Interactivity in Gameplay & Interactivity in Narration

I like books. I like movies, too. With only words, only images, the director, the author, manage to convey emotions, thoughts, or simply entertainment. Yes, I like books. And movies, too. “Like”, not “love”. The best way to make me not want to see a movie is to tell me it lasts more than 90 minutes. I immediately picutre myself passively watching the movie, waiting in boredom for minutes to pass (especially if the story is dragging on) and for the movie to end. The movie might be the greatest movie ever – and I might agree once I finally consent to watch the movie – I will still be reluctant to watch it. Same thing with books. I will prefer the short story to the 1000-pages-long volume. I can get bored pretty fast when watching movies or reading books. There is one thing, however, which I am never reluctant to do: playing a video game. Whether it lasts an hour or a hundred, I will play the game without hesitating (which means I sometimes play games filled with dull subquests only meant to extend the game’s lifespan, which can be even more boring than a movie…). And I know for sure why I have always loved games more than books or movies. Unlike the latter two, video games are an active medium, in which the receiver is also an actor. You get to be a player and play as the protagonist – you get to contribute to the story, instead of simply receiving it. Which doesn’t mean that book readers and movie spectators are absolutely passive. Reading and watching movies trigger imagination and active thoughts. But video games go further. The word interactivity is essential when it comes to video games.

Inter-activityInter, as a link between two entities, a mutual relationship between the transmitter and the receiver. In this case, the transmitter is whoever developed the game – and, by metonymy, the game itself. The receiver is the player. There is a connection between the player and the game (and, behind the game, all the people who contributed to its development), a connection that relies on the notion of activity. The player affects the game, the game affects the player. The player acts, because he controls the protagonist, makes him/her progresss through the game, makes decision, defeats enemies, decides when to stop or resume the game. The game acts, in the same way books or movies act, as the transmitter of the enunciation: it puts the player in a particular context, in a particular plot, it conveys emotions. There’s reciprocity here. And that’s why it is so interesting. Not only can a game affect players much like books can affect readers and movies can affect spectators (and so on for every art that relies on a “transmitter/receiver” relationship), but players can also affect the game itself. Sometimes, the game adapts itself to the player’s actions. In my post about the game Her Story, I mentioned the threatening message prompting at the beginning Silent Hill: Shattered Memories : “This game plays you as much as you play him”. And that, in fact, was true. The player’s most insignificant actions were used to establish his/her psychological profile, with the game modifying itself consequently. Spend too much time watching images of naked women, or take a peek when a secondary character is taking her clothes off, and the game will identify you as some sort of sex addict: women will start wearing sexier clothes and flirting with the protagonist. Inter-activity.

As there is no other medium that values interactivity as much as video games, I tend to believe that the best video games are those that master the most the concept of interactivity. In my eyes, a video game that lacks interactivity is like a poorly-written book, or a movie that was shot without paying attention to the ratio/quality of the frames. It doesn’t mean that the game will necessarily be bad, but that’s still kind of a waste. Why neglecting interactivity, when that’s precisely what video games are all about? Even so, no game, to this day, has managed to reach the highest levels of interactivity, the highest levels of what the video game medium has to offer. And that’s actually a good thing, because that means that there is still a lot to explore in the still-very-young-art that is game-making. What do I mean by “the highest levels of interactivity”? If I had to illustrate the way I see things, I would draw a chart with two axes: one axis for the interactivity in gameplay, and one axis for the interactivity in narration.

Interactivity in Gameplay

There is nothing more frustrating for me, as a player, than to feel trapped and constrained in a video game. Every game provides the player with a certain amount of freedom: the number of moves, gear, attacks, actions at the player’s disposal vary from one game to another, just as the size and diversity of environments, quests and missions. The levels that the player explores are more or less open, the solutions to one particular puzzle more or less numerous. All these parameters are the result of deliberate choices that the developers made, thus determining prior to the creation of the game itself the amount of interactivity the player will get. Will the player be forced to follow the unique path towards the end of the game, or will he/she get alternatives (secondary paths, etc.)? Based on my own experience of video games, I have tried to determine several categories of games, which I then placed on an axis that ranges from less interactive games to more interactive ones.

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With this first axis, it is possible to measure the game’s capacity to anticipate and adapt to the player’s actions, and to give the player liberty of action/movement. A game that leaves little to no room to player’s actions and that remains fairly linear will tend to look more like a movie than a video game. Games at the left of the axis are the most linear and constraining: games in which the player has no other choice but to follow the one path and to overcome obstacles, in the only way planned by the developer. Games like the Uncharted series, in which levels are constructed linearly, with few possibilities of going backwards, and the constant need to go forward, towards the next area, where you have to kill enemies, and so on. The player’s actions aren’t really taken into account. On the opposite, games at the right of the axis are “more interactive”. They let players choose their playing style among a variety of options, or they simply allow the player to create his own playing style, by adapting themselves to the player’s actions. That’s pretty much what Warren Spector (the creator of Deus Ex) calls “emergent gameplay”. The developer suggests several paths/solutions, but the player might find another solution, which hadn’t even occured to the developer’s mind. The larger and the more intricate the areas to explore are, the more room there will be for “emergence”, for interactivity in gameplay.

