There’s no game – and no PlayStation – without play. Despite us all now being pretty used to ‘play’ meaning ‘hammer on buttons until exciting stuff happens’, the truth is, play is quite an abstract thing. Remember being a kid and getting a cool new action figure? It wasn’t always about the actual toy. It was about dreaming up what to do with it.
For me, imagination was the key to everything – and it still is. I get the most kicks out of projecting fantasies onto the given material. When I was nine, it was using elastic to make Kermit a bungie-jumping stuntphibian or daubing my Barbies’ faces with red Smarties. Vampire Barbies, ARISE. Fifteen years later, I’m the same. Well, I’m taller, and now I have to pay taxes – but toys have been replaced with video games. It makes sense that my favourite titles are ones leaving room for my mind to run wild.
Yep, I really am asking for less. Take Minecraft. While others bemoan the lack of objective prompts, mandatory quest-lines or motivating narrative, I’m happier without. It’s flexible. One day, I’m drunk on diamonds after striking it rich, razing forests to create a redstone casino: the next, I’m a poor veggie pacifist trying to survive Hardcore mode on nothing but bread and hope. Until I find a wolf pup in the tundra. Will I abandon my values to tame him with tasty chicken? Obviously. The blocky sandbox’s minimal approach to structure is a Petri dish for unexpected japes and truly individual experiences (it’s why Let’s Plays are so popular). There’s a special sense that your adventure is one-of-a-kind, because – unlike the structured, scripted Dragon Quest Builders – each random horizon is completely yours, each mini-drama a product of your ridiculous noggin.
But you might well ask: is it always fair? When you’re shelling out £40, there might be certain things you expect: you might balk at a dev asking you to “close your eyes and believe”. It’s now that No Man’s Sky hovers meekly in the air like a kicked, butterfly-winged UFO-hound. The space sim leans heavily on the romance of you being a lone explorer in an infinite galaxy. For many, repeating visual elements, clunky systems and shallow content were inexcusable. In my inexhaustible fancy? Monotony was foil to flashes of awe, inventory fumbles atmospheric, the observational zen of minimal interaction appropriate to my alien identity. With my predisposition towards wonder, certain moments on planets previously undiscovered by anyone in existence felt huge, and true.
The critical thing is that a title honestly asks you to invent, and roleplay, and helps you do so – not that a lack of decently designed mechanics makes it a requirement. Not everyone’s a natural dreamer, after all. And while Hello Games’ near-infinite, free-form effort may not fulfil the criteria, I’m positive even linear games can leverage players’ imaginations, and can be all the more memorable for it.
The Last Guardian’s obstinate, strangely realistic bird-dog. Journey’s wordless relationships. Dark Souls’ subtle storytelling, epic tales woven through item descriptions that leave family ties and murderous tragedies to your personal deductions. Sure, nowadays devs have the tech to render anything you could imagine where once only polygons stood. But there’s a unique magic, maybe sometimes lost to childhood, that comes from your brain being prompted to make something bespoke – something yours – within given boundaries. If games never want to grow old, playtime should never be over.
This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here (opens in new tab).