They say a picture is worth a thousand words but I say an experience is worth infinitely more. Modern games are lauded for how their graphics and visual appeal add to the gameplay, but there is another vast genre of games that should be praised just as much as the big market games. Currently, society’s definition of a game includes franchises such as Madden, Call of Duty, Super Mario Brothers and the like.
These games all have something in common; they are visually appealing, contain obvious objectives or varying levels of competitiveness, and, most importantly, a bona fide way to win the game. However, I’m here to make the case that these games lack something that other interactive fiction games such as Depression Quest, Howling Dogs, and The Stanley Parable can provide; an experience that reaches beyond the feeling of winning or losing.
Sure, winning a game is one of those feelings that you just can’t replace. I myself am uber-competitive and sometimes take certain video games too seriously. Yet while I was playing the games I mentioned above, I didn’t feel like I was playing a game per se, I felt like I was experiencing something. They had characteristics of a game, but there were also stark differences. There were usually multiple endings, or in the case of Howling Dogs, I almost felt like I was playing a story more than a game. Janet Murray describes this phenomenon as a “cyberdrama,” a blurring of the line between stories and games. One of her most important points is that the “union of game and story is a vibrant space, open to exploration by high and low culture.”
Simply put, this new genre shouldn’t be forced into the definitions for either a story or a game, but be accepted as something new that can be appreciated and explored for its unique affordances and constraints. Some emotions and feelings are difficult to express through cyberdramas and rely quite a bit on how the user reacts to the game presented to them.
Yet, these games attempt to use that very fact as an advantage as well. How the user reacts to the story affects the decisions that they make while playing. Do you click on each hyperlink to take every detail or do you pick and choose based on your options? If you make one decision, what options are you denying yourself to right to explore? Each decision you make has consequences.
Sound familiar? That’s basically how life works, and as Murray puts it, “everyday experience has come to seem increasingly gamelike.” This is what I believe to be the defining and most important characteristic of these new cyberdramas. The pictures of video games can only be worth so much. A thousand words is a lot, but that’s really only like two pages of writing; why limit yourself to that? Cyberdramas and works of interactive fiction provide something that these games cannot, an experience that runs deeper than the feeling of winning.
Whether it’s showing you what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes (Depression Quest) or giving a unique experience that forces you to think differently about what a game is and what your choices actually mean (The Stanley Parable) these new games, at least for me, left me with a different view on the world. There were no objectives, no sure fire way to win, just the requirement to explore and experience the author’s message for you through a medium that was game-like. And to me, that’s exactly how life should be played out anyways.