Monday, 25 July 2011

G is for ‘Goblin’: Video Games and the Power of Imagination

Let’s start with something simple: video games are escapism.  The computer screen is a magic door, a jumble of fur coats at the back of a wardrobe, a gap between two boulders on a barren heath – what literature critters like to call a ‘liminal boundary’.  On the other side is a different world, more exciting and usually more violent than our own.  More importantly, there’s a story: one in which we are unmistakably the protagonist, fated to meet and overcome great obstacles and do deeds worthy of legend.
So far, so good.  But a good game, like a good story, needs to be convincing.  It needs to stay close to reality.  I’m not talking about mimicking the day-to-day grind of reality – after all, that’s what video games are supposed to provide some escape from – nor am I talking about unbelievably detailed graphics.  Here’s the problem: two recent games I’ve played have been Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup and Dwarf Fortress, neither of which contain any graphics more complicated than an ASCII character.  Both games, however, drew me in for more hours than I’d feel comfortable admitting publicly.  They managed to convince me of their reality and, judging by the enthusiasm of the online communities, it’s not just me.  What’s going on here?
Let’s look at another place stories are told: books.  Good books, the kind that are read and re-read, draw the reader into their world.  As a reader it’s possible to travel with Frodo and Sam into Mordor, suffocate on country life with Emma Bovary, and feel the pangs of conscience disguised as toothache with Nikolai Rubashov.  By some magic the characters’ lives, complete with fears and pains, become our own.  What does Darkness at Noon have in common with Dwarf Fortress?  My answer, and the reason I enjoyed both stories: they give just enough detail to kindle the imagination.
In a game with excellent graphics – Crysis, say – detail is supplied in bulk.  Blades of grass sway in the wind.  During the brief seconds between an enemy appearing and being summarily dispatched, it’s possible to discern individual eyelashes in his furrowed brows.  (Maybe I’m exaggerating a little.)  Imagination, once the primary faculty of enjoyment in video games, isn’t necessary.  I came away from Crysis admiring the graphics designers, but without any real desire to come back.  It was cool; that was it.  On the other hand, games with imperfect graphics are fertile ground for imagining.  Playing Doom, years ago, I wondered what the hordes of demons I faced were like up close.  Was their skin dripping with slime?  Was it disturbingly smooth?  I imagined the rank scent of the Cyberdemon: machine oil and cordite mingling with the smell of sweat and matted fur.   
This, by the way, is one reason why Henry James and HP Lovecraft were so good at writing horror.  A good video game is like a scary story.  When you finally see the ghost, your imagination shuts down and everything becomes much less terrifying.  Knowing this, Lovecraft kept insisting that his monsters, with their eldritch tentacles and writhing pseudopodia, were beyond human ability to describe.  In his best horror story, Turn of the Screw, James never tells us the nature of the haunting his book is seemingly about – or if there even is a haunting at all.  What we don’t see is usually more interesting than what we see in detail.
In ASCII-based games, ‘realistic’ graphics are dispensed with altogether.  Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup represents the player – the protagonist, by definition the most important character in the game’s story – with a ‘&’.  Goblins are ‘g’ and orcs a swarm of ‘o’s; more dangerous enemies usually take the form of capital letters.  Reading this kind of display takes practice. First-time players often compare it to the gibberish displays in The Matrix.  However, after an hour of playing, I blinked and realised that I wasn’t seeing letters and numbers anymore.  Like Cypher, the code of the world I was looking at had resolved itself into clear images: “blonde, brunette, redhead” for him, kobolds and trolls for me – lumbering around corners, lurking in shadows, ready to ambush.  An hour with a game that arguably lacks graphics of any kind drew me in more than the days I had wasted playing newer, more ‘realistic’ games. What it reminded me of most was playing with sticks as a child: acting out stories on a patch of dirt, sometimes scratching away happily for hours.   Until trying ASCII games, I thought I’d lost the capacity to imagine such vivid stories with so little help.
I’m not saying that graphics are bad, or even that graphics are irrelevant to how fun a game is.  Done right, detailed graphics can build a rich world, just like detailed description in a novel.  Examples are almost too easy to find: Fallout 3 and both Half-Life games, for instance.  The trick is not to go overboard, to leave enough unsaid so that the player’s imagination has room to work in.  There’s an old saying – or rather several old sayings – that God and the Devil are in the details.  Whichever your game (or movie, or novel) is interested in, it’s best to know where to look.


  1. One of the most successful innovations of the past few hundred years within the Christian sect has been the idea of a "personal God." It has, of course, had a lot of unintended consequences to the faithful. If you let people pretty much use their imagination to create this idea you get something that looks a lot like an imaginary friend, which is fine once you've dispensed with the worry and fretting that goes along with hell and damnation.

    Incomprehensibiltiy, even incoherence, is not a barrier when you can close your eyes and just "have a little talk with Jesus." A very successful innovation in the history of religion.

    (I like the blog so far. May I add a link?)

  2. Sorry, I posted this comment to the wrong entry. It was supposed to be a comment on "Alien God".

    my apologies.

  3. The idea of a 'personal God' works well with the concept of the Trinity: one aspect of the Creator is available for a little chat, while the other takes care of the whole inscrutable/ineffable thing that seems necessary to keep the Universe going.

    (Thank you! Of course you may.)