195: String Theory: The Illusion of Videogame Interactivity

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In the end, i like these illusions, unless they feel very fake, like in RE5 for example:

I think the problem about interactivity is that the more freedom you have, the more you do things that break the atmosphere that the creators intended.

So, if the Developers want to tell a story with gameplay, they don't have much of a choice other than guiding you with a more or less visible hand, with the illusion of freedom.

The difference between a great storytelling and a bad one is how much the strings are visible...

Great article.
I loved the end of HL2: Ep2 that fight was fantastic.

Yet am i the only one who though the end of MGS4 was totally ruined by the unnecessary close up of Snakes ass when he was crawling on the ground.

Morrowind didnt do that to me. Could even kill the plot characters and end up in a 'doomed' world. Oblivion however tried to do that, was annoying though, damn unkillable quest characters. A fun game is a fun game though, and well, magicians are really just illusionists making things appear one way when it is a trick, but they are still entertaining, so even if there was a trap-door under the thing, it was still fun to see.

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?

Considering the few OTHER times we had QTE in MGS (The Torture in both the first and second game) YOU COULD DIE! This is what tricked the majority of players into believing "This is MGS4s torture scene, if I fuck this up? I DIE!"

And it was fun, it was emotional if you were invested in the characters and story, and if you werent I don't know why you play the majority of modern Video Games.

and remember QTE are good so long as they make sense, since MGS 1 did we know that Triangle was the QTE button. they were rare but inevitably in each game, usually at the torture scene.

Just like RE4 had Mash X franticly because your character is frantic!

As much as I liked the microwave scene in MGS 4, the unscripted fight with Liquid at the after was even better. Actualy dieing in the fight shocked me, I though it would have been a scripted unloseable fight as well. Developers just need to get the mix right, so there is always the thought that an event can kill you.

Oh... boy... I didn't know that about half-life 2 episode 2. That battle was awesome and the cake was actually a lie...

Nice discussion. I come from an age before the movie/computer game hybrid, and the thought that always crosses my mind is: "this is stupid," when I am forced to "play" toward a pre-determined conclusion. No, I haven't been fooled, and nobody should be by this. This pernicious mediocrity in current gaming affairs should be uncovered and those scorned and laughed at who thought this was gaming greatness. 10.0's for MGS4 and GTA4? As people wise up to this nonsense let's see how well these "games" stand the test of time. Pacman they are not.

If there is a little manipulative "gameplay" tactics that draw one to a cutscene, which connects two levels together, that's fine. But if this happens regularly thoughout the level, better to just watch a movie or read a book.


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.

You're right, it is possible to enjoy both game play and story. But games should be games first. The drama should come from overcoming a challenge, not some behind-the-scenes tinkering that makes me think that I'm overcoming a challenge when I'm really not.

Let the story be there, but don't let the story be the reason you play the game. Let the game be the reason you play it and enjoy the story as a supplement.

It's odd that you call Bethesda's story material drivel. I say they are a sterling example of how to integrate story and game play: give me the tools to create my own story without holding my hand all the way through. The Halo series has the story exist in the background, allowing you to just play the game if you want or get immersed in the fiction. Same for World of Warcraft.

Um, this article is pretty silly. Can't he see the authorial arc in designing these sequences? Yes, it's manipulative, but you'd have to be pretty thick to not see how these scenes will play out the same way every time. Your console isn't some magic imaginary world machine, it's still very dependent on code and that means that every scene and every experience is the result of design. If Valve hadn't crafted the strider scene to approach climax it would have been very dull and it would have made a poor ending to the game. On the other hand, the promise of free agency he proposes every game makes is only truly available in the multiplayer setting, where the experiences like that last-minute defeat are the result of human interaction, and can only be coaxed by the designer through good level design.

And if you had to play to the very end of a Metal Gear Solid game to see how poorly the gaming and story telling are juxtaposed, you really must new to this 'video games' stuff. The manipulative nature of quick-time events is a small crime compared to the ridiculous amount of time you'll spend watching cut-scenes.

Also worth noting, I failed the Strider battle plenty of times before finishing the game.

Nooooo! Its all lie!

You know this isn't some sort of new hoax or any thing. Even 16bit games had predetermined out comes. Usually though there was a signal that let you know it was about to happen "The boss was just way too strong". I'll name a few... It happened in Chrono Trigger (Golems Fight) and a few times in Star Ocean.

Wait, wait, wait. There's no saving all the buildings at the end of HL2 Episode 2?

