My ol' friend Uncle Don is dipping a toe back into the waters of gaming, and makes an interesting connection to the current state of the hourlong TV drama. Several of them seem to be stealing a page from the gaming playbook and presenting looping, non-linear goal-directed plots that require protagonists to “discover objects, negotiate with their owners and determine the object's proper uses.” Don correctly points out that this dynamic is at the very heart of most RPGs and MMORPGs. (FWIW, I too have been watching—and enjoying the heck out of—Daybreak but apparently I shouldn't've bothered.)
This line of observation made me think a little bit about another genre of game: the first-person shooter. (Or, okay, third-person, too—I guess it's the 'shooter' facet that is the germane one.) And how linear and straightforward game objectives tend to be there. I got Gears of War a couple weeks back and I've been picking my way through the campaign game.
(For the uninitiated, the 'campaign' refers to the linear, chapter-based gameplay that you typically work through alone—much like the name implies. Think of it as a military campaign with goals, objectives and enemies that need to be defeated in order to progress to the next 'level' or checkpoint. Many games also feature a competitive mode where you square off against other human opponents. Gears of War has both, and both are fun in different ways.)
In Gears of War, you play as Marcus Fenix, a thick-knecked, tough-as-nails, convict freed from your cell to lead the last of ... ah, nevermind. The point I really want to make is that Marcus' world is a pretty damn simple one. As far as plotline goes, you never really need to be aware of much more than “what's my next objective?” (And if you forget, a quick stab at the 360 controller's Left Bumper always reveals your goals.) This simple model of 'objective based progress' is hardly new to GoW—it's practically a hallmark of the genre.
Halo and Halo2 share the same straightforward linear flow and it can be one of the most frustrating factors of the campaign in those games. Because, while the objectives are usually pretty straightforward and one-after-the-other, the environments that you achieve them in are anything but. Some of my most infuriating minutes (hours?) in the Halo 2 campaign were those times when I knew what was expected of me next, but I couldn't find the damn place on the map to get there. Hours spent wandering some labyrinth full of splattered alien bodies, just because I'd missed the teensy, distant lit doorway that eventually clued me to further adventure? Grr.
But, the simple straightforward linear nature of a game like Gears of War is also one of its greatest appeals. There is something deeply immersive and almost intoxicating about these games, and I wonder if the secret goes no deeper than this: when I'm playing Gears of War, I know exactly what is expected of me. “Progress” is not measured out in teaspoons (or status reports, or ambiguously-worded business agreements.) In Gears of War, progress is a blunt instrument, cracked over the head of some ugly and horrific beast.
The media gives much play to violent aspects of games like this (and I suppose I'm not immune to this—I can say with all confidence that I'm not a violent guy, but Marcus' take-no-prisoners style can be fun escapist fare in small doses.) But you don't hear as much about this other factor playing video games—the comforting and comfortable certainty of your goals and objectives (and, by extension, the methods you typically employ to achieve them.)
Maybe it's just me, cause I'm an old guy and—like most old guys—a bit beaten down by life. But when I'm playing GoW or Halo, for that hour or the occasional two, life just isn't that nuanced. There really aren't 'incidental tasks' in a game like GoW: clear a landing zone; retrieve a bomb; kill the enemy commander. The next thing you're doing is always exactly what you should be doing and it always leads you naturally to the next relevant task.
Cause. Effect. Objective. Resolution. Like I said: intoxicating.
Little wonder that my generation, weaned on Pong and Pac-Man, continues to cling to our love of the game. It's practically the medicinal balm for our continuous partial attention-afflicted, Flow-craving modern lifestyle. I can't imagine that Marcus Fenix, or The Master Chief, keeps a GTD list stuffed between the pages of a Moleskin notebook buried in a hip-pocket of their fatigues. No, the resolution to their problems is usually no further out ahead of them than a rifle-butt to someone else's face. Or clearing that landing zone.