I'm standing in front of the gutted-out Washington Monument. I look up with the sun in my eyes, and I can see all the way to the top. I decide to go in. As I near the entrance I hear a radio playing a song by the Ink Spots. As I walk past it, I pause briefly to turn the radio off. Then I think to myself, maybe those two guards at the gate were listening to this radio. So I turn it back on, and I go inside.
I enter an elevator and press a button. It ascends and deposits me at the top of the monument. I see the satellite dish I've been sent to retrieve, but glancing to my right, I notice light streaming through an opening in the wall. I walk over to it, and when I gaze outside I'm frozen by what I see: the National Mall lies in ruins - the blighted earth once a park of green grass; the dilapidated Capitol Building shattered in the distance. I shudder when I envision the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial, both out of my view, blasted beyond recognition. I flash to a memory of my 8th-grade school trip to this very spot.
I turn my back to this view and pull up my Pip-Boy to check the map. The screen is washed out and hard to read, and I can't make out the controls. Ah. It's the sun beating down on the screen. I briefly close the Pip-Boy and turn to face the south. When I return to my screen, the glare is gone and I consult my map. I'm tired and need a place to sleep.
I grab the dish and return to the base of the monument. Billie Holiday is singing on the radio. I decide to chat with the guards, but neither will offer more than a cursory sentence, and one of them is decidedly rude to me. So I return to the radio, take out my sledgehammer and smash it to smithereens. That was the plan anyway, but it turns out I can only put a dent in it. So I turn it off instead. If those guards want music, they can turn it back on themselves. Wish I could have smashed it, though. I consider lobbing a grenade at them and running, but I've got other things to do. I need to deliver this dish and find my dad.
Some of our most gifted game designers say they want to get out of our way and let us discover our own stories in their games. Doug Church calls it "abdicating authorship." Patrick Redding and Clint Hocking call it "dynamic story architecture." Steve Gaynor calls the player an "agent of chaos" and observes, "It is not about the other-- the author, the director. It is about you."
My ongoing adventure in the rubble of Washington D.C. suggests to me that these designers are half right. I'm aware of my main quest, and I track it with interest, but I'm easily distracted by people I meet and places I discover. I'm pursuing my own objectives much of the time and - without really meaning to - my existence in this world has taken on its own storytelling dimension. Call it emergent narrative or some other fancy phrase, but when I'm standing at the top of the Washington Monument and remembering when I was 13 years old, or when I'm trying to figure out how to punish those two surly guards for being rude to me, I'm immersed in things that say more about me and my avatar than about any Fallout 3 quest line. I am, in important ways, authoring my own story.
But it isn't just about me. I'm also thinking about game design. And it's here that I think Church, Hocking, et al understate the meta-experience of playing well-designed games. My first thought at the top of the Washington Monument was personal and reflective. But my second thought, arriving seconds after the first, was "Wow, what a great idea!" This moment is like a Hitchock-Deus Ex cocktail. Give me a vital reason to reach the top of an iconic American landmark and make something important happen there. But Fallout 3 turns the tables. I don't meet the enemy or fight for my life; instead, I face the world as it now exists. I've already seen devastation, but this historic vantage point shows me the vastness and the painful resonance of it. And - crucially - this only happens if I look for it. I could simply grab the dish and run to my next destination. The designers trusted me to take the time to look. "Very cool," I think. "Great idea. Thanks."
I also think about game design when the glare from the sun obscures my Pip-Boy screen. "Are you kidding me," I think. "What a terrific, realistic touch. Amazing. Well done." Then it occurs to me these designers have figured out how to transform a standard menu system interface into a device that exists physically in the world of the game. "Excellent." Then I think about Far Cry 2 and Dead Space doing similar things, and...okay, now I'm just geeking out, but you get the idea. I'm thinking about game design, and loving it.
On the other side of the coin, I also think about game design when I can't smash the radio. Why can't I smash the radio? The moment I discover this, I think about arbitrary environmental interactions and wish I wasn't thinking about them. I'd prefer to think about how to smash that radio.
When game designers surrender authorial control to the player, unexpected and extraordinary things can happen. I'm enjoying Fallout 3 immensely, even though I feel only vaguely connected to the main quest. The game creates a wide space for emergent narrative, even when it stumbles in the presentation and depiction of its characters.
But succeed or fail, my awareness of game design is omnipresent, and I like it that way. It enriches my experience of playing. The in-world experience remains my first thought, but my second thought is nearly always focused on the system, especially when that system demonstrates originality or beautiful execution. I don't think I'm the only gamer who behaves this way.
So, when Gaynor writes about video games in his insightful essay "Being There" and suggests that:
"Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience..."
I believe it's quite possible - even desirable - to achieve both. The richness of my personal experience in Fallout 3 is undeniable; but so is my respect and admiration for the genius of its designers. In fact, my awareness and appreciation of one naturally enhances the other, all within the same experience. And that, in my view, is a wonderful thing.