Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Watched it?

One of the topics du jour (and it's been a very long jour) centres around the idea of handing control to the player: rather than removing the player from the game, relegating her as a passive bystander whilst a cut-scene/cinematic plays out, devs are attempting to allow the player to create her own outcomes.

First problem here is that the player probably isn't a brilliant storyteller; ergo, give her free reign and she might not come up with something as emotive as a good writer.
Would she rather accept an amount of passiveness in order to be fully moved, or would she prefer to do her own thing at the expense of a memorable experience?
In the Aeris' death climax, the player is allowed to navigate to Aeris (choked), and then to fight the Jenova creature. Both outcomes are fixed, but the player is given the illusion of free will for a time. However, give her the choice of whether to fight or not, or whether to give Aeris the watery send off or not, and there's a chance that the most powerful emotional topography will be defiled... unless her actions, whatever they are, lead to an equally powerful, albeit different, resolution. And there's problem two: in this case, the writer still controls the narrative flow, but now has to create lots of narratives. A game like Mass Effect, where the player is allowed to make many important decisions, is really presenting the player with hundreds of narratives, each one controlled, and the player simply hops along a complex hierarchy of predefined plot points.

Problem three is simple, and is connected to problem one: If you allow the player to define her character through the choices she is making, this needs to be reflected in the consistency of the outcomes. If you've prepared a scene in which the character must rescue a child from the clutches of a beast, but have allowed the player to define her character as a child-hating coward, then all credibility is lost. (Reminds me of the 'Is character plot?' debate :o)

The latest Mystery Case Files game, The Thirteenth Skull, had a stab at a solution. I knew it was coming: I had been chatting with our Producer about some of the techniques I was planning to use in M4, and we touched upon NPC (Non-Player Character) interaction. She suggested that there would be interesting developments in this area anon. I was all excited, wondering how the mighty MCF team would handle this multiple-thorned problem. The results were ultimately disappointing.
Player interacts with NPC through dialogue box; player selects one of three questions; NPC answers question; player asks next two questions; NPC answers them too; fourth question appears in dialogue box; player asks it; NPC answers it; next stage is unlocked.
None of the choices make any difference to the immediate outcome, or even give the illusion of doing so. Furthermore, the only real choice the player could make was in which order to ask the first three questions, and the order in which they were selected was irrelevant.
In a standard cut-scene, the player is entitled to press the skip button in order to progress rapidly through the scene, or to skip it entirely. Thirteenth Skull's approach to NPC interaction appears to me to be little more than a substitute skip: player has to negotiate their way from one end of the cut-scene to the other, and does so by clicking lines of dialogue, rather than clicking on a skip button.
Still, the idea of masking mechanics does appeal and I have a selection of doves secreted inside my own pants...

Will likely undress this iceberg some more very soon.

In the meantime, here's Agro's death from Shadow of the Colossus.
Note the valedictory buck, a brilliantly subtle movement, which transforms the scene from a simple death to an act of sacrifice!

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