Do you remember this place?
This isn’t a standard “old fogey remembers classic game fondly” post though. Ultima IV’s tremendous influence and importance aside, I think for players looking back on it from today, it now exemplifies a value that is quite rare in most modern games: encouragement of the player to engage by using their imagination.
What does this mean though? What does a game that fosters “imaginative engagement” look, sound and play like in 2009?
I feel this question is worth asking simply because the sort of engagement we might give players by embracing this lost art could be powerful, richly subjective and, in a word, personal. Your mental image of a game’s world or a character’s voice might be different from mine . You invite the game into your own mind, to an extent, rather than being enveloped entirely by the imagination of the author. In a word, you participate in a way that complements the actual interactivity.
The dominance of literal images in our culture notwithstanding, this value is actually far from alien to art/entertainment media: just remember what happens every time you read a book. You have to call every person, place and event into being in your mind. The experience depends entirely upon your engagement and interpretation – your brain is the minimum system requirement.
In fact, this value isn’t even alien to games of the electronic kind. Interactive fiction is an established medium whose potential is reasonably well-explored, and whose overlap with written fiction is obvious. Further down the continuum towards conventional videogames, we have games with primitive, but more importantly stylized or symbolic graphics. The best of these still have an effect closer to that of a well-written novel than a film – they evoke images and ideas that are quite grand compared to the simple stuff of which they’re made.
In the bad old days, hardware was so limited that games couldn’t muster much for audiovisual feedback. Creators had no choice but to stylize and abstract – to communicate as best they could within the limited fidelity of their format.
It’s also true that compared to today, fewer games tried to create a sense of a fiction or world. Games like Tetris still hold up today largely on the strength of their rules, their integrity as formal systems, and for such games the clarity and aesthetic attractiveness of these abstractions were all that mattered.
Early computer role playing games had quite a different lineage, extending most directly from pen and paper RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Games like Temple of Apshai, which augmented its modest 8-bit graphics with a manual full of written descriptions of each room in its dungeons, are the missing link between D&D and later RPGs like Ultima IV onward.
Even with more arcadey games, it’s clear that box art of the era played a big part in providing a starting point for imaginative engagement – check out all the crazy stuff on the cover painting of Missile Command for the Atari 2600:
You see only a basic semblance of this in-game, but its intent was to call into being a world richer than what was represented. Creators of such games and their related artifacts were in effect building a bridge, from their own creative intent to that of their players – or, if you don’t believe in “player creativity”, at least their willingness to engage creatively.
Of course, today technological oneupsmanship drives most of big budget game development towards ever-higher fidelity audiovisuals, in part because that’s the easiest way to show off the power of new hardware. The aesthetics of many modern games have in turn adapted to embrace this – as Epic’s lead designer Cliff Bleszinski recently pointed out, there are lots of bald space marines with intricate, scuffed metal armor in games today because current graphics hardware is really good at that. Are we really okay with this being the driving force of our medium, though?
Clearly, the limitations that once forced creators to work with low fidelity and wield the power of suggestion have all but slipped away completely. Paradoxically, in many art forms this kind of event is exactly the point at which some artists begin to explore how that limitation can be wielded intentionally, as a fruitful restraint, a challenge to inspiration, a means to broaden the scope of what is thought possible.
Sparse Matrices / the Art of “Not Showing”
To paraphrase some wisdom I’ve heard from horror filmmakers, “the monster in the audiences’ heads is scarier than any monster you can put on screen.”
Numerous technical problems with the animatronic shark during the filming of Jaws forced Steven Spielberg to adopt a cinematographic style that was more about implication, the menace of things offscreen or barely seen, or built up through the soundtrack. It had quite an effect on viewers and revolutionized how films like it were made.
Audio can indeed be a powerful aid to this – it’s spatial, subjective and suggestive where visuals fail to be. The two older games that have best retained their ability to frighten and immerse me are Thief and System Shock 2, and they do it largely because of their masterful audio, and in spite of their primitive graphics.
Whether you’re hiding information to scare people, or paring it away to help someone paint a picture in their own heads, the mechanism is the same.
In mathematics and programming, there’s something called a sparse matrix. Unlike a normal array where every value is filled in with a number, like the 1:1 grid of pixels on the display you’re reading this on, a sparse matrix is only filled in where there’s a non-zero number.
It’s a glancing blow of a metaphor, but I think human imagination and memory work kind of like this. Whatever isn’t filled in becomes breathing room. What we as creators don’t show the player creates a space they can fill themselves and inhabit mentally in the larger context of what we do show.
Allow Players to Imagine
However, if you’re a creator it takes some discipline to choose to not fill something in with marvelous detail, and some craft to know exactly when and when not to apply this principle for effect – as an intentional feat of simplification, rather than an omission.
Now that technology can do so many things for us, the default approach today has become “spell everything out as explicitly as possible”. This is changing, however.
So the original question stands: what games would we make if we embraced this fully?
In the last five to ten years, the idea of games with highly stylized visuals has gone from fringe to wide acceptance. Beyond simply looking beautiful or distinctive, stylized / abstracted art plays on the visual side of our cognition and imagination.
Chapter 2 of Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” describes this as “Amplification Through Simplification” – that by removal of well-chosen details from a representation of something, an artist can clarify it, focus its intent, broaden or twist its meaning.
I don’t think this is a purely visual phenomenon, though. In games, we represent the world and its rules to players via interactions. The sense we give players of its possibility space early on, through training and fiction, can create a space players will inhabit with their imagination.
Remember your first hour with Shadow of the Colossus, when you’d only fought maybe one of the beasts? The sparse loneliness of world seems to continue forever. What’s out there? What are you trying to accomplish? What are the limits?
Hours later, you’ve mastered the world and know how it works; you know what to expect. You know what isn’t in the game… earlier possibilities have faded.
However, the mystery of the place stays with you. If players participate imaginatively even for a short time, that ripples outward to enrich the rest of their experience.
That’s another reason I used Ultima IV as an example to start with – the vastness of its world, combined with the simple art and feeling of freedom to explore, create a similar experience despite the radical difference in fidelity.
Other games have a story that stands out much more clearly from their gameplay dynamics. Even in these, there can be vectors that lead us to imagine – stories that are driven by mystery invite us to speculate, to dream up alternate possibilities – who is the G-Man? What happened to Rapture? We invite more of the game into our creative consciousness – we imagine. Even in games with completely traditional linear storytelling models, this is powerful stuff.
In the future I’d like to see more games wield this power intentionally and explore what’s possible with it. I’d like to see designers stylize or not show something by choice rather than, as Ultima IV did, as a technological compromise. I want to make games that people want to invite into their imaginations. If it sounds like I’ve cast a wide net in searching for examples and potential directions, that’s because there are so many avenues… which is very inspiring.
Steve Jobs once claimed that computers are “a bicycle for the mind”. Videogames could be a bicycle for the imagination, if we have the will to broaden our medium in this direction.
 To be clear, even the most imagination-friendly videogame is still rule-bounded in ways that truly freeform, imaginative play – think kids in a schoolyard playing cops and robbers – is not. The value of the former would not be to replace the latter, but to populate what is currently the vast empty gulf between the two.