Dear Game Designers: I'm not your precious little child. Let me go blow your carefully crafted sandcastle to smithereens.
I don’t read kotaku often, but this piece drew my attention. It argues, in short, that cut scenes have merit in that they allow the game character to exert their agency, and thus allow greater emotive attachment to the player. This sort of bugged me, and games of late have given me a niggling feeling.
They’ve all followed this model of linearity. Everything has nice clean edges, all loose ends are tied up, and the character goes on to the cut scene and shit actually starts happening. The problem is that this agency we hand to the character is agency we used to have. All that delicious game breaking agency. A lot of the best games out there, the ones people really remember — the Fallouts, the Vampire: Bloodlines, the Planescape: Torments — are all fundamentally, and deliciously... broken.
I don’t just mean broken in terms of bugs in the game (although a lot of these games had those). I mean some variant of “you could kill a guy who you needed to finish the game, and play on for hours afterwards, and then realise that all that effort was for naught”. So many games which I’ve thrown away in frustration, only to try again months later, have been the really rewarding ones.
At the end of the day, what gamers achieve from a story perspective is all of naught. We may shoot lots of baddies, but then the character gets to save the princess. Why the hell does the character have all the agency? Why is it that when Atlas starts talking to you there’s no way to throw the friggin' radio away? This might break your pretty story, but I’m the goddamn player! I get to write how this story goes. At least, this is how it’s been, historically. For all its failings, Heavy Rain at least allowed you to do a bit of that, even though the story wouldn’t really change.
I don’t mean getting to choose between 15 different endings, I mean getting to choose an ending that makes the game designer say “well... er... wow cool!” Sandbox games don’t do this any better. You can blow shit up, but when it comes to the missions you can’t really get yourself into a bind.
Part of the issue is that the content is so expensive, game designers want to make sure we see it all. Part of it is that they want us to finish the game, a lot of the times we throw them away out of frustration. Part of it is based around the meta-game — how the save-game system will work, etc. Sure, the system is slick now, the play-testing becomes easy or possible, there’s no way the player can get themselves into a contradiction or a jam. They make constant progress towards the finish line.
I’m here to say that this is too great a cost. We’ve walked too far down this line into meaningless games where we do the grunt work — get this key, put it there, talk to this guy. I want to lay some proximity mines under the Mayor’s bed. I have no reason, no drive for this, I am not encompassing your perfect little character. I just want to see what happens, but most of all, I just want to know that I can.