...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Friday, September 09, 2011

Limited Imagination

It's nothing new to say that the Star Wars prequels harmed the series and the fictional universe as a whole.  Many people say that the original movies even seem to suffer from the damage that the prequels cause.  I have a theory about that, and I think it's also related to one of the big problems in video games today.

In the original Star Wars movies, we're dropped into the story of a few characters set against the backdrop of an interstellar war. We see a few humans existing in a universe filled with aliens and weird planets. There's nothing special about the planet Luke is on - in fact, its unimportance is exactly the reason it is important to the story. Luke wants nothing more than to get away from this boring galactic backwater and the implied very average job of "moisture farming". Both the audience and Luke are surprised and overwhelmed with the weirdness in the planet's spaceport - bizarre aliens and random violence, with seemingly little to no connection to the wider conflict of the movie's title.  It takes a while before we're swept up into the epic space opera and the clash of good vs. evil.

All these various details don't serve the main plot much, but they do something (arguably) even more important. They imply a deep universe of history, personal stories, conflicts, economies, societies, laws, inter-species relations, and exciting adventure awaiting us outside the confines of Tattoine or even the main galactic conflict.  There's something here, we learn, and I would argue that all this background depth and flavor is the main reason for the enduring popularity of the Star Wars universe. Let's be honest: the story is pretty average. It could be (and possibly is) ripped off from any number of sci-fi pulp novels.  But the way in which we're shown the corner of a universe to let our imaginations paint the rest of the canvas is masterfully done.

The prequels stomped all over that canvas. All the space that you as an audience member had to let your imagination soar was quickly fenced in and built up (poorly). There wasn't an endless universe, there were about five planets. There weren't tons of aliens and endless factories of droids living their own lives, they all had names and were somehow related to Anakin.  There wasn't a very good history to the beginning of the titular wars, and again we had already met most of the influential characters.  It was disappointing because it tried to show too much. Rather than "not showing the shark", it took us on a detailed tour of the mundane details of the shark's anatomy and history.

So how does this relate to games, other than Star Wars games?  I think we can take away the lesson that our audience members are really better than we are at filling in details about things.  Story details, mechanical details, whatever - if we leave things loose enough, people's imaginations will fill them in. And then they will give us credit for the richness of their imaginings! What a win!

By chasing visual fidelity and "realism" in all its forms, we're actually robbing ourselves of our greatest tool: our players' imaginations.  We can make a much larger impact with a lot of rich systems that imply a wider mechanical world than with realistic reload animations, or convincingly-modeled historically-accurate machine guns.

1 comment:

Martin Jennings-Teats said...

I agree with your conclusion with respect to games, but I would give the setup of the original Star Wars films even more credit. The day-in-the-life of Luke's humble origins and the tantalizing brush with mysteries beyond his and our experience DO serve the main plot very directly. It's a masterful telling of the traditional Hero's Journey that really draws the audience along with Luke as he first reject's the Call to Adventure in favor of his mundane obligations and then when he crosses the First Threshold by entering the cantina where he experiences his first brushes with unknown danger. The archetypal characters and narrative beats are universal but with enough mystery and fantasy to lead us along.

I always go back and forth on this but after writing this comment A New Hope is my favorite again. :)