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Who Needs Interactivity?
by Mark Filipowich on 11/28/13 10:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Jake Rodkin, a developer and writer who worked on The Walking Dead: Season One, compared the much lauded series to Twine games at the Practice Conference in New York earlier this month, saying that “Walking Dead is basically the world’s most expensive Twine game.” The statement makes sense. As important as the voice acting and art direction are to the game, its core appeal is in the text. It is a well-written game. The reason that people play it is because of how good the writing is and most of its other design elements serve to reinforce the writing. However, games in the Twine scene, regardless of what they accomplish, are met with considerable backlash because they (pause for dramatic effect) lack interactivity (Eric Swain, “The Many Forks in the Road of Twine”, PopMatters, 11 June 2013). Interactivity defines games. Video games are interactive video improv theatre; a developer creates a stage and the player acts upon it. This breed of conventional thinking has been driven to the point that games like The Walking Dead or those made with twine are being disowned by gamers because—in spite of their brilliance or power—they don’t look enough like other video games.

Now, it isn’t accurate that visual novels or Twine games lack interactivity, but they often include an author’s voice—and not as a mark of shame—and they are less likely geared to indulging or satisfying their player than a triple A release might. Shifting focus away from the player often makes these games less interactive, or at least the interactions that they do offer are the kind that mainstream audiences are unused to or comfortable with. On the other hand, it is very difficult to make a text-based game feel bloated with arbitrary interactivity in the way that more expensive games often are. Triple-A games love the player, perhaps a little too much, and dote on them like a spoiled child. There’s a growing cult of the player, one that demands that every moment that the player is not acting is a wasted moment. Players must continue to interact, even when it doesn’t make any sense.

Sometimes the biggest failing of a video game is being too much like a video game. For all the talk about video games being a brand new phenomenon that has only just been discovered, there are a number of concrete elements that make them easy to categorize. A lot of people (and not just those that play games) just know what a boss is, what a collectible is, what EXP, HP, and mana do, can recognize a health bar or the advantages of melee vs ranged characters. They understand achievements, class systems, mini-games, fetch quests, and escort missions (oh my!). These things have recurred enough times to be recognizable videogame-isms. Taken alone, there’s nothing good or bad about any of them, but defining games by the presence of these elements hurts them. Sometimes not all of these things need to be in a game. Sometimes all of them need to be absent and forcing them to fit an understood cultural criterion of “video game” tarnishes the final product.

A game like Remember Me is supposed to be a speculative fiction about the corporatization of the human mind, but in all its effort to be a video game, it undermines the only things that are interesting about it (Leigh Harrison, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul or How Remember Me undermines its story to be a video game”, As Houses, 8 September 2013).

Similarly, a game like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a beautiful looking and imaginative adaptation of a classical Chinese novel. The voice acting is incredible, environments are cleverly designed, and the world lore is elegantly woven into the plot. It was designed to “change the course of gaming in terms of storytelling” (Tom Hoggins, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West creators interview”, The Telegraph, 5 October 2010.), and three years later, it’s clear that the course of gaming in terms of storytelling has remained exactly the same. In fact, Enslaved stays pretty tight to the course because, despite the wonderful work of epic fiction it clearly wants to be, it fails as it clings to the understood signifiers of video games.

The player isn’t given enough credit to focus on the characters and their common journey in a beautiful but hostile world. Instead, they’re forced into micro-interactions that make Enslaved more of a game but less of a meaningful experience. The game’s main concern is stringing along simple and consistent objectives. Collect the orange orbs, use the orbs to level up, level up to improve combat ability, improve combat ability to fight more efficiently, and collect orange orbs from fallen enemies. These activities are just distractions to keep the player’s attention long enough to proceed. Without them, Enslaved might stand a better chance of filling its plot holes and smoothing out its bumpy character arcs—it might more accurately reach its point—but that would mean removing the player from the experience by several degrees. It would mean taking away coin collecting and leveling up, which are good ways to keep a player busy and reminding them that they’re playing a video game.

Many games would be markedly improved by limiting the player’s influence on their surroundings. Some games are about a lack of power or are trying to communicate something that can’t be illustrated by the player directly influencing their environment (Mattie Brice, “Death of the Player”, Alternate Ending, 29 October 2013). For all the success of the Modern Warfare franchise, its most powerful moments—observing a nuclear strike at ground zero, watching a revolution as the old regime’s leader en route to execution, reeling from an ambush while squadmates are picked off one at a time, attacking unarmed civilians to stay undercover—are defined by how little the player can do. Limiting interactivity does not make a game less of a game, especially when the limitations are appropriate. Often just occupying the space provided is enough and adding more levels of input don’t improve a work just because, well, every other game has them. Interaction is meaningless without a purpose.

