Are Games Really That Interactive?

The introduction of the Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect and Playstation Move signalled a new era for video gaming. This suave new technology sought to improve player interaction with the games on their television screen, trading in the traditional controller for a highly sensitive sensory system that allowed the real-world movements of players to manifest themselves as in-game actions. Geared up to facilitate a more realistic gaming experience, anything from a user’s punches (in the case of Wii Fit’s boxing option) to their speed and agility could affect and defeat an on screen opponent, taking interactivity to a higher level.

However, despite an ability to faithfully mimic intricate human actions, gaming technology still has much to improve on before capturing the complexity of the human condition, at least from a psychological and emotional perspective. Indeed, realism is often hindered by the rigidity of the inner mechanics of a computer-based console game which can usually only travel in a linear fashion and adhere to strict rules to guide the player to the game’s conclusion, interrupting the creativity, spontaneity and innovation of the individual. Take, for example, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas, a title with highly sophisticated graphics but one with a lone premise, to shoot and defeat terrorists and do so minus the emotional trauma that should accompany acts of murder. The narrow nature of the game is such that it constructs clear binary opposites between good (the player as a member of Rainbow Six team) and evil (subversive, stock character terrorists), creating a rather limiting and one-dimensional universe.

It is fair to say that this variation of game is much more popular than Japanese release, Way of the Samurai 3. This game is unique in its dexterity and density as, instead of training your character to swat aside all opposition, users can make informed choices to surrender or apologise to fellow combatants. Here, a player’s choices enhance the in-game reputation of their character, their acts of heroism venerated but acts of treachery and violence leading to scorn and hatred. This feature ensures of a deeper emotional development of character, and one that directly affects the direction of the game’s plot, a player’s actions resulting in one of over fifteen alternate story lines and conclusions. A rejection of pre-determined plot adding to the realism and fluidity of the game.

Unfortunately, games that explore the inner psychology of their characters and analyse the morality of their actions as the story line progresses are all too rare. Grand Theft Auto: V, notable for its nihilism and immorality but jointly recognised as a social satire, is soaked in a culture of violence and sexual depravity. Some have claimed that this merely follows the trend of investigating society’s anti-heroes such as television drama, Breaking Bad’s, Walter White but the game’s active encouragement to murder a prostitute and kill enemies by offering trophies as rewards, seemingly validates, and prohibits the player from questioning, this gratuitous behaviour.

Away from the content of a game, developers are however utilising the latest technology, particularly in relation to mobile applications, to optimise a player’s overall gaming experience. Whilst the majority of these games follow a conventionally linear and fixed plot, the rise of push technology is breathing new life into formulaic titles. This is the philosophy behind Dojit-notify, which sends out personalised push messages in relation to a user’s in-game location and their skill level or ability. Designed to help developers liaise directly with a mobile player by helping them through difficult portions of a game, this service adds a further dimension to, and bolsters interaction with, mobile phone games.

Player interaction with games is certainly a multi-faceted beast with some interactive elements displaying far more progression than others. Physical interaction has definitely reached its zenith in the sophistication of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony’s movement-detector consoles and devices and developer-consumer interaction is advancing healthily with the rise of push technology. However, the most difficult variant of player interaction remains that of emotional mimesis. The dominance of games that substitute the liberty and morals of the player for the fulfilment of a basic, unalterable plot should be a clarion call for all aspiring developers to design a game that grants players freedom of action rather than bowing to the tyranny of tradition.

The Text Game: A Forgotten Language

In an industry forever striving to create realistic graphics that faithfully capture the human form and formulate games that translate our real-world movements into in-game actions (Nintendo’s Wii, Xbox’s Kinect et al), this obsession with visual and physical mimesis could prove to be the death knoll to those in possession of a creative mindset. Although modern games look and feel more real and are more user-sensitive than ever before, this progression is coming at a price: a distinct loss of freedom, adventure and spontaneity. Of course it is now mere convention that video games are designed to unfold in an unalterable linear fashion, advancing gradually through each level in time with the player’s ability before unleashing the concluding credits, but before the rise of high resolution graphics, flawless virtual incarnations of famous cities and a fixed plot line, the gaming world flirted briefly with the computer-based phenomenon known as the ‘text game’.

