My worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. There, inside the game’s two-dimensional universe, life was simple: It’s just you against the machine.
Wade Watts, Ready Player One
Imagine a future in which the real world becomes so messed up that everyone spends most of their waking hours plugged into a virtual reality.
This is the dystopian future Wade Watts lives in.
Wade goes to school in a virtual universe called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). It’s here in this massive multiplayer online simulation that he plays games, listens to music, reads, watches movies, and hangs out with his (admittedly few) friends. Pretty much everything that matters to him exists inside this virtual reality. The real world is just a fading source of electricity, nutrients, and shelter to keep people alive.
The strange thing about OASIS, though, is that it’s culturally stuck in the 1980s. Its creator, James Halliday, was obsessed with the 80s, especially 80s arcade games. This obsession plays out in all sorts of fascinating ways inside of OASIS and in the hunt to find Halliday’s Easter Egg hidden deep inside the network. Subsequently, it also spawns a whole generation of people equally entrenched in 1980s media.
Wade Watts and James Halliday are fictional characters from Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, but there are tons of real-life people who are equally enamored with 1980s arcade games. Part of it is nostalgia—playing games with friends at the arcade is a common happy childhood memory. However, there seems to be something bigger at work, because younger generations who didn’t grow up with these games have also taken an interest in them.
What exactly is it about the first generation of arcade games—with their terrible graphics, simple rules, limited functionality, and two-dimensional narratives—that still captivates our imaginations today? Is it in spite of these constraints that people continue to play games that have been around for over 2 decades—or because of them?
There’s a kind of creative magic that occurs within the narrow boundaries of constraint. And 1980s games were certainly constrained in many ways. Controllers limited what kinds of actions you could take. Memory storage in hardware prevented games from being too long or complex. Storylines had to follow a linear progression to keep file sizes reasonable, and characters were rendered as a few blocks of color on-screen.
Ultimately, arcade game designers found ways to create highly compelling stories, characters, and experiences in spite of all these limitations. Modern-day storytellers can learn some valuable lessons from these early digital pioneers about using constraints to develop powerful narratives in a much more expansive interactive landscape.
Lesson 1: Simple Characters Can Be Compelling
Although there’s a lot of literary and film snobbery around developing multidimensional protagonists and antagonists, some of the most classic arcade game characters are also the simplest.
Take the original Donkey Kong arcade game, for example. Mario is the brave hero. Donkey Kong is the big bad guy (er, monkey). Pauline is the love interest. There’s no depth to any of their characters—literally or metaphorically. Still, as you play, you become invested in getting Mario safely from level to level and saving Pauline from her brutish captor.
On the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, Dirk the Daring Knight in Dragon’s Lair has a bit of complexity. As he encounters all manner of traps, beasts, and ghouls on his journey to rescue Princess Daphne, he show signs of fear, surprise, and hurt along the way. Because of this, Dirk is relatable, even though he doesn’t speak a word of dialog in the entire game.
Don’t be scared, Dirk—you’ve got this. Source: Game Ind
Interactive storytelling doesn’t require super complex characters. In fact, if you’re building branching narratives around decisions your characters make, complexity can make for major headaches in terms of experience architecture. Often times, it’s best to make your characters flatter and leave more up to the audience’s interpretation.
Lesson 2: Visual Design Doesn’t Need Detail to Be Effective
The widespread popularity of modern video game Minecraft proves the point that not every story needs photorealistic renders and carefully modeled landscapes to grab the attention of today’s gamers. In the 1980s, the vast majority of games had pixelated, simplistic 2-D graphics. That didn’t stop players from becoming emotionally attached to them.
Q*Bert is a blocky pink alien. The frogs in Frogger are blobs of green pixels. In Joust, the “ostriches” are unrecognizable brown geometric shapes. Even Mario, who has a more visually distinct and detailed appearance than many 80s arcade characters, was designed around the constraints of bit rendering. This is why he has a hat instead of hair, overalls instead of a shirt and pants, and a mustache to give his face definition.
The point is not to rag on early arcade graphics—quite the opposite. These super simplistic characters, and their equally simple settings and storylines, communicate the things players care about including personality, atmosphere, and emotion. The parts that aren’t communicated are left up to the player’s imagination.
With the advanced technology we have today, it’s tempting to make all of our visual designs extremely detailed and stylized. Many console and desktop games have gone this route, as have movies and other forms of media storytelling. But highly realistic graphics and beautiful designs aren’t nearly as important as creating a compelling experience. When choosing where to invest your time, who your characters are should take precedence over what they look like.
