In even the most linear games no one person will have the same experience. Sure, this could be said about any medium – people will react and interpret movies in different ways for example. But in my opinion no other medium has the power to use the power of a person’s personal experience more than video games do. I believe that this is something which should be embraced as a facet of games as an artistic medium rather than a downfall as has been suggested in the past.
To explore the malleability of game experiences and how this has a positive effect on the player and serves to increase the legitimacy of it I am going to take two examples of very differing games and how they deal with this. The games are intentionally chosen to show how small scale games and large scale games both can do this.
Firstly, take Super Mario Bros. – one of the most recognizable games I can think of. Everyone knows how this game works. Run right towards a goal. Jump on the heads of enemies. Pick up any power-ups on the way. Except only one of these things is necessary to beat the game – getting to the goal. You can see by taking out one of these small elements it becomes a radically different game.
Take for example not using power-ups and staying as “Small Mario” throughout the game. This increases the difficulty of the game but further more changes the way you play altogether. Risks you would have took when you had the buffer of extra life now become obsolete.
Even in elements of the stage design can radically change your experience of the game. The hidden warp zones can allow you to skip entire game worlds and unless you intentionally go back to complete them you could ignore them altogether.
At this stage I guess I should ask the question: Is this a bad thing?
I would argue no. I believe it gives incentive to play a game for yourself – what things could you find for yourself? What ways could you interact with the virtual world you have been placed in? It also gives you something to talk about. You and someone else might have played the same game but your experiences will likely be completely different. There will be stuff you wouldn’t have even known that the other player would tell you. I mean… maybe not for Mario so much in this instance but maybe in my second example.
I feel as if the 60 hours I have put into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain would have been enough to complete it – but it hasn’t. I’m sure you could get through just the main missions in a much shorter time if that is all you did. But exploration, side-ops, customization, and just messing around has taken up most of my time in the game. I am still discovering new things this far into the game so how much could someone else’s experience tell me about it? What I have been saying about player subjectivity and range of experiences is highly prominent in this case.
The game encourages a stealthy approach to its various infiltration missions as in previous iterations of the series. However, this does not stop you from going in guns blazing. Sometimes after many failed attempts of trying to infiltrate a base unnoticed I just give up and power in with my armoured mech walker. The choice and subjectivity is what can make games so interesting as a medium.
This is not to decry more linear and restrictive experiences; it is also my opinion that just because you can make a game more game more customizable doesn’t mean you should. It’s just that the ways in which different people can experience one work in so many ways are something which can be embraced by developers not shunned.
Already in 2017 we are seeing many games exploring this idea in exciting ways with the non-linear exploration of Breath of the Wild and in the multiple endings of Nier Automata and it is something which I hope continues to be explored in creative ways in the future. The possibilities are and will be endless.