People feel more comfortable talking about video games than they do playing them, perhaps because the identification between player and character in a good game is so complete: there are people who can't make Mario jump without jumping a little themselves, raising the controller rapidly or sitting up a little straighter. It hampers their play -- it's hard to jump as often as Mario requires when you have to do it yourself, too -- but they can't help it, indeed don't even seem to know it's happening.
Recently I guess an instructor at my school told a student that video games didn't have narrative. I don't know that you could actually believe that if you'd ever played a game. I don't even mean RPGs or text adventures or whatever, which are in some ways the weakest arguments for games as stories, relying as they do on techniques cribbed from other genres, storytelling less than organic to the form of games. But when someone presses the jump button, and then they also jump -- if you don't look on that with total envy as a writer, I'm not sure why you're writing.
When you jump to make Mario jump, you are evincing a lack of control over your own body. The game has successfully connected you with Mario to the point that when his body leaps, so must yours. You can't help it. I'm not generally the sort of person who jumps to make Mario jump -- something about it always disturbed me, and of course its inefficiency can become a problem for high-level play. I am the sort of person who, deep-down, worries about "high-level play." And yet when I played the original Metroid -- easily the most involving game of my childhood -- I distinctly remember the panic of falling into the lava, and the way I would jerk my arms in their sockets, tilting right and sort of throttling the controller, as I urged Samus out of the burning river. I was so desperate to save her.
They call it a "controller." Video games are supposed to be, like super hero comics, about control. Power fantasies, we call them. And you can't deny that this is an element in many games, especially today's popular shooters. You don't play as Master Chief to feel powerless. And yet the most memorable moments in gaming, as in comics, are often about the loss of control. The only part of Chrono Cross I clearly remember is the moment wherein my character switched bodies with his enemy, Lynx, such that I became Lynx, and was forced to fight my own party, including my own -- the protagonist's own -- body. I don't remember how that situation was resolved, but I do remember the wonderful panic of that moment, feeling my identification slide from one body to the other, the chill as it snapped into place. I remember watching Aeris die in Final Fantasy VII. I had seen this happen in battle, and simply revived her with a phoenix down -- a common item, if a little costly. For some reason Cloud, my character, did not revive her with a phoenix down. Instead he dropped her in the water and watched her float away. In the absence of my control, a character could die. Most people played FF7 primarily for the moments where they lost control: the cut-scenes, the story sequences, wherein their input was substantially irrelevant or not required at all. Those were supposed to be the best parts, and the moments of failure have lived on in fandom's memory with far more clarity and power than the moments of control. No one seems to care that Cloud likely scored with Tifa. They pine after the dead girl -- the one who got away.
This is like the way every great superhero's total catharsis comes, or is meant to come, in the moment of his death (female superheroes rarely merit such an ending, apparently; they are more likely to be raped, or if murdered, murdered off-screen, so that their male counterpart's reaction to the death provides the drama). The only thing I remember about the character Solar, a thoroughly B-grade hero from the probably-defunct 1st Comics imprint, is the time his evil counterpart skewered him, disassembled his body, and ate it, ending with a hand. "I killed Solar!" he shouted. Presumably Solar came back within an issue or two -- I never found out. Superman's death was of course a more momentous occasion, as was the breaking of Batman's spine. By now the pattern has been undermined significantly -- when Batman actually died, we knew he would be back, and when Captain America was shot to death, we knew again that his return would not take long. Comics fans resent these false deaths even as they understand that were Superman to actually die and stay down, they would be furious. The tension between the desire for control and the desire to be conquered is too much; comics attempt both and so often achieve neither.
In a video game, most people do not see the game's ending. In older games, your last encounter with the adventure probably ended in death, in the spending of all your lives. In modern games, death is less common -- I died many times in Uncharted 2, but only a few times in Fallout, which is ostensibly a game about the apocalypse, and never died, that I can recall, in Assassin's Creed. Triple-A games are polished to the point, these days, where anyone can beat the game if they are willing to devote enough time. There is a narrative of triumph that requires only your devotion -- not skill, but time. We know even if we don't finish the game that the ending is happy -- that canonically, we stand triumphant, and when the sequel arrives, it will assume we beat the first, though we probably did not.
Still, the most authentic experience of even today's games is one replete with failure. Failure to jump the chasm, failure to shoot the enemy, failure to find sufficient cover, failure to understand a puzzle. We can only triumph once. Failure is available to us as many times as we need it.
Metroid was so absorbing because you were an astronaut going up against a planet. Everything there, including the planet itself, wanted you dead. The menace was incredible. The coldness, the isolation. Even at your strongest, the fight with Mother Brain was hopelessly awkward, seemingly impossible -- there is no way to play that fight and not look stupid, feel slow. There are times you are required to go into the lava or acid. The tension between your desire to master the game and its difficulty is what makes the game fun.
We talk about power fantasies as if they were necessarily bad or boring things. And often they are both. And yet to call Metroid a simple power fantasy would be to miss the point: you spend the game terrified, if you are like me. Rather, Metroid is optimistic about human ingenuity, about the player's ability to learn and grow. It is a game that posits the possibility of mastery, of victory. As I grow older, I become more excited about more difficult games, wherein triumph can only follow weeks, months, or years of effort and study. What I want is to triumph over a system as complicated and frightening as the real world, I think. So I guess I want control. But more importantly, I want to earn it.