Michael’s post over at The Brainy Gamer looks at how digital download services have begun to carry serious momentum and surely can only pick up even more as Microsoft’s XBLA and Sony’s PSN release more content. Many folks over at the Brainy Gamer are just as excited as Michael with the prospect of ‘no more plastic’, but I found myself less excited about the prospect of a future without physical packaging.
Part of those feelings can be chalked up to old fashioned nostalgia – it’s hard to give up fond memories of gingerly tearing the plastic off of a brand new game as a kid, reveling in the pungent odor of freshly printed manuals and carefully unfurling cloth maps of lands a’far. Closely linked to that is another aspect of physical packaging that I think is really important, and we’ve forgotten it in our unquestioned haste to deliver games cheaper and faster. That is, we’ve lost our appreciation of the game packaging as a craft and an art unto itself that provides a tactile engagement with games we otherwise lack.
The chronology of game packaging that Ryan Scott and Scott Sharkey present in their article Shrink Wrapped: A history of PC game packaging trends, from awesome to awful, is a good taste of how packaging progressed from the early years to the present. Unfortunately, a chronology is just that – it doesn’t bring to the forefront why packaging matters might matter so much to us. In this article I do my best to highlight one game with interesting game packaging – feelies, artwork, manuals, etc – and try to show how (for some people) physical interaction with the packaging can transform the nature of the game. I should note that some of the things I say later in the article could be construed as spoilers, so ye have been warned!
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
As far as I know, this is the first (and perhaps only) game to integrate the in-box materials into the game’s introduction. Written in the first-person, the introduction invites the player into the game world and encourages the player to explore the trinkets in the box… the player finds the metal ankh that falls from the moongate, a book titled The History of Britannia as told by Kyle the Younger, a second book titled in undecipherable runes (The Book of Mystic Wisdom), and a cloth map. Stepping out of character for a moment, the narrator cautions the player to avoid reading The Book of Mystic Wisdom and alternatively instructs the player to read The History of Britannia: “Settling back under the willow tree, you open the book. You read the Book of History. (No, really! Read the Book of History!)”
As I play Ultima IV, I’m pulled directly into the story. I’m introduced to The Book of History and the ankh as discoveries that I’ve made, and not simply marketing pack-ins unceremoniously mass-produced in some factory. The introduction transforms these objects magically – they become sacred artifacts that can’t be ignored or tossed out. It is because of these artifacts that as a player I don’t simply play along and temporarily assume the role of another anonymous Avatar who becomes the fantasied saviour of Britannia. The world of Britannia now matters to me – it’s a living, breathing, place where books of history, ankh necklaces, and brightly colored maps are crafted… a place away from the mundane vagaries of daily life… it is a sacred place, far away from home. The in-box materials, as far as the persuaded player is concerned, were minted in a fantastical far away land that lies just on the other side of a magical door.
But why does this magical transformation of the world matter so much for Ultima IV? Couldn’t the player be just as satisfied with playing-the-hero-role for a few hours and move on to the next game on the pile, as we normally do when we consume games?
This is where Ultima IV takes an ogre-sized step away from the usual fare. As the player reads The History of Britannia s/he becomes immersed in the world as a newcomer or traveller – like reading a ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ in anticipation of an adventure into unknown lands. After chronicling the history of Britannia and describing its various sights, forms of magic, creatures and beasts, and versing the player in combat techniques, Kyle the Younger poses a question (and quest!) to the player: is it possible to become a virtuous person, and if so, what paths must s/he walk in order to become this teacher of virtue? The historian points the player to speak with Lord British, who responds on the last page of the manual:
The Quest of the Avatar is the search for a new standard, a new vision of life for which our people may strive. We seek the person who can become a shining example for our nation and guide us from the Age of Darkeness into the Age of Light…
… The secrets of the Avatar [the embodiment of virtue] are buried deep in the hearts of both our people and the land in which we dwell. The search will be arduous and the One who shall succeed must be able to assemble all the parts of the great mystery in order to solve the Quest.
Gaze upon the device portrayed on the facing page of this tome. Learn it well, for when thou dost gaze upon it again then shall thy life’s quest be revealed.
