Friday, 1 January 2010

Button Pressing Baby Talk

The quality of narrative that can be communicated in a given medium is dependent on the available vocabulary. If you watch any really old films, the primitive film, inconsistent frame rates and lack of sound severely limits the kind of movies they could make. Similarly an eight year old would struggle to write a world class novel in part because they don't have the words to do it.

Games have access to a wide variety of vocabularies. I don't plan on providing a definitive list of them because there are blurred lines and arguments to be made for and against dividing certain areas. I can get to where I want to go, however, with the following list.
  • A limited version of film. In terms of vision and sound, games can't do anything a movie can't, and can't do it as well. Graphics are not photorealistic, and where stylised graphics are used, the same effect could be used in film.
  • A limited version of books. You can use all of the words of a book, but people won't read as much text, at least in block. Although you can have text in film, the ability in games to stop reading a block of text and come back to it later makes them closer to books.
  • Interactivity. This is the one that makes games different. It allows the viewer to become an active participant in the narrative.
Another important fact is that having access to multiple vocabularies doesn't automatically improve the maximum quality of the narrative, otherwise the works of Austen could be improved by adding illustrations by kindergarteners. I think we can all agree this wouldn't in fact work.

While over the years the visual and aural vocabularies of games have improved to being near to film, the vocabulary of interactivity has made very little progress. Consider a situation in which you want to make a comedic game, with a focus on goofy comedy. Visually, you can make the characters comedically proportioned and move in an elastic way (as seen in something like Tales of Monkey Island), the colour palette can be made visually varied and bright. The sounds can be upbeat, the music a little quirky and the voice work appropriately done. So far, providing the execution is up to par, you are on your way to a goofy comedy game. But what about the interactivity? Well, Psychonauts is a platformer, Brutal Legend is some weird RTS thing, Monkey Island is a graphic adventure (I know I'm focusing on Tim Schafer, but that's because not many people try to make funny games), so clearly we just need to pick a genre and plug in the rest of the content.

Here's the problem: that's not true. The interactivity itself adds nothing to the atmosphere of the game. There is no such thing as comedic interaction. A picture can be funny, a snippet of conversation can be funny, but a button press cannot be funny. Or flirtatious, or disrespectful. You can make a funny game in any genre, but if you strip out the other content, the humour disappears. Psychonauts could be reskinned as a dystopian cyberpunk epic and not change its interactive components in the least. By contrast, if you changed the graphical style of Gears of War to something more like Psychonauts, the tone of the game would be changed. The vocabulary of visuals can have a comedic tone or a dark and brooding one, the vocabulary of interaction is not complex enough to allow such subtle variations.

Allowing for multiple interactions over time (combos and so on), the only real words in the vocabulary of interaction are soft, hard, easy, difficult, simple and complicated. I suppose you can add large and small with all of this motion control business going on these days. Given this, is it reasonable to expect a game to be able to produce a narrative as good, as engaging, as film or literature outside of some very specific genres? The interactivity, by its primitive nature, can only add primitive elements to the narrative. This works well in primitive genres, such as big dumb action. However the lack of advanced interactivity means there is no choice but to remove interactivity when more complex narrative elements are required. Removing interactivity almost by definition produces a single reaction, frustrated helplessness, which is rarely the desired reaction.

I have no idea what advanced interactivity would look like, or even if I would be interested in it if it did. Nor am I saying that developers shouldn't add things like comedy or tragedy into their games. What I am saying is that developers need to understand the limitations of the medium and not assume that interactivity automatically improves narrative, or in fact is capable of improving it at all.


  1. Good point, although I think you missed some potential funny that you can do with interaction.

    After all, by pressing a button, you can control timing.

  2. True, but that exact same button press can control the timing could be used to play a guitar riff, or defuse a bomb, or kick a goal. There is no way to change the nature of the interaction itself. If you equate a series of button presses with a sentence in a book, maybe the difference I'm trying to make is clearer. The sentence can convey horror, love, slight social embarrassment, or practically anything else. The button presses, on the other hand, can be slow or fast, which can give a relaxed or frantic mood, and that's about it. The input itself has a very primitive set of emotions it can evoke.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.