I intend to review the occasional video game in this blog and to share my opinions about games and gaming in general. However, I think it important to note right off the bat that I don’t actually play all that many video games myself. I’ve played a few, but for the most part, I “play” games with my boyfriend. What this really means is that he holds the controller, and I watch. I know that to most gamers, this might invalidate much of what I have to say so I offer this little essay as a way to explain why I find pleasure in watching video games.
Most gamers will undoubtedly believe that the real pleasure of gaming comes not from the narrative of the story but from controlling the interactions with the game world. Game critic Tom Bissell writes in his book Extra Lives:
Games of any narrative structure usually employ two kinds of storytelling. One is the framed narrative of the game itself, set in the fictional “present” and typically doled out in what are called cut scenes or cinematics, which in most cases take control away from the gamer, who is forced to watch the scene unfold. The other, which some game designers and theoreticians refer to as “ludonarrative,” is unscripted and gamer-determined—the “fun” portions of the “played” game—and usually amounts to some frenetic reconception of getting from point A to point B.
As much pleasure as (some) gamers might take in cut scenes, the real point to the game is not watching scripted scenes unfold but in exploring, fighting, solving puzzles, and experiencing the game in other active ways. If one “plays” the game the way I do when I play with my boyfriend, the “ludonarrative” and the scripted narrative are more collapsed. The interaction I have is not with the game, but with my gaming partner, directing him towards what we should do next, or what dialogue options he should select. Sometimes this means that nothing I do has any impact on the outcome of the story or on the ease with which we get there. Even when it does, it is probably more like a chose-your-own-adventure than a truly interactive experience. Why then, a hardcore gamer might think, would a person spend so much time watching a game unfold with no control? What could she possibly take away from the experience?
The games my boyfriend and I play together are strongly narratively driven. That is, while the gameplay, fighting (if any), and puzzles (if any) are of course important, the story is central and can encompass complex character arcs. It isn’t just story that is important, though. There are types of narrative games that my boyfriend plays alone that I do not participate in. I may be happy to watch for a little while, but these are his games, not mine. Platformers (ie. the Super Mario titles) and other action-y sorts of games can be hypnotizing to watch, but don’t sustain me through the many hours needed to beat a game. Open-world games, such as most of the Rock Star (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption) and Bethesda (Fallout 3 and Skyrim) don’t work well with two people. Although they have a central storyline, they are primarily about a single person’s exploration of a world. I’m not quite sure why, but they don’t seem to have enough narrative momentum to keep a second person involved, at least not this second person. However, the games that we play together were not designed with multiple players in mind. Most people, I think, would not consider playing a 70-hour RPG with another person.
This is a sample of some of the games my boyfriend and I have played together.
So why do I do it? The first analogy that came to mind was that of an audiobook. Listening to a recorded version of a book is not the same as reading it. You surrender a certain (not small) amount of creative control and engagement with the text. The rhythm and cadence of the words no longer belongs to you. The pace is controlled by another person’s voice. The ability to re-experience passages, to flip back and forth is hindered. I find that much of my involvement with the story becomes somewhat distanced. My mind wanders more easily and I am more divorced from the words. However, I can’t deny the pleasure and value of listening to audiobooks. The story still comes through, along with much of the pleasure of the words, which can be enhanced by a good reader. Furthermore, although you deny yourself the accomplishment of actually reading a difficult book, it can allow you to experience something you might not otherwise have been able to enjoy. The diminution of one’s engagement with the book might be preferable to never having experienced it at all.
However, it occurred to me that that analogy failed in these circumstances. It isn’t just watching games that I enjoy. Many playthroughs of games are available on the internet, with and without commmentary by the player (an amusing example is here, if you have many hours to spare). However, I am never tempted to watch them, even for games that seem interesting. Playing games with my boyfriend is less like listening to an audiobook and more like being read to. I may not be fully engaging with the game, but he is, and I am engaging with him. Being read to is not a matter of passively listening, but of interacting with the person reading to you. It is intimate, to be read to; it is personal. Watching him play, not passively but actively, we turn something that is normally a solitary activity into a shared experience. We both still have our own subjective opinions of the game and its story and characters, of course, but the experience was both of ours.
Games generate many spontaneous moments that are unique to the playthrough. Sometimes these are just amusing bugs or moments when the AI creates something unexpected. Sometimes these are more complicated and add depth to the experience – either because of choices you made in the gameplay (games often have branching narratives that depend on the choices you make) or because of realizations you had about it (ie. solving a puzzle or figuring out how to beat a boss when your life is almost out). I experience these moments with my gaming partner. I also experience the frustration of being stuck at a puzzle, or at dying during a boss fight when you forgot to save, or of becoming lost in the map. Although I might have nothing to say about the controller or how the gameplay mechanics feel, I feel I have something to say about the experience of gaming, not only in the cutscenes but in the ludonarrative as well.