To which, the player is presented with an arcane symbol – later discovered to be the symbol for the “Codex of Ultimate Wisdom”. Players who, in their haste or their gluttony for gameplay, skipped this section of the manual are plunged into a game of traditional fighting and gold- and item-hoarding. While they will no doubt stumble upon many sub-quests that converge upon the game’s ending, their choices in the game won’t be motivated by Lord British’s adherence to the eight paths of virtue. Because players (including myself) typically are motivated by symbolic self-gratification, the game is loaded with ethical-moral traps that tempt the player into acting on their vices. All acts, whether virtuous or not, are recorded behind the scenes – and the player is never given an unambiguous measure of where they stand with the eight virtues – the player literally must be mindful of their virtuousness themselves! If players act greedily, selfishly, dishonorably, cowardly, etc, without recognizing it – they will never become the Avatar. Thus, the player must remain mindful throughout the game of their actions, and always remain faithful to the path of virtue. To use an infamous example, all of the herbalists in the game are blind. When purchasing magical reagents if the player palms off 4 coins instead of 10 coins to the blind herbalist, the herbalist quietly accepts the coins without question. However, later on the player might discover that they are not Honest enough to become the Avatar… and never see the end of the game.
The manual motivates the player to look at things in a certain way – it suggests to us to rely upon whatever understanding of Honesty, Compassion, Spirituality, Sacrifice, Honor, Humility, Love, Valor, and Justice we might have, and play the game with all of those things in mind. And as we play the game in terms of the virtues, we begin to get a better sense for them – we start to see what kinds of acts are virtuous and what kinds are not. And to motivate these virtuous acts that play against our childish egocentrism we pursue the secret of that circular symbol in the back of the manual – what the hell is that thing?
The end of the game, which is famously among the handful of game endings with no violent defeat of some alien foe, a voice asks the player a series of 8 questions – each of which involving the virtues. As the player answers each question correctly, the game draws a single feature on the screen – a line or a circle. If the player knows her/his virtues, the complex Codex Symbol is drawn on the screen. Finally, the voice asks the player a final question – which I will not repeat here – and returns the player to the circle of stones at the outset of the game – home.
Note: If you’d really like to watch the ending, click here.
All of these in-game interactions are completely possible without the in-box artifacts. However, without the artifacts the game is a third-person experience: once the computer is shut off the virtues are just some romantic quest in a computer-generated reality. The player learns nothing from the experience, and the game exists as a kind of wish-fulfilling fantasy.
But the in-box artifacts do just the opposite: they act as a bridge between the player’s real-world and Britannia – they allow the player to act as her/himself, meaning that their in-game actions are integrated in the self whether they recognize it or not, and their way of thinking virtuously doesn’t disappear when the computer is shut down. Ultima IV, in many ways, is one of the first computer games to offer a true role-playing experience. Without the in-box artifacts and the player’s attention to them, the game offers no transformative experience.
Our tacit attachment to in-box artifacts is thus something deeper than nostalgia for games that use the artifacts as active parts of the game. Artifacts don’t just draw players into the game world – they also draw the game world into the player’s life.
In a world where mass-consumption has become the norm, it’s sad to see that games are quickly following suit. Viewing a PDF on a monitor isn’t the same as cracking opening a leather-bound manual. Hitting ‘M’ to view an in-game map isn’t the same experience as unfurling a cloth map and wondering at the various continents. Yes, several games like TES: Oblivion and Fallout 3 offer ‘collector’s edition’ packages that have all sorts of trinkets in them – but none of them feel as if they really belong to the game because the game is not integrated with the trinkets. Ultima IV, among other games such as Wasteland, Tass Times in Tonetown, and Space Quest IV, make what were toys or trinkets matter to us and turn them into physical artifacts that express the game world.
What I’m trying to say here is that whether a mass-market game is digital-download-only, or if the game is released as a trinket-packed collector’s edition, the options don’t matter anymore: in-box materials no longer mean anything because developers have forgotten their personal, meaningful, value. Developers no longer recognize the way that artifact and game constitute one another. They’re called “collector’s editions” for a reason – they’re made for people who like to collect things.
I look forward to the day that developers hearken back to games like Ultima IV and remind players that games are about their lives, and not just another thing to be consumed.