The power of letting people imagine

One of my all time favourite games is Prey (2017), I adore the artistic approach Arkane has to its games, the ability to play in anyway you wish within the possibilities of the game, it’s systemic story and world. It’s a game that I think about monthly, mainly for these reasons; however, it’s biggest draw for me is to imagine it’s world through my mind.

A lot of my time is spent imagining how my character would explore these environments, what would their facial expression be? What would they be thinking? A lot of this is because Prey makes the room to allow the player to explore, get familiar with its world and is secret enough that it gives room for theorising. Arkane’s most powerful ability is to create immersive worlds that are full of mysteries, intrigue and possibilities. All of these come together and cultivate into, what I’d consider, the best possible gaming experience.

This article examine my approach and thoughts towards the way games are presented, whether that be visually or within their worlds, gameplay systems. My personal adoration for indie titles with minimalist presentation, versus my dislike for AAA games that aim to show everything in it’s entirety to the player.

Dark Souls is infamous for its lore, more than 8 years on an people are still theorising lore details based on the amount of crumbs they’ve been given from the games. The trilogy has given people years worth of content through not telling them anything and giving them the space to piece together it’s world and the stories within the world. None of this is unintentional on the developer’s (From Software) part however.

Director, writer of most of From Software’s titles, Hidetaka Miyazaki was an avid reader as a child. He’d commonly read from books that he didn’t completely understand, from this he’d fill in the blanks with his imagination. This experience gave him the feeling that he was co-writing the book with the author and that experience was very much translated into the Dark Souls series. Nothing is truly every “known” in Dark Souls, more aspects of lore is shown in the later title Dark Souls III; however, it is never so straight forward you will an exact answer to some questions.

From this communities have come together to share ideas and build their own definitions of the world, along with the developers, they’ve been co-writing their own story. These stories have come from video essays on YouTube detailing lore aspects, analysing them and the possible implications they could have on everything else. Or maybe art.

From Twitter user @billowypillow as part of an art contest, they’ve been able to create an environment that’s never been shown in the games. All from lore details and theories people have created. The most interesting aspect of the Dark Souls series is the content it’s created outside of the games, by purposefully taking away lore details they’ve given people the opportunity to envision their own stories and continue to interact with the series outside of playing it.

It’s clear that a major point of reference and inspiration in Miyazaki’s projects are books. A big point of inspiration for Bloodborne was H.P Lovecraft’s book, Call of Cthulhu. From this inspiration and mixed with his childhood experiences of reading him and his team have been able to create intricate worlds, that allow the player explore and inform themselves and use their imagination. As they would the same reading a book. Taking inspiration from reading has allowed them to show the importance of reading to players and the importance of taking what you’ve learnt and using your imagination to turn those words into something visual. Rather than feeding everyone every single facet of detail about their world and story, they give the player the space to read into it and get familiar with it.

Some games aren’t so good at this, they’d rather show everything and leave no room for interpretation.

For the most part I think the Last of Us is pretty uninteresting. I originally played it in 2017, after hearing people praise it for 4 years before actually playing it I had my expectations held pretty high. The Last of Us was and still it perceived as one of the, if not the best, games ever, hearing that before playing it made me feel like I was going to be taken on a trip I’d never forget.

After completing the story I felt underwhelmed by it, I had that empty feeling you normally reserve for when you complete a game you were moved by in every way, but this was the type of empty that I wasted my time. Instead of turning this article into the Last of Us’ poor representation of PoC and how poor I thought the hospital scene was I’m going to talk about why I wasn’t as interested in this game compared to Prey. And it’s because of its presentation.

It feels as if the Last of Us kicked off this new form of presentation within games, whilst it’s not the first to follow the formula. Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series has been this way since it was conceived all the way back in 2007, it’s just the Last of Us is referenced to a lot within the work of newer games. That presentation is to show everything to the player, similar to that of a film. Going forward I don’t aim to diminish games that follow this format or to argue that they are not “games” because the focus is more on story than it is gameplay. The best part of gaming is that there can be a lot of rooms for different experiences. However, I will explain my disinterest for these types of games, not from a place of hate, but from a place of critique where I want these games to be better.

