Electron Dance

Amateur Dramatics

It's a first-person shooter and you're in an office complex. The place is rigged to blow and you're racing for the exit, feeling the adrenaline surge through your hand as you drill into the W key. You make it out just as shrapnel perforates the cubiclescape of desks, computers and chairs behind you. Phew!

But outside an unexpected fire fight catches you off guard. You succumb to enemy fire before you remember to stab the quicksave key. You sigh, maybe curse, and quickload yourself back into the office building.

Second time round, things don't play out the same way. You find yourself getting snagged on bits of scenery when before you dodged obstacles with the elegance of a panther. Then it dawns on you. The bomb is waiting for you to leave before it detonates. There's no race here at all, just well-orchestrated theatre.

When we watch a play, we don't like to see the people operating the lighting or the scaffolding supporting the set. The same is true in a game and such ugly nudity makes us feel we're watching an interactive movie instead of playing a game. The player knows that the developer has coded death out of the experience and the whole point of the exercise, to excite the player, is lost. Even though the audience craves a good story, we like improv a little more than a rigid script in our games. And we like to beat up our developers when they ruin the mood.

That's a bit convenient, isn't it? The designer as designated scapegoat.

There's so much written about games being able to deliver stories on a deeper level because of interactivity, yet all it takes is a quickload to demolish the façade. This doesn't sound like a robust medium, more like a thin sheet of ice supporting player expectations. Put players on rails and everyone wants more freedom. Give them freedom and everyone complains about the lack of realism. It was better in Doom times, when life was a simple binary pleasure. Kill or be killed. You couldn't go moaning to developers about environmental narrative or character arc. Cave Johnson, we're done here.

No, we're not done here.

The player audience evolves, recognising last year's en vogue must-have set-pieces as today's interactive cliché, making the developer's job even tougher. The ability to replay means we're always figuring out the magic tricks and demanding better illusions from the developers. Excise cut-scenes! Wipe that graffiti out! Mute protagonists are overdone! First-person perspective is rubbish! Replace authors with players!

The audience of our game theatre, though, is not the same as that of literature and film. They are a vital piece of the theatrical puzzle, the ones who get to play the lead in the drama. The problem is that every player is different. We each have a different twist to our imagination, a different fantasy to fulfil.

In the first Alliance of Awesome podcast, Armand said he loved Assassin's Creed, loved creeping along the rooftops and bought into it wholesale. But Mrs. HM didn't like it because, as an assassin, her protagonist didn't seem to be very stealthy. Assassinations would invariably end up with a mass-slaughter of guards.

Ben Abraham was so touched by the player-driven narrative of Far Cry 2 that he wrote a perma-death diary which blossomed into a novel of the experience. My reaction to the game was quite different. Its open-world freedom moved me but I found the plot a string of missions with little consequence, handed out by a bunch of interchangeable ciphers.

Then there's Half-Life 2. I loved it so much I had dreams about the bloody thing; I still consider it one of the finest shooters out there, a bold statement in show-not-tell storytelling. Tom Camfield rejects this because a guard won't follow him through a turnstile.

The developers can only take us so far and it's down to us to bridge that final mile, to imagine ourselves into the game. We are the cast of these productions not the audience. Not every player is right for every role.

Instead of charging for admission, game developers should be holding auditions.


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  1. Seen as you’ve not paraphrased or quoted Blow I can’t say much, but fascinating piece Joel.

    “Not every player is right for every role.”

    That’s gold dust. Or at the very least a better way of saying “It’s not you, it’s me.”

  2. Thanks Gregg. This is just another one of those thoughts that have been buzzing about in my head for six months, the idea that the player is the broken element.

    Tough write, though. I wrote a completely different version of this article which got scrapped two days ago, citing all these examples of immersion (from Portal 2 to Beautiful Escape). I was trying to put two different article ideas together but they refused to cooperate and had to go back to just one. (The other concept was on something I was calling “placebo gaming” which will be at least referenced in next week’s piece.)

  3. “My reaction to the game was quite different. Its open-world freedom moved me but I found the plot a string of missions with little consequence, handed out by a bunch of interchangeable ciphers.”


    But I still loved it more than any other game I’d played for at least a decade. Does that seem right to you?

  4. More seriously though, one of the interests that grew out of my permadeath run was exactly this issue you’re talking about: grooming better audiences, or ‘auditioning’ the best ones, as you put it. I don’t think with the budgets and size of markets that big-budget games are ever again going to be able to limit their audience as much as an ‘audition’ might, but we can certainly train the audience to act/think/play differently.

    One of the key things that I think Far Cry 2 did that appealed to me was trust me with figuring out what I’m supposed to think and feel about characters in the world. There’s no morality system telling me I just murdered a man in cold blood, instead a picture is built up of my player character (and other characters, though they’re less fleshed out as you note) over the course of tens of hours… and the picture is a horrible one. I found it uniquely effective.

  5. It reminds me of one of many gaps betweens WRPGs and JRPGs- some people could buy into the fact that their androgynous waif-like heroes could cut skyscraper-sized beasts in half with a stupidly large sword (that could possibly transform into a spaceship). Others couldn’t.

    I think the biggest blow these massive cinematic setpieces have made against more open games is that we really can’t have it both ways, but audiences demand it more and more. Then again, an open game without a good deal of bugs is a dream that’s hardly been met, either.

