All artistic mediums excel at one particular aspect. They’re good at others, but each one has a facet that it is just fantastic at manipulating or exemplifying. Painting, for instance, can be of a painterly quality, which sounds obvious, but perhaps you don’t fully understand what it means to be painterly. Most of van Gogh’s work is painterly because you can see the brushstrokes. It gives each piece a rough look, one that gives off a less realistic and more unfiltered, chunky representation of the world.
Books are great at presenting a story with insight that wouldn’t otherwise be possible through visual mediums. Music is amazing at conjuring abstract emotions through tonal and rhythmic connotations. Films are fantastic and blending all that together to show you a slice of a microcosmic world.
Video games are good at being interactive. They’re also good at doing all those other things and is perhaps one of the few that can do both what a book and what a movie does without feeling out of place, but interactivity is its real jam. All these other works like Starry Night and The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane are all static once they are done, but a video game can change based on how its audience uses and subsequently interprets (and repeats) the final developed product.
It’s strange, then, that so many games strive to be less about being interactive and more about being a film or a painting. There’s nothing wrong with that as Naughty Dog told some amazing stories with Nathan Drake and Journey was basically a moving, sand-ridden painting, but we’ve yet to see anything that really goes deep into the mine where human-computer interaction dwells and strikes hard at the gold.
That is until recently. Last year, The Walking Dead from Telltale Games showed what it means to create a user-driven story about choice and consequence. Others have done it and done admirably well (e.g. the Mass Effect trilogy), but The Walking Dead went to Home Depot, looked around, compared prices, bought a hammer, and then totally fucking nailed it. Taken away from the context of putting a mouse and keyboard or controller in someone’s hands, the story itself is solid and is a testament to those that worked on it, but the fact that your choices impact the outcome is exactly what games were meant to do. The degree to which things actually change and are affected may not be all that severe, but that’s beside the point; the interactivity, regardless of its true potency, brings the game to a new league of affecting storytelling.
Last year, too, saw Receiver from Wolfire Games. This is a game that, for the most part, feels not totally done but also manages to tickle something on the underbelly of your slug-like brain that is rarely touched. It was created for a seven-day FPS game challenge and focuses on super realistic and accurate on the operations of a single-handed firearm. Between a Colt 1911 A1, a Glock 17, and a Smith & Wesson Model 10 Victory revolver, you will learn to pull the slide to check the chamber, reload a magazine, and empty a cylinder. And most importantly, you’ll stumble.
Whether you’ve handled a real weapon before or not, you have to fight decades of honed instinct to reload after every shot and learn to track shots and so many other things that you never had to do in playing a game. Call of Duty is a fun game, but it (and every other shooter) is a bizarre abstraction from how guns actually work. You never have to fumble with dropping magazines or accidentally dumping live rounds from your revolver or trying to line up with the chamber when you replace the cylinder. You are never cognizant of the fact that you have to put away your flashlight before you can start loading rounds into your weapon or that you have to disengage the safety to fire. All of these are, of course, interactions you have to do in real life, so it’s a little strange that you’ve never had to do it in a video game to any degree.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. The Medal of Honors and Battlefields are not made to create those experiences, but the fact that we’d rarely seen anything beyond losing unexpended rounds in to a premature reload is odd. Video games are great at creating interaction, but more importantly, it’s interaction that falls within boundaries. Rules can be created arbitrarily that can mirror or mock real life and then all button press/screen responses must adhere to those rules. Interactions, then, excel at being things that we can’t possibly know or do in reality.
Take a look at Miasmata. Its mapping mechanic is one of the most engaging things ever conceived in recent history, but it works within a very strange interpretation of the real world where everything is in a binary state of being known or unknown. In our daily lives, we touch on both of those, but for us, they lie at the ends of a spectrum and we dwell in the meaty gray of the in-between. In Miasmata, however, we either know this landmark or we don’t. We’ve either seen this weird giant face statue or we haven’t. This part of the map is either filled in or it isn’t.
If we were taken from our computers and physically placed in the same situation, things might be a little different. Inferences can be drawn, locations guessed, and dice rolled. We can muck about all we want in the uncertainty because the rules constraining our actions are much more lax and largely dictated by what we are willing to do. Miasmata—and games in general—does the complete opposite; it lives and dies by the rules, as does its interactions.
That little fact, though, is what games are so good at. It takes things you can’t possibly know and makes them feel real, much in the same way painterliness makes Rembrandt’s work feel real. That’s why abstractions that service a narrative in games seems so ill-fitting. Pointing a camera with a gun sticking out of it is a simple system and adding on top a loop of point, click, kill doesn’t necessarily make it any more fascinating (hence evolving storytelling). Take that gun, though, and allow you to futz with it within a digital rule set and you are back into what makes games great.
Perhaps, though, that in and of itself is about breaking the rules. Films and books adhere to narrative rules because that’s what they are. Music must follow structure such as time signatures and keys. But when a movie like Pulp Fiction or Memento comes out and tells a non-linear story or when Rush plays a song with multiple odd time signatures, they are lauded for breaking the rules. So maybe Modern Warfare set the rules and then we are supposed to break them. Maybe they’re meant to give us interactions that can break within its own systems. Maybe all artistic mediums are really great at just one thing: breaking the rules.