I’ve been working and living outside the walls of the interactive community for a year and a half now (maybe closer to two), and I have a few thoughts about the industry as seen from that distance.
Many moons ago the interactive world sneered at anyone who tried to use full motion video or other cinematic techniques to bring actors (and by extension, narratives) to life. That was back in the day when the processor was going to solve every problem, and we were going to be able to tell interactive stories on the fly. Because FMV was non-interactive – and inherently scripted – it was derided as an antiquated solution to a new-age problem.
Flash forward to today, and much of the talk in the IE community is about how GPU’s are spitting out dynamic scenes that look as good as film, and how scripted sequences are conveying the same force and power of the best motion pictures. And this is all being done with a straight face.
The awful truth is that most attempts to create real narrative interactivity have failed, and most of the techniques currently being used to deliver narrative force have been derived from the film industry. Sure, using game-engine graphics for cutscenes and scripted sequences provides cost savings over location shoots, safety during production no matter how crazy the stunts, and continuity with other graphics in the game, but the end product is still a movie.
Think about it. While a lot of the eye candy that helps sell the best shooters requires a processor, much of the narrative does not. Which raises an interesting question. How much of the entertainment value of a given successful title is due to algorithms, and how much due to the non-interactive authorial control being exercised by the designers? Even five years ago adventure game designers were derided for heavily scripting their games, while the case could be made that their craft knowledge is now more applicable and important than it ever was.
Years ago I wrote an article that talked about the need to focus on real interactivity, where choices determine outcomes, as well as the need to improve on magicianship, or the illusion of interactivity. In the intervening years, the one thing the interactive industry has really gotten right is convincing the user that a button click has determined an outcome, when in fact it is only revealing an outcome that has been pre-designed. Predictably, as products have tipped more toward these predetermined effects, the promise of interactivity – where each user would be able to make free determinative choices in a given environment – has waned. And serious commercial attempts to move past the current limitations seem to have waned as well.
Are people still fighting the good fight? Sure, but just as many people are faking the good fight, and there aren’t that many people in the industry who can tell the difference. If the industry continues to excel at magicianship, there may come a day when there is very little interactivity in any product, because it costs money to give the user choices and options.
Business models have firmed up, bureaucracies have calcified, and everyone knows where the sure money is so those are the products that get into production. The goal of providing interactive storytelling has been replaced by the goal of faking interactive storytelling, which probably isn’t a healthy development for an industry whose main selling point is interactivity.
Gatekeepers and Death
I was as interested as anyone in trying to advance the cause of narrative interactivity. But after having endured the disintegration of an incredible opportunity because of the blindness of that team’s leadership, I took a long look at the premise of leaving it up to others in life to determined when I would and would not have the opportunity to create. In the end I decided I’d much rather make my own stuff under my own direction, even if it was in another medium, than wait around to see if the fates would shine on me at the big table. I’ve just seen too many people grinding it out year after year, hoping that their self-absorbed boss or bottom-line company will give them a chance to show what they can do, and I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live if you’re driven by creativity. Unless of course you’re immortal.
Which brings me to my next point. Clearly one of the factors in all this is that I’ve gotten old enough that I think about how much time I have left to be productive, but that’s only part of the story. The main reason I can’t really trust the fates is that I just haven’t run across that many leaders and managers who understand that their job is getting the best out of the people they have, as opposed to getting what they themselves want out of the people they have.
That’s true in sports, too, where there are two kinds of coaches. The most common kind, by far, is the coach who has a system he or she likes. These coaches teach their system to their team, molding each crop of players into pre-assigned slots in the system, whether or not they’re ideally suited to those slots. The other – and much rarer – kind of coach is the one who looks at what each team member excels at and then builds the team around those skills and abilities. Unfortunately, I’ve been looking for that kind of coach most of my creative life, but I have yet to find one.
Caring About Caring
I remain convinced that the key to real mainstream success for the interactive industry is getting people to care emotionally about the interactive choices they make. That’s true for the illusion of interactivity as well as for real interactivity, but it’s emotional involvement derived from real interactivity that the industry needs to demonstrate. More than anything, users still want to care emotionally (as opposed to rationally) about the in-game choices they make.
If there’s a final irony in this for me, it’s that after watching millions of dollars get flushed down the toilet in the IE industry, watching failed designs get green-lighted due to incompetence, watching craft knowledge get trumped by ego, watching people with power and no talent abuse people with talent and no power, I ended up not caring about the industry. I tried to deny it for a while, but when I’m doing creative work I have to care about what I’m doing in order to do it well, and I didn’t have any reason to care about interactive entertainment any longer.
So, where to from here? As of today I’m about seventy pages into my first novel, and while I don’t know if it’s any good or not, I do know that I’m enjoying myself and feeling good about my work. I care about writing, and about what I’m writing.
I’m also learning the craft of stained glass, and I’m even doing a little drawing and painting, which I haven’t done in years. Chances are none of this will pay off enough to keep my head above water and I’ll probably end up driving a dump truck, but that’s okay, too. Provided the brakes work.
— Mark Barrett