According to Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, all games are first-person experiences, regardless of the genre or mode.
Speaking during a lecture this past weekend at IndieCade East in New York City, Ismail noted that when players speak about their gameplay experiences, they speak from the first-person point of view. "I failed the jump" and "I saved the princess" are how we speak, as though we are the characters we control.
"The way you discuss, the way you play, the way you think about games is in terms of ‘I,'" Ismail said. "'I learned or failed or succeeded.' That direct link is something no other medium can offer. Books and movies will always have distance between the media and the person [reading or watching]. You don't read books with ‘I' as being about you."
Ismail said that games allow developers to shape worlds in which they explain certain things or feelings, and allow people to learn something through them. Players can be taught whatever the developer wishes without having to be explicitly told, as the game is the mechanism that should lead them to conclusions. The interaction between a game and its audience produces real emotions like guilt, pride and empathy.
Ismail discussed Yeti Hunter, first released at Vlambeer's show floor booth at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. In Yeti Hunter, players creep through an endless snowy forest in search of a yeti. Ismail said the game was inspired by real-life yeti hunters who stalk the creature without definitive proof of its existence, hoping to be the one to capture it on film. He said that as more people played Yeti Hunter in the hours following its release, more realized that there was likely no yeti in the game at all.
But then one person posted a screenshot of the elusive yeti to Twitter. According to Ismail, the most common comment was that the screencap must have been altered using Photoshop.
"The way you discuss, the way you play, the way you think about games is in terms of ‘I.'"
"What we created was a game, but it was also an emotionally-invested experience, " Ismail said.
Vlambeer's GlitchHiker was the developer's second attempt to create an emotional gaming experience. In GlitchHiker, the health of the game's coding structure was dependent on how well people played it. Successful players would earn more "lives" for the game, while users who played badly or continuously failed would cause it to lose lives. The game ran through an online server structure and was created at the 2010 Global Game Jam, though it lasted only nine hours after launch.
"As the number of lives went down, the game would start to glitch," Ismail explained. "The game got ‘sicker.' But people that did well wanted to play more because they felt this weird sense of responsibility for the game. The people that played badly kept trying, and some would continue to do terribly. One player played for eight hours straight, scoring more lives. One girl walked away from the game visibly upset when she found out she had wasted three of its lives. Nine hours after it was released, a drunk Canadian failed in three seconds and the game died."
Ismail and his partner, Vlambeer designer Jan Willem Nijman, initially wanted to build a game that included a world that would die, but came to the conclusion that the creation of an in-game world was entirely unnecessary. Making players directly responsible for the game's "health" rather than that of a fictional world would nurture emotional investment.
"We don't need to connect the player to a world in the game if we can connect the player directly to the game," he explained. "Instead of making people feel empathy for this abstract thing in a game, they were feeling something for the game itself."
Ismail said that what makes video games special to him is the way games that successfully create that first-person experience build bonds between the developer and the player. Both benefit from giving agency to players and granting them "as much responsibility as [developers] can for whatever they do."
"You make sure whatever it is that you're making them do or trying to make them feel, you make sure that it works."
"It's that word ‘I,' that personal connection to our players and the way we require a dialogue between players and creators, that's what makes games special to me," he said. "Games can be anything. The one thing games will always have is that unique bond between creator and player, that interactivity."
As for developers seeking to create that perfect storm of connectivity and emotional investment with players, Ismail said there is one important thing to remember.
"You just don't waste their time," he said. "You make sure whatever it is that you're making them do or trying to make them feel, you make sure that it works and you're not making something that is completely useless to them and is just fun for you. Vlambeer's golden rule: if we make something and we think it's wasting the players' time, we just drop it.
"Games are being played by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways," he said. "Everyone is a gamer, whether you're playing Solitaire or Angry Birds. Games are now an important part of culture."