This may end up reading like a savage game review, but that’s not my intent. My intent is to point out that there are basic design rules and responsibilities that all of us should be embracing at this stage in the development of the interactive medium. If there are compelling reasons, these basic rules can and should be ignored in exchange for achieving specific effects, but I expect few such occasions to arise in mainstream interactive works, just as few mainstream novels need to break the basic rules of point of view to tell an entertaining story. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to ignore such artistic or theoretical exceptions on the compelling grounds that most interactive designers who drop the ball do so not because they are trying to make rarified craft choices, but because they don’t actually know what they’re doing. (See also Failing the Artistic License Test.)
The game that prompted this post was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MoH:AA), which is a first-person shooter set in WWII Europe. To be sure, I did have my share of fun playing the game, and there’s plenty the team got right. The problem is that much of what they got right was built on a faulty foundation that needlessly detracted from my play experience. While there has been plenty written about these design mistakes in game reviews, there has been little notice given to their root cause, or to how craft knowledge can help detect such basic mistakes at the design stage.
The first major flaw I encountered in MoH:AA was that enemy units could stand, kneel or lie prone, while my player-character could stand and kneel but not lie prone. This single aspect of the design not only destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the WWII setting, but it made me feel like I was actively being cheated by the designers. Getting caught in the open by a prone enemy sniper, or getting into a firefight with an enemy soldier who then went prone, was infuriating because that option had been denied me.
The second major flaw was the decision not to include a map with each scenario, even if the map only gave topographical or ‘last-known’ information. While a compass was shown at the top of the main screen, it’s function was completely superfluous because compass directions were almost never referenced in any meaningful context. Instead, the outer ring of the compass included a combination pointer/range finder that constantly indicated where I should go next, further revealing the compass to be the window dressing that it was. The design decision to omit maps that would have given me an objective sense of my surroundings, and thus would have made the compass necessary for gameplay, meant that I never took real ownership of any of the navigational objectives (Find X!) given in the mission briefings. Instead, by assuming complete responsibility for player-character navigation through a ‘Go Here!’ pointer, the designers crippled any imaginative involvement I might have developed with the player-character, with the setting, and with the mission objectives.
The third major flaw was the relentless emphasis on linearity, even when there was no need for it from a design perspective. While linearity in a shooter can help designers make sure players don’t become lost or bored, and can make it easier to anticipate where triggers should be placed for scripted events, linearity also negatively impacts interactivity (which is a synonym for player choice). Designers must be constantly aware of this tradeoff, and constantly work to keep the player from noticing when and how freedom of movement has been limited. Unfortunately, linearity informs almost every design decision in MoH:AA, right down to whether or not you can squeeze by a rock at the edge of the map, or slink behind a building next to, but not abutting, a perimeter wall. In almost every instance where the designers could have opened the map up on a micro or macro level, allowing me to explore or use even simple objects for cover, the choice was made to deliberately and needlessly force me into a gauntlet.
Universal Design Rule #2
Rule #1 in the design of commercial entertainment in any medium is simply this: Entertain. If you don’t provide the customer with fun (enjoyment), then no matter how complex or cutting edge your product is, it’s not going to sell. The interactive version of this rule is that if you don’t provide the player with something fun to do, then no matter how complex, cutting edge or interactive it is, it’s not going to sell.
All rules after Rule #1 deal with how entertaining products are created, and no rule is more important than Rule #2: Be consistent. The commercial success of storytellers in all passive mediums is predicated on consistency, and the need for consistency is constant whether a fictional world parallels our own or is wildly fantastic. Since it goes without saying that consistency is also critical in all rules-based processes, including simulations that run on computers, it should be fairly obvious that products that attempt to integrate storytelling and simulation will need to be consistent throughout.
Consistency is important because from the first moment an audience encounters a work of entertainment they begin building a mental model of the rules that define that work. For example, audiences watching a movie learn what the point of view is going to be, what the tone is (how humor and drama will be handled), what the internal logic of each introduced character is, and whether there are any fantastic ideas at play, such as aliens visiting earth, or human beings gaining super-heroic powers. Interactive users learn the same things about the fictional elements of the games they play, but their mental model also includes how the controls interface with the game world, what the game objectives are, and how the modeled (simulated) processes in the game actually function.
