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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