Immersion Can Only Take You So Far
Due to the Supreme Court decision in 2011 designating games as free speech protected by the First Amendment, video games are now elevated to the same status as other art such as music and movies. However, outside of the (large) community of gamers, video games are still looked down upon as little more than entertaining distractions. There is no Godfather or Citizen Kane for video games. While certain games may have beautiful cut scenes and action sequences that resemble films, the majority of the games remain simply video games. Most entertainment genres seem to be content to keep films and video games completely separate. But one genre is doing its utmost to blur the lines. That genre, pushed into the spotlight by games such as Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead, is interactive drama.
The term interactive drama, coined in reference to video games by David Cage, means a solo adventure game where your decisions directly influence the story. Let’s break down the definition into it’s parts. First, interactive drama games are uniquely solo. There is no multiplayer option, no way to play with your friends other than to compare your own personal experiences. Second, it’s an adventure game where your decisions directly influence the story. It’s supposed to stand in stark contrast to heavily linear games such as shooters, Call of Duty being the example. Call of Duty drops players into large action set pieces and are forced to move from point A to point B shooting a set number of people along the way. No decision you do affects the outcome of the story, other than simply not playing. Sandbox games also do not fit this definition. Although you are given lots of freedom in games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed, none of the fun you have directly affects the story of the game. The story is determined by “main missions” which follow a linear path to a set end. Interactive drama games state that your decisions directly influence the story by claiming to have branching storylines. These games claim that every decision you make matters and for especially important decisions, the game will often remind of you of the branching storylines by having a statement on the screen. In The Walking Dead, after an important dialogue exchange a sentence will appear at the top of the game stating that he/she will remember that. These different decisions affect your story by giving you different interactions with different characters, different characters will change their behavior towards you, characters will occasionally die due to your decision, and at the end you will have an ending specifically tailored to your choices. Four popular interactive drama games are Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Interactive drama games have both their strengths and weaknesses.
1. Immersion: More than most other games, interactive drama games immerse you fully into the game and its story. Immersion itself is a heavily used, and often vaguely defined,5 term. According to Jamie Madigan in ‘The Psychology of Immersion in Video Games’ immersion is best defined as spatial presence. “Spatial presence is often defined as existing when “media contents are perceived as ‘real’ in the sense that media users experience a sensation of being spatially located in the mediated environment.” The idea is just that a game (or any other media from books to movies) creates spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he is “there” in the world that the game creates.” Interactive drama games usually succeed in creating spatial presence.
This happens for two reasons. First, the game requires you to complete seemingly inane or unnecessary tasks. Heavy Rain serves as the best example of this. The whole first hour of the game is any random person’s basic morning routine. You wake up, shower, get dressed, brush your teeth, etc. You can choose to either work or procrastinate. You can choose to have coffee or juice. When the wife and kids come home, you can help set the table or go outside and play with the kids. All of these tasks, while seemingly boring or unnecessary, nevertheless succeed in connecting you to the main character. You feel like he is no different from you. Same challenges, same boredom, same joys. You’re forced to project yourself onto this character because he does the same things you do. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when the plot rips this life away from him. You feel his pain when he loses his child or when your wife blames you for that loss. You feel his pain because you literally spent a day in his shoes.
Second, the game requires that you make incredibly difficult choices. Now that you’re initially connected to the character, you’re presented with choices that have serious consequences. The second episode of The Walking Dead is a great example of this. Immediately the game shows you a man with his leg caught in a bear trap that he can’t escape. Zombies are approaching. Do you cut off the man’s leg to save his life? If the answer is yes, then you must spend several agonizing seconds hacking off another human’s leg, him screaming in pain as you do so. I winced visibly with each hack of the axe. And what made it worse was that ultimately it didn’t matter. The man died on the way back as I carried him and then became a zombie who attacked my group. This affected the way I played the game. In the next episode, you’re given the choice of whether or not to shoot a woman attacked by zombies to put her out of her misery, but the shot would reveal your own position. Or you can let her be eaten and buy yourself extra time to get supplies. I chose to let her be eaten and while I got extra supplies, I felt terrible the whole time. And when I returned to our camp, I was berated by some characters for not trying to rescue her.
Both these reasons make you fully immersed in the game. You care about the characters’ actions, interactions with others, and keeping them alive.
2. Emphasis on Plot and Character Development
These games also tend to be better written than other genres. While other games need to focus on having a functioning multiplayer or sharp shooting mechanics, interactive drama has none of those problems. Instead, they focus on world building. Having a large interactive world dramatically increases immersion in the game. Skyrim has a massive world and achieves its immersion through the player’s ability to interact with nearly every object, person, or environment within the game. Dark Souls builds a compelling world through atmosphere, environment design, and tidbits of dialogue. Unlike those games, interactive drama games achieve this world building through well written characters, backstory, and plot.
