Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Storytelling and Collection

I'm noticing a trend in the games I enjoy - Pokemon, Bioshock, Dead Space and, to my chagrin, the Sims 3.  And, more importantly, I'm noticing they all have something in common.  You have to go around collecting things.

Gotta catch 'em all, huh?  The Sims 3 introduced not only gemstones and bug collections, but, with the addition of World Adventures, artefacts, as well.  Bioshock and Dead Space both have audio logs, some of which only the truly conscientious will find.

And is it worth it?  We find these things, we listen to them, or view them, or name them, and we get joy out of it. Presumably, otherwise why would we keep playing?  In Pokemon, you're winning bragging rights.  In the Sims, you're creating stories to tell to your friends later.  In Bioshock and Dead Space you're piecing the story together to get a clear overall image.  Arguably all of these things relate to the very human need for stories - having something to tell someone else - but the audio logs pose a problem here.  Without knowing the game in exquisite detail, it's highly likely that even your friends are going to have little clue of what you're ranting about.

So, I offer, what drives us is not so much the social aspect, although that's certainly part of it.  I think we gather information to find information.  The having of knowledge is its own reward.  In Pokemon, you're trying to complete the Pokedex.  In Bioshock and Dead Space there are a finite number of audio logs, and, in Dead Space, at least, you can see the gaps in your collection.  In the Sims 3, the more you learn about the world around you, the more bonuses you acquire.

Knowledge is power.  We're raised to understand this.  So knowledge, even story knowledge, must surely have a use, or an application in real life.  Otherwise why would it be there?  Why else would we want to collect it?

It's all part of the clever story conspiracy, I'm sure of it.  Those game designers with their shiny mechanics are using our collecting impulses to teach us things.  But are they things worth learning?  The writer in me wants to say yes, vehemently, they are.  The scholar in me says, well, when is knowing where and how to catch both types of Shellos ever going to be of real value?

The answer is, in all honesty, outside of a very specific subset of time in the course of my lifespan, probably never.  I know this.  And yet I keep playing.  As an experience, this information becomes crucial.  But would we keep playing without it?  Is it, perhaps, not really the story that keeps us going at all?

And here, I know the answer is a resounding no.  None of these games would be what they are if it weren't for the stories attached to them.  They create a sense of community, of sharing, of discovery and delight.  The story alone accomplishes this, whether it's the intended or emergent.  I get as much joy from listening to Andrew Ryan speak as I do from relating his words to others.

So I can only conclude it's my exploratory curiosity that draws me to these games when others find them trivial or irritating.  I do my best to discover all I can, and I feel that I benefit from this.  Is it a false benefit?  Are my friends right?  Does OCD really play an important part in my gaming schedule?

And to them I reply: "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?"

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