One of the refreshing things about digital gaming is that it tends to resist the usual literary exegesis. Think too hard about most game stories, worlds, basic challenges, and you may end up feeling silly.
Playing as Mario, I have been saving Princess Peach for a few decades now, and I am not entirely sure why. Her propensity for being kidnapped is starting to bug me. Aside from lording it over a “Mushroom Kingdom” that has wondrously hallucinogenic qualities, there just isn’t a lot of there there. I guess politically, I can get behind the idea that two working-class Italian plumbers are required to save the blonde, blue-eyed and hapless royal, and there is the sheer trippiness of it all. But really, your enjoyment of the Mario series is not to think too hard about all of this.
The basic mechanics of most casual mobile puzzlers is also maddeningly obvious. I got hooked on King’s AlphaBetty Saga earlier this year. This word construction game is just Boggle with new and increasingly predictable obstacles tossed at you in every level. As in most of these free games with in-app purchases, the economic model is based on breaking the usual balance of frustration and reward in puzzlers so that you pay to cheat -- buy extra lives/chances/hints, etc. After a while, the player is the one who starts feeling gamed.
And I have to admit that the carnage of first-person shooter has finally gotten to me as console technology especially has upped the realism to uncomfortable levels. Perhaps I have gotten to the point in my life, or we have entered such gruesome times, that I am not prepared to defend any longer the “cathartic virtuality” of game violence. I can admire the sheer design sense of the latest "Call of Duty Black Ops 3" title from Activision. It immerses you in the drama and pacing of a great war/action film. Game designers have become superb at papering over the seams of the genre so that the player feels swept up in the drama of a mission rather than being guided through a mechanism of either/or algorithms.
As we rush toward the great “singularity,” surely gaming must be partially credited with getting us mere mortals comfortable with the idea that the machines we play in and with can feel increasingly human, if not humane. The body counts and blood spray in these titles just hit too close to home in recent years.
And yet despite the underlying thinness or even gruesomeness of digital gaming, we play on. The fundamental magic of interactive gaming is that the experience nullifies the shallowness of the construction. In the midst of the challenge, one doesn’t have time or desire to ponder the purpose. The puzzle of the level, the boss, the phalanx of zombies/terrorists/Nazis will tug at you until you solve for it. In the case of many casual mobile games, it is just the sheer rhythm of interaction that provides that addictive, calming therapy. Thinking too hard is precisely what the game relieves us of.
Which is not to say there aren’t things for marketers and media mavens to think about. As I hit the Play button this holiday week, there are a few gaming experiences that are worth pondering.
"Rise of The Tomb Raider" is a great example of how well games can establish character when they want to. We get an alternative and deeper backstory for Lara Croft and her relationship with her father at the outset of this tale. But at the same time we also get an intensely cinematic action opening that pulls us into the treachery of Lara’s world with the effectiveness of the cold open to a James Bond film. After a fair amount of gaming on a rail, with cued button smashing to avoid traps, we finally get dropped into classic Tomb Raider spelunking. The game is an excellent example of modulating different levels of interaction and using character and narrative to hide the seams of basic level/puzzle gameplay. And to the designers’ credit, they make us know and care about the upgraded personality of Lara in a new way.
"Fallout 4" is one of the few games whose premise and core drama grabbed me in the first hour of game play. The retro-post-apocalyptic stylings of this legendary series are delicious as always. But in the first few minutes of game narrative the designers make the challenge intensely personal to the character in a way that provides what few games give gamers -- a real purpose to play. The environment is itself a part of the game’s meaning. You scavenge through the detritus of a ruined consumer culture for the tools you need. The game effectively strips modern American life of its comforts and material pursuits to focus you on retrieving what is left of your family.
"Fallout 4" is also notable for its use of the second screen. A mobile app syncs with the console game to provide a map screen and companion. The mobile platform is used as a means for keeping you in the game on the main screen. There is a lesson in this, perhaps. I suspect that one of the long-term effects of mobile second screens is to serve as control/dashboard mechanisms for the first screen so that we don’t need to clutter TVs with the interactive elements that break the frame and drop us out of the immersive big-screen experience.
Speaking of big screen and second screening, I am more convinced than ever that the interaction between mobile devices and the TV will be central to the future of gaming. With the staggering power of the iPhone 6S combined with the network speed of the new Apple TV, we are at a point where all but the most hardcore gamers could use their phone and streaming media box as a console game machine. Perhaps it is my aging eyes, but it is hard for me to distinguish between the graphic quality of most console racing games and Asphalt 8 in AirPlay mode on my Apple TV. Consider also that many games like Asphalt 8 and the Zelda-like Oceanhorn are not available directly on Apple TV via its rapidly growing app store and the rationale for buying a next generation of dedicated game consoles grows thinner.
Add to the iPhone/Apple TV the best gaming accessory I have seen all year, the GameVice, and the transition to post-console gaming is complete. This aptly named controller for the iPhone literally vices your device between two halves of a familiar controller to form a gaming unit that looks and feels as good as a Playstation Vita. Using the lag-free direct connection to the phone, and a pass-through headphone connector, the GameVice gives you the hard buttons that gamers crave on a touchscreen. Connect it all to the Apple TV via AirPlay and you have a TV and handheld game console that is truly seamless.
If interactive gaming is the one narrative innovation that digital media has made to culture (and it may well be), then ultimately it will start behaving much the same way Netflix, Web access and TV anywhere systems already do. Your game -- like your book, magazine, movie, TV series, Web site -- will be with you everywhere, to dip into and out of seamlessly at will.
The underlying media revolution that is mobility comes in untethering experiences from specific technologies, screens, places, times, circumstances. This will be as true of gaming ultimately as it has been for every other medium the mobile device seems to touch.