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In line with my recent meanderings on interactivity and narration in video games, The Escapist ran a recent article titled “The Secret of Monkey Island” which comes to some of the same conclusions that I did about the interaction of imagination and games, but by a far different route. Instead, the author Rob Hearn pointed to an increase in audio, video, and the increasing quality of Next-Gen game elements as the reason behind imagination-loss for video game players. He compares it to the issue where CGI-driven movies are leaving story behind. He extends the comparison between movies and games by pointing at the success of older movies such as Citizan Kaine and still high quality elder games like the titular Monkey Island series.

Says Hearn:

However, the word “interaction” has another shade of meaning; you’d probably characterize it as an imaginary or constructive process. This is the kind of interaction that occurs between a reader and a book, or an impressionist painting and its audience. In the case of a book, the writer provides the reader with cues in the form of words. For example, take “the man walked into the green room.” Everybody who reads this sentence supplies his own man, his own room, his own shade of green. He constructs the scene largely from the store of his imagination, so that the resulting memory is a joint production. Similarly, while appreciating Monet’s “Impression Sunrise,” the viewer is really supplying much of the scene himself. Monet provides the colors and, to an extent, the form, but the precise appearance of the three daubed-boats retreating from the foreground, the adumbrated chimneystacks and amorphous structures in the distance, belongs to the viewer. The audience of a black-and-white silent film, meanwhile, provides its own sounds and colors, engaging in a kind of sensory interaction with the filmmakers, collaborating with the creator to construct the scene.

Sound familiar eh? Check out the entire article. It is quite good, even if I don’t agree with it.

My response (posted on the article’s comment thread) was:

An interesting idea. I recently was thinking about reader response criticism and how the ideas behind the theory show that even reading a book has a measure of interactivity.

However, I think that your nostalgia blinds you to a point, especially for IFs and old (or even some current) adventure games. The media in the game (audio, graphics, etc…) does not necessarily blind the imagination, it is the style of the gameplay. In IFs or some of the hard-core older adventure games (I’ve never played Monkey Island, so I can’t speak on that count) require a certain style of puzzle solving and path finding. The truth of the matter is, you are required to think in a certain way and look at the game in a certain way in order to solve these puzzles.

For instance, in an interactive fiction: you may be able to visualize the room described and paint it in all the mental colors of the rainbow, but if you fail to visualize the correct sized box, in the correct position, under the correct pipe, you fail to be able to solve the puzzle. The same in some classic adventure games. No matter how new or old the graphics are, if the gameplay is like Myst, you are required to think in a certain analytical way identical to everyone else who plays the game. This sort of game structure forces the player to suppress their imagination, far worse then simply not requiring it. It means that for some of these games, despite the physical interactivity, there is less mental activity then when you read a book.

On the other hand, more free-form games give the player much more room for imagination and interactivity with the game world. As a kid I’d let my own imagination run free when playing Asteroids. It’s the same reason why there’s plenty of WoW fan-fiction out there. The very openness of the environment invites the imagination to work. In this respect, it is a representation of the tendency of the human mind to pluck connections from chaos, even when they don’t exist. The same does not always follow for order.

To blame the lack of imagination prompts in games on graphics is to do them a vast disservice. It is function, not form, that leaves imagination behind.

To use his metaphor, the failure of CGI movies to capture the viewer’s imagination lies not with the CGI, but with the movie’s screenplay and its writers.

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