Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I cared more about a game’s story than I did its system; I wonder what it would be like if I stared at games’ fake worlds more than their real ones. Instead, the clouds are ignored: I study the winds.
Warning: a few too many words ahead.
This entire train of thought fell upon me because I was thinking about magic (in games, in stories, in whatever) and about what makes magic feel special: Magic is at its best when it feels like a breaking of The Rules, and such things as fantasy worlds are built upon breaking established rules of REALITY.
When you take reality and warp it, you have science fiction, or superheroes, or… well, one of many things. There are movies about mostly normal people doing mostly normal things that just so happen to be on the ‘interesting’ end of the spectrum – and there are books that explore alien dimensions, where characters may expound upon the bizarre nature of these strange new planes.
There is a book called Flatland that details the interactions of two-dimensional shapes in a two-dimensional world. The protagonist, a square, experiences magic ( but maybe i shouldn’t spoil how??? )
Within a game there are, speaking in extremely rough terms, two layers. There is the world it presents, and there is the world it is & creates. Let’s call them ‘story’ and ‘system’. Books, movies, spoken tales, all consist entirely of only the first layer: STORY. When you read a book about a dog, you play along – maybe taking no effort whatsoever. You accept that there is a dog, because you have no choice other than that, except to disbelieve the book. If you do that, of course, the book becomes very boring. You are left only with the SYSTEM of reading a book, which is “sitting and looking at a thing”. You will probably start to feel stupid after doing this for only a few minutes.
A game’s story is the world it presents, and this is the world we have practiced paying attention to. It is the face of the game: what you see first, and what everyone else will see first. On the other hand, the world a game presents is entirely fictional; we have danced with fiction before. A far cry from anything else, games can do what nothing else can:
Games do not warp reality; they do you one better. They start from scratch.
So let’s get to the title (or the subtitle, I suppose), “the System is the Setting”. Magic warps the setting. A book cannot perform magic upon its system, because to do so would be to break the rules of our reality – so they perform magic upon its story. Fictional characters experience fictional magic, and because we can become so involved in their worlds, a little bit of that feeling of magic percolates through the paper into our sponge-like brains.
Games, on the other hand, are happy to create their own little pocket realities and we’re all getting a lot better at accepting ourselves into these pockets: but despite having STORY and SYSTEM, the magic that happens in games is almost always story magic. The villain comes back from the dead through evil magic, and you might get a little taste of magic. You might be telekinetic: it’s magic because the game is set somewhere familiar, except you’re a telekinetic so, wow, GET IMPRESSED. This means you can move stuff (without touching it!). You’re impressed. Maybe a magician joins your party, and he Does Magic because he says he does (except really, he’s doing the same sort of thing your swordfighter does — but she has more health).
But where a story merely presents – projects – a world…
a video game — and, yes, we’ve moved quite firmly into the digital realm, now —
a video game creates one beneath all the smoke and mirrors. Game worlds define their own rules: you can usually move, and perhaps jump, and often attack. Maybe you can block attacks? These things kill you, these things don’t. These things are good. Collect the good things. Avoid the killing things! Don’t fall too far!
Where fantasy can bend and break death, video games each create their very own.
When you play A VIDEO GAME, you may first submit yourself to its STORY but you will very quickly fall into its SYSTEM (unless you’re nothing like me, and think I am completely mad). When your perception of setting travels out of reality and into a system crafted from nothing, you become susceptible to magic.
If you create games, realize that you have the power to deliver magic into the hands of every player, everywhere. By creating a video game you are creating a SYSTEM – maybe you don’t realize it because it seems like the STORY is so very much bigger but trust me – you are creating a SYSTEM over which you have infinitely more control than anyone will ever have over reality (which is the system that surrounds every other kind of media). When you control your very own system, you control its rules. When you control the rules, you carry the responsibility to maintain them in order to keep things fair and reliable.
You also have the power to break the rules.
You have the power to create real magic.