I recently had a chance to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the dated but funny remake of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Both films feature some common themes, perhaps most poignantly a few heavy-handed pointers about parenting and the negative effects of over-indulging a young person’s whims without imposing any boundaries.
Both films are enjoyable, but one sequence I happened to remember from the original really stood out in the remake, perhaps because it was changed so little. At one point, a TV-addicted youth (portrayed, perhaps predictably, as a nerdy gamer-kid with anger management issues in the newer film) leaps into Willie Wonka’s matter-transmitting television camera booth. As he was warned, nothing good comes of it. The omnipresent Ooompa Loompas (just see the film if you’re not getting the references) start one of their silly song-and-dance routines belittling the greedy child and the poor parenting methods that got him where he is. Here’s what jumped out at me: one line in the song specifically mentioned that TV destroys imagination.
It took a second for me to get it. Statistically, most adults tend to be visual learners (adult learning is a fairly complex subject, but here’s a basic primer), and we as gamers definitely fall on that part of the bell curve. Back in the day… no, don’t glaze your eyes over like that. I’m damned near 40 years old, and I’ve been playing video games pretty nearly since they were invented. I can make references like this – I’m allowed. See? (Holds up Garrulous Gamer license.) So, back a few years ago when gaming was a young medium, the kind of visual artistry possible in game development was, by today’s standards, almost inconceivably limited. Seriously, take a look at some of the earliest games – try to imagine when that was state of the art, or something so new it didn’t even have a “state of the art” yet, a bold new field. Trust me, I am getting to the point.
Many of us older gamers are also fiction readers, usually sci-fi or fantasy. Such pursuits are falling out of fashion now – printed words on paper, how boring is that? – but not everyone realizes that reading does stretch one really important thing about your brain: imagination. Hey, there’s that word again.
Reading gives you the basic paints and a guide to the image the author had in mind, but it’s the reader her/himself who actually paints the picture in their own head. It’s a rare skill, but some authors – Ernest Hemingway, David Gemmell – can evoke extraordinarily vivid imagery with a remarkable economy of words. They give just enough little hints to let the reader’s imagination flesh out a very personal picture, without constraining that picture with their own specifics. As Bruce Lee might have said, they get you looking at what they want you to see without drawing too much attention to the pointing finger.
The old school of gaming was like that. The now-ancient Atari 2600, the good old NES… these systems offered vanishingly little in terms of visual real-estate to a game designer. You could say this forced those designers to really be masters of their craft, since they had to create a quality product with such comparatively lean resources. While this is true, we should also consider the standards of the time were different as well. But the visual paucity of the era did have another effect: it made us work harder, exercising that imagination again. The artist creates the work, to be sure, but – especially in so interactive a medium as gaming – it’s we, the auditors of the work, who give it life. The artist’s canvas isn’t just the program or the game platform, it’s our minds as well; but beyond a certain point, we hold the magic paintbrush; we give the images and sounds life and meaning beyond their most basic components.
How does this relate to one line in a musical routine from a movie several years old? Well, gaming’s growing up. Our humble little medium, dismissed as a passing fad just a few years ago, is starting to look like it might rival the bloated Hollywood movie industry before too much more time goes on, at least in total money flow-through (God save us from game designers who get paid 9-digit salaries for a single title!). With this broadening of scope, and the advancement of technology, game developers can paint a clearer and clearer picture of exactly what they were thinking of (if they do it right, anyway). What had to be implied can now be precisely visualized and animated What had to be abbreviated can now be expounded in full. The creator’s vision has fewer limits; so we, the auditors, have less and less imagining to do.
In some ways it’s not a bad thing. I definitely prefer the robustly-rendered mechs of Armored Core For Answer to the clunky, flickering polygons of Armored Core 1. But at the same time, it’s my own love of that particular genre of fiction that still breathes extra life into those screen images, that makes me like the game not just as a game, but as an outlet for the creative energies of my misspent youth. I think it’s pretty important that we remember not to lose that sense of contribution to the overall work, and in fact to look for it on a sort of meta-level. Did the game designer leave us enough room to exist in his/her creation? Are we expected to be totally passive flies on the wall of the experience, or are we involved? Does the designer create the world entire and simply show us its entrance, or do they hand us some of their creative power and let us truly play? Since I’ve mentioned one 3D action game in particular, let me drop in a plug for level modding and end-user content creation here. A good example of this is HALO 3 – while I don’t personally like the game, Forge mode is a great example of designers handing players at least a few of the keys to their kingdom, and a model more game designers ought to follow.
But just as important is the role of imagination in simply making games fun. All three of the current primary dedicated game consoles offer at least some avenue for lower-budget indie developers to show some content, but much of what we see is still high-dollar, full-scale production titles. For all that the growing array of tools and processor power is allowing developers to be more and more explicit in realizing their initial vision precisely, we as gamers ought to remember to imbue those creations with our own particular takes, our own views. Our own appreciation, or irony. As gaming continues to march forward into a brighter, higher-rez future, just keep in mind: we, the players, are part of the art too. Stay involved, both in auditing a particular title and in communicating about it. Communication is almost always a positive influence in any creative process – so stay connected. That, at least, is getting easier as the internet makes the world – in some ways – a comfortably smaller place.