One of my biggest pet peeves in general from this last generation, has been the focus on heavily scripted gameplay. I get why many games have pursued that end of design, a lot due to wanting to have a cinematic story, it doesn't ask much of your player so it can appeal to anyone, and mainstream audiences tend to fawn over spectacle in general. Me though…I see past the sheen of how good the games look, to how shallow what I’m getting to do really is. Since DocSeuss already covered the general shortcomings of cinematic games, I’d like to focus specifically on contextual actions.
At first I remember being drawn in by the game Uncharted 2. I mean how couldn't I? It was a huge push in terms of presentation for video games, where it really did pull off the effect of being a movie. However, it was an experience that was only strong once for me, and then later when I engaged in Uncharted 3…it completely fell apart for me.
I remember that it happened during one of the chase scenes, where I was playing late at night, tired due to it being one of my last college semesters filled with projects. So my hand/eye coordination wasn't at its best, and I made a terrible jump across this gap while being chased by a few guys behind me. I knew right as I pressed the button I jumped to early and would fall…but I didn't. Nope, the game sort of magnetized my character to the ledge, correcting my jump. I remember thinking “huh, that was kinda lame, maybe it was a glitch”. Well shortly after that jump, I had guys closing in on me, so I decided to jump over to this ledge on the building to the far right…only to hit the ledge for a grab, but died anyway. “Maybe another glitch”, I said to myself. So I naturally tried it again, only to again hit the ledge, and slid off, like it was an invisible wall. After that attempt, I came to the realization that I wasn't going where I was supposed to.
Now look, I've never been the player that is particularly fond with cutscenes, as I play games to ya know…”play” them. However, cinematics have been a part of video games since the PS1 era, but I've never been that annoyed with them the way I am with modern titles. The reason is that in those older games, my platforming wouldn't have been contextually corrected like Uncharted 3, the game would've failed me because I did fail. The reasoning is that before this generation, designers were ok keeping cinematics to themselves, and then gameplay to their own sections. Nowadays, designers want to mesh them together…but rather than wrapping the cinematics around what the players do in gameplay, it’s the gameplay wrapping around the cinematics.
There is this constant interruption now where completely scripted scenes filter into the experience, and to ease that interruption designers throw scraps of interaction to try and sate you. The main device is the use of contextual interactions, those button prompts on the screen, the “press X, for Y action” moments, or the more subtle Uncharted platforming example. Designers making these games love them, because it’s a way to keep the experience “interactive”, but really let them keeping pulling the strings of the experience they dictate down to the seconds.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against contextual actions as a concept, rather just their implementation. Often they’re useful for players opening doors, hitting buttons, opening a conversation with a character, and accepting quests. Heck, I even loved how Tomb Raider this year made the cover system contextual.
The thing is those uses I just listed were performing basic mundane tasks and/or actions you need to do very often that aren't thrilling to press in and of themselves. Also, they’re good for freeing up buttons on a gamepad. What contextual actions often aren't well built for, are using them as your core mechanics, or building dramatic moments around. So going back to Tomb Raider, all those early scenes where you press prompts to keep living are the bad examples. Even next-gen games are even making these mistakes:
This was from the Battlefield 4 gameplay demo. Now you might be asking yourself, who is this guy? Why is there an “F button to Cut Leg” highlighted over his body? Well I have no damn clue who this guy is, but the characters in the video tell you that he’s a big deal, and even your friend. Like many modern action games, they are presenting these shock value scenes, the “look how grimdark we are b***h” moments. Trouble is, this character wasn't established enough to give a crap about, and worse this very serious but sad thing you’re doing to him…is relegated to a contextual button press. These are the moments, when non-gamers say they don’t like how video games trivialize violence…are absolutely correct. In a film I can empathize with this action as someone else on screen is seemingly doing it of their own free will. However, this example has the game wanting me to do it, and forcing me to in order to continue. The common marketing is that these moments are supposed to be “impactful”, “memorable”, or “immersive”, when they are just perversions of interactivity, cheap illusions of control…and dissonant to the upmost degree.
Why? Well contextual actions lack a sense of consistency that is essential to gameplay interaction. Some critics often point to gameplay mechanics becoming repetitive by nature, putting them in a purely negative light, when really it’s a trade-off. With repetition, comes consistency, and with consistency, the player is given a true sense they are in control. It’s part of why our medium has rules, and is mirrored in real-life physical laws. The reason is they both inform our limitations, and we can then build our experiences/lives around them. If the action is contextualized, then what is performed on screen is controlled by the designer, where the only sense of control the player has left is when they feel like pressing the button to trigger it.
If a video game wants to truly make me feel something genuine, the interaction itself needs to be genuine. If a video game wants me to make a hard decision, then give me hard choices to decide between. Now I’m sure someone right now is going to say in their mind “I've played video games with choices”, or “What about that Heavy Rain?” the emotion-addicted French guy made, or “that game with the creepy glowy eyed girls?”.
No, again those experiences are giving you prompts, so the action you make, and the outcome you get are all controlled by the designer, not you. We need video games where the player makes that initial choice of their own volition, at their own pace, with their own mind. We need organic choices in games, dramatic moments where the player doesn't just believe, but knows, something happened only because they willed it without influence or prompt. Now it's fine if the outcome to the action the player makes is fabricated by the designer, because the player is still not God. The player is but one person, only capable of controlling their own actions, but the outcomes to those actions come from the world...that the designers understandably should control because they build that content themselves.
The trouble is modern designers seem more intent on trying to make you feel emotion, from actions that are purely out of the player's control. How can that ever work I say? These games are intent on sticking with the illusion that I am this character or actor in the world, yet what I do in contextual moments is not acted by me, no it's a stunt double stepping in instead. Screw the stunt double, I hate that guy. Why should I like him after all? The stunt double is stealing my thunder, making the experience itself feel artificial and cheap...like I didn't even need to be there at all, because I'm watching him perform in those moments. I wanna be more like Jackie Chan, where I perform my own damn stunts!
I am tired of seeing game developers try to convince me contextual prompts + cutscenes are how the medium will mature, just as much as I’m tired of gamers who reward them. Contextual actions aren't just a last-gen zero, they’re a perpetuating one.