Being There was quoted in Jonathan Blow's revision of his talk "Conflicts in Game Design," which he recently presented as the keynote of this year's Montreal International Game Summit. I'm honored to have one of my essays, which stole most of its ideas from Doug Church, referenced by someone who drives so much discussion in the industry.
Though it was only touched on lightly in his keynote, Blow raised an interesting concern: does abdication of authorship have the potential to convey profundity or deep meaning?
The question begs a definition of "deep meaning." Can such meaning only be derived from a sender-receiver relationship, where the genius author cooks up deeply meaningful thought in his head and hands down his superior understanding to the waiting masses? This is the artistic mode which Ebert relies on to judge traditional media, disqualifying video games from consideration wholesale. And it is this very mode that Blow acknowledges as unsuited to our interactive medium, referring to it as the staid "message model of meaning." He notes that when games rely on linear, Hollywood-style stories, or when art games attempt to convey moralistic platitudes through systemic play, they are perpetuating the message model, and wonders aloud what valid alternatives might be.
I would argue that abdication of authorship, when paired with certain existing game forms, points toward such an alternative: a mode that trades painstakingly-paced plot points or densely symbolic mechanics for a matrix of unstructured potential personal revelations; one that trades grand, orchestrated received meaning for the encompassing sensation of visiting someplace outside the player's prior experience, with the potential to return deeply changed. The immersion model of meaning, as it might be called, takes the act of travel as its primary touchstone, instead of relying on traditional media such as film, the novel, or even sculpture, music or painting to inform the author's role.
Consider a trip you've taken to a faraway city or country. You leave your home, arriving in an unfamiliar place, and are set loose in this new context. You are unfamiliar with the layout of the streets or public transportation; the language and customs might be different from your own; even little things like signs indicating a bathroom or payphone may be alien to you. You begin to explore your new surroundings, perhaps guided by a tourist's handbook or a friend who knows the area, and begin mapping this new place into your mind. You meet new people and gain perspective by learning about someone who's known this place their entire life; you discover the history of the place and how it may have impacted the residents. You find out how the person you are changes when introduced to someplace new and strange. And then you return home, bringing a little bit of that changed person back with you.
Video games have the ability to provide these new contexts of experience, and maybe to change the people who visit their gameworlds in much the same way. The immersion model of meaning arises from design focus along two primary axes: providing a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions. Video games are already capable of doing these things; they are far less capable of providing the authored pacing, composed framing and predictable event flow of film to convey a linear narrative, and yet this is almost always a central focus in character-driven games. Embracing the immersion model of meaning requires the designer never think of the game as a story, but as a place filled with people and things that the player is free to engage with at his own pace and on his own terms.
Using three-dimensional space primarily to convey linear story constrains the high-level experience into two dimensions, and two directions-- forward and back. To paraphrase Blow, this dichotomy is inherently conflicted. Games have the potential to present experience that works like our own world-- where there's no one clear 'path' forward except the one we choose, and one's larger individual story is the sum of many smaller personal ones-- but video games' reliance on linear core narrative funnels the possibility space into one line, one story, that may twist and branch, but that nonetheless serves to homogenize the potential experience across all players who choose to visit your gameworld.
Under the immersion model, instead of relying on an authored message encoded in a single traditional narrative stream, meaning arises from the content developers' ambient characterization of the gameworld itself and the non-player characters who inhabit it. Instead of gaining perspective by seeing specific events through the eyes of a particular character, the player gains perspective by himself inhabiting a world apart from his own daily experience and coming away with a sense of meaningful displacement. Content creators still have the immense power to render interesting characters with engaging personalities, behaviors and desires, and to create unique locales with their own histories; the Hollywood screenwriter simply need not apply.
I've gained unique perspective by engaging with the fictional people and places of recent games: combing the starscape for descriptions of unexplored planets in Mass Effect painted a vision of the fantastic possibilities that might lay beyond our solar system; engaging with the outright gonzo civilians and unstructured side missions of the Yakuza games gave me the feeling of visiting modern Japan through a particularly twisted lens; traipsing about the savanna doing the increasingly grim dirty work of Far Cry 2's procedurally-generated faction representatives conveyed a unique sense of a place in the grip of nihilistic self-destruction; freely exploring the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 and choosing to complete unanchored quests like Agatha's Song illustrated just how much our world, and humanity's value systems, might change when faced with global catastrophe. The most memorable stories I recall from these games lay outside the narrative spine; the immersion model of meaning would be best served by a game that had no static central story weighing it down at all, just as our own lives have no predetermined single path.
The purest and most unassuming current example of the described approach must be Animal Crossing: it's a highly interactive other place filled with a loosely-arranged rotating cast of quirky personalities, which the player is invited to visit as often as he likes. Engagement with the game comes from the desire to visit this little world, see what it's like, see how it changes with the seasons, how the animals' child-like whims come and go, and how the player is able to craft his own identity within this wonderfully surreal and innocent context. There are elements of progression-- buying a bigger house, filling out the museum's collections, collecting sets of rare items-- but no authored story or mandatory participation of any sort; there is a beginning, when you first step into your town, but no "end" in a traditional sense. It is a pocket world that goes about its own business on its own time, but also responds to any presence the player may have in it. Its message is not inherently grand or profound-- but the experience of having been there creates genuine memories, and points toward a form that holds the potential to foster deep meaning in the individual who chooses to become immersed in it.
We already build incredible, vivid places, but feel the compulsion to pave over them with our attempts at compulsory pre-authored story structures. In embracing the immersion model of meaning, one's approach would shift away from building games around a core of Hollywood-style narrative, and toward building unique, convincing, open, integrally full gameworlds, populated by intriguing people to meet and things to do, and providing the player with tools of meaningful self-expression within that context that he might return changed by his experiences. Our attempts to bridle the player's freedom of movement and force our meaning onto him are misguided. Rather, it is that distinct transportative, transformative quality-- the ability of the player to build his own personal meaning through immersion in the interactive fields of potential we provide-- that is our unique strength, begging to be fully realized.
[Michael Samyn of Tale of Tales has independently posted a piece that I would consider a sister essay to the above-- maybe long lost sisters that grew up on opposite sides of the world only to later meet one another and find out how much they have in common. Please take a few minutes to read this eloquent and concise examination of games, immersion and meaning.]