The Art of bridging the gap between player and character.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Reflections Retro Story-driven

If I told you a game is immersive, you would take it to mean that the game is good.  It’s one of those industry words that’s used without further explanation, and is often just taken as a synonym of “fun.”  And the reason is that immersion in another world, another life, is exactly what all video games aspire to, even if they only offer that transportation for a moment.  If a game is truly immersive, that means it succeeds at the medium’s most basic goal.  And it’s not an easy goal.

In fact, until the future furnishes us with advanced VR interfaces that can simulate whatever we need simulated, the prospect of placing a player comfortably yet firmly within an avatar’s skin is a very tall order.  With the Wii, Kinect and Move we’re seeing the infancy of motion-control systems, which are slowly growing out of their gimmicky phase and into legitimate, versatile tools for developers.  Until then, games have only sight and sound to inspire many different sorts of feelings in players.  And even with this limited palette, there are some games that, with a single noise or visual, simulate an experience with absolute artfulness.

The prime example of this is the low-health sound in The Legend of Zelda games, specifically in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

If you had a happy childhood, chances are that at ten years old you didn’t know the experience of being trapped in a dungeon with a near-mortal wound.  It’s not on the regular list of childhood tribulations, like getting chicken pox or losing at dodgeball.  In fact, if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say less than 1% of children who had a Super Nintendo were ever inside a labyrinth with a terrible, gushing injury.  And for me, at least, I understood that foreign experience very well just by hearing the aural shorthand employed by A Link to the Past – that is, that iconic “beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.”

Now, a video game with a health meter doesn’t have to alert you that you’re low on health.  Many titles that came out around the time of the first few Zelda games figured just having the health meter was enough of a heads-up to the player regarding how much life they had.  But the people who designed The Legend of Zelda, either in an effort to better alert the player to their character’s status or to place the player closer to the character’s psychological state, crafted the idea of a low-health beep.

It may be that I’m just partial to it since I grew up with it, but I think A Link to the Past’s low-health noise is the most perfect incarnation of the series.  The early versions are a little too like a digital alarm clock.  The later versions (namely, Ocarina of Time’s) are actually too mellow for my taste.  But when you run low on hearts in Link to the Past, you are treated to one of the most grating, panic-inducing noises in the history of noise.

From personal experience, I’ve seen many different reactions to this noise.  Some people become overly careful, taking the noise as an alarm signifying that they’ve been playing too recklessly.  Another subset of people can’t stand this noise, it drives them insane, and it pushes them to play more carelessly than they were before.  And some people actually work through the fear that the noise engenders, focusing harder and playing with more concentration than they had previously, even with that maddening sound chiming the whole time.

If you read the above list of reactions, it may occur to you that people have the same reactions to actual pain.  And this is what makes A Link to the Past’s low-health noise pure art.  Using nothing but sound, it simulates an experience so completely that you react the same way to it that people do to the stimulus being recreated.  Pain may never be fully recreated by any VR interface (and why would anyone really want to play a video game where you could feel a sword sliding through your ribcage?), but A Link to the Past effectively places you in the shoes of a deeply hurt individual, just by issuing that “beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep.”

This is not the only example of a video game crafting immersion in creative ways.  Another example, also recreating the experience of surviving pain, is the torture sequence from Metal Gear Solid.

There’s a certain point in MGS where, as Solid Snake, you’ve been captured and you’re hooked up to a torture device.  Essentially, you’re shocked with powerful electrical currents for an extended period of time.  You, as the player, press a single button over and over again for long periods of time while your character screams to keep his health from dipping below zero.  You have the option of breaking down and giving up at any time, though doing so will have dire consequences.

This sequence was annoying, stressful, and repetitive.  But it did an excellent job of making the same thoughts go through the player’s head as would plausibly be going through Snake’s – “Can I do this?”  “When is this going to be over?”  “God damn it, another one?”  Obviously pressing one button over and over again isn’t exactly Hanoi Hilton stuff, but it’s far more effective at generating a facsimile of the emotions that go with being violently interrogated than, say, a mini-game or quick-time event would.

And of course there’s the invention of the Z button.  Light guns and controller-bazookas had been around in arcades for years (and even at home, with the famous Duck Hunt pistol).  But generally, playing one of the shooters of the 32-bit or 16-bit eras, shooting just felt like tapping a button.  However, with the N64 and the revolutionary FPS that was Goldeneye, the experience of running and gunning became something more visceral.  It was because pressing that Z button felt like pulling a trigger.  A big part of me believes that on any other console, with any controller lacking that distinctive rear button, Goldeneye wouldn’t have become the cultural phenomenon it is.

We’re on the brink of a new set of consoles, a new generation of gaming.  And as motion control becomes more the norm for games, a whole new way of bringing players closer to the action will open up.  But, as these examples show, there’s a host of ways that developers have already found to form a union between the mental state of a gamer and the character they control.  I can only hope that the connections that they continue to create are as strong as the one I felt when I was ten years old — one between me and a little scared kid from Hyrule, one that grew as we both searched desperately for a healing heart or a restorative fairy with that familiar chime ringing in our ears.

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Reflections Retro Story-driven

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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