Accomplishment is the key to good gaming. This statement is counter-intuitive to those who were raised on the idea that games are all about having fun, but fun isn’t the only thing games offer to us as people. Games give us joy, sadness, frustration, terror, and a variety of other emotions that go beyond the simple desire to kill time. Accomplishment, and the satisfaction of achieving the unachievable, is the vessel in which these emotions are carried and is the core of any good game’s design. So, what does this tell us about the future of the industry? In order to get an idea, and because this is a retro gaming site, after all, we must first look at where it all began.
Classic gaming, whether in the arcade or on home consoles, was built almost exclusively around the idea of accomplishment. It all started with the idea of getting the most out of that quarter you just threw into the machine, a familiar sentiment to many of you visiting this site, I’m sure. And while it is easy to dismiss gaming as a shallow distraction, there is much more going on beneath the surface of our minds when we game than meets the eye. Walking away from an arcade cabinet knowing that you killed more aliens and jumped over more barrels with your money than the last guy is what really keeps us addicted. Just look at guys like Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, guys who became legends proving how they were better than every other Joe with a bag of change. The inclusion of things like high scores, cinematic cut scenes between stages, and (in the case of consoles) actual ending screens only helped to make such accomplishments all the easier to attain, but made them no less gratifying. Gamers play games not for shallow recreation, but for empowerment.
Accomplishment is not only the key to fun, but also the key to engaging an audience. In passive mediums such as film, this engagement comes from whether or not the heroes in the story can overcome the odds and vanquish whatever terrible challenge stands in their way. Gaming is special in that those goals belong not only to the characters, but also to the players themselves. When you play a visual novel, the promise of achieving the happiest ending for the main character might inspire you to keep slogging through mountains of text just to see him end up with his/her true love. When you play a survival horror game, inching forward towards safety and security is enough to inspire players to face down the unspeakable terrors lurking around every corner. Grinding for EXP for hours in an RPG suddenly becomes worthwhile when you see the next chapter in the story unfold. Ripping your hair out two nights ago playing Castelvania suddenly becomes worthwhile once you see Dracula’s castle crumble before you. True immersion is the greatest strength to gaming as a medium, and it allows us to experience the accomplishments (and the losses) of the characters we control with our D-pads. The real question then becomes, what can the game industry achieve with the promise of accomplishment?
Gaming has a long way to go before it has explored all of the same subjects as film and literature, but there is no denying the accomplishments gaming has already achieved. Developers have long asked the question of “how do you make someone cry during a video game?” While many different games have put forth many different answers to this question, they all come back to the same principle: denying the player of accomplishment. Think back to games such as Final Fantasy VII, where (SPOILER!) major characters such as Aeris die without warning. Many have theorized how players’ emotions were linked to how much time they put into leveling Aeris up to maximum strength which, by extension, affected their investment in her role in the story. Players expected a happy ending with Aeris. They expected her to be there when Sephiroth fell. They wanted her to marry Cloud Strife, to have them buy a house in Midgar, raise a couple of kids who they would regale with tales of how they saved the Lifestream from certain doom. And yet, these wishes were denied to them. Instead, Aeris was impaled upon Sephiroth’s sword and her role in the story was significantly downplayed before the final disk was popped into the console. This was a big deal, as it proved how impactful a game can be when it forces players to confront the ugly truth that, sometimes, not everything is going to work out for the best. The same phenomenon happened last year when Mass Effect 3’s ending sent many a fan into a hate filled swirl of depression. And this, my friends, is the future of gaming. We have all been empowered by our games. Now it is time for us to be made vulnerable, to be made fragile and weak when what we want to be is confident and strong. Rather than making more games that put us in the role of hero, warrior, or action star, perhaps it is time games put us in the role of the distraught, the helpless, and the powerless. Perhaps it is time for games to take away our rewards.
In the future, do not be surprised to see more games placing you in a warzone not as a Rambo-style tough guy, but as an everyday soldier just doing their duty. Be prepared for more sad endings and more bittersweet good-byes with characters you grow to love. Most of all, prepare to experience the kind of failure no Game Over screen has ever prepared us for. The heroes we root for while we game are not actors on a screen or intangible constructs of our imaginations, but mirrors of ourselves reflected in the avatars we control. Their accomplishments are ours, as are their tragedies and defeats. But it is that hope for victory, and the satisfaction in a job well done and a dragon well slain, that keeps us gaming. And it is that drive which will continue to push us towards the future.