From "Passage" To Moscow International:
Narrative and Ethical Design in Contemporary Games
By J.A. Gilliam
I: Introduction and Scope
Picture, for a moment, this scene. The city night is cold and crisp, scented with old gasoline and the coming winter. You enjoy the echoey thump as your heavy boots meet the pavement as you climb out of the taxi and into the empty street. You press some change into the cabbie's hand and motion for him to leave. He does not comply – no matter. You head off down the pavement and out of sight, the air disturbed only by the repetitive drumming of your footfalls. A hundred yards on and you see her, just where you knew she'd be, or did you, was it just a happy accident that brought you two together on this night? This too matters not. She sits alone at the bus stop, lit unflatteringly by the cold moonlight and harsh sodium glow of the streetlight. "Hi," you hear yourself say, "Miss your bus?"
The first swing knocks her off of the bench and onto her back, the second sends her sprawling away along the road. Good solid hits, both. You walk on after her, oblivious to her whimpers, or perhaps they are music to your ears. You beat on regardless, longer perhaps than is necessary, longer than you need to. Back and forth you knock her, toying with her. You know what is next, it must happen or there can be no progress, it is inevitable, and yet you postpone it through the beatings and the whimpers and the moans. Eventually, though, you can put it off no longer. The show must go on, and so you approach the girl for the last time with fists lowered; they are busy unbuckling your belt. There is no one around, and the taxi driver cannot possibly hear, and yet for a brief moment, you remember Vietnam all those years ago, and the day you first gave into that animal need of rage and domination…
So begins the recent independent game Edmund by Paul Greasley, a small and very personal project that gained publicity when it won a recent contest on Adult/Educational Games at the popular game development website TIGSource. While the concepts of that Edmund handles (such as rape, post-traumatic stress, and fatal self-loathing) have been dealt with innumerable times in other media, the way that it is presented here, in an interactive experience – calling Edmund a game in the traditional sense would be a bit of a stretch – raises many important ethical and artistic questions. For instance, the limited dialogue and limited 8-bit graphics invite the player to invent much of the world for themselves. Past his traumatic experience in Vietnam, little is known about the titular assaulter, and it is up to the user to fill in the great blanks in their protagonist that the game's creator chose to leave vague. More important, however, is the relationship between the user and the developer, a dynamic unique to the interactive medium in that the user is at much a participant in the storytelling process as they are the recipient of it. While the final act of vague, pixellated rape is a seemingly inevitable necessity for advancing the action (although Edmund does offer four or more variations on the plot dependent on the player's actions), it is ultimately the player's own choice to press the button that will initiate the violent crime. They become complicit in the action and are forced to confront the issues of the plot more directly. Reread the first page of this paper, substituting 'Edmund' in place of 'you', and notice how it loses much of its impact. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, once paraphrased the poet W.H. Auden by describing how a novelist must become "filthy with the filthy" in order to properly write violent and distasteful content (Desilet 11). Through games and interactive art, the audience is the author's co-conspirator, and must similarly dirty themselves and their consciences with the dark realities they shape and explore. Yet the power of games to pose meaningful questions or provide insightful commentary goes frequently overlooked, perhaps as, even in games like pulp-thriller Uncharted 2, lovable Indiana Jones-type Nathan Drake happily slaughters hundreds of mercenaries – with the player's help, of course – in the name of adventure. This paper shall delve into these topics and more, dissecting prominent or important examples of the techniques developers utilize to immerse players within the game worlds and examining how games are currently being used to pose ethical concerns and dilemmas to their audience. Finally, it will explore the ways in which these interactions could develop in the coming years as technology improves and creative ambitions within the industry expand.
Before this examination goes any farther, however, it should be made clear what is referred to here by 'games.' Electronic games are a medium featuring almost unparalleled variety; everything from Sudoku collections and grade school 'edutainment' software to the latest in visceral, hyper-real fantasy epics and adolescent bloodsport is lumped together under the banner of 'video games,' yet one could hardly be expected to analyze Wii Fit as a literary text subjective to player influence, at least not one on the same level as, say, the most recent Final Fantasy game. While it is true that all games can be simplified to the level of Tetris, a collection of simple mechanics with which a player interacts in order to achieve a stated goal, we shall disregard those games that do little to couch their gameplay within a coherent fictionality, such as the popular pachinko-alike Peggle. In short, the scope of this research can be summed up thusly: it is interested in interactive narrative experiences, the games that strive to be as much Schindler's List as they are Snakes and Ladders – everything else is just software.
