What is it like to be in a world

Yesterday I was musing at length about a Video Game Hugo. At that point, I think I was still very focused on story and narrative. Looking back at what I wrote yesterday and what I wrote back in 2015, I can see I used two examples of notable games that I have played and which definitely had significant SFF elements which I stated as not being things I think should win a Hugo. The two examples were:

  • Minecraft
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons

So in both cases I picked games with limited narrative elements.

So I thought I should re-think that. I’m not flipping my earlier view but I really want to reconsider it and see if I end up somewhere else.

Video game arguably offer an opportunity to gives a sense of what it is like to be in a setting. Ironically this is not always the case in the sub-genre of games often classed as role-playing games. Many video game RPG are often anything but. You play a game as a character but unlike table-top role-playing games, you aren’t necessarily getting to shape a character. Instead, more typically you are operating the characters actions rather than shaping their personality. There are notable exceptions and more games emphasising interpersonal aspects of games (including romance options) but that’s taking me away from the main point. Stronger narrative elements make it harder to just BE in a setting.

Setting and world building are a major part of what makes SFF a genre. Science fiction stories can adopt many plot approaches that connect with other genres (romance, adventure, mystery, horror, detective) and even borrow from other genres defined by settings (westerns, historical periods). The mutability of setting and the sense of playing “what if” with how the world/universe might be is fundamental to SFF as a genre.

Games with their own strong underlying plot aren’t inimical to this “what if” quality. Portal, to use an example I used in 2015, had a distinct story but also used a game/puzzle mechanic that took the idea of spatial wormholes and showed you what it would be like to magic up a way to use them at will. Certainly a book or a film can have characters do the same but a video game is obliged to have a consistent behaviour for how this departure from reality works and also forces the player to get to grips with what it would be like to be in a world where such a thing was possible.

Given that, I should really consider the non-narrative SFF elements of a game. Doing so would mean that games without narrative elements should be considered potentially strong contenders. I believe that gives me two criteria to consider:

  1. How good is the video game as a SFF narrative?
  2. How well does the video game give the player a sense of what is like to be in a SFF setting?

I think these two criteria work well with two touchstone examples of games I feel would have deserved a Hugo in the past: Portal and Chrono Trigger. Both had interesting narrative elements and both were strong in the second criteria that captures how game play works with aesthetics and world building.

2 thoughts on “What is it like to be in a world

  1. It’s an interesting way of looking at it. There’s definitely a sense among gamers that you can’t have both strong narrative and character-driven story telling and an ‘open world’ (ie one where you are free to encounter and interact with the game world in any way you choose). I think that how much that holds true depends a little bit on what kind of story you choose to try and tell. Any story with a strong sense of urgency or emotional connection is going to be diluted by exploration and side quests. But a story can still be epic and interesting without being those things. It could be argued that Skyrim does this well and Fallout 4 not so well.

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