Scripted Sequences and Removal of Player Control


In some random thread a few days back, I said something that echoed a conversation I had elsewhere. It went something like this:

The moment when the game industry became the movie industry was when taking away player control became a gameplay "innovation."

It reminded me of something I saw, something I didn't like. At E3, a trailer for Star Wars: 1313 was demoed. There was some cover shooting, some nice visual effects, and it ended with something that this year's E3 seemed to be chock full of: A sequence where the player character jumped from burning/falling platform to burning/falling platform, presumably in an attempt to not get sent back to the most recent checkpoint. It was a mostly scripted event designed to make the player feel a sense of life-or-death urgency, like there's some real, tangible danger afoot. See, we know there's no real sense of danger. We know that if we're not paying attention with our thumb on the 'X' button, we'll just get sent back to a checkpoint a few seconds before the sequence began, and we'll know exactly what's coming. That breaks immersion (Aside: To Heavy Rain's credit, it introduced in-game consequences for failing QTEs (Quick Timed Events), but that's a story for another day). As stated in the Gamasutra article, Revival Horror: New Ideas in Fear-Making:

The predicament in all horror games is the manner in which they deal with combat. In non-horror games it's easy to use combat as the defining gameplay mechanic because there's no need to keep mysterious the beasts lurking in the shadows. In horror, the moment when a monster becomes familiar is when the tension and dread begins to deflate. There's no limit to fear of the unknown, but as soon as an enemy is quantifiable the boundaries are drawn. Fear will eventually become supplanted with frustration or, worse, tedium.

-- Michael Thomsen

The same applies to games with scripted sequences. They're supposed to put you on the edge of your seat, but the excitement turns to frustration for some gamers who find themselves unable to complete the action. Game designers respond by making these sequences much easier. They simplify the button commands needed to pass the segment, reducing it to something so simple that it's rendered pointless. Where's the danger and excitement in going through a harrowing sequence only to press one button at some predetermined time in order to survive the event and continue the game? Another Gamasutra article, Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players quantifies this frustration in an experiment to see which Xbox 360 game is the "scariest," by charting biometrics such as skin surface temperature and heart rate:

The final cause of scariness in this opening chase was observed whenever players had trouble navigating. Four of the players took the wrong route, often resulting in death. Three of them said that this caused them to panic, making the chase even scarier. Kira, however, said that losing her way was frustrating and made the game less scary, which another player (Rob) found himself in agreement with, though only after he repeatedly had trouble with navigation. This panic/frustration theme recurred when the mini-QTE part was reached, with initial fear soon dissipating into frustration as players took multiple attempts to survive it.

-- Joel Windels

Regardless of the original mood invoked by the first time attempting a section, subsequent attempts are stripped of the intended mood while frustration supplants it. Now, this can easily apply to any sequence in any game, ever, but it makes me wonder: what point is there in removing player control? Is it to simulate a more visceral connection with the player character, like with button-mashing QTEs? Do developers think that by making us hit a button in rapid succession we are somehow experiencing the player character's on-screen struggle?

In a lot of ways, scripted easy-climbing from foothold to foothold or jumping from collapsing platform to collapsing platform is the new QTE. It's worn out its welcome, and is becoming so ubiquitous in gaming that it no longer adds to a sense of excitement or immersion.In a lot of these instances, I'll actively try to find ways to goof around in these scripted sequences. Most of the time, I'm greeted with the inability to grab onto anything that isn't a developer-sanctioned ledge or foothold. Other times, I'm also greeted by invisible walls, which don't actually "greet" me, in the literal sense. They just stop me in midair and make me fall to my doom, sending me back to the previous checkpoint.

And yet publishers try to demo this kind of thing as if it were actual gameplay?

The sequence at the end of the Star Wars: 1313 E3 demo is basically a thinly-veiled QTE, but many people are drawn into the illusion because there are explosions occurring all around you, so it seems like you really have a hand in the player character's escape from whatever it is they're escaping from. It supposedly creates a heightened sense of immersion. In reality, removal of player control takes away from the sense of immersion, almost as if you are some entity floating above it all and watching it transpire from a distance, occasionally returning to your corporeal container to hit a button and keep the sequence flowing smoothly. You are no longer the director of your gaming experience--the developer is. You watch it as you would a film.

Game designers who fancy themselves movie directors like to remove player control from the equation. This way, they can show you their vision for the product, unhindered by your twitchy camera habits and attempts to climb area geometry. In their hands, they can script in-game events almost perfectly, but much less so in relation to the higher degree of player control they allow during these sequences. Once they've taken away too much player control, they need to be very careful in how they ration it back out. Imagine if a developer allowed the player character to grab onto some other piece of area geometry apart from the path that they had intended you to take. Now, imagine if the game gave you a checkpoint at that very moment. Potentially game-breaking stuff, right there.

But look at what they've done to gaming. Some of these developers prefer to make action games just as linear as the Japanese made their RPGs.Not a perfect comparison, I know, because that works for those RPGs, but not games where you are an active participant in what is going on around you. Being led through an entirely scripted sequence is not good gameplay. Hell, it's not even gameplay to begin with, and so many gamers drool at how amazing they perceive it to be, for whatever reason.

A shame that the last console generation's most well-known game design accomplishment was the creation and refinement of sandbox gameplay, while this one's is the removal of player control through the integration of QTE into so many aspects of gameplay.

Thoughts? Rants? Points most salient? Let's hear them in the comments!