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The original text-based adventure game, Adventure by Will Crowther.

Imagination is a key element in any kind of video game, movie, novel and indeed, any creative art. With advancing technology our creative arts have found support in many new tools, making it easier for an audience to experience our visions that much more easily, but even in this age of technology, the imagination is still a vital part of experiencing this art.

When I was a kid, video-games were in their infancy, yet they still attracted my interest and kept it there as long as the photo-realistic, fast moving and beautifully crafted games of today. Games then were spasmodic blocks of monotone colour, or not even that, just plain text, but they didn’t suffer from their graphical limitations, but very possibly gained something from them. That’s not to say there weren’t bad games and that my imagination would fill in the blanks or overlook pallid art or design – far from it: imagination has to be engaged or captured, before it can be exploited, and not every game has that level of craft.

> It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

A game that is painstakingly crafted to depict everything graphically, effectively removes the player from engaging their full imaginative ability. They do not need to visualize anything beyond what is on the screen before them. They might use their imagination to fill in further blanks, such as character and world information, or predictions of what could or will happen, but as far as the visual is concerned, their work is done.

With an old school text adventure such as “Zork” which describes what the player is experiencing, the player has no choice but to read and visualize the scene, using the player’s own mind as a graphics card. It also allows them to participate as an author of the game, filling in their own image of what they are seeing and probably leveraging their own aesthetics and style to render it.

Here is one of my favourite games from the early years: Valhalla by Legend Software, 1983, which I played on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

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Just another day in Valhalla. You know how it goes…

Valhalla was lauded at the time for its “Artificial Intelligence” and something that would later be labelled “emergent gameplay.” The characters all had their own motives, emotions and goals and would essentially walk about doing things, usually drinking, eating and killing each other.  I never finished the game in terms of its quest, as it was all very confusing to an 11-year old, and not particularly well presented.

But it was like looking into another world! Everything there was a precarious foothold for my imagination. The characters walked about, eat and drank animated foodstuffs, and fought amongst each other. They could be influenced and played against each other and so I explored their world without their best interests at heart.

Without the role of imagination forming a bridge between game and player, I  don’t think the game would have been interesting at all, outside of perhaps the novelty of its features, which were remarkable at the time. There simply wasn’t enough depth or detail in its presentation to be a solid, upfront experience. My imagination brought it together for me.

Thirty years have passed since Valhalla and the role of imagination is still required, even though its relevance toward specific elements has shifted around a lot. Modern video games are built around the meta-game, or rather meta-idea, of the franchise, so it can be leveraged through many different forms of media, such as comics, action figures, DVD-tie in cartoon series or movies, and so on. They are built on the idea of fantasy fulfillment such as being an elite special operations soldier, saviour of a fantasy world, or some other pivotal character. Imagination gives a reason to want to play and to experience what they experience. Success of the game in question usually depends on how well the game supports the expectation of the player.  Of course, this is a generalization, there are many games that don’t.

And there are many games that rely on the player having an active imagination. Games that would likely be sunk without them.

E is for Elephant

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When the Elephants come for you, they will come in large numbers. “LET THEM COME!”

One of the most inspiring games I’ve played in recent years is the legendary Dwarf Fortress. Definitely not a game for all game players, but an important one. Firstly, the graphics are hideously out of date in most people’s minds, though many fans would say it is perfect (myself included), as they are an amazing toolset for the imagination to springboard off from. The detail is incredible, when you have become accustomed to looking at it. A skilled player can recognize the types of rock their dwarves are mining, which areas of a room have been decorated, and follow the gruesome details of dwarves fighting their enemies from room to room presented as bloodstains and severed limbs. For this, a combination of consistent ASCII/ANSI text characters and supporting text (objects in a square are described), allow the player to fill in the blanks and envision the action. A d is a dog, an E is an elephant, and so on, though after awhile, the alphabet becomes used up and more cryptic symbols are used. Like the Matrix, once you know what you are looking at, it all comes alive, but to those without the patience and imagination, they are repugnant abstracts. Once the imagination is locked in, the characters and their problems (and there are lots – from rampaging wildlife, to visiting merchants, aggressive enemies, or butterflies and cats keeping fortified doors open, or rotting corpses making people sick, or psychopathic dwarves going on killing sprees, and the disastrous cascades of doom that comes with each) evolve and emerge from the chaotic bustle of ASCII characters and live lives of their own.

Besides the graphics, the player is encouraged to present his own imagination and creativity to overcome problems – finding water might require the player designing an irrigation system, or a string of pumps, screws and mill-wheels to transport it. Invading animals and fantasy races such as kobolds (stealing your stuff!), goblins (stealing your kids!), elves, undead elephants, need to be dealt with by means of trained warrior dwarfs, traps, mazes, moats of water or liquid magma. If your imagination hasn’t clued into the possibility of these, or the story construct that emerge from playing it, then Dwarf Fortress isn’t the game for you: the bridge hasn’t been made.

