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Redefining Interactivity, pt 6: Why Can’t We Be Friends? (pt 2 – Adventure Games)

May 28, 2011

Okay, quick recap: Last The Wednesday night before last, I started rambling about the fact that people don’t always like the same kinds of games. I know, big shocker.

The thing is, we all like to make excuses to avoid trying games we’re pretty sure we won’t enjoy, and it’s up to our nearest and dearest to decypher our excuses in order to sell us on why they believe a game would be a perfect fit for us.

I stopped just short of listing the standard genres, the reasons we give not to play them, and the meanings behind those reasons. However, I did promise, so here goes…

MY LISTS, LET ME SHOW YOU THEM

The work of several days of anal retentive rewriting and rearranging. Enjoy.

[ONE WEEK LATER]

Sorry about that. Life has absolutely NOT been reading from the script. But HEY! I got the table done! Look at that thing! Isn’t that sweet?

What? You say something’s missing? Oh, you’re not going to make me go back in there and put sports games in, are you? I mean, I know people love sports games, too, but seriously, I’m actually more comfortable with shooters than I am with sports games. At least shooters can pretend to tell a different sort of story than sports games. Why not make me review Tetris while we’re at…

…Oh, you weren’t talking about sports games, either. That’s good.

OH! You’re wondering where the Explanations column went. That’s pretty cool. Most folks don’t even know there WAS an Explanations column.

So where did it go? Well, I sorta… deleted it. Not because I don’t plan on explaining. I just… well, I couldn’t explain any of those things in a nice, concise single line, like I had everything else. In fact, truth to tell, I’m still not sure what I’m going to say next. I just know I need more space to cover them. Not even sure I HAVE explanations for all of them. I’ll give it a try, but I can’t make any promises here.

See, some of these game genres are so difficult for me to enjoy that I have trouble understanding how anybody derives enjoyment from them. It’s a failing of mine, I know.

Nevertheless, here goes:

ADVENTURE
Yeah, I started with Adventure Games. They were the first home computer video games. And I like them best. Don’t like it? Go start your own blog! *sniff*

I identify these games as having Problem Solving as a core objective. It’s the base mechanic at the core of every style of game that fits under this umbrella, because, whether puzzle- or story-oriented, players nevertheless derive the most significant portion of their enjoyment from the solving of problems; essentially, of knowing all the answers. Does that describe anyone you know?

Stop looking at me like that.

Okay, I broke the types of Adventure Games up into a few basic types, based essentially on their delivery systems. There is crossover in all of these types, but at their foundation, they’re either text-, animation- or live-action-based.

Text Adventures are the easiest to identify, but they’re most commonly referred to these days as…

Interactive Fictionno pictures; guess-the-verb; obscure medium:
Okay, see, the thing is, I have oodles of respect–awe, even–for some modern writers of IF. They’re really exploring the boundaries of Interactive Storytelling in ways most of us can barely imagine. Some of them are even doing things with text parsers and hypertext links that are so cool, I find myself experiencing envy.

One problem for me is, I can’t get past the text parser in some of these games. Maybe others have the same problem. I don’t suppose most IF afficianados can sympathise with this point, however. The ability to choose your own action, even if from a predetermined list of possibilities, is nevertheless a strong draw for the maverick sort of people who congregate in the halls of IF.

The very real problem, however, is that IF is a very tight-knit community. Most folks have no idea it even exists, and almost none of us have the ability to grasp it properly. We don’t all have the necessary tools developed to figure out how to play these games properly. Not even me, and I used to read lots of Choose Your Own Story books. I even did word puzzles and read dictionaries and encyclopedias for entertainment, once upon a time.

When home computers were so new that most of us could only use them by visiting the local shopping mall displays, Text Adventures (as they became known; back then, they were just called Adventure Games, because there wasn’t anything else, unless you wanted to play another round of Pong) were the hottest, smartest thing going.

They had it all; rich narrative, unparalleled audience participation, bleeding edge technology, and a cursor blinking patiently at you. It was the Shiny Future we’d been promised, only without the smelly jetpacks and funny boots and shoulder pads. Okay, well, we did get the boots and shoulder pads, but the kids who played these games didn’t wear those clothes. Much.

