Secrets and intentionality

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When a PC is powered on but it finds no disk to boot from, it says to you in gray letters: “No bootable device — insert a boot disk and strike any key.” A Mac shows instead an archaic icon of a floppy disk with a blinking question mark. If you turn on a Nintendo Entertainment System without inserting a cartridge first, its power light simply blinks on and off as your television set displays a gray screen. But — there is a subtlety here not often found in computers. If the NES senses a cartridge but cannot read its contents properly, it will sometimes show its initial screen but with corrupted graphics, or with the first note of its song strung out into an endless tone.

This is a harmless occurrence whose traditional remedy is taking out the cartridge and blowing into its contacts, to clear out any dust. It’s a familiar, comfortable ritual to anyone who owned a NES in its heyday, like cleaning your glasses or trimming your fingernails.

When I was a child, I once turned on my father’s Atari 2600 with a cartridge half-inserted by accident. Instead of displaying a message, an icon, or even corrupted graphics, it emitted an unholy, piercingly loud shriek.

I found out later that this process is called frying, and that if you do it skillfully, you can alter gameplay — by causing sprites to act contrary to their programming, or the world of the game itself to warp.

But as a kid, I was scared shitless by the sound.

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It’s just a game, man

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People have invented all kinds of names for this mess we’re in: hypertext, interactive fiction, even something called ergodic literature. But there’s one word that doesn’t come up that often is game. This is probably for the same reason people invented the term graphic novel — comic book sounds a little too kidlike and, well, light-hearted. Games imply a certain superficiality… and for good reason. The overall audience for video games has aged a little bit, to the mid-twenties if not early thirties, but the bottom of the demographic is still somewhere around ten years old. Even so, it’s a pretty narrow range. You don’t really think of Dickens as a males 18-24 kind of writer.

But you can’t really deny that video games provide a ton of examples of how interaction can work structurally. When I think about how I want a story to work, it’s games like Silent Hill 2, where what seem like innocuous choices determine how the plot’s resolved, that give me signposts.

(That’s another reason I think there’s a bias against games in serious analysis… you just sound dumb citing something like Metal Gear Solid 3 in what’s supposed to be a serious paper.)

The thing that video games have been consistently terrible at, though, is provoking an emotional response through interaction. Fanboys typically talk about Aeris biting the dust in Final Fantasy VII as a huge emotional moment… but hey, characters have been dying melodramatically since forever! If you compare stuff like that to even an ordinary short story, it comes out looking pretty poor.

One exception I can think of offhand is Ico, which not only managed to move me but also did almost all of its storytelling without language. Which is great… but kind of hard to draw from as a writer. Photopia and Shade would be up there, too, and fortunately they’re both made entirely out of words.

Ironically, I had an aha moment yesterday about how to structure the story I’m working on… but it had nothing to do with video games. Rather it was this Web activity, which was written by an incredibly smart guy I used to work with, that gave me an idea on how to make things work.