24 minutes ago
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Scripted events are killing gaming
Somebody needed to say it. A decade ago, looking forward to the future of gaming, we could see it - dynamic, highly-interactive adventures, ambitious as Hollywood blockbusters or as moving and subtle as art flicks to be played out on our TV screens, never the same way twice. We anticipated, expected a fusion of story and player choice that would become possible with the new technology we saw on the horizon. What we got in all too many cases was something else entirely.
In retrospect, it's easier to understand the proliferation of scripted events, or moments planned by a title's developers to be triggered at a particular point in a story or upon certain character actions. When used sparingly, some of these moments can be thrilling - for example, triggering the lights to dim at a particularly tense point in a horror game or scripting an ambush of Axis tanks and soldiers as your squad attempts to cross a river. Certainly some of the most memorable moments in all of gaming were written in by the developers, and nothing's going to change that.
But all too often these events become the easy way out, a way of limiting interactivity and diverting attention (and all-important budget) from the difficult parts of game design and toward sheer polish. Too much scripting turns a game into a Universal Studios ride - it makes the experience inherently artificial and kills immersion, the mental bond a user feels with a title when it creates a dynamic, fulfilling experience.
We need look no further than the venerated gods of the medium. 1998's Half-Life used scripted events early and often - for example, a headcrab would burst out of a ventilation shaft with a loud shriek or an impromptu alarm would send a squad of government soldiers running into a room with guns and explosives. Such scripting pushed the player into new and unexpected situations and often forced them to react quickly to avoid a restart.
But some of the moments were a little. . . off. Hours into the adventure, a soldier is attacked behind bulletproof glass, the player unable to save them. A scientist is snatched from a dock and dragged into the water by an enormous sea creature. Wait - they survived this long only to die at a moment calculated for maximum impact? Why aren't there bodies everywhere? How much influence can a player carry by their mere presence before it feels inescapably artificial?
Six years later, in Half-Life 2, we were still doing the same thing: Waves and waves of troops would throw themselves at you as you attempted to escort survivors across a battlefield, only to stop the moment you crossed through a door. Enemies would attack you at regular intervals as you struggled to set up security turrets to save yourself, only to stop attacking you when an ally finally managed to open a nearby door.
Did you just flip a switch? Get ready for a half-dozen wailing zombies to pop out of the murky water around you. Did you just learn something important over the radio? Here comes a tank and some soldiers! Did you just pick up the key you needed? Get ready for the ground to collapse around you and drop you into an electrified lake you have moments to escape from!
In short, it's difficult to place the logical link between picking up a new gun and summoning a missile-bearing helicopter.
When pulled to the extreme, these types of games make the hero an absurd catalyst for trouble. If every action of the hero, no matter how minor, results in attacks, story events from out of nowhere and doom to random nearby characters whose sole reason for existence is apparently to demonstrate the method of attack of a new monster, gaming isn't happening. Story isn't happening. It's an "experience" only in the clinical sense: A bunch of things happen and then you go home. Roll credits.
A little game called Deus Ex came out in 2000. While it wasn't as flashy or as popular as Half-Life, it did something a little different - it gave you choice. From the beginning you had a choice of taking out enemy troops discreetly or flamboyantly, and it would matter. You could run into a facility guns blazing, or hack the building's security from afar, and it would matter. Sometimes these decisions had no direct effect on the gameplay, but they still mattered because they allowed you to be creative or barbaric, play around or take things seriously. In short, and at the risk of sounding sarcastic, you were playing a game.
Characters lived or died based on your decisions, not just while you were there. Unlike Half-Life's roller coaster of arbitrary and inexplicable events, Deus Ex gave you some control over your character's role in the story. Though the game's plot proceeded more or less the same regardless of your actions, the game's best story elements weren't scripted, but were emergent from the player's personality. Whether you were a pacifist who preferred to lurk in the shadows and secret passageways and resorted to guns only when necessary (like me) or a soldier who devastated entire installations, you felt like more than a bystander. You felt like a participant. When you broke into your old facility for information and had to make the choice of either killing the security guard you'd known for the whole game or trying to outrun his weapons, the decision felt real and genuine though it wouldn't matter to the overall story. Choices like that made the game more than just a series of events and explosions.
Playing through Dead Space last week, I was surprised by how transparent and lazy the scripted elements were. The thirtieth time an enemy ran around a corner, out of sight, as you opened a door, or a character interaction with the environment caused something "unexpected" to happen, the impact just wasn't there. Despite Dead Space's virtues (and there were many), I felt as if the game couldn't have cared less about my participation in the story, and was perfectly happy to go on without me. The only thing that really mattered was whether I had enough health and ammo to get to Deck 19 and recalibrate the main whatchamajigger until the next crisis came up and I had to do something else. While fun, this unfortunate tendency to disrespect the player's ability to do anything other than accumulate items and shoot baddies left the experience oddly bland and unmoving.
Heavy scripting is easy, but it's a thematic dead end which creates unfulfilling experiences. Gaming's greatest strengths involve the ability of an individual to influence and interact. Let's not forget that.