The Play's the Thing

Daniel Radosh brings to the mainstream press (New York Times) an argument that games researchers have been making for years.

If games are to become more than mere entertainment, they will need to use the fundamentals of gameplay — giving players challenges to work through and choices to make — in entirely new ways. The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win. Halo 3, for all its flawless polish, does not aspire to anything more. It does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try.

Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.

There is no reason that gorgeous graphics can’t play a role in this task, but the games with the deepest narratives were the text adventures that were developed for personal computers in the 1980s. Using only words, these “interactive fictions” gave players the experience of genuinely living inside a story. The steps required to advance the plot, though often devilishly perplexing, felt like natural behavior rather than arbitrary puzzle-solving. Today’s game designers should study this history as a starting point for an artistic revolution of the future.

I welcome his sentiments, though he is romanticizing the success of “interactive fictions,” which never “gave players the experience of genuinely living inside a story,” because the art form developed to suit a medium that could not promise such an overwhelming experience. Having said that, the marketing of text games did play up that first-person perspective, and if you are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the game, it generally worked out.

Today’s video games do aspire to cinematic levels of reality, but in the end you’re still shooting at wooden ducks on the carnival midway.  Way back when, the bleating speakers and photon-squirting CRTs meant that the graphics games at the time were hideously crappy, and they still look crappy. But the commercial interactive fiction still holds up as good interactive fiction. (We’re talking on the scale of boutique art, with authors who know the tastes of their small audience very well.)

Update: Radosh reflects on the online response to his editorial.