I am not a gamer.
I do not consider myself a gaming enthusiast, I do not belong to any kind of “gaming community” and I have not kept my finger on the proverbial pulse of interactive entertainment since my monthly NES newsletter subscription ran out circa 1988.
Save a few momentary aberrations–a brief fling with “Doom” (’93), a torrid encounter with “Half-Life” (’98), a secret tryst with “Grand Theft Auto III” (’01)–I’ve worked to keep my relationship to that world at arm’s length.
Video games, I’d come to believe, had not significantly improved in twenty years. As kids, we’d expected them to evolve with us, to grow and adapt to culture, to become complex and sophisticated like the fine arts; rather, they seemed to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence, merely buffing-out and strutting their ever-flashier chops instead of taking on new challenges and exploring untapped possibilities. Maps grew larger, graphics sharpened to near-photorealistic quality, player options expanded, levels enumerated, and yet the pastime as a whole never advanced beyond a mere guilty pleasure.
Every time a friend would tug my sleeve and giddily drag me to view the latest system, the latest hyped-up game, I’d find myself consistently underwhelmed. Once the narcotic spell of a new virtual landscape wore off, all that was left was the same ossified product game producers had been peddling since 1986. Characters in battle-themed games still followed the tired James Cameron paradigm–tough guy, funny guy, butch girl, robot; stories in “sandbox” games were as aimless and hopelessly convoluted as ever.
This is to say nothing of the interminable interludes that kept appearing between levels, clearly designed by wannabe action movie directors. Fully scripted scenes populated by broad stereotypes would go on for five or even ten minutes at a time, with the “camera” incessantly roving about, punching in, racking focus, jump-cutting., as though an executive had instructed his team to “make it edgier, snappier, more Casino.”
Where was the modern equivalent to the Infocom games, those richly imagined text-based worlds that put to shame any dime-a-dozen title from the Choose Your Own Adventure series? This isn’t nostalgia talking. Infocom, like its predecessors in BASIC, put out games written by actual authors; not only did they know how to construct engaging stories and fleshed-out characters, they foresaw the opportunities presented by non-linear narratives and capitalized on their interactive potential.
Was it me, or had “refinement” in the subsequent years become a dwindling pipe-dream, like accountability in broadcast journalism?
Recently, however, I had a change of heart. On a trip upstate to visit a friend, I was somewhat reluctantly introduced to the latest installment of the “Fallout” series, third in the sprawling, post-apocalyptic trilogy, only to emerge three days later, transfigured.
Here’s the gist: your character has been born into an alternate reality, one in which nuclear war has ravaged the planet at some point immediately following World War II. Subsequent generations have grown up inside elaborate subterranean fallout shelters where culture, if not technology, has remained frozen in the 50s–faded pastel colors and lollipop iconography share space with rusting robots and exotic weaponry, almost as a form of collective denial. Those that have ventured out into the radioactive wasteland have cobbled together ersatz settlements from the ruins, a la Mad Max, in which they are able to form intimate, scavenger communities subsisting on scraps. You enter the game as an infant, grow up in an underground vault, and eventually embark on a journey that takes you deep into the perilous outdoors.
So far, a familiar, setup. But a few things set the game apart from the standard fare. For one thing, the relationship between the player and the character is mediated by something called the “pip-boy”–a digital interface strapped to the character’s arm which holds all the information relevant to your status: health points, radiation levels, weapons & ammo, etc., plus a working map of places you’ve explored and the details of your current quest.
As far as I know, this is the first time a game has come up with anything like this. The pip-boy acts as a bridge between the ‘diegetic’ and ‘non-diegetic’ worlds, a thing rooted in and motivated by the artificial construct of the game, yet positioned w/r/t the player such that he has a lifeline to the virtual realm at all times. This simple step–providing an internally-justified means of communication between player and character–makes a crucial psychological difference. It’s a bit like having a “Dungeon Master” along with you, only this time it’s not an extremely annoying child.
The overall effect on one’s consciousness is unnerving. That strange, not-quite-real sense of space that follows a day spent in a museum, or even an amusement park, permeates the outside world for long stretches of time.
Broadly speaking, this is something we ask of all art: to tweak and enrich our subjective experience of reality. (Good stuff does this for a day; great stuff does it for a lifetime.) But we also ask it introduce us to concepts, to construct microcosms that allow ideas to take shape and find a sort of aesthetic cohesion–and this is where video games, indeed all games, have historically fallen short.
“Fallout 3” is a totally different animal. It’s a game, yes, but only insofar as it adheres to a set of specific gameplay rules; beyond that, it’s a nest of integrated narratives more in keeping with Julio Cortazar ‘s novel, Hopscotch, than, say, a game of hopscotch.
Indeed, the playing of the game is merely the entry point, a framing device that allows you access to a furiously detailed world. Is this in-itself new? To some degree, the same could be said about last year’s “Grand Theft Auto”–the player enters the alternate New York as Nico Belic, a Slavic thug just in from Eastern Europe, and the story unfolds more or less according to the manner of one’s choosing. Missions are accepted or denied, bad guys are mowed-down or spared, items are acquired or neglected.
The difference is that the game “doesn’t care.” Like “The Sims,” “Grand Theft Auto” does not offer meaningful consequences to irrevocable actions. Getting a prospective girlfriend to invite you upstairs after a date simply results in an opportunity for another date; outrunning a cop means only that you will no longer be chased by him.
Conversely, a particular course of action in “Fallout 3” actually affects the way in which the story is told. Defusing a bomb in the center of town doesn’t just award you with karma points, it opens doors in the story while closing others. Enslaving a citizen doesn’t just turn a once-friendly community against you, it puts you in good standing with the slavers you encounter later on, which in turn enables a set of otherwise unavailable choices. The game “cares” what you do, though it does not “judge” you–again, like a Dungeon Master.
In Aristotelian terms, the dramatic action ultimately takes precedent over the “obstacles.” No matter which choices you make, or in what order you make them, the game is predicated on an ingeniously organized narrative architecture that presents a nested series of dramatic events and corresponding consequences, the constellation of which determines the “plot points” of your particular quest. Like life, what you do is who you are.
Which is not to suggest that we begin judging games by the standards of drama proper. Equating the two raises the same red flags we find ourselves facing when we start calling jazz “America’s classical music” and comic books “graphic literature.” Neither idiom seems to benefit from the association. On the contrary, it suggests that we continue evaluating them on their own terms, for what they can accomplish given their own advantages and constraints–only with the bar set much, much higher.
It also means that those of us too snooty to accept certain terms for ourselves might have to buck up and swallow our pride.
Hell, I’m a gamer.
Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, Ploughshares and Fantasy Magazine. His story, “Ostracon,” will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories.
I am not a gamer.