The Uncertainty Principle

I’m done with Fallout 3, but I can’t help writing a bit more about it while it’s still on my mind. One thing that really sticks with me about my experience with the game is the stark difference between how I played and felt in the early stages versus the later stages. Specifically, in the early portion of the game I was excited, nervous, occasionally terrified, and highly engaged. Not too long into play (say a few hours) I’d become a gamer – I knew roughly what to expect, most situations had become routine, I was rarely shocked or concerned. I miss those early days with the game, they had a real impact, reminding me of early times with other games, like Grand Theft Auto III or Half-Life 2.

My first instinct in these situations is to blame myself. In this instance I often reach for the “role-play” card. Maybe I start these games eager to role-play and really “get into” the world, rather than treating it as “just a game”. The reasoning goes that if I’d just tried harder to be in the game, then I could have had those exciting times throughout my play. And so I castigate myself for not being committed enough.

But actually, I don’t think that’s it. At least not all of it. When I look at my play of Fallout 3 especially, what triggered those intense experiences wasn’t my efforts at role-play (which were minimal, after all), but the sense of uncertainty in my play. When I started the game I was mostly unfamiliar with the genre for one thing, which set me into a spin of worrying about some of the statistical concerns. I also worried endlessly about whether I was making the “right” choices as I talked to people and so on (“right” in the sense of advancing the narrative in an interesting direction). These were all triggered mostly by not knowing the genre.

Far more important, though, was when I first entered the wastelands and encountered my great uncertainty about what anything meant in terms of navigation and fighting. The world was clearly hostile and I wasn’t sure I could survive it. My equipment was in poor condition. I agonized over each spent bullet, feeling sure I’d need it later more severely. I was genuinely afraid of the various creatures in the wasteland, the things and people who weren’t necessarily out to kill me, but would if the chance arose. And my fear, and thus the intensity of my experience, essentially came from not knowing (often referred to as “contingency” in the academic biz).

But of course games help you learn them, and games only have so many tricks up their sleeves, and games don’t want you to fail. The contingency, the uncertainty falls away as you learn that you can easily kill your enemies, that you don’t need to conserve ammunition, that you’re stronger than you thought. And this is a natural part of mastery, and mastery is enjoyable too. But with the falling away of uncertainty comes a falling away of a genuinely exciting experience. It’s replaced with a game.

And a game just isn’t as good.

17 May 2010
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