Interactive Intransigence

We are now well past two solid decades of creating interactive entertainment for commercial markets. If some hurdles have yet to be surmounted there’s still a great deal we do know about the design and execution of various genre types, and this knowledge should — at least in theory — help us hold down costs and avoid making the same stupid mistakes again and again.

If you don’t know about id Software they’re one of the storied companies in interactive gaming. Led by tech wiz John Carmack, id defined and dominated the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and others. If there’s anything to be known about how these games work and don’t work — and how the technology behind these games can most effectively be mated to design — that knowledge should have so permeated the culture at id as to be part of its DNA.

In keeping with its fetish for cuddly titles, id’s latest first-person shooter is called Rage. GameRankings.com pegs the aggregate review score at about 80%, and most review sites are giving it 7 of 10. Not bad as these things go. But what, specifically, are the complaints?

Here’s Jim Rossignol from RPS, prefacing his final take:

What this is really about is how I feel after playing Rage, which is a feeling not uncommon to gaming throughout the ages: the feeling that the options a game presents are actually an illusion.

Now, what you need to know here is that this is A) a problem in all mediums and B) the single biggest problem in interactive entertainment. Every storytelling and entertainment medium must protect itself from outside intrusions, internal inconsistencies, and technical failings. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a movie when the projector fails you know what I mean. If you’ve ever read a novel where the author leaves a critical logical thread unresolved you know what I mean. If you’ve ever had a moron behind you at a concert sing along, off-key, with the performer you paid to hear you know what I mean. In entertainment there is nothing more important than maintaining the illusion of whatever experience you’ve created.

In interactive entertainment this obligation is magnified by the fact that the audience has expectations that literally cannot be fulfilled. What every interactive user wants is full-blown, AI-driven language, plot and character interaction. This is the famous promise of the holodeck, and its academic spawn. Unfortunately, that’s never, ever going to happen. So everything that logically spills from that incapacity — including audience expectation — has to be anticipated and managed from the get-go. And everybody knows this.  

Back to Rossignol:

I’ve covered similar ground to this before, largely when talking about Far Cry 2 and GTA 4. There I argued that Far Cry 2 messed up because it didn’t understand what being an open-world game suggested to players. People were baffled by the road-blocks, pissed off by respawns, agitated by the unrelenting hostility of the world, and annoyed that there was no neutrality in NPCs outside the city. Worse, there was little in the way of persistence in the world to mark you actions. All these are RPGy traits, I know, but when other elements of RPGs have begun to show up in shooters, why not some of that freedom to explore, and persistence and change, too?

Let’s translate this. Suppose you sit down to watch an action movie, and as the hero guns his way through blood-spewing bad guys you keep getting references to an even bigger, badder guy in the offing. You’re rightly going to expect this bigger, badder guy to be the end-boss of the movie, the ultimate set-piece battle, the big finish. So how are you going to feel when the movie ends and it turns out that the bigger, badder guy was just a red herring — or worse, some sort of in-movie joke — or worse yet, a remnant of some grandiose plan that had to be scrapped because the budget wasn’t there? Are you going to feel cheated? Ripped off? And what are you going to think about the people who made that movie? Do they know their craft, or don’t they?

Movie makers don’t make this kind of mistake very often. They’re careful not to include things that lead the audience astray, or that promise future events the movie won’t deliver. Audiences build a mental model of any new fictional world they encounter, and your job as a storyteller is to make sure they leap to and anticipate the right conclusions, and avoid hoping for or thinking about things that are not going to happen. It’s an expectations game by any other name, and it’s critical. You must not let the audience extrapolate incorrectly.

Good interactive developers adhere to this ethic. Bad interactive developers blame everybody else for these mistakes, if they recognize them at all. Again, you would think by now that nobody would make this mistake in interactive — a simple, basic storytelling mistake that could be mitigated by the most middling of storytellers. But you would be wrong.

Whatever else Rage has going for it, id failed. It designed a game that led people to believe things would be possible that are not in fact possible. That’s nobody’s fault but id’s fault. They could have succeeded by hiring qualified people to help design a game that accommodated their goals while keeping expectations in check. Bring some people in as consultants at various milestones, or better yet put them on staff so the fifty decisions that get made every day have continuity as they evolve into a game. Do whatever it takes to protect not only the current title, but your brand as well.

From a document I wrote about hiring storytellers in the interactive industry:

At the CGDC this year my experience in the seminars and lectures was disheartening, because it became evident to me that the biggest hurdle to improving the storytelling in games is getting developers to recognize just how much they don’t know about storytelling technique. On one hand that’s good, because it means developers aren’t actively ignoring storytelling. On the other hand it’s bad, in that developers don’t seem to know how critical transparency and suspension of disbelief – cornerstones of every popular form of entertainment – are to their games. Just how exactly do you convince someone of the importance of something that isn’t part of their reality? Especially if sales of their last game was measured in hundreds of thousands of copies?

I wrote that in 1998. It’s still true today.

– Mark Barrett


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