Monday, February 28, 2011

More Streamlining

While still pondering the meaning and consequences of streamlining adventure games, I got to thinking about other game genres as well. I came to the conclusion that I disagree with Jonathan Blow when he says that adventure games are the only ones which haven't been streamlined. Again, this is assuming I got to the bottom of his tragically obscure opinion.

However, if indeed he meant that in adventure games the problem is that the player has no real direction - he's solving puzzles without knowing why - well, then, the same can be said for shooters. It is true that FPS games are more scripted and their story often intense and gripping, light-years away from Doom's endless corridors of bad guys who basically stand in place and wait to be gibbed. I'd still argue, though, that players often don't know what they're doing.

And, unlike Blow, I'm going to give an example. The game that immediately sprang to mind when I thought of this was Portal. By the way, I'm going to speak a bit of the game in terms of plot so if you haven't played this, consider this your spoiler warning and skip to the next paragraph. The first part of Portal is a self-aware puzzle game. The protagonist is solving puzzles to apparently test the portal gun. This part is 'streamlined' in the sense that the player knows what he needs to do and why, and so is in tune with the plot. Things get complicated once Chell (the protagonist) escapes the death trap prepared by GLaDOS. This is actually a beautiful moment of design when the player is being lowered into the fire and, without instructions or hints, he has to understand for himself that he needs to use the portal gun to escape.
After this moment, however, the design begins to break in terms of said streamlining. The player is still in a puzzle game, but now moving forward has no context. When I played the game I realized that I'd been, for some reason, heading towards GLaDOS herself only when I actually got there. Each puzzle the player solves after the escape leads him to the end, and that's only because it is the only way to move on.

This is a technique used in all shooters. Some don't try to pretend and just give the player a straight path, while others give more breathing space. But in every situation, the player moves forward because that's the only way that isn't backwards. The player is not always thinking in terms of plot or game-space, but rather "Is this where the game wants me to go?" "am I going the right way or will I have to double back?"

This isn't only because a shooter is linear. Deus Ex has moments like these as well. Granted, there is definitely more of a sense of purpose when the player gets an objective and a level of choice in how to perform it, but with all the bonus experience and hidden places this becomes a treasure hunt rather than a streamlined game. On the very first level of the game I spent a good hour trying to get into a place that really wasn't worth the time, all the while thinking it was a hidden way to the objective. These gaps between what the player thinks and what he does in the game world are always there.

The question I'm finally confronted with is; is this really such a bad thing? I think this desire for streamlining comes from a perspective that sees the player and game protagonist as one - the immersion must never break. As a literary critic I don't see why that is necessary. Games don't have to be escapist. Just because they're interactive doesn't mean that every time the player does something it's on behalf of the character on screen and they're minds must be as one. Besides, as a lot of gamers know from experience, games can be very atmospheric and immersive even if while playing them you spend a lot time thinking "how can I pass this level?" rather than "how can I save the princess?"

There are many more games and genres in which the player's actions are out of the plot's context. This is how games work. If there was complete unison between player and character I'm not sure it could be a game. That's not a bad thing either, but there is room for different types of games with different levels of immersion or interactivity.

I do agree that adventure games are perhaps in a most dire need of a re-imagining, though. I hope Blow has an ace in his inventory.

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