Also, hopefully you realize, things change depending on how you look at them. People, too.
Once upon a time in middle school, my English teacher forced the class to think more critically about the books we read. Each week we filled out a book report template to track reading progress. For new books, we would compute our approximate pages per hour rate, then record the page numbers we started and ended the week on. The book report also included two short answer sections. In the first, we summarized what happened. In the second, we made a prediction for what would happen next. Can you see where this is going?
While most people don’t fill out weekly book reports, many flock to online forums to discuss TV show episodes between releases. Prediction threads on /r/GameOfThrones reach over a thousand comments while the reaction and discussion threads get into the tens of thousands. Correct predictions make you feel like an ace detective, and incorrect ones surprise you.
Such discussion can reveal details that a single person wouldn’t have discovered, but they’re harder to engage in when a piece of serial media is complete and accessible. Most people have moved on, and cliffhangers are a lot to bear. This brings us to “binge-watching” or “page-turner” behaviour where we tap ‘Next Episode’ or pick up the next book of a series immediately upon finishing the last. You can reflect on the work when you’ve finished it, but deeper engagement while consuming it is fun and important; you can only read something for the first time once.
Video games often break up narrative beats with gameplay breaks(or, break up gameplay beats with narrative breaks). By completing a mechanical or intellectual challenge you earn a “page turn” in the form of a cutscene, dialouge, or new quests. While I sure hope the gameplay breaks are fun, the best games use the gameplay mechanics to tell the story more effectively. This idea is manifest in the Ace Attorney series.
In Ace Attorney, you play as defense attorney Phoenix Wright. Your job is to help clients who are falsely accused of murder by convincing a judge of their innocence. Eccentric witnesses are called to the stand by a prosecutor who argues to get your client a guilty conviction. The witnesses provide seemingly decisive testimony, but by pointing out small contradictions to the court, you slowly take down the prosecution’s case and discover the true murderer.
The gameplay consists of two sections: investigation and courtroom sections. Investigation sections include exploring the city and crime scene to gather evidence which can be used in court. Courtroom sections have you step through witness statements, then present a piece of evidence that contradicts it. A didactic example might be: a witness says they were at the crime scene at 1:00, but you have a timestamped photo of them at a café at that time. You select the photo in your inventory, then tap the “Present” button to raise an objection.
Rather than watching the characters explain the mystery like the end of a Scooby-Doo episode, you must solve it yourself by reflecting on the situation and considering the characters’ locations and knowledge. Only after solving the puzzle will the game confirm your thoughts and present them in a glorious gestalt of sound, dialogue, and visuals. The below clip highlights some of these.
While Ace Attorney forces the player to work through their own sort of book report before each plot beat, shouldn’t a proper essay consider the meaning of the work as a whole? Indeed, such critical analysis is important, but more involvement during narrative consumption isn’t detrimental, it’s fun. So before you open the next episode, turn the page, or zip through a side-quest, step out of the magic circle for just a moment to discuss in your head or with others. You might return with something that wasn’t there before.