... how the hell do you get the achievement for that, then? Is it simply impossible? If so, that's a pretty cool use of the metagame to back up the illusion.

I'll admit, that fight was really intense though.

I haven't played MGS4, so I won't comment on that. However, HL2:E2 did NOT take control away from the player. The developers, Valve, wanted to make it so that the majority of players would witness their cinematic conclusion. It isn't forcing you into a particular situation at all.

I have failed that mission quite a few times, especially on the higher difficulties. Additionally, I have also completed it without losing a single building. The programmers might have made it so that the ending is most likely to come down to the wire, but there isn't anything that takes control from the player.

If you look at it on a graph of player skill vs. buildings destroyed, you come up with a fairly linear line which shows that only players of a particular skill level will experience the "optimal" emotional and cinematic ending, while players under that skill level lose, and players above that skill level don't come down to the final defense of the rocket.

By introducing a variable difficulty based on how well the player is performing, they can keep the pressure on the player, and ensure a greater number of players are able to experience the "last stand." Then another look at that graph shows that there are still outliers where a player can fail, or can achieve a perfect success, but the majority of players experience the desired finale.

This basically allows players to keep trying to get a better ending than the one they got previously. For lower skilled players, after multiple failures, getting through the level "by the skin of their teeth," so to speak, is an emotional high. And for the more skilled, there is the tantalizing achievement of a "perfect" defense.

Even though I haven't played MGS4, from what I have heard, there is no way to make it through the microwave tunnel "perfectly." You will always get zapped, even if through no fault of your own. While this may work on the first play through the game, and give an extremely emotional and cinematic experience, I feel that the inability to improve your performance beyond the "barely making it" stage is more of a letdown, and feels a little bit fatalistic to me.

In contrast, the first MGS torture scene had 3 outcomes: death (failure), submission ("barely made it"), and successful resistance (skillful). It looks to be much superior to the aforementioned MGS4 scene. (Again, I haven't played it, I'm just going off of what I've heard.)

I have a variety of mixed feelings reading this article and the comments, (Just letting you know.) The way the article struck me though didn't really tell me, "Your games are trying to FOOL you," rather, he was saying "here are some interesting tricks that developers can make a game more exciting," and "Really sucks when you know though, don't you?" That said though, it feels like it was trying to suggest that this was a one way street. The only way we'd feel like we'd have interactivity and fun at the same time, was to take away the interactive part.

But that's not the only way to have fun. As clearly demonstrated by all these posts, we all have different opinions and interests. Some people are simply sent over the edge by quick-time events, screaming at the horrid nature of pulling the wool over our eyes, essentially fooling us to have fun, while others might say, "Oh, so that's how it works, neat."

That said then, we can still like a narrative for different reasons. Some people simply like what happens and feeling of being drawn in, ala the examples of Half Life and Metal Gear. However, that said, games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, Although I liked the story, I most enjoyed just -talking- to the characters. Is it -the- most interactive thing? Not quite, but different things did happen based on our choice. Real choices. Narratives may not always be aided by interactivity, but that's not to say it can't be.

If difficulty is the real question, where we want everyone to be able to have the same experience, I think that's where difficulty settings come to mind. If you're just really good and want more of a challenge, you can play on hard. If hard is simply, well, too hard, they can play on easy, so everyone still gets to go through the story, and can have their skills really tested, without running the risk of players accidentally opening the curtains to realize what you did to "make" them have fun.

Even the most scripted and linear game is still more interactive than any movie. With a movie, you just sit there and stare at it while it does the same thing every time you watch it. At least with even a linear game, you have to actually do something physical and engage your brain a little to see the end of the story. I love good movies as much as I love good games, both are art as far as I'm concerned. Even the most cinematic game gives you more entertainment for your buck than a movie does. Even really long movies like Ben Hur and Lord of the Rings don't have the amount of content that a short scripted game has. The only time movies have a bang for your buck edge over games is when you are comparing a movie to an "old school" action game like Q-bert or Tetris where it's all about gameplay and there really isn't any story.

MGS4's example is a long QTE with the added annoyance of being forced to hold down a button for the duration of it.

HL2's example is pure word twisting on behalf of the writer. The battle is tuned so the average player will just about make it, an inexperienced player wont and a pro will blaze through it(neighbourhood watch achievement). That's not a "lie of interactivity" but pure simple balance. If we took all of the escapist's staff quasi philosophical "ideas" and handed them to a developer, you'd end up with something that takes 30 years to make, takes up entire contempory HD's and will be an absolute chore to play.

