In this feature, Christos Reid, general freelancer, joins me on discussing control within games, whether we have too little, too much or just enough. What is your opinion? Let us know once you’ve read out little debate. NOTE – This feature is full to the brim of spoilers for Gears of War 2, Call of duty 4 and Mass Effect! You’ve been warned!
Are we as gamers given enough control in games? I don’t mean in terms of the controller in your hand or the keyboard and mouse that sits on your desk. I mean control over the characters and situations that we find in our adventures. Let me paint you a picture – and I’ll warn you, my pictures show the full picture, in other words they contain many spoilers.
When I finished Gears of War 2, I’d played with a very good friend of mine on Co-Op, he as Dom and myself as Marcus. Around halfway through the story, Dom’s main storyline comes to head, after trawling the underground locust city Dom finally finds Maria, his wife. We’ve followed Dom through the initial game and seen his heartache at Marias absence; this is culminating in just one cut scene. Dom opens a casket style prison/torture cell and Maria falls into his arms, a beautiful woman, the love of his life in his eyes, in ours, a hideously disfigured husk of a human being. After the realisation that his wife has been tortured, mentally and physically he has no choice but to put her out of her misery.
Despite the fact that this is an emotional scene, there was a sense of emptiness on our part. There is a distinct lack of control in this situation. On one hand a dramatic climax to a rollercoaster, on the other, an empty disconnection to the drama unfolding. What’s my point I hear you say? I’ll get to that. The fact that we all knew as soon as Maria fell out of that casket that she would be a mess of a woman and that due to the style of the game and story being told that Dom would have to make a decision on her fate. But we’ve spent years with Marcus and Dom, years waiting for the moment that Dom would find his wife, we’ve fought the Brumaks, and we’ve lost teammates along the way. So why couldn’t we, the player, pull the trigger?
It’s simple really, the person playing as Dom in the campaign is watching their character that they’ve spent all this time controlling and in the one moment that has to be the highest point (relatively speaking) of Dom’s journey and at the crux point all of the control is taken away. Close your eyes and imagine that scene again, picture yourself playing as Dom and looking into Marias eyes, a hand raises a pistol to Marias temple and the symbol for the right trigger pops up on the screen. Now YOU have to pull the trigger, YOU found your wife; YOU are putting her out of her misery.
Now is this a good thing? It could be argued that this is a step too far in gaming; it’s bad enough that as gamers we have to deal with criticism in the press for games being too violent. You could also say that after the act, you the gamer would feel an even closer connection with Dom, his character and his story. After all isn’t that the point of having an emotional story that attempts to stir up feelings inside you?
There’s an opportunity to use a comparison and look at the “Megaton” scenario in Fallout 3, do you detonate a nuclear bomb and destroy a town and all of its inhabitants. After all, you are the one who pushes the button. However the game doesn’t push you to do it, you still have a choice and the characters in Megaton likely don’t mean much to you. But what if Fallout 3 had more of a character driven story? Let’s say you formed closer relationships with the inhabitants of the dusty town and then you were forced by the story path, to push the detonate button. To destroy those people who you’d just spent hours getting to know and learning to love. This would stir up more inside the player than “wow. That was a cool explosion.”
With videogames constantly striving to bring you a more in depth and intense experience, this option of control could well be a good idea. However an argument could be made that games are advancing in this way regardless. Quantic Dream is attempting this kind of attachment with their characters in Heavy Rain. Having introduced Madison Page in their demo at Leipzeig 2008, the female journalist was shown performing a striptease in order to gain information on the killer in the story. The scene is known for making people feel uneasy, watching this young woman humiliate and degrade herself just for a big break in her investigation. It would take a genius in game design to allow control for this moment to flow seamlessly, so the choice for a cut scene is a logical one.
My concern is that in such narration heavy scenes, a lack of direct control can break the telling of the story and exploration of the plot. Fellow journalist and general freelancer Lewis Denby agreed on the subject. “Games are unique because of their interactivity, but we’re still obsessed with telling stories through cut-scenes. Valve is the only mainstream developer that seems to understand (2K as well, to an extent, with their work on BioShock). If we’re looking to make powerful, evocative videogames, we need to be doing so through the very thing that defines the medium, not by replicating other forms of entertainment. Human control is a very powerful thing”.
Lewis has a great point here; gaming is a media form in itself. While it does borrow largely from film, it is a unique beast, no other media form allows for the control that gaming does, save for choose your own adventure books. Although giving more control to the player wouldn’t necessarily change the path taken by the character it could add an attachment. Say for example allowing you to move the avatar during a scene that sees you conversing with another character whilst walking down a hallway. It may only be a minimal amount of control, but there is still a connection, no matter how tangible.
One of the better examples of this integration would be the opening scene to Call of Duty 4, which saw you being able to control the head of the captured Yasir Al-Fulani whilst on a car journey to certain death. Although you’re given minimal control over this situation, the shock of the killing at the end of the scene hits home harder as YOU were looking through his eyes, YOU were looking around frantically to find an escape and YOU were the one that eventually met their demise at the hands of terrorists. This scene would perhaps have had less of a dramatic effect if played out as a cut scene, but that small amount of control gave the scene a different feeling.
Taking the control away from the player at a crucial moment in the story dredges up an interesting memory, for me. I was out late one night with a friend in a particularly unsavoury area of North London, waiting for a bus. Finally, it turns up just as we’re getting a tad too uncomfortable with our immediate surroundings. The doors align themselves with me exactly, and the bus driver turns to regard my companion and I with a look akin to pity, before failing to open the doors. Driving away, we are left in shock as the bus rolls onwards to its inevitable destination without us. What a bastard, right?
