Things don’t happen the way we remember them. We smooth out the rough edges, add new elements in where they seem like they should be. After a certain point, memory stops being history and becomes our story, a narrative with an arc, with heroes and villains, and it becomes hard to recall that it was ever any different.
Games don’t happen the way we remember them either. We fill parts in, we build a narrative. To some extent this is necessary: Early games, especially, could not faithfully represent a world, so relied on us to fill the gaps. Newer games still can’t faithfully represent a world – they fake it better, but still ask us to paper over the many and blatant gaps in the simulation. We’ve gotten very good at it. Some of us have gotten so good that we don’t even see the gaps any more, think of this simulated sandbox kind of realism as an actual reality.
It’s not. Not even close.
Most of the game exists in our head, not in the software. The way we move in games is not the way we remember moving. The way we fight in games is not the way we remember fighting. That dramatic jump across the gap was just a collision cylinder popping upwards and having enough horizontal velocity to touch the level geometry before touching the kill volume, but it becomes part of a story about a daring escape. Taking a series of steps forward in a turn-based game transforms in memory and imagination into a desperate rush, the collision error becomes a cunning dodge.
I’m not speaking of the disconnect between the game’s aesthetic and narrative and the systems that drive it, but the disconnect between the entirety of the game’s presentation and how the player experiences it. We may know the systems as player, know that we’re just a box in a world of boxes, but we write a story about the boxes. The way the red box slides along the ground becomes footsteps, a sense of human motion, a run even as running is unsupported by its appearance as a box. This is why games like Thomas Was Alone, a game where the characters really are just boxes, works. We fill it all in.
What we make when we make a game isn’t even creating an engine that creates the player’s experience, but an engine that creates frameworks for the player to hang their experiences on. This is why we can’t clutch too tight. This is why we must be careful about trying to answer all the questions, about trying to fill all the space, about trying to control the player’s experience – because the player’s actual experience isn’t about the world we make, or the characters we fill it with, or the systems we give them to interact with those characters, but what’s in between, what is unique to each player, something closer and more meaningful to them than anything we can intentionally create.
These are the games we are nostalgic for, the ones we remember playing but never seem quite the same going back and playing again. That game you played no longer exists because the person who played it, the person you were, no longer exists. All you can do as a player is find another wall on which to hang your tapestry, and all you can do as designer is to build a wall that might make a good home.