I guess as gamers this would be the closest we'd ever get to video game existentialism. I recently bought Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (or FFCCTCB for… short? Man, what a ridiculous title) for the Wii and that got me to thinking about the meaning of playing video games.
FFCCTCB is the next game in the line of "side story" Final Fantasy games for Nintendo systems (Gamecube, DS, Wii) and it's kind of like Final Fantasy meets supposed open world adventure game. I actually had quite a bit of fun with the game, messing around with the main character's telekinetic powers and making my way through the delightfully nonsensical storyline. But then I thought to myself, "what does my input have to do with the outcome? Why am I involved in this at all?"
It's a question that deserves some serious consideration. When we sit down to press buttons and manipulate the character, what is our motivation for doing so? Some might say that it's to forward the narrative. But in the case of FFCCTCB, or really almost any narrative-based game I can think of, the things that you actually do are not the plot. Rather, it serves almost as filler, or as a concession to the player, as if the developers were saying "here's something to do in between plot points."
Do our actions have any meaning? Well, yes, at least in the most literal sense. The plot won't progress until you beat the level, or reach the checkpoint, or defeat the boss. But these things barely ever make up the bulk of the story. I know that when I beat Gohma in Legend of Zelda Wind Waker, my defeating Gohma doesn't actually have any bearing on the plot. It was just an obstacle to overcome on my way through the storyline.
Even if we are to consider open-world sandbox games, the question still applies. Because in so far as a game like Grand Theft Auto offers up choices to the player, there are still only a limited number of options for you to partake in. Imagine if you will some sort of peripheral that had a button for every action that you could take in a game like Grand Theft Auto. There might be a button for stealing a car, a button for ramping said car off of a cliff, a button for lining up people like bowling balls only to mow them down with a machine gun. This only offers the illusion of choice. Yes, there are a lot of combinations of things you can do in the game, but in the end, you are limited by the machinations of the developers. So then, again, what's the point? To explore everything that the developer has laid out for you?
In the end, we obviously do these things because they are fun, but choice in videogames is a fallacy. Rather, we're left with interactivity, which in essence means that we are simply pushing buttons on our huge imaginary peripheral, or pulling the levers to forward the plot. Ian Bogost makes the claim that interactivity in videogames is analogous to an actor performing in a play to a script, and while I can see the reasoning in this claim, I also see some flaws. Videogame interactivity is like an actor, who is also generally the sole audience member, performing a play from a script that s/he has never read, while also going into an out-of-body type experience when anything involving the actual storyline happens.
There are even more distinctions to be made. Although I can't remember where I read it, an author attempted to make the distinction between videogame "games" and videogame "toys." An example of a videogame "game" would be something like The Legend of Zelda, where there is an overarching narrative. A videogame "toy" might be Scribblenauts, where your actions are performed not for any sort of plot mechanic, but because the actions in and of themselves are amusing and interesting. Some games, like Super Mario Bros., skirt the line between these two categories. It's not fair to make any sort of value judgment on either type of game – all games have their specific purpose and goals in mind, and can be enjoyed or appreciated in either category. In videogame "toys," the question becomes less troublesome – we interact for interactivity's sake.
There are two narrative-based games that come to mind that make their interactivity an integral part of the experience. One is World of Warcraft, or basically any MMO. Here, you're creating the plot with other human players. Your interactivity matters because it is what defines the world you live in. I've actually never played a single MMO before, if you can believe it, but it is an interesting field.
Of more interest to me (as a former English student and future English Master's student) is the question of interactivity in authored experiences, and the only game I can think of that makes its interactivity matter is Metroid Prime (1-3). Yes, you are shooting and killing aliens, and yes, you face off against bosses. But without your interactivity, there wouldn't even be a plot. You could ignore the storyline altogether, turning it into an "interactivity for interactivity's sake" type game, where you would shoot aliens because you enjoyed it. But you can also use your Scan Visor, an item that allows you to study different aspects of the world around you. Some of the details you pick up are important to the plot of the game, and some are throwaway details. The point is, the player's interacting with the world around them creates the plot – I've played through the trilogy twice now, and both times I've gleamed different aspects of the plot from my scans. Not only that, but simply by visiting each of the locales in the game, the player is able to make assumptions or discover what may have happened in the past through some observation.
Now, this isn't exactly what I think all games should do. Some games are captivating enough in their storylines that even though my interactivity doesn't ultimately matter, I still enjoy the hell out of the game. But single-player games do need to consider their interactive portions as an integral part of the overall meaning of the piece, and not just as a conduit for the player to actually have something to do in the game.