Misunderstanding interactivity

2019-09-10

Ever since videogames have been a thing, interactivity has been thought to get in the way of telling a story. Text adventures have been famously described as "a narrative at war with a crossword". Cutscenes are often a laughing stock, especially when they directly contradict what happens in-game. More recently, it's been fashionable to complain about Twine games that offer no choices, but only a single continuation link at the end of each passage.

I've stated before that interactivity is the one thing only videogames can offer, out of all media: the one feature that makes them unique and special. Other developers clearly agree, as evidenced by their insistence to keep adding quick-time events to otherwise fixed cutscenes, even as players mock them. Graphical adventures, too, are praised for the amount of funny responses they give when players poke at the scenery. An irony, seeing how walking simulators used to be derided for making the entire game out of exactly that, before people reclaimed the term and made it a legitimate genre. And after decades of being a curiosity at best, interactive movies are taking off in a big way.

At the same time, mainstream games are criticized for being increasingly linear, or not offering enough romance options, even as titles coming from Japan are recognized as having better stories precisely due to embracing such limitations. Creators complain about the success of visual novels... which can go for minutes if not hours before offering any choice at all, let alone a meaningful one. Heck, so-called kinetic novels don't even have any! Idle games, too, remain as popular as ever.

After decades of videogames, interactivity is still seen as a mysterious force with magical properties, when in fact it's dead simple. People find ways to play with a pocket calculator, for crying out loud! Even just choosing which of many links to click next in a Wikipedia article counts. In fact, an IntroComp 2019 entrant attracted much attention for being in the form of a fictional online encyclopedia of the future. Continuation links too provide something of value, and that's pacing.

What's the point of interactivity in your game?

Because that is part of game design. There are games where your only option at one point is to basically press the big red button. If you don't do it, the game doesn't go on. And if you do... whatever happens next is a result of your actions. This one realization can have more impact than a hundred and one little cosmetic choices that ultimately change nothing. Well, unless it's a dress-up game. Then they make all the difference.

This whole essay was prompted by reading a reminder that players flocked to Dragon's Lair when it hit the arcades in 1983. They did so despite limited gameplay and unfair difficulty, simply because it made you the protagonist of a real animated movie like you could see in theaters. Years later, they also flocked to games like Another World or Alone in the Dark, which also had never-before-seen visuals, along with the same problems.

You know what else they had? Setting and atmosphere. Those matter, because graphics that pop will fall flat a moment later unless they have something to make pop.

So it is with quick-time events: of course players with pan them if the choices they enable are hackneyed. And yes, they'll be more interested in clicking scenery to get funny responses than trying every item on every other to solve inane puzzles. Now, make it a fun puzzle, of the hidden object or match-3 variety for example, and you can build entire games out of just that.

Yep... everyone knows there were no sliding-block puzzles guarding doors in ancient temples. That was never the issue.

Interactivity is still misunderstood, decades after it became an intrinsic part of media. And there's another aspect thereof game designers continue to struggle with: feedback.

If you play casual games these days, or at least peek at other people playing on public transport, you'll notice how every move you make results in a little lightshow, accompanied by a storm of sound effects. Not to mention how often it cascades, causing even more of both, in several steps. And never mind the audiovisual spectacle: the important angle here is how amply the game responds to the player's most timid attempts at interaction. The same principle can apply to any genre. One of my favorite roguelikes, Jeff Lait's POWDER, doesn't even have animation or sound, most action being rendered as a stream of text messages, as per tradition. And a single move can result in many such events, tumbling after each other until you start wondering what's going on. One can't help but wonder at the depth of the simulation, and that also makes a world come alive in the mind's eye. It doesn't even need to have much of an impact on the game world, as the fine folk at Inkle Studios will happily tell you: rather, make players feel like they're having an impact. Whatever you do, don't put off acknowledging their attempts to move things forward.

Funny how we ended right back at the golden "yes, and" rule of improvisational theatre. Which in game design terms can be stated as: anything the player tries to do, pick up the idea and run with it, as opposed to blocking. Which is of course much easier to do in a tabletop RPG than a videogame. But that's why so much time in the development of adventure games is dedicated to adding all those little amusing responses to otherwise irrelevant actions.

Interactivity takes many forms. What kind and how much of it you need depends on what you're trying to achieve. Sometimes its very absence conveys a message. Either way, interactivity is your friend in game design, not some difficulty to overcome. Work with it (the golden rule of improv applies to game design too, it seems) and you'll do just fine.

Unless you wanted to make a movie, not a game?