When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.
Interactivity distinguishes games from other media. This simultaneously makes games a fascinating medium and one that can easily be exploited and one that opens games up to a great host of experiences. Authoring meaning in game design can be particularly difficult to achieve because no matter how the developers intend for their games to be played, the mere fact that they will be “played” opens their games up to a host of divergent experiences.
Thus, you have guys like Daniel Mullins who is playing Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a pacifist and Ben Abraham (and many others) who conducted permadeath playthroughs of Far Cry 2. Additionally, there are gamers who regularly conduct “Iron Man runs” (attempts at perfectly running through entire games without ever dying) through platformers like Super Mario Br0thers or the more heinous Super Meat Boy.
These three different “styles” of play illustrate three very different game experiences. Mullins’s approach to Elder Scrolls is one that would likely require saving the game a lot — particularly early in the game. A permadeath playthrough of Far Cry 2 would obviously require very little saving and lots of careful calculation. And finally, an Iron Man Run through Super Meat Boy would surely require a tremendous amount of practice, memorization, and dexterity. These various styles of play are ways that the developers who made the game probably didn’t think a lot about as they made them.
Skyrim was certainly developed with particular quests that provide the player with nonviolent options, but the game also constantly tries to force the player to take violent action against violent bandits and creatures. At the end of each level in Super Meat Boy, the player is treated with a simultaneous replay of his every attempt to complete it — thus Edmund McMillan understood that he had made an incredibly difficult game and integrated that realization into its design.
Thus, there are a whole host of ways to play games that their designers may or may not have anticipated — this makes videogames a particularly difficult medium to pin down. It’s possible that the silliest and poorest- made games could be approached by players in meaningful ways. It’s also quite possible that the most meaningful games could be approached by players in ways that demean the experience.
Last night I loaded up one of my favorite games, Shadow of the Colossus, and attempted to take on the third Colossi. To access this battle, I had to jump from one platform to another — the platform was at the top of a long ramp that curled around a huge cylindrical platform about 200 feet tall. Missing the jump does not kill you but causes you to fall into a vast pool of water and forces you to swim back to the ramp and walk up it again — and it’s a long walk; each time took me about 2 minutes. For some reason, I could not make this jump — I tried and tried and tried again. I even got onto YouTube and watched a walkthrough video (something I very rarely do) to make sure I wasn’t missing something obvious — the player on YouTube made the jump with ease.
I was home alone while my wife was at a book club meeting. My 8-month-old daughter had just gone down for a nap — it was a rare moment when I could game uninterrupted. Thirty minutes passed, and my daughter woke up and started crying. I spent that entire 30 minutes trying and failing to make that silly little jump in Shadow of the Colossus. A game that represents one of the single most meaningful experiences I have ever had gaming was utterly frustrating — I turned it off and spent the rest of the evening playing with my daughter.
I recognize that my problems with Shadow of the Colossus were personal — I searched but couldn’t find any angry forum posts by other gamers who couldn’t make that jump. Nevertheless, my incredibly frustrating experience with Shadow illustrates how risky it is to put an interactive piece of art in the hands of players whose experiences can dramatically vary. This experience did not make me angry at Team ICO (developers of Shadow of the Colossus) — it actually made me respect them for their daring to make the game despite the presence of idiots like me who for some reason can’t make a simple jump.