The Imagination Gap

This post jumps off a point made in Jesse's lecture on Tuesday, namely the idea that our imaginations need only a few details of a story in order to conjure up an entire world. We fill in gaps and love doing so. Such "imagination gaps" and the role they play in entertainment media are the subject examined in the following brief discussion. Specifically, I argue that we should make efforts to preserve such gaps in videogames in order to produce more satisfying experiences.

Before examining the imagination gap as it relates to game, I examine a case where it's more commonly discussed: books versus movie adaptations. We often hear complaints that movies don't do justice to their source material. While this is in part due to their condensed nature, it's also because movies are more concrete. While reading books, we picture worlds in our heads. These worlds fill in gaps left out of the text and are potentially more elaborate than anything that could be explicitly stated in words or shown on screen. When we proceed to see a movie based on a book we've read, we find the movie makers have filled in the same gaps we've filled but have done so differently, in a manner less "perfect" for us and perhaps less ambitious as well; after all, the movie maker's ideas don't have the luxury of residing solely in the imagination. Perhaps unfairly to the movie makers, we're disappointed that their movie does not depict our own imagined world based on our own reading of the source material.

I often observe a similar disappointment in gamers among longtime fans of various series. When the next installment of a series is released on superior hardware--filling in more details of the series's game world--we often hear cries of "this isn't my [insert series name here]." Take Pokémon, for instance. Many longtime fans of this series cite its initial 8-bit installments as the best in the series. However, Pokémon is not a series that has taken major risks in its mainline games. The series progresses evolutionarily rather than revolutionarily, with each installment improving on the mechanics of the previous in subtle ways. So how could the first two installments be "best?" Well, the answer lies in the gradual narrowing of the imagination gap with each installment of the series. The first games had primitive graphics and minimal story, allowing players to imagine a wondrous world of their own. Newer entries in the series have far more elaborate stories and far less ambiguous environment graphics. The first games fueled the imagination with hints and allusions. The newer game simply "state" the game world to the player.

In the evolution from this:

Pokémon Silver (1999)

Pokémon Silver (1999)

to this:

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

we lost something deeply satisfying to our imaginations.

This phenomenon is not limited to Pokémon. Another example that sticks out to me is that of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo was a game that--through its primitive sprites and boxart--alluded to a world far grander than could be rendered adequately on the SNES hardware. The technically crude game functioned as a doorway to a headspace in which a fully realized, satisfying experience occurred--an experience fueled in equal parts by Squaresoft's game and the player's imagination. More recent games in the series have not left such an imagination gap open, instead filling it with graphical achievements that--while impressive--pale in comparison to the mental worlds elicited by earlier entries.

Our imaginations latched onto this:

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

but not so much this:

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

I see countless other examples similar to the above. If you agree, then how might we address our modern thirst for "imagination gaps" in games? Should we stick to primitive hardware? I'd like to think we shouldn't, but if not, how can we create state-of-the-art games that still exercise our imaginations?