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Play It Again, Sam!

Sometimes it feels like people who consume media are divided into two camps, with little leeway in between: one says "I don't keep books/games/movies after I'm done with them, I'm not going to read/play/watch them again," and the other instinctively amasses the things they like in order to access or re-visit  them on a moment's notice. (Anyone who has ever helped me move knows which group I belong to... and I'm very sorry about your backs.) Physical media and its associated benefits and drawbacks notwithstanding, the motivations behind these positions say a lot about the way people engage with the media they enjoy.
With predominately linear formats like books and movies, the engagement process is mostly pre-defined. While one could argue about the way home viewing has changed the cinematic experience by allowing audiences to jump in at any point or to back up and  re-examine missed details, and that printed media, particularly comics, have always had a "random access" quality, their standard means of interaction are so ingrained that works deviating from them can carry literal warnings - think of as the "STOP! This book is meant to be read from right to left page" in printed manga collections, or the message at the front of every Choose Your Own Adventure. Engagement with this kind of linear structure often takes the form of an unspoken back-and-forth between creator and audience that could be seen as a form of game or puzzle: unexpected twists and turns, building and sustaining tension, setup and resolution... the primary enjoyment of these aspects requires an audience be "in the dark," experiencing the work for the first time. This doesn't only apply to plot, either, character development over the course of a work can also benefit from an audience's "blank slate."

The thing, of course, is that an audience can only have this experience once with a particular work (barring memory erasure shenanigans), and even then, in relative ignorance of what's to come - there's a reason people get so worked up about spoilers. Not that they can't get some enjoyment out of repeated experiences, not to mention the vicarious thrill of sharing a work with a friend for the first time, but, as the song says, the thrill is gone. A major aspect of their enjoyment is absent and cannot be recaptured. Time for the next episode/volume/issue/installment/whatever! And thus, there's no reason to keep the completed one around - it has served its purpose. This isn't to shame (or "cast shade," as the kids, and maybe some wizards, say) people who don't keep the media they're done with. The enjoyment they experience and seek out is just as valid as that of those of us who surround ourselves with copies of our favorite media, always ready to relive a favorite moment or re-visit something we found inspiring to inform our own work. We all have our reasons for wanting to keep things close at hand (trying to build the World's Nerdiest Library, perhaps... not that I know anyone trying to do such a thing), far more than I could elucidate here, but an important one lies in the nature of non-linear media that requires one go through it multiple times to fully experience it. And here we come to an interesting conundrum: electronic games.

Given their origins, it may seem odd to question the replayable nature of electronic games - it's the entire model arcades were built on! Each quarter, even each life, offered the same gameplay, and players chose to experience it over and over. But if we change our focus to the computer games of the time, we see a different pattern emerging: games with endings. Colossal Cave Adventure, and particularly its "spiritual successor" Zork were both finite games with specific obstacles to overcome (in the form of puzzles) and a specific end state. Unlike arcade games (or single-player electronic wargames), there were few random factors and - the goal was to work out the specific set of actions the creators had laid out. Even with the interactivity, this was a model closer to linear media, with a similar feedback loop - the thrill coming through the revelation of planned elements. (Naturally, tabletop RPGs were capable of offering all these different qualities at once, but those depended on the judgement of a GM and their ability to adapt to the events taking place in the game.) And while the arcade game and the adventure game evolved in their own paths, a collision was inevitable: games with randomized elements in a linear progression of set stages leading to one or more concrete endings. In other words, the games of today.
In modern games, the replayability of action aspects comes down to the same factors as the earliest single-player arcade games: we enjoy the engagement that the game offers and want to get better at it. Story-wise, though, we potentially run into the same issues as with other linear media: the first-time novelty experience can only take place once. The significance of this depends greatly on the games and on the players, but it's interesting to see how early creators were attempting to address it - games were expensive, and players wanted value for their money, particularly past the arcade heyday. (Relative to other products and without getting too much into comparative buying power, the price of games has actually fallen relative to inflation. Most Atari VCS/2600 cartridges released at $32, which is about $98 today.) Interactive fiction and adventure games, the most likely to be cast aside once their puzzles had been solved,  had been offering alternate endings for a few years, but they didn't start appearing in games that featured both action and narrative until the mid-to-late '80s, depending on the county/market you're following. With YouTube and save games, it's pretty easy for us to view multiple endings today, but back then the only way to see all of them was... to play the whole game over. Soon we'd have the concept of "New Game +" and unlockable difficulty levels to keep players interested the second time around - not to mention skippable cutscenes!
Narrative games also offer new opportunities for storytelling through multiple endings, where the player can see and affect the same events from differing perspectives. This quickly became a storytelling tool, where the "full story" only becomes clear after one has completed the game from multiple (frequently opposing) viewpoints. Electronic games are uniquely positioned to explore this, as the process of redoing sequences is simply part of the medium - so why not narrative sections? Additionally the ability of the player to move the story at their own pace allows for exploration that's not really possible when the pacing is fixed. During exploration between narrative sections, for instance, story elements can be uncovered that completely change the context of events to follow, even when those events literally play out the same way. These kinds of details are usually found only during replays, as the first time through, audiences are still engaged in the "thrill ride" of narrative discovery. Mystery games are particularly good at this, to the point where the first ending the player uncovers is, if not a red herring, decidedly abbreviated. Some games even save the true nature of the narrative for the first ending, so that subsequent playthroughs take place in entirely different contexts.

Simply put, there's something special about electronic games that gives them a revisitability that may not be apparent if one thinks of them as simple challenges to overcome. And that's not even mentioning the sense of environment and tone games can provide - sometimes, we throw something in just because we want to exist in that world for a little while, without being dragged along the way we are in other media. Even the most strictly linear games offer new possibilities when played again, simply for the ability to recognize the details that will come up later in the story. In short, there's a reason to keep all these around... so I apologize for all the heavy boxes in the next move.
- B
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