25 – I Miss “Interactive Movies”

For a dude who’s been playing videogames since he was a toddler, and who’s been writing about them since he was, oh, 19 or so, I have only the vaguest idea of what NeoGAF is, exactly. It’s some sort of forum, as far as I can tell, related to videogames. I have my share of friends who hang out there and post there; all of them have told me, “Yeah, it’s kinda really hardcore in there,” and since the only game-related groups I’ve ever spent much time are 1) the forums related to AllRPG.com, where I was a staffer when I was in college and 2) the Electron Dance comments threads, where you can see me posting longwinded rants in an effort to make Joel Goodwin slowly go insane (it’s working), it hasn’t bothered me that I haven’t been posting there.

I saw this particular post on Twitter, and I find its premise extremely flawed. Essentially, “videotape” is complains that “modern games try so hard to funnel a player down the single ‘win’ condition rather than providing multiple options for success”. Of the games he lists, I’ve only played Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider; while I can speak more accurately for Infinite since I only made it a few hours into Tomb Raider before returning it, insulted, we all know the exact style of game he’s talking about. You go through a corridor, you shoot dudes, you see a cutscene, you click on a Thing to solve a “puzzle”–videogames as mindless autotuned pop.

‘tape mentions games like the original Deus Ex, games which “encouraged finding one of multiple solutions to solve the problem”; another member posts a flowchart of a single level in the game, one which shows an intricate web of possible routes through the level and which admits that it’s not even taking into account lethal vs nonlethal kills, turret hacks, and a lot of other options. Or, to put it more comparatively, this image which has been floating around on the internet for a while:

BITmX

It is hard to deny that Bioshock Infinite was neither fun nor challenging because that was my extremely correct opinion on the game–and yet, to say this is a modern trend vs. old-school games which were free and open–that’s fallacious as shit, or one which at least ignores a lot of issues surrounding Gaming Today. Tomb Raider is a Rihanna song–it’s Extruded Videogame Product. It’s not intended to be interesting–it’s intended to be Pretty and Exciting. Just like, you know, Uncharted, which won many GOTYs and whose level design was decidedly NOT 1993. To suggest that Deus Ex was played by the same types of people who played Tomb Raider is to have some very silly ideas. To say that modern games are one-note is to ignore games like Dark Souls or all of those weird light Roguelikes that I’ve been playing a lot of lately (Rogue Legacy, Cargo Commander, Diehard Dungeon). Look, I know exactly why all of my friends have been suggesting I leave the console world behind for the PC world, and I love that I have. But those kinds of games are still out there.

But let’s take this from a different angle–in a comment that’s more or less ignored, “Syril” says the following: “You think that’s bad, try playing some old adventure games.”

There’s a recognized term for “funneling the player so that he/she picks the only right solution which is the only way to proceed in the game”: Guess the Verb. The term goes back to the 1980s, to the days of interactive fiction and graphical adventure games with parsers. In a parser-based game, you’re typing in your commands in. Nouns are usually a lot easier, particularly in a text adventure: Nouns are anything you can see, anything you can interact with, and as such are concretely listed in the room description (“You can see a Rope here.”) [In early graphical games, due to low resolutions and colors, guessing nouns is more common: Who knows *what* that blob of pixels was? Roberta Williams was many, many things; a great visual artist was not one of them.] Verbs are what you do to them–the possible actions you can take in a game.

Due to their well-deserved prominence, Infocom’s parser is considered the standard for text adventure/interactive fiction games; Inform, one of the most common, easiest-to-use, and most flexible Interactive Fiction languages, is a direct descendant. A standardized syntax is important: Unless you’re making some kind of artistic point, you don’t want your players wasting their time figuring out the basics of communicating with your game. You want them wrestling with your puzzles. And so there’s a general list of “accepted” verbs in IF games; type “about” upon starting nearly any one and you’ll get them listed out, or you can let Andrew Plotkin explain it. Note the note at the bottom: “Every game has slightly different commands, but they all look pretty much like these.” (bold original).

These are standard commands; there are many, many games which expand this list. Many times it’s logical: You’re in a car, you’re going to type DRIVE. Some games have special verbs as part of their general design–magic spells are common. Sometimes, a particular verb is the solution to a puzzle or riddle–here’s Jonas Kyratzes talking about this kind of puzzle in Adam Cadre’s Photopia.

It’s the last case where the term Guess the Verb is used pejoratively. I did not have a problem with the puzzle in Photopia when I first played the game because Cadre gradually sprinkles in clues, nudges, and ultimately outright suggestions about what to do. In another scene in the game, you’re tasked with giving someone CPR–with another character coaching you on exactly what to type. (And if you mess it up, that character will run in and do it for you.) But Photopia is one of the masterpieces of the form; far more common is for a lesser designer to hide a puzzle solution behind an obscure verb and ONLY that verb. You have a rope and a hook. TIE ROPE doesn’t work. USE ROPE doesn’t work. PUT ROPE ON HOOK doesn’t work. At that point you’ve exhausted your thoughts and gone to a walkthrough, if it’s available; what you were supposed to type was ATTACH ROPE. A good designer would code the game so it would accept all of those and more; and yet, designers aren’t psychic and they’re not all good. Guess the Verb is a problem–it is usually a source of unpleasant frustration for players.

The 80s came and went and everyone began to have a mouse attached to their computer. Games at the beginning of this period–King’s Quest IV is a perfect example–often used the mouse as a supplementary tool, but by the time KQ5 rolled around, point-and-click adventures featured a set of verbs–either icons, as in Sierra’s games, or words, as in many of Lucasarts’–that you would select one from and then choose an area of the world to perform that action on. The effect was to eliminate or downplay Guess the Verb. Now, players certainly had their share of ways to get stuck. In many cases, there was only one specific item or action which needed to be used or performed on one specific object; the larger the gameworld, the more likely the player will miss what to do. The efforts to alleviate player frustration were certainly successful…but not completely. Further refinements to the formula included the “do anything” cursor. I first saw this in King’s Quest 7, and I remember how furious my friend and I were at it because of the implied simplicity: In effect, this makes the game pick the default action *for* you.

Now, in practice, the “do anything” cursor has turned out to be one of the greatest innovations to the adventure game formula. Once developers got used to designing games for the innovation, we as a society found out that most of the alternate cursors were completely irrelevant. Space Quest IV features “smell” and “taste” icons, which do little more than provide jokes or flavor text–fine and funny, but also unnecessary clutter. In its current form, the standard is something like a left click to control movement and actions and a right click to examine objects.

Well, verbs and puzzles have an intimate relationship, and advances in one affect advances in the other. But adventure games have always been about story as much as they have been about puzzles. As the genre went on, developers began to want to create games which at least attempted to have deeper stories–and, in a logical conclusion, which downplayed the puzzles.

It’s the very early 90s; we’re still a sprite-based society. Computers and consoles can’t really handle polygons, or if they can it’s extremely simple and basic. But CD-ROM drives are beginning to be a Thing. Computers could handle full motion video adequately if not well, and the storage space that CDs allowed meant that grainy, oft-interlaced footage of actual actors was simply what PC games looked like. Thus, the Interactive Movie was born. But, as I’ve said, not all designers are good, and for every Gabriel Knight II we got five Double Switches. Budgets weren’t huge–and again, the tech was only adequate. The term is used almost exclusively pejoratively today–usually to imply that the game is low on interactivity and that the movie portion is poorly acted and poorly written.

I would submit that if we were to reclaim the term, the scene might make a little more sense.

“Videogame” is not a signifier of quality, much as the Twine crowd would have you believe.  It is a categorization, and I would submit that many of the games mentioned in the NeoGAF post might not *actually* be videogames. Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are much more interested in presenting their stories and their worlds than they are with giving the players interesting things to do. All of the “Press X to comfort Elizabeth” moments in Infinite are less player actions than they are cutscene triggers. The game portions are ways of pacing the storyline and opportunities to flesh out the physical world of Columbia. Bioshock Infinite is perhaps the worst videogame I have played all year.

But…if we consider it as an interactive movie? If we consider it as a storyline that we get to wander around in and participate in?

Considered as a world to explore, a set of challenges, a bunch of opportunities for action and decision–considered as a videogame–Bioshock Infinite is a horrible, arrogant mess. We are grabbed by the head as Levine shouts his brilliant plot points to us. When I play a videogame, I want that videogame to shut the fuck up and let me play. Considered as an interactive movie–a story with limited, delineated player agency–it might actually be a much stronger work.

I’m in danger of Formalism here, but I don’t think it’s wrong to categorize the entertainment that we consume if it helps us understand that entertainment better. The trick is to figure out what the most common verbs that the game gives you. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, the most common verbs in the game were “shoot” and “sit back, light a joint, and watch Elizabeth talk and do things.” For a videogame, Bioshock infinite has a lot of time where you don’t actually get to *play*.