II: Tools for Immersion: Thematic Gameplay, Emergent Narrative, and Character Weight
Games are similar to film in more ways than their mere narrative ambitions, of course. Books, films, and other storytelling media are in no way passive or one-sided – their creators rely on the audience's participation in suspending disbelief, immersing themselves in the world and the tale presented, and interpreting the work for themselves. Video games take this cooperation a step further, though, charging the audience with actually taking control of a proxy character or characters and using these avatars to shape the story's unfolding in some way. This surrendering of control to the end user limits the power of the conventional, linear narrative in many obvious ways – the player is often at liberty to ruin the pacing of a story by ignoring key plot points and sprinting to the next gunfight, or to violate the basic character of her avatar by running around in circles or attempting to attack her friends, among other things.1 Many game developers and writers echo designer Damion Schubert's sentiments when he says:
Video games will likely never have the capacity to tell a story as well as a well-crafted Scorsese film. They will struggle to have characters as strong as those found in a Donald Westlake novel. They will never have the pacing as masterfully handled as an Alan Moore graphic novel. Simply put, timing and pacing is just too important to a pure narrative, and the concept of interactivity gives too much control away to compete with master storycrafters. (46)
However, that is not to say that creating a story in the form of a video game instantly limits it to the realm of sub-Hollywood, vapid trash. Game developers utilize many techniques, some exclusive to the medium, that enhance the players' immersion in their role and encourage them to act in a way apposite to the situation. The simplest of these abilities is also the one most closely lifted from film and other visual media – the presentation of a world, a visual and soundscape, that is compelling in of itself. For instance, 2K Boston's Bioshock affords its players all the time they want to explore the flooded underwater city of Rapture, with its dilapidated "Happy New Year 1959" banners and ruined art deco interiors. By forcing the audience to walk, crawl, sweat, and fight through the hellishly photo-real Rapture firsthand, the city creates an impression at least as memorable and effective as the similar dystopias presented by more classical works such as George Orwell's 1984 or Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
On the opposite end of a spectrum, the independent game Eversion by Guilherme Stutz Töws builds its Mario-esque world out of large, two-dimensional pixels, a greatly limited color palette, and a player avatar that looks like a cartoon-eyed orange starfish with legs. However, it is this simplicity of design that allows the game the captivating atmosphere and downright creepiness as it begins to subvert the expected happy-go-lucky platforming into ever-darkening parallel worlds and cryptic flashes of "BEHIND YOU" and "MOTHER." The simplistic aesthetic provides greater space for the mind to wander and for the audience to fill in the blanks of the story and its world with their own fears. The same less-is-more principle has been used in movies for years; in In The Blink of an Eye, Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch states that "past a certain point, the more effort you put into wealth of detail, the more you encourage the audience to become spectators rather than participants" (15). This becomes doubly true when audience participation is a medium's bread and butter. As Töws puts it, "It's certainly easier to disturb people with a video game than it would be with a book. Lovecraft was born in the wrong age after all, just not in the direction he thought. Video games get the instinctive brain engaged like no form of art did before it [sic]" (Fleming, 61).
