12 April 2006It’s just a game, man

This post was originally written for gimcrackd.com.

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.