Gaming in the Gaps

It is interesting to me that in this age of graphical fidelity where it is possible to create, in great detail, a nuanced, fully-fleshed world that a player can delve into, that with greater frequency I find myself drawn to games that tell the story of a world in many ways through abstraction.

A decade and longer ago I was, like so many others, obsessed with the seemingly limitless potential of improving graphics in video games. From the day I bought and installed my first 3dfx Voodoo2 – with its 8MB of RAM, its promises of unlocking impossible resolutions such as 1024x768, and its ability to run EverQuest, a bold game that actually required 3d acceleration – I had in my head visions of someday playing photo-realistic games.

I knew in my darkest heart's desires that someday, when hyper-realistic games were the norm, they would be all I’d play.

We could quibble on how close games are or are-not to this long-held, photorealism ideal, but by any measurable means, were I to hand myself a screenshot of The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition or Grand Theft Auto 5 back in 1998, I’d have conceded that these games are at least close enough. And yet, more and more these are games I play and dabble with like a kid handed a plate full of brussel sprouts and peas. I metaphorically push the games around with a fork for a while and try to cover them up with a napkin while I ask to be excused from the table.

Instead my time is monopolized by games like Galactic Civilizations 3, Order of Battle: Pacific, Rimworld, Kerbal Space Program and, of course, my long-standing obsession with Paradox’s Europa Universalis IV (take a drink!) all games that I find far more immersive and evocative than those other games with incredibly detailed and visually stunning worlds.

Of course, some of this is just preference, and I don’t want to belabor a point that can be summed up relatively quickly just by saying, “sounds like you like war and strategy games.” That is a part of it, but when I think of the absolute joy I had playing Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin over the past 12 months, particularly in contrast to the genuine ambivalence I’ve felt toward their AAA RPG counterparts, I wonder if it’s quite as simple as genre preferences.

I think a solid argument could also be made that I’m a product of my generation, and I’ve joined the lazy nostalgiaratti (not a word) who pine for simpler days when Y2K was a thing you could say and not be laughed at. Again, not a point without some validity, but I also really like finding new and innovative game-types or even ways of representing a game world that aren’t locked in some vault from the past.

For example, yesterday I backed the Kickstarter for Perception, a game by some of the people behind BioShock and Dead Space – two relatively modern action franchises that I loved – primarily because within seconds of seeing the video I was obsessed with the way they were intuitively abstracting the environment in a way that really supported the creepy nature of the game. It was this gameplay trailer of the game that got me thinking about this issue in the first place.

After all, what is really attractive to me about this idea isn’t that the world is crafted in exquisite detail, but actually something quite the opposite. What provides the game its flavor, what makes it enticing to me, is the information that is withheld or implied. The game seems built on the principle of providing me, the player, with enough information to build a construct – but demands I fill in the gaps. When you watch this trailer, you know that game doesn't exist in the moments where you have pinged your environment, but in the moment when that echo of the world fades back into nothingness.

I come from the camp that finds the best horror comes from what you don’t show the viewer. After all, I assure you that the nightmares my brain can fill within the gaps of the game are far darker and more frightening to me than anything you’re about to put on the screen. It’s one of the reasons I found Gone Home such a great game, because it allowed and perhaps even encouraged me to create a narrative and a situation in my mind that the game constantly subverted, and the experience became one where the fun for me was in the constant cat-and-mouse game I was playing between the lines of what was happening on the screen and what was happening in my mind.

I think this extends into the games I’ve been enjoying lately, because for many if not most of them there is this natural level of abstraction between what is happening on the screen and the context my brain is putting it into. This happens naturally in strategy games, because often the conflicts they are describing are so large and wide in scope that it’s necessary to reduce those concepts down to iconography to keep everything manageable.

For me, part of the problem with the GTA5s and Witchers of the world, is that the game is in fact detailed to such meticulous detail that I don’t find the gaps to put myself into. We talked about this a bit on this week’s Gamers With Jobs Conference Call, but this level of almost pre-destination of the world extends even into the character himself in The Witcher 3, where Geralt is a fixed quantity, and the flexibility you have to mold, shape and imagine the world in your image is even further limited.

Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate the artistic beauty of these games, and more than once I found myself on horseback, cresting some knoll in Rivia to be presented with the sun setting against a rustic landscape corrupted by a rolling war machine, and I would take a moment to enjoy the tapestry presented to me.

At the same time, without those unspoken gaps in need of audience participation for the world building – those crevices waiting for me to insinuate my own imagined context to the story – I just don’t find myself engaged. Everything’s already kind of contextualized for me, and so now I’m just here pushing buttons to reach whatever the fated end for a character that isn’t really mine turns out to be.

