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When thinking about interactivity, it is easy to think of verbs: things that are done. And when thinking about games, interactivity is the next concept to come to mind, as well as things you actively do in the game. Rarely does inactivity factor into the conception of interactivity. Halo, of course, isn’t remembered for the times where you’re not shooting guns. And Super Mario Bros. isn’t remembered for that time you didn’t decide to smash a block. But are these moments being overlooked in favor of the yay button? Aren’t activity and inactivity two sides of the same coin? The oscillation between the two states is part of the idea of game pacing: when is enough action enough? When is it too boring? And when is it overwhelming? For relatively low-cost decisions (shoot, don’t shoot) determining when enough is enough is a straight forward task.
As more variables are introduced into game play though, the appropriate balance will be based more and more on personal preferences. The tendency of console games is to introduce novel twists on familiar game play, or to layer multiple game play concepts on top of one another. For instance, Mass Effect layers action with role-playing game mechanics. It sells itself on the fact that the game play is complex in a way that requires you to imprint your preferences on it. But as game play becomes more complex, player preferences are not clear, even to the player. The result can be ambivalence. Should the player invest in one long term strategy, or another? How does he or she know when they are ready to complete a task? Most importantly: how does the designer know when the player knows these things? They can’t.
Ambivalence is something that a game needs to take into account, in addition to all of the things that can happen once a decision is reached. If the player is prodded into making a decision before they are ready, then they are less likely to invest in that decision, and the game becomes that much less meaningful to them. Discussion of interactivity is predominantly about the breadth of choice, and whether or not the player can create something that is uniquely their own. But if the player is forced to decide amongst 16 choices in the span of several minutes, those choices aren’t going to mean much, even if they are unique.
One example of ambivalence being considered well in a game is Chrono Trigger. Specifically the decision when to engage the game’s final boss, Lavos. It can be confronted anytime after the mid-way point of the game. There’s no question about whether or not to fight Lavos in the first place. It is clearly established as the arch-enemy of the game. The question is, when does the player feel ready to engage an enemy with a seemingly infinite amount of power. There is no single prompt for the player to go and defeat it. The player fights Lavos when he or she feels genuinely ready. And for that, I feel that Chrono Trigger makes that fight more memorable to the player by leaving room for ambivalence.
For an example of where ambivalence is not taken into account, look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The sequences with the Dr. border on being comedic. With little warning, the player must answer intimate questions. While I believe it was designed such that the questions are directed to the player, the game presents itself as being from Harry Mason’s perspective. In effect, these deeply personal questions are actually about Harry, and your role is to interpret what you perceive to be Harry’s answers. Without knowing Harry all that well, these questions are meaningless. And without an option to defer on questions and then answer them later, there is no weight to any decisions that are made. The psychology warning at the beginning of the game is entirely unwarranted. I was more afraid of the fact that Chrono Trigger knew I stole an old man’s lunch than Shattered Memories trying to pry at subconscious fears.
It may also be fair to say that part of success of sandbox games lies in player determined pacing, and deferment of significant decisions in favor of other types of game play. Games like Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption are rewarding in how freely you can explore the worlds being presented. You’re not being rushed into making a game changing decision or some sort of moral choice. And even if deciding to hunt buffalo or harvest wheat are less significant questions, they are more meaningful to the player than being forced to make a binary choice between good and evil.
Further reading: Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions