I have been meaning to write about this for a long time. Finally I managed to structure this issue in my mind.
There exists a dilemma in modern video games. I shall call it Interactivity Dilemma. The question it entails is simple: How much interactivity can be sacrificed to gain better verisimilitude? Consider the Quick Time Event. It is an attempt to solve the Interactivity Dilemma by limiting interactivity and increasing verisimilitude. By decreasing player input we can limit the amount of choices in the game and focus on polishing what’s left. Compare the lightsaber combat from Jedi Academy with fistfighting from The Witcher 2 (by YouTube). In Jedi Academy the player had a lot of interactive choices; He could jump, move in any direction on X-axis, attack into any angle by aiming with the mouse, lauch special attacks and use The Force. But the end result looks silly with players running back and forth from melee range, making random slashes, taking insignificant damage. In The Withcer 2, fistfights happen by Quick Time Events. The player must press a button that flashes on the screen. Success means you deal damage to the opponent. Failure means you take damage. In any event the action on the screen is played out in coreographed, well-animated and nice-looking attack. The Witcher 2 fistfight looks better than lightsaber combat from Academy, pretty much because it’s interactive options are limited.
So. The less choices we give the player, the more the game looks good. Now let’s compare a “playable cutscene”-situation from Half-Life 2 and The Witcher 2. In Half-Life 2 there are several places where major NPC:s deliver exposition to the player by speaking to (not with) Gordon Freeman. In those places the player is generally confined in the same room as the character, but his movement is not detained. This usually means that active players will listen to the exposition while exploring the room, touching everything and jumping around. I doubt Gordon Freeman, Ph.D, would listen to Alyx Vance’s explanation about the human resistance while balancing on the top of a computer and tossing physics objects at her. In Witcher 2, Geralt follows NPC:s in couple of places, conversing with them. The game disables running, meditation, sign and item usage and unsheathing a sword while in these areas. The player can only walk with the NPC:s and possibly pick up flowers for alcemy. It goes with the character. From this example, and several others, I assert that the less choice we give the player, the more reasonably the game plays. Therefore the best-looking and -feeling game would be one with zero interaction. Which would be a movie.
This is the dilemma. How much interaction can we give the player and still avoid emergent silly situations? Until there is a procedural AI that generates stuff on the fly inside our games, this is an unavoidable problem. How to tackle it?
First, we can ignore it. The dilemma applies pretty much only to games that depend on heavy narration and realism, like The Witchers and Heavy Rains. Make an entirely mechanical game that requires no narrative immersion to enjoy. Platformers, puzzle games and to some extent, first person shooters are mechanical games where the point is not to advance a plot but solve problems, whether those are difficult jumps, puzzles or enemy dudes.
Second, we can try to find balance. Like God of War’s Quick Time Events, make a simple binary choice system that the players tolerate and release the artist department. The end result should be nice to look at and engaging to play. My Star Wars-game idea does just this.
And third, we can do both. Space Rangers’ system is cleverly built so that the player can do nothing extraneous and does not even wish to. Arsing around costs money and time, both extremely valuable resources. No player arses around idly. The vibrancy of the game world is created by hard abstraction. The graphics are gleefully out of proportions, but very detailed and well-thought out, leaving an impression of a “realistic” space civilization. The background images and User Interface graphics evoke strong images. The player can imagine the people and places without actually witnessing them in action. That’s a pretty nifty feat.
The abstraction of graphics plus streamlined mechanics means that the game world and player actions are consistent all the time. And that is how I believe Interactivity Dilemma should be tackled. Instead of implementing more detailed physics engines and graphics, use abstraction and evoke images within the greatest graphics engine of all time: The imagination. Limit the player’s actions those that you need. Is it necessary for the player to be able to enter every house in the city? Will the story suffer if you take away the capability to jump? Take only the most essential gameplay actions and add nothing else.