195: String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity

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String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity

There's a debate raging in the game development community over the role of storytelling in game design. But two recent games have managed to make a compromise between narrative and interactivity. Anthony Burch analyzes how key scenes in Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Metal Gear Solid 4 trick players into believing they have more control over the game than they actually do.

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In my opinion, it's not a crime at all to give the "illusion" of interactivity, particularly for western players. Look at the stark differences between traditional Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs, for example. In one, you traditionally have a very clearly defined storyline that many non-Japanese gamers complain is too linear. The argument that "you're just playing from cutscene to cutscene" shows up in far too many player reviews (and the occasional professional review).

You don't hear those types of complaints regarding western RPGs like Mass Effect, Bioshock, Fable, etc., yet they're doing basically the same thing. They're scripting the story and steering you towards the way they want you to play it. They just may toss in the illusion that you have free will, control over the story, and the ability to do pretty much whatever you want.

Bioshock gave us what many consider one of the best plot twists ever by basically pointing out this very same idea! Not only was it a twist on the plot, but it also doubled as a commentary on the gameplaying experience. You only THOUGHT you were in control, but you're not. Someone else was pulling your strings. Yet, you loved it because you FELT like you were in control.

As western players, we typically want to feel like we're in control. The developers are essentially giving us exactly what we want, while at the same time pulling the strings behind the scene to make sure we get to see a coherent, but exciting story.

In the end, we both win.

sometimes the illusion is necessary if the developers intend the gamer to experince anything but the gameplay. Uncontrollable cutscenes replace interactive control because, often as not, most players if able to control their character during a scripted scene will run about & do other things; ruining the dramatic atmosphere. The illusion of interactivity & control does draw the player in; but it has to be an illusion because good drama takes alot of effort to create, & can be ruined in a second if the player, ignorant of what is unfolding around them, has any control over it.

A very interesting article, to be sure, and I am glad to have this illusion pointed out to me - it reinforces how much work goes into creating a truly marvellous game. That the developers work so hard to ensure players walk away with a specific emotional impact... Awe inspiring. Though it isn't necessary, I admit. A linear story told well can be just as satisfying as a seemingly malleable one also done well.

But I have to wonder at the emphasis on the MGS4 tunnel scene - I thought it was obvious that the scene was scripted. I looked at it basically as a cut scene with quick time events... Which is essentially what it was, right? Am I an abnormality among MGS4 players?

The replay value goes out the door when you have a moment like this. Which is not to say they can't work, Call of Duty 4 being the prime example. Rather than try to suck me into the narrative, the game creates an almost pitch-perfect recreation of walking around a nuclear fallout.

Every time I play that sequence I still see something new. But the game is also creating a moment of awe, not drama. I'm not supposed to be sucked into some tense emotional moment, I'm just walking around a painting.

If I want story, I'll read a book.

You want to put a big, emotional finish in your game? Fine. Make it where I can fail. I can always scale back the difficulty if I break out into tears.

As suspect as Valve's tinkering sounded, and trust me it is suspect, Konami just pulled a cheap and dirty trick on gamers that actually want--you know--a game and not an interactive movie.

Rule of thumb: If you did it on the first try it's not hard. That's my standard, no matter how little health I had left at the end I assume that any damage taken during the first run was purely because I was new to the scene. If I pull it off on the first try, no matter how close, I just won with a definitely sub-par performance and I can surely do much better on the second or third try (in comparison, I knew that the Tsunami in Disaster wasn't just scripted to stay at a certain distance to me because on my first try I botched it and actually died, too many games have moving disasters behind you that merely advance when you pass certain trigger points though I knew the Tsunami level would end just before the wave reached my car in the attempt where I didn't mess up). Though a QTE death is always a pure frustration death, a QTE doesn't feel like an archievement, it feels like an arbitrary diabolus ex machina thrown at you. I liked them in RE4 but mostly for serving as wake up calls during cutscenes (it's at least pretending to be survival horror so having the player feel safe whenever his character won't obey the analog stick is kinda... fail). I think I've seen cases before where defense missions had enemy cheating designed to make them push ahead to your door in a near-unstoppable onslaught so you'd actually have to fight a "last stand" simply because they were set to invulnerable before reaching the final defense point. Now, defending the base in Onslaught mission 5 on hard, that felt like an accomplishment because I actually had to adjust my strategy to get that mission done after repeated failures.