The main objective in creating a consistent mental model is to help the player embrace a world that does not actually exist, or to experience something virtually that would be too dangerous or expensive to experience in reality. The more consistent we are, the greater the likelihood that the actual techniques we use to communicate the experience will quickly become transparent, allowing the player to fully immerse themselves. By the same token, inconsistencies shatter the player’s suspension of disbelief, terminating any involvement save rational thought – usually along the lines of, “What the…?”
While the decision to break consistency may, in exceedingly rare instances (which you will in all likelihood never encounter even if you live to be five thousand years old) be a valid artistic choice, the decision to strive for consistency as a basic design goal is not an artistic choice. In any medium, consistency is essential to the crafting of commercial entertainment.
Consistency as Design Test
Let’s now imagine that the MoH:AA design team had had consistency in mind from the beginning, from their earliest speculative thoughts about what their game would become. How would that conscious awareness have affected the inconsistencies I mentioned above?
The moment the MoH:AA design team noticed that they were talking about having enemy units that could lie prone, while the player wouldn’t be able to adopt the same point of view, the options should have been obvious. Either they could have allowed the enemy units to only stand or kneel, making them like the player, or they could allowed the player to lie prone like the enemy units. (In a moment it will be clear why the game’s setting demanded that the latter choice be selected.)
Failure to act in this case was not a design choice, it was a design error. Not only did it destroy suspension of disbelief, make the player feel like they were being cheated, and generate negative comments in reviews, but in large part it forced commentary on those points. What is perhaps not apparent, however, is that acting to correct inconsistencies doesn’t just prevent problems or bring the design up to a minimum spec, it also confers positive benefits. In this case, allowing the user to go prone would have increased the tactical complexity of the game, encouraged the player to be bolder, and given the player an option besides instant death and reloading when they triggered a scripted ambush.
The moment the MoH:AA design team noticed they were talking about omitting maps, and only providing a compass as visual cover for a navigation beacon, the inconsistency between the period setting and the proposed navigation system should have been resolved. Yes, the argument can be made that MoH:AA was meant to be fun, not realistic, but that argument fails given the attention to detail in the rest of the game. Simply put, the proposed navigation system – an arrow constantly telling the player which way to go – was inconsistent with the level of detail and realism present in the simulation and narrative context.
Whatever the motivation(s) for the nav decision, it was a design failure. Providing the player with basic topographical maps would have aided navigation, added to suspense (“Wow, I have to get way over there…?), and added to suspension of disbelief by supporting the setting, as opposed to detracting from it. More importantly, an opportunity was lost to actually teach players how to use a simple topographical map to locate streams, mountains, ridges, etc. – putting the player not only in the situational point of view of a WWII soldier, but also in the soldier’s psychological head space. (Players who did not enjoy that aspect of the game could have been giving the option of enabling on-map icons and direction arrows.)
The moment the MoH:AA design team noticed that they were talking about making relentlessly linear levels for a first-person shooter, the inconsistency between the tactical combat simulation the engine clearly supported, and the linearity of the levels, should have been resolved. At the very least, the design team should have recognized that linearity in any form is a direct threat to interactivity, particularly if that interactivity is reasonably expected by the player. First-person shooters, by their very mechanics, allow for tactical freedom in virtual spaces, which means the edges of those virtual spaces need to be made as transparent (invisible) as possible. While the linear metaphor of a hallway makes sense in a building, relentlessly linear pathways through succeeding buildings, yards, fields and towns fail the transparency test.
