The Importance of Filler

I've never been a fan of Contra—not just because it's a hyper-masculine power fantasy, but also because I can't breathe when I play it. I literally hold my breath until I die (in-game). I spend my whole playtime waiting for a break, instinctively desiring a moment possibly to strategize, to equip myself in some way to better dictate the moment-to-moment rhythm of the combat, or even to just take in the scenery. But the game never lets up. It's a game of chaos and—ultimately—memorization. Every moment in the game is a key moment; you could die at any time. And something about that just doesn't appeal to me. The question is, what?

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Why do I desire moments of safety in a game about combat? They would, of course, make the game easier—but I like hard games. However, upon closer examination, I find my preference for "breathing room" in games extends beyond those revolving around twitch-based combat. In fact, most of my favorite games have significant amounts of breathing room or—less charitably—filler. From sailing in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to eventless school days in Persona 4 to most of Animal Crossing and Proteus, there's something satisfying about doing "nothing" in a game world, and its absence can make a game feel lacking.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker  (2002)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)

Persona 4  (2008)

Persona 4 (2008)

Animal Crossing  (2002)

Animal Crossing (2002)

Proteus  (2013)

Proteus (2013)

At the moment, I can identify two reasons why this is the case, both relating to immersion. The first is that filler provides the player with a sense of everyday life in the game world. In order for extraordinary events within a game's world to feel extraordinary, the game must establish an ordinary state from which these events diverge. Persona 4 is very effective in this regard. It contextualizes its murder mystery story within an everyday, rural town. Many in-game days are full of "normal" stuff, like going to school or going shopping. Thus, events intended to be pivotal are perceived by the player as such, because they contrast the established everyday routine. On the other hand, I have no idea what everyday life is like in the Contra universe. The game is a barrage of bullets and explosions in a vacuum—all spectacle, no meaning.

The second reason why filler is important is that it provides opportunities for realistic fictional alignment that help to make characters more believable. That is, it creates situations where the feelings evoked by the experience of playing the game align with the feelings of the fictional character under the player's control. Non-filler situations do this as well, but filler gives the player experience with a broader palette of fictional emotions and thus makes the game character more believable. For example, the feeling of the sailing mechanic in Windwaker is a mixture of anticipation, boredom, and wonder at the beauty of the environment. This feeling aligns with that of real sailing, allowing the player to feel Link's emotions beyond those experienced in battle—rendering him a more realistic, empathetic character. In Contra on the other hand, we never feel the main character's emotions beyond those evoked by twitch-based combat—a nervous trigger-happiness. The character the player controls in Contra is little more than a walking gun, and much of that has to do with the wall-to-wall-combat nature of the game.

It's clear by now that I think games need room to breathe in order for their worlds and characters to become more than mere vessels for game mechanics. But this provides us with more questions than answers: How can we provide breathing room without creating boredom? How should we balance filler with more directly game-advancing content? These are questions worth examining.