I miss the term “Interactive Movie”. I’ve been gearing up to reclaim it for a while, and I think it’s time. We’ve got polygons and we can make these things look *actually* good. Let’s just admit that that’s what we’re making, that what we think of as “videogames” is maybe not this all-encompassing entity that we desperately want it to be, but that we’re dealing with a lot of disparate media that just happen to share the same DNA.

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8

A lot of my problem with Tim Burton stems from my impression that artists who are really into Tim Burton tend to be fairly sadistic. Say what you will–Burton is, at this point, no different from that hipster couple that you hang out with getting stoned and making videos to put on YouTube, except he has a budget and international distribution–at his best, the man knew how to empathize with freaks. You know the exact type of person I mean when I talk about Burton fans though: I’ve been friends with many of them, and there’s a brokenness to them that is quite legitimately comforted by his films. Jack Skellington can be a horrible and alienating Santa…or he can be the best goddamn Hallowe’en King. Ed Wood makes horrible movies…but the companionship and sense of purpose it gives to these people outweigh everything. Edward Scissorhands cannot stay in the suburbs…but it’s taught him the values of beauty and love, and he’s changed Winona Ryder’s character forever.

But I find this follows into a sadism which bothers me. I’ve been in too many conversations where the phrase “the normals” is bandied about, and this is with people over the age of 25. It is a very odd defensive slur, especially considering it’s so ill-defined. It’s the kind of phrase you hear uttered by a young woman with a lot of piercings, wearing an inexpensive but not cheap dress, not quite kinderwhore but close enough, possibly bipolar and chainsmoking in a Jersey diner at 2 in the morning fresh from her shift at a theme restaurant off of Route 17, sitting across from her boyfriend, tall and big and bullish, buzzed hair, gauged ears and a nose ring, wearing a thrift store Army jacket, tattoos all over his arms, some cheap and some nicer, some done by friends, a cup of coffee in his hand–said to refer to, well, women who work in offices and wear mom jeans at 27 and drive minivans and aren’t quite ready for children but are finding themselves getting sloppy with the pill and debating every month whether to not even bother renewing the prescription this time, living in a house in Wayne a couple miles from their parents–they grew up on the same block, she’s two years older than he is, they always knew each other although their parents weren’t more than casual neighbors and they had no friends in common, only started hanging out about six or seven years ago when they found themselves to be regulars at this very diner, saying hello to each other as they walked past to join their own friends, once finding themselves at the giant booth when both of them were in diner groups that had a common member and decided to consolidate but on opposite sides of the table and unable to conveniently do more than vaguely check each other out, and finally one night, after her shift, stopping by and grabbing a table by herself because she didn’t see anyone she particularly felt like sitting with and enjoying the book she was reading, she saw him walk in and sit at the counter and decided she didn’t enjoy the book she was reading that much and asked him to join her and things pretty much progressed as you would expect and soon after they stopped going to the diner–he working somewhere in The City, driving a nice car, listening to Z100 and reading Dan Brown and no tattoos, no piercings, watching whatever movies came out that weekend no matter what, just being…well, normal. As they would never be.

Perhaps that’s what bothers me about Don Hertzfeldt, because, shit, his stuff is awesome, but he kind of hates his characters. They exist as little line drawings to torture. Invader Zim’s also bothered me for this reason–there’s little to love. It creates a cast of freaks–and then spends its time punishing them

I once went to a live interview that the local bookstore put on, John Waters had written a new book, Role Models, and the interviewer, I don’t remember who it was, asked how Waters felt about reality TV, given that its trashiness would seem right up Waters’s alley. Surprisingly, Waters said he found it horrible. He loves trashiness and he loves freaks, and the intent of his movies is to show you these people and make you laugh not to mock them, but because you find them so enjoyably themselves that it’s delightful. Reality TV intends you to laugh at the people–to feel a sense of schadenfreude. Pity, even. If there is one thing you can say about Waters’s movies, it’s that you can’t pity anyone in them, and so they oddly enough retain their dignity.

Little Inferno does the same trick that games like Cargo Commander do–it takes a genre, in this case sandbox simulation a la Doodle God. You’re given a fireplace and a catalog, and a little money, and you begin to order items to burn in your fireplace, with the standard progression where that unlocks more stuff to buy and more catalogs under different themes. And you get bonuses for burning combinations of items together–like, burning some popcorn and a television gives you a Movie Night combo. About half of the available combinations are required to beat the game, and you’re given a list with fairly broad hints from the start, with the added mercy that it highlights the particular combinations available to you at any moment.

