The Unbearable Awesomeness Of Being

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Videogames & Art - Canto II: Interactivity

"Cut-scenes. Are my fingers cold and dead? Then why have you pried control away from me?" - Rabscuttle, Caravel Forums

Pretty much every videogame can be divided into interactive and non-interactive sections. It used to be that, given the constraints of the system, the non-interactive parts of the videogame would be totally shunted off the digital representation and into a manual or book. These days, making a 'good game' practically demands having a 'good story', and a 'good story' demands long exposition and action the player cannot affect.

Having non-interactive bits is generally reviled by gamers. But therein lies a trouble: the interactive part of a videogame usually connects directly to the fast-thinking bits of the brain - your thinking meat is specially designed so that things that require quick response have a shorter path to go around.

When you're busy fleeing for your life is not the time to enjoy the landscape. In fact, a lot of very good games (Tetris comes to mind, as it always does) require you to reach an almost zen-like emptiness of thought, to become reflex and dance with the machine. You could call it 'art for the reptilian brain', and it's something other art forms don't explore as much - except for the physical ones, such as dance or judo.

If you place a non-interactive section in the middle of the action, you're forcing a breather on the player. Good artists know that this must be done carefully - buildup, climax, respite, repeat. Deal your emotional cards wrong, and the player will be frustrated and annoyed, mashing the A button to skip past. (Xenosaga players expecting to actually play will be particularly frustrated.)

Half-Life 2 solved this by having the story play around you as the less-taxing action happened, such as walking around a city with no enemies in sight or being carried by a coffin-on-a-rope - a kind of low-impact cutscene, like having a stock market-like story ticker playing on the bottom of the screen. This keeps the player immersed, pulling from active to passive mode more-or-less naturally, and gives him the chance to appreciate the scenery he was just killing dozens of faceless soldiers on.

Final Fantasy cares about the artistic power of its interactive portion as much as it cares about the artistic power of a pachinko machine. The Attack-Magic-Item menus are merely a vessel to convey the grand epic storyline of the evil empire that uses magic to control the world and the angsty teenagers that fight it. Sometimes a cutscene stops for a battle, or having the ultimate sword of power opens a secret movie, but it feels less like a cohesive whole and more like exchanging tickets for teddy bears.

Note that I haven't discussed yet the ability of a player to actually affect the game world, which we might call 'affectability' until someone comes up with a better term. We'll get back to it sometime.