The Player as the Final Ingredient

What is the value of text in games? Well, it requires the player to internalize things, to apply their own imagination and judgment into recreating the subject of the text. This internalization of the text and its processing through the player adds to the experience in such a way that it cements their immersion into the game. The game world and their imagination become inexorably interwoven.

Most games only have the player contribute in a spacial manner. Move here shoot there use attack A at time B if target C is moving along vector D. On the competitive side people can find much joy in this: trying to guess their opponents next move, leading their opponent into a trap, applying that level of mind games. But that’s a level of hardcore most people don’t strive for. Most people enjoy using their own judgment in regards to more cerebral content. They enjoy having a meaningful impact to a larger world (rather than just another player, even if it’s just the illusion of a meaningful impact).

Being able to apply their imagination and judgment are key components of why I think many have enjoyed such games from Myst to Killer7. In Myst the final puzzle piece of the story doesn’t fall into place until the end. For the duration of the game they’re left with their intuition warning them against their quest and the haunting clues they stumble across in the various worlds. What’s most enjoyable is trying to figure out what happened as the game progresses, and trying to figure out how any choice can be made between the two brothers when both are painted as equal though different kinds of evil. It creates a moral dilemma for the player, and it’s the desperation of this moral dilemma (and probably a healthy dose of curiosity, and perhaps unfortunately some trial and error) that drives the player to make the correct choice. Once the final puzzle piece is revealed everything becomes clear (more or less).

In Killer7 players simply aren’t even given all the pieces to the puzzle. Educated guesses can be made to fill in many blanks. Many things can be vaguely deduced from small bits and pieces the game throws out but never particularly highlights. The real joy of the game comes from trying to understand everything the player is seeing and what is explicitly stated creates and intriguing and evolving narrative. Like Silent Hill 2, something impossible is taken as reality at the beginning of the game (dead wife wrote a letter? guy can change form?) and even if the player began the game with skepticism as to the reality of these presented truths, everything points to their validity until the player hits the twist, at which point all past experience must be viewed in a new light. That, in and of itself, is possibly one of the best ways to ensure a game has replayability. The narrative one experiences the first and second times playing such games is vastly different, without there being any differences on the game side at all. Polish a game all you want, but unless the chance is taken to rely on the player as the final piece of the game experience the longevity so few games enjoy will not be achieved.

The common element seems to be the use of withholding information from the player. It’s a dangerous tool, that can just as easily enrage as intrigue. The Xenosaga and even Metal Gear Solid series use this technique quite flagrantly and both can be said to have gone too far in various instances. The transgression comes when the ambiguity reaches the point where the player feels helpless in figuring out what’s going on, where the narrative is too concrete to allow for wild interpretations but at the same time too poorly lit to allow the player to make heads or tails of various shadows. In such cases it’s sometimes better for the player to go with the flow and simply enjoy information as it’s given, not trying to futilely read into things prematurely, but such a position can be counter intuitive and simply not enjoyable to many people.

What place does text have in a modern video game, though? The crucial thing to realize here is that it’s not important how information is given to the player (as far as reading or listening to it), but what form that information takes in the game world and what personal experiences the player can relate to the information’s delivery method. Something heard on the radio is fundamentally received differently from something read in a book. The creation of a world that provides opportunities to encounter such content is key to creating a solid base that can draw in the player’s imagination.

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