Well, now I feel slightly better about being brought down to one house left in Episode 2.

I guess that in the long run you can't fake being a good game but you can fake the experience of winning a game. I would rather win a good game for real than play pretend at beating a bad one.

That microwave tunnel was a grand finishing to the meal that was the Metal Gear Solid, like some delicious, icing-topped, baked dessert. Now you're telling me it was a LIE???!!!


There's always the option of just writing more story to cope with differences in choices made. The trick there is that the number of extremely consequential choices must be reduced. This can be done effectively by putting players in situations where they don't have direct control and know it, but have options to do anything from spice up to radically alter the narrative at various points. That's a reason why I like BioWare. Playing "you can lose!" with the players is an improvement in a sense over pure scripted events, but it seems to me a truly compelling narrative doesn't have to try basing itself that directly on gameplay.

I can't believe it's taken this long for someone to address this issue.

I do feel a bit like my fourth wall is broken when shenanigans like this are pulled in a game, but I'm not sure I can really feel truly upset about it. I've never played HL2, E2, before, but this sounds like a relatively responsible use of legerdemain. Same for the MGS thing.

Looking back over my 19ish years of gaming, I find myself wondering where the implication that things must be interactive stems from. When I think back to the days of playing the licensed G.I. Joe video games on my NES, there certainly weren't any alternate endings or anything like that . . . there was just one ending, and when you sit down to play the game, the only question is whether or not you have the skill to unlock said ending.

I think perhaps this issue here is clarity. We, the players, do not like seeing backstage, which is what happens when the illusion is broken in situations like the above described. We want immersion in the video game experience, and when we see the tricks that bring us the cohesive experience, we feel a little cheated. It's one thing to be told how the magic happens in a making-of video, quite another to see wheels pop off while the wagon's rolling.

I also think that this is likely to happen because of concept I find personally execrable: hardcore gaming. I've met a fair number of people who compete against each other as much as the game itself. To achieve the ephemeral increase of self-worth that comes with besting their friends in competitive multiplayer modes, they have to practice and practice and practice, and if you stare at a work of art long enough, you'll eventually find the brushstrokes.

Personally, I think that isn't really a big deal. It is a ploy to wring emotion from us, true, but I WANT TO BE FOOLED. I am a player, I want emotions to come out of me when I play a game. If we're going to call the illusionists on this ploy, are we not honor-bound to call them on all others? What makes this trick worse than any other?

This story reminds me of an issue I ran into with the interactive-space opera Wing Commander III back in the early 90s. My college roommate and I were playing through the game as separate pilots, under the illusion that success or failure in every scenario would lead to divergent plots. It felt very real at the time, until my roommate worked his ass off to beat a mission that I failed, but I had lost and moved on to the next. The following mission he played was the exact same mission I was playing, even though he had won and I had lost. His hard work had not earned him the extra bit of award he was expecting, and the game started to feel like a ride at Disneyland. I don't think he ever played the game after that, as the illusion of interactivity was shattered.

The illusion of interactivity is great, especially if you are in a void. When you play a game without any information regarding the nature of how "things are supposed to go", it's fantastic. But it is getting increasingly hard to play in this ideal state of ignorance, with spoilers abounding all over the internet and players comparing progress in a game's story arc with each other. Just think of how effective the illusion could be without these confounds.

very good article, i agree with it

As GyroCaptain said, you can always write more story. Certainly schemes like the MGS scene can work fine, but if you truly want the player to be in control, just write another ending based on the different outcomes the player's actions will have.
This is why I am looking forward to Heavy Rain, which will hopefully have a story that change during the game depending on the player´s choices, and not just in the final scene, but throughout the game, creating many different scenarios for the game.

