Contemporary media is largely based on the principle of instant gratification. From reality TV, to soap operas, stories are written to be easily consumed. Somebody who watches these kinds of shows passively receives the stories that they tell, without needing to actively engage with the content – and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Everybody is entitled to spend their free time doing what they enjoy. However, where is the challenge in these cases? What do we actually gain?
When a person plays a video game, they assume an active role in the story. The story only comes into being by emphatically playing the game that tells it. Essentially, it can’t be received unless the player’s input is equal to the game’s projected output. In this sense, gaming can be seen as a sort of revolution against contemporary tendencies towards gratification. This argument is based upon three pillars: exploration, difficulty, and choice.
Many games nowadays offer the player the opportunity to explore massive digital worlds. Although stories can be followed rather closely, it is often the case that a player will spend a lot of time engaging with the esoteric aspects of a game, such as side quests, and collectible-hunting. Take a game like The Witcher 3; the map is huge, and there is so much content to consume aside from the main story. A player can play for 100 hours without necessarily finishing the game. Therefore, there is no push towards instant gratification. There isn’t even a real incentive to get to the next part of the story immediately. Everywhere you go in The Witcher 3, you are bombarded with quests, tasks, and information. It is often that a player can have 10 quests partially completed before fully completing another. The beauty of this is that the overall story grows richer, and there exists a potential for extra narrative strands.
If the player opts to engage with the side quest ‘Reason of State’ in The Witcher 3, for example, they can partake in the assassination of a king, which greatly affects the overall outcome of the main story. Unlike film, TV, and even many books, the main story of a video game can be massively supplemented by engaging with the optional stories which surround it. Therefore, those seeking a rich storytelling experience will forsake instant gratification for a better ending to the story they’re being told. The player’s pains are rewarded with a richness of content, and the construction of a cohesive narrative structure from all of the individual story arcs.
Games are difficult. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, some can feel overwhelming for some players. On top of this, titles like Dark Souls and Bloodborne pride themselves on the fact that there is no option to change the difficulty, and if you can’t git gud, you are gonna have a bad time progressing through the game. The effect of this is that some players quickly become jaded with the game, and opt to set it aside. Their story ends when they stop playing. If they never beat Father Gascoigne, then their Bloodborne experience ends there.
However, players who persist have their persistence rewarded with the next part of the story. They are granted access to the Tomb of Oedon, and they can make their way onward to fight Vicar Amelia, and so on. These particular games famously present a blood-red, capitalised “YOU DIED” every time the player fails, designed to emphasise that very failure. A person seeking instant gratification will almost immediately realise that this game doesn’t provide that. However, a person who is willing to patiently learn the game’s mechanics and layout is ultimately rewarded with an amazing story. They may die to a boss every five minutes for five hours, but, when they eventually triumph, they have truly earned the next phase of the story.
The real-life dopamine spike which runs parallel to this is also pretty great. To put it simply, the story isn’t available to people who aren’t willing to put in the work. Like anything else worthwhile in life, you need to work hard if you want to reap the benefits. As a result, people learn real qualities, such as patience, perseverance and intuition, all while actively playing a role in a wonderful digital storytelling experience. Who needs instant gratification when you’re rewarded with three virtual umbilical cords?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, stands the pillar of choice. Many contemporary games have superseded what it used to mean for a player to play an important role in the digital world their character inhabits. From Mass Effect 2, to any given Telltale game, the story in the process of unfolding is heavily influenced by the choices the player makes. A player can be presented with four potential dialogue options in a conversation, or be faced with a life-or-death ultimatum; in each case, the choice that is made actually impacts the main story of the game.
Instead of simply watching one scene transition to the next, the player is tasked with choosing which decision will spark this transition. The player can impulsively make a decision, or stare at the screen with their hands on their head, entirely unsure of what to do. No matter the decision, its impact is always emphatically impactful, and the player will often feel they made the wrong choice, perhaps proceeding to reload a previous save and try again. If this isn’t the opposite of instant gratification, then what is?
Video games demand the attention of the person playing them. Many require patience, skill, and intellectual involvement. You can come away from a game feeling as if you’ve studied for an hour, or you can come away from a game feeling as if you’ve lost a loved one. The level of immersion a player experiences is inversely proportional to the speed at which gratification is provided. Through immersion, we learn to experience stories actively and slowly, which is the way the best stories are always told. In a world of giving everyone what they want for nothing, it’s sometimes better to earn your favourite stories, lest stories cease to mean anything at all.