Games are a strange and delicate string of analogies. A button with an X on it is a jump, a button with a Y on it is a punch to a stranger’s face, and within the context of the game these actions have weight and affect the game world. This sense of equivalency is built up between input and action, but it never stops feeling slightly strange and uncomfortable in some obscure way.
Games have started leveraging this tension in ways which I find surprising.
In Cart Life, in order to do tasks, process orders, and proceed in the game the player types in short phrases. For instance, in order to serve a cup of coffee the player might need to type “be careful, it’s hot” before the order will complete.
It’s a kind of forced role-playing. It’s a kind of brainwashing, really.
In The Walking Dead, I’m shoveling dirt over a corpse. Each time, I need to click on the pile of dirt, and empty it over the still body, and I have a moment to reflect before we have to do it again.
This is not a choice. This is what I must do if we are to proceed.
Games are, as a medium, so defined by choice and by interactivity that granting the player input but no agency holds a strong message of its own. Maybe we don’t always have a choice.
For a long time, quick time events, or QTEs, were just a way to show a pre-scripted cinematic while still maintaining a modicum of engagement with the player. Historically, they’ve been a lazy solution, a method of both eating and having the full-motion-video cake. Intense Hollywood action sequences, but you can press the buttons and be a part of the action, like a kid at an arcade playing a machine with no quarters in it.
There are no shitty tools, though, just shitty carpenters. Designers are beginning to get a sense of what can be done with QTEs, and also a sense of what should be done with them. There are two things which have been tedious and frustrating about QTEs: First, they rob the player of choice, and second, there’s no meaningful connection between the inputs and the actions they represent.
One of these issues might be fine. Together they’re pretty terrible.
But we’re beginning to break these down. Instead of investing all of our money and energy into making a pretty cutscene and then overlaying some tangentially related inputs on top, we make cheaper cutscenes with more potential inputs and make them matter beyond simple failure/success states.
The point I’m driving at here, though, is that input matters. It’s more than just a control mechanism– though really, every control mechanism is more than just a control mechanism. The same way that the words we say begin to shape who we are, the input we give to our games shapes our emotional state. When we have to type phrases, when we have to shovel piles of dirt, we are made to be accomplices.
This input-awareness is happening in parallel with another trend, where games are becoming more and more self-aware in terms of commentating on their own mechanics and stories. Hotline Miami and Spec-Ops: The Line make the player think about what they’re being asked to do very consciously, and then to wonder what those actions mean about them. Little Inferno challenges us to think about how much of our lives we spend subsuming ourselves in our tiny subdivisions of tiny divisions of the world we live in.
I don’t know if there’s a connection between these trends. I want to say there is, but I have nothing besides intuition to base that off of. I guess maybe the connection is that they’re two ways of handling tensions which are omnipresent in the space of video games, one being the tension between input and action and the other the tension between story and mechanics.
We’re trying to define the boundaries of our medium now. We are feeling our way around the edges of what is possible, of what our decisions and our actions, both as designers and as players, really mean.
It’s a good time to be playing games if you’re interested in making them. There’s a whole lot out there to learn.