What makes the video game medium truly great is the way in which it is able to make the audience a part of that story. To watch something happen is an entirely different experience from being involved in it happening. As a result, there are some stories in the medium that could not work in any other. Few games prove this as well as Contact.
Contact was released in the early days of the Nintendo DS and had a clever idea for how it would use the DS’ dual screen functionality. Each screen would exist in two different worlds: one screen displays the laboratory of the Professor, the man who guides your journey, and the other screen displays the world of Terry, the game’s protagonist.
From the outset, it’s clear that these two worlds are distinct from one another. The look of the Professor’s laboratory has the graphical quality of a Gameboy Advance game. By intentionally using lower quality visuals, Contact is telling the player to think of the Professor’s laboratory as a game. This is reinforced the first time the Professor contacts the player. He asks for assistance and says, “We can even pretend it’s just a game.”
In today’s world of cinematic, visceral experiences that seek to divorce themselves from gaming’s humble origins, Contact reminding the player that it is a “just a game” stands out.
In contrast, the appearance of Terry’s world is much less game-like. At times, the landscapes and environments can look almost like beautiful paintings. Additionally, in Terry’s world there is much more of a taste of the real world. NPCs can fall in love with Terry, he can kill time simply fishing, he can even take up a part-time career as a chef. In other words, Terry’s world is more “real” than the Professor’s. Even so, it’s still “just a game.”
The game destroys the fourth wall from the very outset by having the Professor contact the player specifically. He asks you what sort of food you like, where you live, and even your name. None of these things affect Terry’s behavior in any way whatsoever. The point of this moment is to show that you as a player are one person and Terry is another. You may be controlling Terry, but he in no way represents you. The Professor even asks that you keep secrets from Terry, who doesn’t even know you exist. Keeping secrets may not be a game mechanic, but such statements still reinforce the divide.
To save in Contact, you have Terry take a nap on the nearest bed. Terry doesn’t need to be controlled while he’s sleeping, so during these moments you’re free to make small talk with the Professor. In these moments, one of the things he might ask is, “Are you enjoying the game?” From Terry’s perspective, you’re putting him in danger, taking away his free will, and forcing him to go along with the whims of someone less “real” than he is. Are you enjoying it?
Consider another part of Contact, wherein the Professor mentions an article he’s reading titled, “Gaming and NPC Freedom.” Can NPCs really have freedom? Ultimately, they’re bits of code. They do what they’re programmed to do based on preset variables and some can respond to changes in their environment. At best, you can introduce a bit of randomness to what they choose to do.
But really, how different is an NPC’s behaviour from our own? It’s not uncommon for parallels to be drawn between the human mind and computers. For instance, one could think of the traits we inherit from our parents as a form of programming. Some have even suggested our subconscious mind makes decisions for us before we make them on a conscious level.
For the sake of narrative discussion, let’s think of the human mind as similar to a computer. Our behavior is largely dictated by its programming, something outside our conscious control. Even conscious decisions are limited by environmental factors and subconscious factors.
Compare that to a game character. They’re a vastly simplified take on this, but the absolute basics do have some similarities. Characters can be programmed to make choices, even if those choices limited by their environment and the complexity of their programming. At what point would a person draw the line between the free will that people exercise and the programming of a game character?
It’s a worthwhile question to ask. As time progresses, we’ll almost certainly learn more about the how and why of the human brain. The mysteries of human behavior and free will will become less and less nebulous. It’s very likely that we’ll implement what we learn in the video games of the future. The gap between human behavior and AI will diminish. It’s easy to say what the difference between human and AI is now, but what about then?
Imagine a future GTA where the innocent pedestrians you run over and gun down have AI only a few degrees less “real” than the human brain. Imagine killing NPCs who actually fear death and stealing from store owners who actually feel they have been robbed. Imagine these things, and then imagine a little pixelated scientist in a white lab coat asking, “Are you enjoying the game?”
In cutscenes, Terry frees himself of the player’s control, but he’s still a slave to his programming. Terry’s free will is an illusion, something he thinks exists but emphatically does not. At the very end, Terry tries to kill you. Terry wants what he believes to be his free will back and so launches an attack on the person who’s been controlling him all along. The player must defeat Terry to proceed.
In such a battle between player and character, Terry is the closest to having free will that he’s ever been. He can attack and he can run about the screen. He finally has options he can choose between. Even something as basic as that brings him closer to our level.
Of course, the player wins. It is literally impossible for Terry to ever kill you, and so it is impossible for the player to get a “Game Over.” Terry falls, still a slave to forces outside his control, and the game reaches its conclusion. Any free will Terry could have had is lost forever. Congratulations! You won! Did you enjoy the game?
The game closes with a letter from the Professor. In this letter, he states that he knows he’s just a character in a game. He knows he’s just doing what he’s programmed to do. That even his letter to you is what he was programmed to say. Even so, he still wants to journey, travel through space, and explore. Even if his wants were chosen by the person who created him, they’re still his wants. That’s what he wants you to know.
Do humans have free will? For now, that’s largely a philosophical debate. With time and research, it will likely become one of semantics and what people consider free will to mean. However, whether or not we have free will, the things we choose, our wants and desires, and even the things we feel are still real. They are who we are and they’re a part of us, free will or no.
This is the lesson I learned from Contact, and why I continue to love it to this day.