Too Much of a Good Thing
A friend of mine once sampled two action films to find the percentage of action scenes contained in each movie, such as fistfights, gunfights, pursuit (car and foot) and physical stunts. I estimated action scenes made up 70% of each movie. What he showed me was surprising:
Action: 11 min
Length: 137 min
Action Content Ratio: 8%
Mission Impossible 2
Action: 28 min
Length: 120 min
Action Content Ratio: 23%
Conversely, most narrative driven action games feature a majority of the gameplay as action, whether is acrobatics, combat, taking cover or driving. If it’s not action, it’s a cinematic or a lull in the action as players move towards the next action zone. There are exceptions, but a majority of the action games overwhelmingly use action gameplay over other types of gameplay experiences. That’s too bad because I think games, especially their narratives could be improved if they used less action gameplay.
Tom Cross, who has written about dialog in games before and again recently, wrote, “While I think it’s admirable that a portion of the industry still strives to forward the puzzle/adventure genre, it’s exciting to witness the evolution of other, less popular alternatives to combat.” The less popular alternatives to combat he’s referring to are dialog based gameplay.
Generally western adventure games in the style of LucasArts and Sierra classics are avoided by publishers like the plague. But what about them pesky never-say-die adventure games? If action games were to reduce their use of action gameplay, what else besides dialog could be gameplay?
Last week I fired up Eco Quest II: Lost Secret of the Rainforest (Eco Quest series by Sierra was way ahead of its time, highly recommended) and the first bit of gameplay required me to show the customs agent my passport. I had to go into my inventory, select the passport and use it on the customs agent. After stamping it, he let me through. I thought that was kind of cool. Not that I think there should be an FPS where all you do is run around and shove passports in peoples faces, but it was cool, if only because it was different.
Why don’t I do this in other games outside the adventure genre? Why are the mechanics of using an inventory item on people or the environment largely monopolized by the red-haired-step-child-of-the-industry adventure genre? How dare they keep this potentially wide ranging and expressive gameplay for themselves!
Let’s see how using the tried and true inventory manipulation gameplay from adventure games could work in an FPS, like Half-Life 2. The beginning of HL2 has the player arrive at a train station and eventually meets a Combine security guard. The guard orders the player to pick up a can on the ground and put it in the trash. What if the security guard instead asked for a passport? If players didn’t show it, he’d take that electro-stick and swat them, same as before. But if they did show it, he’d accuse them of trying to use a fake passport and force them into detention, where they’d meet up with their old friend, Barney like before.
I think this would work well because of how closely it relates to the world of increased security we find ourselves in. Half-Life 2 does a great job of creating an Orwellian oppressive atmosphere, but gameplay requiring players to show a passport to the security guard could really hit home for a lot of people and help create a sense of oppression that transcends the game and enters reality.
The use of inventory objects on people and the environment is an extremely versatile and powerful gameplay mechanic. Give an NPC a flower to cheer them up or shove a piece of stone into the gears that control the crushing walls that are about to turn you into a pancake.
Snuggle and Watch To Kill a Mockingbird
The Darkness already has a segment of gameplay where players can sit on a couch with their girlfriend and watch To Kill a Mockingbird. If they stay long enough, they get achievements and eventually a kiss from the girl. This was a bold move by Starbreeze Studios to put this low-key, intimate gameplay in a high-octane action FPS. But it works, especially in service of the story because it allows players to connect with the girlfriend, setting up an emotional payoff that comes later in the game.
The Urinal Game
We game developers can’t seem to figure out how to implement dialog into our games very well. Characters can’t talk and walk at the same time. They absolutely must stand still and face each other, directly in the eye, like in Mass Effect and Prince of Persia. There’s no reason conversation can’t resemble actual conversation however.
The same friend that I mentioned above also said to me once, “Don't underestimate the narrative power of taking a piss!” I’m not suggesting the kind of pissing gameplay found in Postal or running around in Duke Nukem 3D flushing toilets. Instead, what if you were having a conversation with an NPC who was on his way to the bathroom and you had to follow him in to continue it? He walks up to the urinal and you are faced with a daunting decision. Do I hang back? Do I stand next to him or skip a urinal to give him space? Decisions, decisions! My friend explained that a lot about a characters' relationship and comfort level with another can be communicated by how they interact in the bathroom.
You Want a Beef Tortilla Without the Tortilla?
I once asked for a Beef Tortilla, but because of my Crohn's disease, I asked not to have the Tortilla, which confused the waiter. While I'm not asking that all action be removed from action games, I do think a large reduction can improve the narrative. I assume this may be confusing for some, but there are reasons to use less action gameplay.
First, it can help break up the pacing. Action games that are relentless tend to overwhelm the psychic energy of the player and they get burned out quickly, even bored if the action isn’t revealing new surprises consistently, which is rare to maintain over a 10 – 20 hr stretch.
Second, I think the overwhelming use of action gameplay in narrative driven games devalues the narrative purpose of action. The action would mean a lot more if it were in contrast to lower adrenaline pumping gameplay experiences.
Have you ever known someone who was quiet, never swore, but then one day, they raise their voice and let slip a swear word? Contrasting their quiet side with the sudden hostile behavior greatly emphasizes their change in behavior and its meaning.
Remember the start of Star Wars? Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who is committed to his family and can’t join the rebellion. Imagine Star Wars was first released as a videogame. The beginning would have started with Luke already a Jedi trying to bring down the evil empire. He'd go from being a great Jedi to an even greater Jedi! Frankly, that's rather boring to me.
Change in a characters’ psychological makeup can be much more powerful if the gameplay outside of action helps us see the transformation characters undergo. It would mean a lot more if a Gordon Freeman type character were someone who wanted to help the resistance effort by using his technical skills, but was too afraid to commit anything more, such as their life. Then over time the character is force into not only committing themselves mentally, but physically and, maybe even spiritually.
Through gameplay the player can easily experience the growth as they transition from intellectual gameplay to physical to spiritual. In the end, the player gains an unparalleled understanding of the character because they experienced the transformation for themselves. A character that is committed in mind, body and spirit has more depth than many action heroes in games today.
It’s unfortunate many games fill their gameplay experiences overwhelmingly with action gameplay. To create a compelling narrative experience, it’s important to allow players to experience a wide variety of gameplay with and without action. With less action, there is room for exploring a player character’s psychological or spiritual side and help give depth to the narrative experience. Adventure games and even non-traditional mini-games can offer gameplay solutions that help maintain narrative continuity with the action bits. What that will do is offer different facets of the experience that can lend greater meaning to the whole.