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Weekly Links #209: interactivity edition


After so much game design talk as of late, prompted by my own work in progress, I was hoping to make a change today, but it wasn't to be. Two classic game retrospectives that caught my eye this week are both about interactivity versus story. In their defense, people were still blundering about back then. But they still don't get it, decades later, so it has to be repeated: players aren't just the audience of your game, they're also the guest stars. You don't perform to a passive audience, you engage it. You don't tell a story to the players, you tell it with them -- together. And if you can't or won't, maybe you've picked the wrong medium.

On to this week's news.

As the week is gearing up, K.D. points at PCGamer's making-of story on Sam & Max Hit the Road, the LucasArts classic from 1993: the first game in a long, and much beloved series that turns out to have its origins in a comic, itself originally drawn for fun. Note how the storyline of this first game was also informed by the author's real-life experiences; there's simply no substitute!

He also has things to say about interactivity:

"You try to be aware of the amount of time you have players sitting and watching as opposed to interacting. Fortunately a lot of the humour came out of the way that the characters would respond to the player’s actions. Even observing something in the room could produce a funny response, in which case the interactivity is doing the work of the story."

Gee, you mean a game story doesn't have to branch to be fun? And by the way, note their solution to the problem of players being stuck on a puzzle: give them something else to do in the mean time.

Because that's why people play games. And most game developers still haven't figured it out, a quarter century later.

Moving on: thanks to a timely e-mail from, I just learned that the 7-Day Roguelike Challenge for 2018, 7DRL for friends, is starting in a few hours (as of this writing). How ironic that I'm about to finish mine. Not that I could have made a game for the event. How in the world do people code so quickly? I've seen some amazing entries over the years.

But hey, let's focus on the good news: yet another famous game jam has moved to my favorite marketplace, making it a lot easier for me to follow the proceedings. Good luck to all the participants, and let's see what comes out this edition.

And in a funny coincidence, given that I've just announced this year's 7DRL, Jay Barnson a.k.a. The Rampant Coyote points at a very similar event taking place at the same time and in the same venue: Lartu's Mini-RPG One Week Jam. What I like about this one is how the organizer defines an RPG for the purposes of the event, seeing as how it's not so easy to make a recognizable one in such a short timeframe:

  1. The player must be able to control a character across a map, be it the hero, a monster or anything else.
  2. There has to be some kind of activity that allows for character progression, be it slaying monsters, brewing potions or reading books.
  3. The player must be able to obtain items throughout the game, so your game should have some sort of inventory mechanics or something on that line.

And while the last point may seem controversial, especially as inventory systems are infamously tricky to code, I must agree that getting cool prizes, er, items is a big part of the genre's appeal. So, good thinking!

Last but not least, this week Jimmy Maher a.k.a. the Digital Antiquarian tells the story of Wing Commander II, in particular how it compares to the first game in the series. And boy, does he have a lot to say about the things a game loses when it tries to be more "cinematic". I'll just add one remark over this quote from Warren Spector:

"[...] we’re still learning how to tell stories on the computer. We’re figuring out where we can be cinematic, and where trying to be cinematic just flat doesn’t work. We’re finding out where you want interaction, and where you want the player to sit back and watch the action."

Stop. Stop it right there. I don't care where you, the creator, want me to sit back and watch the action. As a player, I never want to. That's why I'm playing a game: to act myself. And guess what: plenty of games before and after Wing Commander II proved able to tell a good story while staying interactive the whole way. You have no excuse.

There is no conflict between narrative and gameplay. There's just the cognitive dissonance of people who keep making games while expecting them to come out movies.

And at least if they were good at making movies. But as Jimmy points out a little later:

[...] there’s a craft — a sleight of hand, if you will — to keeping the reader or viewer from focusing too much on a story’s incongruities. The writer or screenwriter accomplishes this by offering up compelling characters that are easy to root for or against and by keeping the excitement ever on the boil.

How come people who put storytelling on a pedestal fail so badly at story 101? Perhaps because they're not so good at storytelling, either. All they want is to be cool, rich and famous like the creators they envy, pardon, admire, only without having to put in the years of hard work. So when they have to cut... they cut all the wrong things.

You judge the results.