October 6, 2012 2:00 PM | John Polson
IndieGames' monthly series of having the editorial team tackle important issues in games continues. Reader Nicolau M. wrote in to us: "The other day, I was thinking about the fundamentals of a game. Personally, I think objective, rules, and interaction are the most noticeable ones. However, something I keep encountering on various games is an unbalance of interaction and story-telling.
"It's a pretty interesting relation, on one side you might want to express a specific story, or thought, on the other, you want to keep the game a very interactive (and as such, including) experience. And what I've seen sometimes is a restriction on things you can or can't do in a game in order to preserve the message. In other cases, however, I've seen too much interaction deviate from the intended message.
The question our team seeks to discuss becomes the following: Can too much interaction obstruct a game's intended message?
Mike Rose: Right, so, unfortunately my answer is a bit of a sell-out: Essentially, it depends on the game and the intended message. Sometimes a game can throw you in at the deep end with no explanation, no text, nothing at all, and then you come away at the end feeling like you really got to the heart of what it was trying to portray, thanks to perhaps what you saw, and what you solved without any instructions. Other times I think to myself "Well, that could have done with a little more, you know, actual content."
On the flip side (and to answer the question more specifically), I think one area that developers trying to portray a message get hopelessly wrong over and over is tutorials. When it comes to teaching the player your game's mechanics, you should be thinking the following: Do I need a specific tutorial level, or can I mold the teaching into the initial gameplay? Do I really need to spell it out in text, or will approaching certain obstacles make the goal obvious to the player?
Getting tutorials wrong from the get-go can really put a downer on the rest of the game and, in turn, the intended message. My favourite games are the ones that have no tutorials at all. Of course, that's not always possible - it all depends on your game's mechanics - but reducing the initial teaching period as much as possible, or enveloping it into the game proper, is extremely essential to keeping your message alive.
Danny Cowan: Historically, narrative and gameplay have mixed like oil and water. Attempts at overlaying gameplay atop live actors in the Sega CD era had mixed results (to put it kindly), and many would argue that QTE-laden games like Heavy Rain and Shenmue placed too little of an emphasis on actual game mechanics.
Players are a problem, too. I'm a real jerk when I play games. The more believable your game world is -- and the more serious your story -- the more likely I am to make your characters act like idiots in an attempt to break the mood. I've yet to play a single session of Facade that didn't end with me getting forcibly kicked out of Trip and Grace's apartment. It's fun, of course, but it may not be the best way to approach a game that has a specific message in mind.
To answer the question, I suppose that interaction can potentially obstruct the intended message, depending on the type of gameplay involved. If the game demands a high amount of dexterity (or even if the mechanics are just really fun to screw around with), the player is naturally going to focus on the gameplay instead of the story. Other game types -- like point-and-click adventure games, for instance -- seem better suited at delivering a story within the context of gameplay.
Recently, I found Blendo Games' Thirty Flights of Loving to be particularly successful at delivering a story while letting the player remain in control for the majority of the experience. Its gameplay interruptions were brief, and the story was absorbing and concise, so I didn't mind when control was taken away from me for the sake of furthering the narrative.
Depending on the kind of game you're making, it may be necessary to give the player less freedom during moments in which narrative is the focus. If your story is compelling, your players will be happy with the results.
Cassandra Khaw: Sort of. It feels a bit cliched to say this but I think something like this needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If you needed a more definitive answer, however, I suppose my response would be: yes. Too much interactivity can hurt a game. I mean, it can be simple as a case of too much stimuli. We expect certain things when we get into a game. If you tell us it's a sidescrolling platformer, we'll go into it expecting to run, jump and die repeatedly. Adventure game? Extensive amount of clickery must ensue.
Don't get me wrong. There's nothing about innovating on a genre but when a point & click adventure game somehow transforms into a physics-based, time management endless runner for no reason whatsoever, it can get a bit confusing. Less is more.
John Polson:I don't think it's a matter of "too much interaction," as a game I want to play should involve the greatest proportion of time interacting rather than listening or watching. I'd rather suggest the wrong type of interaction (be it too much or too little) can obstruct not only a game's intended message but a game's ability to retain a player's interest.
But instead of thinking about which games are doing this wrongly, I'd rather think about games that are full of interaction and that uniquely convey some kind of message: Alex Bruce's Antichamber and Daniel Benmergui's Storyteller.
My time with the subversive first-person puzzler Antichamber didn't start out teaching me what's the right thing to do. It taught me quickly everything that I knew of game physics and laws was wrong. It was through my interacting, learning from my failure to interact correctly, that seemed to get me further in the game, and by extension learn more of what I felt was the game's message.
Daniel Benmergui's Storyteller is interesting to consider for a totally different reason. Figuring out its clearly typed out messages seems to be the game itself. Puzzles require the player to assemble items, characters, and even thought or speech bubbles in comic frames to coincide with a narrative. I particularly enjoyed piecing together the comic frames of those narratives with multiple interpretations, which leads me to believe I'd enjoy more games that leave messages for interpretation rather than those that make the message plainly singular and overt.
At the end of the day, this question presupposes that a game has or should have any intended message at all, as did our discussion last month about developers censoring themselves. I don't discredit a game with message. However, if the messages are only found in huge waves of text, tutorials, cut-scenes, or quick-time events, I won't probably absorb them. I came to play.
Konstantinos Dimopoulos:(Gnome) I'm sure many could more or less successfully argue that interactivity is the message or that there never was any message anyway or even that messages are entirely passé. I do though suppose we'd better leave those confused post-modernists alone in their misery.
On the other hand, even a cursory look at the world of gaming shows that simple or not, militaristic or peaceful, personal or universal, downright irritating or potentially liberating, most games are chock-full of messages whether they mean to or not.
Better stick to those messages that are closely related to a game's plot, though. The voluntary messages. The messages one can also find in forms of non-interactive art such as literature and cinema. Messages we are used to having conveyed to us in a more passive, more straightforward way.
Can games manage to convey them? Does the lack of a fully controlled pace and the relative freedom of a player hamper an author's/designer's way of expressing oneself?
Well, a look at The Sea Will Claim Everything, Dys4ia or even The Binding of Isaac will convince you that it's definitely doable. What's more, interaction actually allows for stronger feelings as the player gets to participate in the story, feel as if he or she can actually affect it and is given the illusion of free will in a fictional world. That definitely helps a message, provided its sender can actually and compellingly share it.
The problem, you see, is not the medium's lack of ability to convey messages or make points. It has more to do with most of the messages being too banal to even register. Or even downright offensive and/or childish and thus something most will ignore and wisely focus on a game's, well, gameplay bits.
Interaction is not a constraint, it's a tool.
Do you have a question that you'd like the IndieGames editors to tackle? Email EIC John Polson at johnpolsonfl at gmail dot com. [photo source]