Tuesday, March 8

On The Interactive Medium

Today, a friend of mine posed the question, “Are tabletop games, like Dungeons & Dragons, better equipped to tell a story than video games are?”  I took a bit of time to consider this, since it pulled my thoughts to Will Wright’s (Creator of The Sims, Spore, and related games) recent statement that “Games are not the right medium to tell stories.  Video games are more about story possibilities.”  I’ll dissect that quote a bit later.  At the time though, Wright’s quote made me realize something I’ve been struggling to put into words:  Video Game are not about stories, but experiences.
Which is not to say a game need avoid story, or shy away from one.  Hell, we’re only just starting to see the beginning of the great stories that can be told in games.  But to really understand what makes video gaming different from reading or watching movies, we have to look carefully at the aspects unique to the medium.  In this case, there is one that stands above all others:  Video games are interactive.
It seems at first like an obvious statement.  Of course games are interactive, you can’t play something that doesn’t, in some capacity, play with you.  Even a child with a cardboard box is interacting, mostly through the child’s imagination.  But then we take that statement, “Video games are interactive,” and set aside.  There is no other form of media that can achieve the same level of interaction as Games, because it is the most basic, fundamental concept on which gaming is built.
To rope the article back on track, I answered my friend’s question with a “No.”  I have played my fair share of Tabletops and more than my fair share of Video Games, and I can confidently say that video games are better equipped to deliver experiences.  This may come as a surprise, since a video game is limited by the method by which we experience it, that is, through computer data.  Your experience is limited by what it is programmed to be.  But in a tabletop game, you are free to try anything, though your level of success will vary according to your character.  Not only that, but a video game is coded as it is, and that coding does not change, though some is advanced enough to recognize how one plays.  A tabletop is an active creation, at the will of the Dungeon Master, everything can change, so the game can be constantly modified to suit players’ wants.
So, a game built with experience limitations, and one built without.  Why would I argue for the restrictive one?  Because of immersive capability.  I’ve seen people get really involved in Dungeons & Dragons games, they care very deeply about the goings on and their experience, but whenever they want something to happen, they are doomed to look at a long sheet of numbers, do some quick math, and spit out a sum.  That process, that necessity of visible mathematics, prevents tabletops from going as far as a video game can.  In a video game, those numbers still process, the result still say what does and doesn’t happen, but now the player has no immediate indication that it’s there.  In a game, we do not have to calculate our experiences, that’s done for us.  We are free to experience as we are able.
In addition, not knowing all the rules to a video game can give us pause to consider our actions more carefully than we normally would.  As an example The Path.  This game has been out for a fair while, but I’ll put a SPOILER WARNING here and the cover image to the left for anyone who wishes to play spoiler-free.  The rest of you still here, play it anyway.
In The Path, you play as six Red Riding Hoods, and your objective is to find your Red Hood’s specific wolf.  Each girl has a different wolf to find, and with that wolf, a different way to die.  The only instructions are to go to Grandma’s house and stay on the path.  This is possible, and makes you lose.  Instead, you must head off the path and into the woods to find your wolf.  Your are only told the most basic of controls, and can never be sure of what consequences your actions may have.  This serves to make the game very tense causes the player to very carefully weigh their actions, especially when they don’t know that their objective is to die.
By throwing instructional convention for a loop, The Path gives players a more involved experience, using only some movement and basic “interact” controls.  END SPOILER WARNING.  Many games have the capacity to achieve this same kind of effect, but miss it by sticking to the idea that a player should be aware of the experience they’re having.  No person is able to say the with any certainty the kind of experience they’re dealing with until it’s over, and I feel that games should strive for the same.  Let the player experience, don’t tell them how to experience.  Let the experience a world their way, a story their way, as best as you can with the tools available.
“Games are not the right medium to tell stories,” said Will Wright.  In watching Wright’s TED presentation (go do it) on creating and experiencing worlds, and in his recent interview at CNN, I’ve noticed that he has come to a very clear understanding of what he wants from a game.  He wants to see a world he can impact and change, a story he creates.  Basically, he wishes for another world of complete experience.  The way he talks often makes it seem as if he finds a story-driven game to be somewhat beneath the open world concept games he’s created, but I would argue that he does not believe that.  Instead, he strikes me as a man who wishes to see the medium of games come into its own, to flourish as an art separate from all others.  He wishes to see games set themselves apart to force the popular world to recognize the medium and the unique aspects it carries.  For this, I share in his goal.  I can’t wait for the say when I can ask anyone on the street if they play games, and almost every single one will answer yes, and no one will judge the medium solely on its name.  Games are growing, establishing themselves as a new art, and to be here, now, as a new art truly begins to take shape, is a fantastical and breathtaking experience.

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