In last week’s article, the main conflict highlighted by the author was that the core of a game if a set of rules, not by an author-imposed narrative as is so common with modern video games.  To distill his argument down, you can’t just slap a message on a set of rules and expect the message to be better received.

I would mostly agree with that statement, with one caveat: association.  For instance, when I go out on the internet and look for a fanbase-beloved piece of video game music from a game I’ve never played, I usually listen to a few seconds and think to myself, “What’s so special about it?” or “This is pretty good, I guess, but not THAT good.”

Allow me to use some music from an example I’ll come back to in a follow-up post.

Even in linking to this piece of music, I can’t help but listen to it all the way through.  However, those who haven’t heard it in context of “yay, I just beat the game” probably won’t feel like it’s *that* special.  While a piece of music may not evoke conscious memories of that particular part in the game, the neural connections are there; the music evokes the emotions and feelings in the context we’ve heard it before.  (Of course, that’s not to suggest that the music didn’t play a part in forming those connections to begin with.)

Associations work in other strange ways as well.  For instance, Donkey Kong 64’s Frantic Factory level always makes me think of this comic strip.

In a similar way, I believe it stands to reason that a message associated with the game can have an associative effect… in certain specific situations.  Primarily, it has to be an issue that the player did not hold a strong opinion about beforehand.  If the player had a prior strong opinion about the issue, they will of course react to the message accordingly, to the point of enjoying the game more or less because of it.

Bioshock is a good example.  For many who played it, it was their first time hearing about Objectivism.  Bioshock Infinite was criticized for not having as “deep” of a message as the original, but I would venture that the original Bioshock’s narrative — while undoubtedly more complex than Infinite’s — may not have been as “deep” as people remember it.  A wider audience of people are familiar with the type of world portrayed in Infinite, so many who had knowledge of the era didn’t find Infinite’s messages to be as deep or moving.  That is, except for the Quantum Mechanics elements and the ending, which many found unique, confusing, and memorable.  (I myself have had experience in both Quantum Mechanics and endings similar to Infinite’s, so I hold a far less favorable opinion of those elements of the game).

There are a couple more conditions.  First off, the messages must be related to the themes of the game.  This is a tricky balancing act, because if the message and theme are too closely linked, then your only audience will be those who are interested in your theme and are in strong agreement with your message to begin with.  Finally, the game must be fun and the message must be well-presented.  Negligence in both these conditions will drive people without an opinion to reject the message, and perhaps sour the game as well by association.

With the spiraling costs of AAA blockbusters and the returning popularity of non-narrative games like Angry Birds, it all implies a new question of whether extensive narrative elements will coexist with video games in the future.  I believe so, although the narrative game model will have to switch away from the blockbuster format or be destroyed.  I’ll address that in a later post, where I’ll continue to examine last week’s article.