May 14, 2009

Photo Album

What you hear a lot about music is that people often intractably associate songs with events in their lives. They've ended up with some unpredictable connection between the song and their own experience. A song will forever remind them of a breakup or the summer of '81 (don't get me started on the summer of 1981. Suffice it to say: what a summer.)

These connections tend to be unique to the individual. It's not some generally agreed-upon association like Auld Lang Syne with New Year's Eve and Time of Your Life with a teenager's funeral. When we identify songs with completely unrelated moments, and only we understand the correlation, I think that's more memorable. Or at least more interesting.

You can't really set out to tie memories and songs together. It just happens, it's an accidental experience. Connections are haphazardly generated. In contrast, what's interesting about games to me is how much they're about control. Not just the game itself but in how many alternatives you have to decide upon before playing. We strive to achieve technical perfection with enhanced experience or immersion as the goal.

There are options with every medium, but with games especially: choice of platform, hardware, sound system, high or standard definition, keyboard and mouse, widescreen FOV, lights on or off (Dead Space is only scary if it's the former), handheld, Far Cry 2 with or without the music, stealth path or action path (and one of these is the wrong way to play Deus Ex or Metal Gear Solid 4).

We often try so hard to pin down the proper way to play a game. It's an innate aspect of gamer culture to want to be the best. In creating the optimal technical conditions for play it's definitely possible to improve the fidelity but ultimately I'm not sure how much that is actually worth. I think some of the best memories you can have of games are the ones that are impossible to create. A bizarre sequence of unscripted events in an emergent open world hits closer to home than a cutscene. Even if the former is dramatically less powerful, it only happened once and it only happened to you.

Mass Effect, on its merits alone, shouldn't occupy as much of my long-term memory as it currently does. I played it when I began a new job that involved getting up at six every morning, when it was still dark and raining outside. I had ten minutes in the morning before I had to get out the door, and I used that time to play Mass Effect. There's an ice planet in the game where Shepard begins in a slate-gray docking station. Shepard can run around and do some quests and observe that it's snowing out. I can hear the rain hitting my window. It's explained to Shepard that it's below freezing out there, but you know Shepard has to head out there eventually. Shepard gets in his warm space suit and Mako vehicle and takes on the blizzard. I go outside and walk to work in the rain.

That comparatively insignificant section of the game stands out more clearly than any other, which doesn't mean anything to anyone else other than me. I never loved Mass Effect, but I may remember that for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I wish I had these lasting memories in games that I liked more. But I try not to think about it too much.


Anonymous said...

On the note of memory and experiencing games, I'd like to note that before video games were invented, people probably have been trying to create these sort of memories in painting, prose, poetry, theatre, and so on for centuries, if not millennia. As you mention with music, the other "passive" media can definitely be successful in being memorable, but it's very individual. Personally, the imagery in Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx has been stuck in my mind for years now. I also had a similar memory to your Mass Effect one when it came to rain in Arizona—with the song "A Horse with No Name".

Games are different, though, because video games are indeed the first (or one of the first?) media to be able to give a really, really individual, generated experience. Ignoring the open-world vs. author-controlled narrative debate,

Approaching games—and film, books, and music—from an entertainment perspective often involves trying, as you say, to pin down "the proper way to play[/watch/read/hear] a game [and etc]." When I read your article, it made me wonder if there's futility in trying to manipulate to perfection the experience that a person has with it—in any media of communication and art. All our experiences are so individual.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, I posted my comment before I finished the second paragraph. I meant to say "There's a little debate on the merits of open-world vs. author-controlled narrative debate, but in the end a game will give very different experiences for every person, regardless of if it's like Mass Effect or like Braid."

Duncan said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Joshua. I agree with you so I don't have a whole lot to add, but I just wanted to mention how grateful I am when someone adds so much value to my original post.