Sunday, December 14, 2008

An Expressive Tool Unique to Games

In order for games to become a valid and recognized art form, they are going to need to stop relying on the expressive tools of other mediums. All mediums, when they first come into being rely on the expressive tools of other mediums. For example, for the first period of their life movies were largely stage plays that were filmed. Then people discovered all of the unique things you could do with a camera that you can’t do with a stage play. Similarly, video games are often viewed as interactive movies, or interactive books, or interactive comics, basically an interactive version of some previous format. Eventually, we hope, game makers will figure out the expressive tools that they have at their disposal and put them to good use. Today I wanted to talk about what I thought could be a particularly powerful expressive tool, unique solely to games—alternate timelines.

For the most part the other mediums, if they even include time as a dimension, are strictly one dimensional. No matter how they are presented there is only ever one way that the events occurred. Occasionally a work will dabble in with this, showing what could have been had a single choice been different, but it isn’t common. Games however have vast potential in this area. As the player moves through a game world, making decisions they are changing the narrative landscape, and bringing the story to a place uniquely their own. Each time they play through they can see a different aspect of the world, and see what effects a different decision would have brought.

Imagine a game where the player is trying to save a town from a disease. On the first play through they work tirelessly to overcome the disease. The disease spreads viciously, claiming a good portion of the town, but in the end they beat it back and triumph. This could be a story about the power of humanity in the face of terrible hardships. On the second play through, they play in a more relaxed manner, and discover that the disease doesn’t spread as viciously. Over many play throughs they come to realize that the spread of the disease is connected to their efforts to fight it, and the game becomes instead a story about the need to relax and accept our position in nature. The true nature of the game world only becomes clear after the player has gone through the game a couple of times, and seen how their choices affect the events of the story.

This adds another dimension to storytelling. Almost the way sculpture adds another dimension to paintings or photographs. It doesn’t necessarily make it more expressive, but it does offer a powerful expressive tool that is not as readily available to other forms of art. I believe that this will be a key technique as we learn to give video games their own expressive voice.


At December 31, 2008 at 8:58 AM , Blogger Shelley K said...

Wow, neat idea. I've been really enjoying Chrono Trigger lately. I've been amazed at how well done it is. Perhaps I shouldn't be amazed since it has stood the test of time so well. It is neat to finally play a game where your choices really do make a difference. I've gone back and replayed the first 30 minutes several times just because I find the game's reaction to my decisions so intriguing.


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