I’ve never held a person’s life in my hands before.

Of course I’ve taken life, but it was always mine for the taking.  Multitudes of enemies standing between me and my goal.  Nonviolence was never an option, not if I wanted to keep going.  This is different, because this time I have a choice.  Except I can’t choose what I want.  There are multiples ways out but I don’t want to take any of them.  It’s not just the consequences of losing a friend that terrifies me, it’s the loss itself.  These are people have been with me through thick and thin, I’ve never had to question whether or not they had my back.  They trusted me to lead them, and now I’ve led them to an impasse.  One of them is going to die.  I have to choose which one.  I’ve never held a person’s life in my hands before.

 

Who's going to go first?

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitThis scenario has been popping up in a few games in recent years, most memorably Mass Effect 2.  The element of choice has been growing to become a defining part of video games as we know them.  In Roger Ebert’s now (in)famous paper on the status of video games as art, he argues that it is this element of choice that sets games apart from any traditional art form.  Even in games where your choice doesn’t affect the plot, the beauty of games is that you are free to play how you want to play, with your own tactics and strategies.  You are the hero, you make the choice.  Except, when choice is taken from you.  

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitSome argue that the cutscene increasingly has no place in the open-worlds that video games can create these days.  I would argue that the closed nature of the cutscene is what makes open worlds so open in contrast.  We never really appreciate the choices we have until choice is taken away from us.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitHeavily scripted moments have always been the touchstones of a gaming experience.  From the tear-jerking cutscenes of Final Fantasy VII, to the HOLY %@!# I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST DID THAT moments of Modern Warfare, these are the experiences we share.  It’s one thing to brag about going 27-2 in some team deathmatch, it’s another thing to know that you and all of your friends have been gripped by the same emotion, whether excitement or sadness, because of a scripted story moment.

 

This was crazy.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitThe thing that is so powerful about the scenario in Mass Effect 2, choosing which of your squad-mates is going to die is this:  You have a choice, but it is not on your terms.  Both choices are bad, but you have to choose one in order to keep playing.  The results of each option are both thoroughly scripted by the development team.  It’s like those old Choose Your Own Adventurevariant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whit books, rendered right in front of you with graphics and sounds.  Now this may sound ridiculous, but I think those books were prophetic.  I think those books precluded the new artistic medium that games are coming to represent.

 

Seriously. That's a lot of endings.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitBear with me now, because I’ve said all that so far to say this.  I believe that games are art; not as rulesets, but as scenarios.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitLet me unpack that.  Most modern thought says that art has to do with intentionality.  I cannot speak from firsthand experience, but it seems unlikely that devs who are creating the latest online shoot-em-up arena are interested in art, they just want people to have a good time.  To this end, they pour thousands upon thousands of man-hours into fine-tuning and balancing and play-testing every possible variable.  They create rule-sets, and they are (generally) very good at what they do.  These rule-sets are the foundation of games as we have known them.  When we were children we played games by running around outside and what made it a game was that everyone knew what the rules were.  We didn’t need scenarios or back-story, we just needed to know whether or not we were faster than the kid trying to tag us.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitEnter the new medium, the one that variant: normal; text-decoration: underline; vertical-align: baseline; whitisvariant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whit trying to be art.  Games can tell stories as well as any book and they can be as visually and auditorily stimulating as the best of film and music.  The new element that has only been hinted at in the past, is the element of choice.  I believe that the New Artists of video games are those storytellers who create scenarios where players’ choices are simultaneously limited and forced.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitNow all of that is wonderful, yet totally theoretical.  Let me end on a practical note and talk about something I want to see more of in games.

 

Welcome To Rapture

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitI recently started a play-through of the original Bioshock, a game heralded for it’s use of choices with consequences.  However before I had made a single significant choice, there was a terrifying moment where all my choices were taken from me.  When you initially descend into Rapture, you watch from the safety of your bathysphere as a man is murdered.  The sense of safety is instantly shattered as the killer notices you and begins screaming as he disappears from the view of your window and begins noisily attempting to break into your transport.  You can move, you can look around, but you cannot get out.  Even playing through for the second time I completely tensed up at this moment.  Was I going to have to fight for my life already? I didn’t even remember the controls.

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitIt was that sense of helplessness that resonated with me just as much as the responsibility of being forced to make a choice.  As a human being, I know what it is to have responsibility, but I also know what it is to feel helpless.  As there have been a bevy of games exploring the gravity of in-game choices, I am curious to see if there are any games that explore the mechanic of helplessness.  Most blockbuster games are all about player empowerment.  You are the hero, you make the choices, and then there’s the escort missions, to remind you that everyone else is helpless compared to you, and it is your responsibility to care for them.  What if there was a game where you were being the one escorted, and you had to learn to rely entirely on someone else?

 

"As there have been a bevy of games exploring the gravity of in-game choices, I am curious to see if there are any games that explore the mechanic of helplessness."

 

WARCO

 

variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitDefiant Dev’s upcoming WARCO variant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whitis a first person shooter where you aren’t shooting with a gun, but with a camera.  I love it.  Because I believe that is part of the future of games, exploring experiences and not just the conventional genres.  There will always be the blockbusters, just like in movies.  But I also believe that true art-house games are on the rise.  Not just low budget indie projects, but polished games with high production values.  I’m waiting for the Tree of Lifevariant: normal; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; whit of video games.  Confusing and beautiful and provoking.  I know it’s coming.