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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For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.