Here’s an obvious, imprecise statement: I like video games that let me do things. It’s obvious because I’m saying I like video games for doing what they excel at, which is doing things since they are an interactive medium. It’s imprecise because it’s both “do” and “things” cover an incredibly wide and diverse swath of verbs and nouns in the world, and they’re all important.
The things I do in The Walking Dead, for example are drastically different and more simplistic than the things I do in Gears of War. In one, I press buttons to make a character say some words. In another, I press buttons to put bullets into Locusts and chainsaws into heads. The differences of what they achieve onscreen are easy to see, but the differences in each individual moment’s portent is drastic.
One could lead to a whole percentage point decrease in the humanity left on Earth and simply means I’m one body closer to another room full of bad guys to kill. And yet both are enjoyable. They satisfy opposite ends of a spectrum of pleasure to be derived from video games, and the both do it well.
They do, however, both limit themselves to their respective maximal values. Games generally seclude themselves to single portions of that sliding scale, and when they do move, they do it in discrete segments. This part is the player expressing their desire to kill, this part is the player expressing their desire to control the story, etc.
Graham Smith over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently wrote a piece about Receiver, a delightfully expressive game that’s pretty much all about how you’re too stupid to ever operate a real handgun. It breaks out the real life motions of removing a magazine, inserting new bullets, taking off the safety, and so on into keyboard inputs.
That’s just a jumping off point, though, as he goes on to use it as a plea for more expressive video games, games that allow players to show how exhausted they are by leaning against a wall and sighing or show how angry they are by clenching their fists. The point that stood out to me was when he said the “look at gun” button in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was an expression of affection.
It’s true. It’s not an action for other players. It’s an action for the player looking at the gun. He wants to appreciate this weapon they’ve customized and made their own; it is a product of their own creation. The chances someone sees or cares they’re looking at them looking at their gun isn’t important. What’s important is that they can do it because it gives them a way—any possible way—to dote on their mechanical progeny.
Which, after reading some previews and watching the trailer for Alien: Isolation, made me think. Isolation, if you haven’t heard, is a new Alien game that will attempt to wipe the sour taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines from the industry’s wrecked, disrespected palette. Coming from The Creative Assembly, it features Amanda Ripley, film protagonist Ellen Ripley’s daughter, being suckered into visiting an abandoned space station by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.
This is a game which aims to fall into the horror zeitgeist; it’s a first-person with hide-and-seek scares, a bit like the Amnesia or Slender games. Instead of being armed with a pulse rifle and taking cover from corporate soldiers, all Amanda has is a motion tracker and the inability to focus on more than one thing at a time.
And despite promising myself I wouldn’t do so, I’m optimistic about Isolation. It looks like The Creative Assembly has 1) proof (and a model) of what made Alien so scary to begin with, and 2) the right idea of how to make it work for their particular product. I’m interested in seeing where the crafting goes. (I really hope it doesn’t lead to me making a power loader.)
With such limited interactive mechanics—switch focus, pull out motion tracker, and, I assume, walk—there is a great opportunity here for an injection of expressive mechanics. When you watch Alien and you see Sigourney Weaver stagger or scream or close her eyes in some fantastical, nonexistent reprieve from the waking nightmare surrounding her, those are largely meaningless in the face of a tower Xenomorph intent on ripping her in half.
Instead, those things are meant to express her feelings, and they’re instinct. As Smith writes, we like the innovations of sticking hard to cover and blind-firing because they’re personalized variants on dry tactics. The rock solid hit of your back to a wall or dumping round after round into the empty space in front of you express feelings: you care about surviving more than a bruised back, you have some shred of optimism left in an overwhelming situation, and so on.
So when we see Weaver slump against a wall or tremble as she approaches a door, we see more personalized variants of the stock action of “do nothing” and “exit room” and whatnot. Now think if we could do the same in Isolation with Amanda (boy, space trouble sure does run in the family). What if we had dexterous control over our hand when we reach for something, our physical tremors manifesting in the game? What if we had control over our rapid, panicked breathing, able to ramp it up or down as we tend to or ignore our rising heartbeat?
The idea of expression in video games is an interesting one because, on the outset, they are mechanically worthless. What do they achieve in regards to the game? Receiver made meaningful actions expressive, as sprinting caused by being scared shitless is different from the sprinting caused by wanting to get somewhere a little faster, pounding W into oblivion when your life is on the line.
But now it’s time to find out when ostensibly non-interactive actions like “look at gun” become personally meaningful. Now we’ll explore why the map in Far Cry 2 and the visor in Metro: Last Light are so immensely interesting. And maybe Isolation will be the one to do it.