You know when you're going to finish a video game. It pushes its ethereal fist into your chest and seizes hold of your heart in a way you can almost feel-like being grabbed by the throat, a tightness in your chest that sets every nerve humming to the tune of the experience. That feeling gives you patience when you've been defeated a thousand times, or when you don't know what to do next. It makes you forgiving, when the game has flaws and bugs, and it makes you committed should the pacing fall apart, leaving no choice but to plod devotedly onward just to see what happens.
You're immersed, and once you've made that investment, there is little a game can do to dissuade you on your course toward its end (and maybe even its extra content, its New Game + or its DLC). Of course, not every game is going to do this to you. And the ones that do won't do it to your friends. It's sort of like love-a fleeting ghost, a random spark. Sometimes you know from a distance that it's just going to take hold of you. Other times, you sit down and before you know it, boom, heartstruck-there goes 100 hours of your life that you never wanted to end.
Y'know that feeling? If you're like me, it might be hard for you to remember. It's been a long time since I really fell in love with a video game. These days, I spend much more time in conversations with people about why we don't finish video games anymore, whether the 60-hour minimum experience is truly irrelevant these days. How I don't have enough time, how a six-hour campaign is "just right", how I started that game that seemed really cool and I might finish it probably-except I never do.
The easy answer is that I'm getting older and I actually don't have the kind of time I used to. The other easy answer is I'm a gaming journalist and have "seen too much", that I'm desensitized to newness and not as easy to please. However, I don't buy the absence of time thing. It's true I had to sort of watch for a vacant spot in my schedule before I could start Pokemon Black, because I know the game will suck hundreds of hours of my life away. But the point is, it'll still get those hours. Oh, I'm finishing the main campaign and I'm getting the National Dex, thank you very much. You say my phone was ringing? Oh, honest, I didn't hear.
But Pokemon games each see only minor iterations on the previous versions; they're still little statfests populated by cute sprites and predictable plotlines and that's about it. That's how we fans want ‘em, for the most part. I become hooked into the mechanics, but I don't fall in love with the story so much. I can't remember the last time a game occupied the downtime of my imagination; can you?
If you're like me-and this column depends on you being like me, so go with it, please-it was a decade ago, when games were much more primitive than they are now. One of the most classic examples (favorite old lovers, if you will) was Final Fantasy VII. You can go ahead and make fun of me for that, as many people have in the fallow of backlash following the game's unprecedented success in an era when the Western market just wasn't widely acclimated to Japanese RPGs, but I know I'm not alone. You fellows know who you are.
Oh boy, did I love it. So much so that I very recently dragged my friend Kirk Hamilton of Paste magazine into doing a letter series with me where he embarks on his first playthrough of FFVII ever, as I revisit the game for the first time as an adult. Here's a hint about the madness of my love: I found old fanart to publish in that letter series. I mean, that I drew, around the turn of the century.
As we discuss in the letters, that game took hold of an entire fanbase in a way one could argue we've yet to see since. And yet it's so relatively crude—the tiny sprites are almost goofy, you know? The kind of stupid minigames in which it constantly forces you to engage are the kind of things at which our great design minds of today would stroke their chins and cluck their tongues today, claiming they "take you out" of the gameworld, or "break immersion." But maybe the reason FFVII was so well-loved is because it was so unreal.
In the march toward realism, we've lost immersion.
We've heard about what a Big Kid you've gotta be as a game developer to compete in AAA. You need flawless graphics, faultless UI, bug-free performance. We demand realism, high-resolution. And yet as games march on toward that ever more "realistic" experience, we've started fidgeting when they cross the 10-hour mark. We get restless when someone foists cutscenes (once so beloved, now the bane of our existence!) upon us; that the cinematics are skippable is virtually a requirement we'll excoriate a game for failing at.
Remember when we used to love cutscenes? Like, here were the moments when we could see our crude little sprites rendered as somewhat real, even for those few brief moments that the memory capacity of a bygone age allowed. It was enough to pique our imaginations—hey, maybe that's it. The imagination. The more "realistic" games have gotten, the more "lifelike" they've strived to be, the less room they leave for our imaginations.
Because in the end, we don't play video games to be hand-held through a story. I offer that we don't want "realistic" games drawn literally for us, with every blank cleanly written in, narrated to the last detail, emoted upon with high-resolution facial expressions. That the reason we loved FFVII so much is that it offered us the vaguest of silly constructs with which to play; pixilated paper dolls that we could write on with the pens of our spirits, flesh out with our own private ideas about who they could be and why we were spending volumes of time on all of it.
When games were more abstract-simple designs and massive worlds with yawning gaps in between each fragile plot point-they engaged us more, because they became worlds we could own. When all of the work of creation is done for us, when every element of lore is written in, when every object in the game world is explicable and available for interaction, there's nothing for our hearts and minds to do except ride along. And that's beautiful and well, but it's just not very engaging.
Dragon Age 2 is fine, I guess, but it'll never move me with its "realistic" people and dense lore. What am I going to wonder about, who? Dead Space is a brilliant franchise, but you know something? It doesn't scare me like broken, often-boring Silent Hill. Hell, it doesn't even scare me as bad as original Resident Evil, when Dobermans would gnaw you till you yielded square blood.
It's not so simple as saying "oldschool games are better," the maxim to which the hardest of the hardcore defer. Pokemon is that rare franchise that can make me engage with it forever not because it hasn't evolved much, but because it stays out of my way; it gives me its systems, it rarely forces me to pause, and its minimalist format doesn't try to burden me with things I just don't care about.
But if a game wants me to care-if it wants to grab my heart in its fist the way I used to feel-it needs to engage my imagination. Present the skeletal threads of a backstory without feeling the need to fill it all in, to connect all the dots for me; give me characters I'll only get to really know in my wildest dreams. Give me a world that's richly realized, but don't feel responsible for making it all interactive.
Look at, say, Fallout New Vegas or, again, Dragon Age 2 – they limit the scope of your environment so they can focus on having every object in the world usable, meaningful. A noble goal, but it leaves little to be desired; wondering about the invisible beyond ends up being fundamentally satisfying. FFVII presents rich, artful environments that aren't "for" any reason at all except to give breath to the world. There are people there for no reason, without much of substance to say – which gives you the opportunity to invent your own reasons, endow your own substance, to personalize it, to set the gears of your imagination ticking. It feels like a massive place, one you want to conquer and explore-not one you wish you could insta-teleport across to finish some quest or other.
In the march toward realism, we've lost immersion. We don't want games to be plausible and lifelike; we want them to be unreal and fantastic. Abstraction gives us a reason to spend time there; to pursue the intangible path of creation and personalization, of imagination and ownership. Otherwise, we're just watching the clock until we've exhausted our six to ten hours on someone else's playground. Here's hoping for more games that make us feel sad to complete them at the end of our long investment, and not guilty that we didn't.
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.