Well, exactly the same goes for games design, in my not-so-humble opinion. Take Mass Effect, for example. There are several scenes in the space-trilogy’s first instalment that simply beg to be interacted with, so I’ll take an example and show you why, against all logic (and my previous argument, admittedly), that it’s a bad idea for the developers to give you control.
As you rest up at the base on Virmire, preparing to storm Saren’s proverbial dark castle, Wrex stands alone, unleashing round upon round of shotgun ammunition at high velocity into the picturesque coast on which the base stands. Approaching gingerly, you engage in one of the most important conversations in the entire game, especially if you, the player, have taken Wrex on board for most of it. Wrex has to make a choice; follow his new friends (a hard task to accomplish given that the Krogan is a sociopath by nature) and destroy any chance his race has of staving off inevitable extinction, or rebel and kill Shepherd.
The conversation choices are yours. There are scenarios where he dies, doesn’t die, you kill him, someone else does… many different options, all playing out within thirty seconds of emotionally charged player-driven dialogue. But imagine if you were outside the conversation-wheel system and simply talking to him whilst maintaining freedom of movement, and for that matter, freedom of fire. You clench your controller in anticipation, hoping Wrex will see sense. Clench too hard, and your gun goes off, decapitating your good friend and despatching him to whatever never-realm awaits him post-mortus. See? This is why developers hold some choices away from players, in the same way the staff at Disney World would never let the public control their own rollercoaster carriages. Because we’re the public, and we have a glorious tendency to fuck everything up.
Now let’s look at Dan’s Gears of War 2 example. Me and my girlfriend played this on release week, and we’ve settled on a pattern. We always play on Hardcore to start with, and I’m always Dom. I’m also the cry-baby out of the two. When Maria died, I was teary, simply because it was a scene that really didn’t fit into Epic’s design portfolio of guns, muscles, and homo-erotically charged narrative. Call it weakness, call it shock – it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how it could have been changed for the better, to give the player more control over what happens.
First off, don’t simply offer the player the option to pull the trigger. That’s not emotionally involving, that’s simply irritating. This is the Karl Marx school of thought; wear any colour shirt you like, sir, as long as it’s red. Secondly, do it off-camera, and keep it off-camera. I don’t need to see his wife die, and no one else does, either. The situation is depressing enough, and as you’re technically following Marcus, showing anyone apart from Marcus reacting to the situation in hand would be a little ridiculous. The supporting cast will always have their little moments, but if these get out of hand we lose our natural association with the protagonist, and this is vital to providing that crucial sense of immersion for the player.
In fact, don’t let the player interact with that scene at all. It was perfectly framed, shot, and written, and I can’t think of any better way to have left it. The gameplay is our realm, the area of the game world the protagonist is not aware of, because, to Marcus Fenix, there is no Earth, simply Sera. There are no achievements for completing his missions, simply an odd medal now and then. In order for an emotionally charged scenario to be rendered valid, we have to first accept that the protagonist needs a degree of independence in order to communicate how he or she is feeling to us, the player. Can you imagine the stream of YouTube videos? Dom teabagging his late wife, whilst a thirteen year old tribe of online miscreants up past their bed time wet themselves laughing? That’s not good narrative, that’s farce, and that’s what you let yourself in for. I’m not going to kid myself, and I don’t think you should either. Humanity, in the vast majority, is an incredibly clumsy animal, and I willingly include myself in that derogatory demographic.
The legendary German philosopher (and now emo icon of the world thanks to Little Miss Sunshine) Friedrich Nietzsche once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” This seemingly offhand quote helps to explain what I’m getting at, here. There is nothing more important than being a singular entity as opposed to one of the masses.
However, this doesn’t mean you should always emotionally separate yourself from the characters you play in videogames. This is in fact the opposite of what you should be doing, as you are then one of a legion of people simply enjoying the latest Gears title from Epic. But to allow Marcus enough freedom, through cutscenes, through independence of self, whilst still holding a controller in anticipation of guiding him to his goal during the more bullet-heavy moments in his life, is true immersion. Don’t deny yourself emotional attachment to characters simply because you’re too impatient to let them be themselves. If you controlled Shepherd 100 per cent of the time, he’s no longer Shepherd. He’s you.
This has somehow transformed from an opinion to a call for help from the gaming masses, but I digress. My point is simply that we cannot allow players full control of characters in games that rely on an immersive experience. Full control without any un-interactive, cinematic elements is immersive, definitely.
But is it emotional? Are we truly on the same psychological wavelength as Fenix as he strides through smoke and flames? Or are we simply waiting until we can finally get to the next save point and flick over to the X Factor? Treat your limited ability to influence events with something akin to reverence, as opposed to impatience. Good things come to those who wait. And to watch someone lose his wife, only to be allowed to help him as he enacts vengeance on those who denied him eternal joy and romance, is something truly magical.
The comparisons we’ve discussed can be aimed at many games in this generation and a generation where control methods are a hot topic. Rather than offering so many ways to control the character, why not expand on the way we control them presently? I am however interested to see if Project Natal could eventually add more substance to these moments in games. Even though I’m a firm believer in control pads for our games I do feel that Natal could add flair to certain scenes. Perhaps being able to control your protagonist with the controller and using the camera to sense your head movement, which could then be reflected in-game.
Christos brought up some great points, the major one being grounded in the maturity of gamers in this generation. In a world of teabaggers, trolls and flamers can we really act within the game and take that control over? Yes it’s possibly an ingenious solution to sticking points in the narration of games but it could also be too much for some gamers or even go over their heads.
Game designers will forever back and forth with ways to engage gamers, neither I nor Christos is in their shoes, heaven forbid. But we are gamers and we both know what we like, although the opinions differ greatly. Interactivity will likely stay a ‘hot topic’ throughout this generation and we’ll see where the future lies as it becomes the present.