You fucked up. A guard saw you choking out his buddy. HE KNOWS, and boy, are you in for a heap of shit. Thankful for that rocket launcher now Mr. High and Mighty Stealth Man? Forced to admit the jig is well and truly up, grudgingly you mount your trusty steed. The rapidly growing mob of soldiers recedes as you dig in your heels and gallop away. Mortars thump all around; flares light up the sky. Managing to squeeze off a few rockets over your shoulder, you jump into a gold-plated helicopter and fly off into the dawn. A mounted gun swivels into your hands and bullet fire rains down, the party now well and truly going. Finally gaining altitude, you collapse back into your flight seat, heart still thumping, a grin on your face. YOU SURVIVED. No fade to black, no ‘Game Over’ screen when you were discovered. The situation evolved and you evolved with it.
Moments like these stick in the memory, brain nuggets to relish for years to come. Personally crafting these mini-narratives makes them that much more involving than the story told in the main plot. Toppling another dictator? Yawn. Done it all before mate. People that shoot me are the bad guys, right? Great, well now I think I’ll grapple-pult (shut up, it’s a word) myself skywards, hang a flip into a squirrel suit dive, and liberally pepper the ground with explosions. These creative personal moments are the gaming memories that become cherished, the ones that leave you with a smile.
The secret to crafting these moments of joy? Games trusting the player to come up with their own solutions. Give them a fully stocked toolbox and let them loose, with worlds and systems that encourage experimentation. Games like Dishonored, Just Cause, and MGS V. These interactive playgrounds let players change strategies on the fly. You can be transformed from ghost to a whirling god of pain in a heartbeat. Most importantly it is the player themselves who choose this heartbeat, deciding when to slip into the shadows and when to unleash destruction.
Games that adapt and have situations evolve are the catalyst for these joyful moments. Rather than insta-booting to a menu and telling the player they failed, the game throws you a lifeline by giving you the chance to adapt. This is where the joy comes, when applying the same old tired strategies fails, forcing you to think on the fly. The player has to assess and make decisions, a freshness emerging from picking up the pieces that were your initial plan. The switch flips, time for miraculous escape or last stand. All or nothing. Living in that moment, that moment of joy.
These moments matter to us as players because they empower us in a way in which a more tightly controlled videogame does not. Marching down a corridor, same gun in your hand as every other player from now to eternity will have. Enemies file out from side rooms, taking potshots from behind cover. The player’s freedom is reduced down to a binary option: when to shoot and when to take cover. The game itself may have spectacular set-pieces, skyscrapers and bridges collapsing around the player, but these grand moments fail to leave the same impressions created when the player improvises, forging their own way.
Take Dishonored, the game which is a perpetual playground where fun comes via experimentation. Players surprise themselves with their own inventiveness, combining powers in some new and novel way. Want to attach a mine to a rat and then possess it? Yeah that’ll probably work. Scuttling along as the little jerry-rigged creature you approach two guards patrolling a street. They see your approach and realisation hits them. They turn to run, though too late. The mine activates, wires singing outwards, burying themselves in the guards’ backs. The rat has become the latest martyr for your cause. The game’s systems let you orchestrate this moment of creativity, the game becoming your canvas.
At its heart this is the idea of agency, that in games we can make meaningful decisions in a way that isn’t possible with traditional novels and film. We INTERACT. Crafting a tightly controlled narrative sometimes takes precedence, with little wriggle room for experimentation. Too many games have shuttled us down the same old corridors. Yes, the textures may dazzle and amaze, the sound and weight of the gun may make us squeal with delight, but the player is always a pawn shuttling along pre-determined paths. We give up our own autonomy and submit, and in doing so we deny ourselves what can come about when we try something new, when we craft those little moments of joy.
Edward Bals is many things, and one of them is a user of Twitter.