Dwarf Fortress isn’t alone in the modern market place. With AAA+ video games costing more and more money, and only the biggest, best or most marketed actually doing good business, there is an upsurge in games like Dwarf Fortress. The Indie-games movement has never really gone away, but in recent years is finding new steam as a large amount of gamers turn toward more innovative, or creative and more interesting games than the big publishers would agree to be made.  A new wave of smaller, simpler, yet more creative games are making big splashes, and I’m not talking about things like Farmville or Angry Birds. Dwarf Fortress is the tip of the iceberg.  But there is one thing to consider with these: they’re not for everyone.

The Beauty of the Moment

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Enjoy a moment by Logfella’s cabin.

This article was inspired by me being reminded of the game Sword & Sworcery and just how awesome it was to dwell inside the imagination.  Its an odd, yet beautiful, piece of video-game artifice. It is simple on almost every level, but it is complex by virtue of its craftsmanship. Game design wise, it is absurdly minimal. Even the extent of its world building is tiny compared to all but some of the earliest games. But it is beautifully put together, eloquently presented and contains a level of deep content that is open to the viewer – so long as they have an imagination. Once again, not because it is empty and requires the player to substitute their imagination where there is nothing, but because there is a framework to lay the imagination upon, and a lure to invite the imagination to do so.

Most people that I know of love it. There are also those that don’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’m not ready to say these individuals don’t have an imagination, just that theirs might not play off the cues that Sword & Sworcery provides.

The story revolves an unnamed character known as the Scythian. The graphics sketch out what she looks like in minimalist, pixelated strokes, but it was impossible for me to discern she was female. The dialog made that clear. The Scythian arrives in a distant land, starts messing around with powers she doesn’t understand and dooms the land to a harrowing fate, unless she can right her wrongs. There are only a few characters in the game – the Scythian, Logfella, Dogfella, the girl, the grizzled Boor, the Archetype and the villain – the Gogolithic Mass – oh and the game’s composer Jim Guthrie, who shows up now and again to play a concert, or share his wisdom.  Each of these characters is supported by only the tiniest of pieces of information, yet the imagination is forced to ask more questions, and when no answers are forthcoming, fill in the blanks.

All this coupled with the minimalist game play, exploration allow the player to step into the world of the Archetype’s story, and the world of the Scythian. It may be sketch things in, but in the act of play and experience, it becomes so much stronger, deeper and more engaging.

When I got to this particular part, I was awestruck, as it was so amazingly beautiful. The graphics, the music, the idea of it all: the character facing the future and a decision that must be made embodied inside a design decision and a narrative element, which was so evocative of the game overall:

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It was a moment that I can only describe like savouring a fine cheese, or the perfect cup of coffee, a heady complex glass of scotch, or a wistful moment on a summer’s day, something like that. Everything worked together to engage my imagination and let it sink in. Even though the puzzle wasn’t very deep and it was over in a few seconds, that moment stretched onward, in all dimensions in my imagination, becoming a valuable moment in memory.

I wasn’t the only person inspired by this moment. The company behind the game, Superbrothers/Capybara Games, keep a tumbler of fan submitted artwork, revealing the player’s attitudes, ideas and expressions of how the game impacted them. For a character of just a few pixels in a pixelated world, with no name and barely a gender (visually speaking) the Scythian has provoked a considerable amount of imaginary depth. A lot of them feature this moment. You can check out the fan work at sworcery.tumblr.com

The imagination forms a bridge for the player to cross into the game. But it’s clear that if those imaginative hooks aren’t connecting to the player, they become lost and disinterested.

Beyond the Magic

But why state all this? Isn’t it obvious?

No, I don’t think so. I feel that each of our creative art forms, in this case video games, highlight areas of human ability and grant us insight into our own potential. There is often overlap between them, notably in how our senses examine these arts: a video game comprises visual, audio, tactile and even social senses. In constructing and playing them we can see how these senses and abilities interact with each other.

Its important not to forget about its power. Choosing not to use it when you are reading, watching or playing devalues the piece being experienced, yet on the other end of the spectrum – the creator – can’t forget that in order to leverage imagination you have to provide cues and hooks to give the person experiencing your art something to grab hold of: a mystery, a sketch of an idea, surface details, an air of believability, action toward purpose, a reason to play, or to look beyond.

Its no mystery that imagination is perhaps the most powerful force for humans (and other sapient species), as it enables us to reach beyond things that we can see, hear or touch. It can propel us by solving problems, or visualizing issues and solutions, or giving us goals to reach for and dreams to fulfill. Its limitations, if there are any, are yet to be plumbed and it is through the creative arts that we may be able to glimpse it.

You can download and play Dwarf Fortress from: Bay 12 Games

Image Credits:  Valhalla: Legend Games. Dwarf Fortress, Bay 12 Games.  Sword & Sworcery: Superbrothers/Capybara Games.