This post doesn’t actually have anything to do with Oxford commas, I just felt like I should put three things in the title for some reason. Also, I prefer to call them video games rather than videogames because I don’t call board games boardgames, but I don’t know what the Accepted Standard is, even though I am a professional Maker of Video Games. Also also, this might be the worst opening to a blargh post in the history of blarghing.
Anyway. It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve played a lot of video games in my life. And being that I write them for a living, it’s inevitable that conversations arise from time to time wherein people ask me which ones are my favorite, especially from a story/writing standpoint.
In those situations, I always feel pressure to say something clever and insightful which never works because I am neither of those things, and then I end up doing one of three things; I either
a) try to make up some obscure and probably pretentious thing about a really good indie game that I haven’t actually played yet but that I’ve really been meaning to because all my other game-writer type friends are raving about it;
b) fall back on recent classics, like Bioshock, or Portal 2, or Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead, all of which are great and deserve all the praise they’ve received but don’t really add any new information to the conversation;
c) stare blankly with a slight smile on my face that is supposed to communicate my friendly and sincere interest but somehow apparently comes off as creepy which is fine because I DIDN’T WANT TO COME TO YOUR STUPID PARTY ANYWAY
What I (almost) never do is tell the truth. Because the truth is a terrible, terrible secret. Which I will share with you, personally, as long as you promise not to tell anyone else.
The truth is, my most favorite stories from games are the ones I told myself while I played.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a well-told story in games, and there are plenty of them out there. But I can’t think of a story I’ve been told that resonated with me nearly as powerfully as the ones I’ve been allowed to experience on my own.
This will sound crazy (probably because it actually IS crazy), but I have exceptionally fond memories of an old Nintendo game called Break Thru.
It had a story. At least, according to the back of the box it did. A secret aircraft had been stolen and it was up to me to BREAK THRU the enemy lines and recover it!
But that was just the box. What REALLY happened when I played it was far more personal; I wasn’t recovering an aircraft. I wasn’t even starting the game at the beginning of the story. For me, I was playing the last, desperate moments of a daring rescue mission. I was saving a wounded hostage, someone I loved, against all odds. I was there alone because I was the only one who cared enough to even attempt a rescue, and I had to do it without support from anyone else. Just me and my trusty jumping car. The aircraft wasn’t the goal at all, it was just a means of escape … I was stealing it from the enemy, from their own air base, because that was the only shot I had to get Her home safely.
That’s probably not a story that would appeal to many people, but for me it was the story.
Sid Meier’s Pirates! is another game that stands out; sure there was a framework there, rescuing family members, taking revenge, and so on and so forth, but for the most part, when I was at sea, none of that really mattered. Sometimes I was just a trader, taking goods from one port to another. Sometimes I was a pirate hunter, sworn to defend all ships against the scourge. Sometimes I was a terror to all who dared to sail MY seas.
Even fighting games weren’t immune. You have no idea the noble and desperate reasons I fought for in those death pits. The future I hoped to make, if not for myself, at least for others who weren’t as gifted and skilled in the Deadly Arts as I was. I’ll spare you the details because I’m sure they are boring and tedious to you but to me, TO ME, oh the wonderful times I had!
Sometimes as a ninja in Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, I would spend an hour or more sneaking around, silently killing every guard in the compound. Except for one. Why? Because someone had to live to carry forth the message of what becomes of evil men who prey on the weak and helpless, of course.
And that, to me, is the true and still mostly-untapped, mostly-misunderstood power of video games; their ability to create worlds and then leave room for players to create their own unique experiences. They aren’t books. They aren’t movies. They’re something else.
Which kind of makes it awkward for me as a game writer. Because sometimes I’m writing stories and spending the whole time thinking that instead of this cutscene our cinematics director is super excited about with the explosions and the glass flying everywhere and all the porpoises, maybe what we really ought to be doing is focusing on creating coherent context, and then making sure players have enough meaningful actions in that world to make the kind of difference they want to make. Leaving motivation up to the player, instead of up to me, as it were.
Fortunately, there are a lot of exciting things going on in the indie game space exploring these kinds of things; Cart Life, Papers, Please!, and several others that I haven’t played yet but I’m totally meaning to play and you should check them out because they are totally awesome experiences, as all of my smarter game-writer friends have told me. And to be fair, Telltale’s The Walking Dead still is a favorite of mine because even though it’s not my story, I am responsible and accountable for the decisions I make. The character’s motives are my motives, and I get to help define the kind of person Lee is.
If this were an essay or an article or something, this is where I’d put a tidy closing statement that really brought everything together, and I’d put a nice, neat bow on it.
Sadly, this is just my blargh, so this is all you get.