Extra Life

Extra Life
Mid-Level Exceptions

Rowan Kaiser | 1 May 2007 08:04
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The process of imagination drives our culture's most compelling narratives. Be it Lost, The Wheel of Time, or Star Wars, these stories convey enough information to be interesting and entertaining but hide enough information to encourage fans try to fill in the missing parts. This can take the form of theories on message boards causing lively debates; fan-fiction, which deliberately fills in those gaps; or another story, later released, which answers those questions. These stories are generally fantasy and science fiction, which makes sense, in that these genres are the closest thing we have to modern mythology.

Videogames, due to their scope of creating an entire universe within a single storyline or narrative structure, have the ability to provide both the information required to move the direct narrative forward and to populate the game-world with back stories. The player's story is the most overtly important story, but the game universe contains its own implicit stories and histories. A roleplaying game follows the main character on her path, but the antagonist has her own history, part of which is generally revealed, but not as directly as the player character's. In Final Fantasy X, we see Tidus' pilgrimage from start to finish, but only have brief glimpses of Braska and Jecht's. In a sports game, we play our team's games, but the other teams play their own games, which have their own results just as much as the player's games do. They must be imagined, however: Perhaps that Atlanta 9-0 start in the 2008 season means Michael Vick has finally reached his potential? - I wouldn't know; I'm playing as Denver.

A select few games reach the level where they demand the player to use her imagination. I tried to narrow down what games these were; what qualities made them special. What videogames have I played that made me imagine the story of the game? What qualities drove me to do the gaming equivalent of writing fan-fic? I knew the games - they were the ones where I muttered to myself while playing; writing the history, imagining conversations between characters, acting as pundit. In one memorable case, Rome: Total War, I wrote e-mails to a friend on the rise of Pontus as a Mediterranean power. A more complete list of these games turns into a murderer's row of all-time classics: Rome, Diablo, Civilization, Jedi Knight, Championship Manager, God of War, Jagged Alliance 2, Dynasty Warriors, Wizardry VIII, The Sims.

I found some interesting similarities between all these games. They are, by genre and platform, very different games. The traits most commonly assigned to videogames - genre, platform, marketing clout - vary widely within the list, so clearly the answer cannot be found within conventional boundaries. God of War was a very recent console-based big-budget, high-tech, hyper-violent, heavily-marketed hit. Championship Manager is a strategic soccer simulation series in which the player acts as club manager. There's virtually nothing in the way of graphics or sound, and the games are not well-known in the U.S. - quite the opposite of God of War.

So what, then, is the commonality making these games similarly great? These games are all missing a chunk of the story! A game narrative takes place on multiple levels, upper-level, mid-level and low-level. The upper level is the plot, the overarching story. In Diablo, it is the story of the assault on the town of Tristram; in Dynasty Warriors, the tale of the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the machinations of various warlords replacing it. The lower level is the precise detail of what is happening; the click that causes the character to attack a skeleton, or to sell a shield in order to buy a bow. The missing level of narrative in these games is the middle level, that of narration. Dynasty Warriors is based off the popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, and while it uses the same plot, characters and a few events from the novel, it does little to provide the larger context of the story. However, there was something there, a story I was missing, and I quickly sought out the novel from a library.

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