(Author’s note: I wrote this in college, so please forgive the air of academia. The royal “we” is generally aimed at anyone who makes games, but particularly aims itself at stagnant, “conventional” games from high-budget productions (the likes of which which I probably imagined myself working for in the then-cloudy future). I had spent a lot of time making games, however, and I think the theory stands up, though it’s likely I’ll revisit this more fluidly and extensively (and succinctly) some day. Thanks for reading.)
Narrative is a space.
This is not unique to games. Books divide their pages to deliver their contexts and thoughts and actions; a canvas can be carved and pushed with color or shape to create forms; the audio-visual harmony of a film weaves continuity by captured associations. Every medium has a way of engaging us – pulling us into another perspective and leaving us dizzy when the curtain falls or the credits roll or the last page is turned. When we leave this space, we sit back and remember there was a world around us; we struggle to synthesize the space of our fresh experience with the everyday mundanity of the world around us. Meaning is created. We comment about novelty or production values of the space. Sometimes we can only sit back and remember our journey.
The virtual space of video games is a complicated space indeed. It exists in the hardware of a computer, the scripts of a software executable, the colors and sounds from a screen – and, of course, in the imagination or understanding of a player’s mind. And the medium at large has no consensus on what to do with it. Pages and web-pages of theory can come out every year – never penetrating some creators while deeply influencing others. Textbooks can be written about technical nuances that never touch the all important je ne sais quoi of what that tech is meant to make; a new designer might dream up their masterpiece that can never be feasible. It’s a mess – an explosion – the wild west – a liberating new sphere. The minds and perspectives trying to leverage this space have come to countless results in the last fifty years.
So why do we need systemic games? What can their depths of interaction do for a medium that’s gotten by on looking good and being fun? What can their mutability and complexity offer us in a world of trade-show sizzle-reels and indie developers with shoe-string budgets? What can their unique experiences and nuanced possibilities offer us in an industry driven mostly by investor-funded products aimed at men from 18 to 35?
What can making games with this kind of thinking do that games can’t do already?
Systemic games can change the landscape. They can structure our experiences, give life to our games, and leverage the space in a way that’s unique to the virtuality. They can give us a vocabulary the tools as creators to draw in more people and tell more nuanced stories. Systemic games can define the medium.