Jake Rodkin, a developer and writer who worked on The Walking Dead: Season One, compared the much lauded series to Twine games at the Practice Conference in New York earlier this month, saying that “Walking Dead is basically the world’s most expensive Twine game.” The statement makes sense. As important as the voice acting and art direction are to the game, its core appeal is in the text. It is a well-written game. The reason that people play it is because of how good the writing is and most of its other design elements serve to reinforce the writing. However, games in the Twine scene, regardless of what they accomplish, are met with considerable backlash because they (pause for dramatic effect) lack interactivity (Eric Swain, “The Many Forks in the Road of Twine”, PopMatters, 11 June 2013). Interactivity defines games. Video games are interactive video improv theatre; a developer creates a stage and the player acts upon it. This breed of conventional thinking has been driven to the point that games like The Walking Dead or those made with twine are being disowned by gamers because — in spite of their brilliance or power — they don’t look enough like other video games.
Now, it isn’t accurate that visual novels or Twine games lack interactivity, but they often include an author’s voice — and not as a mark of shame — and they are less likely geared to indulging or satisfying their player than a triple A release might. Shifting focus away from the player often makes these games less interactive, or at least the interactions that they do offer are the kind that mainstream audiences are unused to or comfortable with. On the other hand, it is very difficult to make a text-based game feel bloated with arbitrary interactivity in the way that more expensive games often are. Triple-A games love the player, perhaps a little too much, and dote on them like a spoiled child. There’s a growing cult of the player, one that demands that every moment that the player is not acting is a wasted moment. Players must continue to interact, even when it doesn’t make any sense.
Sometimes the biggest failing of a video game is being too much like a video game. For all the talk about video games being a brand new phenomenon that has only just been discovered, there are a number of concrete elements that make them easy to categorize. A lot of people (and not just those that play games) just know what a boss is, what a collectible is, what EXP, HP, and mana do, can recognize a health bar or the advantages of melee vs ranged characters. They understand achievements, class systems, mini-games, fetch quests, and escort missions (oh my!). These things have recurred enough times to be recognizable videogame-isms. Taken alone, there’s nothing good or bad about any of them, but defining games by the presence of these elements hurts them. Sometimes not all of these things need to be in a game. Sometimes all of them need to be absent and forcing them to fit an understood cultural criterion of “video game” tarnishes the final product.
A game like Remember Me is supposed to be a speculative fiction about the corporatization of the human mind, but in all its effort to be a video game, it undermines the only things that are interesting about it (Leigh Harrison, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul or How Remember Me undermines its story to be a video game“, As Houses, 8 September 2013).
Similarly, a game like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a beautiful looking and imaginative adaptation of a classical Chinese novel. The voice acting is incredible, environments are cleverly designed, and the world lore is elegantly woven into the plot. It was designed to “change the course of gaming in terms of storytelling” (Tom Hoggins, “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West creators interview“, The Telegraph, 5 October 2010.), and three years later, it’s clear that the course of gaming in terms of storytelling has remained exactly the same. In fact, Enslaved stays pretty tight to the course because, despite the wonderful work of epic fiction it clearly wants to be, it fails as it clings to the understood signifiers of video games.
The player isn’t given enough credit to focus on the characters and their common journey in a beautiful but hostile world. Instead, they’re forced into micro-interactions that make Enslaved more of a game but less of a meaningful experience. The game’s main concern is stringing along simple and consistent objectives. Collect the orange orbs, use the orbs to level up, level up to improve combat ability, improve combat ability to fight more efficiently, and collect orange orbs from fallen enemies. These activities are just distractions to keep the player’s attention long enough to proceed. Without them, Enslaved might stand a better chance of filling its plot holes and smoothing out its bumpy character arcs — it might more accurately reach its point — but that would mean removing the player from the experience by several degrees. It would mean taking away coin collecting and leveling up, which are good ways to keep a player busy and reminding them that they’re playing a video game.
Many games would be markedly improved by limiting the player’s influence on their surroundings. Some games are about a lack of power or are trying to communicate something that can’t be illustrated by the player directly influencing their environment (Mattie Brice, “Death of the Player”, Alternate Ending, 29 October 2013). For all the success of the Modern Warfare franchise, its most powerful moments — observing a nuclear strike at ground zero, watching a revolution as the old regime’s leader en route to execution, reeling from an ambush while squadmates are picked off one at a time, attacking unarmed civilians to stay undercover — are defined by how little the player can do. Limiting interactivity does not make a game less of a game, especially when the limitations are appropriate. Often just occupying the space provided is enough and adding more levels of input don’t improve a work just because, well, every other game has them. Interaction is meaningless without a purpose.
Even when a story emerges from a system, it can only mean something when context is given by an authorial voice (Nick Dinicola, “The Problem with Emergent Stories in Video Games”, PopMatters, 30 July 2013.). Player agency has its place, but there is a growing tendency to place it above everything else. Yes, games require interactivity, but increasing the amount of interactivity doesn’t make it more of a game, especially when the interactivity doesn’t offer anything for the game itself.
If the player must collect coins, level up, or unlock new equipment to continue, it must be obvious why and it must reinforce an argument that the game is trying to make. The fact that most games have combos or health bars or any enemies at all is not reason enough for the next one to have them. Sometimes all the player needs to do is sit with the game at the margins with only the loosest grasp on the narrative. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a story about armed survivors gaining experience against an endless supply of enemies. The premise provides fertile ground for traditional game design, but the developers revolutionized the medium by using that premise to tell a story through conversations that the player could only occasionally influence. Telltale made a big-budget Twine game, and players are right to applaud them for it.