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Through the Looking Glass: Games and Curiosity
by Mark Filipowich on 05/16/14 04:19:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


One of the strengths of “low-art” popular fiction like the comic book, the summer blockbuster, and the video game is how openly they explore themes on a surface level. Mike Joffe discusses this in a recent series on comic book characters:

I find super hero stories interesting because, at their core, they are about exploring real emotions and personalities through completely fantastical, often nonsensical, experiences and events… These concepts are all explored through metaphors that, when looked at in isolation, are some of the most ridiculous ideas imaginable (a boy tries to establish himself as a man by hiding his face behind a wrestling costume and fighting science goblins), and yet somehow that very ridiculousness allows the character and psychological studies to become heightened. (“Comic Characters – Cyclops”, Video Games of the Oppressed, 3 May 2014)  

I think the same can be said about video games. I’m not bold enough to suggest that games aren’t capable of subtlety, but their subtleties don’t resemble the kinds valued in other media. Vocabulary and wordplay, perspective, and melody and tempo are pretty much directly transferable from their native artforms, but “gamey” nuance comes in exploration.

As integral as story (Nick Dinicola, “A Little Bit of Story Goes a Long Way”, PopMatters, 2 May 2014) or camera work (Eric Swain, “Cinematic Framing in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, PopMatters, 5 November 2013.) can be to a game, games are at their best when they are used to create context for navigating space. This is especially illustrated in Zolani Stewart’s exceptionally thorough “Let’s Critique” of Perfect Dark, in which he analyzes the unusual patterns and structure of Perfect Dark‘s level design. Much of Perfect Dark is set in casual locales like homes, airplanes and streets, but levels are filled with awkward, dead “useless” space and arranged in angular corridors. The added space gives a larger sense of scope, as if the level is more a home to be lived in than a level to be walked through. Meanwhile the bizarre angles give a sense of otherworldliness, which matches the campy, late ‘70s James Bond tone of the game.

The key here is that the player is compelled to wander and observe. Similarly, the best moments of Deus Ex are those that most resemble Gone Home. Sleuthing through offices, scanning personal emails, eavesdropping on conversations and combing the streets for the next clue feel like participating in a world. Gun fighting is exciting, but it’s alienating because it punishes observation or movement that deviates from the objective. Both the first Deus Ex as well as Invisible War and Human Revolution are strongest when they permit—or insist—that players stop and stare at the world around them. It’s difficult to stop and enjoy a moment when a kill squad is emptying anti-aircraft rounds into your cool black trenchcoat (Mark Filipowich “Too Much Play to Pause”, PopMatters, 7 March 2012.). Alternately, Metroid Prime’s opening level provides almost zero exposition or instruction. Instead, the game immediately hurls the player into the experience so that that player can gradually discover that experience themselves (Steven O’Dell, Metroid Marathon: Metroid Prime’s Magic Moments”, Raptured Reality, 21 August 2011).

I bring this up because games can be especially meaningful in the flow of information trickling in, in how clues connect to build a deeper, wider world (Stephen Beirne, “Exploring A Dark Room”, Normally Rascal, 11 March 2014). Christine Love’s visual novels Analogue: A Hate Story and its prequel, Hate Plus, while evincing all the qualities one would want from a novel, only really work as games because they are driven by exploration. The separate plot threads form a coherent narrative once the player does the work of connecting them together. Seemingly disparate strangers are seen to have profound unseen influence over one another as the player slowly discovers more of the game.

All of these games progress linearly and most of choices don’t change anything, but the moment-to-moment progression in each of them is driven by the player’s discovery. Even objects can be imbued with content to be discovered by a curious player (Oscar Strik “An Ode to Objects”, The Ontological Geek, 8 May 2014). Like comics, many games portray fantastical, even absurd worlds and over-the-top caricatures. Their silliness is a strength, though, when guided by a curious player quietly drinking in the spectacle.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in what a game should be or what it should look like, and nothing would do games more harm than coming up with a solid template. But all the swords and sorcery, spaceships, and power fantasies that modern mainstream games create are only a response to curiosity. Games are driven by a curiosity over what’s in the next level, what’s in the next chest, or who the next boss will be. It means so much more when games pique that curiosity instead of stringing players along a series of next big things.

Originally posted on PopMatters.

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Michael Joseph
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There are certain aspects to comic book stories that games generally fail to capture... the anxieties and concerns.. the context of the present real world. In comics, heroes and villains really come to life when their day to day personal stories bring them face to face with various current issues big and small that are in the minds of their readership.

Spiderman might pick up a bag of litter and throw it in the trash while giving the litterer a 10 second lecture on having respect for himself, the environment and other people.
Superman might intervene to prevent a parent from abusing their child and in the process teach the kid that not everything that goes on behind closed doors at home is right.
Wolverine might escort a kid to school right past his bullies and warn them that he's got the kid's back.
Even the Hulk might throw himself in front of a bus to save a depressed girl from trying to end it all and remind her that someone out there believes her life has value.

In most games we don't get the endearing qualities. We get various incarnations of the Marlboro Man caricature - the tough guy who's selfishness has left him old and alone.

That games only offer narrow slices of their characters personalities and lives tends to make the deepest of games (eg. one that attempts to critique Randian Objectivism), shallow compared to even comics. There's some notable exceptions like "The Walking Dead" but it succeeds because it's less game and more interactive fiction.

Alexis Hallaert
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I am very much sharing your thoughts on the subject, thanks for this inspirational article. Although the game tends to be obviously cited everywhere these days, Dark Souls' series is another example of great environmental storytelling where you can discover at your own pace and linger in the intricate details of its world's history.

TC Weidner
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I would love to play games which would allow us a GTA open city environment sans the overarching one or two storylines. Instead I wish everyone would be free to wander and discover their own little stories and so forth which when all added together builds each player own unique experiences.

I think we will be really getting somewhere when players could play an open world environment like GTa and each come away with entirely different game experiences and stories.

Movies create worlds but they lead and tell us only one specific story. Games offer the possibility of creating worlds, and giving users the chance to explore, discover and find their own stories. When finally done right games will be so so much more powerful an experience than movies could ever wish to be.

Bart Stewart
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Agreed, though I think there's a deeper point to be made here.

Computer games are interesting precisely because they're good at simulating systemic structures... and I'd argue that "discovery" (which is what exploration tries to fulfill) is all about perceiving systemic structure.

In its most obvious form, that's the mapping of physical terrain. Well-designed physical levels in a game support that kind of exploration. But exploration in its fullest sense is about seeing new vistas in any unexplored system, including creative/productive rulesets (such as crafting systems) and the depths of "emotional terrain" (as in Analogue: A Hate Story).

So I agree that exploration can be a valuable element in games. But I'm willing to go a bit further and say that exploration is particularly important to support in computer games because deep systems to discover make the fullest and most effective use of computing power.

The games that best showcase the quality that makes computer games different are the ones that use the processing power of computers to deeply simulate complex structures. In other words: the best computer games encourage and reward the exploration of systems.

You can have a good game without that. But I think you can have a better game with it.