Another key way that game developers can engross players in their worlds is through gameplay reflective of the game's themes and setting. It's all very well to construct the next great medieval fantasy epic, but if its gameplay systems are a glorified version of Pong with knights and horses, the players will likely lose immersion and be drawn out of the reality that has been created for them. One of the games most praised recently as successfully fitting its gameplay with its themes is Jonathan Blow's critically acclaimed Braid. Like Eversion, it uses the basic gameplay and design of a Super Mario platformer, but instead of subverting this simple technicolor world for horror, Braid allows the player's own nostalgia for this classic style to reflect the protagonist's own happy memories of a bygone relationship. The story of how the hero Tim is searching for his 'Princess' is related through short snippets of text that precede each level, and each scrap of story focuses on a different theme that will be present in the upcoming level – the unconditional love and forgiveness of a significant other, for instance, is reflected in Tim's constant ability to rewind time and undo even the most fatal of mistakes. Even the basic structure of the game is connected to its story; the levels can be played in any order, thoughts and memories that Tim examines as he reconstructs, through puzzle pieces found within the game world, how he lost his girlfriend to begin with. By adapting these common but intimate themes of lost love and nostalgia to basic elements of his game's design, Blow created one of the most memorable and introspective games in recent years.
Braid and Eversion have more in common than their shared debt to Nintendo's famous bouncing plumber; both games also stress emergent narrative over conventional storytelling. Emergent narrative can be considered any storytelling that the user invents for themselves, a feature not exclusive to games but certainly better suited to them than any other medium. The aforementioned platformers take a classical approach to this concept, for while they do not allow the player to deviate from the designer's story in any way (even Braid, with its nonlinear level progression, ultimately leads to the same conclusion), their prescribed narratives are abstract and implied at best, forcing the player to infer much of the plot and messages for themselves. This is very much emergent narrative at its most conceptual form – while the user is creating meaning for themselves, it has no effect on the content of the game in any form but the purely semiotic.
The more visible style of emergent storytelling, in which the player has a concrete effect on his role and actions within the game world, has become popular of late. Originally limited to games like Baldur's Gate that attempted to emulate the unlimited freedom of pencil and paper role-playing games, the idea of allowing a player to design their own character or pick from a variety of narrative-shaping decisions has penetrated the mainstream. To appropriate some terms from Gareth Schott's article "Agency in and around Play," the degree to which this is allowed within a game can be measured as whether the game is interactive or reactive, or put another way, whether the game grants real player agency or merely encourages activity within the parameters established by the developer (133). Bioshock, for all that it's ambiguity about the avatar Jack allows the player to generate their own emergent idea of the character, is ultimately purely reactive in its narrative structure – a black or white moral decision either condemns Jack as monstrous and exploitative power-monger or an altruistic and self-sacrificing survivor, with no middle ground whatsoever. Contrarily, a game like Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a much more interactive experience. Past the player's initial linear escape from an imperial prison, the vast fantasy land of Cyrodiil opens up for the avatar, whose name, skills, and very genetics have been altered to fit the player's ideal, to explore at her leisure. The player can choose to become a great assassin, to train in the mystic arts, to become a renowned adventurer, or perhaps even to complete the task originally assigned to her by the dying emperor and save the kingdom. Although the game only considers one of these paths the true 'ending' of the plot – the credits do not run until after the final Oblivion Gate is sealed and the land is safe once again – the player can choose to ignore this route entirely and shape her character as she sees fit. In this way, Bethesda bestows a huge amount of agency upon their audience.
These last examples of visibly emergent storytelling all rely upon the player's emotional connection connection to her in-game proxy, another important tool for developers in establishing a game's narrative and message. The easiest way to examine this complex interaction of emotion and self-projection is through a tripartite view of the player-character connection. As James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, there exist three distinct entities within this relationship: there is the player as the avatar, literally referring to the player in the real world, sitting in a chair in front of a monitor and pushing plastic buttons on a keyboard; there is the player as the avatar, the character as he was prescribed to exist by the game developer; finally, there is the player as the avatar, or the player's perception of the character that she attempts to shape through her choices within the game world (55).
The way that this relationship between player and avatar plays out is mainly determined by the kind of character that the game presents to the audience for their interaction. For instance, a 'heavy' character is one to which the developer has prescribed a strong identity and is relatively set in stone regardless of the player's actions. Final Fantasy 7 is a good example of this; it is often praised for having one of the most memorable story lines in games, and yet it allows for almost no player participation in shaping the narrative. There are characters that the player can choose to not befriend and areas of the game that she can decide not to explore, but ultimately pretty-boy protagonist Cloud Strife will still have the same crippling emotional issues, will still rebel against the devious Shinra Corporation, and will still defeat his evil clone-brother and save the planet from ultimate destruction. In games like this, the player's options are limited to those of activity – no matter who she talks to or how she fights his fights, the characters will act almost precisely the same and the prescribed plot will continue uninterrupted.
