“The future game player might be an actor in a drama over which he has no control” – that’s exactly what makes a drama dramatic (Poole 2000). To be realistic, a game should be more like life in the respect that you only have a facile amount of control over a situation. If you’re all powerful in a game and control and change all outcomes, the game is less immersive and less dramatic because you are, in a sense, omnipotent.
Loss of control is more engaging, more realistic, and more dramatic – something beyond your control happens and your choices revolve around how you deal with that outcome. The Walking Dead game is a good example of this: you steer the story but can’t predict the future; therefore you have no control over the outcomes you’ve orchestrated. It allows you to feel the illusion of control and then reminds you that, sometimes, shit happens and there’s nothing you can do but pick up the pieces.
A game is a subtle blend of tempos – games have to create extreme anxiety in the player for them to be engaging, but also have to give some level of breathing room. They can’t be relentless, they have to flow, and getting this flow right is an art.
On the other hand, if too much breathing room is given we lose a sense of immediate danger that you might get in a game like Silent Hill, where there’s danger everywhere and your only option is to run. Also, a game has to be cleverly laced with rewards to keep the player interested and entertained so that they keep playing. Making this sort of game is an art.
Decision-making has become a very important process in games these days, but it destroys story in some degree. You can listen to a story and then decide how it develops, essentially having your cyber-cake and eating it too.
You should be at the mercy of the story. In reality, you don’t construct the story of your own life: you have control to some degree, but that control is an illusion because anything can happen to you at any moment, which could change the story dramatically in a way that’s beyond your control.
One crucial difference between film and games is that film actors are chosen but game characters are made (which might not necessarily be true any more if we look at games like L.A. Noire). The video game character is designed to make you feel a certain way, although speech in games is always limited to a set number of responses. If you create a large enough number of responses, that can create the illusion of intelligence and the player fills in the blanks through their empathetic connection with the characters. Anything more than that would require the computer to morph into Skynet and achieve consciousness so it can understand what you’re saying.
It’s an odd phenomenon, but I find it harder to watch a likeable character die – their life has meaning purely because they will be ‘missed.’ They are constructs, but you want them to succeed. These paternal feelings create a kill-or-be-killed sort of scenario that can lead to horrific violence like that in Manhunt: you’d rather kill and mutilate to progress than let Cash die and be done with it.
However realistic, characters are (in a way) undesirable because they’re everywhere. In real life you can’t date an alien or a robot…yet, fight zombies or ninjas… or zombie ninjas, but you can do all of these and more in video games. So maybe making them ‘real’ people is taking a step too far, because real people are…well, boring.
Games are a kinetic art form: every frame of movement in a video game is painstakingly crafted by gifted people working very hard just to create a particular string of emotions in people all over the world. How is that not art? Games have to be played to be understood – it’s like when you see a picture of someone instead of actually meeting them. People on the outside just see video games as lights, noise, cleavage and violence for the sake of it. They don’t understand because they refuse to suspend their disbelief.
Playing a game is like religion: deep down you know it’s nonsense, but to people on the inside it offers a feeling of fellowship and satisfaction. That’s because they’ve chosen to believe it, they’ve suspended their disbelief – when you walk into the cinema or a church you hang common sense at the door and you prepare yourself to believe baseless fantasy because that’s a fun way to spend a few hours. The only difference is at the end of the film or the game you put your common sense hat back on.
We understand that’s it’s only an illusion but we want to be taken in by it even if it’s just to forget about the daily grind for a few hours.