Interesting Interactions

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"Interesting Interactions" is a term that Jamie Antonisse coined last year - or, anyway, one that he used that I haven't heard anywhere else - and it's something that has stuck with me for a long time. It's a description of what modern mainstream video games don't do well. He was talking about Bioshock in the original context, but it's an industry-wide issue. And it's something that I come back to a lot when, for example, I read this article about the survival horror genre on Sexy Videogameland.

Leigh Alexander has had survival horror on the mind the last few days, which makes sense, I suppose, since she's been playing Silent Hill: Homecoming. I never really got into survival horror, as a genre, in games or cinema. I played a bit of Fatal Frame on the Xbox, and it was interesting, but it didn't really stick with me. I do love Shawn of the Dead, but that's really less a zombie movie than a romantic comedy with zombies. I did just buy a copy of Last Night on Earth, the board game, which I am super excited about trying out. But with few exceptions, survival horror is just not really my cup of tea.

So I didn't get particularly excited about Leigh's initial post about Silent Hill. (Although I admit I perked up a bit at the part where she talks about redefining genre labels, for survival horror games and role-playing games.) And I haven't even read her review of the game on Kotaku. But her follow-up today did catch my eye. Apparently, Leigh attributed some of the mechanics of the survival horror games of the early nineties more to technical limitations than deliberate design decisions, which inspired a response from producer John Tynes, of Microsoft Game Studios. Mostly, Tynes addresses this particular issue, stating that 3rd-person combat is a hard problem, but not for any technical reason. "We weren’t waiting for better chips to enable third-person action; we just had to keep iterating from game to game until we got somewhere that worked."

The really good stuff comes at the end, though:

The fundamental problem here is that videogames have not evolved past combat as their primary form of interaction. The branching-tree dialogues of the BioWare games is the only popular alternative route we’ve found to deliver meaty, game-defining (and game-filling) interaction. The evolution of the survival horror games towards a more action-oriented approach is for that reason: you can solve environmental puzzles, or you can have long, rambling conversations with agenda-defined NPCs, or you can kill things. I would posit that survival horror is not enhanced by long branching conversations with NPCs, so that leaves puzzles and combat. That’s all we’ve got so far in our toolbox for these kinds of games.
That, of course, is embarrassing. There are experiments in other directions, as with Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy. But for now, what console games do well is killing things, and when you look at the survival horror genre, it’s clear that its biggest weakness – without stepping outside the problem set they’ve defined – is in crappy combat. They’ve solved that now, and in the process have exposed the real failure: we don’t know how to make moody, atmospheric games that last 10-20 hours without stuffing them full of killing things. We have to step outside of the initial problem set of survival horror and ask how we can give players meaningful, game-filling interaction in a moody, suspenseful environment without resorting to combat. We have a long way to go.

I think this is a great quote. And I agree with Tynes: violence is old hat. For whatever reason - because it's simple, because it's intrinsically high-stakes, or because it's a form of fantasy fulfillment - combat is the form of conflict resolution that modern games have focused on, more than any other. We've collectively put a lot of cycles into the problem, we've gone through a lot of iterations on various approaches, and we've come up with some great solutions. That's fantastic. But it's not enough. Conflict is broader than violence; drama is more subtle.

(I'm reminded of the character Michael Scott from the American version of The Office, who said on his approach to improvisational acting: "What is the most exciting thing that can happen on TV or in movies, or in real-life? Somebody has a gun. That’s why I always start with a gun, because you can’t top it. You just can’t.")

We need to spend some of that energy developing solutions to the unsolved problems, the harder problems: compromise, debate, passive aggression, perseverance, leadership, wit, lateral thinking, personal growth, politics, love. These are all types of conflict resolution that haven't been explored nearly as much as combat. These are all interesting interactions. (And, to be fair, violence isn't the only sort of interaction that's been popular amongst game designers. Economic simulation has also been iterated on quite a lot, as have competitive sports - though combat seems to be explored the most, by a wide margin.)

Just to be clear: there are a lot of game designers out there who have experimented with interesting interactions, in independent games and in mainstream games. People have done great work in these areas, and are continuing to do great work. But we have to remember, as Tynes says, that we still have a long way to go. I'm not calling on anyone to stop putting violence in your games. But keep in mind, when you're designing, that there's a lot more than combat out there. Ask yourself if you're including an interactive element because it's the best thing for the design, or the easiest, most familiar thing for the designer. Sometimes it's good to get reminders about the more interesting interactions, so that we can work on solving those problems, too.

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