But it is true that narrative and interactivity doesn't quite go hand in hand and players who doesn't take the story seriously will ruin the mood by running around, but then that's their loss. After all, players are different, some want an immersive narrative and some want an interactive experience, some want both and that is why we have these cases where interactivity - or the illusion of the same - is combined with an emotional narrative and I believe that this is positive, but not the only option.


Looking back over my 19ish years of gaming, I find myself wondering where the implication that things must be interactive stems from. When I think back to the days of playing the licensed G.I. Joe video games on my NES, there certainly weren't any alternate endings or anything like that . . . there was just one ending, and when you sit down to play the game, the only question is whether or not you have the skill to unlock said ending.

Speaking for myself, my introduction to interactive gaming (circa the 80s) was with old PC adventure games, King's Quest and Zork. Playing those games felt like a whole world was out there to be explored, and the story completely depended on your actions. Of course, after you've played through these games (or talked to others about them), you would lose that illusion. Hint guides for these games contained warnings that the game would be spoiled if you used them, for the same reason. Back then, the only hints you could get was by calling a 900 number (not alot of gaming mags, and no internet). Nowadays, the curtain has been pulled, so to speak.

If I want story, I'll read a book.

You want to put a big, emotional finish in your game? Fine. Make it where I can fail. I can always scale back the difficulty if I break out into tears.

As suspect as Valve's tinkering sounded, and trust me it is suspect, Konami just pulled a cheap and dirty trick on gamers that actually want--you know--a game and not an interactive movie.

"If I wanted art, I would go to an art gallery. Movies should be about explosions".
Very astute.

If I want a story, I play a game (specifically a good RTS or an RPG).
If I want literature (and a story), I read a book.
It is possible to enjoy both.

Of course, I am talking about actually good games here, not the drivel that comes out of the minds of Cliffy B or Bungee. Or, your god forbid, Bethesda.

Thank you for writing this. I haven't played very many modern games and did not understand the role of storytelling in these games that I keep hearing about. Asking questions shed no light on the matter. But you've confirmed something I've always suspected. To make a good story, the interactivity needs to be taken away. On these three pages, I learned more about storytelling in gaming than I have in probably the last thirty years of playing video games. This is enlightening. I am unable to comment further than that since this needs to be mulled over a bit. But thank you again for writing this piece.

I think Half Life 2 was one of my most emotional gaming experiences, thank god for these illusions that it gave us.

I always thought Snake getting hurt in the hallway was an inevitability. MGS4 was a terribly told story.
Games are illusory. The only changing facet is the level to which any game is, but you don't have to change that in any real way to create a good story. I always felt cheated when the shield generator was destroyed in whichever Star Wars game I was playing. I was getting railroaded. My choices should make a difference. If they don't, then I'm not playing a game; I'm watching a movie.
And in the case of MGS4, it was an awful, awful movie.

I wrote this article before GDC, and listening to a couple of lectures on Far Cry 2 by Jonathan Morin and Clint Hocking has made me think about the exact opposite of what this article focuses on.

Taking away interactivity can lead to incredible experiences, but if you can provide a consistent environment in which the player can create their OWN experiences, with just enough structure to provide really cool moments for the players (taking out faction leaders in FC2, for instance), then that might be even better. We're not at a place where this has been done as efficiently as something like MGS4's microwave corridor or HL2's White Forest, but, as flawed as something like FC2 is, that could be an equally beneficial area to examine further.

I remember hearing (somewhere... damned if I can find a source for it) that throughout HalfLife 2, it'll subtly tweak the amount of damage you receive to try and keep you alive for as long as is believable - you take less damage per hit when you're low on health, but not to the point where you're unable to die, or that you'd notice unless you were carefully taking notes on how much damage everything does.

