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You are going to need some imagination to enjoy Fledgeling. It won’t be all in your head (or will it?) but just like a lot of other games the presentation and interface only tell you enough to get you started. You have to (get to?) fill in the blanks yourself.

But this is the norm. A certain amount of imagination is required for any activity. “Real life” actions are generally considered “unimaginative”. Walking and hammering nails and drinking water seem pretty mundane. But think about it for a second. You have to imagine where the ground is when you’re walking, and you can walk in the dark, and even navigate obstacles with your eyes closed. You imagine the location of the nail and the hammer (and your fingers too, if you’ve done this before). You imagine how much water is in the cup, and how much of it you want to drink, and how quickly. Of course, most of these situations have a “right answer” kind of state that we’re trying to imagine. It’s not free, open ended imagination like making up a story (and even then, we nearly always have a goal), but different situations require different amounts of imagination.

Playing games generally requires a great deal of imagination. One must imagine the field, the other players, the meaning of the pieces, the implications of the rules, all of it unreal and unenforced except for the desire to keep on playing, to win, to understand. In a sense, playing a game is itself an act of willing imagination.

Sadly, many modern “computer games” ask very little of the players imagination. The field is illustrated and animated, the players are connected with voice and text, the pieces, the rules, all clear (which is good) and unambiguous (which, might not be so great). Even the game goes on (remembered by the computer program, quicksave, backup, cloud share, and ready to return at a moment’s notice) long after the players have given up on it. This move toward un-imaginative games is generally beneficial. Imagination takes energy, and most people don’t have as vivid imagination as the better artists and writers. Enjoying other’s imaginative abilities is good division of labor.

But eschewing player imagination has its dangers as well as its benefits. Details sabotage the player’s capacity to imagine, and bad details are worse than no details at all. If something is ambiguous (a snippet of dialog, a character portrait sketch) the player may repair it in their mind, alter their perception into something fitting both the setting and the context. But unambiguous details (long voice acted conversations, slavishly realistic graphics) force the player to either accept or reject something quite solid, something definite. Offering cinematic presentation tells the player “This is how it really looks, this is what you would experience if you were there”. In so doing the developer stands to gain much at great risk. The player may believe the presentation, but they may just as easily cross their arms and pronounce “That’s not what would happen”. The player is left not only with disbelief, but a vast cliff of vivid presentation to intentionally forget before they can even begin to imagine what it could have been. Poor presentation punishes players, presenting paired pernicious precipices: perplexity, and perspicacity. Preposterous? Poppycock? No, it is proven.

Calling on the player’s imagination is a shield, an easy out. It says instead “It went something like this, I’m sure you know what I mean.” and leaves it at that. Thus, many games are well served to require a solid imagination, and leave much to it. Fledgeling is one of those games. Fledgeling will not illustrate or illuminate. Fledgeling is not going to tell you all the rules. You wouldn’t understand them in the native language anyhow. Fledgeling is going to ask you to see beyond what you are shown, to read between the lines.

Fledgeling is not unique in this respect. Many other games ask the player to imagine, to dream of more than what they see. Dwarf Fortress and Chess and Cops and Robbers inform the player with symbols of reality and ask them to elaborate in their own mind.

Both methods have validity. Placing the burden of imagination on the artists (visual, lexical, audial, mechanical, and so forth) who populate the game makes it easier on the players and conveys a more consistent, shared experience. Prompting the player’s imagination through symbols and letting it roam free creates an unmatched individual experience. Both can be potent and moving.

What kind of game do you prefer? Are you more drawn to the imaginations of others, or the exploration of your own?

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