Saturday, October 09, 2010

Interactive Movies

I've always been a fan of Quantic Dream's aspirations. The games they create are always worth playing, if just for how unusual they are. For those of you playing at home, Quantic Dream is known for creating games that are interactive movies. Heavy Rain was the most recent one.

I think it's a genre waiting to unfold. But I also think that Quantic Dream's games so far haven't started the unfolding process.

When I play their games, I am happy to play them. But the instant I set them down, there's absolutely no draw to pick it back up. In fact, there's a barrier.

To me, this feels the same way as when I play a long, constructive game like Civilization. If I don't finish the game in one stretch, I start over. Trying to pick up a half-built world is no fun. All the details that kept you interested have faded. You can remember the big strokes, but there's not much emotional investment any more.

Of course, when I lose track of a Civilization game, I can just start a new, random game. With an interactive movie, that's not really the case. Starting over means retreading the same steps, and it gets more boring each time.

What I'm saying is that I love playing interactive movies, but they're like movies: you don't watch half a movie and then come back to it the next day. At least, most people don't, and it's not really recommended.

The techniques you use to establish emotional investment in a movie or world-building game like Civilization revolve around details. The good acting, the interesting setpiece, the particular way he talks about her, and exactly what that city is building right now. This works well, it really gets us going. But it fades fast.

Games that are intended to be dropped and picked up again use different techniques. The Gears of War and Halo goons don't have to have nuanced relationships and excellent body language. The draw is in the quick drop into gameplay. It doesn't matter what the details are, the algorithm of the gameplay is what brings you back.

Or, in the case of things like StarWars and Star Trek, setting. I think that strong settings feel like gameplay in some ways. A setting with strong, evocative points that all the details hang from seems easier to immerse yourself in, especially on repeat visits.

At least, that's my feeling.

What's in the future for interactive movies and story-games?

Well, I think we'll find they become strongly episodic, and the episodes will be very short - four to five hours. Maybe the episodes will be built and sold in distinct packages, but I think it's more likely that the engine that runs the game will know how to build the next episode based on what happened in your last episode, within the limits of the dramatic arc.

We already see this a bit in Heavy Rain, where the game's progression is radically different depending on exactly what your characters do. I think Heavy Rain accomplishes this through insane amounts of carefully scripted events, but our techniques for doing some of this generatively are steadily advancing. As they do, I expect the game to make very clear distinctions as to the game's internal episodes.

I also think that story games will have to be built around settings rather than stories. The stories are important, but I think that a really vibrant setting with very clear "centerpieces" (such as the Force, the Enterprise, Mordor, etc) will be what draws the players back in after each episode, and I think most games will lean that way.

The biggest problem with creating a game like this is what to do at chapter ends.

Players are notoriously unreliable. Some players will happily play for twelve hours straight, while others will only eke out maybe forty-five minutes. You can ask them how long they plan on playing - and I expect we will start to - but even that is only vaguely accurate.

The ending of a chapter is therefore something really irritating. If your player quits halfway into the chapter, that can still be salvaged, although it's not ideal. But if a player quits fifteen minutes before the end boss? Or what if the chapter ends, but the player wants to continue playing for another twenty minutes?

I think there are two solution, one for each of those problems. Here are my suggestions.

For chapters ending early, I recommend an adaptive progression. If your player breaks it off, then when he comes back, make sure there's at least an hour of chapter left, even if he quit literally at the final fight. This hour of chapter gives you time to reintroduce the player to all the tiny details that get the moment-to-moment emotional investment. Similarly, you have to assume that they have forgotten all the little details from the first part of the chapter.

I don't mean that Gloria is trying to level up her fireball, or that Sven loves Sue. I mean the emotional touches - Gloria's husky voice, Sven's nervous coin-rolling trick, and the way Sue struggles with her umbrella in the rain. You can't just rush back into the scene where Sven is declaring his love for Sue, you've got to re-establish both Sven and Sue as characters worth caring about.

The other side of the problem is the post-chapter play.

Done right, an ending will really kick you down. There's a feeling like you just want to sit quietly for a while. As gamers, we seem to discourage this feeling. These days, our games either never end, or have endings that immediately scoot us on into the rest of the IP. It's rare that a game ends with as much emotional force as Chronotrigger, Beyond Good and Evil, and so many other famous games.

I recommend that we do not allow players to instantly move on to the next episode. I recommend that there is a second type of play where the players basically play house. Allowing the players to do some neutral gameplay like walking around the town, designing costumes, and playing around with move sets will allow them to decompress from what was hopefully a fantastic ending.

SO, that's my prediction for the future of story games. You?


Mory Buckman said...

I admire Quantic Dream, but I don't understand why they imitate movies. Surely it would be more interesting to imitate life?

Craig Perko said...

Well, there are lots of other game studios that are imitating life. Everything from the Sims to Farmville to Animal Crossing has "imitating life" as their MO.

I don't think it's a bad thing for one company, at least, to imitate movies. And I think that, in the long run, the lessons learned from those sorts of games will really help how me structure the themes and stories of other sorts of games.

Craig Perko said...

Well, maybe I'm overstating Farmville.

Eric Poulton said...

I think Remedy understood a lot of this when they made Alan Wake. I thought the way they broke the game up into chapters, with each chapter ending giving you a few minutes of music for the player to sit and take in what happened, then each chapter beginning with a recap of everything that happened so far alleviated a few of these problems quite well. The chapter breaks did a really good job of signalling to the player that this was a good time to stop playing, while usually leaving them with a cliffhanger to make them want to come back. I hope both Remedy and Quantic Dream took a good look at what the other did with their games, because they can both learn a lot from each other.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, except that I didn't like Alan Wake. The writing grated on me. So much.

Still, there will always be those kinds of factors to screw up an otherwise good analysis. "It's what I was looking for, except I hated it because of something unrelated..."