Few games have devoured my time and attention in the same sense (or even the same league) as the wonderfully titled Minecraft. I had, once upon a time, kicked that game like the dirty, addictive, and salaciously bad drug it was, but recently some friends had the gall to draw me back with temptation. ‘It will only be this once,’ they said, ‘just a little bit. For fun. It is a party, after all.’ So I gave in. I played. It was when I found myself crying on a bathroom floor, covered in dirt, sweat, and creeper-bits, that I began to wonder ‘What the hell?!’ I have shot Fokker Triplanes down over the skies of Europe, fought off a Russian invasion on American soil, and even lead a miner’s revolution in the caves of Mars. The parts of games that I had always felt most comfortable critiquing and relating to were the stories- why the bloody hell was I being so caught up in the design and layout of my four-story Japanese pleasure palace?
While it was certainly an impressive pleasure palace, I believe the real difference is in how the narratives of these games are constructed. Consider Minecraft as the first example. When I was first thrust into my generated world, there was nothing but the sweet smells of the wilderness and the burning desire for Manifest Destiny in my heart. Every tree chopped and every mountain leveled in the pursuit of building my fortress was the result of the choices I made. I could have just as easily decided to live in harmony with the nearby ecosystem, or I could have excavated into the earth and made one of the ancient mining shafts my home, declaring eternal war upon the sun and working to establish my progeny of Morlocks. Each of these decisions help construct Minecraft’s narrative, if only for that particular session. In many ways, Minecraft (and the games like it) closely resembles a blank sheet of paper and a freshly sharpened pencil, rather than a well written Russian novel or some such.
I would argue that these sorts of games represent some of the best aspects of video games. Minecraft’s success has been well documented, but consider also the thriving communities that have cropped up around strategy games like Shogun: Total War or Crusader Kings II. These are both games in which the player is dropped into an experience with, perhaps, a vague notion of a goal (conquer Japan and spread your bloodline, respectively), but is afterwards left to their own devices. In the case of Shogun, the players enjoyed crafting their stories so much that they developed an online metastory, acting as though they were really clansmen in feudal Japan.
On the other end of the spectrum are those games with developer-driven stories, often utilizing set pieces and very, very long hallways to keep the player on the straight and narrow. Certainly these sorts of games have their merits. They allow us to have experiences akin to reading a good book, such as following Captain Walker’s descent into Dubai (and his own madness) in Spec Ops: The Line. Had I been given any real control of Walker’s journey, he would have been sipping Pina Coladas on an Omani beach resort by the time the first bullet was fired, but this would have forced me to miss out on the moral ambiguity at play with the rest of the game. To continue the book/writing metaphor, one cannot simply enrich themselves by writing their own stories, they need to read stories by other people to see different methods of thinking.
Yet developer-driven stories have their drawbacks as well, most notably being that Spec Ops is by far the exception rather than the rule. Most games along these lines, such as the Call of Duty series or the most recent installments of Final Fantasy, have very little if nothing meaningful to say to anyone. They exist as long corridors of grind, offering piecemeal segments of plot at all the marketably appropriate junctures. And oh, that grind. Even the best games in this vein grow stale after the fiftieth room-with-enemies appears.
Yet, for me, this brings in the biggest difference between these two types of games: the ability to lose. In developer-driven games, the story must go on. I must continue to bash my head against the wall, flexing my thumbs, and grinding those mobs because the only way out is forward. Most developer-driven games are able to avoid this by closely scaling their difficulty curve, but the railroading nature of these games only serve to highlight any faults to their attempts. In Player-driven games, however, I can almost always come back from a loss. A creeper blew up my house? Well, I can build another. That scheming bitch of a sister just poisoned all of my heirs and is plotting to place her son on the throne? C’est la vie and plant the explosives. The setbacks that the game places in front me do not stop me from advancing, they only serve to make that advancement more interesting.
Personally, I wonder if these comments are true to more than just me. Do player-driven games drive you as gaga as me? Or do you think the goal-less nature of Minecraft and its ilk hammer home the idea that you could be doing so much more with your time?