Friday, January 9, 2009

You Must Write At Least This Well...

Here's a somewhat older piece I wrote as a sample when applying at

In retrospect, I don't think it's as good as I once did. I tend to start far too many sentences with "But" (something I still do from time to time). I've learned a lot since writing it, but if anyone is curious how I got a position there, this would be it (along with my Mega Man 9 Review).

Interactivity in Games: Is it Necessary all the Time?

There's been a lot of discussion as to whether games need to be interactive at all times, or if it's an equally valid approach to rip control away from the player in the form of cutscenes, mandatory text, etc... Interactivity is, after all, the one thing that separates gaming from any other art form. But do games need to strive to do this all the time in order to best take advantage of the medium?

In 1996 Half-Life was revolutionary in that it told a complete story without ever breaking interactivity. At no point could you not move around or control the first-person viewpoint. Everything was told in-game through clever level design and subtly scripted sequences. This worked fantastically and proved that you don't need to rip control away from the player in order to spin a good yarn.

Six years later and Half-Life 2 tried the same approach. It still worked well, but I took issue with it a little more the second time. See, in the first Half-Life, Gordon was alone almost the entire game. The games' intro had a few people saying "hello" to him, but that was about it. It was a very lonely game and everything the game had to tell could be told simply by viewing things through Gordon's eyes. But in Half-Life 2, Gordon has friends. People talk to him like he's their buddy. He even has a sort of romantic interest. The fact that Gordon never, ever talks and we never see him (outside the games' box art) makes us wonder what exactly anyone sees in him. In short, it feels false.

For example, there's a moment in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 where Alex hugs Gordon in first-person. It's an interesting moment, and something I haven't seen in a game before, but to me, it highlighted the weaknesses of the medium. I wasn't getting a hug. I was on sitting on my couch. Granted the same would be true in any medium, but by trying to be extra immersive it ended up just looking goofy and thus breaking the immersion. Conversely, had this been handled in third-person and we actually saw two people hugging, we'd strike more of a connection with that (think Ico). We connect with what we can see. We do this all the time when we look at animals and personify them. In Half-Life 2 I can see Alex, and thus I can connect with her. She feels real to me. But Gordon? Even though I'm in his head, seeing through his eyes, he never really feels like a character.

Admittedly, this is only a problem when interacting with other characters. Some of the more epic set pieces like seeing an army of marching soldiers on a bridge up ahead convey a greater sense of power as it's all happening in real-time and you feel more immersed in what's going on. So the first-person/silent-protagonist/never-breaking-the-action thing can work really well sometimes. Just not all the time.

A game that I think does an excellent job at combining non-interactive storytelling with gameplay is Shadow of the Colossus. Shadow of the Colossus does use cutscenes. Very archaic, non-interactive, old school cutscenes. But it uses them sparingly, and it uses them well. Here's why it works: SotC is at once a short story and a massive epic. Its actual plot is very small and vague, but it feels epic because of the scope of the game. You could write a SotC book or make a SotC movie, but it would be extremely boring as there'd be no talking, no other characters, nor any plot developments to speak of for most of the middle 90% of the story. To make it at all interesting, you'd have to cut out most of the middle (by scaling it down to only a few colossi perhaps?). But if you did that, it would no longer feel like an epic and the ending would lose much of its resonance. Thus, the only way to truly experience this simple, yet epic tale is to play it.

And while a vast majority of the game is interactive, the parts where the plot is explained (to some degree) are done through very traditional cutscenes (with the exception of a couple brief, yet poignant interactive scenes at the end). But this works because it's a linear story with a prescribed outcome. You're merely a pawn in Fumito Ueda's story. Giving you extra control would only break this carefully crafted minimalist tale.

The unique thing about videogames is that they're capable of all forms of multimedia. While a cutscene is "just a movie," or text is "just reading;" things that have been covered by film and books long before videogames came along, we've never been able to mix them into one consolidated piece of art until now. Okay, some movies will have a tad bit of reading (like the opening scroll of Star Wars), but that's about it. Just because a comic book is pictures and text working together, does that mean that Alan Moore should not have written the text-only inserts between each chapter of The Watchmen? I felt they added a lot to the story and helped flesh out the world that that story took place in. But that's one of the rare examples outside videogames where different mediums have melded together.

I used to hate videogame cutscenes because I felt like I could just be watching a movie, and I hated reading a lot of text in games because I felt like I could just be reading a book, but lately I've realized that while taken on their own, these things may seem like a misuse of the medium, but taken as one giant multimedia virtual art gallery, gaming can do things other mediums can't, even when they do break away from the idea of being interactive at all times. A game that I feel uses its medium to its full potential is Braid. Braid has no cutscenes, but it does have text. The neat things about the game is that none of the text is mandatory. You never have to hit "A" to skip. It's all there if you want it, but it doesn't get in the way of things at all. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The really interesting thing about Braid is that the text, on it's own, doesn't tell a complete story. Neither do the levels. If you just read the text online and don't play the game, it won't make much sense. If you just play the game and don't read the text, it also won't make much sense. (Though in the case of Braid you could likely do both and it still won't make sense. It's not an easy game to grasp). The story and themes of Braid are told through clever level design, well-written text, and paintings, of all things. The background art and music also play a big part in adding to the game in both mood and themes (though that's not something specific to Braid). The point is that Braid combines reading, painting, music, and interactivity to create something completely unique that could not be accomplished by any other single medium.

Not all games do this that well though. While I haven't played Lost Odyssey, I've heard that one of the highlights of the game is a collection of short stories that you find scattered throughout the game describing dreams the protagonist has had. Shane Bettenhausen from criticized these for being a misuse of the medium. While I haven't played the game, I could see his point. It's not that the text was bad (even Shane said they were good stories on their own), but that they didn't blend well at all with the game surrounding it. If the different mediums a game is comprised of gel together well it can be harmonious. If they don't, it can be jarring.

I think cutscenes are often given a bad wrap not because they're bad on their own terms, but because they feel jarring when they feel like they don't belong to the game. In a game like Condemned, for example, you'll be playing in first-person and make it to a checkpoint, at which point you'll sit through a load screen and then start watching a cutscene of your character in third-person now in another location. What you're watching doesn't feel like what you've been playing, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise is known for extraordinarily long cutscenes, but at least in MGS4 they transition very well to the parts where you get to play (usually ending with a behind the shoulder shot that syncs with the in-game camera). I feel like there are pacing issues with that game and that some of the cutscenes drag on longer than they need to, but at least the movie I'm watching and the game I'm playing seem cohesive as the tale of Snake's final adventure.

All games strive for something different, so there's no one right way to approach game design. If a game is telling a linear story, it's okay to break from the interactivity for a bit in order to convey a clear message to the audience that you want them to see. But if a game spends too much time with no interaction it may frustrate you or bog down the pacing (especially if it's long narration in something that's otherwise an action game). It's a delicate balance and each designer will handle it differently. But just because videogames can be interactive all of the time, doesn't mean they need to be.


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