A woman wakes up. Her hair sticks slick to her forehead, she feels the dull throbbing of her heart at the bottom of her throat, she feels tears in her eyes–remnants of a nightmare. She pushes herself frantically out of bed, desperately trying to get away from… something.
As critics and gamers, when we talk about our enjoyment of a video game, most of the time we stick to the usual suspects: mechanics, story, graphics, replayability, etc. But there is something that few people talk about as part of the criteria of a good game: a sense of wonder.
First off, what is wonder and why is it important?
We’ve all experienced it–that sense that this thing we are hearing, seeing, or feeling is greater than what we currently know.
Wonder isn’t necessary for a good game. But it is for a great one.
Does this thing, for a few moments of the 100+ hours of gameplay, make me stop and stare.
Bloodborne and the Dark Souls games bring forth Wonder in the guise of the awe of accomplishment–Holy shit, I finally beat that boss. I can’t believe it.
We have taken to calling something wonder-adjacent in video games: Immersion. But really, wonder isn’t an immersive experience… It is fundamentally an escape from our own reality.
Wonder is a thing that becomes more and more elusive with age. To be clear, it’s not that there is something biological that causes us to find less wonder–it is our experience with negativity and the coping mechanisms we put in place to avoid it.
Wonder often creeps in when we least expect it… Wonder strikes us when our defenses are down. When something about the game takes us away from our harsh reality–an incredibly beautiful vista, a swelling piece of music matched perfectly to the emotional moment, a tender moment in the face of incredible violence or despair.
Studio Ghibli films excel at invoking wonder, and would be a great source for developers to draw from. I’ll stick with one near and dear to my heart–Spirited away.
As an adult, our experience of the world is mediated by our defense mechanisms. With our past in mind, we wind putting in place all sorts of ways to keep from being hurt or disappointed–which makes feeling the wonder in games that much harder.
Take, for example, a recent release: Ni No Kuni II
The beginning of the story lacks depth or development. Roland, one of our main characters, is the president of a nation on his way to a summit when a nuclear device explodes outside of his vehicle. He then finds himself in another world.
Roland and Evan, are where they are and who they are. They accept it with little to no reserve. No explanation given and none needed.
But precisely by stripping away the complexity of human interaction that we often crave as adults, Ni No Kuni II is able to give us something more primal. We experience ourselves as children, focusing again on basic emotions. Love without fear, hope with out reserve, friendship without judgement.
And we know, at random moments during our time in the beautiful world, that Evan will succeed. Not because he politically outmaneuvered anyone, or slaughtered his enemies. But because his life revolved around those things that OUR world so desperately tries to beat out of us.
Ni No Kuni 2 manages to capture that wonder.
There are some games that inspired awe simply for being at the right place in the right time.