Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Forget the Gameplay

It's one of those topics I've been garnering bravado for... so let's jump back in with the controversy du jour...

Does the name Simon Parkin ring any bells?
How about Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception?

Have a look.

Isn't it strange: all these decades in, and we're still arguing about the amount of interactivity that is desirable in a game. Mid-way between the movie and the game is the interactive movie. Games, by all definitions (that I've read, and that's quite a few), must offer the player choices and allow the player to influence the world about him. Movies, conversely, are passive affairs.
With Drake's third outing, it seems as though we've finally reached that point inbetween.

Here's Simon's brilliant review over at Eurogamer.

And then the flamewars began.
As far as I can figure, the furore stems from a misinterpretation (as confirmation bias is wont to cajole) of the review. Some commenters read Simon's review as positive, and then are surprised to find an eight-out-of-ten score; some read the review as negative and are equally perplexed by the score; most are simply surprised that Simon didn't rate the game as highly as the other major reviewers.

Simon concludes his review:
The execution exhibits a kind of workmanship and polish way beyond the ambition of most other developers, let alone their abilities or budgets. As an expression of all that a video game could be, however, Uncharted 3 is narrow, focused and ultimately shallow. It is a majestic tribute to cinema, a movie game in the literal sense, and your enjoyment will be in precise step with your appreciation of that objective - and whether or not you believe it to be Drake's great deception, or Drake's great delight.

So the question facing game designers is: How much interactivity makes for a fulfilling GAMING experience?

I think if Bob McKee were here, he'd say it was a specious argument. And I'd agree. Heck, I'll always agree with my imaginary Bob McKee. I like to call him Mimsy and stroke his hairy shoulders.

Just to backtrack briefly, I'll explain why this has been on my mind for a while now.
Here's a snippet from Jayisgames' review of Margrave 3:

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart is all about the story and setting, and it paints such a wonderful picture with both that the gameplay comes in second. In fact, sometimes the actual "game" parts of Margrave seem like an intrusion...

Consider, too, our producer's remarks that players attempt to complete hidden object scenes as quickly as possible so that they can get on with the game.

Well hold up! What precisely is it that gamers want? Do they actually want to be presented with choices and given the power to influence their artificial world? or will they accept the most modest of interaction - just enough for a game to qualify as a game - provided that their ultimate experience is rewarding?

If there's one thing I've learned during my time as a game designer - and there probably isn't one thing I've learned - but if there is, it's that there's not a single design question that can't be answered by the statement:
It's all a question of balance!

I was, I think, amused when I played Deus Ex the other day. After some twenty minutes of 'on rails' gaming, about eighteen minutes of which was dialogue (exposition), I finally reached the opening credits and began the game. At that point I was given three choices of play. The recommended/default choice was something like:
Full story mode: This is how the game is meant to be played.

Which is why I think it's a specious argument. The old school HOGgers didn't much care for M3 because it had a good dollop of story. They wanted uninterrupted interactivity. The nu wave HOGgers - those whose EXPECTATIONS of the iHOG genre are different (as in contemporary) - did enjoy it; for them, the ultimate experience justified the anchoring of meaning through conventional narrative design.
How to appease both camps?
1) Give everyone the option to skip cut-scenes.*
2) Be sure to inject as much meaningful choice into any existing interactive elements as possible.
* N.B. Players judge on default. If you default to 'cut-scenes on', they'll moan if they don't like cut-scenes, even if you give them the option to switch them off. Weird, but true.

Here's another snippet from our Jayisgames review: (This was pretty consistent feedback.)

Another high point in the Margrave experience is the Dream Card mini-game... it's steeped in tarot artwork and mythology, so naturally you'll feel a bit like a psychic yourself each time you name a spirit.

I'll leave you, my dear maggoteers, with these questions:

Would Simon have scored Uncharted 3 higher if it had claimed to be an interactive movie rather than a game?
What does that say about the effect of expectations upon a game? And how do we deal with such expectations?
Would you be content to sit back and watch ninety minutes of this..?