Well it makes sense, i cant tell you a story and have you dictate it at the same time, i think thats the basis of all this. In any game your options are do the quest whether in the chronological order given (more linear games) or at your own pace (think fall out where you could wander around the wasteland exploring). In the end you have two choices die and quit playing or do the story which just comes down to an elaborate version of putting the round peg in the round hole. There cant be a story where there is an ambiguous ending or no ending at all. Just like books unless you took part in writting it the story is pretty much set, its up to you to like or dont but changing it is never an option.

Part of playing a game is accepting its constraints. They're essential to play.

However, illusionism is usually a sign of poor storytelling. The thing that makes games worthwhile as their own fictional medium -- rather than just movies with an intermission to play Tetris -- is that the narrative is actually created through play. Instead of reaching out to engage the player as a co-author, someone with his own ability to contribute to the narrative of play, the designer has simply decided to make you a mute audience. But, almost as if he knows you want to be a co-author, he keeps patting you on the head and faking like your contributions matter. It's sloppy and artless.

-- Alex

Linear stories aren't as bad as people seem to think they are. If you can make it a good story, which is happening less and less it seems, I'm perfectly content to be led along through predetermined narrative, cut scenes, and battles. Especially if they're nice enough to let me customize my character's abilities and equipment (looks too I guess, but that's not as big a deal).

I have had time to mull over the article and have some additional comments.

I am an old school game player from the days of the Atari VCS. My experience with more recent games have been few, far between, and in my opinion, ghastly. It could be I'm just a crusty curmudgeon, I just pick the worst games on the shelf, or maybe God of War is a terrible game.

Anyway, what I have been hearing from some corners lately is how there's a strong storytelling element in some games, but when I ask when this means or how it works, the answers I would get would be... well, I wouldn't get any answers. Just a lot of useless babbling, hand waving and the old chestnut, "you just need to see it for yourself."

Oh, how I hate that. I suppose I can't blame them. Being able to understand how and why a game works it not readily apparent to the average person. They don't know how games work nor do they care. Asking them to describe the core structure of a game's storytelling is like asking an amoeba to give a lecture on particle physics.

So here, for the first time, I get a real answer. The implications are rather interesting.

No game can do anything that isn't coded, but since the first PlayStation, developers have been attempting to model reality as best they can, giving the player full range of movement in the game environment. While nice, this means that satisfying moments are as likely to happen as they are in real life. Which is, not very often. Even when fighting alien invaders.

Before the only method for injecting story into games I was aware of was the method of playing from cutscene to cutscene. This works since during the cutscene sets up the situation and the stakes which the player then plays out and is rewarded by another cutscene that explains the consequences of how the game was played. But this also doesn't work since these cutscenes often go on for way too long, are poorly acted and animated, and even the most forgiving player eventually hits the Skip button because they get bored of watching a movie and want to just play the game, dammit.

I had tried the demo for Half-Life: Uplink since that game was highly recommended for its storytelling and I hated it. Maybe the demo does not accurately reflect the game proper, but I found it uninspiring. I really disliked the... what were essentially jumping puzzles, and the melding of story with gameplay seemed to be little more than having the cutscene play out while you run around the room waiting for it to finish. So, you have the interactivity coupled with the cutscene with unimpressive results. (I finally gave up on the damned thing when I decided to try to train mode and wound up downing in the underwater portion because I got lost and could not for the life of me figure out where I was supposed to go at that point and was frustrated to the point where caring was no longer an option. So I will not even bother with the full game nor its sequels. If I wanted to be this frustrated, I would mow my lawn with a mower with no blade)

But this article shows that gameplay itself can be tweaked to produce storytelling. I'm not sure if I agree with this method, but apparently it works. It is difficult to argue with success.

What is questionable is if it can remain successful. How long will people put up with the interactivity being cut down for emotionally manipulative results? If other media are any indication, this can be successful until the sun burns out. There will be a few people who complain about being manipulated in this manner, but these chumps are few and far between. The general masses not only do not care, they love being manipulated like this. They may wonder how a magician performs his tricks, but they really do not care to know the answer nor are they interested in watching closely to see if they can figure it out.

So it is with this. The exact nature of this beast is a tad large for my poor widdle bwain. It's based upon gameplay expectations and then using those expectations to "fool" the player that normal play is occurring when it is not. The number of ways this could be exploited boggles me at the moment.

