IMO: The Soul of Gaming and The Fetch QuestPlatforms: Android
IMO, or In My Opinion for the acronym-averse, is a semi-regular feature where we examine a specific game, concept or subject to do with our beloved choice of media. Questions will be asked, thoughts will be offered and, above all, comments are welcome!
The mission to find the soul of gaming starts with a fetch quest. A fetch quest is where you have find a special object, reach a location, kill an enemy, that sort of thing. They are everywhere, from platformers to space operas to massively multiplayer online games: Mario searches the Mushroom Kingdom for the princess; Shepherd in Mass Effect searches the galaxy for squad mates; a million orcs roam the World of Warcraft in search of loot. The thing 'fetched', the objective achieved, is hollow. They're like a child's Christmas nightmare, where every box is huge and elaborately wrapped but is full of nothing but screaming void.
Fetched objects are fragments of code and cannot be grasped in the physical world. The lack of tangibility means we can never forge a visceral relationship, never get close. A fetched object has connections only to other objects in the game, but nothing else. Yes, MMO games have their own social worlds but the social impact of the game's objects, for the main, are limited to the firewall of the server. A fetched object's reward is fleeting. You may spend hundreds of hours on a game to achieve something is intangible, transient and isolated and when the power to your rig is gone what you have achieved goes too.
It is therefore a troubling paradox that fetch quests drive gameplay: if most games are based on fetch quests and they can all be boiled down to collecting nuggets of nothing what does this say about games and gamers? At worst, this is existentially nauseating. At any given moment sufficient humans to fill a sizeable city are striving for simulacra.
Enough downers! Onward! A thought experiment will help us make sense of this conundrum. Imagine a fictional game where the objective is to collect 100 dots by pressing any key 100 times as fast as you can. The game is called Dotopia and it was released on a special edition of the Magnavox Odyssey in 1979. The game starts with a black screen and a single white square in the centre. After a hundred presses a message appears saying 'Dotgratulations' along with the time you took. You try it once. You try it twice and get a quicker time. After ten tries you can only improve your high score by half a second more. You are addicted. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a 95% proof fetch quest.
The driving power of the exemplar fetch quest has nothing to do with the content at all - replace dots with cakes, pressing a button with waving a Wii-mote and so on – the power of the 'fetch' has everything to do with its psychological reward. The fetch activates an ancient part of our brains that put us into hunter-gatherer mode, takes us right back to the tundra with a spear in our hands and the icy Mesolithic wind in our hair, or so I reckon. The process of questing makes us think we will receive something of social value – perhaps some prestige that will make us more likely to get the better cut of meat, the most attractive mate, the warmest goat skin. When we find the object in the game, even as its lack of content is revealed to us, the brain may give an actual reward, a dose of dopamine or similar synapse stuff, reinforcing the pleasure of the experience, taking the edge off the adrenaline. It is a few moments later that you realise it is 4am, you have work the next day, and you smell like a changing room. The take-home headline: Human Fooled Again By Caveman In Brain.
Let's follow the ancestral DNA of Dotopia through the generations to see how the fetch quest has evolved. In Dotopia 2 licensed for the NES in 1986, there was a 8-bit man running along the Golden Gate Bridge, collecting dots with yellow smiley faces on; when you win the US version a message saying 'save the whales' flashes up subliminally. In Dotopia 3: Triangular Trouble on the Sega CD in 1992 the evil Professor Hypotenuse has stolen all of the dots and you have to search prohibition-era Chicago for them, with eerie and misjudged lo-fi voice acting from Roger Moore. As commercial interactive fiction was dead by the early nineties, it sold poorly. D.t.pia: Parallel Lives on the Nintendo 64DD was a blocky 3D dating simulator (with early online functionality) where you had to make innuendo-heavy repartee with rotund, gender-ambiguous, characters to collect dots which they gave you if they found you sufficiently alluring. This was interspersed with abstract fight sequences in flashing, near-unplayable, strobe. It was never released outside of Japan.
Take a raw fetch quest, add some graphics and some narrative and you create a situation where a gamer can get dragged into the action. Defer the fetch with a storyline, introduce some danger and jeopardy, add some characters, a love interest, some introspection and the fetch quest is hidden. Give a Neanderthal a haircut and a suit and he might make a passable estate agent for a while, but when he takes a dump in the sink of the show home the fakeness of the façade will be clear. You can hide a fetch quest behind graphical wizardry or clever story-lines but it is still a fetch quest. Looting tombs? Freeing pirate-held fortresses? Saving the universe? You don't have to strip away too much to find a thick vein of pure fetch.
The unavoidable presence of fetch quests beneath the surface, similar to our subterranean lizard overlords, undermines the cause of computer games. Games are a medium that have the capacity to be of genuine cultural importance, beyond the profits of the megastudios. Despite the compelling nature of repetitive tasks and fetch mechanics, many games fall leagues short of the transformative power of great art, of which games are surely capable. Novels, plays, operas, music, painting; all have the capacity to move those who interact with them. Is it too much to ask that games not shy from the achievements of the media that have inspired them?
Hope abounds. The ability of a play experience to elevate the gamer above the mundane exists and there have been moments where I have been as moved by a game as much as any other thing of beauty: riding over a ridge in Red Dead: Redemption as the sun rose over Mexico; the haunting moan of the nuclear siren in Defcon, driving through the City of Angels at night in LA Noire. It is a feeling of something greater than the self, of an opening vista of possibility and wonder, of inspiration and initiation into a mystery that is strange and awesome. What the trigger experiences I describe have in common is that none were part of the 'game' itself as such, none added or detracted to the objective. The glorious nature of the experience arises from something that is not at all blatant.
The quality of a glorious gaming experience is a sense of flow and engagement, seconds or minutes of elevation where through the sheer joy of it all everything melts away and you don't even notice you are playing. Escaping from a five-star police alert on GTA, exploring the wasteland in Fallout, building a portal to the nether on a floating sky-island in Minecraft. This is a list of fun, of chuckle-enducing glee; and where is the fetch quest? Nowhere to be seen.
This gets us ever closer to the soul of gaming. Glimpses of it can be seen in non-linear narrative, genuine sandbox, games which are so open ended where there is no clear 'winning' or 'objective'. Could it ever be good? Of course. The examples I gave were, true play, employing parts of the mind fetch quests can't reach, opening up a vista of possibilities that the here-to-there of a mission can never provide. There is a distinct difference between the drive of the fetch quest and the draw of true play. The former has an urgency and an anxiety to it, as if failure to succeed will result in your family going hungry; the latter has an easy drawing-in, the gentle energetic excitement of rising early for a summer day of adventure.
Life lets us understand this in the round, for in reality it is not the souls of games we uncover in special moments but glimpses of some sort of radiance at the core of our own beings (this is a metaphor unless you have recently swallowed a handful of LEDs). Life is the ultimate RPG and we see all play styles there: you get to establish a rounded and customisable character, there are strong and mostly plausible NPCs, AI that can be impressive, and a balance of sandbox with a huge number of fetch quests that range from brilliant to terrible. There are, admittedly, significant design problems but the developer is keeping quiet about the next title update.
Life, games: both can have their share of the mundane and the magical but it is games where there is choice. Developers can create the context for incredible experiences but in life we make of it what we will. When the market speaks, the corporates listen and people like games without fetch quests, as a recent mining simulator has shown. The future, one way or another, is coming, and I for one hope it won't involve collecting too many dots.