I've been playing video games again a little bit lately. Well, one video game: Oblivion, being the fourth installment in the fantasy role-playing game series, "The Elder Scrolls".
I play video games, as most people do, for a variety of reasons. A less entertaining reason is that it's a stress reliever. A more entertaining reason is that I enjoy being in the role of someone who can accomplish spectacular things in other worlds, living through dramatic stories with no consequences to myself but emotional ones. I want to call lightning with the power of my mind, find ancient supernatural artifacts in underground caves, leap off mountains and survive. This is why I tend to play video games like "Oblivion".
"Oblivion", and the Elder Scrolls series in general, is a roleplaying game, and is somewhat unique in the video game world. The game starts you off as a forgotten prisoner in a dungeon; what you did to be put in the dungeon is never explained. As the game opens, the Emperor of the continent, voiced by Patrick Stewart, comes traipsing through your prison cell. His guards are very annoyed to see you there - apparently your cell houses a secret escape route from the city (if only you'd known!) and the Emperor is being chased by assassins. It looks like a bureaucratic mix-up stuck you in the middle of this - or maybe Destiny, because the Emperor recognizes your face. It seems he's seen you in his dreams. Before the next few hours are out, he'll be dead, and you'll be tasked with the mission of finding his illegitimate surviving heir and delivering to him a supernatural heirloom.
The story continues from there, of course, but if you just follow through that story and nothing else, you're missing the point. The world of "Oblivion" (and its predecessors "Morrowind" and "Daggerfall") is huge and open. It is over 16 square miles wide in 'real' absolute terms, with giant cities, small towns, open tracts of wilderness, rivers, mountains, swamps, forests, and people everywhere; that's not even counting the alien world of Oblivion (a combined metaphor for outer space and hell, believe it or not) which the player can venture to. It's a world to get lost in.
Sure, technology puts limits on the realism; some of the world is randomly generated, the people who populate the world have limited dialogue, and, well... you're playing a video game. It's as unrealistic on the edges as you would ultimately expect.
Still, "Oblivion" is powerful in that, within the loose bounds of the fantasy world provided, you can be anyone. You choose and design your own character, appearance, personality, skills and physical traits. It's easy to design a range of characters who do completely different things in this other world, live in different cities, befriend different people. This is the appeal of the role-playing game; god forbid I play a game like "World of Warcraft", in which the possibilities are truly infinite because you're surrounded by real people. It's this kind of thing that turns people into addicts, who sacrifice their outside social lives on the altar of a fantastic world where they can live lives they never could in the outside world.
Not I. There's an edge of frustration involved, and for me, it makes me want to write. A game like "Oblivion" has an inevitable story problem; it's sharply limited despite the openness of the world. There's only a few conversation options, and an ultimately finite number of unique stories you can experience in the world. Inevitably, most are predictable, and the ones that are surprising still amount to very very short stories once you subtract the amount of fighting and looting and exploring that you do to get from point A to point B. The beautiful world of the game triggers inspiration; walking down a woodland road in the rain holding an enchanted sword gives one a sense of possibility, a sense of wondering, for me, what this character that I have so carefully created might be doing or feeling walking down this road in another world. The game, good as it is, cannot but fall short of these speculations. It's from these frustrations that stories can be born.