Although they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, not many realistic people are happy and fewer still happy people are realistic.
We are a people looking for escape. Even if only briefly, and certainly not entirely, but we crave it nonetheless. Some of the largest and historically most recession-proof industries in the world are the entertainment industries. Movies, books, games, television and theatre all thrive even when times are hard. When luxury goods start to sit on shelves, and even when people are struggling to get the bare essentials, still they find ways to get entertained.
To me it says something lovely about humanity. Even in times of hardship, when life is a fight and achievements are few and small, even then people dream and hope and wish for better days. It is part of the magic of any medium of entertainment, to let the audience escape their world, and their troubles. Even if it’s only for a little while. It’s an obvious link but one worth noting anyway, to some extent escapism is essential to be entertained. In the gaming industry they call it immersion.
But really, what reviewers are so desperately seeking is a good stroking of their throbbing nostalgia glands. Just take a look at Gametrailers 2012 Game of the Year awards. It was actually embarrassing to watch, and it’s far from the first time that I’ve seen nostalgic pulses override common sense. The issue is immersion. It is paramount to the enjoyment of a game, and there is nothing more immersive than a sense of nostalgia.
Even though I don’t like what Blizzard are doing, who they’ve become, who their friends are, and what they now consider acceptable, I’ll still buy Heart of the Swarm, because I loved the series as a child. I hate myself for it, but I still love the StarCraft universe. Even though I recognise it, nostalgia tricks my brain into feeling immersed in the world of the game. Immersion is all I can ask from a game, but it’s a tall enough order.
Immersion is the synthesis of all that a game is trying to achieve. Above all, for at least some time, a game must absorb you. It must be so enticing and its world and gameplay so skillfully wrought and deftly assembled that the barrier between fantasy and reality begins to blur. When this happens, and it actually happens often, the characters and the world no longer exist only as fiction. They become real to each person who has experienced them, and so long as those experiences elicit an emotional response, those worlds and those characters exist in at least some way and have value for each player.
It is subtle, and slow-building, and most importantly it is distinctly personal. Entertainment is the vessel for our own emotions, it is the exploration of fantastical possibilities and it is the chance to explore the depths of human achievement, culture, and suffering. Most of all, it is a chance to test the limits of human imagination.
Which is awesome, but only if you’re willing to try. Ultimately, our level of immersion and therefore how much we actually care about a game and its world is directly tied to our willingness to suspend disbelief. If a game is good, it gets us to hold back the savage hounds of logic, reason, and rationality. If it’s excellent, we forget we’re even holding the leash. And only when a game is magnificently awe inspiring can you truly let the dogs out, and watch as they try in vain to find a way to break the immersion the developers have built so expertly.
The issue is that you cannot let the dogs out on every title. It will only end in disappointment and frustration as inevitably your hounds find a way to destroy what was carefully albeit imperfectly built. There may be some satisfaction from the strength of your dogs and how efficiently they found the weakness or impurity but the reality is that the man with the lazy dogs who lounge in the sun and pant the day away, he is happier than the man with the huge and snarling creatures.
It’s the oldest argument there is, would you rather be smart or happy? Realistic or happy? Logical, reasonable, impervious to misdirection, and acutely aware of manipulation, or would you rather be happy?
I’m not saying they are mutually exclusive, but they do seem to sometimes conflict. If you want to be taken on a ride, a journey, or an adventure, there has to be some internal acceptance that there needs to exist some level of gullibility. Most importantly, it’s about giving yourself permission to be unassuming, and unaware, and ultimately accepting of the world you’re presented with.
I’m playing Tomb Raider and I love it. It’s not perfect, or even near to it. But it’s been made with such love and care that I choose to accept everything and gain something rather than lamenting the lack of everything and instead enjoying nothing.
It’s refreshing to expect nothing and thus to get excited when you find anything. It is better to do this rather than demanding everything and becoming frustrated when you only get something. The truth is that something can come from anything, and even though something will always start out worse than everything, something from anything could eventually become everything. So to enjoy anything, you have to accept that although we always want everything, it is better to appreciate something than to be disappointed because you can never have everything.
There is a place I go inside my head when I play a game for the first time. Inside this space there is no judgement, no context, and no opinion. There is only me, and my desires and my impulses. It is a volatile and moody place, but one that lets me do something important.
It lets me enjoy the world even when I have issue with it. It’s a place that helps me understand that perfection is a myth and that it also exists in the moment.
Take the good, leave the bad, be happy.