The Imagination Gap (revised)

This post jumps off a point made in Jesse's lecture on January 19th, 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 discussion. Specifically, I argue that we should make efforts to preserve such gaps in videogames in order to produce more satisfying experiences. I then explore a number of potential methods for doing so.

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. 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?

I can think of a few possible strategies:

Allude to a wider world: Even the most concrete and realistic game could provide fuel for the player's imagination by alluding to far off lands not accessible in-game. Actually, this technique may work even better in games where the explorable locations are heavily detailed rather than vague and ambiguous: If players experience a rich and detailed world and are told of other far off worlds, then they imagine these to be as richly detailed as the game's locales and are thus enticed even further by their mention. Star Wars is great at this; it details a few worlds but shows glimpses of many others, through aliens at the Cantina for instance.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Leave things open to interpretation: A game with unambiguous visuals and actions—where what's happening moment-to-moment leaves little to the imagination—can still capture the imagination if the meaning of what's happening is unclear. I'm currently playing The Witness, a puzzle/exploration game where you solve sequences of puzzles on computer terminals scattered around an island. There's a lot to see, and—apart from the cryptic puzzles—it's generally pretty clear what you're seeing, but why you're seeing it is a mystery. I find myself constantly interpreting and re-interpreting what I've seen, piecing together broader themes as I progress through the game. Hopefully, the game will never reveal its meaning unambiguously to me, and I will continue this process long after finishing it. Mystery is a motivating force for the imagination. That's why audiences reacted so negatively when Star Wars: Episode I provided a concrete explanation of The Force, for instance

The Witness (2016)

The Witness (2016)

Create temporal gaps: Even games with the tightest, most detailed narratives imaginable could provide fuel for the imagination by referring to events that occur outside the time periods they cover. Again referring to Star Wars, the original trilogy did this very well—alluding not only to pivotal events prior to any of the movies but providing temporal gaps between the major releases to be filled in by fans and countless releases in the expanded universe.

Create compelling characters: Technologically advanced as they might be, games still cannot easily lay bare the psychological makeups of complex characters. As the popularity of reading and writing fanfiction will tell you, characters' psyches can themselves act as mysterious landscapes for us to discover, ponder, and extrapolate in various directions. Key to this phenomenon are avoiding cliché, providing an element of relatability for the audience, and striking an appropriate balance between sufficient characterization and mystery. When handled correctly, characters are a powerful tool for capturing the player's imagination.

Render the world from subjective perspective(s): One final technique I personally haven't seen used much in games, though I suspect it could be powerful, is Expressionism. That is, a game might show its world from one or more subjective perspectives, rather than a single "true" perspective. This leaves it to the player's imagination to develop an "objective" picture of the world. Just as 8-bit graphics did for Pokémon, subjectivity creates ambiguity in even the the most technologically sophisticated game. This in turn creates room in which our imaginations can run wild.

As these techniques have shown, it's possible to create imagination gaps using techniques that exist independently or perhaps even as positive functions of technological advancements in the games industry. And I'm sure these techniques are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to methods for encouraging players to exercise their imaginations. As developers, I think it would be wise for us to keep some of these considerations in mind as we strive to create absorbing, immersive experiences.