Previously in this series I explained why Angry Birds, with its easily-understood game mechanic and visible method of improvement, is more of a game than Call of Duty’s missions, which are based more on pattern recognition interspersed with chunks of narrative that remove all player agency than any kind of consistent game state.
In the meantime I got to thinking about Dear Esther, a game which people are claiming is not a game as a criticism. The premise of it is by exploring an environment, you are given chunks of narrative to form into a coherent whole in your head. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Now either both this and Call of Duty are games, or neither of them are. I’d say they’re both games of a sort, but not games that adhere to game theory; interactive narratives. Sounds odd, though, saying COD is the same as Dear Esther, when COD is used as a convenient stick to attack games with for being “casual”. To this I’ll simply say that Predator is as much of a film as The Artist – nobody goes around saying Predator‘s not a film so why should it be so unreasonable to say Dear Esther is a game. It’s just a different kind of game.
That’s not really the focus of this article though. The focus is now on gameplay and the experience of playing a game. One of the strengths touted of games is they allow you to form “your own personal stories” and make choices that determine the course of the narrative. I’m going to be careful here not to mention Mass Effect because the role of choice in that is something that is being widely and hotly debated and this isn’t the place for that.
Instead I’ll turn to Skyrim, a game which to the utter shock of many underwhelmed at the video game BAFTAs recently. Skyrim is held up by players and journalists alike as a game with unprecedented amounts of content and capacity for freedom. It’s a game that gets people talking about their in-game experiences and allows for personal narratives, whatever those are. We’ll return to the idea of a personal narrative later. First I’d like to talk about talking about games. I mentioned in Part 1a that people might talk about Call of Duty in excited tones, talking about its big action setpieces. They might well say “the bit where they blow up the Eiffel Tower is awesome!” in the same way as they might say “the bit where James Bond parachutes off the ice cliff and the music starts is awesome!” (and then they might tell people to stop getting Bond wrong). This says something about Call of Duty. Its action is something you describe in the terms of a passive entertainment. They blow up the Eiffel Tower. James Bond saves the world. Jon Snow becomes commander of the Night’s Watch.
Surely a game, though, an interactive narrative, should be all about you doing stuff? All the awesome stuff in Call of Duty is done either as you watch it and react to it, or by someone else. It goes back to my comments on agency; what you do only influences what you can then watch happening. While this is the case with all games, to a greater or lesser degree (for what you’re doing in the real world is pressing buttons to make pictures move, let’s never forget this) what I’m talking about here is how your inputs advance and impact on the narrative. Whether what your inputs are doing is directly related to the events on screen, or just moving you from set-piece to set-piece which you dutifully watch.
Skyrim claims to offer a personal narrative; everything that happens in the world is because of what you do. You’re killing dragons, you’re being a powerful wizard. So if you were talking about the activities of an evening’s Skyrim you might say “then I went into the tomb and fought the wizard” etc. This isn’t like watching a film where you’d say “Gandalf did it” or whatever; this is you, the adventurer! There’s one problem I can see with this. What you’re doing is pressing buttons on a controller. Things are happening on screen because of this but ultimately you’re sitting in front of a screen pressing buttons and pretending you’re a wizard. Sorry, gamers, this is the truth. As a result, whenever I hear someone say I bonked Liara or I became Archmage, I’m reminded of the Risk skit from Red Dwarf where they talk about their dice rolls with bated breath. (Apologies for talking about Mass Effect there, it won’t happen again). A better way of talking about video games is therefore My Character did this, or that. That way you’re making it clear you know the difference between video games and real life. Unless you’re running a Skyrim LARP of a weekend.
So we’ve established that games where you the player control the narrative can be talked about in different ways to more cinematic games where you watch setpieces. Now let’s go back to this idea of personal stories. The big selling point of Skyrim is you can do anything! You can be a rogue, or a fighter, or a wizard! You can fight dragons, make cheese, brew potions and punch bears! It’s a whole living world of adventure for you to go out and have fun in. Such is the illusion. The more you play Skyrim the more you see through that illusion, and the more you hear people talking about Skyrim the more you see through that illusion. Here’s a case in point; there’s a quest in Skyrim where you get in a drinking contest and end up somewhere unusual and have to piece together what you did. This is cool. The first time you hear someone say I/My Dragonborn got in a drinking contest and had to do _____ you think “that’s really neat, it’s spontaneous and cool.” But as it turns out that’s only a conversation tree away from any player of Skyrim and when you’ve heard 3 or 4 people say exactly the same thing, you see through the illusion that it is a random occurrence. That’s the big problem with Skyrim. To be the hugest game ever, it needed to have lots to do, and have every player be able to see everything in one go.
If you know anybody’s “spontaneous experience” in Skyrim is going to happen to you eventually, it doesn’t seem as rewarding when it happens. If you want to have the illusion of something being random be more convincing, make it actually random, or at least with the potential to play out differently. Maybe the guy who starts the drinking contest quest could spawn in a different inn for some players? Maybe have 2-3 different places where you end up? It’s a lot of effort, for sure, but I’d rather a more focused RPG that better maintains its suspension of disbelief than an epic-scale one where everything is there just waiting to be found. The world of Skyrim, you will very quickly learn, exists as a lot of bubbles of plot frozen in time until you’re looking at them, and frozen once again when you’re not. When you’ve a laundry list of two dozen time critical quests that will happily wait for you to decide to pick them up again, any semblance of narrative flow is gone.
But at the same time invisible time limits really annoy people. People complained about Mass Effect 2 punishing you for spending too long buying space Airfix kits and tropical fish when there was an alien invasion going on. But a detail like that was a good thing because it was internally consistent and kept up the narrative. To be honest, the idea of playing Skyrim and just plugging away by trial and error to find all the points of plot, and that they’ll be nicely waiting for you to find them is a chore on the level of finding 100 feathers in an Assassin’s Creed game and ruins any chance of anyone believing the world is alive or convincing. I’d rather something shorter, and more genuinely spontaneous. A little randomness; you are assigned 5 major side quests, say, for your playthrough, and all the usual smaller ones. Weight it in some way so on repeat playthroughs you get different ones more likely to appear. Then when someone says I got in a drinking contest… you’re wondering “am I going to? Or will something else happen that if I tell them about it they’ll think the same as I am now?”
This article’s got quite long and I still haven’t concluded on this topic (or talked about Dark Souls yet). So join me later for Part 1c, in which I draw together the strands of this argument and explain what is good game design.
In short, then, games are at their best when things aren’t predictable and the illusion of chance encounters can be maintained. I would rather a game where if I played it twice I’d get a different experience, than one where I know I can see everything in one go, I just need to seek it out. And most of all, when something is supposed to be spontaneous and time-critical, if it then clearly isn’t, your suspension of disbelief is completely gone.
And I don’t apologise for talking about Mass Effect, if you want an alternative ending to this blog where I don’t talk about it I accept cheques or postal orders.