There was, however, a niggling little problem: most folks can’t read words on a flickering screen all day without headaches and fatigue from eye strain. I don’t have science to back me up on that one. Has anyone done a definitive study yet? Thing is, I’m not going to wait for research to back me up on this one; I’ve been hearing it for over a decade, now, from people who even consider themselves hardcore readers.

Writers, agents and editors (the only huamn beings capable of reading on screens for long stretches without going blind or mad) aren’t a representative sampling, because most of us aren’t any of the above.

Many of us DO work with computers, being stuck looking at a computer screen for most of our day. We definitely don’t want to go home and read a book, interactive or otherwise, on a computer screen all night. We at least want to be able to snuggle in our bed with a hot toddy and our favourite slash fic on our ex’s ‘missing/broken’ iPad.

The rest of us read our email, maybe read some of our chosen news feeds, perhaps update our Facebook and/or Twitter status, goof on City of Wonder for a few <slash>hours</slash> minutes, and get on with our day.

Now, with the proliferation of e-Ink in numerous eReaders (full colour e-Ink is coming! I can’t wait!), the problem of eye strain looking at a flashing screen is becoming a memory. If IF writers can harness that new technology, they may have a whole new lease on life. I actually look forward to that.

But one thing they’ll have to sort out is a proper delivery system, including an easy-to-navigate IF store. To my mind, that’s been the biggest problem IF has always faced. You can Google for the IF Archive like I did yesterday, but you’ll be confronted with index page after index page with arcane naming systems, no practical guide as to what’s new, hot, or recommended, and most of those are only usable in their native format by downloading more than one dickery little bit of software of dubious provenance.

Web-based delivery systems (like Undum) seem to be a good way to go, but again, how do you find new stories in an ever-growing virtual wilderness? Let’s be perfectly frank: if this genre is ever going to bloom and grow in the minds of the average reading audience, you’re going to have to make it a commercially-viable concern, to both support and promote IF books, which means some sort of IF Bookstore, and reviews and promotions and all the rest.

Not what an indie community is interested in hearing, I’m sure. But if you’re going to get distributed on eReaders, this seemingly-untapped market is inevitably going to create a void that somebody will rush to fill; best that it were the people who actually know how to write the things properly, right? You don’t want another Dreamcatcher on your hands, do you?

Now, I’m sure Amazon and iTunes will be there when it’s time, but independent IF writers are going to have a little bit of trouble getting behind big corporate machines after years of relative obscurity and Grail-like crusading. Plus, how are you going to get noticed by the established publishing review sites, if such a thing is even possible. Had PW ever given serious consideration to IF? I honestly don’t know.

So, yeah, IF has been stuck in a technological hole for decades, but there may yet be light at the end of the tunnel. Or is that the train?

(Graphical) Adventureboring gameplay; senseless puzzle logic:
Okay, AGs have been my not-so-secret S&M partner for some time now, and even I wrankle at the kinds of reviews ‘mainstream’ gaming sites tend to hand out to anything that dares to brandish the Point&Click banner.

However, they have a point. Point&Click works, yes, but it’s not as easy to get into as us diehard AGers liek to think. Sure, it mostly uses a two-button mouse system, which is pretty much ubiquitous, at least in the PC world*, but every game uses those two buttons differently, and not always as intuitively as one would imagine.

As well, more AGs these days are integrating mouse and keyboard controls, and there are more AGers willing to adapt than there were in the late 90s, when they first tried to implement such schemes. It has become so much more common, but it’s still not to everyone’s tastes.

I still hear some inveterate classic AGers argue that nothing is gained from 3D environments and realtime navigation. They still claim that 3D art isn’t as pretty. They say the controls still aren’t as intuitive. The figures aren’t as distinctive, or as believable. The animations aren’t as smooth. The lip synching is bad.

Actually, the list is endless. I’m not exaggerating. There are numerous threads on the AdventureGamers.com Forums, dedicated to exploring various facets of this timeless controversy.

Fortunately, the herd is thinning, as more AGers a learning to play newer iterations of 3D Adventure, Action-Adventure and MMORPG games and realising that it’s neither as difficult nor as immersion-breaking as they thought. It’s just Different.

