Monday, 19 November 2012

Is imagination dead in games?

Most of us crusty old gaming farts started out with very simple games. Those that began their gaming careers with the Atari 2600 had to content themselves with a few simple shapes and some blobs to represent anything from a spaceship blasting through an asteroid field to a terrifying fight for survival in a haunted dungeon. Heroes were a lot less charismatic, usually being made up several blocks and being about as expressive as a comatose llama. Those of us who began with the NES or Master System were a little more fortunate, having graphics that at least somewhat resembled what they represented. Mario looks like Mario, even in those humble blocky origins. But regardless of power, 80's systems were limited at best. Instruction manuals and other materials were used to flesh out the worlds and the creatures that populated them, simply because there wasn't enough space to make detailed images or descriptions within the game. Koopas were Koopas because we read about it in the instruction manuals, or saw them in cartoons, otherwise they would simply be known as "turtle guys" and "that big spiky turtle guy".

Games were limited, but the limitations inspired a generation to create their own stories and situations within the game, since the story for most of them could be written on a box of matches. Why does Link fight to save a kingdom he's never been to, and a princess he's never met? Why does Pitfall Harry lust after those treasures? We filled in the gaps ourselves and made our own stories. Now, the internet is full of essays on how games have changed, and spell out stories and game mechanics rather than letting the player learn by themselves. It sounds very much like the scaremongering that occurred when Television and Film were becoming popular, and intellectuals and writers bemoaned the lack of intellectual stimulation in those mediums compared to books. Games have changed, for better or worse, and while your AAA blockbuster games are all fine and dandy if that's what you like, and I love your epic stories as much as the next punter, but I can't help but feel that something has been lost somewhere down the line. Games do not stimulate the imagination as they once did, instead every enemy, every plot point is fully explained and de-mystified. There is no room to invent your own backstory for Master Chief, we already know his backstory.

Gaming is a very diverse hobby and there is room for a great many different styles. Storytelling can take the form of well written dialogue and cutscenes. But it can also be something that grows organically from the game mechanics. In Dwarf Fortress, there is no pre-written story. You simply guide a group of Dwarven settlers trying to establish a new settlement. The graphics are very basic indeed, and the controls are so complex that even learning very basic tasks can be a huge challenge. It’s one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever seen, and the complete lack of visual representation of what’s occurring in the game can make it hard to even make sense of what is happening. But once you learn the system, Dwarf Fortress is one of the most compelling experiences. Dwarves live, they die, they have dreams, they have their own distinct personalities. They sometimes have fits of artistic inspiration and lose their minds, and they need a constant supply of alcohol otherwise they become depressed. Goblins can invade, sometimes kidnapping dwarven babies to be raised in their goblin lairs, a terrible fate for any child. Animals can stampede and kill unsuspecting Dwarves. Elves arrive and chastise the Dwarves for felling too many trees, threatening war unless they cut back their destructive ways. All of these events are not scripted, pre-ordained events, they occur organically and change depending on the player. All represented by nothing more than symbols on a grid, and text. This is where the very real, and untapped potential of the power of imagination can be seen. It’s a combination of an incredibly complex program, all brought to life by a simple screen and interface and a hapless player.

Having come from playing video games, and recently branched out into tabletop Role Playing Games, I know what a huge difference the power of imagination can make. The freedom to tell your own story and develop your own characters without the restrictions that a game imposes is very liberating. A tabletop RPG looks as good as you can imagine it looks. Obviously the “video” part of video games denotes that it is a visual medium, so it will always need a visual representation of the game on screen, but there is a lot to be said for leaving things to the players imagination and allowing them to fill in the blanks. As the creative writing cliché goes, less is more, and show, don’t tell.

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