Monday, November 28, 2005

The Real Control Revolution

A lot is being said about Nintendo's Revolution controller. has a nice piece in which they talk to third-party developers about the possibilities of moving beyond tech demos into real, fully-fleshed-out game designs. As I was reading the ideas from Foundation 9's Chris Charla and the other interviewees, I realized that the kind of one-to-one interaction that most people are looking for from the Revolution controller is, in fact, the wrong way to approach this new control system. Everyone immediately thinks of sword fighting (or lightsaber duels) as the "killer app" for the new controller, imagining players swinging the controller to hack away at enemies. However, I believe that the real innovation is much more subtle.

Though current controllers can be scary and off-putting in their complexity (at least to the mainstream "non-gamer"), I would argue that they do their job admirably. There's a reason that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 aren't making significant jumps in controller design. After some simple tutorials, most (good) games have their players performing amazing feats and managing complex systems, all mediated and manipulated through the controller. In the best games, the controller becomes transparent, and the player's desires are translated seamlessly into action. Ideally, it's like driving a car; at first, a new driver is aware (sometimes painfully) of the gas pedal, the brake pedal, the steering wheel, and all of the other controls. But with some practice, the car's interface becomes transparent, and the car becomes an extension of the driver's body. Likewise, most players begin a game conscious of the controller but soon become unaware of it as their bodies are extended into the gameworld.

When I look at the Revolution controller, I don't see players jumping around their living rooms, slashing wildly; I see a more subtle shift towards a faster learning curve (ie, players will be getting to that transparency point faster). Players will still sit on the couch as they play most games. The big slashing motions that we're all imagining will probably be more like flicks of the wrist. It's a less flashy picture to be sure, but I think it's still a huge leap forward. Moving the controller is a much more natural and intuitive interface than a joystick (think about all the people who wave the controller around anyway even though they know it won't do anything), and that initial ease will help drop the learning period closer to zero. Even in established genres, this easier control system will help out. For instance, the issue of "look inversion" in first-person shooters will be basically solved.

By making the interface easier to learn, Nintendo will certainly reduce the intimidation factor, opening up new potential audiences for games, which is, of course, their stated goal. In addition, the new controller will facilitate additional types of interactions that are more diffifcult to map to conventional controllers, such as orchestra conducting, surgery, and so on as shown in their promotional materials. I just don't think full-motion swordfighting will be the killer app.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Destiny of Heroes: Narrative Elements from Linearity

I've often thought of non-linear and emergent stories as the true destiny of interactive narrative in games. However, there are some features of linear games such as God of War (and many, many others) that reinforce the narrative in a particularly pleasing way. Brett Douville has written a thoughtful post about God of War, which got me thinking...

In God of War, the player character is actually defined through the atrocities that he is forced to commit in order to advance through the game. One puzzle (the one that Douville focuses on) includes a human sacrifice that must be perpetrated by the player in order to advance. I would argue that this actually helps the player to feel the simultaneous savagery and horror that define the character of Kratos.

I wonder too if perhaps linearity might contribute to a sense of destiny or fate, elements often associated with heroes or antiheroes. In an interview with Eurogamer, Fumito Ueda has this to say about the idea of multiple endings (and therefore choice) in Shadow of the Colossus: "What I was trying to do, is each time you killed the colossi you can't escape from your own fate..." As the plot moves forward, the player cannot escape from destiny or fate.

Hugh Bowen's recently released study on the current state of emotion in games indicates that players experience a range of emotions during games and that role-playing games are the most cited genre for emotional experience. Far-and-away, the most cited series of games was Final Fantasy, which is heavily linear. In fact, most of the emotional elements of Final Fantasy take place in the cutscenes, which are about as linear as you can get. Is linearity in fact the key to emotion in games?

I don't buy that, but I do think that there are some interesting place to explore in this territory.

Perhaps linearity helps us feel like heroes. We follow the path which destiny (the game designer) has laid out for us. We forge on, courageous with little choice. Perhaps, when we have more choice, our actions reflect more on ourselves, and it is harder to feel heroic. The more choice, the more the game is like real life, in which there is no clear destiny.