[Warning: This post may contain spoilers. Read with discretion.]
Last week Spencer Greenwood of Noble Carrots wrote a very interesting post concerning the thematic limitations of videogames. In this article, Spencer discusses the opening scene to Call of Duty 4, a game I was fortunate enough to be playing at the time, in which the character is dragged through a city, only able to look around. Greenwood had this to say: "The game robs the player of its usual interactivity to great emotional effect. However, I am not sure that this level should exist in a game. Why couldn't it be left to happen in a film? ... the emotionally engaging part of the video they were watching was fundamentally, not an interactive experience."
My first thought was in defense of the game. This segment holds more meaning specifically because I expected more character control than I was given. If this were to happen in a film, I would never have had this expectation. But couldn't this also be considered a limitation? Am I confining my experience by playing games with certain gameplay expectations? I quickly jumped down a rabbit hole of thoughts regarding the limitations of videogames. If the medium cannot address certain thematic concerns, is it doomed to be literature and film's entertaining but ignorant and incoherent step-brother? Are we trapped within the narrative walls of our console prison?
To answer these questions, I first want to take a look at another example from CoD 4. In this scene, your character is extremely limited. You must crawl slowly through the wreckage of your downed helicopter just to gaze upon the nuclear destruction and die. This segment is stunning and disturbing.
The contrast between interaction in the rest of the game and minimal interaction in this particular scene, creates a narrative connection between the lack of player mobility and the lack of character agency within the story. As the player is confined to the limitations of game mechanics, so is the protagonist confined within the structured violence of a war hungry world. The inevitability of player death creates a sense of entanglement, or even culpability, with the system of violence that allowed nuclear carnage to ensue. Maybe being a soldier in CoD 4 isn't as freeing or exhilarating as you thought. The expressive power of this scene could not have been the same in film or literature.
Every medium has its own limits and expectations. Novels are confined to paper and text, with a history of established narrative techniques. Film is a purely visual and auditory experience, and it too has a set of rules and patterns commonly adhered to. Videogames are no different. Therefore, we can take a lesson from those artists who have used these unique characteristics as artistic diving boards.
Vladamir Nabakov was a master of the English language, and several others for that matter, and often used reader expectations to his advantage. Traditionally, novels have a beginning and an end: first A happens, then B, C and so on. In Pnin, the narrator becomes trapped in this formula. The protagonist's story presumably continues past the last chapter while the narrator is forced to begin again at A, doomed to recount the tale for eternity.
Taking lessons from Nabakov, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves creates a frightening manifestation of the story with the actual text and paper of the book itself, breaking countless conventions in the process. Danielewski's text warps and fades into the binding, crosses over itself, literally creating a labyrinthine journey. Like the titular house of leaves, the book itself is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, adding a sense of macabre realism to the tale. These stories could not have been told with the same power in any other format.
Film too has its narrative jugglers. Federico Fellini's 8½ is filmed in such a way as to warp dreams, flashbacks, and reality, creating the most "metafilm" I can think of. Christopher Nolan's Memento tells a compelling story in backward moving segments of linear narrative. This film shatters the viewers' narrative expectations while simultaneously driving the story towards both a beginning and an end. These movies take the limits of storytelling in film and use them towards their own ends, creating unmatchable experiences.
If film and literature can do it, so can videogames. Some already have. Metal Gear Solid fans should all remember Psycho Mantis, a telekinetic, leather wearing weirdo who can read your mind and your memory card! Having an enemy call you a coward for saving your game too often is uniquely unsettling.
Jonathan Blow's Braid also has a scene in which the limits of the game mechanics forge a stronger narrative. At one point in Braid, time moves according to the direction you move, resulting in your character rushing past an NPC who comments on his haste. The protagonist, by definition, is rash and driven ever onward. Without the limitations of a side-scrolling platformer and the mechanics of time, this illuminating piece of narrative would not have been the same.
All the limitations of videogames, from interactivity to save files, hand-held controllers to less-than-perfect AI, are also the features that make videogames unique. No experience in one medium can be mirrored perfectly in another, as it should be. We may have limitations but the expressive power of videogames is limitless.