Well, it's been a long time coming, but I think I'm finally ready to get into the real heart of the matter.
How can video games be more expressive as art forms?
I would like to show that we can expand our notions of what interaction entails in video games. There are many unexplored ways to express ideas through gaming and make gaming more meaningful.
What you have control over, and the form that that control takes, affects two things: how you experience a narrative, and how developers can express ideas to a player.
The form of interaction enables a player to ask questions about themselves and what the game is trying to tell them. If the player’s interaction takes the form of ____(control over movement, behavior, plot direction, which character to use, etc), then questions could be: How does it feel to ____. How does the story change when I _____ differently? What is my reason for ____ing? Or, as Nico puts it, “It’s not about saying ‘what would it be like to be in someone else’s shoes?' It’s about saying ‘now that I’m in these shoes, what do I do with them?’” The way the player answers such questions, or the degree to which the answers are left open ended, is how video games can express subjective and specific messages to players, either directly or through metaphor and allegory.
It is my belief that just about all stories require a certain kind of participation. We enjoy hearing stories because we project ourselves onto the characters and into events in the stories. The appeal of nearly all fiction and entertainment is escapism and fantasy fulfillment. We imagine ourselves in the world of stories we read about, watch and listen to.
Different types of stories appeal to people differently because they cater to different fantasies.
Action/adventure tends to cater to the fantasies of being in control of exciting situations, performing acts of violence, feeling "alive" by way of adrenaline rushes and risk taking. If you enjoy watching the Governator shoot a bunch of identityless drug runners, you probably enjoy the idea of committing acts of violence without the guilt of being responsible for emotional trauma that such acts would cause in real life (there's nothing wrong with this, btw).
The majority of video games come in the form of action/adventure. There's nothing wrong with action/adventure, but it's near exclusivity in games limits the way a game can be expressive by limiting the types of questions a game can force a player to ask and the way a player interacts with the story.
Horror seems to fulfill the desire to be in a scary or otherwise traumatic experience and survive. Confronting deep rooted fears and being able to survive them and punish those who would inflict them upon you is enjoyable. There's a cathartic pleasure in experiencing things that are uncomfortable, granted you won't be permanently injured.
The reason people project themselves onto characters in a romance seems pretty clear. It's fun to be in a romantic relationship. It's more rewarding when it takes some work, bla bla bla. Having a relationship work is fun.
It’s a little harder to explain why we like drama, but I think it has to do with voyeurism and a really simple fascination with how the lives of other people differ from our own. Watching other people make decisions and go through events gives insight into other people’s minds and into our own. It makes us ask the question “how would I deal with that situation?”
I think it’s a good idea to analyze this because it’s important to see how different story types target different fantasies and change their form to fulfill them. This is what video games should be doing more of and aren’t. In order to effectively express something in games, we should be looking at what it is about a story we think people are going to want to engage in and make control over that the main vehicle of the game’s interaction.
Video games as a medium should be extremely capable of fulfilling these fantasies. Rather than participating in a story indirectly, through projection, players participate directly through the games interactive aspect.
In fact, gaming has fulfilled the fantasy of committing non-emotional acts of violence better than most shoot-em-ups have. I think this is because they allow for more choice. More than most, the action genre isn't about voyeurism and watching someone else’s choices. It's about pretending you are Ahnold. FPS's have done this better than any violent film. They actually let you choose who to shoot and what to do. What they lack now is the desire to use this experience to ask the player questions and make them think. Some games have tried to do this, but I think using the interaction to ask questions should be more of a primary focus of a game. The interaction should be a means as well as an end, not just an end. (sniff sniff, I smell Kant...)
Horror has been fulfilled much more poorly, and romance almost not at all. At least in the States. Action/adventure encompasses nearly the entire gaming repertoire, including children's games. I think the reason for this is that the fantasies of horror and romance are more time consuming to fulfill and require more dedication. The fantasy of shooting something can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds or less, and can be done so over and over and over for as long as a person is still entertained. The fantasy of surviving something traumatic requires much more time. First danger has to be established in some believable, palpable way, then some sort of survival must be achieved in order to complete the fantasy. Resident Evil attempts to do this by utilizing atmosphere , surprising zombies (band name) and guns. Atmosphere presents the danger, zombies/surprise makes it palpable, guns create resolution. It’s not entirely effective since I think there's too much resolution and not enough danger. There’s too much killing of zombies and not enough fear of being eaten. Horror movies work because most of the movie is establishing danger, killing off identifiable people one after another to give you the sense of "oh man, everyone I projected myself onto is dying, I could die in this imaginary world!" and only at the end letting the last person/people survive. A good horror game should take the appealing part of the genre, being placed in trauma and escaping it, and make the game about controlling that.
While talking about this, Nico and I came up with what we think is a good idea for a horror game.
Romance takes forever. In order to fulfill the fantasy, you have to make a relationship. The more complicated it is, the more believable it is, the more it fulfills the fantasy. Part of the appeal is the struggle to get what you want (the other person). The more time it takes, the harder it is, the more rewarding it feels when you get it (them). Dating games that I've seen, particularly dating sims, tend to try to fulfill it too quickly, too shallowly, and appeal too much to the physical aspect of a relationship. For a dating game to be worth playing, it would have to use player participation to immerse a person in the experience of forming a relationship, not just a means to expositorily get from "unlikely meeting" to "first kiss". So how could interaction enhance our appreciation for such a fantasy?
Again, Nico and I think we're clever and have come up with an idea.
When it comes to drama, I think we are too short sighted in trying to come up with game formats. I thought about mentioning GTA or Metal Gear as examples of drama done fairly well, but then I decided that that wasn't true. In action stories, the behavior that we get invested in is the violence, the running around, the action. But in a drama that is simply not the case, and we shouldn't be trying to let a person participate in a drama by having them run around and control where the person goes. Like romance, much of what draws us to drama is dialogue and story events. The interaction should reflect that, giving some control, or at least influence, primarily over the story events and dialogue. The best example of this sort of idea that I can come up with off the top of my head is Black and White, where your decisions affect the appearance and behavior of the game continuously. I imagine an effective drama game doing something similar, having a player make constant decisions and being motivated by being able to see different results from different decisions. The game wouldn’t be about getting the character through the plot, but letting the player determine the plot.