Dear Videogames, Stop Telling Me Everything
Read this article to unlock the good ending
When I beat the absolutely wonderful Thirty Flights Of Loving over the weekend, I had precisely one immediate reaction: “Wait, what just happened?” I cannot even begin to tell you how much that excites me. But then I decided to write an article about it, largely because one of my greatest passions in life is defying nonsencial figures of speech. At any rate, Thirty Flights Of Loving packs loads of information into not-even-30-minutes with hardly any dialog or exposition. But, in some ways, it's even more of a supposed “un-game” than, say, Modern Warfare 3. I mean, all agency is illusory. Without spoiling anything (note: that'll happen a little bit after the break), you're along for the ride – and that's it. In a couple bits, it doesn't even matter where you walk. The game will just jump-cut you to your intended location.
So why is it one of my absolute favorite games – and yes, I one hundred percent believe it's a game – of the year? Because it made me think about what happened. No, scratch that. It required me to think.
This is, however, an example other games could stand to crib a note or two from – conceptually, if not literally. Most videogame stories feel the need to Spell. Out. Every. Last. Detail. The industry's mass market now, after all. Wouldn't want the unwashed masses turning their puny peanut brains into pretzels with some kind of ignorance-powered alchemy. But Thirty Flights Of Loving really isn't that complex. It's just detail-rich and open to interpretation.
This is the same reason that movies like Inception have resonated with such gigantic audiences. I mean, Inception was a smart film, but it wasn't that smart. It was, however, positively brilliant at inviting the audience to take an active role in its consumption of the plot – right up to that oh-so-iconic ending. And that, in turn, made viewers feel like goddamn geniuses. Now, the gaming industry's afraid of adding subtle curves to the yarns it spins for fear of alienating the lowest common denominator. But here's a secret: everyone in the entire world likes feeling smart. Conversely, no one enjoys being treated like they're stupid. And most people have a pretty good sense of when they're being talked down to. You fucking lackwit.
It goes further than that, though. The other benefit of leaving stories just open enough is a certain sense of mystique and possibility. I don't know everything about the world, and that's the point. My brain fills in the gaps of what it perceives as this giant, fully fleshed out place – even when, in Thirty Flights Of Loving's case, the developers only really constructed a handful of rooms. Hhere's what I did immediately following the first time the credits, er... well, they exactly roll. Let's just say that. Anyway, I didn't miss a beat. The whirlwind tale of love, loss, espionage, and box people ended, and I jumped right back in for a second go-round. Why? Because there were a hundred details both big and small that I wasn't entirely clear on, but I was right on the verge of knowing. Or at least, that's how it felt. Thirty Flights Of Loving had given me this tiny slice of its universe, but there's so much meat on those seemingly emaciated bones. So much to explore and dig into and understand and speculate about and obsess over. So then I played it a third time, and I picked apart each environment to really soak up what Blendo Games had created. And then I went through with developer's commentary enabled.
Now, here's the key bit: Thirty Flights Of Loving isn't that complex of a story. Rather, it says just what it needs to with incredible confidence, dramatically drops its microphone, and then saunters off stage. And then the crowd begins to murmur. “Who was that in the flashback? Why did so-and-so A point a gun at so-and-so B? And oh goodness, what was the actual meaning of, well, the title?” In my case, I slowly but surely pieced many of those bits together. And I felt smart for doing it. That was my real participation. That was the game. Was it a story-based game or a game-based story? That question's irrelevant. It was an amazing, incredibly unique experience either way.
Dear Esther pulled off a similar feat earlier this year – albeit, by taking an entirely different approach. Still though, it handed players tiny, randomly ordered narrative scraps and asked us to sow them into a meticulously interwoven tapestry. Except actually, it didn't ask at all. But players just did it, because that's how the human brain works. We like stories and patterns. So we seek them out even where they may not be fully formed – or even exist at all. And then thechineseroom tossed in randomly appearing ghosts, which only heaped fuel on players' speculative fires and added to the world's mystique. Again, the story was open. It was, in large part, the game. Taken in conjunction with the option to explore and digest the world as we saw fit, it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it.
Compare that to the supposed pinnacle of videogame storytelling at this point: player-driven choices. Sure, we get to shape a game's outcome, but it is – to my mind – oftentimes damaging to the creation of a believable setting. After all, there's a series of predetermined resolutions, and it's not terribly difficult to see the puppet master working the strings in the background. We've got a constant barrage of bars and meters and paragons and renegades and alignments. Or, failing those, blatantly obvious “choice” moments. Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. Cause-and-effect. It's all so mechanical and telegraphed – like, well, a videogame. And, on some level, it makes sense. I mean, players have shown a tendency to get pretty upset when, say, a character dies or they don't get the ending they want. Without a clear roadmap toward setting things right, it'd be pretty easy to say, “Well, great. I just wasted 60 hours.”
So developers lay all their cards on the table. Because then we, as players, have power and control (or at least, the illusion of it) – which is, admittedly, what many people are looking for when they buy these games. But personally, I really like not knowing every last thing. Even in the case of narrative-altering choices, I think it crafts a far more interesting, emotionally involving story. The vagueness of cause-and-effect in games like Metro 2033 and Lone Survivor really made me stick to a set of convictions I actually believed in – as opposed to a set that would mold the plot and my character's abilities as I saw fit. In Lone Survivor, for instance, I ended up making the majority of my decisions based on what'd make my character happy and healthy, because it really put me in a bad place to see someone so wretchedly, hopelessly, gut-twistingly miserable.
Don't get me wrong: I also love suiting up in Shepard's increasingly glowy armor and feeling safe in the knowledge that I can plot a course straight to space-saving sainthood. Similarly, there are plenty of times when I just want to sit down, curl up in a blanket, and have each and every drop of a plot spoonfed to me. But I think there's also plenty of room for games that strike a better balance between straightforward and open-to-interpretation. And I think it's even possible for the industry's oft-sought “wider audiences” to really connect with stories that pull it off.
So that's that, then. I have now spelled out my thoughts on the topic of vagueness in excruciating, lengthy detail. As such, this seems as pertinent time as any to offer the following incredibly universal life advice: Do what I say, not what I do.