and film and plays and music and all other forms of media, but I am not responsible for the story in those mediums. Of course, all of the above is generalization, and each medium has ground-breaking examples that challenge how information is conveyed or how the audience can participate and contribute. But the same can be true of games.
Most games assume the narrative only continues as the player makes positive progress toward the scripted ending of the game. No matter how many day-and-night cycles pass in Assassin’s Creed, your target will still be where the marker shows, at a convenient spot. No matter how many times you die in Super Mario Bros., the ending is when you rescue Princess Toadstool. However, some game developers explore novel ideas that break those notions.
Notably, Metal Gear Solid 3—created by legendary developer Hideo Kojima (here at the Couch Bandits, we like to call him: The Master)—features a boss known as The End, an elderly sniper. You can defeat this boss through conventional means by using stealth, but if the player is quick and skillful, they can defeat him earlier in the game. Due to the boss’s extreme age, if the player saves during the official boss battle and stops playing for a week or more and then resumes the game, The End will have died of old age. Hideo Kojima is infamous for other experimental and tongue-in-cheek ways of playing.
The Legend of Zelda series also plays around with standard ways of thinking about games, though not truly through gameplay. Released ahead of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the book Hyrule Historia included a then-accurate timeline of all canonical Zelda games. Fans expected a split in the timeline at Ocarina of Time, given its emphasis on time travel; fans were not, however, expecting a three-way split in the timeline.
In addition to the expected “child” and “adult” timelines, Nintendo included a “fallen hero” timeline, which presupposed that Link failed to defeat Ganon in Ocarina of Time. Interestingly, Nintendo included the original entry, Zelda II: Link’s Awakening, and A Link to the Past in the “fallen hero” timeline. The idea the world continued even after the hero falls is fascinating from a narrative standpoint (though it is important to mention this was all announced years after Ocarina was released and decades after the earlier entries).
Both The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear Solid represent ways video games tell their story through player input. Metal Gear, as well as other game series, provides players with numerous ways of completing missions and defeating bosses and offers unexpected ways to do so. The Legend of Zelda represents an acknowledgement that the narrative does not have to reset at the Game Over screen. Books, nor film, stage plays, or other mediums are truly capable of interacting with their audience in ways like this.
As amazing as it is to consider the narrative aspects, you can’t forget the mental exercises you can go through with puzzle games and learning patterns, though I’ll save that discussion for another day.
Thanks for reading!