There are plenty of games like that, and there’s enough of a quirkiness in just this to justify itself. The various objects you get to burn, their animations, the flavor text, it’s actually a kind of decent Satire of Consumerism, and as traditional of a theme as that is, there is a perverse pleasure in burning things, and everything is pretty funny–the sound design in particular is marvelous: You end up wanting to buy and burn items just because you want to hear the sounds they make.

Literally the very first item you can buy is a Little Inferno Collector Poster which reminds you that it “may lose value when burned”, and yet this is the opposite of the truth–burning an item releases a few more coins than it cost to make, and so it’s a very obvious example of capitalism feeding itself. An item is desired, it’s purchased, it’s used up, a more expensive item is desired and the cycle repeats until you buy the last item possible which is, quite literally, a miniature sun.

Okay, so that’s done, a $2.99 iPhone app that warns you against the evils of corporate greed, one which perhaps might have been more effective if it had contained particularly useless in app purchases but one lauds the developers for resisting. There is an extremely obvious place for them to have done so. When you order an item from the catalogue, it takes a fixed amount of time in order to arrive. You can collect stamps and spend them in order to skip the delivery time. It would have been extremely simple to sell packages of stamps. But that’s not the case, and in fact the game is extremely carefully balanced–the systems are designed to pace the player rather than to frustrate him. It’s generous with the stamps, for one–you get a few every time you find a combination, I believe whenever you burn a new item, hell, the game kind of just doles them out to you whenever the hell it feels like it. And the times aren’t severely long–towards the end of the game they average around two minutes, and that miniature sun takes six. After a little while, you pick up some tricks as far as staggering deliveries goes, and you usually have enough stamps to speed up nearly every delivery.

Once you pick up on that, I think you begin to get a sense that Little Inferno respects the player’s time–it’s not trying to trick me or anything. And that makes me a lot receptive to its message. The game exists for something more than to simply sell me something.

But for a while, what it appears to be isn’t that interesting, and it’s the reason I spent all that ink on Tim Burton earlier.  Most of the narrative is told through the form of letters you receive–some from the company, some weather reports, and some letters from a very disturbed girl who claims to be your neighbor. She is, disappointingly, your typical girl-with-a-knife cliche, and when the woman from the company sends you a video about the fireplace, and you note that the animation style is extremely Oyster Boy–well you can be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a cynical piece. You begin to learn why fireplaces are becoming the most popular toy, and the game begins to make it clear that, no, this isn’t a simple fireplace simulator. You’re controlling an avatar who is putting these things into the fireplace.

I’ve said that all games are about Nirvana; eventually Little Inferno ends not by punishing its freaks but by redeeming them. For its last few minutes it offers transcendence so complete that it changes genres entirely. What happens when you get everything you ever dreamed for, one character asks, and immediately answers the question: You dream bigger dreams. Are you worried it’s implying you need to consume more? Hardly. The entire end sequence is devoted towards characters suggesting that happiness is found not through products but by determining your own path.

A cliche theme, yes–but look at where Little Inferno looks like it’s headed. Your neighbor gets a little too interested in the fire and says she’s going to experiment with something–and suddenly everything shakes and rubble falls down your chimney and you find out from a letter that her house burned down and that she’s dead. Consumption, in this game, is a literal fire which can be beautiful, can be entertaining, can bring you profit, and most importantly can bring you warmth–but most horribly, can and probably will destroy you. The game could have ended there, and you know what, I’m shocked it didn’t because, I mean, how many other games end that way? Consumption is horrible–but it’s also unavoidable.

Why I love Little Inferno is that it suggests that solutions exist for transcending this cycle of desire and suffering. In no way are they easy and in no way is there a roadmap, but they are worth it. They are what makes life worth living. We find out that the neighbor is alive and well and on a beach and has begun to write in less troubling speech patterns. And you end up on a hot air balloon towards an uncertain future.

And so perhaps it is just as well that the game features no in-app purchases and is not endless. Throughout the game, characters harp on fire being fun to play with–but only in your Little Inferno fireplace. To play with fire anywhere else inside your home is to court disaster. Consumption, then, might not be horrible in and of itself–but it must be carefully kept within boundaries. You can enjoy a tree of items and dozens of combinations and all of that, but after a little while, you need to go and do something else.

Now turn off the computer and go to sleep.