When I was younger, I came into possession of a copy of Dawn of War: Dark Crusade. Basically you pick a race and go and bash all the other races until everyone who’s not you is dead. To finish an enemy, you’ve got to raid their stronghold, which ends up being like a big story-driven episode where you’ve got all these little checkpoints and mini-missions and side-tasks – basically just spinning it out so it’s big and long and you feel like you’ve achieved something when you finally kick the shit out of them. So I went round and bashed all the different races, and then I realised – I didn’t know what the stronghold battle for my race was like. So I had to start a new game. That’s what we’re talking about today.
When you think about it, the situation described above is really about choice, and how choice excludes things. Normally stories in books or whatever are kinda linear – you read the book and it goes in one direction and when you reach the end of the book you’ve read it all – you’ve experienced the entirety of that work. It’s not quite the same with video games, though. In Dark Crusade, you pick a race, and thereafter you don’t get to fight against that race. There’s a bunch of parts of the world that are actually closed off to you because you’ve gone in one direction and not another. You don’t get to experience the stronghold battle.
In that situation, if you’re me, and you want to know what that stronghold battle is like, you start another game so you can fight against your old race. Let’s say you picked the Eldar second time round – so even though you get to fight your initial race, now you don’t get to fight the Eldar stronghold any more. All that I’m illustrating is that you can’t ever get the totality of the game in one playthrough – not in Dark Crusade, anyway. There’s a big sphere of content, and you cut linear paths across it. There are choices and decisions along the way, and those choices are often fundamentally exclusive. They stop you from experiencing stuff that’s not down your chosen pathway.
That conceptualisation is really what I’m working towards here. You can imagine a big park with a bunch of different trails – you can walk down one of the tracks, but you know you haven’t experienced the whole park. You’ve just experienced that one track. What I’m suggesting is that we think of the park in terms of the totality of tracks, not just our one-off journey down one individual way. We know it’s just one path – we don’t think that we’ve experienced the whole park in one go. Our conception of the park is a composite, built up of several different journeys along several different paths until we feel like we’ve filled in all the gaps.
If we carry that metaphor over to Dark Crusade, what I’m really saying is that I don’t think we conceptualise ‘the game’ as a whole in terms of each individual playthrough. When I think about Dark Crusade, I think about the stronghold missions. My abstracted conception of Dark Crusade is a composite of all the different stronghold missions – with no regard paid to which race you’re playing. So I’m not thinking about the individual pathways here, I’m thinking about the game as a whole. What that means is that when I’m playing the game, I know I’m not experiencing the entire game world. I’m not walking through the whole park. There are certain paths that are cut off to me because of the choices I’m making.
For me, personally, the fact that I’m not experiencing the whole world makes each individual playthrough of the game feel incomplete. That is, if I played one full game of Dark Crusade, as whatever race, to me that would feel incomplete. I’d feel like I’d experienced ‘a’ story rather than the whole story. In terms of the totality of the world, each individual playthrough decreases in importance, because the whole story is really made up by a composite. The abstract overall concept of the game similarly takes on greater significance.
Now, there’s a lot there, and I’m aware there’s a bunch of suppositions that depend largely on how I feel about games. That said, I am led to wonder certain things about the power of the narrative in these non-linear games. If you’re playing Dark Crusade, the totality of the game is not dependent on the things you experience. Really, you experience only a fragment. If the totality of the game depends on things you don’t experience just as much as on things you do, what does it matter whether or not you actually have the experience?
This is a bit complicated – I’m trying to work out my own thinking here as much as anything else. If you watch a movie, the totality of the text is the totality of your experience – that is, the whole story is contained in that thing you just watched. But that’s not the case for Dark Crusade – there are things outside your experience that are equally important to the totality of the text. If you’re playing the Eldar, the Eldar stronghold battle (which you won’t experience) is part of the totality just as much as all the other battles. And yet you don’t experience it during that playthrough. With regards to totality, then, I wonder if in video games the experience of the player is diminished by the fact that the parts which are not experienced are just as important to the totality as the things which are. If nothing else, the relationship between totality and experience has changed for video games. Experience is no longer the realm in which totality exists. It exists rather in the mind, in the abstracted composite pieced together through repeated viewings. Thinking retrospectively about video games becomes perhaps a more holistic approach to the text than the initial experience itself. Weird, huh.