Video games have explored very interesting niches of fantasy. They have created worlds so bizarre and abstract that no other story-driven medium could properly touch them. Try to explain what the hell is going on in Pac-Man’s life. It doesn’t make any sense. Attempts were made to flesh out the world of Pac-Man in a cartoon show, but the vague symbols of the game are rule-based metaphors more than anything else. It makes the transition almost impossible. It’s why the Super Mario Bros. movie is such a fascinating disaster. The characters and their worlds are defined and given detail by the rules they represent within the confines of the game just as much as they are through plot and character development. The ghosts of Pac-Man are enemies because they are obstacles in the player’s way, not because the “story” says they are enemies. The story becomes imagined, then; it becomes something inferred by the player. It’s not something as concrete as a told story, but rather a representation of numerous storytelling possibilities. Early games like Pac-Man rely heavily on basic symbols to relate abstract approximations of a story, rather than explain to an audience in specifics.
The trend here has been to stray further and further from the abstract, and more into the specific. Technological possibilities have allowed for games to carry less and less abstractions, making games more and more realistic. But maintaining a fair and enjoyable set of rules within a game still always leads to a degree of suspended disbelief unique to games. This is why game characters are able to survive a barrage of bullets or a 60-foot drop. The rules of the game allow for a little reality-bending. Gamers are used to these tropes. They are used to health bars that can be arbitrarily replenished. They are used to characters that never eat or sleep or go to the bathroom because they understand (at least subconsciously) that these games are approximations of the story being told. In classic RPGs, the world map is a great signifier of the different degrees of abstraction. In town screens, the in-game characters are more-or-less to scale with the buildings and trees of their surroundings, whereas the world map will present them as the size of the entire town. It is then implied that, while traveling the world map, the characters are traversing greater distances, and accordingly, taking more time to do so. This time, in the world of the characters, could presumably be filled with the eating and sleeping and other banalities that are too boring to be included in the game.
As technology has advanced, these details have become harder to represent, because the graphics became less abstract. The bizarre nature of this method starts to become clear in 3D RPGs like Final Fantasy VII. Then there’s Ocarina of Time, which makes no metaphorical compressions of space, but only time. Traversing the overworld of Hyrule, the surroundings look to scale with the avatar, but the days and nights pass at a hyper-accelerated rate. Does that mean that these periods of the game are also approximations of the story that is being told? Is Lon Lon Ranch actually miles away from Hyrule Castle? It may only appear to be a few hundred yards, but it takes nearly a whole day to cover the ground on foot. These abstractions become fewer and fewer as games progress. Games like the recent entries in the Elder Scrolls series seek to avoid as many abstractions as possible with regards to space and time. As a result, the maps of these games are positively gigantic.
In doing away with these abstractions, modern games have also lost a certain imaginative quality that classic games possessed. Something unique was often born of limitation – bizarre worlds that followed strange rules that never could have been realized in any other medium. More and more, games seem to mimic movies. They present similar worlds and carry similar pacing. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s what has allowed for many of the greater leaps in quality that games have made. But there’s something sad about a world where a yellow pie with a piece taken out of it can no longer survive.
See ya, losers.