I bet you think this article's about you, don't you?
One of the most common complaints I hear about linear, story-based games is “invisible walls”. To be honest, I’ve always preferred invisible walls over their close relative, contrived walls. Sometimes, it feels really weird and unnatural when every single street, alleyway, path and passage except the one I’m supposed to be going down is conveniently blocked off. I’d much rather my character just be straight with me when I’m trying to veer off the intended path and say, “Honestly mate, I just don’t have any reason to go there” before walking back. It’s a subtle reminder that the onscreen character is their own person and that, surprisingly, they find investigating a murder or saving their child’s life more important than my desire to look at a really interesting tree across the street.
Though I might sound strange saying this – given that the entire purpose of games is to entertain the player – but games aren’t always about the person playing them. Some people might say games should never have these invisible walls, and that games should be purely about what the player wants, not the character, but would this really be good for gaming?
The hyping of Minecraft as the holy land of gaming, with Notch as its Jesus, is well past the point of being boring and redundant. I don’t hate Minecraft, either. It’s a great game for expressing yourself and being creative. I spent many hours building my house shaped like an elephant. It even emitted a waterfall of water from its trunk that served as an irrigation system for the subterranean farm below. It was architecturally an expression of my own personality and world view. It was sentimental, cute, ostentatious, functional and harmonious with the environment in which it existed.
One of my friends spent hours creating a giant penis that jutted out of a mountain above my house. It was anatomically correct as the resources available would allow, made painstakingly out of pink wool to give it a flesh-like quality, with him even having the ingenuity to rig a system to eject minecarts out of the tip continuously, ejaculating over my humble abode. This act of trolling and countless others like it was definitely an expression of his personality as well. He was expressing himself through an outright rejection of others.
Minecraft is a great game for expressing yourself, then, but there’s nothing intrinsic about it which encourages you to empathise with others.
Though Minecraft trolling can destroy things people have painstakingly created, the multiplayer mode on Call of Duty, in comparison, is truly where the some of the most vile examples of humanity reside. Often, Call of Duty is a place where children, teenagers and emotionally stunted adults have an outlet to express their ugly, feral, territorial instincts. I’m not talking about all COD players here, but I think we all know the type that form a worryingly large segment of them.
The fact is, Call of Duty and its ilk create an artificial hierarchy intrinsically linked to developing a skill with absolutely no application in the real world. What’s more, this skill is the simulated killing of people, intensifying many player’s linking of violence and anger to the perceived feeling of dominance and mastery over the world that winning at Call of Duty makes them feel.
This is the problem with limiting games purely to narrative-less shared or competitive spaces: they can turn into a playground without a teacher telling the kids why breaking stuff or punching each other in the face is wrong. Everything quickly turns into Lord of the Flies (except with racism, sexism and accusations of camping).
Self-styled angry pundits loathe so-called “art games” and consider gory shooters the very highest form of art. Apparently, the more interactivity you take from a game, the less “pure” a game it is. Expressions of beauty, truth and unique characters seem to become irrelevant if the player has less power over the game world. Another common criticism of linear games is “if I wanted a good story, I’d read a book”. Games are for testing and challenging ourselves against the skill of others, they say. Our most sophisticated games today are no different than chess to them. All that stuff about providing a motivation for your character just gets in the way.
Home Is Where The Hate Is
A great example of the medium-centric critical backlash would be in the form of the comments so many gave in response to one of the greatest games of 2013: Gone Home.
“It’s not a game, it’s an interactable museum piece” said one of the comments I read while looking an Atlantic article about Gone Home (an article that itself queries many different contestations that Gone Home isn’t a game). The fact is, Gone Home is very much a game. It’s a game just as much as “hide and seek” is. You have a clearly defined objective: to find out what has happened to your absent family. To achieve this goal, you need to be observant: you need to search, explore and unearth. This is how you “win” the game. The emphasis is, of course, more about unravelling the lives of Greenbriar family through the scattered pieces of information you find. Most centrally, it’s a love story between two people who struggle against intolerance and adversity to be together.
It’s not about testing the player’s wits or skills against an AI or other players, or putting an emphasis on the player’s choices or what they would do in a given situation. It’s about understanding the lives of people quite distinct from the player.
Gone Home is a game, it’s just not a game about you – just like any other game with a player character whose life is distinct from the player controlling them. You might not agree with Max Payne’s self-destructive trajectory when he noirishly opines how he’s been consumed by vengeance. You might not think James from Silent Hill 2 should be traipsing off to a mysterious abandoned town after getting a letter from his dead wife. Whether you agree with your character’s motivations to begin with doesn’t matter; what matters is whether you can understand their motivations when all is said and done. The power of games is that they can give you an insight into these fictional characters in a way no other medium can because you are forced to live their lives and experience their struggles.
Not only is it good to live vicariously through other people like this, it’s downright healthy.
I don’t just like linear games for noble reasons. I like them for selfish reasons too.
Life isn’t just about expressing yourself. Life isn’t just about your story. Life is also about empathising with and understanding others. It’s about forming bonds with those people. To have a close romantic or platonic friendship with anyone that’s genuine and lasting; sometimes you’re going to have to put yourself in their place and look at things from their point of view. It’s only then you realise if you were being a jerk, and start to make amends.
I don’t just like linear games for noble reasons. I like them for selfish reasons too. I want to be immersed in the life of someone, or something, different to myself. Just controlling an avatar isn’t good enough. That’s why I get so bored of the sheer number of short-haired heterosexual white guys fronting game franchises. I think we’re well represented enough!
So instead of peppering designers with expectations of constant player indulgence, they should be lauded when they use the unique tools at their disposal well. These are the same tools so many of the great novelists, painters and musicians have used throughout history. They allow you to stop focusing on yourself for a few brief moments and lose yourself in someone else’s story. Seeing life through the eyes of another is a profoundly valuable experience, which building a giant penis on a mountainside can’t quite achieve.