So it’s the New Year. 2013. Yay? I don’t know. I was never big on that sort of thing. It was always just a frustrating few weeks at school as I wrote down the wrong date and forced resolutions that I never wanted to make or stick to (I think daily goals are much more effective, realistic, and helpful). But I do like the end of the year because there are so many Best Of and Worst Of lists. For me, this is mostly comprised of movies, music, and games. Well, out of media, anyways. Tech news and gadget roundups are equally fun, but that’s so far removed from the entertainment industry, so let’s just table that for now.
The lists are neat and all, but I really like to see the process the most, hence why I like Giant Bomb a lot. Not only are they great personalities, but their end-of-the-year deliberation podcasts are super long and super in-depth—just the way I like it. But listening to the Bomb Crew talk about games right after I listen to so many other people talk about movies and music and pretty much all other art forms made me realize something: there’s something fundamentally different about video games.
Well duh, right? Of course there is. It’s interactive! But did you ever bother to consider what it means to be interactive? I’m not talking about the definition of the term (that’s easy enough) but rather what that means for consumption of the medium.
Consider that with movies and music and books and paintings and whatnot, no matter what you do, you cannot affect the final product. No matter how much you yell at the screen, Jodie Foster is still going to go down into Buffalo Bill’s basement. No matter how much you stare intently at the cover of an LMFAO album, you will not turn it into anything more than club music. Just about every other facet of entertainment (read: all the non-interactive ones) are static. They cannot and will not be changed by the person consuming it.
All that can be changed from the original creator’s vision is the interpretation. That is where analysis of movies and the like thrives, in the minds of the audience. Any one scene from something like The Artist or The Hurt Locker or Wreck-It Ralph can all be taken almost an infinite number of ways, and almost all of them are legitimate. It doesn’t matter what the director or painter or author intended; it only matters how it is viewed by you.
And certainly that exists in video games as well. Stories, for the most part, are immutable in games. Even in branching narratives like in Mass Effect and The Walking Dead, you experience small variations of the same story. In most cases, it’s small enough to not really matter which ending you get as the meat of the experience is still the same. There is no infinitely mutable video game story yet, and I’m not sure there ever will be.
That, however, is not the interactive part. The interactive part is where you actually play the game, where you press buttons and swing motion-sensing sticks and flail limbs. And that bit is where video games deviate so sharply from everything else. The interactivity works within a framework set by the developers; run, jump, shoot, whatever, but it’s all been predetermined. More specifically, what you can do is predetermined, but how you do those things is not. You can jump off of and onto whatever you want. You can run in any direction for any amount of time. Hell, you can run into a wall for five hours if you wanted. The interactivity is up to you.
The interactivity, though, also has to fit within the constraints of the story, so eventually requirements are made that cordon off progress. Video games are the only entertainment and art medium where your actions determine how much of it you can experience. Movies require you to be able to stay awake. Sculptures require you to be able to see and touch. Music needs ears. Video games, though, need you to be able to perform right back at it. You have to keep pace with the thing that is made to entertain you.
That need to match step or stay back means that interactivity itself is subject to interpretation. And as previously established, the interactivity is contrasted with static elements like the story and setting and the like because it can be infinitely altered which means it can be infinitely interpreted an infinite number of ways. Whereas with movies, you ask people to compare how they viewed the same shot or how they felt any one character and actor was utilized; video games ask gamers to compare different with different instead of like with like.
It’s like if I handed you a paper bag with an apple in it and I handed your friend a gun safe with a Kodiak bear in it and then asked you two to talk about your experiences with the two, they wouldn’t even compare. Not only was the mere act of opening your container different, but so was its contents. You both can talk about how you had something to find within something else and how you reveled in the reveal and the turn, but the interaction with the bag and the safe and then the apple and the bear are so wildly different that the discussion becomes kind of abstract to a point.
That, perhaps, is why talking about video games seems to strange to some people. They, after playing a few games, can understand this dichotomy of interpretations but can’t quite articulate it. They know how talking about TV and music works because that is about a discussion about visualizations of ideas (which, let’s face it, you’re surrounded by), but video games are tougher because they are conversations about the concepts themselves. In other mediums, the distillation is already done for you. You are given a pure nugget of content that you simply swallow and digest. Video games require you to break it apart and find the individual components before you can talk about a single thing. The digestion becomes an external practice rather than an internal one.
That’s how I view it, anyways. Maybe you’ll agree. I suggest you try this: you and a friend go watch a movie, something like Django Unchained. It’s a thought-provoking movie and will generally make you appreciate the fact that the cinema exists. Then go home and each play through a game, perhaps Journey. That is also a thought-provoking game and will similarly make you appreciate the fact that video games exist. Now discuss both of them and track what you talk about. Probably something about Schultz with Django Unchained. Christoph Waltz did a heck of a job, as he normally does.
But then Journey. What about how you played with a friend when you slid down those sand dunes? Or multiple friends? Or no friends? Or did you just end up trying to get a longer scarf instead of get to the top of the mountain? Eventually you’ll realize that if you don’t talk about the ideas of the game rather than the game itself, you probably won’t have much in common to talk about. Video games, perhaps more than most other types of entertainment, are about ideas, but we can all relate; we all have ideas. Now we just have to figure out how to talk about them.