In early 2006, a team from Harmonix, creators of the original Guitar Hero (and now Rock Band), gave a presentation at the GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop titled “Guitar Hero – The Failures.” (link) At this talk, Dan Sussman and Eric Brosius discussed their experiments with an unreleased game mode for Guitar Hero called “Freestyle Mode,” where the player is given relative free reign to create a melody of their choosing.
Ultimately, the mode didn’t work and they provided three reasons why: they couldn’t get it to sound good; they couldn’t fit it into game design; and it was hard to teach the usage to players. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s too free.”
In mid-2008 a game called Metal Gear Solid 4 was released. Although this game received the requisite across-the-board high scores, there was one common gripe that many reviewers, and players, had with the game. Namely, the cut scenes were LOOOOONG. 30, 60, or even 90+ minutes long. During this time, the game provides you with one of two interactive options: watch the cut scene, or skip it. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s not free enough.”
OK, I admit, MGS is only a half-assed example, but you get the point. These are two extreme examples of stochastic and linear gametypes. Many players would love to play freestyle mode, and many players enjoy watching MGS’ long cutscenes – but this article isn’t about those games or how fun they are, nor is it a critique on either.
Balancing the linear and stochastic elements in our medium is the difficulty we face; make a game too free and players flail in their freedom, but make a game too liner and the game fails to take advantage of what makes games great, namely, the way our choices affect the game’s outcome. Movies and books have an advantage in this sense – they are inherently linear, so do not have to deal with this quandary. A non-interactive game is nothing but a movie.
But there are certainly ways to blend the two (in fact, most games are a blend), and there are even ways to give the player a choice between a more liner experience and a more stochastic one.
Take Fallout 3, for example, the epitome of a modern day open-world game (or any of the Elder Scrolls games, for that matter). Anyone who has played this knows that they spend more time than is truly necessary pulling up their map and determining which direction to travel in the labyrinthine undercity. A simple solution would be a visible waypoint crumb trail, a la Fable 2 or even GTAIV. This would dramatically increase the accessibility of the game, and thus increase the games sales. They could even make it optional by being one of the game’s perks, so fans don’t decry such heresy.
My girlfriend spent literally 5+ hours creating her character in Oblivion, only to stumble out of the sewers into the wide world, overwhelmed with too many quests and no clear goal or direction. She wanted to play Oblivion, but it lost her due to the difficulty of figuring out what the game wanted her to do. Conversely, she played Fable 2 more than I did, and always knew where to go thanks to a proverbial yellow brick road. There’s no reason the game can’t have this option (hmmm… mod opportunity!), especially considering how there’s a strong possibility the entire world’s AI navmesh is already present, making it so the hard work is already done.
Finally, we get to the reason I wrote this article in the first place. I pose a question to you all:
Is it possible to create a game where the central premise is comedy, or is comedy inherently too stochastic and too subjective to be the pivotal gameplay determinant? There are plenty of games that include comedy as an element in their presentation, but I know of none that, for example, strive to have the player create comedic situations. And really, in what ways could a piece of software determine what is funny and what is not?
A gold star to anyone who nails this one, and a high-5 for getting half way there.