Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.

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