Although some games (like CD Projekt's dark fantasy The Witcher) do attempt to give players a large degree of choice over their actions while still retaining a heavy characterization of the protagonist, for the player to have increased agency within her play, it is usually necessary to look to games with less defined conceptions of the avatar character, referred to here as a 'dummy' character. This kind of character is far more of a blank slate, a paper doll on which the audience can project their own conceptions, making the concept of player as character far more important than with the 'heavy' characters. However, that is not to say that player as character necessarily dominates these 'lighter' avatars, for they tend to support a much wider variety of player-character relationships than the 'heavy' characters.2
For example, many games contain avatars that feature many 'heavy' hallmarks; they follow a relatively set path through the game's 'levels,' they bear the names and histories that the developers bestowed upon them, and yet they never speak or take autonomous action without the player's input. Bioshock and Half-Life 2 both follow this pattern. In the former, the player sees the world through the eyes of "Jack," a seeming everyman whose fateful plane crash strands him in a fight for his life through the flooded streets of Rapture. All of Jack's actions come from the player, all of the player's choices become Jack's, and the revelations into Jack's history become the player's, too. A powerful bond is formed between player and avatar that makes the emotional betrayals and frightful discoveries of Bioshock's plot all the more effective.
Half Life 2 performs a similar trick with protagonist Gordon Freeman to strengthen the player's attachment to the non-player characters who frequently interact with Gordon. An MIT-educated physicist thrust into the middle of an alien occupation of Earth, Gordon (and thus the player) never has any choice as to whether or not he will choose to fight off the evil Combine forces. While he doesn't even get to decide where he will go next in his trek through the dystopian City 17, developer Valve refuses to ever take the basic physical control of Gordon away from the player, never forces her to watch the action from outside Gordon's point of view in cinematic cutscenes. Gordon's friends and enemies address the player directly and engender an attachment that would be almost impossible if presented in a less interactive context. When Valve chooses to trap Gordon against a wall and force him to watch the death of a key ally, it is an emotional experience like no other in games. The player may know that this is how the game is scripted, that it is impossible to break the code and resist, yet she will likely still mash upon the keyboard and click the mouse wildly, desperate to change the events that are playing out in front of her and taking Gordon's – and her – friends away from them.
Even independent games, which by-and-large lack the budget and workforce requisite for creating the photo-real, first-person immersion of Half-Life and Bioshock, make excellent use of the undefined 'dummy' protagonist. Jason Rohrer's Passage projected him into the 'indie' spotlight when it launched in 2007 despite its simple, five minute premise. As the tiny pixel 'sprite' of a blond-haired young man, the player walks through a simple landscape of maze-like paths. She could choose to follow the main road, straight but empty, and observe as the changing landscapes behind her seem to bunch together while those ahead stretch and blur out of view. She could instead explore the vertical depths of the map, the complicated twists of which hide tantalizing treasure chests that can house great rewards or nothing at all, fool's gold for wasted time. The boy may even encounter a young girl along his journey, who will follow him dutifully until the very end. This conclusion is inevitable, for with each step the player takes his avatar becomes noticeably older; his hair thins and greys and his posture droops into that of a decrepit old man until his eventual death in the middle of the road. It is through these simple mechanics that the metaphors that comprise Passage's soul become clear. The choices one must make in life, the memories that compact and blur as they accumulate behind one, the uncertainty of the future and the rewards it can contain, the joys of companionship and the eventual heartbreak of a love lost to ineluctable death – all of these combine to form a bittersweet experience that Game Developer magazine called an "emotional roller coaster ride" (Burke, 59).
