On pretending to be a cube and respecting an artist’s vision.
I typically don’t role-play when I game. I just have no desire to actually place myself in my character’s shoes, to make decisions as if I were actually a spaceman or a druid and not a middle class, white American male gazing glassy-eyed at his computer. Which isn’t to say I don’t invest deeply in whatever game I’m playing; my emotional connection to my avatar is just usually fueled more by traditional audience-to-character empathy than E.T.-and-Elliot-esque synchronicity. Perhaps it’s because the perspective I’m bringing to video games relies much more heavily on fully authored sources like films and novels than more participatory pen-and-paper RPGs and the like (I’ve played roughly one-fourth of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in the entirety of my nerdy existence, and while I enjoyed it, the game sputtered out for a reason), or that I got into video games around when they started cribbing more of their narrative tricks from the cinematic. Whatever the reason, I play games more to engage with the work as a whole than to invest in a protagonist as an extension of myself.
I know this is sacrilege to some, a squandering of the gift of interactivity and the intensely personal experiences that can result from co-authoring a story. And not only do I see the appeal of role-playing – of just saying “fuck it,” suspending disbelief, and fully investing in being a time-traveling hermaphroditic dwarf or whatever – but I would agree that my inability to do so sometimes makes me miss the point of games where it’s the key draw. When I started this project, I wanted it to function not only as a series of opinion pieces, but also as an exploration of why classic games are so loved, even when I disagree with the reverence. But I quickly realized that my desire to view games as complete works, to dissect them as one would a film or a book, would inhibit my ability to find value if a creator actually intended for me to role-play. In these cases, were my very attempts to respect an author’s intention actually causing me to ignore it?
Then I played Adventure, Warren Robinett’s 1979 attempt to translate the early, intricately programmed computer text games to the severely underpowered Atari 2600 console. Adventure is an Arthurian pastiche stripped to its most basic: A lone hero ventures out to retrieve a holy grail, navigates a labyrinth, fights some dragons, and returns home. He finds a handful of items to assist him along the way, such as a sword and a magnet (used to move other items out of hard-to-reach places), which – if he’s unlucky – can be frustratingly stolen by a killjoy bat. That’s more or less the whole of the game; the fun and re-playability come from a challenge mode that scatter the items at random, making the difficulty and length of the experience entirely unpredictable.
Many consider Adventure an antecedent of the modern RPG; the ability to use and juggle items in particular could be seen as a primitive version of an inventory system. While its influence is undoubted, playing the game today could not be an experience more removed from the morally ambiguous choices, laboriously rendered universes, and endless hours of quests and character interactions that define the likes of Mass Effect and Fallout: New Vegas. Adventure‘s graphics are beyond retro; while the Atari 2600’s limited processing capacity proved serviceable for less visually ambitious games like Asteroids (or even Pitfall), you can see why Robinett’s higher-ups felt a grand, spectacle-driven adventure might be unachievable. The swords are just arrows, the dragons resemble giant seahorses, and the bat looks more like one of the Space Invaders than anything found on this planet. Most shockingly, Robinett either couldn’t or didn’t imbue his protagonist with any recognizably human characteristics. He’s merely a square, one with the chameleonic ability to turn the color of whatever room he’s traveling through.
In short, this is not a fully realized world. This is not a Skyrim or Azeroth, waiting for my perfect, fully customized warrior to barrel through and rectify disputes great and small. Graphically, this is one step up from doing the maze on the back of a Happy Meal menu. (Indeed, most of Adventure‘s map isn’t even stylized enough to qualify as “maze-like”; it is actually just a maze.) And yet, despite or because of its simplicity, Adventure broke through my curmudgeonly realism and forced me to use my imagination. Those arrows were actual long, legendary blades; those strange seahorse-dragons (more commonly compared to ducks, actually) were fierce beasts hot on my trail; the monochrome, Lego brick walls surrounding me were the torch-lined halls of a spooky dungeon. And that square… well, that square was me, the daring hero, of course. All this was just a quick glimmer, a motivation to continue trying when the game seemed too frustrating or archaic, but it worked. I saw the appeal of this quest being mine.
