Charlie Kaufman explained in an interview with the Writers’ Guild of America that “Theater is alive” while “Film is dead,” and to that end most media are dead too, though not in the sense that they are irrelevant or have no future, rather that a play or a song performed on stage will be somewhat different and unique each time it is performed, whereas a film is the same each time it is viewed, and in general this would apply to games as well. One could argue that changing cultural norms cause pieces of art to be viewed differently in different periods of time, which is part of the reason why so many artists have not achieved fame in their lifetimes, but for something to be made to made today and viewed differently in the future requires a great deal of time and discussion with no guarantee of how much original intent will be preserved; it’s the reason why the public has generally laughed at the concept behind 100 Years, a film meant to only be released 100 years from now. Kaufman’s assertion inspired the creation of his film masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York, fueled by a desire to tell a story that could mean something different to a person depending on where they are in life when they watch it.
In terms of storytelling, this idea makes games seem particularly “dead.” Whether they are physical or digital games, it is almost always a given that there are strict sets of rules that the player’s cannot violate, and in the case of digital games it is expected that the game doesn’t break the rules either, since it can be pretty frustrating if it does. Unless a game has some specific set of rules saying otherwise, it will be the same each time it is played. Indeed their stories are, at a glance, far removed from the realm of oral storytelling, wherein narratives mutate over time according to who tells them; as Chris Franklin has pointed out, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a game whose story is told by a cowboy in a saloon while the player controls its main character, is significant in that it subverts this rule. Enemies change and spawn from nowhere as the storyteller makes mistakes or incorrectly remembers parts of the adventure and hurriedly corrects them, weapons simply appear in the player’s hands if it is convenient for the flow of the plot, and other such unnatural events that would normally be considered “gamey” are suddenly a fabric of an organic story; it is a secondhand account of an event which the player experiences firsthand. But still this is purely an imitation of oral storytelling. The game is still the same game each time it is played and the effect of its subversiveness is lost with successive plays.
If games are dead, though, the internet is still very much alive, and a handful of exceptional games have thrived in its platform of open communication. If not for its difficulty, then From Software’s Dark Souls series is widely known for its secretive more and elusive metaplot, told through snatches of history and esoteric dialogue. The sheer amount of hidden content and secrets nestled into everything from the game’s character designs to item descriptions has inspired players to discuss experiences and discoveries with one another online, and speculate on the meaning of clues uncovered. Some argue that being able to discover new things as a community and share them online is what makes the release of a new Souls game so exciting. What’s more peculiar still is the synthesis of ideas taking place: in 2011 Bethesda’s Skyrim (an open world, western RPG set in a fantasy worlds of dragons, elves etc.) became the setting of a mystery when players began to investigate a handful of seemingly innocent jars in-game that each had an insect inside and a rune of the game’s fictional, dragon language inscribed on its lid. Translated, they seemed to allude to items and entities in the game and players attempting to deride the jars’ meanings online went so far as to say they could bring about the apocalypse (partly in jest) by meeting conditions described by the runes. And more recently in 2015, Hideo Kojima’s The Phantom Pain surprised players with its missing ending: a game of originally three chapters was released with only two, and given the creator’s track record of manipulating fans and hiding dozens of major secrets in previous games, some players (dubbed Ruse Cruisers) formed an online community dedicated to discovering and unlocking the third chapter. In both these cases, the players involved were chasing after nothing. At the end of the day, these are computer programs, and the code of Skyrim contains no script triggered by fulfilling a prophecy, just as the files for The Phantom Pain contain no real traces of a third chapter. Even a number of Dark Souls theories have been debunked with later discoveries by probing players, yet in all these cases and others like it, one finds games becoming more than they ever originally were by sheer exploitation of human curiosity. As a species we love intrigue and exploration, it is the reason why neanderthals went extinct while we spread and flourished, and for many this is a force stronger than our desire to simply be entertained by games that wear simplistic narratives on their sleeves. This latter kind of game will always have its place much like blockbusters and art films soundly coexist, and while many avid moviegoers opt out of seeing the more obscure festival films, only a minority of players engage in a story at the level described above (one could argue that Dark Souls indeed owes its fame to its exceptional gameplay and challenge rather than its plot). But as “Homo Ludens” (to borrow a phrase from the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga), creatures that play, there is an innate power in games that have been created for our imaginations to explore, and that indulge our most natural state of mind.