I was born in the wasteland that was once Washington D.C. I felt joy and sadness; met people that will stay etched in my mind forever, made friends and enemies. The life was mine alone to lead and I made choices that affected it every day and with every step. I died on the other side of the Omega 4 Relay saving humanity from an enemy they didn’t believe existed.
But those were all experiences videogames provided. Just as novels and movies allow us to see places we’ve never seen, introduce people we’ve never met, videogames let us be in new places we’ve never been, do new things we’ve never done. No game gives us complete freedom of agency, access to every situation and put us in every location, but across the entirety of the medium, you can collect experiences that plant the seed for your own growth, to allow you to discover the world around and gain knowledge about existence and reality.
It can start deep in the forest of Hyrule. I have control over my own path and the freedom to go in any direction I want- east and west, north and south- but the first step of my particular adventure is to enter a nearby cave, a decision that rewards me with a sword. With it I can fight enemies and protect myself. But it didn’t have to be that way; I could have gone to a nearby dungeon, fought my way through without a weapon and claimed the first piece of the Triforce or go directly to another dungeon and get the fifth. The choice was mine. As was the choice to fight Air Man before I had earned the Leaf Shield, an item that would have defeated him in only a few shots. I got it later when I defeated Wood Man, but that was before I had defeated Metal Man and received his Metal Blade, which would have made everything easier.
No matter what direction you go, no matter what action you take, you will become stronger- a realization that is incredibly important. You’ll recognize the change when you overcome obstacles that had challenged you before. In RPG’s, that’s neatly represented as EXP and levels but those are just tangible systems that represent something that is mostly intangible- individual growth. The changes happen physically and mentally- you’ll jump higher and run faster; you’ll solve old puzzles that lead to new. Those new experiences will give you new tools and abilities and make you better capable of tackling the world.
The sheer volume of different games provide an incredibly diverse range of topics and many present an opportunity to learn new subjects and try new activities you might never have access to. You can drive and modify cars, learning about automotive engineering or fly classic and modern aircraft to soar through the sky or rocket through space; act out a simulation of detective work to solve a murder to bring justice to the victim or save them from a deadly virus; improve your body through training or learn training by working the tracks. Anything can be represented in videogames and the only limitation is your own desire to seek out them out.
Other people have made their own choices and walked their own paths and you’ll meet many as you grow. You’ll make enemies who want to take what’s yours and friends that will help you fight for what you believe in, bringing strength to areas that aren’t yours while you make up for their weaknesses. They will accompany you on your path. The relationships will develop as they witness your actions, see what you’re made of and the group becomes stronger, making your journey that much easier to complete. You can fall in love, get married and have a family. You will meet people who tempt you to stray.
And you find that your actions have consequences and will be forced into inescapable situations and make tough decisions. When Geralt of Rivia decided where his allegiances lay in The Witcher 2, he found himself in a different place, meeting people that would have been strangers otherwise. By your success or failure, you will rescue or lose people forever and never have the chance to go back, a fact that can haunt you until you claim responsibility and face them head on.
The world continues to turn when you’re not looking. Your actions have changed the world around you, for the better or worse. But it can always be fixed. On a global scale, we discover how connected everyone is and that what happens in one place, affects another and reacts to you. In Grand Theft Auto 3, that means illegal activity is met with swift retribution by law enforcement, while Chrono Trigger’s famous trial scene keeps track of small, seemingly meaningless acts at a fair and passes down judgment on your behavior.
This succession of choices, actions and events also form a narrative, build a story. Every time you crept through a Skyrim dungeon, slayed a dragon, a narrative grew organically the same way as when you were at work, at the grocery store. You set out from one place towards a goal in another and encounter greater and greater challenge reaching the end. That is story distilled down. You’ll also find it in the environments you travel, the setting for the action. Videogames are the only form with the potential to allow someone to experience a story and not just observe it. This sort of storytelling relies on the player being allowed to maintain at least one of two faculties- control or perspective. These are also the essentials for living life. It’s a journey, but one that tells an implicit story that becomes stronger on reflection but completely depends on what you are willing to take from it.
Videogames will never substitute for living our life but they can introduce us to new experiences within it, each one impactful on its own but not as significant as the collection. As your familiarity with games grows, so do you. The irony of videogames is that many of its most affecting entries can push you away from the medium and inspire you to explore the wonder, mystery and joy of a world outside your door firsthand and live life differently.