This week I played through Heavy Rain: a gripping, emotionally powerful work of interactive fiction. It puts game mechanics into tasks like a panicked search for a lost child, mending another person's wounds, or desperately fighting to get away from an attacker. Heavy Rain is the first game in recent memory where, when the outcome was assured, I literally* collapsed in a heap.
*Roger Ebert would like me to pause here and remind you that video games are not art.*
So I guess, if I'm going to write a post about a game, seems like Heavy Rain would be the natural candidate.
It's about Portal, a game that came out nearly three years ago.
See this month a patch was released for Portal that added an extra line of dialogue to the ending! It's thought that this addition is a setup for the sequel, or possibly a tie-in to another franchise by the same developer.
You don't see the big deal, do you? Well let me add another spice to the mix.
Most of the people who own this game got that patch automatically, without their consent. This kind of delivery is a perfectly normal thing for gamers. Most modern game consoles check for updates to your games each time you play them. And many people who own the PC version of Portal bought it on Steam, a digital distribution program that, like the consoles, updates your games without any effort on your part.
Still don't understand why the patch is significant? Let me bring it a little closer to home.
The Amazon Kindle is capable of working in a similar way to these game platforms. When you buy a new book, it downloads passively in the background, even when you're doing something else with the device. And it doesn't get talked about much, but it's also possible for Amazon to remove a book from a connected Kindle. If they can do that, there's no reason they couldn't edit a book, or replace it with an edited version. Now imagine if a book publisher decided to fix a typo in one of their novels, or reconcile an inconsistency in the story, or add a line of dialogue to the ending. And then they made this change to everyone's Kindle edition of the book, all at once.
Now you get it. Now you see why making a narrative change to a game that's been out for three years is so interesting, troubling perhaps, but interesting.
This is maybe the most important distinction between physical and digital media: When you buy something digital, it doesn't have to be a fixed, dead entity. What you have bought is rights to a potentially living document. While the internet hive-mind was distracted by questions of ownership over digital goods, they missed the more amazing point: that digital goods can evolve.
*And not figurative literally. Literal literally.