These examples are just a small sampling of some of the types of characters and player-avatar relationships that developers can create to engage the player intellectually and emotionally. There are unlimited other possibilities besides, such as the the agency-laden 'dummy' characters that the player designs themselves in games like Oblivion or Fable 2. While the player's conception of herself as the avatar decides what paths the character takes, the game developer has still planned for those choices and designed an equally strong idea of the character that exists within the world for the non-player characters to interact with. Another interesting gameplay variation is one in which the player's interaction with the game is almost entirely player as avatar. This style is exemplified by the so-called 'god games' of Sim City and Sid Meier's Civilization in which the gamer's presence within the world is reduced to that of a disembodied hand or cursor. She is invested with great power, granted the ability to glorify empires and raze cities, to set taxes and enslave her enemies, and yet she will never be seen within the game world, never be referred to as anything other than "The Mayor." The game does little to enforce a narrative or judgment of character upon its audience; all the responsibility of narrative invention falls upon the player and her own sense of who she is within the game. While this can create an understandable feeling of detachment from the game world, it can nevertheless be a powerful tool for the player to create stories of her own design with no less emotional weight than those spoon-fed to her in other, more linear experiences.
1The hypothetical game player shall be referred to via the female pronoun forms throughout this paper for clarity reasons and to avoid perpetuating the male stereotype of so-called "gamers." Women comprise 40 percent of the American game-playing populace, and women over 18 make up a greater portion (33 percent) than males 17 and under (18 percent) (ESA).
2The terms 'heavy character' and 'dummy character' are borrowed from Andrew Burn's article "Playing Roles" (72).
III: Games as an Ethical Forum
Games provide a vast and powerful stage for designers to engross an audience in worlds and stories of their devising, to force events to be experienced firsthand and to demand reflection upon the themes and ideas that the work impresses upon them. By having the audience invest themselves in the action and consider each step forwards a personal decision, games are able to present ethical dilemmas and real-world commentary in a way that actively requires the players to give thought to them. In the words of writers Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska:
The figures of avatars and the kinds of actions open to them are pre- constructed by the game, as are movie characters. But it takes action by the player to mobilize them, which increases the stakes of any socio- cultural implications of the material on offer, extending the degree to which players are implicated in the actions of their avatars. (127)
Giving a player the agency to make her own choices as discussed above is one obvious method to facilitate such suggestions, but it has one major flaw: if the player is free to encounter and respond to moral quandaries as she sees fit, there is a great chance that she will fail to encounter or perceive them at all. Because of this, developers have come up with other techniques of various popularity to ensure that the player experiences and considers the dilemmas they have crafted for her.
Compulsory moral crossroads, for instance, have become a mainstay of modern game design to the point of ridicule – jokes lambasting their often comically polarized options ("Press A to rescue the orphan, press B to kill his dog in front of him") have become widespread within gaming media and humor outlets. There is a good reason for the popularity of these scripted choices, however, for the slightest amount of perceived agency can exponentially increase a player's sense of responsibility for her actions, as long as the choice at hand is couched in such a way as to seem natural and germane to the game world. Even a binary choice can be seriously thought-provoking if each presents a compelling argument. Fallout 3 designer Emil Pagliarulo describes a simple scenario in which the player is presented the opportunity to violently take down an opponent:
When morality’s involved, the simple act of shooting a bad guy isn’t so simple anymore. You’ve got to ask yourself, 'Well, is he really the bad guy? Was he maybe just trying to defend himself? Should I really be doing this?' So just the act of questioning what you’ve done a thousand times before instantly makes it different, and more interesting, and therefore, in a lot of cases, more fun. (Parker)
However, there is a danger present in designing such binary decisions – if the options presented are too far-fetched or if the choices are so common-place as to become meaningless, suspension of disbelief becomes compromised and any connection that the player has developed to his character or the world is violated. Just as importantly, the validity of the point that the developer was trying to make by posing that decision to the player becomes equally discredited.