Telltale’s Game of Thrones episodes are a prime example. The game throws you into an established universe, but rather than latching on to the coattails of George R.R. Martin, the game introduces a new family with its own background and motivations. As you play different characters within this family, you learn more of their history through dialogue and interacting with key objects. By clicking on a family portrait, your character will describe each family member and some of their history. Dialogue with other people reveals background about their character and sometimes yourself. And once the solid background is established, your character’s growth becomes organic. This allows you to write your narrative. In the first episode, you play as a character bringing the sad news of the Lord’s death. Through a conversation with the lord’s adviser, the adviser reveals that he is worried about the future lord because he’s young and inexperienced. The adviser complains he’s immature and not ready to make important decisions. Armed with that knowledge, when I eventually played as the future lord I vowed to prove the common perception wrong. I deliberately chose to make the character act strong and lord-like. I made the character pick a battle-hardened veteran as my chief adviser and I made him stand up for himself in council meetings. And when the time came, I stood up to the villain. At the end of episode, I was given the title of ‘Ethan the Brave.’ It felt like a natural and earned title. I had used the information given to me early and developed the character how I chose to.
Of course, all of this only works if the story is worth playing, and for the most part interactive dramas succeed in this. Especially because their plots tend to be about subjects games usually avoid. Heavy Rain deals with the loss of a child and the abduction of another. Yes, there are other non-interactive dramas that deal with loss, like Max Payne or God of War. But in those games, the loss is simply a plot justification to enable you to murder hundreds of enemies without moral dilemma. You don’t feel uncomfortable about shooting the criminals or the big baddie at the end because he was in some tertiary way connected to your loss. But those games don’t take a magnifying glass and zoom in on your character’s emotional pain. Heavy Rain does this to an uncomfortable degree. After one of your sons die in a car accident, the game leaps forward a few years. You’re separated from your wife and it’s your turn to take care of the other son. The whole scene consists of an evening between you and your son. No shootouts, no car chases, no puzzles, nothing. The scene works or does not work based on the strength of the writing. And it does work because the characters act realistically. Your teenage son is sullen and sulky. He doesn’t talk and doesn’t want to do his homework. The estranged father worries about his son, but has no idea how to make him happy. The scene becomes a guessing game as you try and figure out how to make your son happy. What does he want for dinner? Should I make him do his homework? Playing as the father character, you have lots of ways to try and engage your son through the evening. But he only gives one word responses and for the most part seems sulky. And unless you do every little thing right, the scene ends with your son yelling at you angrily before going to bed. All this is realistic behavior for a depressed teenager and his estranged father. It’s scenes like that which separate interactive drama plots from other games. Later on when the other son is abducted, I want to rescue him. Not only because the game requires me to, but because I am invested emotionally in the well-being of my son. Scenes like this make rescuing the abducted teenager become synonymous to repairing the fractured relationship. Even though these plots are archetypes in video games, small scenes like this elevate the plot beyond the norm and make the players emotionally invested.
Despite these strengths, interactive dramas have glaring weaknesses.
1. Bad gameplay/archaic controls
A lot of games are enjoyable because they are simply fun to play. It’s entertaining to press a button at a certain time and see your character act a certain way. This enjoyment comes from the controls being either fun or functional. In the Batman franchise, it’s thrilling to plummet down from a rooftop and smash into a group of criminals, pulverizing them with righteous fury. It’s gratifying because the controls are simple and responsive. Press a button to kick, press a button to block, etc. The game responds in time with each button press so that I can have the joy of walking into a crowded room of bad guys and be the only one who walks out. Game controls are also functional. There’s a reason every first person shooter has the same basic control scheme. It works. Anyone can transition from any first person shooter, such as Halo, Destiny, or Call of Duty, without any difficulty. They all have the same scheme because it’s the most efficient. Left analog stick moves the camera, right analog stick moves the player, left trigger aims, right trigger fires. There is no better arrangement than that. It’s highly efficient and makes the game accessible to any player, new or veteran.
Interactive drama game controls are neither fun nor functional. Their controls are clunky and archaic. In Heavy Rain, the player needs to hold down a button for the character to walk. No game has required that in over ten years because its irritating holding down a button for nearly the entirety of the game. Also these games have fixed camera angles, limiting my ability to see and direct my character. This becomes especially irritating when going through doorways. As soon as you enter a room, the camera changes and suddenly instead of moving forward you turn around and move right back through the same doorway. Nothing will shatter your immersion more than irritating controls.
The controls also contradict the demands of the plot. I encountered this problem all the time in The Walking Dead series. I would hear a zombie mauling a nearby person but would be unable to do anything besides slowly saunter towards the sound. This is because there’s no sprint button. It’s frustrating because the game had worked so hard to make me feel like I was in a zombie apocalypse. The atmosphere was right, the plot was good, the characters were compelling, yet I was yanked from my immersion by the inability to sprint. In real life, people would either run towards zombies to save somebody or run away from them. I was no longer immersed by the game because it was now removed from reality. This is a deal-breaker for interactive drama games. The whole purpose of all the strengths listed above is to make you fully immersed and emotionally invested in this experience. Being unable to sprint like I could in every other game was frustrating and damaged my experience.