When playing the Last of Us I wasn’t using my imagination to interpret its world, story or lore; it was all spoon fed to me and that create what I consider a boring experience. From learning everything through dialogue and cutscenes it created this need for me to not care about anything between cutscenes. I loved the scavenging aspect of the Last of Us, but apart from a couple of left notes I never really felt I was going to learn anything substantial about its world through actually being in its world. The game creates this weird disconnect by doing this, I only learn through watching not doing.

Whereas Dark Souls would allow me to learn and interpret it’s world by giving me nuggets of details and respects me enough to allow me to do that, the Last of Us feeds it all to me during its cutscenes and treats me like a child. No space for interpretation. Mix that with an incredibly detailed world that doesn’t allow the player to put any of their imagination onto the environments and you have a game that doesn’t respect the player’s intelligence.

I generally dislike realistic approaches to visuals for this reason, sure it’s impressive, but with the human cost it comes with and the ways it holds back the experience I’m not really sold on the idea of this style being the future. I believe showing environments in their entirety at a photorealistic scale holds back the want to visualise, how can the player their own imagination onto something if the game already tells them what to see?

Games as old as DOOM on the PC are more impressive to me than a lot of current games for this reason, from the bare look the environments have it allows me to imagine how they could look with so much added to them. Sure, DOOM at the time couldn’t add a good amount of detail so maybe it wouldn’t always be that way if they had the chance to add more, but as it is, environments are basic and I love them all the more for it.

I believe there’s an abundance of games in the AAA scene that follow the Last of Us’ lead to presentation and design and it’s created this state of games that feel eerily the same. There’s this large of games that are more inspired by films and while I think there’s a of great films to take inspiration, not taking as much inspiration from books or media outside of films have created these games that all feel similar in terms of presentation. Nothing really feels distinct in terms of that, sure Shadow of the Tomb Raider and God of War (2018) play differently but when it comes down to it their stories are focused about being solely seen through cutscenes and only experience within the walls of the game.

Sorry for sounding preachy, but to me it feels games have taken a lot of power away from the player over the years. I just feel like I’m being told what to think, I don’t ask questions because I’m always being given the answer before I can even think to ask. It’s tiresome and this approach to design creates what I’d consider uninteresting games, you do get titles that use this format to its advantage. However, after getting the 7th game that tells me I’m terrible for doing what the game tells me to do it’s going to become incredibly repetitive.

What people would say are not “games” I believe represent the medium at it’s best. Whether that be games such as Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch or Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. These are the titles I come to when I think of the games that show the potential of the medium.

To me, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a work of beauty, thematically and visually. It’s a mundane experience but it only creates this much more captivating experience, everything is intentional in its design. The world is dense and has this bright sensationalist look, this contrasts against the theme that surrounds its world and general story. I don’t aim to spoil any of the games I discuss here, so I won’t rob you of an experience of this by talking about its themes.

As I’ve discussed already with DOOM, the bare, stylised look of the game only enhances the experience in my eyes. I spend my days in-game exploring and wondering how would these environments would look in our world. I spend a lot of time visualising how things might turn if I keep pushing myself in the game, again no spoilers, but Diaries of a Spaceport does an incredible of keeping you hooked for the reasons of curiosity.

In a video by Game Maker’s Toolkit. YouTuber, Mark Brown analyses the ways games can keep the player engaged. A point he talks about is with the title Stardew Valley, a core focus that kept me and lot of other players playing was the idea of how the game would turn out if we kept playing. That idea that we all had in our heads of the what the perfect farm could look like kept us playing for many hours, for me it’s kept me going for more than 60 hours.

This is the best aspect of titles such as Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, Minecraft, Satisfactory and even games such as the Last of Us. Imagining how the story will turn out can keep players playing till the end. Even if a lot of the other areas don’t allow for imagination, the biggest aspect of games that have a focus on story do. That small idea that builds inside your mind can be the hook you need to stay with a game and when a game can’t create that hook, it creates an unenjoyable experience.