I'm not saying I need to be all-powerful, or that a game should be so innocuous and non-specific that it doesn't have its own vision to tell a story either. But I love that games have a shared ownership in the experience, where what the player brings to the experience is fundamentally layered into the medium in a way that doesn't exist in books or movies. When that's not there, it's much easier for me to begin to check out. Because the reality is that the moment I'm playing a game and I find myself daydreaming of one of my other games, the end is nigh for whatever game is allowing me to be distracted. I've just got too much that I really love in my playlist to spend too much time waiting for the hook to secure itself in my brain tissue.

I don’t actually think any of this stuff in the moment, of course. It all happens under the layers, and maybe it doesn’t happen at all. Maybe those who write it off as a generational torpor, and just wave their hands with “he’s old, whaddya expect, lol,” have got the right of it. Lol, indeed.

I guess I’m just grateful that we live in a gaming age where either option is entirely viable.

Comments

Oh, I'm absolutely a card-carrying nostalgiarati member!

Admittedly, I'm not entirely sure why this is. For whatever reason, photorealistic 1st-person or over-the-shoulder 3rd-person games (i.e. most new "AAA" games) just have a really hard time capturing my interest these days.

This has been a topic that's been floating around in my head a lot recently.

I think it has little to do with nostalgia. Certainly having played older games makes it easier to appreciate newer games with perhaps primitive rendering technology or lower polygon counts, but it's not why we enjoy them more. The gaps left for the imagination is huge. I remember playing HoMMIII and looking at the little pixelated icons for the heroes, and it grabbed my imagination. The profiles had just the right amount of character, and allowed you to imagine any personality and backgrounds that felt right to you. You could become invested in those characters.

There's also flexibility to create better games. Lower fidelity lowers risk and can facilitate faster iteration. So it's not surprising that we can gravitate to these games simply because they are more innovative and mechanically mature.

For players, when objects are simpler they have better implicit mechanics. You can see this easily in Minecraft where the blocks are arguably a perfect size. You know exactly how far you're digging, how far you can jump, what types of mobs can walk through what holes. Some newer games trying to capitalize on Minecraft's popularity have used smaller blocks and more angles, all to the detriment of mechanics. Predicting exact interaction behavior in complex environments is harder. So those games tend to be less 1:1 input to output. I used to play more competitive shooters, but as world complexity increased, I felt more and more like I was just watching a spectacle instead of having interesting and fun interactions. I want to play the game, not have the game play for me. There is room for spectacle and I've enjoyed some fairly short shallow games like I would a movie, but that's not what grabs me and keeps me coming back.

At the moment I feel like the kid that just got his voodoo card. Due to reduced space, budget, kids etc, I had a very sub-par laptop for the longest time. Earlier in the year my brother bought a new pc and very generously gave me his old one. It's not cutting edge, but it still has a Radeon 7850 that can run the Witcher on medium to high settings, and I'm going to enjoy the wonderful pre-determined vistas that I've been starved of for so long!

We are certainly on the opposite ends of the spectrum...
I can't play Galactic Civilizations, Order of Battle: Pacific, Rimworld, Kerbal Space Program, or Europa Universalis IV. I love open world games like Dragon Age, GTA, Fallout, and the Witcher series. Maybe it's because I create complex, technical content all day long. The last thing I want to do is sit down and work those same brain muscles. I don't want my game to be "on rails". But I do want immersive worlds that I can explore endlessly without having to build it!

But I love that games have a shared ownership in the experience, where what the player brings to the experience is fundamentally layered into the medium in a way that doesn't exist in books or movies.

For what it's worth, I think that the reader or viewer does do some filling in the gaps. Especially in books—those characters' faces might be constrained by the descriptions from the book, but the ultimate way someone "looks" in your mind is up to you (well, often not as an intentional choice, but if you're willing to look at unintentional things your mind does in interpreting media, then this conversation goes down a wonderfully deep rabbit hole which none of us really has the time for). At least in terms of games versus text, text leaves kind of a lot up to the audience—just without the foregrounded choices that we (sometimes) see in games.

I think we are on the same page here.

Why is Minecraft popular?

Everything is made of blocks. In the case of the world, they're exactly the same size. (Even LEGO has more variety.) The textures are deliberately low-resolution and crude. Yet it's blazingly popular and apparently worth a couple of billion (to Microsoft, anyway).

I think a lot of this is it provides a canvas with just enough detail to let the player fill in the gaps. Just like LEGO provides much cruder models of things than a model airplane kit, but lets children make things and tell stories with them. As a kid, I loved LEGO more than any other toy, because I could tell MY stories with it, instead of a canned story from some toy merchant.

I was about to say there's a line in there, somewhere between "too simple" and "too complex" that hits the sweet spot, but then I remember that my kids LOVE to play with a plain cardboard box. Best. Toy. Ever.