Games

Who Needs Interactivity?

Players don't belong on a pedestal. There are plenty enough reasons to limit video game interactivity.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image