Interaction Delay

Gamers, we have problems.
The other day, the Slag was cooling her heels in my crib, and decided that she wanted to play Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. I leapt at the chance. You see, V:TM-B (hnngh) is an absolute cracker. Admittedly, it has its problems. The last third really isn’t worth bothering with and the whole thing is riddled with ugly bugs, but on the whole it’s a rather beautiful experience. It attempts things that very few games bother with, building and colouring a dense, thickly atmospheric playground for you to explore more or less on your own terms. So you can just smash your way through all the russian mafia goons with a severed arm if that’s your fancy, or maybe you’d rather sneak in and charm the elegantly caricatured old gangsta into giving you what you want. Add into the mix a rather powerful meditation on the nature of power, not to mention some of the best writing in videogames, and you’re very near to a 25-carat masterpiece.

But the most arresting part of V:B (because huge complicated acronyms make Jesus cry) is also, in a stroke of genius which seemed to abandon the developers a dozen hours later, one of the very first things you encounter. The Ocean House level has, quite rightly, become part of games mythology. Basically, it’s The Shining, but with an uninvolved vampire dood (you) wandering around watching. That sells it terribly short, as the Ocean House is the single most terrifying thing to ever send me scurrying from the monitor to cower downstairs in the reassuring sunlight. It’s magnificently done, and if you love games at all you really must play it for yourself. To games designers with aspirations of giving us the heebie-jeebies, this is where your inspiration should be coming from.*

Or so I thought. I sat down to watch the Slag get herself a royal dose of squealing terror with an anticipatory grin. Two hours later, and the scales had fallen from my eyes and I was questioning the place of gaming in the wider culture.

She got nothing from it. Oh sure, she got a bit scared and she quite enjoyed herself, but compared to the harrowing experience I had with the game five years ago, zip. Sod all. The experience that had left me actually terrified left her mildly spooked, and, tellingly, frustrated. The experience was a very enlightening one for me, however. Let me share my off-the-cuff theorising with you (I find that’s where I theorise best).

What had been rich, fulfilling, powerful to me was reduced to being A Game to the Slag. The game-ness of it all was absolutely front and centre to her. Without years of Doom, Quake, Half-Life etc. the whole thing became impenetrable. WSAD and mouselook weren’t problems in themselves, but the weight of experience, of learned knowledge that I had and she didn’t reduced the experience to something which, coming after years of my proselytising, was rather underwhelming.

What I had thought beautifully transparent design was confusing for her. The years of playing shooters had made me (unwittingly) wise to where to look for the crucial clues which guided me through the level. The Slag’s lack of intimate awareness with the form meant that she was encountering it primarily as something to play and beat – she focused on getting to the end of the level, of finding ways to progress, thereby missing the atmospheric details that made the level so rich, and also missing the vital guiding of the designers which make progress much easier for a seasoned gamist like myself.

Her experience of the Ocean House was a continual battle with the controls – finding the right button for her various vampiric powers, trying to make the rather clumsy avatar leap through the right hole or clamber through the elevator shaft correctly – things which, to me, are very rarely problems in a well designed game. As a result, the whole experience was an eminently forgettable one.

So what’s my point? People who don’t play games can’t play games?

Um, yes.

Well, a slightly altered version of the above – people who don’t play loads of games can’t play ANY games, and this is in no way their fault.

We are going through interesting times, us gamists. Games are changing, and the ways in which games negotiate with the world is changing too. Videogames have been the sole preserve of kids for years, for as long as they have existed perhaps, but recent events are causing games to re-navigate their place within the broader world of the media. The Guardian now reviews one or two games a week (somewhat sniffily, and not very well, but hey – change is slow). Guitar Hero, the Wii and the DS are altering the tactile experience of gaming, and to some extent the target audience. But (and here’s the problem) games aren’t used to this, and games aren’t ready.**

Unless we’re careful, games like V:B (not the common abbreviation, but I’m not the common abbreviator***) will continue to fail. Games like VeeBee (I’m the renegade master) rely too heavily upon genre knowledge, upon the fact that the people playing them have played hundreds of others and consequently are aware of the arcane procedure of playing the game, so aware that the control method effectively disappears and one interacts purely with the synthetic world of the game. This has the side effect of completely shutting out people like the Slag****, and ensuring that games of this kind only ever play to a fraction of the potential audience.

Games are unique amongst the media in that they wilfully restrict themselves to a small audience. This is true of all kinds of games, not just videogames. Exclusivity is part and parcel of the whole deal. People still hate the Wii for not making “proper games”, but what they really hate, deep down, is the fact that Aunty Virginia and Uncle Montgomery can slap around a little plastic baton and be playing a videogame too. Wii Fit’s record breaking sales speak for themselves, though – people are willing to play games. See Professor Layton for more evidence of the same. What people aren’t willing to do is wrestle with complicated control mechanisms and obfuscatory design. Wii Sport may not be the best game ever, but until VeeBee and its ilk learn to simplify their unnecessary complications, that’s all that’s going to sell. If we’re not careful, the games that gamers love will get buried by Nintendogs and Brain Training.

This is why WoW succeeds while everyone else fails. No matter what they say, the other developers make MMOs for MMO players. Fussy, cluttered design. Obfuscation. WoW, at least in its early days, was clean, simple and crisp. It was childishly easy to play, and beautifully designed (mechanics wise and, more importantly, atmospherically) – and that was the key. It didn’t sell on its PVP mechanics – it sold by being gorgeous, and simple. Boomshine.

Games are living in the past, selling to the same few thousand people over and over. They can’t do that any more. The ever growing population of gamers deserve to be shown that games can be more than just silly fun – they can be art. But no-one will ever see that if games stay in the ghetto.

Epic Mickey may be our only hope.

*And the zombies in Thief: The Dark Project, natch. And those pink demons in Doom. And those horrific tentacle-deathjellyfish in Jedi Knight.
**…for the most part. Molyneux is an honourable exception. Some others too.
***I can’t spell it, for one.
****Although the Slag is actually a bad example. She has a passing familiarity with the forms and mores, and a bloody minded determination to be better at everything and learn more about anything that exists. What a slag.

Link courtesy of gameinformer. Ta to them.

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4 Comments on “Interaction Delay”

  1. Joe Says:

    You seem to have forgotten that you required your little brother in the room before you could finish the Ocean House šŸ˜›

  2. Alepgrese Says:

    Unadulterated words, some truthful words dude. Made my day.

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