Things Unseen

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It’s interesting how much goes into a game that the player never sees. Old versions, unused content, hidden details of construction, or simply paths the player never takes. As we play the game, this stuff is invisible – sometimes we find out about it after the fact, either by reading articles or special features or by using game tools to look at the source files, but in the course of playing the game all tucked away or cut out.

To those who create the game, though, this stuff is important – in many ways, just as important as the part of the game the player actually experiences. The act of creation is transformative. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As we shape our art we are, in turn, shaped by our art.

Sometimes, though, these external bits of meta-game poke their way into the game in interesting ways. The Beginner’s Guide, being a game about games, stripped away the bits of level that normally hide these hidden elements in order to tell a story about the person who made that world – and another story about what it means about us when we’re desperate to see under the surface in that way. It also explores what aspects of a creation that were never meant to be consumed can mean for a creator, and how unfathomable the act of creating solely for the sensation of creating can be for those who primarily engage with art through the act of consumption.

The Walking Dead and other Telltale games harness their limitations to hide the scope of their stories. Obviously there are only so many ways the story can go, since trying to create a true branching story becomes an exponentially complex problem as choices compound choices. However, the player can’t tell what the actual limitations of the story are: As long as something seemed like it was a possibility, that’s as good as it actually being a possibility. If all paths lead to the same end, this isn’t a problem as long as they do so in a way that feels natural and non-contrived, since most people will only ever see one path on their playthrough. Of course, people still complain about every path leading to the same result, but this is a complaint they can only make with knowledge gleaned from successive playthroughs or external research on the game: The first playthrough is convincing.

An odd example, and what first brought this topic to mind, is the character Dean Domino in the Dead Money expansion for Fallout: New Vegas. Dean is, put bluntly, an egotistical asshole. For most players, it’s almost impossible to get through a playthrough without him turning on you and forcing you to kill him. This is because the primary instinct the game up until this point has drilled into you is that if there’s a skill check in conversation you take it. You always say the clever thing, the perceptive thing, the thing with a number next to it that you get experience for. However, Dean Domino does not like it if you’re too smart. It scares him, and later on he will jump at the opportunity to betray you because of that. In this case, the most poignant bit of characterization in possibly the entire game is completely hidden from the player on any single playthrough. Only with advanced external knowledge of the game or enough playthroughs to make the connection can we actually see what makes Dean tick.

There’s so much we can’t see, standing from the inside and looking at the walls. That’s fine. All the more reason to create: Without creating, how can we ever have the experience of truly knowing anything for sure?

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