  6. @Ben: I originally approached this as “why are there people out there that seem to enjoy breaking games?” Tom Camfield’s article was a great example of this (he’s takes a shot as HL2 Ep2 in a later entry). To me, it looked like he was seeking out the game’s obvious limits deliberately so he could say – this, this right here, is your magical immersion, a warm pot of fermented crap.

    It was only recently I switched this around to see the other side, that people like games that I don’t for the same reason – they don’t go charging into a game’s walls and complain about the existence of said boundaries. The role defines them. There’s reasonable doubt over practically every title, with its own crowd of lovers and haters.

    With Far Cry 2, I felt the game was asking too much of me, to pretend its lack of story is all my responsibility. I’m a writer. I wanted story and wasn’t prepared to fill in the blanks for Clint Hocking. At least not in the case.

    You on the other hand, had no problem crossing that gap. I didn’t get invested while you were all in. I can’t tell you you’re wrong to enjoy it so much and you can’t tell me I’m wrong not to (well actually I had a blast in FC2, just for different reasons).

    Like you imply, there’s definitely more to explore down this rabbit hole, in terms of teaching players to enjoy a game – and that is one golden mother of a loaded sentence.

    In a way, this is just another way of saying “reviews are subjective” as they always are. I suppose I could’ve said that instead of being so flowery with theatres and shit. Danc would have had my guts for garters.

    @BeamSplashX: You’re right, most games are part-wonder and part-flaw. The way you play will determine which side you come out in. I came up a STALKER-devotee, despite the games problems (although I should point out I played after all the patches were out). I played GTA:SA and couldn’t understand where all the fun had gone. It’s a mighty fine line. But here’s the weird thing. Mrs. HM and I agree practically all the time on what first-person games we like.

  7. At first I thought Danc was right then I realised how narcissistic his general sentiments were. Can you imagine Valve shutting their development off from the feedback from the frontline? Developers, more than players, need the everyman’s view on things, at the very least for some much needed perspective — even if the everyman can’t articulate exactly what or why something is giving them grief, it’s a damn sight better to know something is amiss than to carry on regardless.

    Anyway OT: Going back to “Not every player is right for every role.”, I can’t help but think of my (limited) experience of Minecraft. Hundreds of thousands of people love the thing but I can’t get my head around the role. I love seeing people’s creations, I love the blocky aesthetic, the atmosphere and scope of the whole thing but I just don’t ‘get’ it. At some point I’m going to have to take the plunge (probably with Armand when the game leaves Beta) but I’ve no idea whether I’ll grow or learn to enjoy it. I hope so. I think.

    I think of all the games I’ve ever played GTA IV was the most crippling. I wanted to play the role of Niko, he seemed like a cool guy, but the game constantly forced me to do things the way Rockstar wanted me to. This open, apparently, sandbox world was compartmentalised in banal straight-jacket ‘events’ and missions that gave very little, if any, room for player creativity and imagination. That hurt a lot. GTA IV was my first experience with the GTA franchise (other than the very first one on the Playstation) and I expected a whole lot more, especially given its high profile and reputation. I was perfect for the role but the production was a pile of ass.

  8. Gregg, I didn’t actually spend too much time reading Danc’s article, because it was obvious from the bat it was telling me stop writing Electron Dance. He would have disapproved of this very article. You can’t tell people when to stop writing or what to read. This may be all self-indulgent handwank at the end of the day but it’s handwank people want to read. I get his point, but it was phrased badly – shut up you handwank nobodies – rather than drawing attention to an important gap in the discussion. Too much of attention on what exists than what doesn’t.

    Try GTA III. I fell for that very quickly. I still think GTA:VC was the high point and thereafter ceased to be what was once great. But I am in a minority, although you and I seem to share certain gaming preferences.

  9. Everything contrived is an attempt to replicate something genuine and often spontaneous. Running through an office space and narrowly escaping an explosion in a non-guided and spontaneous environment takes skill; that experience — harrowing, exciting and rewarding — is contingent on player skill.

    Games now entertain a wider audience than ever. It’s a given that games can’t be designed for the small percentage of gamers with the highest level of skill (although that would make their experience far more enjoyable and rewarding), but I think developers have decided to design games so everyone can feel like they’re in that top percentile of skilled players by artificially replicating these amazing moments previously only experienced by the best of players.

    Initially, I think this was enjoyable for the less skilled players and (it’s still) frustrating for the more skilled players. Now, however, I think everyone — including the more casual players — are seeing through the seams and realizing that they’re being pandered to constantly.

    From a designer’s standpoint — no, that’s wrong, from a PUBLISHER’S standpoint — why would you ever leave that many potential customers on the table because of a barrier to entry on the awesomeness like “skill”?

    I think single player experiences will continue to be guided and awesome moments contingent on player skill will appear less and less. Multiplayer and the amazing skill someone scored in Crysis 2 will be the space where only the most skilled players will get to enjoy the most amazing moments. I don’t agree with, or enjoy, that paradigm, but I think it’s the one developer’s will have going forward.

  10. @Jordan: I think Valve are probably the experts at pulling off games which make you feel smart while managing your play heavily. Then again, I wonder if we are going to start reacting badly to even Valve’s super-polish soon, having developed antibodies to their particular strain of theatre. If everyone gets fed up of these managed experiences then things will have to change. Capitalism demands.