But on the opposite side of the wall, there are plenty of ‘mainstream’ gamers who can’t help but see AGs as archaic, boring, slow, and worst of all, making absolutely no sense at all. AGers defend their turf by saying, “They just don’t get us. We’re a rare breed, us AGers. We’re the keepers of cryptic codes and diabolical challenges that require wit and savvy, rather than lightning-fast fingers. If the world were ever to be conquered by alien Sphinxes or time-travelling Knights Templar, we’d be all over it, Jack!”

Except that most gamers are much more concerned with the impending Zombie Apocalypse. Somehow, Puzzle Logic just doesn’t sound like a trait we’re going to need to fend off the ravenous hordes of unreasoning undead. In fact, being a great logician might put you first on the menu for discerning brain eaters.

Okay, silly point, but what I’m really trying to say is, the thing that keeps most folks away is the perfectly rational fear that they will have to A) Stop (first mistake), and B) make a cat fur moustache disguise or a rubber duck floatation device grappling device. You all know what I’m talking about, guys. We joke about it all the time, ourselves.

For every devillishly-clever Le Serpent Rouge riddle or mind-bogglingly tricky lock tumbler puzzle, there are ten puzzles where we knock together some ridiculous Rube Goldberg device to MacGuyver our way out of a tough spot, because using our bare hands or that small piece of metal shaped just right for the job didn’t sound MENSA-worthy. Puzzle Logic is loads of fun when you’re sailing the shores of Monkey Island. Puzzle Logic makes virtually no sense under most other circumstances. Don’t look at me like that; You know it’s the truth.

Think of how many folks, ourselves among them, who complained about the puzzles in games like Rama and Schizm. Those puzzles weren’t even completely illogical; they just didn’t make much sense. Compare that to some of the incredibly ‘inventive’ puzzles AG developers have been forced to devise for our highly-evolved brains over the years, and you start to see what has really kept people from coming in to join us; it’s the gorilla at the door.

That suits most of us just fine, though, doesn’t it? We’d rather be alone, anyway. Doesn’t matter that production budgets and technological innovations have left us in the dust, so long as we can play another George Stobbart rip-off done in 2.5D with cel shading to make it look like classic cartoon animation.

But we really shouldn’t brag about it. Clubhouses are only cool for those who had no better place to be.

Interactive Movievirtually no gameplay; incompatibility issues:
Ah, now here’s a bogeyman everyone can beat on without guilt, right? Action Gamers fall asleep, AGers can’t find the puzzles and IFers know for a fact that they’re not giving you any real choices. But were/are FMV games really all that bad?

Well, yes and no. As with all opinions, it’s pretty subjective. There are limitations in what FMV can offer by way of choice, because every decision gate requires detailed scripting, set building, costumes, acting and shooting; problems that automatically impact on your production budget. This pretty much means that, while you can get better virtual performances from the actors, you can’t really get them to do very much else, at least without breaking the bank or the immersion of the player, who will be in frequent disc changing mode.

All video games (including IF) require a great deal of forward planning, but with FMV, particularly in the past, the effort to tell a compelling and satisfying story usually meant many hours of filmed actors on a green screen set, requiring a great deal of scriptwriting and designwork to meet every contingency. Not as exhaustive as actually trying to location shoot or sound stage shoot every scene, but still, not something you can easily knock together using leftover college grant money.

Point is, they’re a pain in the keister to make, and they don’t offer any wiggle room for writers. At all. You need to have all of that scripting done pretty fast, which definitely doesn’t leave much room for improvising and rewrites. I don’t know much about how feature films pull it off, but I do know it has a lot to do with armies of experienced, hardworking people behind the scenes. Stuff you really can’t get for FMV games these days.

FMV used to have amazing budgets (by 1990s video game standards, at any rate), but they didn’t really have the world-building tools needed to make the environments as compelling as we can make them these days. And there definitely isn’t enough money in Adventure Games to justify big budget productions like that now.

There have actually been a few epic-scale indie FMV productions released recently, at least one of which had been in production for the better part of a decade. Big AG productions that take more than a couple of years to make rarely make it out of the door these days. There are plenty of recently-promoted games that have then vanished when the developer or distributor declared bankruptcy and locked their doors. So investing in a stagnant technology that has a tiny marketshare isn’t exactly on most game developers’ To Do lists.

But who cares about the people who finance and make the things; what about the people who actually play them? Or more to the point, what about those who choose not to?

