Two Views of the Medium
In his 1883 essay Two Views of the Mississippi, Mark Twain described his experiences as an untutored observer of the Mississippi, and later as a skilled riverboat pilot. Twain lamented how his knowledge of the river eventually robbed him of the sense of mystery that once captivated him as he stood on its banks:
Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river.
Technical familiarity often diminishes aesthetic appreciation. It's a curious, somewhat tragic phenomenon, and though illuminated by Twain over a century ago, it applies to playing video games as well as piloting steamboats.
I remember when FarCry came out for the PC in 2004. Reviewers described its paradisiacal island setting as "captivating" and heralded it as a "stunning graphical accomplishment." My modest PC met FarCry's minimum specs, and I was initially pleased to find it ran acceptably at medium detail settings. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, until I made the mistake of cranking up all the settings to see it in its unfettered graphical glory.
While the resulting framerate rendered the game completely unplayable, with maximum details and graphical effects it looked absolutely dazzling. No longer content with my current settings, I ventured into the advanced graphics options, and embarked on a rather desperate mission to achieve the absolute best visual experience possible. I also updated drivers, reconfigured system settings, and more.
In the end, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to "improve" the game, but ultimately came away dissatisfied and frustrated. Each time I changed settings and loaded up a level, the light that glinted through palm fronds didn't cast the right shadows, the reflections on water weren't detailed enough, the terrain detail popped into view too late, and so on. My initially positive experience with FarCry had become hopelessly entangled in technical considerations. I'd completely lost sight of what I'd loved about the game.
I'll admit I may have been a bit obsessive, but it was an obsession encouraged by a gaming culture completely fixated on the technical aspects of the medium. Consider the fact that the release of every high-end PC game is followed by a deluge of online and print articles that offer exhaustive details on optimal configurations. Simply running a recent PC game well can require a fairly intimate understanding of your machine's inner parts. Console gaming has traditionally been less knowledge-intensive, but the "HD Era" is changing that. Now, only the perfect combination of cables and displays will allow you to experience next-gen gaming at its finest.
And the knowledge apparently required to appreciate video games doesn't stop with nuts-and-bolts operational issues. Any discussion of the qualities of a game inevitably turns, at some point, to an enumeration of its technical features. No game review is complete unless it tackles issues like framerates and load times. Terms like anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering have crept into the hobby's lexicon with ease. And we're tantalized by promises of multiple texture passes and procedural physics, even if we have no idea what the hell these terms mean.
Those who create and market game technology are fond of proclaiming that their products will deliver compelling, transcendent gaming experiences. Which is completely ridiculous, of course. It's like saying that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is majestic because Michelangelo had some really kick-ass paint. Engaging, transformative experiences don't issue forth from etched silicon or code, to be beamed into our minds via cathode rays. They arise from the wellspring of human creativity. The technology is merely a vehicle.
Unfortunately, the rapid pace of innovation inevitably places technical matters front and center. And it doesn't help that so many games are released with serious technical shortcomings. The challenge, then, is in maintaining an appreciation of the creative and inspiring aspects of gaming.
Though Twain claimed he could no longer appreciate the grandeur of the Mississippi, I suspect he was engaging in a bit of hyperbole. I'm willing to bet that even as a riverboat pilot, he was occasionally moved by scenes of beauty. I'm similarly convinced that gaming culture's fetishistic attention to technical matters doesn't have to rob us of the ability to appreciate gaming as a medium for creative expression. But I do think it makes it more difficult.
I don't want to come across as some cranky Luddite, bent on returning gaming to the eight-bit era. I love gaming tech, and I'm as excited as the next guy about the prospect of a new generation of hardware and games. But I long for the day when technical considerations are eclipsed by attention to actual content, and games are appreciated first and foremost for the experiences they provide, rather than for the technology that brings them to life.