July 12, 2009

Repeat Forever If Necessary

In a lifetime of playing video games, I never wanted to make them. In the last three years, I've made friends with video game developers, but never once have I asked them why they wanted to do that for a living. Instead of asking them now, I came up with my own explanation for why it's so wonderful to create video games. I.e., from the mind of someone who doesn't understand what's so great about making video games. This rationale, I'm sure, falls somewhere between arrogant, saccharine and inaccurate. You'll miss all this when I'm gone.

If you're writing a story, linearity and non-interactivity have obvious benefits. Games by their nature are an interactive medium and it's hard telling a story with fixed themes, plot events, characters and atmospheric elements while letting the player change all of those at their leisure. It's hard to create contingencies that anticipate everything the player might want to do, obviously, but maybe the writer likes what they wrote, thinks it's important to the game overall, and isn't going to let anyone screw around with it. Even a small and relatively logical design choice like having the wasteland of Fallout 3 be bleak annoys certain players so much that they'll only play it with a mod that turns the skies blue, peaceful and postcard-happy.

In making a video game you have to sacrifice authorship to some degree. Most single-player games, which try and relay scripted stories, compromise -- they convey the plot is conveyed entirely via cutscenes, for instance -- and there's nothing inherently inspiring about a compromise. If that's the approach you're going to take, why not make a novel or film instead? You won't be cresting the wave of new media but you retain creative control where it matters. These are the drawbacks, but think about what you get in return for putting your efforts into making a game.

According to the most classic definition possible, games are not stories or narratives. They are rulesets designed to live in perpetuity and whose potential can never be exhausted. Individual instances of the game can be won or lost, but the game itself never ends.

Rules are important but they aren’t interesting by themselves. The individual fascination comes from who the players happen to be, and the social dynamics that result from whoever occupies those positions. In sports, the players are more famous than the designers. I can name a dozen baseball players before I can tell you who was baseball’s creative director.

Games -- in every permutation except for those games more preoccupied with relating a fixed story in a single-player environment -- are most valuable as a framework for social interaction than as a narrative. Challenge isn’t even that important. The kind of drama that will really resonate with players results not from the villain's secret plan, but which teams are playing against each other, what the odds are, and who do you know that’s a fan of this team over the other.

This is true of sports, card games, board games and some video games. It’s certainly the case with multiplayer games or party games. Games depend on people as a resource, and so long as there are interesting people around, the game in question will stay relevant and important. Counter-Strike today is less about shooting fictional terrorists and more about an ad-hoc team of “professional” Counter-Strike players/college dropouts touring Texas in a van. World of Warcraft can be less about gryphons or gold than which players end up getting married or murdered in real life. Real interpersonal tensions emerge in your fake rock band and someone genuinely surprises you by having an amazing singing voice. Even Donkey Kong can experience a relative cultural renaissance when it becomes identified with the personal sagas of Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe rather than Jumpman.

Games remain important as long as there are people to play them. Games at their most successfully mainstream are also the most vacant of authorship. There are people who think Call of Duty is the nerdiest thing ever but will not blink at joining in a game of Rock Band. Games can be about creating opportunities for players to leave their fingerprints all over the experience.

Games can become personal in a way that appreciating a masterful narrative is not. It's harder for an audience to take ownership of that. If I ever have children, I bet that in their lifetimes that they are much more likely to play Tetris than Heavy Rain. And as gratifying as it can be to have someone laugh at your jokes, isn’t it more satisfying to create something that stands for eternity?

Think about what that’s worth. This might not be the primary reason why people make games, but what a reason!

Most single-player video games are not like this. The variability that they do offer is severely limited. Games are the only medium that replicates the conventional styles of storytelling of film or prose and then tries to make them infinitely repeatable. Rarely are these attempts at immortality elegant. Video games will scatter moments of possible variation throughout a preordained story just to claim that the game has a lifespan longer than any single player’s interest.

Increasingly, games are rendered in such high fidelity and at such great expense that it’s not cost-effective to deliver choices that can have a truly significant impact on the direction of the story. There’s no obvious reason to go back through these games because, despite what it promises, nothing of consequence will be very different.

The ethical dilemma that is the beating heart of BioShock, for instance – whether to redeem the little sisters’ souls or redeem them for prizes – barely affects the game except for the 30-second cutscene that you see before the credits. You can choose from a handful of avatars in Far Cry 2, and this will change a few of the characters that appear. But it doesn’t affect at all the story that is being told or that the resident militants will fire upon your Irish terrorist as readily as they will upon your Israeli terrorist.

