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Soul of the Game

November 17, 2010

Last week, Secret of Monkey Island designer and self-professed Grumpy Gamer Ron Gilbert tweeted this:

Plot is what gives a game it’s soul.

Since he posted that tweet, it has been retweeted by 25 people, presumably because those people agree.

One reason to love Ron Gilbert.

Ron Gilbert is by all accounts and appearances a very smart man, and he has been the driving force behind a number of fantastic games, including Deathspank, Maniac Mansion, and the aforementioned Monkey Island. I am something of a fan, even if my attachment to games with his name on it has waned in the last ten years. I can also acknowledge that the games he is known for, the successful ones that grant his name a sort of prestige in the industry, are all very much centered on plot. Usually that plot is funny, and given that the uncovering of that plot tends to be the primary motivation for the player to keep playing, it stands to reason that the plot is of utmost importance in these games.

Still, there’s an implication in Gilbert’s words that’s troubling: If a game has no plot, it in turn lacks a soul.

Video games were around a long time before people started putting plots in them. Many of them were equipped with a single objective without even the benefit of context. Survive, some would say. Survive, and you’ll get a high score. Or, even more abstract, Survive long enough and you will win. That was it.

You cannot tell me that The Legend of Zelda does not have a soul. Granted, there’s a plot in there, but it is so barebones as to be nearly nonexistent. “Find the TriForce. Defeat the baddies. Save the princess.” But there was an overhead play style that was utterly groundbreaking for the time. There was music that players can immediately identify more than 20 years later. There were memorable enemies. This was a game that resonated with people, despite the presence of a plot. It sucked them in. It implored us to love it.

But fine, perhaps using a game that has a plot, however threadbare it may be, is a bad way to prove my point. So take something even older, even more abstract: Asteroids. Sure, you can formulate a plot for it if you like, because the imagination runs wild with possible explanations for a lone ship in the middle of an endless onslaught of asteroids tormented by UFOs, but none is provided. And yet, it takes you in. It feels easy when you start — you don’t even have to move, really, for a long time, as long as you’re an accurate shot. Eventually, though, those blasted UFOs show up. They start firing bullets directly at you. Your sense of superiority is shattered, and your game must change. The challenge increases, and your strategy must evolve.

Where is the soul in a game like Asteroids? It’s a stark, black-and-white game with no music. There is nothing memorable about it save for the experience of playing it. Not coincidentally, that is where the soul is.

The soul of a game lies not in its plot, but in its relationship with the player. A game asks things of its players, and the player responds in kind, trying to survive, to win, to “beat” the game even as the player unfailingly adheres to the game’s rules. Eventually, the player comes up with ways to succeed, as that player learns more about the game. Its soul is slowly made more apparent as the play time increases; the most “soulful” of games leave lasting impressions on their players, regardless of whether that impression is made through sound, gameplay, or even plot.

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding; perhaps there’s a hidden meaning that I’m missing, an intentional reason for the unfortunate extraneous apostrophe in Gilbert’s tweet. Still, to say that plot “gives” the soul to the game seems at best incomplete, and at worst utterly dismissive of gaming pre-1990.

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