This can be especially difficult in the context of open-world games that give the player a great deal of freedom in her actions at all times, not merely at preset moral junctures, as it is up to the developer to decide where to limit the player in her abilities, if anywhere. In the post-apocalyptic epic Fallout 3, developer Bethesda Softworks teaches the player to expect uninhibited moral (and immoral) freedom from the get-go, bestowing upon her the power to rescue a nuclear shelter of dying survivors, fight off marauding 'Super Mutant' raiders, subsist off of the nutrients of gathered packets of human blood, and even set off a nuclear warhead buried in the center of a thriving town. The one impulse the game will refuse the player is to hurt or kill children. She can freely attack, maim, and kill almost every other character in the world, she can stick a portable thermonuclear device in a young boy's face and pull the trigger, yet no harm will come to the child. Whether Bethesda was motivated by concern over potential legal trouble from media watchdogs or was legitimately unhappy with allowing players the possibility of harming children matters not – the audience's immersion within the world is broken instantly by the discrepancy. It is a testament to video games' power as a suggestive medium that, while Fallout's criticisms of American consumerist culture and the folly of nuclear war lose a little legitimacy in the wake of this restriction, Bethesda's censorial decision raises intriguing ethical questions all of its own. Do we as a culture find the bombing and destruction of an entire town, an act of war, a statistic, less abhorrent than the willful assault and murder of a single defenseless child? It is up to each player to answer that question for herself and ponder the reasons behind it.
Despite all this talk of agency and moral decision points, the most popular structure for game narratives is still the most basic, an immutable and linear plot with the role of the player's avatar defined throughout. While many games from Halo to Super Mario use this technique to tell simple, uplifting stories of a protagonist character overcoming very literal in-game challenges to reach a goal, others have utilized it to ask players to perform far more troubling acts. As the player is essentially forced to comply with whatever tasks the developer has allotted her in order to progress the game, tasking her with performing repellant behavior causes the player to take pause and consider what is being asked of her and how it affects the world around her, outside of the game. The player must decide, consciously or not, that she wants to occupy the headspace of her avatar and become complicit in whatever deed the developer calls for next in the narrative – like Auden, the player must make herself "filthy" along with their avatar. Increpare's Opera Omnia uses this structure to great effect; the audience assumes the role of a state 'historian' tasked with reconstructing the movements of various peoples based on known and assumed population data. The entire game takes place in the cold, low-resolution interface of a government-issue computer terminal as the player drags migration paths and alters graphs of the timeline, an innocuous enough task until it becomes apparent that she is being tasked with the Orwellian duty of justifying forced deportations and genocide. The player may not enjoy the subtext of her otherwise purely academic duties, but by performing them is forced to confront Increpare's warnings against ethnic discrimination and state-censorship head-on.
Many other games choose to push the player's moral comfort zone much harder than Opera Omnia, which is something of a double-edged sword. By making the audience's discomfort more prominent, a game draws attention both to its commentary and to its ultimately restrictive nature, running the risk of simply driving its players away. Edmund's especially provoking subject matter, coupled with game mechanics that range from barely interactive to actively frustrating, garnered for it its fair share of revilement; popular games blog Destructoid condemned the game thusly: "[Y]ou may well find yourself not wanting to continue after you realize what one of the gameplay scenarios entails. […] I had no personal reason to continue playing other than morbid curiosity: my control over the characters was horrifying, but didn't reflect on my own involvement as a player in any meaningful way" (Burch).
Even the phenomenally successful Call of Duty war shooter – a franchise which has never shied away from killing off player characters and allies alike in an attempt to convey the harsh and futile reality of war – is receiving a degree of criticism for experimenting with this approach. In the most recent installment, the gamer is briefly tasked with going undercover as a US operative within a Russian terrorist organization. The catch: in order to preserve her cover, the player has to participate in a calculated attack on a Russian airport, mowing down guiltless travelers and security guards with machine guns and grenades. The mission backfires horribly, and the player's involvement is used as justification for a Russian invasion of mainland America. While the game gives the player an option early on to choose to skip over this 'objectionable' part of the game, its inclusion becomes a vital and thought-provoking element of the game's discussion of black ops morality, how far countries are willing to go in the War on Terror, and whether it is worth sacrificing a small number of innocent lives in an effort to save millions more.
