Blockbuster videogames are now a thing. Explosive big-budget spectacle-laden AAA mega brands like Gears, Uncharted, God of War, Dead Space, Black Ops. A few years ago I expressed concern that these blockbuster titles were getting the edge over their competition not with good old fashioned games design and mechanics, but by using their insane budgets to drench themselves in a protective coating of flash and spectacle; distracting players with a constant barrage of cinematic staging, high concept set pieces and one-shot contextual events. And it totally works. Uncharted is an adrenaline pumped roller-coaster of fun, it's no surprise people are “falling” for it. But it's sort of cheating, isn't it? Pre-canned pre-determined pre-choreographed linear events are the tried and tested tools of the other more established mediums, the reason they are so effective is that cinema and literature just spent the last few hundred years showing us how to use them. Sorry to be the grizzled old curmudgeon cradling a shotgun on his porch and bemoaning the loss of traditional values.. but for games designers to fall back on these tactics too hard and too often risks neglecting the very heart of our medium: Interaction. Luckily there's a new twist in the tale. I finished the latest Tomb Raider this week, and as Lara and I tumbled down the side of a collapsing tower, vaulting through shattering metal rods, sliding through rapids and gliding underneath explosive debris, I realized that set pieces and player agency can live together in harmony after all.
Crystal Dynamics' dark and gritty reboot establishes a new grungier command list for the young archaeologist. Lara's nifty new climbing axe can latch on to distinctive “craggy” rock surfaces Vertical Limit style, her shotgun can shatter light wooden barriers, fire can burn any object covered in white cloth, the grapple arrows can attach or yank any object wrapped in layers of rope, generic mechanics like ladders, swing poles and shimmy bars are easily recognized by their regular shape even without a constant colour palette, and if you see a gap, well, you're probably meant to jump over it. Core mechanics which are individually simplistic, but are all strongly defined by consistent visual communication and signposting. The player quickly memorizes and pairs these cues and inputs in their brains, impulses which will be cemented there for the long haul after they apply them in a few passive scenarios.
The Quick and the Dead
The most common way to give the players some token semblance of their agency back during an automated pre-choreographed linear set piece is your basic "quick time event". Like most people, I hate them pretty hard. Mostly because I regularly swap between controllers and have subsequently no idea were A, B or X are without at least 3 seconds to ponder the issue beforehand. More than that though, QTE's exist in a bubble and are completely detached from the core gameplay. If your mechanics come with immediately identifiable visual signatures in the environment like in Tomb Raider, the game designers can instead easily prompt the player to use the right button inputs without relying on tacky on-screen prompts. Crucially, the different mechanics require subtly different responses from the player which means the player has to be constantly engaged with the game; checking for visual cues and reacting with the correct input, rather than finding comfort (and thus eventually boredom) in routine. It's not unlike one of those maddening “Bop It” toys; the simplicity of the individual actions is irrelevant, it's the process of recognizing and applying the correct one under pressure.
Now during the unfolding chaos of a set piece.. as the entire building is burning around you, or the whole floor starts falling away, or the boat is capsizing and water is bursting in through the windows, the player searches for the same visual cues to guide them through the debris and destruction. Funnily enough you can hold a shoulder button in Tomb Raider 2013 to highlight all the interactive objects in a room using Lara's “survival instincts”.. this view mode is pretty much just a literal version of the learned gamer instincts tunnel vision that let us pick out the key interactive elements from the anarchy of the scene. The players path is an evolving chain of the individual mechanics, and the constant assessment of the incoming obstacle and the required input to overcome it becomes the game flow, just like the Bop It. Really it's just like a fantastically staged big budget version of endless runner iphone games like Temple Run, where you learn that a gap means swipe up, turns mean swipe to the side and bars been swipe down to slide... and then navigate an assault course of those obstacles. The environmental action might be automated but the players role within the scene is not diminished as a result, and it stays engaging, in a surprisingly old school arcade way.
Tomb Raider isn't a perfect example of this yet. It still occasionally relies on the classically flawed quick time mechanic and has a tendency to break flow and hand hold the player during the trickier moments by slowing down time and flashing the input as a reminder.. but it is promising evidence that spectacle and interaction don't have to be mutually exclusive, a lesson for all future blockbuster mega games. And me, to stop being such a hater all the time.
Thanks for reading,