Postcards from Play

I’ve been thinking about RPGs I’ve played, and how I’ve told my friends about them, and it’s struck me that reminiscing about games is generally a bit weird—particularly if you’re reminiscing about a single-player game with someone who’s also played it. Because games aren’t like books or TV or film in that one key aspect, agency.

If I play Life is Strange and a friend then plays it too we may have completely different experiences as a result of the many different in-game choices we make. Even something relatively linear like Uncharted 4 can be two different games to two different people based on their style of play and interpretation. You could say something similar of films, of course (our enjoyment of and engagement with a title is shaped by our personalities and experiences) but films are passive where games are generally not. To play a game is to make decisions about how it progresses, even if those decisions are just about how fast to walk or precisely when to jump. In this way, most games are active (first-person) experiences where other screen media and books are passive (third-person).

This agency is why you find people describing their games in that first-person voices—”I was playing Red Dead Redemption and my horse shod itself!”—and perhaps why people (for better or worse) feel such ownership of the games they play. They’ve shaped the story, they’ve played the starring role. It’s their story now, and what right does anyone have to criticise or interfere with it? It’s not just a story, though, it’s an experience—one they’ve been in charge of, so any threat or condemnation of it is an assault on their choices, their creative freedom.

I digress, but perhaps this ownership is part of what makes sharing game experiences weird. Saying “Let me tell you about this game I played,” is more like “Let me show you my holiday snaps,” than “Let me tell you about this book I read,” because it’s a unique experience you’ve had that they probably can’t replicate for themselves even if they try.

Perhaps the analogy of games being like holidays is a useful one. A friend plays the same game, a friend visits the same far-off town as you.

Did they like the city bus tour? Was the weather different for them? Did they find the café with the omelettes? Did it remind them of their hometown too?

Did they like the main quest? Was it different on Xbox? Did they find that sidequest with the spoons? Did is remind them of Morrowind?

The two player experiences can be very similar yet they must always be different.

We discuss a game with someone as if we’ve played the same game, but we’ve really just visited the same city.

[Written ~2016]