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Games and
Interactive Drama

It has always been easy to criticize the games industry for their lack of inventive ideas. Well tried formulas are often relied on. Only cosmetic progress seems to be made: “Underneath it all it's just your standard platform, shoot ‘em up, beat ‘em up, etc.”

This is of course not entirely true. A lot of fresh and innovative games have always been created. And maybe new major concepts are not what we really need. More often than not, they are born out of pure speculation – originality just for its own sake.

That said, videogames certainly should have much more to offer than they usually do. The stereotypes are depressingly dominant. But it’s not really the genres as such that are inhibiting. No, plenty of scope there. It’s all the little things we have come to take for granted within them that have to be overcome: conventions from a technological past when games had to be kept simple and schematic, looks as well as play mechanics. And of course – the kids of yesterday are the grown-ups of today. We might still love the pure joy of Sonic and Robocod, but there should be more to games than just play and fun.

Well, what about the “interactive movies” then? Surely they point to more “mature” gaming experiences? It’s possible. But let’s remember that the true concept behind the term just isn’t on. And don’t be fooled. Adult orientation is not a matter of technology. Games of a different kind and with wider emotional range have been feasible for a long time.

A movie is told in a fixed linear way for very good reasons. Visually there are lots of similarities between the two media, but artistically? Certainly not. A fully interactive movie where you can change the path of the plot is nothing but a game. As a movie, what would the point be? On the other hand, interactivity might simply mean that you are free to choose your own camera angles while the story plods on. Or maybe you just get to play a minor part – acting freely, watching, without any real capacity to alter the main plot. That would be a great way of heightening the spectators’ feelings of being there. More of a movie than a game though.

Perhaps that is the way to go. Surely it’s at least one viable option. Interactive entertainment mustn’t necessarily possess the qualities of ever green playability. A football offers excellent “lastability”, but so does a book, if in a different way. What you remember and carry with you is a vital part of the experience. The “interactive movies” of today, however, still pretend to be games. You play lead, are likely to lose a few lives, and thus have to go through lots of repetitive action to get anything out of the story. This mainly serves to frustrate.

Are there then no hopes for a real game to fit into a dramatic context? There is, but not without some expenses. This time we have to cut down, not on interactivity, but on freedom. The scale of the game has to be reduced. What we need are games that combine simulation with concentration.

Behind the finer points of gaming is an invisible structure. The self contained worlds of RPGs and simulators makes for a believable and involving game environment. It’s all important that the computer keeps track of the characters, not only on screen, but also off. More independent, free roaming characters; better developed artificial intelligence. These are crucial aspects. Future games have to provide us with worlds with which we can fully interact, and which at the same time offer specific goals and tensions.

If they are to do that, we shouldn’t expect an average round to last more than a few minutes. A flight simulator, for instance, could concentrate on the landing only. That needn’t be a bad thing provided the events are kept tense and make a strong emotional impact. We really have to get away from the notion of judging value for money simply by how long a game keeps us drawn to the telly.

Either that or the playfield has to be restricted to a minimum. Inside an apartment it would be possible to stage a psychological drama that could go on for hours. Every replay would be as fresh as ever: You, a friend and a salesman at the door: each one with individual priorities, both open and hidden. A carefully constructed environment: a few special objects, usable, but signifying different meanings to each person. How you move, what you do and how you do it will affect the others. The action needn't be conversational!

These are the kinds of games I, for one, would welcome, and indeed, expect of the future. There’s a lot of potential even in the most mindless arcade action. I’d like to see nerve-shattering foot chases through a city, dark at night. If it is to convince will depend not on the frame rate, the number of moves or the size of the city, but on the intelligence of the computer guided actors and the autonomy of the world they inhabit.

Ola Hansson, March 1994

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