Thursday, December 31, 2009

Interactive = Choice

I've already told Lewis Denby: I think that his mods (and stuff like "Dear Esther"), these types of "walkthrough gallery" mods are kinda boring. It's not out of any spite, and I think he's a good writer - but I think it'll be useful to open up a larger dialogue on this type of game design when I complain about it. (If anything, it'll give his mods more of the attention that they deserve, yes?)

His main claim is that there exists an interesting, as of yet unexplored space between cinema and interactive media - and his implementation, as with Dear Esther, is to walk around an environment as you read notes / listen to dialogue. He thinks something compelled you to "press W" and explore an environment, and that "something" was a narrative unfolding in real-time before your eyes. I disagree with this, and here's why:

"What happened?" vs. "What is happening?" I would argue that gameplay and interactivity is about the present, about player-centric plot; these other types of gallery mods are about the past, about what happened already. Dear Esther is largely a passive narration of what already happened, as is Post Script. And to me, that's a much less interesting question and narrative hook.

Why doesn't the player have any narrative agency? Why isn't the plot about me? Note that this isn't an argument for nonlinear game narrative because linear games focus on the player too: In Half-Life 2, the Combine signal an alarm and start searching the city because of what you did. In Ico, Yorda follows and moves because you beckon her. The world and the characters are reacting to you because in this virtual world, you matter.

Vague narrative design theory. What compelled me to explore the environment wasn't necessarily an interest in the narrative; among other reasons, it was the simple desire to "finish" the game and make sure I didn't miss anything, the completionist streak that today's ubiquitous achievement systems exploit. And specifically, as a fellow modder, I also want to see what others are doing and analyze it so I can steal their ideas and make them my own.

For example, what I got out of Dear Esther wasn't that bunny-hopping across sparsely decorated terrain is emotionally meaningful -- instead, what I realized is that I too could randomize bits of narrative and let the player generate their own meaning out of it. (Something I did with my own mod "Handle with Care," where the engine generates a random montage of scenes at a point in the game.)

It goes against where most people are heading with games. Most interactive fiction, or "IF," has moved away from focusing on environment and plot -- instead focusing on characters as autonomous agents, systems of interaction, and depictions of consciousness. Marc LeBlanc's influential MDA framework and today's hottest indie "Art games with a capital A" celebrity designers, like Jonathan Blow or Jason Rohrer, emphasize game mechanics as the message. Compelling game rules reveal the authorial intent, whether it's a moral / social commentary / whatever.

And lastly, what I consider the greatest flaw of this approach and the main reason why I think it's a "dead end"...

The possibility for player choice and emergence is severely reduced. Sid Meier supposedly said, "a game is a set of interesting choices." Now, I would go on to define "interesting" as "meaningful and compelling to the player."

A choice is MEANINGFUL when (a) the player can predict what that choice will do, whether correctly or incorrectly; (b) that choice is permanent to some degree, that the choice matters; (c) the player receives feedback as to what the choice does. These factors lead to the player forming intent or a strategy, towards forming some meaning behind the choice.

i.e. killing an enemy for a rare item in an MMORPG is not usually meaningful because (a) the player cannot predict when the item will drop and (c) the player doesn't know whether they are closer or farther from getting the item to drop -- yet (b) the action consumes absurd amounts of time and effort. The drop percentage is a "black box" and we cannot reliably predict anything with much certainty; this prevents the player from forming intent or a strategy, other than killing mobs while maintaining some vague hope. (Granted, figuring out the "black box" is often what makes games interesting; other times, there's not much to figure out and it's used as a pseudo-gambling mechanic, the video game equivalent of junk food.)

i.e. laying down suppressing fire in a first person shooter is usually meaningful because (a) the player can predict the enemy will hide behind cover, (b) it expends ammo and time, (c) the player can probably see an animation or hear audio barks about whether the enemy hid or not. Thus, the player can lay down suppressing fire and distract / flank the enemy or run away, etc. The action fits into an overarching strategy and has meaning.

A choice is COMPELLING when an alternative choice is also attractive. If there's an overpowered weapon or strategy in a game, then everyone will use it to achieve optimal play - that design is no longer compelling because there's not much to think about; you get the best set of equipment or use that single best weapon or mash the same combo of attacks.

i.e. mining minerals in the first few minutes of a Starcraft match is generally not compelling because the alternative of "not mining any minerals" isn't really viable at all. If you stop building SCVs in the first few minutes, your economy will suffer horribly. Every player has to do this. You don't really have a choice - you must mine minerals.

i.e. collecting a coin in Mario is compelling because it can be dangerous to attempt to get the coin and the alternative of "not collecting a coin" is safe and viable.

Now, this isn't to say that every choice in a game must be meaningful and compelling -- but rather that the most important choices in the game should be meaningful and compelling. (Well, ideally.) But what if the lack of choice in the game is a commentary? On our powerlessness in war, on the hum-drum of urban life, on our curse to repeat history over and over again?! How profound!... but kinda boring.

(I'm not saying my own game designs fulfill these criteria I've set out. In fact, I find it really difficult to adhere to my own opinions on good design. But I regard this perspective as a "holy grail" to pursue in my quest to become a better designer and learn.)

* * *

So, this rant got me thinking: I heard the upcoming PS3 game Heavy Rain casts you as a father playing a backyard game with your kids -- and you can purposely lose, letting your kids win and enjoy themselves. "Losing" is generally not a viable choice in most games, but here's a social dimension to gaming that video game designers rarely consider... What if, as players, we don't act rationally? What if you let your boss beat you at golf? What if you let your boyfriend win at Street Fighter?

How does game design account for that? In fact, how can we possibly account for that, or why would we want to? Why give an incentive to lose? Or maybe we don't have to call it "losing." As in Minotaur China Shop, "losing" and breaking a shitload of stuff becomes an alternate way to win. But you can still "lose" by taking the middle road, by still breaking enough to "fail" but not breaking enough to "fail" spectacularly.

Where am I going with this? No clue.