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    PlanetQuake | Features | Articles | Classic PQ | Casablanca One More Time
    Casablanca One More Time
(or The Problems of Game Designers Don't Amount to a Hill of Beans in this Crazy World)

By Harry "Cha-Ching!" Teasley of Valve Software

Fargo made some interesting points regarding the state of story vs. interactivity in games, most of which I agree with, but he left some things unelaborated upon that, I think, warrant greater detail.  He explained that in the continuum of story vs. interactivity, a game chooses where along the line to plant its stake.  I think it is very important to understand that, to a great degree, the ends of the continuum are mutually exclusive, that total freedom cannot be married to a full story (“full” being “as completely orchestrated as a non-interactive story could be”), ever, in any game.

Casablanca One More Time - By Harry "Cha-Ching!" Teasley

In a non-interactive, linear tale, the writer has total control.  The drama of that story hinges on several things, like dramatic timing, counter-intuitive plot twists, and subtle irony.  These devices are necessary in good, immersive, emotionally-charged drama.  In Quake (or any near-total freedom game), these things are beyond the scope of the designer to control as carefully as a book author or movie script writer.  The difference is that in a game, the player is telling the story, and they don’t even know what the story is!  They’re learning it no faster than they are telling it.

This is a crucial distinction to understand, because the player doesn’t know what will work to the best dramatic effect, and so he/she moves through the world in a fashion that makes what he/she is actually doing far less dramatic than it should be.  How dramatic would it be, in real life, to fire a rocket at your nemesis directly opposite you, and have him blow apart in a shower of blood?  There’s a story for the grandkids.

To further build on this point, the player does not behave so as to maximize drama, he/she behaves so as to win (as von Neumann put it in his Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, the player behaves so as to “maximize utility”).  Real drama in classically structured stories involves the hero’s descent into Hell, and when things look bleakest, when the hero appears least capable of defeating the forces arrayed against them, he/she wins through despite the odds.  In Quake, players initially descend into Hell such that things are tough, and they do suffer damage, and initially they cannot win.  However, they keep playing, and keep trying, and each time that trip into Hell gets a little easier, the descent is a little shallower of an experience, until finally the player has, entirely through his/her own volition, removed all possibility of drama being enacted upon them.  They kick monster butt.

The other things that constrain designers is the input/output devices of the computer and the metaphor of the games.  The input/output constraints keep a great deal from being done within a first-person environment.  Imagine trying to carry off the “I’ve just discovered I’m covered with tarantulas” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  How do you display this for the player, cover their screen with tarantulas?  How do you create an interface that allows them to sweep them off their body?  How could one player indicate to another player that they need help removing the spiders, and how would the other player be able to comply?  Will this interface be graceful, intuitive, and not hamper the rest of the game controls?  If you examine this issue from an interface point of view, you can suddenly see how certain types of dramatic situations are probably not worth doing in a game until the day you’re plugging a fiber optic cable into your neck and playing the game inside your head. (Note the phrase "probably not worth doing," as opposed to the phrase, "can't be done," which I didn't say or mean).

The metaphor is a more subtle restraint, but the most important.  The metaphor is the set of rules that the game adheres to in order to be consistent and believable (inasmuch that consistency and believability are important to some games).  The Quake metaphor doesn’t allow for many devices to constrict player movement (constricting player movement is critical; I hope this is obvious enough that it doesn’t require further explanation), and locked doors with keys to find is one of the few devices that a player is willing to believe in.  It is a device the player will not question, and that doesn’t seem arbitrary.  They are the “checkpoints” that racing games have to keep the player doing what they should to finish the game.

With all of that said, there are some bright sides: I think total freedom games can have more story than they do now without giving up player freedom (they just can’t have a total story experience).  If you want total story, there are games out there for you, but they aren’t realtime, 3D action games that allow complete freedom of behavior.  There is room to grow for 3D games, and they are maturing in a lot of interesting ways (Half-Life, if you want to know, is coming along nicely in the area of story & interaction, and should excite a lot of folks).  There are, however, definite limits on how far they can develop stories, and the limits on this growth are not development time, creativity of designers, or resources.  The limits, as I’ve tried to point out, are deeply embedded in the structure and nature of interactivity in a 3D world.

-Cha-Ching

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