Everybody needs to hold onto a dream in order to function. That dream could be anything from being a rock star to becoming a mother or father; a published author, the owner of a small business, a surgeon, an actor or actress, a politician, a sports star. Sometimes, it’s the possibility – however large or small – of realising that dream that drives you. At other times, merely seeing the dream is enough to comfort; a reminder that there are things in life worth having and worth working for.
This idea is, sometimes subconsciously, behind the creation and popularity of a massive chunk of existing fiction and art. A song or poem might grab your attention because, for example, it hooks into your feelings of despair – or hope. A book or film might start with a ‘what if’ concept you once considered yourself, and take it places you would never have thought of. Any form of entertainment is able to present you with an existence you would love to explore. Videogames are able to do so with one crucial advantage over all others. They encourage – in fact, actively require – you to step into this existence and take part.
To return to an example given above, it is perhaps obvious and rather crude to suggest that rock star fantasies can be acted out in Guitar Hero and Rock Band; but no less valid for that. Equally of course there are games that allow a basic role-play of dream jobs such as racing driver, film director, footballer, and so on. A taste of the dream, however brief and ultimately meaningless. Look closer and dig deeper; you’ll find more subtle psychology at play.
Consider the staggering popularity of the The Sims franchise. Taken at face value they’re games that seek to emulate the minutiae of prosaic life, with little to no appeal for anybody. Of course, this lack of appeal could not be further from the truth. Putting aside for one moment spin-offs and expansion packs that push fantastical elements or gimmicks to the fore, what these games allow the player to do in essence is determine the fate of others. Perhaps for some by projection the fate of those they love, those they hate – or themselves.
Depression and anger both stem from a feeling of impotence. If you realise that you can not change the past or the present, or perhaps the future, there is a chance you will become angry or depressed about it. You spill a drink on your favourite games machine. It stops working, and you are unable to fix it; you may become angry. A job or a relationship that you felt happy and comfortable in suddenly, unexpectedly, drops you with no hope of return; you may become depressed.
A Sims game empowers the player largely through prosaic details they must deal with themselves away from the screen. By presenting a world that in many ways mirrors day-to-day life, the power given to you within this world becomes more meaningful. It’s a trade-off that the player barely even realises they’re making. In exchange for having to fix televisions, take showers, eat food and even use the toilet, the player can make and break relationships; give and take away employment; improve or ruin housing; and much more, all in a world that is similar to the one in which they can only dream of such control.
So called ‘sandbox’ games such as the Grand Theft Auto series empower the player in a different way. The issue here is not god-like power, but the simultaneously simple and complex concept of freedom. Yes, games such as these feature missions which must be completed in order to advance the story. It is the ability to spend as much time as you like doing whatever you want between missions that is key, however. A good ‘sandbox’ title will provide plenty for the player to do outside of the main story, and will be careful to allow the player to ignore all of it should they so wish.
Perhaps you have a job. Maybe you’re looking for one, or perhaps you’re still at school, college or university. Do you have a family of your own? All of the above? Whatever your situation, there are demands on your time. Sure, you get time to yourself; but don’t you ever wish you had a little more? A little more time where you can do what you want to do, simply because you want to do it?
Outside of missions in such games you are free to do whatever you wish, a sense of freedom strengthened by the day/night cycle virtually all such titles now employ. In this way, a twenty minute play session can feel like much longer while it lasts. Taking Grand Theft Auto IV as an example, you could search the city for the hidden pigeons at your leisure. Call a friend to get drunk with. Explore on foot just to see what there is to find, or drive around for the simple pleasure of driving. Perhaps even park up in a quiet corner and enjoy the music and chatter from the radio, or return home and watch TV. Maybe sit in the back of a taxi from one end of the game world to the other and admire the scenery, simply because you can.
It is quite literally impossible for any other form of entertainment to empower people in this way.
Ultimately however, there are very few games which refuse to place constraints on the freedom and power of the player. There are always instructions to follow, bad guys to be killed, rules to be obeyed. Nonetheless, videogames serve to strengthen and even provide us with our necessary daydreams more than any song, painting, film, book, comic, TV series, or play ever could. This is why when a rare exception to these rules and constraints appears – such as LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft – a certain proportion of its fanbase latches on with unimaginable enthusiasm, lifting sheer joy from the experience. It’s ironic then, perhaps, that the one game on the horizon which seems to act as an analogy for the essence of what is being discussed here is set to be a significantly more linear experience itself.
Bioshock Infinite is still a mystery to an extent, but the broad details that have been released thus far are more than enough to see it as an unwitting (perhaps) commentary on the human desire to better oneself. The player’s character, Booker DeWitt, has been sent to Columbia – the city in the sky – to rescue a woman by the name of Elizabeth, and bring her to New York. Elizabeth was, it seems, previously imprisoned (or at least guarded) by a huge mechanical beast known as Songbird. Songbird seems set to haunt them both throughout the adventure, keen to return Elizabeth to the tower where she was kept. She tells DeWitt that she would rather die than return.
This is far from a simple damsel in distress story however. Elizabeth has a unique and incredible power; the ability to reach into alternate realities, and pull objects from those worlds into her own. Others are well aware of her power, and want her for their own purposes. It has also been strongly hinted that if she regularly uses this power, it will damage her physically – and perhaps even psychologically.
Consider Elizabeth, for a moment, to represent a ‘normal’ person such as you or I. She is trapped with no hope of anything better, of anything different, by the huge oppressive figure of Songbird; a gloomy, fearful embodiment of depression and monotony. DeWitt – fate – promises to whisk her away from the tower and from Songbird forever. As is so often the case however, fate sometimes needs a helping hand. Elizabeth therefore is more than willing to do the very best she can to help DeWitt where needed. It drains her – hurts her – but it’s worth it in her eyes, because it’s for her and her future. She’s giving what she has to give to benefit herself because she wants to, rather than somebody else because they demand it. If the inevitable twist in the tale turns out to be that Elizabeth created Songbird herself – or that she brought it from an alternate reality that she thought she wanted, but soon realised she didn’t – the analogy will be complete.
It should be stressed that this idea of Bioshock Infinite as a commentary on human emotions and aspirations is mine and not, so far as I am aware, that of anybody at Irrational Games. Perhaps others will interpret it in this way consciously or subconsciously and then, just maybe, it will add still further to the appeal of this already intriguing game. At the very least, the idea of exploring a city in the sky should prove what is at the heart of this article: playing videogames can be a life affirming experience.