Video games give an intrinsic promise of new and varied experiences—of bringing to your living room sensations, scenarios and sights you couldn’t possibly enjoy in real life. Be a soldier. Be an explorer. Be a survivor at the end of the world. Albeit vicariously, video games let you have these experiences. If we were to imagine one possible elevator pitch for video games, it might go like this: these things will let you experience some of your wildest dreams. That, at least, is the general idea for many players.
But more and more it feels like the magical, overarching promise of games—their ability to let you be new people and experience new things—needs to qualified, clarified and mitigated. Games can let you experience wild, unattainable things, but only as long as the experiences you desire belong to a fairly narrow subset. If you want to shoot people with a gun, climb over rocks to find treasure, drive fast cars or play cops and robbers, you’re covered. If you want something less general—if perhaps you’re an adult, and pure, unabashed spectacle doesn’t thrill you as much as it once did—you’re not as well catered to.
The idea of an impossible, attractive experience, at least in the mainstream, seems to have somehow been conflated with explosiveness and the implausible. The experiences virtually created are not just ones you, sitting in your room right now, are unable to have—they’re ones that are impossible for anyone to have, ever. It’s a shame that the definition, or at least the commonly held idea, of what constitutes a unique-to-video games experience has been brought so low.
Compare Mass Effect, where you’re the commander of a spaceship on a quest to save the galaxy, and Papers, Please, where you’re a border control agent in a Cold War-era Soviet country. Both of these are experiences I can never, ever have, but one—Mass Effect—is perhaps more commonly thought of, and easier to validate, as a video game. Wolfenstein: The New Order is another good example. The experiential “promise” of that game is being able to shoot Nazis (including robot-Nazis, of course) using big guns. But it actually contains another unique, and arguably more interesting virtual experience: getting to hang out and do drugs with Jimi Hendrix.
That, as far as I’m concerned, is infinitely more fun, interesting and novel than the game’s frontmost unattainable experience. But the idea of a video game experience is so far receded, and so steeped in notions of traditional fantasy, that the thought of making an entire game based around hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and doing drugs sounds absurd. Even though it’s just as unique and unobtainable to me as being a soldier or a spaceman, it sounds ridiculous—it sounds like it wouldn’t even be a game.
The pervading idea that video game experiences should stem from Tolkien-esque and sci-fi fantasy actually ends up counter-intuitive. The impossible experience of being a badass, hero soldier becomes much less an impossible experience when half the games that come out every year provide the same thing. A game like Gone Home, by contrast, is the only game where I can play a 20-something American woman exploring her family home in Portland, Oregon, during the mid ‘90s. It doesn’t come from fantasy, but it’s much more unique—and by extension crazy and “out there”—than a lot of games that do.
The idea of what constitutes an impossible experience that can be had virtually through video games needs to expand. Actual Sunlight lets me play a frustrated Canadian office worker; Sunset lets me play a maid in the 1970s; in The Darkness, I can spend an evening on the couch of my girlfriend’s New York apartment, watching To Kill a Mockingbird. Compared to the extraordinary displays in something like Call of Duty, these examples seem mundane, but they’re just as true to the fundamental video game promise—to facilitate exotic experiences—and in fact are more faithful, in my opinion. They come from a place very different to that suck-dried watering hole of typical game ideas, and offer experiences that are truly idiosyncratic.
It’d be cavalier to cast a value judgment over what experiences games and game-makers “should” value. But what’s important, I think, is to encourage a change of perspective, and insist that special, rare and extraordinary experiences needn’t always be synonymous with spectacle and immaturity. Without that redefining, the idea of what a video game is will always be incredibly narrow—although Dear Esther, in allowing players to explore a Hebridean island while listening to a ghost story, is more unique an experience than a lot of its peers, it will always be denigrated as “not really a game” by narrow-minded gamers, and less adventurous creators will shy away from exploring other unique scenarios.
The fundamental promise of video games is exciting and individual and admirable, but what’s considered to be delivery on that promise is very narrowly defined. And if the same experiences—be a soldier, be an explorer, be a survivor at the end of the world—are continually re-appropriated, increasingly video games are going to be failing on their own terms. Being a bureaucrat in the Eastern Bloc, a woman rummaging through her parents’ house, a friend of Jimi Hendrix—these experiences are unobtainable, idiosyncratic and delivering on players’ fantasies. And as much as gunfights, platforming and racing, they belong to video games.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
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