To Decide or Not To Decide

One of the ways that stories can be retold through different digital mediums is through a game or mobile app. When concerning the story of The Martian, the biggest and most interesting characteristic of the game, “The Martian: Bring Him Home” is the role that the user has and the perceived control that he or she has on the storyline. The defining feature of the game combines characteristics of digital media defined by David Golumbia, such as hypertextuality and multimedia in giving the user the ability to make educated decisions not just shots in the dark. Additionally, this idea of decision making is simultaneously an affordance and constraint to the game itself (as defined by Jeff Ritchie)

To begin with the affordances of the game, the most obvious one is that it’s portable and can be played anywhere; the user by default has a smartphone and internet access. However, additional affordances are brought to light from the way the game is designed. Within this game, the user works for NASA and must try to bring Mark Watney back home safely after he gets stuck on Mars. The game employs the idea of hypertextuality, as defined by Golumbia as a physical link from one element in a text to another element, when the user receives emails that come from people at NASA who are also trying to help Watney come home safely. The physical connection the game provides from the main console to the emails provides the foundation for a perceived collaboration between the user and characters within the game. While Golumbia focuses on collaboration in the creation of the story, so that they “can often not be said to have single authors” I believe that within the game, the user can be considered an author because he has an influence on Mark’s story within the game, thus collaborating to create a new storyline every time the game is played (within the restrictions of the game).

Speaking of restrictions, this same feature of decision making also helps create the constraints of the game. Due to the limitations of the technology at hand, a “physical constraint” as defined by Ritchie, the game designers can only design so many paths for the user to follow, creating moments within the game where the two choices for the user are basically the same thing. For example, one point in the game the two options for the user are to tell Mark “We need to read your bio stats” and “We need to make SURE you are ok,” which are basically the same message. Additionally, the game is constricted by the storyline of the book (damn copyrights) which prevent the entire game from expressing Golumbia’s idea of nonlinearity within digital media, they must play the game in chronological order.

One final point that could be seen as either an affordance or constraint to the game based on your opinion. I reached a point playing where after I sent Mark a message he went away for a while, but upon coming back he was in danger and losing oxygen fast. Having closed the app, I had no idea that the situation was so severe and he ended up dying (sorry Mark) because I didn’t check my phone in time. This creates a realistic and urgent situation for the user to experience but is also an inconvenience because the game must be checked constantly and, at least in my case, I had to restart the entire game because I wasn’t allowed to send any messages or do anything.

All in all, “The Martian: Bring Him Home,” its affordances and constraints, are all defined by the decisions that the user is allowed, or not allowed, to make, shaping the story and the experience for the user.

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