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.

So that would explain why I always seem to spend most of my time in HL2 games at about 50 or 60 health with no suit: I always thought it was me just playing more carefully because death was so near. If that is true then it's very clever, and it would also explain why I found the original Half-Life so hard: there wasn't that 'safety-net'

IMO, games these days focus way to much on the story, emotionally investing or not. Games are not art, and should not be regarded as such.

When games deceive me into thinking its interactive for an emotional effect, its cool the first time. (if I don't figure it out) but in the long run it will hurt my opinion of the game. Once I know there's no challenge in achieving the ultamite goal, there's no reason to do it again. Just a few years ago we played everything cutscene-cutscene, and there wasn't a problem as long as the cutscenes didn't drag. Between the cutscenes you drove the action. You only ever go one result, but getting to that required excellent gameplay and FUN to hold your attention. Back then, the greatest thing you could do as a developer was make fun gameplay. Now you can just make mediocre gameplay and focus on story.

This is one reason I like... hold on a second

*flame shield up*

This is one reason I like Halo so much. Yeah, space marines vs aliens has been done a lot, but that's too general to be call it totally unoriginal. If I put in Halo, I know that I get to fight aliens, and it will be fun. Halo takes me int its world, says here's some guns, kill these enemies or else. Then I play and enjoy what I'm doing. Then a cutscene explains the next part of the story, I watch intently for the next part of the story, then the game gives me back my gun to do what the story implies. In other words, the fun gameplay is infinately more important than the story. If you find the story entertaining, more power to you

And no, I dont think Halo is the best game evar! I just believe it got the formula right. And I personally enjoyed the story and gameplay throughout the series.

If I put in *insert other marines-aliens game* then once again I'll be killing aliens, just with some different weapons, aliens, and motivation. Whether I continue to play the game depends on how fun it is.

Unless we manage to create a game featuring a world of Actual Intelligence (AKA they would be capable of creating their own Actual Intelligence program within the game) Then you will be following one of only so many possible goals.

It was clever because it was new, unheard of. If/when it becomes commonplace, it will cease do deceive, making the game worse for it.

Then again, it was not all that new, was it? Didn't anyone here play Wing Commander? Only WG wasn't all that forgiving.

The problem is not narratives but striving to make games accessible to everyone, it is essentially impossible because not everyone finds every game interesting enough to complete.

IMO, games these days focus way to much on the story, emotionally investing or not. Games are not art, and should not be regarded as such.

I'm an art major, a media arts student to be exact, and I have to disagree, but with concessions. Games are a valid medium of expression, but you have a point that there is a threshold between a game and a movie. Both operate in a visual-motion medium, the only real difference being human influence on the outcome of events.

I have to say this: CHOICE IS OVERRATED.

A game completely driven by our own actions and choices would be boring and uneventful because there would be no NEED to really do anything. The game would essentially be Garry's mod; the only things that happen are whatever you cause yourself. The story is the effects of NPCs and other characters/elements at work, and a game like HL2 requires that there be some sequence to these actions for the sake of clarity, pacing, and rhythm. It would have seemed very awkward if you went and screwed around for the entirety of bioshock and then were told that you did all that you did because you were told to, not because you wanted to, because that wouldn't be true. You went and goofed around, you didn't even fulfill major plot points or encounter proper characters. The end result is a game that feels like there is ANOTHER character running around in your guise that is doing the same stuff you're supposed to be doing and being the hero.

Games Do give you choice, but only in the places where either way would be fine. Do you use the shotgun or the pistol to kill an advancing headcrab zombie? Do you do a quest the good way or the evil way? THAT is the extent of nonlinearity in games. You will end up at point Z, but at least you get there how you want to.

I actually found this article really interesting, but not for what it said, so much. Rather, it was interesting to compare to ancient literary criticism (bear with me here).

The talk of games 'lying' to us by trying to convince us that there is more freedom on offer than they actually simulate is very, very similar to the ancient problem of literature 'lying' to us by trying to convince us of the reality of their fiction. These days, we talk about the ability of literature to help us 'suspend our disbelief' - we accept that while fiction is, well, fictional, it works best when it convinces us, albeit temporarily, of its 'truthfulness'. This doesn't bother us at all, but in early literary criticism it was a huge stumbling block to get over; there simply wasn't a culture of literature in place to allow critics to accept that while lying was bad, the 'lies' of fiction were an altogether different kettle of fish.

