Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Ian Bo­gost ar­gues for more am­bi­gu­ity in game de­sign

The first scene in the orig­i­nal The Leg­end

Of Zelda is one of the best mo­ments in videogames. Not the first mo­ment of game­play, when Link faces the wiles of mon­ster-in­fested Hyrule alone un­less he descends into the Old Man’s cave to re­trieve a sword; no, I mean the ti­tle se­quence. The rocky moun­tain cut through by an aqua blue wa­ter­fall; the sky, an im­prob­a­ble or­ange; the ti­tle it­self, with glow­ing Tri­force back­drop – a thing that yet means noth­ing to us. Two bars of plain­tive mu­sic, re­peated, and then a fade through blue to black.

Seconds later, ev­ery­thing’s ru­ined. Scrolling text tells us of Gan­non and Zelda and the Tri­force, a tale so straight­for­ward that it doesn’t even rise to the level of myth.

The Leg­end Of Zelda is pure me­chan­ics: go find the trea­sure and save the princess.

De­spite the fact the Zelda in­tro of­fers no in­ter­ac­tion apart from the abil­ity to press Start to skip it, it sets a tone and mood bet­ter than the rest of the game ever man­ages. Yes, the dun­geons feel murky and threat­en­ing at times. The cool colours of their walls and floors along­side the brood­ing mu­si­cal runs evoke a damp, wet fore­bod­ing, even de­spite the game’s 8bit fidelity. But noth­ing quite matches that ti­tle se­quence.

The rea­son is sim­ple, and it’s one of the com­mon­est tech­niques in al­most ev­ery other kind of art, but rarely in games: am­bi­gu­ity. In those first few seconds of The Leg­end

Of Zelda, any­thing is pos­si­ble. Your mind can’t help but fill in the pos­si­bil­i­ties. You’re con­fronted with a strange world, alien but familiar, with a se­cret of some kind. But then the game gives away all its se­crets right up front. The folk­loric back­story is told in as bland a man­ner as pos­si­ble. While ev­ery­thing the game asks of you as a player is still left to be dis­cov­ered, ev­ery­thing that it means to ask for those ac­tions is laid bare, and be­fore you’ve even pressed Start.

Ad­mit­tedly, the orig­i­nal Zelda is al­most 30 years old. But to­day’s games – gen­er­ally thought to have ma­tured nar­ra­tively – still

Coun­ter­in­tu­itively, more mean­ing is con­veyed by with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion than sup­ply­ing it

sup­ply more di­rect in­for­ma­tion than we’d ex­pect from a film, novel or paint­ing. The

Last Of Us, a blockbuster game that as­pires to­ward mean­ing­ful, adult dis­course, spells out ev­ery de­tail of its con­text through ver­bal ex­po­si­tion. The game doesn’t trust you enough to al­low any interpretive free­dom.

It’s too late for Zelda, a game that func­tioned as a chil­dren’s story be­cause, frankly, it was first made for chil­dren. But we can still imag­ine a ver­sion of the game that makes good on the prom­ise set by those first few mo­ments. The ob­vi­ous ap­proach would in­volve equiv­o­cat­ing on the goodness of good and the wicked­ness of evil – is Gan­non re­ally mer­ci­less and ex­e­crable, a sim­ple al­le­gor­i­cal em­blem? In­deed, this is Braid’s ap­proach to rein­vent­ing the plat­former as fine art. Or like­wise, what if Link’s own re­solve to ac­com­plish such an im­prob­a­ble task as sav­ing Hyrule sin­gle-hand­edly were un­clear? There are al­ready mo­ments of loneliness and de­spair in The Leg­end Of Zelda – cross­ing the desert always feels par­tic­u­larly dour – but th­ese mo­ments are left un­am­pli­fied.

Some of the more suc­cess­ful in­die and artis­tic games have learned this les­son. There, greater mean­ing arises through am­bi­gu­ity rather than through overt­ness.

Jour­ney of­fers one ex­am­ple. By re­mov­ing all lan­guage and re­plac­ing it with iconog­ra­phy and player ges­ture, the game pro­foundly mag­ni­fies its sen­sory, af­fec­tive, and interpretive pos­si­bil­i­ties. And de­spite some­times turgid tex­tual in­ter­ludes, Braid never di­rectly in­ter­prets the ‘cor­rect’ mean­ing of its game-me­chan­i­cal, time­ma­nip­u­la­tion al­le­gories. Coun­ter­in­tu­itively, more mean­ing is con­veyed by with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion than sup­ply­ing it.

But those are in­die games. One might won­der if such a strat­egy could work for main­stream games. As it hap­pens, an ex­am­ple of am­bi­gu­ity can be found at the very cen­tre of one of the most suc­cess­ful videogame se­ries of all time: The Sims. The most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion in a sim­u­la­tion of hu­man be­hav­ior – what a char­ac­ter is think­ing and feel­ing – is ab­stracted to the point of non­sense. In­stead of voiceovers or hack­neyed di­a­logue, we get ab­strac­tions: icons and grunts. Yet this tech­nique makes us more at­tached to our Sims, pre­cisely be­cause we be­come in­volved in de­ci­pher­ing their de­sires and mo­ti­va­tions. As in the

Zelda in­tro, that work takes place in play­ers’ heads rather than in their hands. As it turns out, the old­est kind of in­ter­ac­tiv­ity – in­ter­pre­ta­tion – is of­ten the most pow­er­ful.

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