Lesson 3: If a Structure Works, Reuse It
Part of what makes 80s arcade games so great is that, once you play through one level, you know how the rest of the levels work. There’s a comfortable rhythm in following the same structure with slight changes here and there throughout the game.
In Joust, for example, you fly around on an ostrich trying to knock out your opponents and their buzzards. While each level map looks a bit different, the goal is still the same: To avoid all of the obstacles while flying across the screen and taking out your enemies.
Take out evil ravens. Avoid dying. Repeat. Source: Spinnerbox
Frogger also follows the same structure in each level, progressively adding more obstacles to increase the difficulty as you progress.
Dodge cars, turtles, alligators, and logs, or it’s game over. Source: Operation Rainfall
These unwritten guidelines are what make it enjoyable to play a game through to the end, and to play similar types of games. You’re never confused about what your goal is and how to achieve it. In the interactive storytelling space, however, we often feel compelled to reinvent the wheel for the sake of novelty. We shouldn’t.
There are lots of established structures—both from website architecture and from online gameplay—that we can use when crafting digital experiences. And once we find a structure that works for one part of our story, it’s ok to reuse that structure throughout. It’s not laziness—it’s consistency. And consistency can contribute in a big way to a positive user experience.
Lesson 4: Interactivity Can Take Many Forms
When we think about interactivity in modern-day video games, the options are almost limitless. You can choose who to play as, which perspective to play in, which pathway you take through the narrative, which weapons you use and when, which characters you talk to—and the list goes on. The first arcade games were a lot more limited, but they still made use of a few different types of interactivity.
In games like Pac-Man or Q*Bert, you choose your path around dangerous elements while collecting all of the squares or dots in the level.
Pac-Man is hungry for some dots. Source: Steve Piers
In some arcade games, you could also choose a character to play, like in Rampage. (Giant lizard, gorilla, or werewolf… tough pick.)
Lizzie the ape is on a rampage! Source: YouTube
And in games like Super Mario Brothers, you can directly interact with other characters by killing them (or being killed by them, if you’re not careful).
Watch out for those crafty crabs, Mario! Source: YouTube
Within a relatively confined framework, there’s still a lot of different types of interactivity you can introduce into your digital stories. If you design your story right, you have the flexibility to give your audience the ability to choose their viewpoint, pick a path through the narrative, and collect items to “unlock” parts of the story.
Even a simple interaction such as choosing to skip to a different section or topic can be incredibly powerful. Early arcade game makers understood that inviting the player to participate makes for a much more engaging and personalized experience. Clinque’s recent Play with Pop interactive music video springs to mind as a great example of brand content where the viewer has full control over their experience.
Lesson 5: Standard Conventions Should Guide Experience
Just as many arcade games followed a standardized level structure, they also used a standardized set of controls and in-game conventions to provide a consistent player experience.
Most arcades feature a joystick, buttons, and sometimes a trackball. Transitions between levels are clearly indicated in a similar way in all games. Coins and points are tracked in the same kind of on-screen counter. Boss fights are always at the end of a level, and require more dexterity, skill, or power to win than normal fights.
In Level 5 of Phoenix, you enter a boss fight with the mothership. Source: Rings & Coins
Because most games use standard conventions, players don’t have to actively think about the mechanics of the experience—instead, they can focus on winning. We can achieve the same results in our interactive storytelling by following user experience best practices for web design.
There are elements we all take for granted that are a part of most web experiences, such as navigation menus, arrows to get from page to page, home buttons that allow us to get back to the beginning, and styling around links to show they’re clickable. Our interactive experiences should take advantage of these built-in, almost invisible conventions users are used to so the focus remains on our stories, not on the right way to consume them.
Arcade games are a surprising treasure trove of wisdom from decades past. For modern-day storytellers, they remind us that constraints are our friends, not our enemies. Boxing ourselves in may feel like we’re restricting our creativity. But in fact, limitations can help us push beyond the crutches of technological power, novelty, and flashy effects to tap into deeper, more meaningful types of innovation.
For Wade Watts, “Being human totally sucks most of the time. Video games are the only thing that make life bearable.” It’s our challenge and privilege to tell stories that elicit similar responses from our audiences.
Hero Image Source: Magicill, Ready Player One Blog