Another of my favourite games I’ve ever played is one I mentioned momentarily and that’s What Remains of Edith Finch. It’s hard to explain, but for me it’s as if you’re playing a book. There’s this overarching feeling the world is explaining itself through me dialogue in-game, whether that be the actual world they’ve created or the characters that the story focuses on. While the house that game takes place is quite detailed, and this is going to perhaps make me sound bias against the Last of Us, I feel that the stylised and exaggerated style of the game presents this extremely enticing world.

Whether it be the interior design, the mountain of books that feel seemingly every crevice of the house or the poorly made structure that’s build upon the top of the house there’s this sense of both familiarity and mystery. There’s this sense of I both understand this environment but also have to use my imagination to aspects could exist. The way it handles the characters stories is as if you were being read a book and the game did the imagining alongside you. You are rarely spoken towards to as the main character, each person you play as is either described to you or explains their own story.

It’s just in the sense of reading a book, the words give you the means to imagine situations, this time the games visualises what those words mean to you. It’s an incredibly unique experience I don’t think I can say I’ve experienced with any other game before, there may be other games and I just haven’t played/heard of them yet. Nonetheless, is an evocative experience, it reminds me of that childlike sense of knowing a place even though you’ve never really been there before.

Games that are very much like books are visual novels. As the genre title suggest visual novels play with you reading your through a story with visuals along the way.

A visual novel I’ve been playing recently is A Summer’s End — Hong Kong 1986. Currently I’m only 3 hours into the game; however, from what I’ve played so far, it’s an incredibly intoxicating, heartfelt experience. The titles writing is perfect and creates this strong sense of cementing the character’s traits almost instantly. The game starts off with Michelle explaining her early life, she also details her job and the trip to work she takes. Only 3 images accompany this, one of the interior of a subway train, the escalators leading out from the underground station and the city streets. These 3 images and the way Michelle describes her life you get an almost perfect sense of what journey looks like and what type of person she is.

She’s professional, she’s tidy, she cares immensely about punctuality, she’s smart. You can even get the sense of how she’d walk and how she’d dress. All this from how she speaks through a text box and this is before you even see her. To me, this type of experience is unmatched by titles such God of War or Uncharted 4. Visual novels such as Eliza, Monster Prom, the Zero Escape trilogy and Heaven Will Be Mine all give an impeccable amount of detail through their writing that allows you to get a clear sense of their worlds and characters.

Ending with the game that’s the thumbnail for this article; In Other Waters is an incredibly interesting game. You play the game through a sonar screen, you navigate its world as you would a point & click game, simply by choosing one of the dots on screen and moving towards it. In the way it might seem restrictive to let you explore and examine the space the developer has created, but it’s not restrictive in any sense. You learn everything through text as you would a book but the visuals only enhance the experience in my time playing.

When you’re close to the surface of the waters, there’s this cyan colour mixed in with a bright yellow. It creates this idea of Mediterranean waters, from not hearing the waters you get this calm feeling mixed with a form of safety.

When you go further down the water turns to a green colour, the paths become a bit tighter and you start to get this claustrophobic feeling exploring the depths. The waters that once felt calm and safe now feel dangerous and harrowing, all this from a change of colour, the design and the life you find lower down. From only seeing the colours, the layout of rocky structures and descriptions of the life in the waters you get all these details to piece together how everything looks. The descriptions you get from analysing plants gives you an idea of how they’d appear and work. In Other Waters creates this almost 3-dimensional experience for me, as I’m moving my way through the waters I visualise in my head how it all looks and because of that, it creates this much deeper experience.

In my years of gaming and experiencing what the medium has to offer the absolute best games to me are the ones that let go of your hand and lets you mind go crazy. Whether that be titles such as Outer Wilds that does all it’s talking through dialogue and environments. Hypnospace Outlaw and it’s navigation of what was the early internet life. Or Caves of Qud that features an incredibly basic style to its world, but does all the describing through text that gives you an idea of how the world looks. The most memorable games are the ones that allow you to create your own little world alongside it.

Writing words that make me sound smart. I enjoying discussing games and some of the topics that surround them.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store