A genre that has now been made mostly obsolete and consigned to the annals of technological history as a primitive relic of a bygone age (like the VHS, Walkman and the MiniDisc player after it) and one only played by its staunchest hardcore (actual and fictional) fans, such as the geeky collective of U.S sitcom, the Big Bang Theory, the demise of the text game is truly a loss to mourn. The reason why its death is so significant is in fact described aptly by the aforementioned show’s Sheldon Cooper, who after discovering a website where classic text games can be played and appreciated, says to his housemate, Leonard, ‘they (text games) run on the world’s most powerful graphics chip, the imagination.’ Regardless of the canned laughter that this comment generates, Sheldon succinctly encapsulates the strength, power and importance of the 70s-80s text game movement. Take, for example, the hugely popular text-based Zork series, a game that placed players in the midst of a dense and ethereal landscape purely through the intricacy and complexity of the language that it used and allowed each player free reign; inviting them to choose how to explore, engage with, and survive an often perilous backdrop, with their usage of language and the lucidity of their imagination as their only guides.

Making use of a revolutionary sophisticated computer system, Zork was one of the pinnacles of a genre that also came to be recognised as ‘interactive fiction’, a movement that combined the power of great literature to imbue one’s soul with heightened emotions and one’s mind with descriptions of undiscovered worlds with a unique liberty to allow players to choose where to go, what to do, who to kill and how to kill them. Although this may seem nothing special in comparison to the big-budget Technicolor graphical firework displays and Hollywood plots of today’s platformers, Zork worked in much the same way as a good book, gifting players a language from which they could manufacture their own images and ideas, fulling involving the audience in the creation and fulfillment of a fantasy world. Indeed, the relative freedom and mystery of Zork also mirrored the role of classic literature; to challenge, confuse and ultimately force the audience to make an informed decision on what they had read. It is fair to say that these games embody the antithesis of the ultra-realistic Grand Theft Auto: V, by leaving everything to the imagination.

It is probably no surprise that once better quality graphics were designed and distributed that these games fell into obscurity, perhaps mimicking how a film adaptation can generate much more substantial revenue than its novelistic counterpart. The spirit of the ‘text-based’ adventure is still visible in contemporary titles, with the vast maps of console games such as Skyrim allowing players to exit the game’s main chronology and indulge in alternative missions and activities. Yet the time that the game developer has invested in creating a clear and sophisticated visual landscape eradicates the need for a player to call upon their imagination.

In light of the perpetual controversy that surrounds the video games that depict scenes of violence and murder, from the 17-year-old who carried out a premeditated murder allegedly inspired by console game, Manhunt, in 2004 to the recent stabbing of a 23-year-old by a group of attackers who then proceeded to liberate his copy of GTA: V, many believe that modern interpretations of the ‘text-based’ format are utilising language to comment and critique the violence that has become so prevalent in the real, and indeed, the virtual world. Plucked from games mostly focused on the nature of war, these provocative titles include Maybe Make Some Change, which presents a harrowing world in which the only initial action a user can take is to ‘shoot’ the opposition, stressing the mindless destruction and lack of rationality that accompanies conflict, forcing the player to think before firing, the limited vocabulary a scathing attack on the dogmatism of war.

Importantly, these new ‘text’ games are combating the trigger happy philosophies of console ‘shoot ‘em ups’, eschewing the bright lights and fancy graphics of these titles by placing an emphasis on the written word to drill home an important message to the player. A dead format to some but an iconoclastic medium to others, the ‘text game’ tradition that relied on the imagination does, in its reincarnation, provide players with pressing food for thought as opposed to the substance-less feasts for the eyes that currently dominate games sales charts.