metzomagic.com Feature

Interactivity in Adventure Games

By Jonas Kyratzes (September, 2005)

Computer games are defined, most people would agree, by two things: they are digital, and they are interactive. Let's put the digital part aside for now; while obviously being a basic aspect of what makes these games even possible, it's not really relevant to this article.

So let's say that computer games are defined by their interactivity. This makes sense; you click on something, something happens. You hit a button, something else happens. That's what sets computer games apart from, say, a novel or a film. But if interactivity is a fundamental part of computer games, what does that mean to the writing and design (and creation in general) of computer games?

In our case, I will concentrate on adventure games, or interactive fiction. I prefer the latter term, as I find it to be a much better description of what these 'games' are. However, since graphical interactive fiction is usually called 'adventure games' and this article is mainly about graphical IF, I will use the more popular, if misleading, term.

Now that we've got the introduction out of the way, let's sink our teeth into the problem.

Many people have noticed that, over the past decade, adventure games have tended to become more and more like 'interactive movies'. That is to say, they have become essentially linear, with the interaction on the part of the player being less intense, in some cases even being little more than a minimal element that simply leads from one cinematic to the next. The interaction with the game itself has also become more and more limited. First we had text parsers that could accept all sorts of input. Then we had a series of icons that allowed for a limited number of actions, and finally we ended up with a single cursor that does everything. Even using inventory items has been automated these days. No wonder that people are complaining: there's nothing left for them to do!

Thankfully this curse does not affect all games, and not all games without a complex system of interaction lack depth; but the example does serve to show just how important interactivity is in adventure games. What exactly is interactivity, though? How do we achieve it?

Some would say - many, in fact - that interactivity is choice and consequence. In other words, when a game allows me to solve a problem in many ways, or allows me to take different paths to its ending or endings, then the game is truly interactive. I would say that this is confusing interactivity with non-linearity, but I think it's a valid point of view. Choice is certainly one of the reasons I enjoy RPGs so much. Unfortunately this is not very useful to me; I've made three computer games so far, and none of them was particularly non-linear. The third one, in fact, gives you a bunch of choices and then proceeds to make them all meaningless, which I think is a very interesting and probably slightly insane approach to interactivity. Works for me, though.

Anyway - multiple endings and paths are not the holy grail of game design. To prove this, think of how many great games there are that are completely linear and yet would never work as anything else but a game. Adam Cadre's game Photopia (OK, it's textual IF, but it's a good example) is a case in point - brilliant, interactive, and yet as linear as you can get. One segment of it even takes away true interactivity without letting you know (you're exploring an unknown area, and no matter which way you go, locations pop up in a certain order that matters to the storytelling).

So perhaps choice does not mean non-linearity; it just means that things only happen because you do something. The story only moves on because the player makes it. Perhaps interactivity is not what happens when the player clicks, but the fact that he or she does click, and why.

I played an adventure game recently (name withheld out of kindness) which consisted of single screens with single hotspots. That is not really interactivity, because it amounts to little more than the flipping of pages in a book. In consequence, I felt that it sucked, because I was not really playing, I was just clicking through the story. Had the game given me several screens that I could explore at a time, objects and things to examine, even if there was only one action that would further the story, it would've felt different.

An example from personal experience. I noticed the value of interactivity when developing my game Last Rose in a Desert Garden. Now, Last Rose is about as linear as you can get without turning one-dimensional: you progress through locations one at a time (each consisting of a few screens) without the chance to go back. These locations are connected by a completely linear and non-interactive story. To top it all off, there are only three inventory items and the cursor changes automatically depending on the object it's on. Not much in the way of interactivity, eh? But do you know when the game began to take on life? When I started adding description hotspots. Suddenly you can click on the car, the building, the trashcan - and the game responds. It doesn't matter that this response does in no way alter the structure of the game. What matters is that you click, and the game world responds with a description. If the description is well-written (as I hope mine are) and adds to the atmosphere and background, so much the better; but even if it isn't and doesn't, what matters is that the game *reacts*. That, I think, is one of the keys, and of the things that some adventure games are missing (Myst IV being a very cool exception).

Another important aspect of interactivity is why the player acts (or reacts). A lot of games get this right, but several don't. When you take away interactivity (such as hotspots, exploration, etc), the player ends up doing things because they are the only things that the interface will allow him or her to do. When there's only one hotspot, well, it's not much of a choice. The player shouldn't be clicking there because there's a hotspot, but because that would be the sensible thing to do for his or her character. Maybe that's the illusion of choice and not real choice; but I don't care to get into that argument. I care about the effect of my game on the player. And as a player, I want to feel that I'm doing something, not blindly plodding through pre-scripted sequences. Observation and exploration are essential elements here, and it's no wonder that so many adventure games are centered on such themes. After all, if you're constantly doing things without knowing why, it can be rather boring. The actions of the player should have a source.

Finally, interactivity is a very powerful method of characterisation, especially when it comes to the protagonist. Yes, we can learn about a character through cut-scenes, journals, game manuals and plenty of other ways, but the most telling (and most appropriate to the medium, one might argue) way is through the character's interaction with the world he or she lives in. Imagine a simple situation: you are in your character's home. You click on a photograph, and the character starts thinking about the day it was taken, how much fun it was, why it means so much to him/her, etc... and all of a sudden you are that much more closer to the person you're playing. And not only that - by understanding the relationship between the character and the gameworld, by understanding that the character's personality is rooted in said world, your connection to the world has also been strengthened. Our lives are in many ways defined by our interaction with our environment - the same should be true about a fictional character.

Adventure games tell stories, and to do that adventure games create worlds. A game world can never feel alive unless it can be interacted with in some way. It doesn't have to be a video, it doesn't even have to be something that changes the game, but it has to be *something*. If you only allow your player to do things that immediately affect gameplay (though these are obviously the meat of the game and its interactivity, and the more you have of them and the more varied they are, the better), you will have a world that is functional - but not alive.

This article has not fully explored the issue of interactivity, and obviously it was never meant to. What I hope is that you, the player and/or designer of adventure games, have come to a better understanding of the issue, its many layers, and its centrality to the evolving artform of graphical interactive fiction.

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Jonas Kyratzes is a writer, director, game designer, actor, and a bunch of other things that he can't remember right now. He plans to conquer the world with his communist propaganda disguised as articles. In fact, if you're reading this, you are already one of his slaves, and he orders you to get him a bar of chocolate. Go. Now. Now! (Blasted mind-control device. Never seems to work right.) He has a pile of goo that some people mistake for a website at http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net.

Copyright © Jonas Kyratzes 2005. All rights reserved.