Embracing Interactivity: I Would Rather Play A Game Than Watch It - Birds are dumb Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Embracing Interactivity: I Would Rather Play A Game Than Watch It

The comparison between movies and video games validates itself with almost every major release. The narrative boundary between interactivity and rhetorical storytelling fades as games adopt just about every technical aspect of film. The game developers who create story sequences must go through a similar process of design and execution that directors and cinematographers in the film industry must understand: dramatic camera angles, lighting, pacing, framing just to name a few. Almost every AAA game released approaches their narrative presentations in a similar fashion, but is that really a good thing?

The most important part of a video game is, without a doubt, the game part. If you're not interacting or playing with something, then it becomes difficult to call what you're doing a game. Certainly a fine story is a welcomed-and, in modern gaming, expected-addition to the medium, but it is not the defining aspect of video games.

Too many games desperately try to imitate movies when it comes to storytelling. I'll use one of my favorite games of the year, Uncharted 3, as an example. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Uncharted, by the way; it is a superb game both in narration and gameplay. However, I felt like I was watching Uncharted for far longer than I should have been. The cutscenes in Uncharted are entertaining to watch, and not many people are going to argue against the overall presentation of the game. But why does a game need to remove the player from the action completely just to tell a story?

As entertaining as a cutscene might be, we're basically sitting at the sidelines while they go on

Every time I watched a cutscene and lost control over Drake, I felt removed from an experience from which I shouldn't be removed. In Uncharted, I'm Nathan Drake. I'm making leaps of faith and taking cover in frantic firefights. I'm finding priceless treasures and discovering ancient ruins. For most of the game, that kind of immersion is executed brilliantly through gameplay. With cutscenes, though, that immersion is quickly stripped away in favor of something reminiscent of a traditional movie.

There was a time where I glorified these non-playable game-movies. I specifically remember feeling rewarded with cutscenes when I first played Final Fantasy VII. Perhaps it was because of the massive difference in visual fidelity between the gameplay and the CG movies at the time. Perhaps it was because the cutscenes were fewer and farther between than the rate at which most modern games deploy them. I'm not entirely sure, but I know that when I get a cutscene in a game now, it takes a lot of my patience to not skip it.

The frustration comes when you realize a lot of what you see in a cutscene could be gameplay. Perhaps exchanges of dialogue wouldn't make for the most exhilarating levels of a game, but occasionally cutscenes expand beyond fleshing out characters and plot. All too often you're forced to stand aside as a character you should be controlling gets to engage with action that could be incorporated into gameplay. For this example of narrative and gameplay synthesis, perhaps Uncharted isn't the best example. Most of the griping actions sequences have some kind of interactivity, even if it's something as simple a single button to initiate a dramatic event.  

Video games have already proven that an engaging narrative is perfectly possible without completely taking control away from the player, though. It is a method of storytelling that is a forte of Valve's. Most recently, Portal 2 did little in the way of removing the player from an ongoing narrative. You were Chell the entire time. Sure, occasionally you would be bound by something, only able to control her point-of-view, but the game never makes you lose total control.

No game has done it quite like Valve's masterpiece, Half-Life 2. Completely told from the perspective of a stoically silent protagonist, Half-Life 2 seamlessly told an engaging sci-fi story without ever forcing the player to completely step away from Gordon Freeman. That kind of interactivity is what really made the game so appealing. Every moment that would, in almost any other game, make you watch a short film while your controller sat idly in your hand afforded you the ability to be an active participant in the scene.

The seemingly perfect mesh of gameplay and narrative does show its limitations in Half-Life 2, though. Stripping away autonomy has its benefits in video games; you don't have to deal with the silly, unpredictable behavior of a human controlled actor in your movie. One of the opening narrative progressions of Half-Life 2 has the player meeting up with some old friends while they talk through the beginning steps of their plans. Normally, you would expect Gordon Freeman to sit by his cohorts, taking in every word they had to offer. That's how the story has to progress, right? The protagonist needs to be, at the very least, paying attention.

Well, I wasn't.

My Gordon Freeman was far too busy trying to get a teleporting device to work on a tiny cactus. Once he got bored of that, he jumped on some crates and tried to hop around this fence that totally looked like it had an opening (it didn't.) Then, even as dramatic events were being unveiled, my Gordon Freeman tried to balance stuff on the characters' heads. Simply put: my Gordon Freeman is a crappy actor. Luckily, he didn't have any lines to remember, but you can see where this kind of problem might taint an otherwise fluid story.

This is why we can't have nice things...

Some games have managed to blend gameplay and narrative without focusing either extreme. Heavy Rain is a title that blends the ideas of interactivity and visual storytelling in a very unique way. You are basically doing more watching than playing in Heavy Rain, but the two actually mix together in a manner that really blurs the line between them.

The result is a game that benefits, rather than suffers, from a strange kind of identity crisis. You never really lose the feeling of immersion, yet you never really get full control of a single character. It's an intriguing approach to video games.

More video games need to start allowing the player to be an active participant in the story that unfolds. Rather than having gamers watch short films with video game sections in between, players should feel immersed throughout the experience. Video games need to embrace the interactivity of the medium; gamers don't need to watch a story-they need to play it.

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