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Rianq's blog

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Rianq avatar 5:53 AM on 03.13.2012  (server time)
About art games, conflict, roller coasters and Portal

I agree with Jim's recent Jimquisition that there is no place for games which try to be books or movies (exception: Visual Novels, but even those enhance the experience by giving the player the power of choice, which can't be accomplished anywhere else). Books, movies, even theater have their own level of conflict they excel at in portraying - inner conflict (what's going on in the heads), outer conflict (exploding cars, oppressive regime) and social conflict (my brother slept with my sister, oh boy!). All of those media can also fiddle in their siblings' domain, but there's generally only that one thing they're really good at.
Games are a little bit special in that department. Like movies they excel in picturing outer conflict, but they also have the power to take the conflict around the protagonist and make it the player's own internal conflict. We emotionally hyperconnect even with typical, mundane stories, because - if the rest of the game is done right - we have the ability to do something about our fate. We lay down the steps, we decide when we go on and, if possible, even where. The developers' job is to keep us inside some invisible boundaries of what we're actually allowed to do. We can feel that our actions have repercussions, no matter how minor or how inevitable the final outcome. Creating a video game means giving the player the ability to do everything, but not too much.

Everything, but not too much. If the player can do too much, he destroys the game's narrative and the bubble bursts. This is why pure sandbox games like Crackdown or Just Cause don't even try to implement more than a sporadic plot. If he can't do enough, he will notice that he's just a part of a roller coaster ride. That can be fun, sure, but it doesn't matter whether you raise your arms or no. Game designers who do not try to achieve this fine balance rob their games of a whole dimension. It may be perfect on the other ones, yes. But it's still flat and could have done more.

If you want to see what kind of games tell a magnificient, deep story without being bereaved of their actual gaming part, just take a look at the Portal games. I assume everybody has played Portal up to now. Would the experience have been enjoyable without the puzzles and the platform gaming? Absolutely. The plot and the general feel of the game couldn't have been destroyed by yanking out the major gameplay component. Chell could've walked from one test chamber to the next, be passively tested by some kind of machine, until something went wrong and she escaped to the main computer room where she just had to walk to a death switch while GladOS gives her final monologue. The end.
But ask yourself: Isn't Portal more because of its gameplay? For about one and a half hours you make yourself acquainted to the Portal gun, learn its quirks and works. Then, when GladOS openly tries to kill you by letting you take a ride into the incinerator, your heart races. You know that you have to DO something to avoid death. There is no deus ex machina, no serendipitous coincidence saving your ass. YOU have to do it, IF you want to live. So you look around, you find the usable panel, you break out of the roller coaster and you're relieved. At this point something radically changes: You aren't at this mad computer's mercy anymore. You have gotten the opportunity to take your life into your own hands. And, this is the most important: All of those feelings clash together right after the moment you DID something, resulting in not only the obvious new mission - to escape the labs -, but another that couldn't have been delivered as deeply by simple story telling: You want revenge. You want to make GladOS pay for its betrayal. For keeping you imprisoned. For forcing you to dump the cute, little companion cube. You were in a bad situation, but now you're in charge and you're going to fuck the major force of antagonism up. FUCK'ER RIGHT UP.

Now you tell me how Valve should have gone on about this without actual gameplay.

Oh, by the way: If you want to play another excellent game with heavy focus on narrative, interweaved with a top-notch (but hard!) gameplay experience, get yourself the original Xbox game Breakdown. It's compatible with the 360.

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