Well, it may have something to do with the fact that, as time and technology have advanced, motion capture filming has evolved to the point where we don’t need to have live actors play out every scene to get a believable performance.

In fact, it works better if they shoot and archive scripted performance sequences under perfect studio conditions, from all conceivable angles at once, and then let the post-production team sample their performances without having to reshoot from different angles in different lighting later on.

They can also integrate the characters more fully into the digital scenery and allow the sets to be navigated three-dimensionally, so we’re no longer forced to watch awkwardly-zooming slideshows to get from one node to the next.

Also, the lighting and the specular effects are far more convincing than the green screen shots and dodgy studio lighting from fifteen years ago. So really, new 3D motion capture games wind up looking much more realistic. The player can get a greater sense of immersion and dramatic heft than they could from a fixed camera watching the players at a middle or long distance trying to perform against imaginary scenery, with variable results.

The power and level of conviction of the performances are all down to the actors and directors involved, regardless of which technology is used. But modern digital motion capture techniques open up the sets more and offer more options for cameras and movement, in any given environment. This makes it possible to do a great deal more with these performances than was possible when actors were standing amidst stage props arranged carefully in front of a green backdrop.

Finally, because it’s recorded digitally instead of on film, the requirements of storage, manipulation and transmission change radically. No need for time-consuming film-to-digital transfers and messy integration, because everything is digital from start to finish. No weird artifacts or funny lighting problems to account for. You only have to look at gameplay vids of L.A. Noire on YouTube to see what I mean.

And with games being distributed on DVD or Blu-Ray, and especially with Direct-to-Hard Drive DLC distribution, changing CDs with nearly every scene change is a thing of the past.

But what about the old complaint about ‘Interactive Movies’ being an oxymoron? Well, that’s more a matter of taste. The problem is, people compare the performances and production values unfavourably to classic Cinema, the stories disparagingly compared to classics of English Literature, as if these are a proper basis for comparison.

If folks wanted a GOOD story, they’d read a book or watch a movie, right? Interactive Movies are boring as games, and are hopeless in achieving the dramatic weight or elegant contruction of purer storytelling mediums, and should basically give up.

To which I say bollocks. Every new storytelling medium starts out being unfavourably compared to the more established media that preceded it. Many of those more-successful media cohabitate admirably well now, but if you go back far enough, you’ll see that they all grew to maturity despite aggressively-smug resistance. The ancient forms were born of blood, fire and death.

So take these minor critiques with a grain of salt. Just keep doing it until it clicks, or until a better method comes along. And be smart; nobody changed the world by pushing a rock up a hill. Figure out which way gravity works best and aim thataway. Just aim for spaces that need more rocks.

As for the venerable Interactive Movie of the 90s: well, it’s a delightful throwback, but it probably won’t resurge in its original FMV incarnation. It’s just not as technologically adaptable as we’ve become accustomed to since then.

But it certainly doesn’t invalidate the Interactive Movie form as a whole. The delivery system is the key here; as the rapid delivery of bigger packets of digital information becomes more feasible, greater possibilities open up. As home entertainment branches and evolves from the basic channel clicker to more feature-rich universal remotes and almost-ubiquitous game controllers and keyboards for modern gaming consoles, getting everyone playing together in front of the television, actually taking part in the evening’s entertainment won’t seem nearly as alien. People already play Super Mario Kart together. We just need more immersive, dynamic Interactive Movies, to successfully unseat television programs or movie rental/purchases as the only means of enjoying a good visual stories together.

They’re coming. I can feel it.

____________________

Okay, I’m gonna cut it here and start up the rest of the next section (FYI: Roleplaying Games) in the following post, which hopefull won’t be over a week from now. Thanks for your patience. Enjoy.

And as always, please feel free to comment if you have an objection or addition to make. I’ve never claimed to be an expert. Just a geek with too much to say on the subject.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2011 5:39 pm

    * I like the Mighty Mouse, but it still bugs me having to remember which key to simultaneously press to get the menu that right clicking gets you with a PC mouse. I’m typing this on an old Mac G4 PowerBook, and I’m using a Logitech mouse; works just fine, which leads me to the argument, what’s the big deal, anyway? That’s a rant for another day, though.

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