#BoRT: Games Are A One-Sided Conversation

The first time I found myself out in the open during a sunset while playing Red Dead Redemption, I quietly thought to myself “This is incredible. It’s the next best thing to actually traveling west and seeing it in person.”  Seeing those environments began to evoke the same feelings I’d have admiring actual nature.  My surroundings provided a convincing enough facsimile to communicate an idea that meant something to the player in a way that also meant something for the protagonist: that, while John Marston is bound to his past and a mission determined by powers greater than himself, this is what it felt like to be free, and it was what John desired.  Photorealism in games can create a connection between the player and their game with a great deal of nuance and thoughtfulness.  But then again so can scenes in movies,  well written passages in novels, or many other works of art.  Are games like Red Dead Redemption representative of digital artists striving to achieve realism just as artists in other mediums have in centuries past?

Red Dead Redemption separates itself from these other art forms in as far as realism in its presentation is only a part of what’s ultimately being communicated to the player.  The player can control John and explore these environments as they desire.  John and the player’s goals become intertwined.  Games are about the ongoing “conversation” between the player and the game.  Chris Crawford, in his 2004 book Chris Crawford On Interactive Storytelling described interactivity as:

A cyclic process between two or more active agents in which each agent alternately listens, thinks, and speaks.

I’ve always liked that definition, as dry and simple as it is.  It captures what games uniquely bring to the creative process.  It comes as a surprise to absolutely no one though.  Anytime the games-as-art debate comes up, interactivity is hailed as being the quality that folks like Roger Ebert fail to appreciate in games.  But when you break down interactivity into its base components (listening, thinking, and speaking) it’s easier to see why people who aren’t game enthusiasts don’t entirely understand what the big deal is.  The systems we use to play games are compact super computers that can be used to search for the cure for cancer and simulate complex natural phenomenon.  So you can cross “thinking” off the list of traits found in interactivity in games.  (I might wish for better game AI, but games do a decent’ish enough job.)  Games are similarly doing a great job of “speaking”, be it in the literal sense of voice acting or in the sense that games can communicate ideas through a combination of photorealistic graphics, lifelike animations, and impressive sound design.  Are games any good at listening though?

All three game console producers have made much of motion controls over the last six years.  It was perceived that providing motion controls in games would make for a more realistic experience. More often than not motion controls are more of a struggle to trigger the correct in-game gesture than it is an expression of the player that the game thinks about and responds to.  They were more gimmicks than game-changers, but that didn’t stop people from first imagining how cool it would be able to play a light saber game that mirrored your motions move for move.  And it’s still a goal pursued by many.  Most recently, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson set out to get funding to help him build a sword-fighting engine.

"This is not a sword."

“This is not a sword.  It’s not even a knife.  It’s not a sword game if you have to pull a trigger or push a button to swing your sword.”

Stephenson’s point in creating this engine is that the unique qualities of martial arts can’t be captured and communicated to the player through use of a game pad.  Input is a key limiting factor in games as a medium today.  Game enthusiasts can spend all day thinking about what they could do if there were such a thing as a holodeck (actually, don’t think about too hard.)  “Listening” is the area where the greatest gains can be made in games.

When game skeptics look at console and PC gaming, there isn’t a whole lot at a high level to distinguish games from channel surfing on a TV or typing up a document.  There are some things that video games can do to allow players to express themselves through a game pad (aside from the basic verbs that are commonly used in existing genres.)  Mass Effect provides branching dialogue trees and Left 4 Dead has a “director” that changes the pace of the action in the level based on how it thinks the player is performing.  These are cool game mechanics, but they are the equivalent having a conversation using morse code over a telegraph.  It’s slow, deliberate, and leaves a great deal of room for interpretation on the other end.  Games are good at delivering content, but they suck at listening to the player.  Game enthusiasts know the potential of this interactive medium, but putting more effort into making prettier graphics won’t be nearly as significant as devising meaningful ways for the player to interact with their games.  It’s the weakest part of the equation, and its stopping others from seeing games as being truly interactive.

Game pads, mice, and keyboards are great, and the industry knows how to use them well.  But only when games “listen” with the same resolution that it “speaks” will the medium really take off.  I’ll close this out with a small wish list of things I’d like games to listen for in the future and incorporate into gameplay:

  • Heart rate and respiration: let the game know when I’m scared and what’s scaring me.
  • Tension: Is the player holding onto the controller for dear life?  Are they getting angry?
  • Gaze Tracking: What’s the player paying attention to?  Are they fixating on their score, or a life bar?
  • Body Language: Is the player on the edge of their seat?
  • Brain Waves: And to go for broke: just start reading my mind, video games.  It shouldn’t be hard to do better at reading between the lines than Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did.

Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table.  The preceding post was an entry to the September 2012 theme: New Horizons.

3 Responses to “#BoRT: Games Are A One-Sided Conversation”

  1. February 19, 2016 at 12:48 am

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  2. March 21, 2016 at 12:23 am

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