Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced? This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into… Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.
It has long been a commonplace that we can draw a clear line between games as ‘interactive’ media on the one hand, and narrative media such as books, television, and movies on the other. Indeed, this distinction is supposedly the reason that ‘videogame’ works as a category. I have long found this segregation misleading because it underestimates the interactivity of supposedly ‘static’ media and it overestimates the agency in most digital games.
What is actually at task here is the meaning of the fictional content of videogames, the interpretation of fiction within game worlds. Yet to assert that this does not matter because its just a game is to claim – implausibly – that fiction in games doesn't matter because the fact of it being a game allows the significance of the fictional world to be ignored. And this is precisely an argument that games don't matter, they are artistically unimportant, and that they are second rate to novels and films.
Games studies has thus far been ideologically united by commitment to what can be called fiction denial. Fiction (setting, world, representations etc.) is guaged of lesser importance to rules, or of no importance whatsoever. The premise of this is expressed in multiple equivalent ways: that the setting and representations of a game are interchangeable and that only the mechanics are 'eternal' (something akin to what Raph Koster or Dan Cook occasionally suggest); that players initially engage with a game via the fiction but later this becomes unimportant (as Graeme Kirkpatrick and Jesper Juul assert); that the representation has no effect on how the player behaves (as Espen Aarseth claims). Espen gives the paradigmatic example of fiction denial when he says he wouldn't play Tomb Raider any differently if Lara Croft had a different character model. I believe him. But isn't this a fact about Espen Aarseth and not a fact about either Tomb Raider or its players?
Also on ihobo: a press release about my joining the University of Bolton.