Imagine that you are in an art museum. Don’t ask me why you’re there, you just are. You move from painting to painting, taking in the works at your leisure. There’s a fat woman that keeps disgustingly clearing her throat behind you, and you didn’t really get that one painting showing a bleeding black square with a pierced penis, but whatever. You’re still having a good time.
Yeah this is nice… Real relaxing.
Without warning a guy comes up behind you, and in the most piercing, nasal, grainy voice you can imagine says “You’re doing it wrooooong!” You try not to stare as he puts his hands on his hips, glaring daggers at you. “Stand over here!” he says, pointing. You try to ignore him, but he just clucks his tongue and drags you to the point he indicated. “There! That’s where you’re supposed to stand! Now look. LOOK. Do you get it?” He stares at you, trying to monitor the reaction on your face.
His breath smells of shrimp and his hands have left an unidentifiable film on your clothes. Naturally you are annoyed and more than a bit creeped out, so you try to leave. “NOT YET,” he whines, pulling you back to the spot. “YOU HAVEN’T LOOKED LONG ENOUGH YET.” You sigh. ‘This is crap,’ you think. ‘This is no way to enjoy art. I should be allowed to view this how I want and take away whatever I will. This douchebag has no right to browbeat me into anything.’
And yet, video games do this all the time.
Any player who’s gone to the bathroom during a cut scene, made a sandwich during a lengthy, unskippable dialogue sequence, or sequenced the human genome during Metal Gear Solid is familiar with the times a game rips interactivity away from the player. The reasons developers do this are understandable. They have a story, it took them a long time to write it, and damned if players are going to go and skip something they put so much effort into. However, I am not interested in whining; it gets very little done. Instead, here are some examples of games that allow the player to explore the game’s content if they choose. Hopefully next year’s developers will take note.
Prince of Persia (2008) features what I’ve dubbed the “dialogue button.” When pressed, the Prince stops to have a chat with his perpetual sidekick Elika. These conversations can either reveal backstory about the game’s setting or enemies, or cause the two to engage in banter, fleshing out their relationship. Either way, this content falls into the “stuff-that’s-not-entirely-essential-for-gameplay” category, and Ubisoft Montreal wisely chose to make it optional. The same is true for the game’s scenery. Some of the game’s vistas are absolutely stunning, but the camera never does the tried-and-true slow pan through the environment to force the player’s eyes.
While I stopped to chat and look around every chance I could, I know some players out there wouldn’t care about such things. They want to jump and fight and beat the game as quickly as possible before their controllers short out from the excess drool spilling from their mouths or their brains devolve into Cro-Magnon levels incapable of manipulating basic tools.
Metroid Prime associates textual descriptions with almost every entity in the game world, fleshing out resident creatures and the Metroid mythos. Retro Studios very cleverly hid all of these descriptions from normal play. Gamers interested in such content can manually switch to the “scan visor” to seek them out. This makes additional content completely invisible to those who aren’t interested, and easily accessible to those who are. Players understand that a mechanical toggle either grants them access to sweet additional content, or protects them from the annoyance of it.
System Shock 2 was the first game I ever played that really embraced this idea. Audio logs sprinkled around the derelict ship in which the player awakens gradually reveal the events leading up to the present. The audio logs would frequently lead to caches of items or codes to storage areas. Players that took the time to explore the additional content were rewarded with more than the satisfaction of a deeper story, while players that were just interested in hitting things with a wrench and loosing their bowels in terror could get right to that if they so desired.
Unfortunately, for all the great things Half-Life does, it is guilty of the force-players-to-see-things conceit. Overall, the storytelling in Half-Life is very implicit. Most of the “plot” is told through context clues; pieces of newspaper you find on the ground, pictures placed on people’s desks, and cryptic hints and side comments from omnipresent mystics. However the human drama events always corral the player. While I’d rather be forced to watch human drama than boring expository about the Half-Life universe, it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. In their developer commentary (props to them for including), Valve discusses their use of “gates” to keep the player in a particular area until a scripted sequence is finished. As much as I appreciate how clever their solutions can be, players should still be allowed to progress if they want to.
Art is subjective, there’s no way around that. The viewer has the prerogative to view any work on his/her own time in his/her own way. There’s danger involved; the idea that the viewer will miss something important or fundamentally not appreciate any given work can be frustrating for an artist. Unfortunately, people are dumb. They will always take something away from a given work that wasn’t the artist’s intent. Hell, just look at practically any song done by The Police.
Did the chorus say “THIS SONG IS ABOUT STALKING”? No!
As a developer, you want a gamer to appreciate what you do, even if you have to tie them down and shock them with a car battery until they “get it.” As much as it hurts to think that all the love and hard work put into creating a game may go completely unnoticed by 90% of the viewers, that’s an implicit risk, and part of the process. Games are interactive; a fact that should be embraced instead of curbed for the sake of expression.