Video Game Setpieces

The realm of fiction I’m most familiar with is video games. Sure, I read plenty of books as a kid, but nowadays I’m usually reading to learn something rather than reading to relax. I don’t watch all that many movies (the last time I saw something in a theater was six months ago), and haven’t been following any TV series lately. What I have been doing is playing a lot of games.

There are many reasons for this. I enjoy the interactivity aspect a lot, and it’s hard to get that from many other works of fiction. Games are able to be challenging in a way very different from a “challenging” book or film. Plus, I just tend to think they’re more fun. For all these reasons, what I say here is going to be filtered through a game lens, but pieces of it may apply more generally, to other media.

Games are smaller than the real world. This is one part obvious, and one part paradoxical. Obviously the amount of information in any game must be smaller than the descriptions of the real world at large (the game has to be contained in the world). But this isn’t really what I mean. I mean that the experiences you can have in games are small, and that in fact they’re scaled to just the right size for human enjoyment. The paradox comes when we ask why. Why should games be limited to merely human scales, when we could be exploring galaxies, or shrinking down and living life among the atoms? You know, things we can’t do in real life.

One key is emotional engagement. Just as it’s easier for us to understand the emotions of an alien character that’s really just a little green human, it’s easier for us to understand a world where the actors are universally human-like, and they have human-scale power (or maybe a bit more, to help us fulfill power fantasies). The reason there aren’t more gigantic extra-human-scale setpieces in games, even though game engines are capable of rendering these monstrosities, is that if players can’t connect with the world then what’s the point?

The real universe doesn’t have to work this way, because the universe doesn’t have to be designed to cater to human interests at the risk of not selling any copies. Although it’s possible that humans are human-like because the conditions of the universe require that all sentient beings be human-like, it seems more likely that aliens are very different from us than very similar. Even on earth, if dinosaur brains were getting smarter (or could have, given a few million more years) then if not for an inconvenient extinction event, we might see a very different ruling species.

God mode is boring. We love being in flow,1 where our trials are challenging enough not to be boring, but easy enough not to be stressful. Games where we feel entirely powerless due to massive external controlling structures, or games where we dominate easily, typically aren’t going to be as fun (though they may explore the intricacies of how each situation might feel in interesting ways).

This isn’t to say that difficult or easy games don’t have their place, but it does sort of imply that they have different audiences. Extra-challenging games are often loved by vast swathes of players. Just to name a few (mostly platformers) that I’ve enjoyed: Dark Souls, Cuphead, Spelunky, N++, Super Meat Boy, Celeste. There are also the less fast-twitch but still-difficult intellectually challenging ones like Myst, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, or TIS-100. Old arcade-style games are often super difficult, because they want you to keep feeding the machine quarters. There are games where the main mechanic is high difficulty, like “The Impossible Game” or “The World’s Hardest Game”. In short, there are many great games that have a high (but not impossible) level of difficulty. Players who consider themselves good at games love the extra level of challenge, while players who just want casual fun probably wouldn’t have a good time with many of these.

Additionally, though difficult, most of these games are fair (or at least try to be somewhat fair). Fairness is usually a good thing, but one rule of game design is that it’s possible to break every rule of game design and still produce a good game. There is another subgenre for people who want an unfair level of difficulty. Think of “I Wanna Be The Guy”, where the rules of how objects work seems to change around every corner, or even things like “Getting Over It” or “QWOP” which aren’t really unfair, but their mechanics are so difficult to understand on a first playthrough that it can feel that way. This wonkiness consists of many more titles, like “I am Bread” or “Octodad”. There’s a lot of room at the upper end of difficulty, and a lot of room for weirdness, but I don’t think we’re going to see a popular game that’s totally incomprehensible to humans anytime soon.

World size is another aspect of game scale which we shouldn’t overlook. Games like No Man’s Sky or Spore have been panned for promising vast procedurally-generated universes or letting you control all of life from inception to galactic scale, and inevitably failing to deliver. It’s easy to give players a cubic light year of empty space to move through. It’s much, much harder to fill that space with interesting things that don’t quickly get repetitive. Filling a small space with lots of handcrafted detail is a far better way to make an interesting experience.

Games can do all sorts of inhuman things. They can be obscenely difficult or way too easy to be interesting. They can be much too big or much too small for human minds to care about. The characters can act in strange ways, but then we’d call them unrealistic. Setpieces could be vast and bizarre, and the game’s internal rules of physics could change every few seconds. While some of these concepts have been explored, there are definitely forcing functions to keep games the way they are: within the reach of understanding. Despite all this, it’s still fun to imagine how different fiction could be if it weren’t pandering to humans.


  1. As far as I know, the best work on this concept in games comes from Jenova Chen’s thesis which is based on Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” theory.


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