This isn’t some tirade against modern games, or some pining for the good ol’ days of simplicity and straightforwardness (which I partly wasn’t even alive for, I should add). As many problems as I have with the creative state of the current video game industry, I hold unthinking nostalgia and retro fetishism in equal contempt. And I’m certainly not saying Adventure is a better, deeper game than the other examples I’m noting. I would hardly consider myself an expert on the genre, but I’ve witnessed current RPG developers do some amazing things and deliver a few works of stunning beauty and thoughtfulness. Yet speaking purely of role-playing, I have to wonder if I was able to fill in the blanks playing Adventure – more so than I was going through, say, Knights of the Old Republic – because Adventure actually gave me some blanks to fill.
Perhaps more so than any other genre, the evolution of the role-playing game has been a constant pursuit of greater detail. This makes perfect sense: a huge draw of RPGs is creating a self-contained world the player can get lost in, right? But my personal hang-up about this is that when these games ask me to co-pilot and help define their stories and characters, it feels counter-intuitive given how thought-out the games already are. When the inclusion of every moral quandary, ornate piece of armor, and gorgeous sunset feels like someone else’s creation, how do I pretend that this is somehow my character’s sandbox? Developers like Bioware and Bethesda are in love with constructing increasingly definite universes that they want to see come to life; I’m not saying Skyrim has some grand thematic agenda, but don’t its attention to craft and specifically flavored take on high fantasy speak to some sort of authorial presence?
Again, I’m not ragging on this type of game; I’m only discussing why it’s difficult for me to invest in their worlds as if I was actually a citizen of them. Alternatively, I find it comparatively easy to get into the head of Link or one of Fumito Ueda’s heroes. The games they inhabit are certainly no less thoughtful or well-constructed than modern RPGs (I might even argue to the contrary), but employ a minimalism and purposeful lack of context that allow the player to make of them what he will. There are no tomes you can pick up in Ico that provide a millennia-stretching history of its castle setting; while the game is undoubtedly in Fumito Ueda’s voice, it’s a voice that’s more concerned with creating an absorbing story than fleshing out a universe. These games are really the direct progeny of Adventure (the original Legend of Zelda in particular feels like a realization of Robinett’s vision), and like their predecessor, they strip their stories down to their basics to discover something new and involving. Adventure is simple, sure, but its world isn’t defined to death and is allowed to contain some elements that don’t make perfect sense. Mystery is an important key to imagination, after all.
Of course, this is all just personal preference and conditioning. I’m sure plenty of computer geeks saw Adventure in the early 1980s and scoffed, deriding it as an overly literal bastardization of their infinitely more imaginative text-based games. And it’s funny to discuss authorial command through the lens of Adventure since its most iconic accomplishment was an act of artistic ownership. The story is now infamous enough that it’s even inspired a popular science fiction novel: Robinett, upset that Atari didn’t credit its programmers, created a secret room in Adventure that informed players this game was his work. This is popularly referred to as the first video game “Easter egg,” and all those oddball trinkets and in-jokes players spend ages tracking down have their roots here. Yet as important as hidden secrets were for the future of game design, perhaps the even more important precedent set by Robinett’s passive-aggressive middle finger to Atari is the idea that games are created by someone. No matter how much developers want us to fully inhabit their virtual landscapes, it’s important not to lose sight of a creator’s intentions, of what a game is saying beyond our immediate involvement with it; if we want this to be art and not just entertainment, we must at least acknowledge the artist. The only reason we have many beloved series today is that some very clever people stood back and pondered what made Robinett’s Adventure involving, and what could make it better. Yet I must admit that when a designer does this right – when an artist creates a world so enthralling it already feels intrinsically linked to your point-of-view – perhaps the point is to get a little lost.
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