Not only are the controls clunky and nearly obsolete, but the gameplay is terrible. By gameplay, I mean what you actually do in the game. I showed a friend of mine the trailer for Beyond:Two Souls and I was very excited by how cinematic it looked. His response was to ask what you actually do in the game, and I didn’t have an answer. Interactive dramas have awful gameplay for two reason: overuse of QTEs (quicktime events) and a lack of variety. QTEs are when players press buttons in tune to the button prompts on the screen. Press the buttons in the correct order and rhythm and you succeed, don’t and you fail. QTEs in a limited capacity are fine, see God of War and Call of Duty, but you can’t build your whole game around it. All you do in interactive dramas are select dialogue options, click on objects, occasionally solve problems with those objects, or QTE. It’s dull typing it and it’s dull playing it. I usually end up playing these games while doing something else, such as folding laundry. The gameplay makes you feel more like a spectator than a player. It’s especially jarring when you suddenly have to go from watching your character talk to rapidly pressing buttons or else your character dies.
This weakness can be summed up in a simple sentence. Too much gameplay is sacrificed on the altar of the plot. I understand making the gameplay less important so you can emphasize the plot, but you can’t have there it be zero fun to play. Otherwise, all you have is a longer than average movie where you’re occasionally obligated to do chores.
2. Lack of replayability
One of the reasons video games cost more than movies is that you spend more time with them. It takes on average around 25-30 hours to complete the main story in a video game. But after you’ve completed the game, there’s always more things for you to do. There are side missions, collectibles, mini-games, and many other things you can do and still be entertained. Some games also have new game plus mode, where you replay the game but it’s much more difficult. All games have achievements or trophies that reward you for doing certain things in the game. Interactive drama games fall flat in this category.
Interactive drama games have zero replayability because of your level of immersion and that terrible gameplay. The immersion is an example of being too good at your job. Once you complete the game, you’ve completed it. Because you’re so immersed the first playthrough is YOUR playthrough. You don’t initially want to go back and replay it because any different choices you make are not YOUR choices. You told the story, there’s no reason to go back.
Even if you do want to go back and make different decisions, the gameplay stops you in your tracks. Your first time through you were irritated by the bad controls and dull gameplay, but you gritted your teeth and continued playing because you wanted to see how the story ends. Your second time through, you know how the story ends. Now, all the things you ignored become glaringly annoying because you’re trying to rush to different points in the story where your decisions matter. I started to feel like the creators had forgotten they were making a game, and threw random QTEs and puzzles to fulfill some “game” quota.
Finally, and this is the most egregious one, the branching storyline claim is a lie. I played through the first episode of the Game of Thrones by myself and made several important decisions that determined my characters fates. My friend came over later and I had him play the game, but told him to make the opposite choices I had made. We both reached the exact same ending. This happened again for episode two and again for episode three. We started joking that our choices didn’t matter and he quit playing the game. The same thing happened for Heavy Rain. No matter what choices you make, the bad guy is the same playable character. I had hoped that by replaying the game and doing different things as that character, than he wouldn’t be the villain, it’d be a different character. But nope, it was the same character; and since the plot was leading up to that big twist, I didn’t want to play anymore because I knew the twist.
To summarize, interactive dramas are either a long movie, with occasional player involvement, or a bad ten hour game. The awkward primitive controls and dull gameplay ruin the immersive experience. Playing becomes a chore that the player must do in order to continue the story. The gameplay has no connection to the story and, even worse, is no fun at all. Continually having to replay a scene because you weren’t prepared for the sudden QTE, or accidentally walking in and out of a room, or spending fifteen minutes looking for the one random necessary puzzle item, devalues all the strengths of the drama.
Interactive dramas are viable as a genre if it fixes these glaring mistakes. Interactive dramas need to update their controls to be similar to every other game so they’re more readily accessible. They need to add some variety to gameplay and make the gameplay be necessary to the plot. This is not impossible. Most recently, the Last of Us achieved this balance. The Last of Us has been praised because of its excellent story and characters, as well as being a fun post-apocalyptic zombie game. The game requires you to constantly scavenge for supplies and ammunition, if you don’t then it’s going to be extremely difficult to beat levels and advance the story of the game. But the scavenging isn’t just something you do because it’s a video game. Rather, it fits right in with the atmosphere and plot. If you’ve ever read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or seen an episode of The Walking Dead, then you see that the characters spend most of the time scavenging for supplies. This makes sense because civilization has ended and everything is scarce. Likewise, the constant scavenging fits with the plot and atmosphere because it makes realistic sense that you have to scavenge to survive. If interactive dramas want to succeed, they need to have fun gameplay that is in tune with the plot.
Or interactive dramas could go the other direction and simply throw themselves in the movie genre. Abandon any standard video game elements, and solely focus on giving the player a movie in which you control the dialogue and important choices of the characters. Leave behind the puzzles, walking, and QTEs and simply have nine or ten different endings and have your choices determine which ending you get. Essentially, give us a video game version of a choose your own adventure book.
Either way, interactive dramas need to make essential changes in order to last as a genre. With the rising costs of video games and development costs, they need to be more fun and replayable. Because very few people will pay 60 bucks for a ten hour game with weak gameplay.