It would seem that games criticism is currently at that stage, where the 'lies' of games in their attempt to immerse gamers more fully are still seen as troublesome, and not simply accepted. I wonder how long it'll take us to get over the problem?

(It took the Greeks a few hundred years, by comparison)

The HL2EP2 example is a bit misinterpreted. No matter what you do, the Striders always spawn in the same place and take the same path. It's designed so that in the beginning, they slowly waddle in taking the outer buildings and continue waddling on. In the middle, they charge up to take the buildings and continue waddling on, sometimes ignoring certain buildings. In the end, they charge straight up and ignore most buildings, then waddle up the last few steps. When they charge, it gives you the illusion of urgency, but then they slow down. That's the only deception, and it was most likely obvious to everyone who played it. They weren't really lying, per se.

I really don't care if a game lies to me, though. If deception makes a good game, then deceive me.

It would seem that games criticism is currently at that stage, where the 'lies' of games in their attempt to immerse gamers more fully are still seen as troublesome, and not simply accepted. I wonder how long it'll take us to get over the problem?

I violently disagree with any theory of gaming that makes immersion the main and universal goal.

-- Alex


It would seem that games criticism is currently at that stage, where the 'lies' of games in their attempt to immerse gamers more fully are still seen as troublesome, and not simply accepted. I wonder how long it'll take us to get over the problem?

I violently disagree with any theory of gaming that makes immersion the main and universal goal.

-- Alex

I didn't intend to imply that it should be: however, as the 'lies' demonstrated in the article were all those intended to immerse the player, and indeed those are the only occasions I can think of (off the top of my head) where 'lying' in computer games happens - the mechanics in more abstracted and less 'immersive' games tend not to have such sleight of hand applied to them - it is specifically in that context which I described them and passively defended their usage.

Of course, if you think that criticising such 'lying' in games is sensible because you think attempts to immerse the player should not be made in any titles, then that's a very different argument, but I don't think that was your implication.

I'm actually used to games featuring scripted failures. One classic example is a boss fight early in the game that you can't possibly win. When you lose the fight the game still continues on with the story.

Enjoying scripted events is something I can't possibly do ever since I played the original Deus Ex back in good old 2000. I remember playing through the game believing it was scripted and then finding out that most things I let happen were more or less optional. Kinda the opposite of what's described in the article when you think about it, however that wasn't because of bad design but mostly because of the times. You didn't expect optional story arcs or different conversations with NPCs because it wasn't something that happened a lot back then and, when it did, it was explicitly pointed out by the game or its marketing, mostly because game developers want the amount of work they put in a game to be appreciated. So when you try 2-3 times to beat the part where the NPC dies and keeps yelling "go, you can't save me" you just think "maybe he's not supposed to be saved, since he dies and I get no GAME OVER screen".

Now I will admit I can't remember if HL2E2 fooled me into thinking I could have kept all the towers intact but it was extremely fun. Though I have come to accept that the HL series is strictly linear in all its parts and if someone in a game like that says something like "OMG THAT WAS CLOSE I WAS A GONER" then he'll probably say it every time you play through it.

I still don't understand why the Deus Ex formula isn't popular. I explicitly remember thinking that branched story-lines would become the norm since games are the only medium that allow that level of interactivity. Maybe some people don't like the fact that they can't see the every piece of conversation or every bit of alternative story in one go, which is something I found hard to get used to. I especially remember the agonizing curiosity of what would happen if I was a bastard towards Bastilla instead of Mr. Nice Guy when playing KotOR. I know it wouldn't change the story dramatically, I just couldn't get used to the idea that I can't see it all!

Then again, it's a slippery slope since games can go as far as Blade Runner that was said to have dead ends in the story if you miss certain choices (though that might have just been that a lot of people decided they hit a dead end when they couldn't figure out where to go next).

In the end, it's all about the experience. If a carefully manufactured lie maximizes the impact of the experience, by all means, go ahead, developers.

Well, I see how MGS4's was an illusion, but how is Episode 2's? Can someone please explain this to me?

I can't really say how effective the section in MGS4 was because I've never played it.
However, I can see why they choose to make the player feel guilty and frantic even when your actions have little control of the results.

As for the strider/hunter battles at the end of Half-Life 2 Episode 2.
Even if part of how it plays out is an illusion, I found it to be quite effective and enjoyable.

Whatever the lie is...can developers please stop using or minimize using Quick Time Events (QTE)?
Especially the ones that are thrown in randomly with cut-scenes those need to stop.

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