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. 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.  Read more ]