So I’ve been having an alarming number of nightmares recently. My nightmares don’t tend to be of the obvious pain-of-death variety; more of the slow, horrifying realization type. Last night’s was particularly crushing, and I would like to share it with you:
A different place, a different time. I lived in a house, with my wife, in a world overrun with vicious predators, who sought nothing more than to rend us limb from limb. For reasons not known to me, our house was not safe at night. So every night was spent running through the wilderness, not staying in one place for very long, leaving our scent with small groups of prey so the predators would consume them and not us. Every day was spent resting in the house; each day one of us would say to the other, “When we rest, we rest together,” and she would make a bottle for the baby. Every night, we’d run.
After a few nights, I realized there were no other humans.
And one day, weeks later, she was making the bottle, quietly sobbing, saying to me, “When we rest, we rest together,” and I realized there was no baby either.
Not exactly how I wanted to wake up, and it certainly kept me from sleeping for about the rest of the night. So I lay in bed, thinking about the dream, thinking about how I could communicate to someone just how crushing that realization was. There are obviously many ways that story could be communicated; I could write it, as I just did. I could turn it into a proper short story, with characters; I could illustrate it as a comic; I could do a short film. But all of these are viewing forms — even with a first person perspective, if you came to the realization, it wouldn’t be yours — you would be watching someone else come to the realization. You may feel for them, you may empathize, but it still isn’t your realization.
I realized the only way to fully communicate my experience to someone else would be to turn it into a game.
The reason, of course, is that there is a very specific set of criteria and stimuli you need to experience in order to grasp the full weight of the situation:
- You need to be you, but as someone else. This strange dissociation isn’t a particularly difficult concept; we do it all the time in dreams, and we do it all the time in games.
- You need to not know everything about yourself, but know enough to function in your new world. This strange not-amnesia isn’t really that weird; again, we do it all the time in dreams, and we do it all the time in games.
- You need to be able to take in information at your own pace, information needs to be available to you at only the moments you look for them, and gaps need to be present to allow you draw your own conclusions. Movies try to do this, but they can only show you information; as clever as a director may be, he can’t truly allow you to discover information. But we do it all the time in dreams, and we certainly do it in games.
The realization that there was no baby, and hadn’t been for some time, only came at the moment I saw her crying, because every instance before that, after she made the bottle, we would sleep, and when we ran, she ran behind me. This allowed the assumption that she carried and cared for the baby. But when I had that realization, the rest of the dream came into the focus — I had never seen the baby, I had never heard the baby. The only evidence that the baby had ever existed was in my wife’s actions.
These sort of cognitions, realizations, and epiphanies are only possible in a medium where you are given a certain amount of author-provided information and a certain amount of autonomy of discovery. And so I discovered this truth about games:
Games can cause the participant to have author-guided realizations.
and even more importantly…
Games can cause the participant to have author-guided realizations that the participant owns.
I humbly submit that no other art form could as effectively communicate my dream, as I experienced it. And before you tell me it wouldn’t be a game because there are no goals, the goals are obvious: avoid getting killed by predators, for as many days as possible.
A game can be the strongest medium with which to express a dream. If that doesn’t qualify it as art, then you clearly don’t know how to dream.