I recently wrote a piece for my application to NYU's Game Center MFA that asked me to consider why I want to go into game design. I talked about why I tell stories in games, and how interactivity defines every story I tell, but it got me thinking about what it is that makes games special for me. The easy answer would be the same as my answer for why I want to make games: they are interactive, and it is a different way of telling stories. That answer is not specific enough though. It's not technically wrong, but it does not get at the heart of what makes games special for me.
Games are special because they create moments of experience for the player. The other day, I was playing Earth Defense Force 4.1 with a good friend. We took a mission where we had to fight off drones and giant spiders from the roof of a skyscraper. It went pretty well, until my friend accidentally shot the ground in front of himself with an explosive weapon, and fell off the building. Being the good friend that I am, I decided to go revive him. Unfortunately, his body was covered with spiders, and I was injured. Fortunately, I had an idea. I sniped at the spiders until one of them dropped a health pack. Then, again being a good friend, I jumped off the building. As I sailed towards the ground, one of the spiders took a flying leap towards me. I raised my shotgun, blasted it away, and landed on the health pack. My injuries healed, and I was able to dive to safety and revive my friend.
Describing this moment might make it sound cool or exciting, but nothing can compare to the experience of it. That moment sticks with me because I did it. I didn't see it or hear about it, I did it, and it is cemented in my mind. Games are unique because they can provide the experience of a moment like that.
Not all of my favorite games are as campy as EDF, and action games certainly don't corner the market on memorable moments. Losing my buddy in the snowstorm in Journey, shooting the moon at the end of Portal 2, bouncing a balloon on instinct in Steam VR, All of my favorite gaming memories are not about interactivity alone, or even about the storytelling that interactivity can provide. I remember these isolated moments. They are not stories, not completely. They are more like cresting a hill on a long hike, and seeing a beautiful view across a desert valley, or finishing that same hike and taking a long drink of water. These moments are flashes that cut through the hazy memory of experience.
Games at their best are engines for those moments, because those moments can provide meaning and insight to a player. Jumping off that building in EDF was exciting and cool, but it is the memory of doing something exciting and cool with my friend that makes it stick with me. Losing my buddy in the snowstorm in Journey stuck with me because of the kinship I felt with a stranger. Bouncing a balloon in Steam VR felt magical because I then got to watch my Dad put the headset on and, without knowing I had done it, do the exact same thing. I cherish those moments that games have provided, just as I cherish memories of that desert hike. I cherish those moments because they stand out in my memory because I experienced them. This doesn't make games better than other mediums, it just makes them different. That difference makes games special for me, and define what I want to create: just a moment in someone's memories.