Video Games: Not the only interactive medium, folks…

Every once in a while, reading through Gamasutra columns (or watching videos), I come across a little statement that bugs me a little. “Video games are a really cool and unique medium, because they’re the only ones that are interactive to the point of making the player a part of the creation process!” And it’s true, Games ARE cool AND exciting  because of this! They do it SUPER WELL and this is why plot really is gameplay’s bitch – Gameplay lets you do things in Games that are sooo much harder in paintings or books or theater. BUT. They are not unique in this. Other mediums do it as well – and sure, games do it best, but it’s crazy to think we can’t look to what other have been doing okay at for thousands of years to contribute to this budding art form! So… here are a few:

#1: Comics. Ever wonder what happens between two panels in a comic? Take a comic from Randal Monroe’s XKCD, for example:

Panel by panel, what happens? There’s a car, we see a car parked poorly, we see a man in a hat get out of a car, we see a man in a hat with a blowtorch and fuel, and we see a series of cars, one cut in half. But that’s not what we READ. We read that a man sees a poorly parked car, responds with wanton violence, and is then able to park his car. What’s the difference? In the second case, YOU implied all the actions from your head. You supplies that the same man who’s driving the car in the first panel not only got out of his car in the third, and it wasn’t someone else in a hat, but pulled out his blowtorch in the fourth, then actually cut and dragged half of the car around to his spot BETWEEN the fourth and fifth panels!

Now, this may be old news to you, and if so that’s probably because you’ve read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a fantastic graphic novel, go read it). The spot between panels is called the Gutter, and he has a whole section devoted to it, a piece of which is shown at the top. Read them, and tell me what happens… cause nobody dies in those two panels, unless YOU SAY SO! This is what I mean in terms of interactivity – the comic asks you what you want to happen, and then it works with that. Cause here’s the trick! You could imply, in your head, that the last panel of the XKCD comic was set in a completely different parking lot! Nobody’d stop you – and it might even make sense to do so if, say, a recent movie showed many different similar parking lots with various cars cut up. Odd, but not unbelievable – and if that movie was released today, everyone would read that comic in a different manner than everyone else before said car-cut-up-movie.

The most common way I’ve heard the argument go is, “Video games are not complete without a player – other works are a ‘full’ medium when done, but games are nothing without a player.” And I call Bull. Without a reader who implies the axe swing in that top comic, it’s two panels in strange juxtaposition that form a non sequitur. But with a reader – it becomes a story. Now, I’d be happy to talk about this more below, but interactivity is not just for Comics, Graphic Novels, and Games either – no, older mediums can work with it too….

#2: Improvisational Theater! If we’re talking about INTERACTIVE mediums, it’d be ridiculous to not look at one of the biggest cases out there. Sure, you can watch Shakespeare and view it the same no matter who you are (debatable), but a good crowd makes or breaks a good improv session. Just ask someone who’s watched Whose Line is it Anyway or played a whole lot of DND – without good audience participation, the actors have nothing to go off of and it sucks. The same game can be played a thousand times, the same setting, campaign, or town, but it’ll totally vary based upon the player – interactivity. Which brings me to…

#3: Live Music! With a crappy or happy crowd, music changes DRASTICALLY. It’s most noticeable in (again) improvised solos, but ask a lead guitarist whether or not she’ll do better in an enthusiastic crowd of peers vs. playing for just her mum vs. playing for brawling aliens in some rugged cantina, and you’ll immediately hear agreement that it changes. Heck, this goes for theater too – performing Othello in Athens vs. a crowd of angry Thracians is bound to have an impact on the tone of the play. But all this talk brings us to my final and (perhaps) most ridiculous claim:

#4: Printed Words, recorded music, films, animation, short stories, poems, and all that kind of thing! I’m going to defer to a man by the name of Vladimir Nabokov, an influential Russian writer and literary stylist, on this point. In his influential essay, Good Readers and Good Writers, he notes that people experience different things when going into a text based upon past experiences. In fact, he details plans for readers to be in the right mindset  to read. A little ridiculous, if a work should be the same to all people, right? But this is the trick – ALL art is relative (unless the reader blocks it out really hard). The fact of the matter is that a gun-loving 13-year old boy is going have a different experience shooting down nazi’s in CoD than someone who’s had a terrible accident with accidents, or seen the horrors of the Holocaust, or is easily frightened by loud noises.

And. If everything is relative based upon viewers, then writers, actors, artists and playwrights can use this to their advantage – take the ambiguity in the final scene of the Aeneid: Aeneas, the great hero of Troy, recalls in his mind the words of his father to spare the conquered and war down the proud; Turnus lies before him, beaten and broken, wearing the belt of Aeneas’s lover(?) Pallas. He hesitates a moment, and then chops off his head. Why did he hesitate? What did he think about as he hesitated? Why did he kill an unarmed broken man? We don’t know – and that’s ambiguity. Ambiguity IS interactivity, ambiguity pulls the reader into the medium and lets the player decide why Aeneas did it, what he thought about. Latin is really good at ambiguity – which is why it is A) super annoying and B) really interesting to study.

So… if everyone can do it, what’ve we got going for us? Well, first off, we don’t NEED ambiguity to let the player decide what happens. Players can, you know, decide! The axe rising and falling between those first panels can happen at the click of a button that the player decided to swing – or not. The reason for Turnus’s death need not be a mystery in Epic Aeneas 2: The Reckoning – it can be defined yet STILL be an interactive experience. A really well done session of improv has this as well – motivations for characters don’t NEED to be ambiguous, they can be defined. Games are just a whole lot faster, not prone to human error like improv, and can be refined to a 1 v 1, game v player experience (unlike improv). Games are really, really, cool. Just, they’re not the only ones.

And if we look at the Aenead or Nabokov or Jet City or Mr. McCloud (no barrel roll joke, sorry) AND games – we can combine these elements into something really interesting. Just toss ambiguity (whether visual, like in the XKCD comic, or implied, as in the Aenead) right next to player choice – what DID our actions to save the Little Sisters really do? Feed us ambiguous messages, let us make it up, and we can imply far worse horrors or successes than you can ever say. Or take visual – plant all your bombs in your mission then cut to the building blowing up pronto – we imply the daring escape in our heads; or just have the audio for a torture scene happening in the dark! Throw in improvisational actors, feeding off player support, into an MMO – hired at minimum wage but with GM powers – and so many stories will be generated that everyone will want to keep playing.

Games are SUPER COOL. Lets just not blind ourselves by saying only we can do interactivity! Because others can, have, and will! Just, you know, not as easy as us.

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