“Atmospheric,” “Immersive,” “visceral,” and “innovative.” Let’s be honest, those of us who love games tend to talk about them in ridiculous ways. Everything we do–brushing our teeth, walking the dog, licking a stamp–is in some way “atmospheric.” Most games have enough absurd content that describing them as “visceral” is uncharitable at best and more likely patently false. “Immersion” is perhaps the most common buzzword thrown around about videogames and yet everytime I reload a save file, I am reminded how few “immersive” experiences I have had. And yet these adjectives, some of which are not yet recognized by modern dictionaries, illustrate something special about videogames–we have experiences playing games that are unlike anything we have ever done before.
I am traversing through a massive abandoned factory–the paint on its buildings is deeply faded and the space between buildings is overgrown with weeds. It is clear that it has not been used in over a decade. It is quiet but there is a faint sound in the distance. As time passes that sound becomes more clear–it’s a growl. I slow down and begin to think carefully about my every move. I am constantly turning around to check behind me. The growl continues to distinguish itself–it sounds like a dog only more ravenous than any growl I have ever heard. I am looking for a helicopter that recently crashed in the area–according my GPS the helicopter is behind one of the many abandoned buildings. Seeing no other route I enter the building. It’s dark but I fear using my flashlight thinking it might alert whatever is growling. An hour later I am through the building and can see the Helicopter across the clearing. I never encountered the source of that growl. In this hour long trek through the factory I never met a soul.
I will never forget this experience. Honestly this does not accurately reflect my normal experience playing games but I have had enough experiences like this to be utterly and hopelessly committed to the power and potential of videogames as a medium. This experience occurred playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat but I could share other examples as well. Like the time I forced myself to keep playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent despite the fact that it disturbed me more than any media I have ever experienced. Or the time I crashed my jeep in Far Cry 2 and narrowly survived an ambush by a local militia. Or 2 hours I spent putting together the pieces of the life of a man who lost his wife to a drunk driver in Dear Esther. Though I am convinced that we need better terminology, I can see why people describe such experiences as “immersive,” “atmospheric,” and even “visceral.”
For every one of these instances, however, there are mountains of dumb, mindless, and juvenile content in games. For instance the seemingly endless slew of games where you shoot countless guys with large weaponry and treat women as sex objects. And beyond game’s hyper-violent and chauvinistic tendencies, there are many times when games don’t work like their supposed to. In Skyrim, I walk down a mountain and lose my companion only to have her randomly show back up 2 hours later at a very inopportune time. In Pay Day: The Heist, my squad mates are constantly running in front of me when I am firing my gun. In Red Dead Redemption, you can kill a shop keeper and 5 days later the exact same shop keeper is right back where he was tending his shop. I can see why someone might find this so inane that they determine to make it a weekly ritual–when 5 days pass in the world of RDR, return to find the same shop keeper and kill him again. If we were immersed in the world of these games in any significant way, moments like these break that illusion and ground us in the reality of what we are actually doing.
I don’t really care whether the wider public ever recognizes videogames as art. If we hope to see games taken seriously, we must admit upfront that a large percentage of what passes for a triple-A titles is pretty juvenile. We must make a decided effort to stop gushing about every decent game that hits the shelves. Truth be told, a lot of videogames are stupid. And IGN is lying to you, no game is ever going to “blow you away.” If we hope to see videogames taken seriously, we need to work on our vocabulary when describing them.
Every time I have an experience like the one I did in Pripyat, I am reminded why I play games and I find myself singing their praises. The strange mix of anxiety, terror, and curiousity running through my veins compels me not only to keep playing but also to thoughtfully articulate why such moments are special. Such moments have convinced me that “videogames” have significantly distinguished themselves from “games” proper. In hopes of recognizing and building upon such moments, perhaps we should call a moratorium on using hyperbolic adjectives to describe videogames. Perhaps then we would spend more time relishing and articulating the specific moments when they are appropriate.