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.
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 dont even know what the story is! Theyre
learning it no faster than they are telling it.
This is a crucial distinction to understand, because the player doesnt
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? Theres 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 heros 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 Ive just discovered Im 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 youre 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 doesnt allow
for many devices to constrict player movement (constricting player movement
is critical; I hope this is obvious enough that it doesnt 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 doesnt 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 cant have a total story experience). If you want
total story, there are games out there for you, but they arent 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 Ive tried to point out, are deeply
embedded in the structure and nature of interactivity in a 3D world.
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