The Power and Limits of Destiny
The Uncharted series has won many awards over the years, and audiences have been kind and numerous. And if you have been paying attention, you may have noticed the language fans of the series often use to describe the quintessential Uncharted experience: cinematic, epic, awe-inspiring, well-written, immersive, expertly paced, emotional. The same has been said of Heavy Rain, parts of the various Call of Duty titles, and most recently, of The Walking Dead.
Listen carefully to this praise, for it is the sound of people using same vocabulary that one might apply to film or literature. On closer inspection of these qualities, it turns out that Destiny mechanics bear much of the responsibility for their effect. The reason for this is simple: Destiny mechanics are designed to achieve a specific result, not an iterative one; and this means they can convey a specific meaning in much the same way books or films do.
Think of Nathan Drake wandering deliriously through the desert, or climbing a precariously hanging train, or dangling from an airborne cargo plane -- each of these moments has a single outcome specially designed, crafted, and paced to convey a specific effect.
Not surprisingly, these moments are often conceived and executed in a manner roughly equivalent to a filmmaker's. So one obvious question here is this: Is there a fundamental difference between Uncharted's interactive narrative and, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark's passive narrative? Is mere interactivity enough to distinguish one from the other?
My own feeling is that -- from a narrative standpoint -- there isn't much daylight between the two. The fact of Uncharted's interactivity does not endow players with any additional phenomenological insights into Drake's character or experience. The idea that players feel a symbiotic relationship with the characters they are driving is a seductive one, but it does not hold water if the engine powering their trip is built from Destiny mechanics. Drake remains a designed character, existing apart from the player's inputs.
Only Agency mechanics give players the possibility of true freedom and responsibility. And after 12 years of writing and designing games, time and time again I have come to find that players almost always have an intuitive understanding of the difference between pre-written narrative and emergent narrative. All too often I have heard the complaint "I loved the gameplay, but I hated the character I was playing." Such a statement would be tantamount to the player hating himself if true identification was achieved. But this rarely happens.
This "interactivity conundrum" is further complicated by the fact that the player's inputs are abstracted from their effects on screen. Completing a quick time event to execute an action bears no resemblance to actually experiencing that action -- the player is simply overcoming challenges using buttons that trigger outputs that resemble real-world effects. This disconnect rarely diminishes the joy of our game experiences, but it means that we cannot fall back on the notion that interactivity alone is what makes games unique.
Chose Your Own Adventure books and narrative-heavy board games like Fury of Dracula offer many of the same choices that video games do, only with slower processing speeds. So from an aesthetic standpoint, Destiny mechanics are actually pretty old school, despite being dressed up in new digital digs.
But Destiny mechanics appeal strongly to an art critic's sensors because they contain much of what we have already been trained to look for in traditional art forms. These signs have been familiar for centuries -- authorial intent, meaning, symbolism, polemics, narrative, subtext, etc. Nowadays, when a critic spies a poignant or well-constructed Destiny mechanic, he pounces. It has pushed a button primed by centuries of earlier established forms.
To take a relatively recent, and critically lauded example: the "Looking for Jason" sequence at the beginning of Heavy Rain. Here the player controls Ethan Mars, a contentedly married father of two who spends the last few moments of his earthly happiness searching a crowded mall for his missing son, Jason. The player maneuvers Ethan through streams of tight crowds, calling out for the lost boy as he goes. Eventually he makes his way outside just in time to witness his son's death beneath the wheels of a speeding automobile.
The sequence is upsetting, well-paced, and a good attempt on the developers part to let players experience a truly tragic moment, as opposed to a hyper-stylized action set piece. But as in any film or novel, this segment is a pre-destined affair. The mechanics available allow the player a pinch of Agency (walking and shouting mostly), but for the most part this scene is an elaborate march towards Destiny. Here, the range of player inputs is extremely limited, so there is almost no room for expression via the mechanics. The player cannot save poor Jason, or sacrifice Ethan, or leave the mall and grab a coffee at a nearby café, no matter how hard and fast he walks.
It is a textbook application of Destiny mechanics in action -- the scripting, the dialog, the mise en scène. The player's actions are incredibly constrained, the experience is tightly controlled, and the designer's message is absolute: Jason must die, and Ethan must feel guilty. This holds true throughout the game, and even when Heavy Rain's story branches into multiple paths we are still aware that these branches have been predetermined and their number is finite.
Therefore, despite promises of "player choice," Heavy Rain's designers are still firmly in charge, and all these dramatic moments -- despite their interactivity -- are no more or less effective than a film or a book of the same quality, and may be judged accordingly. For my part, I found Heavy Rain overly maudlin with far too many implausible narrative conceits, but the experiment was worthwhile.
For my money, Telltale's The Walking Dead series succeeds where Heavy Rain fails, simply because it has a better script and better direction. But again, these are games built almost entirely from Destiny mechanics, and we should not be surprised if one of them happens to deliver a credible and emotional narrative experience. This is what destiny mechanics are best at. We should only be puzzled as to why it doesn't happen more often.
As a writer myself, I certainly have a soft spot for Destiny mechanics. So many moments from my years of playing games still thrill me when I think about them: Yorda reaching out to Ico as he leaps back across the slowly retracting bridge; Choosing to save only one of two equally interesting characters in the Walking Dead; the insult sword fights in Monkey Island; Every damn puzzle in Braid and Limbo. These moments are poignant because they have a clever designer pulling the strings, and sometimes a writer like me adding a little spice to the scene.