It seems to me that all of art, at its core, is a link between the imaginations of the author and the reader. With modern film making techniques, virtually any set of images and sounds, which I refer to as the “audiovisual landscape,” can be presented to the reader. The film, therefore, represents the epitome of authorial authoritarianism. The intent of the film is to invade the imagination of the viewer and immerse them in its rigid narrative.
The modern video game finds itself in a similar situation. With increasing levels of “realism” in the visuals, and functional equivalency of the sounds, the audiovisual palette available to the game designer is, for all intents and purposes, the same as that of the film director. The notion of interactivity is of course that which distinguishes games from films. At the most basic level, the player takes the reins as the protagonist, moving the narrative along at his or her own pace. At the highest level are those games where the designer hands over as much authorial power over to the player as possible.
In the purest form of these so-called “sandbox” games, the narrative is whatever the player makes it. In a sense, there is no story, but that which exists in the imagination of the player. But the audiovisual landscape remains under the control of the designer. Minecraft, for example, forces the player to see the world through “blocky” goggles. The player is not so free as to see the world as made of pyramids rather than cubes.
So if film is high narrative and high audiovision, and video games are medium-to-no narrative and high audiovision, literature is, in a sense, the opposite of video games, that is, high narrative and medium-to-no audiovision.
By high and low here I mean influence of the author. In sandbox games, there is still narrative, it is simply supplied by the player. Likewise in literature, there is still audiovision, it is simply found in the imagination of the reader. The greatest influence an author can have over the audiovisual landscape of their medium is found in picture books and in avant-garde literature such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
Some sandbox game designers have expressed their desire to loosen their grip on the audiovisual landscapes of their games. In the case of Will Wright’s Spore, the player is given vast license to design many aspects of the audiovisual landscape themselves, such as the appearance and sound of their aliens, and their civilization’s buildings, vehicles, and clothing. Ironically, in the case of Spore many players found the rigid transitions between levels of play to be incongruous with the purported sandbox nature of play. While players looked forward to a game with medium audivision and medium narrative, they actually found a game with medium audiovision (they were on the whole happy with the design aspect) but with high narrative. Every species created in Spore followed the same path, whether peaceful or warmongering, from bacteria to galactic domination.
Games with high narrative that wish to appeal to the sandbox audience often throw in these false dichotomies, moral dilemmas that hardly affect the overall narrative of the game in order to afford an illusion of control. As a friend of mine put it, in many games you have the choice of either being a “saint [or an] asshole.”
An interesting case is Linden Lab’s Second Life where the “player” (if you could call him that) can not only write their own narrative and design game mechanics, but also become the painter of the audiovisual landscape by using in-game tools and by uploading images, 3D models, and audio files. Where Second Life is lacking, is that the author is divorced from the medium, and the virtual world can hardly be called a game any longer, as there is no link between an author and a reader. From this emerges many games within a virtual world, where users of Second Life are often both designers and players of games not written by the developer of the virtual world.
As this is a Ludomusicology blog, I feel compelled to mention how this all relates specifically to music in video games. When games have low narrative, that is, narrative in the hands of the player, music becomes problematic for the same reason that many other aspects of the game become problematic, and that is because the game cannot predict what the player will do. This is, perhaps, why in many games with narrative freedom, there is also musical freedom, e.g. the Fallout and GTA series. Other attempts have been made at accommodating this issue, such as the ambient scoring of Minecraft.