Even when a story emerges from a system, it can only mean something when context is given by an authorial voice (Nick Dinicola, “The Problem with Emergent Stories in Video Games”, PopMatters, 30 July 2013.). Player agency has its place, but there is a growing tendency to place it above everything else. Yes, games require interactivity, but increasing the amount of interactivity doesn’t make it more of a game, especially when the interactivity doesn’t offer anything for the game itself.

If the player must collect coins, level up, or unlock new equipment to continue, it must be obvious why and it must reinforce an argument that the game is trying to make. The fact that most games have combos or health bars or any enemies at all is not reason enough for the next one to have them. Sometimes all the player needs to do is sit with the game at the margins with only the loosest grasp on the narrative. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a story about armed survivors gaining experience against an endless supply of enemies. The premise provides fertile ground for traditional game design, but the developers revolutionized the medium by using that premise to tell a story through conversations that the player could only occasionally influence. Telltale made a big-budget Twine game, and players are right to applaud them for it.


Originally posted on PopMatters.

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Joshua Darlington
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I agree that an emphasis on theme over genre could improve game narratives.

I think there is a lot of room to add player authorship to emergent games, especially through social space. Other players can access the unique gameplay situation and offer emergent authorship based on the referential totality of the real world. This allows for greater richness of experience, even if something is lost by using amatuer content instead of premium expert content - priming the collaboration with the players would be the new narrative design paradigm.

RJ McManus
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I think this article conflates two different things: interactivity and player agency. I don't really think that a game can have too much interactivity (unless it just becomes a mere distraction for the player), but some games do suffer from making the player the exclusive source of agency in the game world, the only one who can effect change. For many kinds of narratives it's important to have other characters who appear as equal competitors to the player in terms of agency, and to have a world that isn't solely shaped by the player (though for some genres this is desired). Once you add competing sources of agency into the game, you have the essentials for directed/embedded or emergent narrative. Gamification can indeed detract from narrative, but that's different from simply adding interactive elements to the game.

Luis Guimaraes
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Exactly, Reactivity is not Interactivity. In fact except for multiplayer, most games rather Reactive – player has agency and Acts – or Active – player has no agency and just Reacts. True interaction will need more than that.

Robert Green
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That's a really useful distinction, having just played Gone Home. If you're in the "a videogame is a series of interesting decisions" camp, then Gone Home barely qualifies as a game. But it's undeniably interactive - the player remains in control the entire time and nothing happens in the game without the player interacting with something. Interestingly, the amount of interactivity - i.e. you can inspect almost everything - makes the world feel more real than most games, despite your lack of agency, and this in turn makes the narrative more interesting.

Amir Barak
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Which part made it feel more real, copy/pasted pen no.6 or copy/pasted pen no. 102?

I think Gone Home is actually a classic example of shoehorning a story into a game's trapping. Sure it's an interactive experience but it's not a game. Most things are interactive to a point if all it takes is a generic action which drives the crafted narrative forwards (heck, you need to interact with a book by turning the pages in order to see what happens next, is that a game?). Interactivity is not, in and of itself, a defining quality of a game. It can't be. It's merely a single component. See also a staring competition, obviously a game but has no interactivity.

To take the book analogy a bit further, you can inspect every word, look at the cover and even close your eyes and pretend you're talking to the characters. Still doesn't make it a game. Add a goal however, like, take a shot every time the main character says something stupid and try to survive to the end and *boom* you got a game (a simple game mind you but a game).

Player agency, goals, challenges and meaningful layers of interactivity define a game. Not just the ability to press a button to move from point A to point B.

RJ McManus
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If interactivity and game status are two different things, then the question is which of those should play a central role in defining the medium; "gameness" has traditionally taken precedence. Personally I prefer "interactive systems" as constituting the core of the medium (which is a somewhat more inclusive definition), and "game" is just one of many potential states than can emerge from those systems (and "story" is yet another, which can of course occur in other media as well). To bring this more back on-topic, I don't think you can purge interactive systems without losing the essence of the medium; agency is another matter entirely, however, and its distribution should be tailored to the purposes of each particular system (to restate my initial post in different terms).

Robert Green
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To a large degree, I think you're right Amir, but I also think that to a large degree it doesn't matter. I think playing through Gone Home, even if your interactions are largely reducible to turning the next page in a story, is still more enjoyable in this form than it would be to merely have someone tell you that story. Perhaps in an Oculus VR it would be even more so, though in our current devkit you probably couldn't read a lot of the notes.

