I recently had the chance to finally play this game through and found myself agreeing with nearly every point in this article (which is also a hilarious read).
the most fascinating observation (which perhaps is obvious, but still sits with me after having read the essay twice (and, by the way, will be the subject of the rest of this distressingly long post)), was this:
the following question was never far from my mind: How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video-game stories? It is a question that is never far from my mind when I am playing any game whose fiction works in tandem with my decisions to create something thematically unified and dramatically satisfying. So, how big of a problem is it? One answer to this question is: There is no answer to this question. Another answer is: Strong interactive fiction will compel players to behave in ways roughly analogous to how the interactive fiction’s author intends them to behave. Another answer is: The whole purpose of interactive fiction is to encourage this type of crisis. Another answer is: This is precisely why the video-game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling. In the past few years, I have thought about this question a lot — maybe more than any other question, in fact. None of the above answers satisfies me.
and this is actually a fascinating question when you think about guided experiences, just as a ‘u/x thing’ rather than a ‘video game thing’ because sometimes these off-the-rails deviations aren’t the user trying to mess with you, they’re just offshoots of natural curiosity. you even see this as you (or a loved one) use a new service you don’t totally understand, you click once, twice, you get somewhere, do something neat and all of a sudden: “now… how do i get back” or “where am i?” and probably more importantly “can i restart what i was doing before i got curious?”
similarly, i start to wonder in what contexts you provide these saftey handles for users. in a game like LA Noire, you pretty much do missions as they’re handed to you with slight interludes. If you’re ever lost, there’s actually an ‘objectives’ menu that you can always return to. If you forget that, you can (hilariously) press X to ask your partner what you should be doing now. If you freak out, the pause menu has Restart as the fifth option or somesuch.
lemme rewind here: the question tom bissell posed was this:
How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video-game stories?
which, decomposed implies the following:
- there’s a narrative
- the player is part of that narrative…
- but somewhat free to diverge slightly from the story…
- and capable of doing something logically inconsistent…
- but the story demands that the player’s character return to some baseline situation
- so how do you handle that without
- forcing restarts or
- ending the story?
and i agree with tom bissell that it’s a hard problem in general unless there’s no actual end-goal in mind (or if the player/user’s objective is tangential to the choices they are able to make as players). So i guess what i’m saying is that the final objective has to be clear and part of the gameplay in order for the player to have the ability to mess everything up. For example: in the game ms. pac-man, there’s the completely obvious goal to eat as many dots as possible while escaping the ghosts. The worst your player-ability can do here is prevent Act Three from happening by never getting there. You either die, or you receive a pac-child from the stork.
Since the goal (and the thing that gets you points) in pac-man is tied up in collecting dots and fruit and cannibalizing ghosts, it’s not obvious that failing to do this would do anything other than end the game. Which is to say, there’s no version of ms. pac-man in which you can spurn mr. pac-man’s advances in order to expect a different gameplay outcome when you reach act three. In contrast, a game like 2007’s Bioshock successfully exploited the red pill/blue pill mechanic vis-à-vis harvesting little sisters because the choice between harvesting and saving them was ultimately part of the gameplay. Do or not do, there is no deviation from the end-goal.
There’s also the nature of micro vs macro effects limiting a user’s effects. Think of it like this: in a fantasy stock portfolio game, you actually have lots of opportunities to ‘mess with the system’ but the effect of a single trader (you) with a $100,000 portfolio is, in the scheme of things, not quite enough to visibly affect the nature of the entire stock market. I don’t think anybody playing these games cares that the game doesn’t offer them the realism of being able to pull some george soros-esque black wednesday manoeuvre but they do care that the exchanges which govern their individual transactions behave rationally (or as rationally as exchanges operate).
So getting back to the point about relating to UI/UX in general, i think what i’m noticing is that there’s this issue with many guided experiences which is:
- what am i supposed to be doing (i.e. what’s my main goal)
- this is not necessarily obvious: let’s pick tetris, is your goal to get a high score, to ‘beat’ the game, or to have fun?
- is it possible to bypass or deviate from my stated/implicit goal?
- can you play tetris sustainably without actually trying to ‘advance’ the game?
- importantly, is there any reward, either extrinsic or intrinsic for deviating from the goal?
- in a system where every action is rewarded in some way is there less motivation to ‘stay on target’?
- is it a problem if the user’s goal changes or deviates from the explicit goal?
- if so, is it easy to reset or ‘realign’ the goal?
- if not, are there any ‘bad’ goals?
and coming back full circle to the original question: it strikes me that the issue of user-agency conflicting with the goals of a narrative is rooted in whether or not there are ambiguous end-goals or not. If there are numerous ways to provide progress for a player, it feels like all those sorts of progress motivators should be aligned towards a common goal. and that is incredibly hard because i think it’s easy to imagine (he says handwaving) crafting a dramatically/conceptually/educationally/&c. diverse experience that includes at least two rewarding, but fundamentally orthogonal game mechanics.
you can see this in ms. pac-man: eventually, devouring ghosts no longer yields the massive point bounty that eating rare fruit provides. but it is incredibly gratifying to eat the ghosts until you observe the risks outstripping the benefits. the behavior remains the same: eat something, get points, but the observed reward for some kinds of actions inevitably shifts so that your strategy for optimizing high-score eventually changes and you use the ‘energizer’ purely defensively.
i don’t really know what i’m trying to say here, but there’s some nut of an observation going on, if anything, it’s a realization that creating satisfying guided experiences is tough when lots of options are available to the player.
some other observations, mostly about la noire:
- the storytelling in the game is about on par with syndicated crime procedurals. I constantly told everyone who would hear me out: “it’s like playing a version of ‘Murder, She Wrote’, but in video game format.” It’s actually a little bit better because it plays with multi-mission story arcs, so there’s that, but
- the biggest flaw in the interrogations is the choice between ‘lie’ and ‘doubt’ because it’s not clear what metric you’re using to assess the statements, and it takes you out of the experience by making you think about what you think the system expects you to answer. This is actually sort of good because it shows that mission writers didn’t feel shoehorned into writing dialog that neatly fit into any category, but it also seemed somewhat arbitrary when you picked one over the other unless you wildly accused everyone of lying and then took it back.
- instead of making beer bottles and matchbooks insignificant, it would have been nice if you could have entered them into evidence anyway and then pruned your list of evidence. The game already introduces irrelevant evidence all over the place, so it would just be a matter of training you to ignore things that actually don’t matter in your evidence book, rather than while investigating the objects.
- what’s up with the love interest subplot? it sort of comes out of nowhere and never really materializes in any good way.
- also, really enjoyed the extra mad men cameos in the game. nice touch.
- but man, jessica fletcher as the star of a game. i would seriously pay for that right quick.