Sometime in the early 90s, I was flipping through channels and stopped on this amazing movie. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how long it had already been running, and I barely knew what anyone was saying.
I watched all of it.
It was Wim Wenders 1987 film, Wings of Desire. It had just started, it was in German, French, and English, but it was playing on the French channel so I could only get so much context from the subtitles. It didn’t matter. It was absolutely wonderful.
A few years later, I watched it again, only this time with English subtitles. Aside from a few minor subtleties, I hadn’t really missed any of the core story or themes that first time. It was a movie you could watch without understanding most of the lines, and it still made sense.
While I think that Wings of Desire is a fantastic movie and you should probably watch it, if you haven’t, praising it isn’t the point I’m getting angling toward.
Wim Wenders understood the medium of film so well that he made a movie you could love without understanding any of the languages spoken in it.
I’ve played a few games, video games, recently that don’t seem to understand the medium they are working in. Where movies have to tell the story visually at least as much, if not more, than through dialog and description, games have to tell theirs through interaction.
The game Disco Elysium is incredibly dense with text and voice acting. It’s several novels worth of words and description, but it wouldn’t work without the interactive element. Creating the character, and the world, through your choices is at the core of the game. Everything is built around the interaction between the player and the systems of the game.
Several recent visual novel style games, on the other hand, have you click through a series of paragraphs that are delivered in an extremely linear style. This is the same level of interaction as turning the page of a book. Just because the player presses a button, does not mean that the interaction was meaningful or core to the experience.
I won’t ever go so far as to say, or even imply, that this makes these games bad or unenjoyable. There are a lot of people who dearly love the stories told in these visual novels. They are not wrong. The stories could be amazing, but the medium isn’t being used to enhance the experience. It’s a mismatch.
Wings of Desire held my attention for two hours because it used every part of every frame to tell the story. It is a movie, through and through.
Games are a much younger medium, so maybe the vocabulary hasn’t been fully developed yet. They are also a very important and impactful medium. There is so much yet to do in games. So many interactive experiences and stories. But to do it, I think it’s important to ask “why a game?” as opposed to a book or comic or film. If it’s difficult to answer “why a game?”, maybe what you are making is something else.