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Friday, February 17, 2006

Game flow control

I've got to tell you this, Bob. I didn't want to, but I can't keep it to myself any longer.

God, this scene's boring. Wake me when it's over.

You see, I actually ... and that's why!

What did she say? I didn't catch that line! I think it was important!

Be quiet, will you? We're trying to watch the movie!

Yeah, but I've got to know- hey, that scenery was gorgeous! Why was it so short?; I wanted to-


Wait, that line there- that's the same thing he said to John back at the beginning, isn't it? Is there some larger issue here?

Shut up, shut up!

...and so, we see that any time art is viewed publicly, whether in a movie, or a play, or a concert, or a dance, the viewer has absolutely no control over the "flow" of the experience, for obvious reasons. For that matter, even the player ideally has little control over the flow- everything is rehearsed or prepared beforehand, and the experience is already in its completed form before a single person from the audience enters the room! If the person operating the movie projector would like to skip a particularly bad scene, for instance, he has no authority with which to do so. Or if the player at a concert doesn't feel he's done the best performance he could possibly do in those last few measures, he is not allowed to return and play it over.

On the other hand, this rigid and constant lack of control over the flow of a work of art or entertainment is alien to the field of home entertainment (and art), in which the player may view the work in any fashion he sees fit. Indeed, many great creators have used this fact to their advantage: A great novelist may intentionally try to remind the reader of a previous event, in the hopes that he will flip back through the pages to that point and look at it again with the added perspective he has gained since then. If a section of music on a CD is particularly moving, the listener can rewind it to hear it again. If the artwork on a page of a comicbook is beautiful, the reader may take as much time as he likes admiring it, and can even return later. On a DVD, a particularly bad scene can be...

You already know where I'm going with this; you've known since the title. So why don't you just skip the rest of this paragraph, okay? Don't worry, you won't miss anything. Anyhow, there's one medium intended for private viewing which is often as rigid as a movie experience. It's sort of ironic, considering that this medium is seen by so many people as the most interactive medium of them all. Why are games not given equal treatment? Anyone who's ever played an RPG knows of the dreaded final scene, a ten-minute-long cutscene which can never be skipped, no matter how many times you're forced to replay that final boss. Everyone knows that you can only stop playing when the game tells you you may. Everyone knows that if you've missed a line of dialogue, you'll never hear it again.

This functionality must be added to the gameplaying experience. It must be an integral part of the controller's design, and supported by the console's basic functions.

In-game work-arounds have been found, of course. It is a fairly common practice to store all full-motion video cutscenes in a menu for later viewing. When I was playing Knights of the Old Republic and my monitor started acting up mid-cutscene, this was very helpful. Still, it only works for FMV; what if I want to replay one of the levels of a completely linear game? Fahrenheit went even farther, and in addition to including all minigames in a side menu, it allowed the player to go back to any scene he's been in and play from there. It was most appreciated.

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, which I've just played recently, has a nice solution to the problem of missing a line of dialogue- all speech is in text, which can be rolled back by pressing the Z button. And Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time gives flow control for even gaming challenges, by allowing the player to rewind time when he messes up.

But none of these additions are perfect. Prince of Persia's rewind feature is a central part of its gameplay, and is widely seen as a gimmick, not to be repeated in any other games. So too with Fahrenheit's scene selection, seen as a gimmick increasing the game's connection to film. Paper Mario's rewind only works for text (not NPC actions), and even then not perfectly: It only goes back as far as the beginning of the current "block" of text, so if the character is responding to something, you can't go back to the other person's statement to see what he is responding to. Also, it is not immediately apparent that this ability is given, because to introduce it at the beginning of the game would pull you out of the experience. Instead, the feature is explained to the player through one of the game's fourth-wall-breaking tips. The storing of cut-scenes is commendable, but still there is no accounting for anything else in the game, and there is usually not even a fast-forward and rewind.

To make matters worse, not one of these solutions solves the whole problem. When the problem is handed to the gamists to solve, how could it be? They are much more concerned with making their game than they are with the technical specifics of the experience, as they should be. So they introduce only one or two features (as much as they think will not be intrusive) and call it a day. But there are so many features that players need! Thankfully, we do have one useful flow control feature- the pause button. Now, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it's never actually called the pause button, it's never actually marked with the pause symbol familiar to us all. Instead, it's called "Start" or "Select" or some other silly name. Even this button is not perfect: many games use a timer to count game time, but do not pause the timer when the game is paused. But that's just nitpicking, really- I suppose I should be thankful that this feature is in gamism at all.

Let's talk about the buttons that should be there but aren't. The first button I propose is a "next scene" button. It would of course be up to the game designer how to utilize this button, but I suspect the mere presence of such a button would give players the expectation (which must then be acted on by the gamists) that it could be used. There are several ways this could work. The most conservative approach is to allow its use only in replaying either the game in whole or a particular scene (if the player has lost), at which point it will be used to skip cutscenes. The most radical approach would be giving the player the ability to use it at any point, to skip not only cutscenes but gameplay challenges as well. Most games would be somewhere in the middle.

The second button needed is the rewind button. Now, the ability to rewind gameplay would be very controversial, so such an implementation would be up to the programmer to pull off if he likes. Instead, most games would use a specialized chip (built into the console itself) to record everything that happens in the game, up to around, say, five minutes. After that, it starts writing over the old recording. So if you rewind, what the game's actually doing is switching display to a video, which shows what the player has just been through. This chip would not discriminate between cutscenes, text, speech, and gameplay; it would just record (except when the game is paused). I'm sure you see the usefulness of this simple addition, whether to see something you missed for whatever reason, or to admire your own skill, etc.

To go along with the rewind button would obviously be the fast-forward button. In the replay video, it would act the way you'd expect from a video fast-forward button up to the point it reaches the game itself again. At that point, it's up to the programmer to decide what it does, and I can think of a few very good uses. Very often in a game, I find myself pressing "B" mindlessly through a block of dialogue, because I've heard it before and would like to get to the point. So I think it would work very well for speeding up dialogue, though it would then have to record the video in double-time so that it doesn't look strange going back to read it again (if necessary). It could also work in FMV cutscenes, if the gamist doesn't want to simply use a "next scene" feature or if the player wants to go forward only a little bit.

To conclude, we gamers desparately need the ability to control the flow of our games on occasion, and it's not too difficult to pull off. So I can only conclude that either console creators are lazy, or just stupid. Well, here's a new generation of consoles coming up, with brand new controllers and internal architecture- here's their chance!



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