IV: The Future Soon: Shifting Perspectives on Narrative in Games
Of course, Call of Duty's message is hardly a new one – games have been casting a cynical eye over war at least since 1993's Cannon Fodder presented the player with an ever-expanding graveyard of their fallen troops every time the game was loaded. The violent combat game is a cliché beginning to show its age, and its alleged anti-war message is almost as tired. Besides, as acclaimed film director Francois Truffaut is famously quoted as saying, there can be no such thing as a true anti-war film. Movies that portray combat are so inherently exciting that any negative connotation to the fighting gets diluted or lost altogether beneath the base excitement of the action on-screen, an effect doubled when encountered in video games where the violence has been designed to literally be a fun experience for the audience to participate in. Fortunately for fans of artistic media everywhere, more and more developers are beginning to feel that fun is not everything in a game, that they are capable of tackling more complex scenarios than war and subtler emotions than the visceral adrenaline rush of besting a another foe in digital battle. Patrick Redding, narrative designer on the innovative Far Cry 2, argued in an interview with industry website Gamasutra that developers need to use interactivity as more than a tool to constantly provide positive, fun reinforcement to players, commenting that "what we need to be saying is: what is it that's different about the interaction model of this game that makes it feel more meaningful, or has it delivered a message to the player? Because interactivity is the substance of it" (Remo).
The winds of change are blowing throughout the gaming industry. Even as they work on yet more classic roleplaying games and shooters in the old tradition (Far Cry 2 was just another military action game at it's core, despite its literary pretensions and Heart of Darkness-inspired plot), developers are beginning to plan out games that are based in meaning and idea, in real human interaction and social behavior that extends beyond violent or physical interaction. In the past, limitations on computing power and the complexity of AI programming prevented developers from really tackling the kinds of subtle social and dramatic interactions that occur throughout everyday life and non-interactive narratives. As Oddworld Inhabitants' president Lorne Lanning put it, "it is easier to create viable game mechanics out of violence than from socially oriented ideas" (Takahashi).
However, the success of ultra-popular domestic life simulation The Sims shows that there is already a definite market for games tackling nuanced, everyday human stories. While The Sims's open-ended nature requires it to show rather an abstract version of reality (conversations are represented as pictorial comic balloons above character's heads, for example), other experimentations within the field are demonstrating the potential for realistic, deeply affective dramatic games capable of containing deep literary themes and ethical considerations. UC Santa Cruz Associate Professor Michael Mateas's "interactive drama" Façade has the player take the mantle of a dinner guest of a pair of young socialites, tasking her to communicate with the couple via the keyboard in an attempt to shape their failing marriage, while Quantic Dream's upcoming Playstation 3 thriller Heavy Rain stars an asthmatic private eye and a single father coping with the loss of one of his sons in a car accident. While the shelves of stores may currently be packed with copies of violent, high-octane games like Call of Duty and Gears of War, the future looks bright for games that engage with the mind and with the emotions, games that touch the heart, not just make it pound.
There will always be a place for the visceral enjoyment that shooters and other intrinsically pleasurable games provide, but not all games need be 'fun,' per se, the interactivity that the medium allows can provide emotions far more poignant than the moment to moment pleasure of a toolset learned or a challenge bested. Games must address real ethical and narrative issues while providing social and emotional experiences on par with those that other media can offer audiences. Fortunately, a great number of those who develop games are beginning to feel similarly, and the technology is finally getting to the point where it can portray complex human interactions in a realistic and believable manner.
But as developers begin to push the limits of what can be done with storytelling and setting in games, what will become of works like Edmund, which tackle topics that many will see as hitting too close to home to allow an audience to immerse themselves in? According to UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Noah Wardrip-Fruin, "games are going to have their Lolita, a piece of media that causes a court battle and a bunch of anger and some new realizations of what it means to make this kind of media." After over thirty years of being perceived by the mass-market as a cheap diversion, a child's toy incapable of providing a truly adult or thought-provoking experience, the games industry has a lot of work to do to prove that it is capable of handling such subjects with the maturity they require. Raph Koster put it best in his book A Theory of Fun: "As a medium, we have to earn the right to be taken seriously" (170). Before they can begin to have the freedom to tackle controversial, real-world social and ethical issues, games will have to prove to the world at large that they, like any other artistic medium, can approach their subjects with dignity, tact, and, most importantly, humanity.
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