Less player death means more time spent on the fun parts, more "just a little further, need to find health" tension, less repetition of parts you've already played through, I approve. If it were too blatant it'd feel like it was sucking all the challenge out of the game, but they seem to have it finely honed to the point where you always feel challenged, but don't feel that it's impossible.

Jon Blow would call these two instances "dishonest" to the player. I say, who cares if they're being dishonest, they found a way to deliver some of the most thrilling narrative sequences without turning out an unskippable, uninteractive cutscene. They should get props, and this should be emulated, not denounced.

No-one here btw has right to talk about the Microwave scene unless they played about it before hand. That and the final fight in MGS4 are some of the most awesome gaming EXPERIENCES that I've ever played. And when you play it it's pretty obvious that's it's more movie than game. It's not a trick it's the most dramatic accumulation of an entire series ever seen. It felt awesome.

If I lost it would become annoying not awesome. In fact I'm surprised to here that you could lose. It was basicalyl a QTE as they should be done, it was rewarding and emotionally involving. Not tacked on.

This is good but it has to be done at the right time and not too often. It';s a solution to the hard vs dramatic boss problem put in an Escapist article a few weeks ago,

Fiddeling arround with the variables to get the right cinimatic outcome is something I have come to expect from story driven games. However the best video game stories I feel come out of emergent game play. They may be less complex or emotional than the one scripted in the studio, but they are infinatly more satisfying simply because they were not made in a studio.

If I want a narrative I will read a novel. I don't read novels.

This article is trying to be philosophical for the sake of being philosophical. Everything is a lie, you either have the choice to do something or not to do something. There is no certainty in anything. Reality is a lie. We have choice, but choice doesn't change anything because nothing matters in the end. Existence leads to non-existence. Everything that is here came from nothing and will become nothing. Time itself didn't exist at one point, and in the future it will cease to exist itself. Reality is illusion.

Get an avatah!

Nah for reals anthony. We would love you to frequent here in the escapist.

Also, cocks.

:O Like you didn't see that coming.

on topic: I think we as gamers shouldn't dwell on that, in fact most don't. We take the medium as entertainment, at least for the most part, and not as a home away from home anyway. Narrative in videogames isn't regarded as on par to books and T.V. because of the simple fact its on a game: an activity you engage in for amusement or diversion. No matter how much we want it to be, no matter how much it can be.

But I just skimmed through your article, so I probably missed the main or some points. :]

Well, the thing is that some of the Western games mentioned aren't really RPGs. Bioshock for example is a shooter. Fable and Mass Effect are "Action RPGs". The genere being differant and having differant expectations, which is why JRPGS which follow RPG convention are so heavily criticized, action-type games from Japan are treated with differant standards.

Typically a lot of Western RPGs will give you an event you need to achieve and let you run around the "sandbox" deciding when, and oftentimes even how you achieve that goal. Your following a plotline and act within the context of it, but aren't typically forced down the same pathway the same exact way and at the same exact time as everyonce else.

Going back to old games like "Might and Magic" you were pretty much given a general hint that there might be something cool in "The Inner Sanctum" at the center of the Astral Plane, but no real set direction on how to accomplish this though there were specific things that needed to be done (and clues on what those were). You could for example wander outside the cities from the very beginning and get pwned horribly, do the dungeons more or less in order or skip around and do them in whatever order you want, or simply go tearing accross the countryside looking for the wierd stuff scattered all around.

The original "Wasteland" also followed a convention similar to this.

More modern games like "Oblivion" and "Fallout 3" take it to a whole new level, pretty much giving you infinite freedom to just wander around the game world doing whatever you want within the context of the mechanics/storyline and even quite a bit of lattitude in how you go about completing the story directives.

JRPGs generally do not do this, most action games do however, so it's forgivable in the context of say "Bioshock" where you take the levels more or less in order, and it's kind of set what you could potentially have at any paticular step in the progression. It's very rare when an action game like "Grand Theft Auto" provides any kind of sandbox enviroment which is why that series and it's imitators have suceeded.