Ideally the design team should have recognized that providing more open spaces (choices) for the player to explore (interact) did not have to increase the likelihood that the player would become bored or lost. It also did not mean that the design team couldn’t use scripted events, triggered events, or linear sequences: they simply had to work a little harder to control the access points to such sequences within the overall space. Consistency with genre expectations and with the inherent interactivity of the game engine clearly demanded less linearity in the level design, but not necessarily fewer scripted events. Making the levels almost exclusively linear in MoH:AA made it easier for the designers to script interesting moments, but it did nothing to make the game more fun for the player.
The Seduction of the Cinematic Moment
[Note: MoH:AA was developed by 2015, Inc. The first add-on to MoH:AA, Spearhead, was developed by what appears to be an in-house EA development team called EALA.]
After playing through MoH:AA I felt like I’d played another first-person shooter that could have been so much more than it ended up being. However, after playing through the Spearhead add-on (during which I actually flashed on both the coin-op game Galaga and an old monochrome Sierra adventure game) I have revised that opinion. Whereas I used to explain design flaws in narrative shooters on the basis of insufficient craft knowledge (as I did above), I now think that no longer fully explains the end products we’re seeing. Rather, I now believe that interactive designers are also being seduced away from the strengths of our medium by a mistaken notion of how cinematic moments can and should be created for the player.
I first coined the term ‘cinematic moment’ to describe something I witnessed while working as the mission designer on Fighter Squadron: Screamin’ Demons over Europe, a WWII flight sim. (I also mention that experience here, in a series of e-mails I exchanged with Chris Crawford on the subject of interactive storytelling.) What I experienced was an emergent cinematic moment that sprang not from a canned cinematic or scripted encounter, but from the combination of setting and simulation that defined the product. Specifically, while trying to shoot down an enemy fighter, an AI-controlled ally slashed between me and the plane I was chasing, firing his guns at a target out of my field of view. The power of that in-the-moment visual was literally chilling, and I recognized immediately that my obligation as a mission designer was not to script such moments, but to increase as much as possible the potential for such moments to occur on the fly.
What was interesting about MoH:AA, and particularly about the heavily scripted Spearhead, was that I found the less-scripted parts of the game much more fun than the pre-designed moments. Put me in a forest with a few enemy units throwing grenades at me, firing from behind objects, and chasing me if I tried to fall back, and I had a great time. Put me on rails and force me through elaborately-scripted sequences and I was honestly bored most of the time. (I’m not joking when I say that playing Spearhead often felt more like playing Dragon’s Lair: Battle for Berlin than a first-person shooter.)
As a designer with a heavy writing background who knows how easy it is to prepare an exciting, dramatic or humorous moment, I tend not to think too much about specific scenes that I would like to create in an interactive work. To me, that’s bass-ackwards, because I know no matter how compelling I make the moment in an interactive context, I can make if five or ten times more compelling in a movie or novel. It occurs to me, however, that many game designers – including the teams working on Spearhead, and, to a lesser extent, MoH:AA – don’t know this. Instead, designers of first-person shooters seem to be increasingly drawn to the excitement of authorially-controlled moments without regard for the damage they’re doing to the player’s experience.
It’s easy to see how this could happen, because it happens in all narrative mediums. People sit around, talking about a new project, and inevitably somebody says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if….?!” Although most of these ‘What if…?’ ideas die an early death, some of them are actually cool as authorially-controlled moments, which means they’re probably also going to be cool to make, and cool to see when they’re done, at which time the critics and the fans might even describe them as cutting-edge cool, or >gasp!< groundbreaking cool. Add in the fact that the hardworking members of an interactive design team are often looking for fun and rewarding things to do while enduring two or three years of development, and there’s very little incentive not to go down the authorially-controlled road.
And who’s really going to complain? Most players like a good scripted sequence in an interactive product just as much as they like a good explosion in a movie. They don’t have the craft knowledge to discern how scripted events could be made less intrusive, more compelling, and derive more power through magicianship (faux interactivity), so they don’t perceive what they’re missing or giving up. Game mags love this kind of stuff because it looks great in the screenshots and it plays to the hardcore gamer who wants to test his high-end hardware. The marketing people love it because it’s something they can sell to the players and gaming mags, even if the game itself is no more interactive than a side-scrolling arcade game circa 1985.