Even if the particular choices are significant, how many players will truly appreciate the variety? Deus Ex can be played as a super-intelligent hacker or as a double-fisted, heavy artillery linebacker, but whatever approach I chose the first time, I chose because I liked it more. I’m not going to vary my play style away from what I actually enjoy just because it’s a theoretically possible to do so. It’s great that I get to play the way that I would prefer, but that doesn’t entice me to try it another way.

Replayability in single-player games is an exploration in limitation. But single-player games that tell linear stories don’t need to be infinitely repeatable to be powerful. I do wish that games that want to be more like interactive stories would offer less choice in most cases. Once a player discovers how little the “choices” in Far Cry 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV differ from one another, it can’t possibly improve anyone’s opinion of the game. I would rather that the games which want to tell a fixed story were more confident in doing so – instead of pretending that the players have more influence than the developer is actually willing to relinquish.

Metal Gear Solid's cutscene-to-gameplay balance is famously out of proportion with what is expected of a typical video game. This video game has always wanted to be far more like a movie than like Scrabble, and given the series’ verbosity, its choice of format is probably not all that beneficial to the game in question. There’s a lot to criticise about Metal Gear Solid, and Hideo Kojima could probably stand to bring in his brother-in-law to edit his screenplays, but there’s no reason that the kind of narrative model Metal Gear Solid uses shouldn’t exist. Even if it means calling it an interactive story instead of a game. Call it a ractive, I’m ready for that now. Call it anything that doesn’t make the developers feel obliged to intersperse inconsequential agency in their long cinematic to be legitimate.

I don't know why Hideo Kojima wants to make video games. I don't know why developers place such an emphasis on replayability when it usually means so little, unless it's there as review insurance, implemented out of expectation. But this is an exploration in my limitations now.


qrter said...

I'd think devs focus so much on replayability because it's one of the aspects a videogame could actually do that's different from other media, but the fact remains that it mostly isn't done very well.

I'm wondering if replayability should be less about the narrative side of the story and more or less about the actual gaming side. Or maybe the idea that story is something that happens inbetween shooting people. For me the story of a game is only partly the exposition and the dialogue, it's much more the experience of the game itself. What (perhaps seemingly) unique things happen to me on a playthrough? And if viewed like that, choice of, say, weaponry and/or special powers becomes part of a game's narrative as it will influence how encounters resolve.

This reminds me of the recent spats of permadeath playthroughs of Far Cry 2, which I'm also participating in (although personally I'm not blogging about it, just bothering people on Twitter). These playthroughs (which are essentially Iron Man playthroughs, where if your character dies you have to restart the game, although in a significant difference with other games, FC2 has buddies, who will try and save you from dying.. up to a certain point..) bypass the whole narrative aspect of the game and become more or less purely about the game itself (the permadeath thing itself is a metagame). Clint Hocking wrote a blogpost about this aspect of the permadeath trend - clicksomething

All of this doesn't ofcourse mean that people will want to be creative in switching playing styles. And I'm aware that the FC2 permadeath experiments are done by a relatively niche group of players. But it might also be about how we approach gaming - what if we saw games more as playgrounds that encourage us to switch playing styles, to experiment, instead of something to be victorious over?

Sorry, another long one.. I'm so ashamed.

Charles said...

At the end of this piece to seem to be asking for something that you've argued is impossible.

There is no non-trivial interactivity, more than just flipping pages for instance, without agency and choice; agency and choice mean that you can do things differently each time you interact, 'replayability' in other words; you say at the beginning that these are exactly the kinds of things that don't mix well with narrative.

How can you then call for something that might be called an 'interactive story'? Aren't you making a case that these are contradictory terms?

Alex Denham said...

Some of the games I've replayed the most are Portal, Luigi's Mansion and Resident Evil 4.

All of them relatively short, totally linear games, but I'd rather play a short punchy experience than spend months or years feeling obligated to find every side quest and hidden item in a game..

Unknown said...


Guided interactivity could provide a method to create an "interactive story" - there will always be some freedom when the player is allowed to do what he will, but it can be limited in ways that allows the story to play out as planned. Preferably, the necessary action would be something that the player would be inclined to do himself so that the player feels like he was the one responsible.

However, even if it was a requirement for completion, the interactivity wouldn't necessarily be trivial - after all, it's still the player doing it, which might have a different effect than that player watching or reading about someone else do it.

Erik said...

Short post: Isn't a prescribed just another form of rule, if games are viewed from a purely ludic perspective?