As far as the compromise between story and interaction, I do not feel that the two have to be kept seperate at all. Yes it can be hard to design a game that has good writing and freedom but it can be done (and has been) and simply put the benchmark for games is rising.

I think there is only a "Debate" on the subject because a lot of game develpers understand what it's going to take to produce good games, and a lot of them really wish it was otherwise because it makes their job easier when they only have to worry about one or the other.

A bit of a ramble, hopefully I'm not totally off kilter in the way I responded here. Probably quite redundant with what was already said. :)


The illusion of choice is the main message delivered in Metal Gear Solid 2. SPOILERS Below:

Raiden thinks he's saving New York from a nuclear disaster, but his entire mission is in fact a fabrication meant to replicate the events of the first Metal Gear Solid. The colonel, whom Raiden eventually discovers isn't real, constantly refers to the mission as "the simulation."

Towards the end, Raiden is trying to find out who the Patriots are, and the ultimate answer in that game is that the Patriots were the ones in control of what you could and couldn't do the whole time, right down to the final battle with the antagonist that you don't even want to fight anymore because you don't disagree with his aims. In that sense, Hideo Kojima is The Patriots.

I liked the article a lot. The bit about metal gear solid made me sad that I never got to play the games. Unfortunately I don't own 1 playstation system.

One of the big problems with game storytelling compared to movie storytelling is that in a game, you have to make sure the player actually sees the story that you've so lovingly created. If they get stuck on the boss of level 3 and quit, then you could have the most amazing story ever, and that player will never notice; all they'll know is that the game was too hard for them. (Imagine if you went to see a movie, and every 10 minutes was a pop quiz, and if you failed you got escorted out of the building.) But if you make the game too easy, then you run the risk of losing the interactivity element which makes games different and interesting.

(I say "run the risk" because this isn't necessarily the case. Killer7 is one of my favorite games from a storytelling perspective, but it's not a difficult game at all, and the gameplay isn't even particularly interesting. And yet the Big Reveal doesn't lose any of its emotional impact.)

Valve feels very strongly that everyone should be able to see the story progress (or, in this case, that everyone should see the ending), and that everyone should feel like they accomplished something, no matter their skill level, because they feel that the story is an important element of the game. (I think it's in the Episode 1 commentary where a Valve team member points out that they placed a couple of enemies in a particular location just so you'd be looking there when a scripted event played nearby.)

I honestly disagree with the article. If the player doesn't want the story maybe he won't enjoy being made to watch it? And if you can't trust the player to play the way you want maybe you shouldn't make games? If you ask me the best example of a good story in a game is God Of War. The story actually appears in the game rather than just being cut scene only. The grave keeper isn't just another guy he saves you when you go to Hades. Pandora's box isn't just another plot point but an item you use to become a giant in order to defeat Ares. That kind of thing is what makes a game's story powerful and well told. When you make the player sit down in a room and won't let them get up to walk out that's not in game storytelling. That's trying to make a CG movie.

Pretty much everything I would say is said here. I don't care if the game is obviously linear. As long as the gameplay is good with nice graphics and good effects that make playing it interesting. Maybe sometimes i would like to play something that is non-linear or gives the illusion that it is non-linear. But then i don't all new games to be like that and if they are trying to do games with this illusion then i don't care. As long as the illsuion isn't broken and if i happen to find out about it then ok. But the worst is that it'll be broken in public. The games fake illusion worked well enough was it discovered or not. I play games that look like you have free-will over everything and sometimes i feel it is real but there are also some games that i see that are trying to creat a illusion. So what! If that is what makes people happy then why not.

The Half Life trick was clever. The MGS4 one was just cheap. GTA4 pulled a similarly cheesy one in the last mission - they were aiming for cinematic, they just achieved annoyance.

When will developers learn that "PRESS X TO NOT DIE" is simply not fun?

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