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Interactivity

So much for gameplay; now for interactivity. Interactivity isn't gameplay. It's much more important.

Most of the time when you're playing a game, what you're doing is just that—play. You're exploring, running, jumping, or thumb-twitching furiously to unleash a barrage of bullets—which can be lots of fun, but a game that only has that going for it won't be fun for long. Gameplay enriches the experience because it allows you to interact and take the experience somewhere. It's the difference between idly kicking a football about in the back yard and setting up a pitch with goals and having a match.

But gameplay is only one way of interacting. Take a game such as The Getaway. If it consisted of only a detailed city for you to drive around in, that kind of game would soon pall. The first thing you want to do is be able to interact with your environment. Bump another vehicle off the road, smash the doors off a police car, run somebody down. It's violent fun—but it's still fun. Kids play the same way, building bricks and knocking them down. So you need to have enough opportunities to interact so that the setting becomes more than a backdrop; it becomes an environment.

A game like that will be better still if you can, for instance, knock over a fire hydrant and leave it spouting water. Then that pool of water makes the road slippery so that a passing car skids onto the sidewalk. A pedestrian has to dive out of the way. He hauls the driver out of the car and punches him. Now what if the driver identifies you, the player, as the source of the trouble? He points, the pedestrian looks your way, and then both characters start yelling at you. That way the interaction has created a story with tension and action with emotions running high.

When you are playing Creatures or Black & White or The Sims, most of what you are doing hardly involves gameplay at all. Those titles, like many other entertainment software products, aren't truly games at all. You don't mind—you probably don't even notice—because you are having fun. But if these products weren't interactive, you would certainly notice that. Then you might start wondering if your time wouldn't be better spent reading a book, watching TV, or throwing a frisbee around in the park. A non-interactive computer game wouldn't win out against other fun activities.

Interactivity is what computers do best. Thus interactivity, much more than gameplay, is the heart and soul of entertainment software.

Kinds of Interactivity

You can interact with a game or narrative in many different ways. Even so, computer game designers have pretty much restricted themselves to interaction with the facts. Their concern is whether I open the first door and get the lady or the second door and get the tiger.

Maybe this is because designers, like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, believe that "facts alone are wanted in life". But in focusing only on the details of action and plot, they are overlooking other possibilities.

Consider the ways that I, as a player, could potentially interact with a game:

  • Affecting the game world itself, either by changing the front end settings or (in simulations and god games) as part of the game itself

  • Directly controlling the actions of a character or group of characters

  • Influencing a character's actions at one remove (for example, by giving him clues or weapons, like Zeus aiding a favored hero)

  • Influencing a character at two removes (for example, by leading him somewhere or pointing something out for him to look at, like a Muse providing inspiration)

  • Deciding who to follow, rather than what happens—an invisible observer flitting between narrative strands

  • Selecting what is interesting to me personally and making the game give more time to those elements—as any child will, when told a story at bedtime

How many of those kinds of interactivity do you commonly see implemented? The first, certainly, but only insofar as I can make the game easier or harder, or change the speed. Why shouldn't I also be able to say to a computer opponent in StarCraft, as I can to a human player, "Hey, let's build up a big army before we start fighting!" or, "Don't attack me because I just want to have fun building a city."?

The second kind of interactivity in that list—direct control of one or more characters—accounts for pretty much everything else. You find almost no games with the other kinds listed. And even the direct control option is used in a very restricted way. I don't know of any recent games, now that we're in the era of realtime, that allow you to switch control between two characters who are not on the same side. Why not? What inviolable rule says you can only play one side in a game?

This is a failure of imagination. Computers give us the means to create new kinds of games—and other toys and entertainment genres that aren't games at all. And yet most computer games remain, still, mutant versions of other media: films, or novels, or boardgames. And, since those media have not made much use of interactivity, there has been no prior example to guide the game designers of today. Case Study 3.5 discusses one of many possible alternative models for interactivity.

Case Study 3.5 A Different Kind of Interactivity

A couple of years back, Dave was discussing various design proposals with the managing director of a large development house. One of the ideas Dave was most keen to pitch was Dalek City, a tie-in to a BBC science fiction series of the 1960s.

"It's set on Skaro, the Dalek planet," he began. "The Daleks have been mutated by nuclear war and can only move about in mechanized travel machines. At the start of the game they pick up power by induction, so they can't leave the city."

"Yep, got it." said the managing director. "So you have to get upgrades to let them travel outside the city."

"Well, it's certainly possible for the Daleks to get those upgrades. But you don't play the Daleks in this game."

"What, then?" He was getting impatient. Concepts that take more than ten seconds to explain are hostile territory to managing directors.

"There are all kinds of threats to the Daleks. Various mutants live in the jungle around the city. Natural disasters like meteor showers can occur. There's another race, the Thals, who are their ancient enemies."

"You play the Thals, then."

"Not really. That's the point. You don't play anybody. You can step in and help the Thals if you want. Or you could spawn lots of mutant monsters to overrun the Dalek city."

The managing director evidently thought that here was something familiar. "That must cost you resources?"