Interactivity in Narration

I may be wrong, but I think there is no culture in the world that wasn’t based on stories, whether fictional or real, wheher written or oral. We love to tell stories, which is obvious in every art – literature, music, graphic arts, cinema. Not all video games are meant to tell stories, but a lot of them are. One of the many questions I often ask myself about video games is: how is telling a story in a video game different from telling it in other arts or forms of expression? What jusitifies the fact of telling a stroy in a game, more than in a movie or in a book? What distinguishes video games in terms of narration? Once again, based on my knowledge of video games, I have tried to determine several ways of telling stories in games, and to involve the player in these stories.

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At the left of the axis, the difference between games and movies is very thin. The story unravels as the writer wrote it, from the beginning to the end. It is generally told through cutscenes upon which the player has no control whatsoever. At the right of the axis, however, the player’s choices will affect the story and/or the narration. Dialogues may vary, or the game’s outcome might be entirely different. Relationships between characters may change completely. In a nutshell, the story adapts itself to the player. The game’s writer isn’t just a transmitter talking to a receiver – the writer is at the player’s service, somehow, as he/she will anticipate the player’s actions in order to provide an alternative scenario. At the far-right of the axis, the player even creates his/her own story: developers, writers, provide the characters, the setting, the universe, but the stories are told by the players themselves. This is what happens, for instance, in simulation games such as the Sims series (isn’t it just a life-story editor?), but also a lot of MMORPGs – highly immersive universes, in which players live a virtual life, create their own stories everyday, their own teams, their own fights for power. We could also imagine an episodic game whose different episodes would be written based on the player’s actions in former episodes – the writer would literally be at the player’s service, here. Possibilites are numerous, and there is still a lot to explore at the far-right of this axis, in terms of narrative potential. And that is the whole point of telling stories in video games : games can become an innovative narrative tool, allowing reciprocity between the transmitter and the receiver.

Different Conceptions of Interactivity

Cross the two axes, and this is what you’ll get (please do not criticize the quality of my graph, I know this is the year 2016 and this graph is as ugly as you can get, but that’s the best I’m able to do at the moment):

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Eventually, most of today’s games lie timidly at the junction of the axes, with medium interactivity for both gameplay and narration. A little freedom in gameplay, a few choices of dialogues, maybe an alternate ending, but nothing more. Games are rarely equally interactive in terms of gameplay and narration. And there is a cause for that : interactivity means liberty. And the more liberty you give to the player, the harder it is for the developer to control the game. By definition, a game relies on a system of rules. Anarchy might be fun, sometimes, but a game without any rules would be a complete mess. When it is possible to walk on water or to pass through walls, why bother following the path planned by the developers, filled with obstacles and enemies to kill? Let’s just go straight to the end of the level by cheating, without any efforts or obstacles to overcome. Similarly, how is it possible to keep some sort of narrative coherence if everything is allowed for the player? Total narrative interactivity is almost impossible to achieve, in reality, as that would require an artificial intelligence able to create dialogues and plot tswists in real time, based on the player’s most insignificant actions. All in all, maximal interactivity, more than a feasible goal, is an ideal that developers should try to achieve, by always creating new ways of telling stories and new forms of interactions between transmitter and receiver.

One might cite Deus Ex as a perfect example of emergence in gameplay, but other than alternative endings, it does not provide much in terms of narrative interactivity. The genre of “interactive stories” (Life is StrangeUntil DawnHeavy Rain) is very promising in terms of interactivity in narration, but generally fail to achieve high levels of interactivity in gameplay. Finally, games like The Order 1886 are at the lowest level on both axes: contemplative games, closer to “interactive movies” (even though the word “interactive” seems exaggerated in this case!) than actual video games).

I want to make it clear, however, that this is by no means an exhaustive and exact representation of all video games. It isn’t a way to judge the value and/or the quality of video games, either. It was simply an illustration of what I think game makers should try to achieve – more interactivity, both in narration and in gameplay, which are meant to be blended, in my opinion, as the frontier between cutscenes and gameplay, story and game, is getting thinner and thinner. All games, wherever they are situated on this graph, have their qualities and their flaws, and all games deserve to be taken into consideration. This graph does, however, allow to define several movements and trends of modern video games, different conceptions of narration and gameplay in video games, which should be useful in the future of my blog, in order to define these different movements (interactive stories, interactive movies, emergent gameplay…). The true challenge for developers, today, is to keep going further on both axes, and to prove what video games are capable of. Because if the player has to remain passive, I may as well go back to reading my 1000-pages-long volume.

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