This is an article about discovery. Or rather, it’s about how you can set out to study something, and end up on a totally different path. Writing is a lot like scientific research that way. Often, a side effect of some experiment becomes more important than what you set out to study. In my case, I was totally pumped to talk to you about Gun.Smoke. It’s a classic scroll shooter from Capcom (are you sensing a theme here)? In the game, you are a lone bounty hunter who sets out to eliminate the Wingates, a gang of ruthless outlaws, and save the town of Hicksville. The game’s title and premise may bring to mind memories of the classic radio serial and television series of the same name. The television series ran for twenty seasons, and is often lauded as one of the greatest television shows of all time. As usual, in preparation for this article, I did some reasearch on the show. That’s when things got weird.
We are the video game generation and these are our stories.
We are not the book nerds that came of age in the 1960s, who feasted on Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land, and the newly discoverd Lord of the Rings. We have read those books. We love those books. But they are not the stories that shaped us.
We are not the movie nerds that came of age in the 1980s, who packed the cinemas to see Raiders, and Blade Runner, and Back to the Future, and The Empire Strikes Back. We have seen those movies. We love those movies. But they are not the stories that shaped us.
We are the game nerds. Super Mario Bros. 3 was my Return of the Jedi. Metal Gear Solid was my Die Hard. Final Fantasy was my Lord of the Rings. I read those games. I love those games. They are the stories that shaped me.
A video game is the best story medium that there is. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the receiver of the story is injected directly into the narrative. You are the hero of these stories. Rather than watch Frodo climb Mount Doom, YOU must scale Death Mountain. YOU must kill the Warlock Lord. YOU must be a bad enough dude to save the President.
The avatars live or die by your intervention. When you pick up a controller, unlike when you open a book or sit down in the theater, the ending has not yet been written. More likely than not, the hero of the story will meet an untimely demise, and it will be your fault. Isn’t it all the more satisfying when it is your own victory, not just the character’s? I think about the tension that flowed out of my body, my hair fell flat and blood rushed into my thigh and my white-knuckled grip on my pistol slackened, the first time I shot Wild Dog in the original TIME CRISIS. No movie gun fight has ever invested me as much as circling that rooftop fountain with Mr. Shades&Duster, trading shots.
The other reason video games are the superior story medium is the dual narrative of player experience and story experience that all video games have. Each game has its story. Save the princess. Kill the aliens. Stop the mad scientist. Each game has scripted events and/or cutscenes to advance this narrative. It may be totally linear, it may be choose-your-own-adventure, it may be sandbox, but there are a fixed number of paths the story can take. That’s story experience.
Story experience is great, but it’s not what makes games a unique artistic medium. That’s player experience. Ever pull off a crazy stunt or outrun a fleet of cop cars in a Grand Theft Auto game? Ever experience a really intense mission in Counterstrike, where you were the last living person on your team and you singlehandedly eliminated a dozen opponents? Ever overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in a real-time strategy game, either through guile or sheer determination? Ever gotten lost in World of Warcraft? That’s player experience. It’s the stories we tell our friends at school or work the next day, the crazy thing you did in the game that only you have done in the game. It’s as much a narrative as story experience, but player narratives are unique to the individual players. I am reminded of my playthrough of VVVVVV, when I spent ninety minutes on a bus from New York to Boston struggling to get the last secret token, fighting and slogging to train my muscle memory to input the correct commands to pass the gauntlet. It was exhausting, but when I had achieved victory, I had not just the story, but a cherished memory of a personal experience that straddled the virtual and the real world. These memories of play experience are certainly nostalgia fuel, but they, along with story experience, like the best films, novels, television, theater, and poetry, are worthy of literary analysis.
When I write fiction, I draw upon the great literary moments in games. I don’t think about the Red Baron, I think about Star Wolf. I don’t think about the Phantom of the Opera, I think about the octopus at the opera. I don’t think about John Carter and King Arthur and Captain Aubrey. I think about Mario and Link and Colonel Blair. I’ve never understood why people shy away from literary criticism of games. Every game tells a story. Even Pac-Man, simple though it may seem, is a metaphor about the human condition. You run frantically through a rat maze, gobbling up as much meaningless crap as you can. All the while a ghost is chasing you.
Games are poetry. That’s why I write, to appreciate the adventures they took me on when I was small. In many ways, I think what Steele and Jesse have tried to do with pixelthèque is appreciate the adventure, the player experience – that pillar of game narrative. I’m excited to share my own analysis, memories, and appreciation of this aspect of the gamer’s narrative.