I get what you're saying about the pens, though I think in context you're underselling it. To contrast, right now I'm playing through Bioshock Infinite, which also has a world that's interesting to just explore in, but the majority of it is static. Booker can't pick up that pen, or anything else that isn't ammo/food/salts, and he can't initiate dialogue with the majority of the people in the world. It's fairly obvious that, like in many games, nothing is interactive unless it serves some purpose, whereas in Gone Home, I can pick up Sam's stegosaurus toy and try to throw it through her basketball hoop for no good reason. Call me crazy, but that seems more realistic.

Michael Joseph
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The limited interactivity and focus on story telling just means I can get the story by watching someone else play.

On the question of whether this story would have been as compelling if it were a completely non interactive film/video.. maybe. If they filmed it Blair Witch \ Paranormal Activity style it might still have been able to achieve that voyeuristic reality series effect which I think is key to it's success.

So when there's not a lot of game in the game it's difficult to argue that games suffer by a lack of focus on story. Walking Dead is interactive fiction and once this is accepted this controversy and confusion just goes away. On the other hand, can interactive fiction suffer from too much player agency? Absolutely.

Alex Covic
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[just a minor note, if I may]

"Cinéma vérité" has nothing to do with the flashy Blair Witch/PA type.

The filmmakers of post-war Italy (Neorealismo) and the French followers in the 1960s wanted to capture the mundane reality, not invoke "mystery" at all. A wide angle shot of a car passing by. An interior closeup of a woman opening a window. The "non"-studio set was the key. "Living" reality and contemporary lives of "real" people. It was a historic moment in cinema.

You can get the "voyeuristic" type of "reality" by most artificial means. Hitchcock's Rear Window or Vertigo are perfect examples.

Btw, the English Wikipedia article on "Cinéma vérité" is rather poor, to say it nicely. And it is telling that there is no French version of that page on that topic.

Dane MacMahon
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This is really about two different player-bases wanting different things. As someone who would list Deus Ex and Morrowind among my top five games of all time this article is a bit WHAT? However for many others it would make perfect sense.

In the end "gaming" is a super eclectic atmosphere right now and there is no rule or standard on most things.

Sam Derboo
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It's always weird for me to see The Walking Dead praised in a way like this, cause it has a lot of sequences where you do other things than chosing dialog lines, and all of them are terrible.

The problem really is that a story is about a conflict or challenges or problems to overcome, and in a game where the player takes control over the protagonist, I feel like the problems of the protagonist should become the problems of the player in some way. In some instances this can be achieved by simply making the player care about the story and dig deeper - like Gone Home does so beautifully. But Gone Home tells a very specific kind of story, where the only challenge for the protagonist is simply to uncover a story that happened before the game begins. The setting of The Walking Dead inevitably leads to a lot of physical challenges for the protagonist that need to have some physical dimension for the player. A simple multiple choice prompt between "bash the Zombie's head in with a hammer" and "die" just wouldn't work. That said, I don't think the solution in "The Walking Dead" is much better, because it's all just so clunky and feels so disconnected from the rest of the experience.

Josh Foreman
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I'm not a stickler for definitions and I don't care to try to create an artificial box for categorizing what is and is not a game. But I'd like to point out that this piece contains an underlying premise that I think is illustrated by these quotes:

"In fact, Enslaved stays pretty tight to the course because, despite the wonderful work of epic fiction it clearly wants to be, it fails as it clings to the understood signifiers of video games."

"For all the success of the Modern Warfare franchise, >>>its most powerful moments<<<—observing a nuclear strike at ground zero, watching a revolution as the old regime’s leader en route to execution, reeling from an ambush while squadmates are picked off one at a time, attacking unarmed civilians to stay undercover—are defined by how little the player can do. "
(emphasis mine)

"Interaction is meaningless without a purpose."

Clearly, people are drawn to videogames for a variety of reasons. The first two quotes tell me that Mark is drawn to linear edited stories. And thus, the more prominent they are, and less impeded by game 'signifies', the more powerful the experience is for him. And I believe that ties into the last quote concerning meaning. For Mark, meaning is derived in a large degree (perhaps exclusively?) from the linear edited story aspects of a game. What I would point out is that others find a great deal of meaning by interacting with procedural systems, challenging themselves and others in tests of abstract skill, etc. Mark's powerful experiences with the games he references were far less powerful for me, because I do not derive much (or any?) meaning from the linear edited stories found in games.

If the point of the piece is to say that interactivity is not an unquestionable good in every way in a videogame, I'll refer to the above comments about conflating interactivity and agency. If the goal is to persuade readers that games ought to evolve into less interactive, more linear edited story focused artifacts, I would try to persuade him that there is certainly room in the big tent of 'games' (whatever that means) for that sort of thing, but because it does subvert the artform of gaming (something established not in arbitrarily constructed signifies that have developed over the past 30 years mentioned in the piece, but rooted in human psychology and enacted in every civilization since pre-history) in so many radical ways, it is destined to be a subgenre, not 'the future'.