Why Do We Play Games? Part 4: Wonder

I remember the moment when I reached the waterfall cave in the original Tomb Raider on the PlayStation and an involuntary “wow” fell from my lips. That “wow” moment has happened many times before and since in many different games: encountering my first Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus, fighting Mother Brain in Super Metroid and watching the sun set in Far Cry 2 are just a few examples, and I’m sure you have plenty of your own. In the previous entry in this series, I argued that story is an increasingly important reason as to why we play games, but we shouldn’t ignore the power of games to provide dizzying, momentous spectacles that can inspire us with awe.

The old games reviewers’ adage is that gameplay is more important than graphics, but it seems odd to separate the poorly defined concept of ‘gameplay’ from a major component of your enjoyment of the game: i.e. how it looks. If you were given the choice between two games that were identical in content but where one had bland, outdated visuals and the other had shiny, cutting-edge visuals, you would obviously choose the shiny new one – it’s the equivalent of choosing the HD version of Ico over the crumbly old PlayStation 2 version. Sure, there are arguments for playing old games in terms of ‘authenticity’ and nostalgia, but most games players want their games to look as good as possible: the drive to make games look ever better has been with us since the dawn of computing, and there’s an undeniable delight in seeing a new, graphically stunning game in motion for the first time.

The waterfall cave. Ooooooh, aaaaaah!

Going back to Tomb Raider for a second, I can remember the exact feeling as I emerged in the waterfall cave, which I think was on the second level (not long after the T-rex, another “wow” moment). I remember being impressed by the sheer scale of it and looking round for a good few minutes in an attempt to get the best viewpoint. But most of all I remember launching myself from the top of the waterfall into the pool below and accidentally discovering that Lara could swan dive. I must have tapped R1 by accident, and the joyous discovery that Lara had a ‘hidden’ move bonded me to the character even more; I spent a good long while repeatedly climbing to the top of the waterfall and launching myself off it, just to relive the pleasure of the moment.

My point is that games can provide that “wow” factor through other means than sheer graphical oomph alone: often the “wow” is in the little details that draw us further and further into the gameworld. These might be throwaway graphical flourishes, such as the miniscule animations of the townsfolk in The Settlers or Sonic tapping his foot when left alone in Sonic the Hedgehog, or they might be more substantial gameplay elements, like happily testing out the various possibilities thrown open by the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. It’s for this reason that I’ve called this section ‘Wonder’: one of the main reasons we play games is that they inspire a sense of wonder by transporting us to a completely different world in which anything is possible.

*WARNING* Not actual gameplay footage.

Gameworlds have come on in leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades. Once upon a time the disconnect between the box art and what actually appeared on screen was so great that it bordered on a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act. I remember being fascinated and excited by the box for Centipede on the Atari 2600, which showed a caped boy fighting head to head with an enormous centipede and spider, then being horribly disapppointed by the unrecognisable coloured squares whizzing round on the screen when I loaded it up (although graphics aside, it was a great game). Nowadays there tends to be very little difference between the pic on the box and the actual game, and this huge boost in graphical power has made it much easier for players to be drawn into the gameworld.

As such, I’d argue that the current generation of games are far more immersive than any of the previous generations, simply because the worlds they depict are more believable and interactive. Now we expect gameworlds that let us explore and interact with every object or person we find, whereas once upon a time just the inclusion of a toilet in a video game would be enough to delight and surprise any gamer who stumbled across one. “Look! It’s a toilet! In a VIDEO GAME! HA HA HA HA HA! Oh, hey, it flushes too! AMAZING!!!!!!” (Incidentally, there’s a surprisingly large amount of online articles about toilets in video games – gamers really do seem to be obsessed with them.)

Best game toilets EVER.

Anyway, discovering that a game toilet can flush brings me onto my last point: the reward of experimentation is a key aspect of video games that’s intrinsically linked to the investment of the player in the believability of the gameworld. The player constantly asks “I wonder whether I can…”, and the game has to provide the reward for that inquisition. (Yes, you CAN flush the toilet!) This is probably the key aspect that distinguishes video games from other mediums such as films and television, which are essentially passive. The best games encourage you to experiment and get lost in the fantasy world that’s been created for you to inhabit, and it’s telling that there’s a gradual trend towards more open-world games and away from the linear games of old – gamers want freedom to play the game as they choose.

And more toilets.

[As scribbled dans le salle de bain by Lucious Merriweather.]

4 Comments

  1. My favourite article yet. And wonder is absolutely a key reason. I, like you and probably a million other people around the world share your experience with Tomb Raider. And honestly I remember the environments and levels of that game as if they were somewhere I actually visited – a true testament to its quality given the ‘wonderful’, fantastical nature of it all.

    I think your second point relating to immersion is doubly good one. I can remember looking at screen shots of the True Lies movie licensed game on the 16-Bit consoles and being absolutely entranced by the fact that there was a level set in a shopping centre, probably because at that point being able to identify with something I knew in reality within a video game allowed me to see beyond the graphics. Of course when Dead Rising came around back in 2006 I was hooked by the instantly recognisable locale and have some of the greatest video game memories as a result. I was filled with a sense of wonder around the game world of Dead Rising, along with Fallout 3 and Dead Island, to a point where I was filled with a sense of wonder from getting to know and belong in these seemingly believable worlds. Like with Tomb Raider I feel like I’ve actually been to these places.

    In short great article….

  2. Aw, thanks man! I think ‘wonder’ just fits: ‘graphics’ is far too technical a term, and it doesn’t really convey the sense of immersion that I was trying to get across. Just writing this has made me realise how far games have come since I first started playing them – comparing a game from the eighties to one made now is almost like comparing two different mediums. That’s something I definitely want to explore in the conclusion – the fascination of where games are going to go next. Still, I’ve got a couple of more installments planned before then,,,

    1. I look forward to all of the above! For mine immersion and wonder is key to a great game experience – for example I didn’t just feel like I was playing Persona 3, I felt like I was part of that world. Sure that may have a lot to do with where I was in my life at the time, but that experience alone reminded me why I love to play games.

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