Double the Fantasy

An element video and computer games have to them is the necessity for the player to suspend their disbelief twice. The first is, and the one players are most aware of, is within the game’s own setting. We can suspend our disbelief that Mario can jump as high as he can or run endlessly without exerting himself. Take any game and you can find any number of elements that we freely suspend our disbelief about, because they are games. Not many games overall, outside sports, have a need to adhere to the rules of reality. There is no magic, yet there are no issues of understanding and using magic in a given fantasy game. It’s part of the system. However, even before that we have to suspend out disbelief with the technology, on the matters that are not about the game itself. Things like having save slots, passwords to continue or even creating a character are separate entities from the game’s play itself. We expect these things to be part of the whole deal. We expect the games offer a fantasy world we can escape, but we’re still in need to use the tools that the games are built to function on.

While game worlds exhibit elements of different worlds, they’re tied to their social functions. Using somewhat old terminology, the fantasy of these games crosses with the necessity of cyberculture. The player, as part of the cyberculture, often demands elements that do not fit with the fantasy of the world, like Non-Player Characters directly talking to the player rather than to the player’s in-game avatar, like whether or not they would like to save their game. Players’ socialising is also completely apart from the game most of the time, though some players do play their role properly, not breaking their character in-game. The human brain is capable of handling two opposites as true, as players treat the fantasy the game offers as reality just as much as the true reality the game functions in. The fantasy of the world, while contradicting its necessity to be tied to being a software that can only be on a screen we control via input devices as dictated by the game’s rules, is no less is not broken by the necessity of reality.

To use Monster Hunter as an example, we know humans can’t wield the kinds of weapons the game shows. There is no in-game explanation either, it’s part of the deal. The same with monsters themselves and many of the fantastic elements the game has to offer. Controls is an example where the dualistic mindset steps in; we can’t simply do Action X, because the game’s design and code doesn’t allow us. This is part of the rules of the game, despite the games often showing movies how the hunts really look like within the context of the world itself. Items are part of the mechanical elements of the game, where you can carry only this many items in a given number of slots in your inventory, though nothing actually shows on your character that you have them. No backpack or the like on the character.

Some games aim to dissolve the distinction of the two layers. Rather than having the player save their game, the game makes the player write a diary entry and does not make references to the player’s own actions. It’s the player avatar writing the entry, keeping the layer of fantasy unbroken. Yet this is rarely done in favour of making clear to the player what function is what within the game’s rules. To use Ultima Online‘s saving as an example, the player could not open a menu and click Save Game, as that breaks the game’s fantasy. First the player must gather the necessary equipment to camp, like a tent and firewood. Then the player must find a fitting spot to camp and initiate camping procedures before he can log off from the server. The player can’t simply cut the connection at any time he wishes, as that gains him a penalty, where the player character is forced to lay still and possibly be mugged by thieves or mauled by wild animals. EverQuest handles this differently by the game announcing camp preparations with a countdown. The fantasy is not broken, instead it has been replaced with a narrative element in both examples. With games like Final Fantasy, there is no consideration for the fantasy itself. The game and its in-game external functions are treated as two different things.

Games like Baldur’s Gate allow breaking the game’s fantasy even further through constant renewing of the player’s party and character, being able to rewrite the backstories as many times as they want and renew pretty much everything about the party as much as they want. In online mode, a player can bring in a character from their single player campaign that might be significantly higher in levels and progression in the single-player campaign. The fantasy of the game requires moulding that sort of character back into proper spot in that online campaign’s progression, otherwise the fantasy of the game world is broken down by the game’s own in-game external functions. Baldur’s Gate treats itself as a hybrid of what it is, thus allowing its fantasy to be very easily broken by the necessities of its Dungeons and Dragons roots. The game doesn’t try to mask majority of its mechanical functions with its fantasy. Incidentally, while the aforementioned Monster Hunter doesn’t go its way out to include any real ways to keep its narrative functions, a lot has been discussed if the monsters’ Life energy and states should be shown to the player. The game’s design relies the player to further themselves into the fantasy and observe the behaviour and actions of the monsters to determine how badly they’re hurt or if they are enraged. While the game’s rules makes these very apparent by drastically changing the monsters’ actions and adding new elements to the monsters, like raised spikes or glowing eyes, it has moved an element of the technical into the fantasy.

The separation of the fantasy and its mechanics have become clear, and the two-layered fantasy is mostly gone. It has become more a meta subject for some of the developers and designed to toy with, with Metal Gear Solid being one of the best examples how a game’s world can intentionally break the fantasy by using the mechanics accessible to the players themselves, like reading contents of the Memory Card to enforce the idea of Psycho Mantis’ psychic powers and necessitating the player to use the second controller port to fight him. That, and using the controller’s vibrating function as a massage device. This kind of meta approach, while breaking the fantasy, also ties the two layers together, making it meta. However, in the same vain other developers have been chasing the cinematic and Hollywood presentation of Metal Gear Solid to the detriment of the medium, fracturing. the game’s fantasy further.

Video and computer games’ main narrative elements comes from the player’s actions. Each play, in themselves, is the story the game has, not the readily made framework the player progresses through the game. The play’s narrative can easily mask the necessities of the game’s rules and mechanics by giving them further narrative elements. While the players themselves will break the fantasy by meta-discussion about the game, the fantasy of the game world itself can be kept wholly cohesive. However, the wants of the players themselves often necessitate breaking the fantasy in order to offer them things like Quick Saves or the like. While we can argue that we’ve advanced in designing games and their interfaces, the modern electronic media and cyberculture is very much different from what it was ten, twenty years ago. Video and computer game designs reflect this, where the player driven narrative and story has been replaced with an emphasize on the pre-determined framework, despite modern technology allowing far more complex game progression to be designed and realised. The paradigm in current game design however wants to fight this, as it has been separated from the technological fantasy of controls, mechanics and rules. Rather than games being presented as a cohesive whole, with the layers being as melded as possible, the current paradigm in design wants to present the games as sectioned as possible. Perhaps it is because different teams are working different sections of the game, where the need to make clear-cut definitions betweens them becomes apparent. However, the consumers at large don’t see to mind this and are capable sidestepping the necessity to suspend their disbelief with fantasy due to simple nature of games running on rules.

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