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volume 1, issue 8

Today in loonygames:

New!! The Archives have been cleaned up, fead links fixed, and printable versions restored! Also, don't miss the new comments on the front page!

Livin' With The Sims: theAntiELVIS explores the wild and wacky world that is Will Wright's The Sims, asking the inevitable quesiton, "is The Sims the first step toward a virtual life where everyone is Swedish?"

Pixel Obscura: Josh Vasquez on Omikron: The Nomad Soul.

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Guest Editorial:
Thoughts on Interactivity and the Question of Content


By Austin Grossman



This essay was inspired by my work on Trespasser and my play-through of the Half-Life demo, brought up for me some basic issues in game design and engine design. I feel we're all still grasping for ways of understanding our emerging medium, so these are some thoughts of mine, an effort to pick apart a few of them.

A. Interactivity

Suppose we take up a limited definition of interactivity, as follows: an interactive work is a system with internal parameters that the user can set or influence.

To set out some examples:

  • A printed book is non-interactive -- yes, you can read the pages in different orders, but you can't change the content on the page.
  • A bit is interactive - the system has a parameter you can set
  • Most web pages are not -- it works the same as a book, you can choose what you read or view, but not alter its content or state
  • Quake is interactive. You can change your character's position, orientation on the map, kill monsters who themselves can change your character's state, etc. Your ability to change state is limited (your POV has to move through space linearly, have only certain types of weapons, ammo, etc.), and therein lies the fun.

It's not a final or maybe particularly well-thought-out definition, but let's explore it as far as it will take us.

So to build on this definition, gameplay takes place as you use the game interface to change the state of the system, usually with a goal in mind. Gameplay is the act of changing the game-state through the interface.

The reason I like this definition is that it immediately asks the question, what are you doing when you play the game? Does the game have interesting, varied, nuanced states? Does the interface give you a powerful, interestingly limited access to, influence on those states?

It accounts for the brittleness, the sense of shallowness, one can get from a lot of bad games. The game may be telling you that you are having a conversation with a prince, but you can immediately feel you are traversing a very shallow decision tree.

Experienced gamers tend to cut straight through this -- they can feel when they have a cool dynamic in front of them, a rich world where they can think, improvise, calculate variables and positions against each other (whether in a simple system like Tetris, or a complex one, like Nethack). It's this rich world, a world they can reason about, that people are asking for when they say, "Couldn't I just pick up the chair and throw it at the window, instead of solving puzzles X and Y?"

Or, conversely they can tell when, despite a lot of fancy art, their final battle against Cthulhu is nothing more than a game of rock-paper-scissors.

(It's sometimes said that the best computer game of all is computer programming, and perhaps there is some justice in that -- it's a big system to hack, with powerful tools. Perhaps some of the better computer games are simplified, fictionalized, spatialized versions of programming tasks -- conquering nations, instead of just setting up a database handler.)

So for me this is the gamer's definition, the definition that cuts through production values, lovely as they are.

There is always this question when you're dealing with a game or simulation, what is my range of action? What can I touch, what is dynamically modifiable, and what is just artwork? It is the touchable stuff, the interactive elements, that forms the system that you hack, the gameplay. I would never claim that a game is good just because it has a lot of modifiable stuff; but rather, it is that stuff, however simple or complex, that is the meat of the game.

B. The Question of Content

One of the many criticisms leveled at computer games since time immemorial (i.e. 1977 or so), is that there is no content. When you finish playing Space Invaders, you've just flushed 35 minutes, and $1.25 down the toilet, as far as the critics are concerned. In the enlightened mid-late '90's, everyone's now concerned -- it's the "New Media" now, and everyone has to have "content," in the officially recognized form of story, character, plot.

Back in the day, Wing Commander 1 had a fix for this. You fly missions, which alternate with dramatic animated scenes, which filled out the world, gave the missions a narrative context, gave you a character ("Bluehair"). Certainly this had been done before (Ms. Pac-Man is said to have been first), but this is the first occasion I know of that really seemed to have a cinematic characters and scenes.

Just as importantly, it is content delivered in a familiar context, with familiar conventions: passive viewing, identification with a hero shown in the 3rd person. On one level, the previously available interactive world goes numb to us, the controls go dead. On the other, it is a relief -- the familiar process of passive playback. We understand how to receive content and follow story in this context. This and similar strategies for story delivery have ruled the day.

The "content" of a game and its gameplay have often had an uneasy relationship -- the delivery of story, and the creation of an interesting, hackable system are not things we combine easily. Commonly they are kept rigidly separate. Genuine interactivity ends, or simplifies drastically, where story or story direction begins.

These are familiar points, and everyone is still struggling with them. Almost each new game out there has a new or modified way of presenting story and character. The market is a fascinating laboratory for experiments in narrative and interactivity. I just thought I would take a little space to pick apart two new treatments of story in the FPS genre: Half-Life and Trespasser.

I'll repeat right off that I have only played the Half-Life: Day One OEM demo, so I am totally unqualified to say anything about the real product -- I'm just talking about what I saw.

Half-Life pulls off story in an enormously sophisticated way, just way better than anything else out there. It is quite stunning. The playback, any canned stuff, happen in the game-world, and are woven seamlessly into it to an extraordinary degree. You can't do everything -- you can't have conversations with the characters -- but you don't seem to miss it. Events happen around you, and you gather story, and your own identity, from them; a genuinely different experience from having them presented to you cinematically. The world you inhabit changes, talks to you, you discover more of it, and from these things story emerges. Very complicated, very elegant. As a designer, I plan to play the game and chart out every single thing they did.

The interactivity of the world, the way you can change the state, advances little; but then again, it was already set to something that everyone likes, which is Quake.

Trespasser pushes the envelope in other ways. It advances the interactivity of the world -- it is a more interactive system -- it has more bits to flip, more elements to calculate and move around, different kinds of relations between them. It has far fewer "dead" spots -- things you can see in the world but can't move, improvise with, treat as part of the interactive reality. Whereas in its purely interactive elements a Quake level would be mapped as a set of walls, beasties, and traps, Trespasser is much more complex. I don't think people would disagree that it advances the state of the art in 3D reality. It lets you do more things you should be able to do in that reality, and it gives you new, interesting ways to hack around in 3space.

Its story elements are built so as not to introduce non-interactive, or inappropriately interactive elements into the story. In a way it functions as an archive -- as you beat the puzzles, advance through the world, learn about the island, you gain more information, and this information completes your sense of the island's past. The other story, which is the story of nearly every computer game ever made, is one of increases in skill, triumph, and ultimately mastery over the virtual realm.

- Austin Grossman is a game designer on the game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.


Credits: Guest Editorial logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This Guest Editorial is © 1998 Austin Grossman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited and not nice.