Putting Down Video Games (And Picking Them Back Up Again)
When I install a new game, I’d like to be able to say that I sit down, grab hold of the mouse, and play non-stop from the code-key entry prompt, all the way through to the final boss’s ghastly death rattle. But that’s not what happens. I start off playing with high hopes for long, regular play sessions, with visions of charging quickly, triumphantly through quest after quest, slaying monsters and demons, and saving the princess/world/universe/fate of my character’s soul. This new world is at my service, a virtual oyster, ripe for the taking. I’m a champion, and I won’t waver until I see the wrongs righted and every last enemy cut down!
This doesn’t last long, however. Maybe a few days of solid play go by, a week if I’m lucky. Sooner or later, though, the real world intrudes. Cracks begin small: a critical Windows update, a snack break, a new Keyboard Cat video (“How do they work!?”). The rest needed for tomorrow’s early morning cuts deep into a nocturnal gaming session. An important project steals me away from a whole day’s worth of play. Before long, my unstoppable digital lunge had slowed to a crawl. My visions of a quick victory, easy kills, and heroics begin to fade. I make less and less progress, until finally, it happens. One day, I put down my game.
If the game is lucky, I’ll move on to another, play it for a little while, then return. Maybe it will just have to wait for a week or two until my schedule looses up a bit. Maybe I won’t be gone that long. But if my game is not lucky, it could be month or years before I come back to play. And some games, I may never play again. It’s happened before. While certainly in the minority, there are a handful of games which I enjoyed, which I had no particular prejudice against, and had no particular motivation to stop playing, but which, nevertheless, I have abandoned halfway through their single player offerings, and which I’ve carried with me through my moves and travels for the past 5 or 6 years. I suspect that, for all my best intentions, I might never get back around to playing these games, and they go on, with their quests incomplete, their dungeons still infested with abominations, while their princesses grow old, locked away in their towers.
This is sad state for these games to end up in, to be sure, but it’s not the only medium where I’ve spotted this effect. I do the same thing with books. Currently, I am in the middle of reading 74 different books. (74!? I knew I had a lot of bookmarks out in the field, but even I didn’t think it was that many until went to my shelf and counted for this article!) Just as with my games, I began reading some of these books years ago (the oldest I could spot I began in Jr. High School, some 11 years back). Most I will, eventually, return to, but I’m sure that there are a few ostensibly fine books which I will just never manage to find the time or interest to return to.
I find this similarity between video games and books intriguing. They are two particular examples of media which exhibit this relatively rare effect. People don’t generally abandon a movie halfway through, then return years later to pickup where they left off, or look at one small corner of a painting, then jump away to another and another before finally coming back to the first. Both books and games share this particular pickup-putdown ability, affording their consumers the option of biting off one small morsel at a time to chew, and allowing them weeks, months, or years of digestion before their appetite returns.
This occurs due to the differences in the dramatic design and length of these media. Games routinely require upwards of 40 hours of playtime from their audience, while books can run into the thousands of pages. Stopping and starting these entertainment experiences is expected and necessary, and their structures support this by making it easy to save your game or page. However, if you stop halfway through Wall-E, and then return a month later to finish, you might just as well watch the little 98 minute bugger from the beginning. A film’s cinematic momentum is designed to be consumed by its audience in a one sitting. If the viewing is interrupted, and later returned to, the experience will not be as fulfilling without re-watching the entire movie.
I find this contrast to be an interesting as a indicator of particular manner in which video games represent a truly distinct media form. Most recently, games have been growing closer and closer to film in their presentation and style. From the film grain filters of Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect, to the cinematic structure and pacing of Just Cause 2, to the interactive movie conceit of Heavy Rain, it seems clear that many games see themselves as inherently cinematic. However, this trend toward the shorter, more visual story telling media is a direct product of recent advances in graphics technology.
Traditionally, games have been more often compared to a form of interactive literature, which was an easy leap, as in its infancy some of the most popular video games were entirely text based (such as Adventure and Zork). The heated debates of the burgeoning field of game studies have been between the proponents of ludology versus those of narratology, with ludologists advocating the study of games through their formal rules systems, while narratologists seeking to examine games as a unique form of narrative.
The most diplomatic response to these factions is also likely to be the most accurate, that is that games make use of both rule systems and narrative to weave their magic, and they should be studied from both perspectives simultaneously. This is evident on those occasions when I do attempt to dust off an old title, and load a game that I haven’t touched in years. Just as when I pick up in the middle of a book whose cover I haven’t lifted in a while, when I return to a partially completed game, there is a period of disorientation as I recall what was happening in the game’s story. The difference of returning to the game, however, lies in that I also must relearn the game’s formal system – what the rules of the game are, how the controls work, tactics, enemies’ weaknesses, factions, etc. Whereas one prefers to simply re-watch an interrupted film, one must remember the characters, places, and motivations at play in an interrupted novel, and in an interrupted game, one must recall all of the narrative elements, as well as how the game world works, and how to survive and succeed within it.
What I find most fascinating, though, is the current state of games, in which they retain their novel-like length, but, thanks to modern graphics, communicate their narratives cinematically. What remains to be seen is the effect these more thrilling, blockbuster story-telling mechanics will have on games when the player ends up experiencing them over long periods of time, or after a long absence from the game world. Will players be able to easily to reenter the world and story of the game, or will the momentum of their telling be fractured, and difficult to recover to the impracticality of replaying through tens of hours? The answer remains to be seen, however there are hints that the best way to accommodate this might be to include textual summaries of key events in the game’s narrative, such as those found on the load-screens of Dragon Age. Bioware provides the player with an epic, gripping, theater-worthy adventure, but provides plenty of bite-sized info-nuggets to get the interrupted up to speed, demonstrating one way in which this media gap might be bridged.
Indeed, the emergent properties of the new medium of video games will likely reveal many more minor quandaries, but in doing so, they will open up more frontiers for innovation, creation, and good design.