Quiet on the Set!
The problem with all this is that we’re not talking about making interactive entertainment any more. What we’re talking about is machinima, which has nothing to do with player choice. In fact, from the perspective of interactivity, the difference between something like the half-track sequence in Spearhead, in which your job is to shoot everything that moves while your half-track careens across the countryside on rails, and the old 2D Space Invaders game, is practically zero. Yeah, you get to do it in 3D, but the thing you’re doing – shooting objects that are shooting you – is little different.
Ironically, we’re currently making games at at time when there is horsepower to burn, but we still seem to be spending too much time on eye candy. We’ve got graphics capabilities and CPU power and memory capacities that developers even two years ago would have cut off the pizza-delivery-person’s arm for, but that doesn’t seem to have encouraged designers to increase the complexity of the sims that underlie their games. Rather, what it seems to have done is encourage first-person-shooter designers to become directors, living out their machinima fantasies at the expense of gameplay.
And if game designers are becoming more like directors, the influx of writing talent that I always believed was necessary in order for our industry to become a truly mature medium might now only make this problem worse. Why? Because all writers are trained to exercise 100% authorial control in the pursuit of the effects they want to achieve, and an emphasis on machinima and scripting plays to that tendency. I’ve always said that writers coming to our medium need to understand the medium first, but what if the medium stops asking them to? What if designers are no longer saying, “Look, we need to figure out some way to put compelling narrative context around our interactivity,” and instead they’re saying, “We’re doing a scene where an iceberg sinks the player’s ship, so write a few sequences we can choose from.”
Writers who understand both storytelling and interactivity can help developers first and foremost by stressing that the goal is not one of simple drama, but one of integration. The player’s experience is the one that counts, and narrative efforts to improve that experience must not come at the expense of interactivity, no matter how cool a sequence might be when it’s triggered.
Deus Ex Machinima
Ultimately, as with all other mainstream forms of entertainment, our objective as creators is to get the player to experience interactive works in their head, not simply to watch them on a screen. While audience/player willingness to suspend disbelief can easily be exploited in pure passive and interactive forms, the integration of narrative elements with an interactive process presents a new set of technical challenges. Originally these challenges were met with an easily digestible mission/cutscene/mission structure, allowing the player a little downtime between frantic periods of button-clicking interactivity. Now, however, scripted moments are coming in the middle of periods of user control, often destroying the player’s imaginative involvement with both aspects of the medium.
The origin of this damage is that interactive designers are routinely putting the well-known narrative techniques of the film industry ahead of the simulations which underlie our products. This switching of priorities is not in the best long-term interest of either our medium or our customers, and we’re clearly not going to raise the bar in the interactive industry if we rely on the film industry’s bag of tricks in order to entertain. Jerking the controls away from the player and showing them a bit of machinima isn’t going to make up for failing to provide compelling interactivity, no matter how pretty the pictures are.
When Half-life came out it was groundbreaking, but it was also only half right. Half-life 2 is around the corner now, and I’m hopeful that the correct lessons have been taken from the original. The developers of Max Payne 2, a relentlessly linear third-person shooter, are also saying all the right things about using simulated processes (instead of scripting) to increase emotional involvement for the player, but given the nature of the original product it’s not clear how far they’re actually going to go, even assuming they have the skills to get there.
As an industry we have a complete monopoly on interactivity as a unique means of creating fun, and we need to remember how amazing that opportunity is. We need to continue to develop specific techniques that will allow us to integrate narrative context into our simulations, but we need to keep our emphasis on the interactive experience from the first stages of design through the end stages of production. Narrative context is simply one way of adding value to interactive simulations, regardless of how useful that context may be in attracting an audience or selling product.
In closing, a sincere apology to the MoH:AA team. Their work is better than most, and that I chose their game as fodder for the bulk of this note was due only to the fact that their game was actually worth playing. Clearly, sequences such as the first part of the Omaha Beach mission were inspired, and provided a sense of place that validated the use of scripted events.
— Mark Barrett