Whatever you think about interactive entertainment (commonly referred to as video games or computers games), and whatever you think about the long-term potential for interactive storytelling, there is one critical and indisputable difference between interactive works and all other forms of entertainment. Movies, books, television, theater and even live-action sports are all witnessed, while interactive works are participatory.
This may seem like an obvious point, and perhaps even trivial, but it isn’t. It’s not only central to what makes interactive entertainment compelling, it’s a revolutionary change in the relationship between entertainment product and intended audience. Because players/users make choices instead of witnessing other people’s choices, the meaning inherent in an interactive work is heightened and intensified, both personally and culturally.
To see this clearly, imagine any gripping or emotionally-charged scene you’ve ever experienced in a passive form — a great moment in a novel, a thrilling scene in a film. Now translate that experience from one you’re witnessing to one you’re participating in. Instead of reading about the gunfight, you’re shooting. Instead of watching the heroine slip past the mob, you’re doing the sneaking. Instead of witnessing Sophie’s choice, you have to make Sophie’s choice.
There is no parallel to this kind of experience in any other medium. It is a different dimension, and relative to the maturity of other mediums the possibilities inherent in this new dimension have barely been tapped. Again, try to imagine any truly conflicted emotional moment you’ve born witness to in passive fiction, then translate that to an interactive experience where you have freedom of choice. That is the essence of the passion that anyone has for interactivity. It is also the essence of the passion which causes neophytes to overlook the severe limitations facing the interactive storyteller, including, chiefly, the inability to compute language interaction.
Still, there is a great deal that can be done, and not all of it is fun. The ability to confront the audience (player/user) with morally conflicted, ambiguous or criminal options is inherent in the medium, and from a purely artistic point of view no situation can be said to be off limits. Yet it’s also true that some situations are either not for everyone (children, say, and the criminally insane), or potentially traumatic for almost everyone (and here I won’t cite an example: feel free to horrify yourself).
Contrast this with the fact that just about every disgusting, perverted, horrifying or sensational act you can imagine has already been memorialized in a fictional work in one or all passive mediums. There just isn’t a lot of new ground to cover in terms of telling taboo or revolutionary stories, and even claims to revolution are differentiated only by degree. Torture is torture. Cruelty is cruelty. Carnage is carnage.
But the same cannot be said for interactive works. Even as franchises like Grand Theft Auto have exploited new levels of interactive violence for fun and profit, there are still places developers have yet to tread. For this reason, as the competition for eyeballs gets tougher, there always seems to be at least one developer determined to take another step into unexplored territory each year, and this year is no different.
The title in question is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2), and there is already a big push to make the title the hit of the upcoming holiday season. In keeping with past traditions in all mediums, the makers of the game have been leaking information on a controversial aspect of the game. They have been doing this to generate buzz, and to position themselves as cutting-edge with the heavily male gaming demographic that buys their product. (There’s nothing new or remarkable about any of this.)
Here’s an example of the hype involved:
On the heels of a recent analyst projection that Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 will be the highest-selling game of 2009 comes a report that publisher Activision is aiming even higher, instructing its ad agency to prepare for the “biggest entertainment launch of all time.”
According to a story published by Advertising Age, Activision told contracted advertising firm TBWA\Chiat\Day that the launch of Modern Warfare 2 will eclipse not only all other game launches, but those of films and other entertainment forms as well.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that’s loony, and of course you’re right. But the job of a marketing department in the entertainment business is not to tell the truth or even be in touch with reality. The job of the marketing department is to get people interested, and whatever it takes to get people interested is the moral equivalent of godliness. Lighting yourself on fire might be bad from a health perspective, but from a marketing perspective it’s a rare mix of guts and genius — particularly if you’re working on, say, a marshmallow campaign.
There are, of course, many predictable ways to sink a hook into the gill of your intended audience. In this case, while details are sketchy, there seems to be a possibility that you as player will be asked to participate in a terrorist attack on a civilian target:
The game follows players as they “face off against a terrorist threat dedicated to bringing the world to the brink of collapse,” the company said. This includes a plot line in which the player infiltrates a Russian villain’s inner circle to defeat him. Presumably, the airport attack is one of the scenes in which the player acts as part of the villain’s group.
In an interview before the footage was leaked, Vince Zampella, head of the game’s developer, Infinity Ward, said the studio intended for its game to startle players.
“We push the story,” he said. “We want the player to be emotionally attached. We want them to be emotionally shocked.”
Activision says the game is designed so that part may be skipped without losing any of the story.
If it occurs to you that such a situation raises a number of ethical questions, I agree. But it also raises artistic questions and craft questions. And more importantly, it underlines the degree to which interactivity and all other forms of entertainment are different. If this was the plot line of a movie, a book, or a television show it would be described as cliche, predictable or boring.
Despite the fact that this storytelling choice was clearly done as a means to a marketing end, it can’t be dismissed outright. Because this is not just a question of cheap theatrics. Fundamentally, what’s happening here is a question of point of view — twice.
First, it’s a question of point of view relative to all mediums of entertainment. The difference between interactive and passive works is exactly that: passive works do not require input in order to be appreciated. In fact, passive works can function without an audience at all. A book can sit on a shelf, unopened, and yet it is still a completed work. Nothing needs to be added, no choices need to be made. A film is a film whether it runs for a packed house or one person or none.
But interactivity is not like this. An interactive product sitting idle on a computer hard drive is not like an unopened book. It is — at least in theory — like an unwritten book because the choices that will make up the experience in retrospect have yet to be made. (Yes, there is a lot of ‘interactivity’ which is not actually interactive. Here I’m talking about the real thing: choices which determine outcomes.)
Second — and for my purposes today, more importantly — interactivity is about point of view relative to the audience. As much as a novel or film might try to put you in ‘the mind of a serial killer,’ you’re not really acting out the role of a serial killer. Contrast this with titles like Manhunt and you can see the inherent effect this participatory point of view has on the audience.
But interactivity is neither good or bad, right or wrong. It’s simply unique among our storytelling entertainments. It’s easy to lose sight of the difference when cries of censhorship are thrown on First Amendment rocks, and particularly so when developers are trying to pick a fight in order to generate sales, but that’s all beside the point.
The key point is that if Modern Warfare 2 (or Manhunt) was a movie, or a novel, or any other passive form, nobody would be talking about any of this. Despite the limitations inherent in interactive storytelling, interactivity delivers a unique perspective to the audience, and unlike passive mediums the reaches of this point of view technique have yet to be fully explored in every narrative context.
That’s the interactive difference. It’s not just hype. It’s not just a game. It’s not just violence. It’s a fundamentally new point of view.
— Mark Barrett