Video games have evolved quite a bit since the days of Mario and Duck Hunt. With the constant evolution of technology, the ability to tell a story via games just keeps getting more advanced.
However, much like a Pokémon, this evolution hasn’t just made things better; it’s transformed gaming into an entirely different beast. In a way, we all kind of know this. There is a huge difference between the original Super Mario Bros. and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But, besides the fact that Modern Warfare looks and sounds better than Mario (and, of course, the fact that it’s a whole different genre of game), how do the two eras these games emerged from actually differ?
Many of you would answer that question by listing which genres were popular at the time, citing different control scheme innovations, and pointing out which developers and publishers made the biggest triple-A hits. To an extent, you would be making valid points. The very face of the gaming market has changed over the year in drastic ways. However, these are mostly changes to the gaming market. What about the psychology of the players? How has the fundamental way we experience games changed from the early 1980s to now?
It’s not an easy question, and there are many suitable answers. However, the one change that I find most profound is the amount of information a story transmits to the reader. Think of this as the difference between books at movies. Books describe settings and characters to you, but you are really filling in the blanks with your imagination. Meanwhile, movies are an entirely different sort of art form. Instead of relying on the audience to fill in the blanks, all the blanks are essentially filled in. Settings look like the sets that are filled, characters look like the actors that portray them, and all the key elements of the story are laid out for you to experience.
In a way, movies are less interactive than books, which actively tell the reader to picture the events that are happening in their own mind. In fact, the disconnect between movies and books can be felt any time there is a movie adaptation of a popular book series. If you have ever seen a movie adaptation and said, “That’s not what I thought that character would look like” you are experiencing one of the fundamental differences between the two forms of media.
Now let’s examine some older video games—2D platformers, say. Though a 2D stage is a visual representation of a world, it’s not the world itself. It’s just a facsimile of a much larger world that we, as the gamers, have to fill in with our imaginations. We know that the Mushroom Kingdom of the NES-era Mario games did not only exist in shades of brown and blue, and we knew that Dracula’s Castle was far bigger than the pixelated stairs that Simon Belmont was climbing in Castlevania. So we filled in the blanks with our own imagination.
And what about Metroid? What did you think Samus looked like in her power armor? After you discovered the secret of Justin Bailey, what did you think she looked like outside of her power armor? What was she thinking while wandering through the caves on Zebes? Heck, what did the caves look like? What did her enemies look like? What did Samus sound like? What face did you give to these pixelated abstractions?
As children, we had answers to these questions. Sure, we may have had some information to go on, like hair color (you have to love that green hair), but Samus’s body, face, personality, and attitude were mostly left up to interpretation. The same thing goes for Mega Man with his oft disagreeing box-art, Bill Rizer from Contra, everyone from the original Legend of Zelda, and so on. Heck, it’s this abstraction that has created the huge difference between the blonde-haired warrior Link we know now and the “Well excuse me, princess!” Link of the old animated series.
But as the years went on, games abandoned this abstraction that stimulates the user’s imagination for full-motion video and high-definition soundtracks. Now, characters sound like their voice actors, look like their character models, and travel through worlds that look like the levels that the development team designed. We aren’t filling in the blanks anymore. We are just consuming the story elements that the designers have created for us.
Is this a bad thing? Not really. After all, movies are just as valid a medium as books. So modern day “movie-like” video games are just as valid as older “book-like” video games. However, certain indie developers are crafting stories that still require you to fill in the blanks.
The recently released Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward shows character models and voices for every character in the game, except for you. You fill in your own appearance and voice, until the very end of the game, where your own perception of your character is used against you.
Journey is a perfect example of a game filled with incomplete information and abstraction. The entire game’s story is filled in by the player. You only have the tiniest of ideas about why you are here and what you have to do. Though the settings are gorgeous, the plot is a construct of your imagination.
However, some of the best uses of incomplete information and abstraction are seen even deeper in the indie-scape. Loneliness, for example, is a powerful flash game that produces a strong emotional impact in a lot of people. However, its graphics are something out of the pre-Atari ages, literally featuring nothing but dots. How can something so simple be so emotional? Look it up and play it to find out.
It’s useful to be aware of this change in the way we tell stories through video games. Some stories don’t honestly need million-dollar graphics budgets or Hollywood voice actors to be successful. Heck, Minecraft is duking it out with Call of Duty on Xbox LIVE as we speak. When developing a game, the design team should think about which way would tell their story better. Are they looking to make the movie that stuns you with an incredible soundtrack, powerful imagery, and stellar performances from their cast of voice-actors, or are they looking to create the book that lets you emotionally invest yourself by crafting a world and characters of your own design?
Angelo M. D’Argenio
Date: December 27, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*