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The start of the affair: My very own mute, my very own heartstrings

12:21 PM on 06.28.2008

[Editor's note: unangbangkay talks about how games have gotten him emotionally involved for his Monthly Musing piece. -- CTZ

It's an interesting feeling when a creative expression manages to drill through your jaded, unimpressed skin to tap that most-sought target that any narrative dives for: your emotions. Almost every single-player experience short of Tetris dreams of that halcyon moment.

And it's in that moment, years ago, that it happened, the moment I cared about "them vidya gaems".

To thrill you, frighten you, make you laugh, make you think, and ultimately, to make you care, is the thread that games most dearly want to tug. Caring makes a game more than a game, more than a score or a level, a cache of loot, or even boobs you might see, because your friend totally saw the secret ending. Caring is the point where you're willing to gloss over some of the technical flaws "just because".

Most narrative games opt to show you what happens, usually through cutscenes, codec conversations, and cinematography. In general, when a game wants to have you feel, it becomes a movie. Removed from the experience in that way, how could you care?

"But surely," you ask "you can care about the characters in games! They're often just as deep and interesting as any movie's." Indeed, I cannot but agree. I cared about Cyan on the Phantom Train, as Chad Concelmo expertly recounted. I cared when poor Aeris got a gigantic sword stuck through her gut. I knew, even back then, that games could tell a damn good story.

But again, it wasn't my heartstrings being pulled at. I cared about these collections of sprites, polygons and program code, but I didn't care as them. And there's the difference. That tiny gap between "about" and "as", between being engrossed and being immersed, was what expanded games in my eyes as a transcendent, unique medium. In games you can participate as yourself, making your choices, feeling what you can feel, in your own identity.

It wasn't the very first time I felt that capacity, that uniqueness in games, but I first thought about it as I played Half-Life.

Wait, what? In Half-Life I'm Gordon Freeman! I've got a job, a name, even a face on the box! Where's the "as" I'm talking about?

Paradoxically, that "as" is there, from the very first second of the train ride into Black Mesa, to the last second of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. That "as" floats inside inside Gordon's head, looking through his eyes. Right, I'm talking about experiencing game stories in the first person.

It's only a video game that can tell a story from that point of view. It's only in a video game that you can stand in the character's shoes, thinking your thoughts, forming your impressions. You. You are Time's Person of the Year, every year, whenever you put in the disc and pick up the controller.

For all his facial hair and his MIT degree, Gordon is distinct for being indistinct. He never speaks, never asserts his own individuality, and through it allows you to fill in the blanks. Gordon thinks what YOU think. If you cringed (or laughed) when Alyx coined the term "Zombine", Gordon did.

And key to this uniqueness, I've found, is a well-worn cliche. To some, it's an overused crutch. To all, it's the Mute Protagonist. Even jRPGs, arguably a most linear game experience, can immerse as effectively System Shock II with proper use of the Mute Protagonist.

With the mute hero, the weight of the story rests on you. Characters speak to you instead of each other. When Aigis says she can't live without being by your side in Persona 3, it's your side she wants to live by, not that kid on the screen's side. And if you think about the game between sessions, you think about it as if you happened to be writing fan fiction (though you'd never admit it).

When those archers at Rockaxe Castle shot your sister in Suikoden II, they shot YOUR FUCKING SISTER ! You've got another person's face, wielding a different person's giant tongfa, but that's still you holding your dead stepsibling in your arms. It doesn't get as immersive as that.

That's where I knew that games could tell a story in a way no other medium could: through your perspective. That's where the affair started.

I'm happy to say that games will only continue the trend. Persona 3 puts you in charge of your schedule, determining who to spend your precious time with. As the game puts it, "you're responsible for your actions". Uplink and Defcon sit you behind a wall of proxies and in front of the Big Red Button, respectively.

The Experiment places your eyes behind the myriad camera lenses eyes of a dilapidated ship's security station. In it, you're unable to speak except through yes/no camera nodding, unable to act except to switch lights on an off to catch a person's attention. Ironically, while you're so removed from play, you're plunged headlong into the experience.

Limiting your actions strangely expands your point of view, as you guide a scared young woman to safety, combing through personnel files and solving puzzles in that world through notes you take in this one (the game is hard, you do need to take a few notes).

And so my affair continues. Here's to more opportunities for self-insertion!

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