The Non Interactive Sequence

by Steve Bowler on March 27, 2008 · 8 comments

in design

Cutscenes. Cinematics. Full Motion Videos. Non Interactive Sequences. As long as there have been video games, there’s been story elements forced on the player. Sure, Pong didn’t have them, but Pac Man did.

And as long as we’ve had cutscenes, they’ve been linear cutscenes. It really doesn’t matter if they’re pre-rendered or in-game and real-time, for the most part, they’re all the same: force the equivalent of a linear movie on the player.

Oh sure, sure, throw out Half Life 2 story scenes as a counter-argument: “But those were interactive!” Were they? Does moving a camera around a locked room while being forced to listen to two people talk as if you are there when you’re patently ignoring them actually count as interactive these days? Okay, I’ll give you that their heads tracked you around the room. I can engage my dog in conversation, and I’ll get essentially the same response. It doesn’t exactly come off as interactive.

We could forward that Bioshock pushed forward the storytelling medium of videogames, with its passive player uptake of story elements. While this touches on interactive — after all, the player chose to engage story elements by picking up the tape recorders — it is still essentially a bunch of linear non-interactive sequences that a player can choose to participate in, or not. More often, not only is the player not given any kind of choice or interaction when a “full” story cutscene takes place (they are forced to watch it), their control is whittled down to a camera angle (they can’t even move the camera around the room), and in some cases, they lose control completely (although arguably it is integral to the story to do so). In the end, Bioshock’s story itself is largely non-interactive. You cannot really change what goes on in Rapture. I believe you can get a bit of a different ending if you save all of the Little Sisters rather than kill them, but the story itself remains unchanged.

Mass Effect attempts to turn all of this on its ear by having you engage in an “interactive” conversation, but ultimately, your only true interaction points are the moments inbetween the linear cutscenes they want to show you. In the end, you are a degree more interactive than Bioshock, in that you are constantly choosing your cutscene moments, but ultimately you are still just watching linear cutscenes stitched together. It’s a rich man’s Choose Your Own Adventure.

So how do we further the medium here? How can we get to a state of true interactive cutscenes? One baby step would be to introduce more, smaller unit cutscenes to give the impression of a more modular story. Maybe Fallout 3 has the right angle, what with their 200 endings. Reading up on their alleged massive amount of possible endings, it seems as if they started with about 12 to 20 endings and have been adding little pieces to each one based on your actions throughout their world. But even if they do hit on this proposed solution, I wonder, are all of the cutscenes in the rest of the game going to be fairly linear still? After playing 54 hours of Oblivion, my money’s on “most certainly.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’m perfectly content to listen to or watch a linear cutscene. Squeenix does an amzing job of keeping my interest locked tight with theirs, and admittedly, Bioshock’s story was pretty damn engaging. But for all of the talk about how important story is to videogames, I think we need to take a different stance and distance ourselves from the Hollywood model. We’re not an interactive movie. We’re games. We’re sandbox worlds. Our stories should always live within our worlds, never pulling the player out of the universe we’ve asked them to engage in if we can help it. Sure, Final Fantasy will always be full of movies, but we’ve all been there, and it’s been done.

An old book by Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age, touches on the matter of how to beat linear cutscenes, by having virtual actors (known as Ractors) play the characters in your game (or movie) for you. Embedded with millions of nanites acting as motion capture sensors, the actors are rendered in your parlor as whatever character you need to interact with in your scene. As fun as this could be, obviously, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

An interesting proposal to the Non Interactive Sequence would be to take a small page from the game The Ship, where every person on the server is playing a character, and had a role to play in a murder mystery setting. If the game is crafted where the winning conditions force everyone to play their role effectively, all story sequences would have to be played out by people in character attempting to accomplish their goals. While it is an intriguing concept, this doesn’t seem likely to succeed in a larger context either, as it isn’t horribly mainstream. If there aren’t enough people to play the game with you, you wouldn’t be able to play your game.

So we’re left at a very complex and robust AI story system that nobody seems to be able to accomplish, at least this generation of hardware. I’ve heard that AI is very costly to CPUs, and I’ve seen how difficult it can be to craft an AI that is worth even half of a damn. Is the solution an AI rendering card? Graphics certainly didn’t take any quantum leaps until the GPU concept was pushed on the general consumer public. Maybe it’s Complex AI 3rd party software solutions that cost millions of dollars to develop and purchased piecemeal by companies as a turnkey solution?

To be sure, it would take an insane amount of time and money just to attempt a world where the player is involved in every scene of a story, and the story develops in real time around the player’s actions.  I imagine Bethsoft is the closest to this goal with Fallout 3, but I have a feeling even they will fall short of the goal of a fully interactive world.  Clint Hocking has the right idea with his talk of how to accomplish Immersion, but I doubt that the third in the Farcry series will hit the fully interactive story mark as well, as I don’t think that was their intended goal.

What are your ideas? Do you think a fully interactive story is even possible?  Have you played anything that comes to mind with amazing interactive story elements in them?

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