"No, your resources are unrestricted, up to whatever the game engine can handle. You could just send in so many monsters, raiders, and natural disasters that the Daleks would be wiped out right at the start. The point is, say you do that a few times. Then you try something different: sending in just one monster to begin with. The Daleks kill it and take it to their labs. They start researching it. Pretty soon they don't have any trouble dealing with that kind of monster—and what they've learned will help them in other ways, too."

"I see; it's one of these Artificial Life things," the managing director said. (It was more of a growl, really.)

"Kind of. The Daleks are prime candidates for A-Life because their psychology is so simple. They're paranoid, inquisitive, power-hungry and they hate everything. And their society is like a type of insect hive."

The managing director wasn't even growling now, just giving Dave a worried frown.

Dave decided to press on: "The aim of the game, you see, is whatever you want it to be. You can just observe the Daleks going about their duties, like your own little formicarium. Or you can trash their city and watch the little buggers get stomped. Or you can test them with various threats and see how they learn and develop. It's the cruel-to-be-kind method. Eventually you might find you've nurtured them to the point where they can take anything you throw at them. Played that way, the ultimate aim of the game is to make the Daleks into an opponent you can't beat."

The managing director said nothing for a long while. Dave almost thought he might be chewing it over. But then he shook his head. "Players don't like games without a clearly defined objective."

Inwardly, Dave sighed. Drawing another sheaf of papers out of his file, he said, "Okay. Well, in that case I've got this really good storyline for a first-person shooter...."

New kinds of interactivity promise a world of possibilities that we have hardly begun to explore. To fully realize those possibilities, though, we have to be prepared to let go some of the control that we have come to expect, both as designers and as players.

"Why?" Versus "What?"

Interactivity doesn't have to be about what happens. It's natural for programmers who are also designers to emphasize the logical details. That's the way they see the world. But it is often more interesting to think about why something happens, or how it caused other things to happen.

"-If you are a process-intensive designer...then the characters in your universe can have free will within the confines of your laws of physics. To accomplish this, however, you must abandon the self-indulgence of direct control and instead rely on indirect control. That is, instead of specifying the data of the plotline, you must specify the processes of the dramatic conflict. Instead of defining who does what to whom, you must define how people can do various things to each other."

—Chris Crawford, writing in Interactive Entertainment Design, April 1995

Games guru, Chris Crawford, talks about process (the laws of the game world) as opposed to data (the details of what happens in the game world). It is the blinkered, data-intensive approach of most designers that has mired entertainment software in the simplest forms of interactivity. To illustrate this, think back to some of the early discussions of interactivity using digital TV. Lots of people proposed a system (which they seemed to regard as a new kind of narrative) in which the viewer could decide what the characters did. Essentially, they were talking about that unlamented genre the interactive movie.

Would that work? Imagine an interactive version of the television series ER. You get to choose. Does Noah Wylie obey the hospital rules, does he give the experimental drugs to the sick kid, or does he just go outside and play basketball? Is that a rewarding way to experience interactive drama?

No. It assumes that the point of all drama is simply to find out what happens next. If it's good drama there ought to be a lot more to it than that. As we saw in Chapter 1, "First Concept," Aristotle listed five elements of drama: plot, style, setting, theme, and characterization. It's the last two that aren't well served by the data-intensive designer. Going back to the hypothetical example, is the point of the player's choice to guess what Noah Wylie's character would really do? Then the interactivity reduces merely to an empathy test. Is it to make him do things he wouldn't normally? Then the interactivity is just a nerdy way to test the storyline to destruction. In neither case is characterization explored in any detail, and the only theme we are apt to uncover is that it's kind of weird when people behave inconsistently.

Now consider a different way we could have played our interactive ER. This time we don't get to choose what the characters do or say. Now all we can do is choose which character to follow around the hospital. Dr. Carter quarrels with Dr. Pratt over a diagnosis—both storm off. We follow Carter, who gives his version of events to a third character. Later we switch back to Pratt, who by now has spoken to various other characters and is pursuing another agenda. It is only later, if ever, that we may stumble upon the resolution or aftermath of the quarrel that we witnessed at the start.

This example in itself isn't a sufficient condition for interesting interactive drama, but it illustrates a couple of important points. The first is that all drama (whether interactive or not) derives momentum from the viewer's relationship with the characters. A rule often quoted in writing classes is that a character has to change and develop—which, in turn, leads to the simplistic conclusion that all stories are about redemption. In fact, characters don't have to change to be interesting. But our understanding of the character has to change. We need to see things that will build on our first impressions and, ideally, that will surprise us and force us to reassess those impressions. That's because the viewer is part of the system—and if that's true of non-interactive media, you can bet it's even more so in the case of games.

The other point is that interactivity can enhance enjoyment of all the elements of drama, not only the hard facts of the plot. In the previous example, the protagonists would behave true to character. Various themes might be revealed, whether the writers intended them or not. Our motives for interacting would be emotional as well as logical, and it would remain an immersive experience into the bargain.

The aim of all entertainment is to make the audience care. Interactivity is a new and powerful technique in the writer's repertoire for achieving that goal.

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