Unskippable cutscenes, bad escort missions, and most prison sequences all have one thing in common: They take control away from the player and put it in the hands of a RNG or plain old boredom and repetition. This should not be. The one unique element of video games is their interactivity, their allowance for player input, choices, and customization. Video games can and should sacrifice plot and aesthetics if necessary in order to improve gameplay, the one element that trumps all others. This also means that the things that make for a great film story are generally not what make for a good video game story. This is why it annoys me when a video game thrusts ponderous, impassible movies in the attempt to become a medium that it is not.
Rather than cramming a movie-shaped peg into a gameplay-shaped hole, video games should become more interactive, more expansive, more challenging to player minds. For all of their faults, the Grand Theft Auto games have the right idea: Give the player a seemingly endless world in which to play and experiment and blow stuff up. Or even better, make like Deus Ex or the Fallout series and give the player absolute control over their destiny, over every minute decision, every pathway to take and objective to seek. Those are things that can’t be done with any other medium and smart video game developers should exploit this advantage to their heart’s content. If you’re going to give me long cutscenes or conversations I can’t bypass with a simple button press, at least give me some Bioware-like dialogue options. Give me some control or give me death.
I’ve spoken of the badness of escort missions previously, though it took a reasonably critical commenter to get me to realize what the point of all of my ramblings was. (Thank you, commenter!) It was control. If the player dies in the game through no fault of their own, they feel cheated. The game is no longer a test of skill but a roulette wheel with “escortee runs blindly into enemy fire while shouting his stupid catchphrase” filling up most of the slots.
Even though I’m not any good at real-time strategy, the genre has occurred to me as another example of pseudo-escort missions that aren’t maddening. You have all this territory to defend, all these buildings and troops and upgrades to manage, but you’re responsible for it all. There it little to no randomness. If your grunts in Starcraft run off into enemy lands to get slaughtered, it’s all on you. Yes, you have to micromanage hundreds of things at once like the Rainman counting falling objects, but you still have the potential to do it, you just have to have the skill.
I mentioned prison sequences earlier. A friend of mine is (slowly) making a game with RM2K and there’s a segment where the player characters are imprisoned and need to escape. Rather than using some stupid JRPG cliché like having a Deus Ex Machina let them free or turning the guards into morons who let their prisoners have all of their equipment, he created a somewhat more logical solution where the characters appeal to the pride of their one of their oppressors (Who has a grudge against them) by cajoling them into fighting the hero one-on-one and then using the resulting chaos to escape. While this was still done in a scene without player input (JRPGs have tons of dialogue and story stuff after all), it avoided an unnecessary sequence where the player ran around in a tiny room waiting to be rescued. Control was never taken away.
Some people speak of “controlled helplessness” to give the illusion of control in order to heighten emotional involvement. The only good example of this that I can think of off-hand is in Metal Gear Solid 4 where you control the mighty but aging Solid Snake as he crawls through a corridor filled with microwave radiation that saps his already waning strength as he struggles towards his destination. The kicker is that none of this is automatic; the player must hold down on the PS3’s thumbstick to slowly drag Snake through the hallways of death, making him experience every agonizing second. And if you’re still as bored with this as you were with the never-ending ladder climb in Metal Gear Solid 3, there’s a split-screen that shows a conversation in a different part of the world (A cinematic trope that the Metal Gear Solid games use quite well). For all of the game’s pointlessly drawn-out pretention, this is one moment that was as expertly crafted as Kojima intended it to be.
The title of this article is “On Control” but I haven’t yet mentioned the other type of control; namely, how responsive your in-game avatar acts in tandem with your button inputs (Or to your awkward flailing if you’re using waggle controls with the Wii or one of its imitators). Like, the Mega Man games for the NES and SNES are enjoyable due primarily to their fantastic controls; Mega Man never moves in a fashion that you don’t want him to. As opposed to, say, Sonic running blindly into spikes simply because there was an innocent-looking spring launching you into them and you couldn’t see it in time or Mario slipping on a brick path into a pit like it was made of frictionless ice. I realize that sometimes a character’s limitations may be intentional in order to force the player to handle themselves more carefully, but this should never be done at the expense of player control over his situation.
The marine in Doom was fairly weak and fragile but he could run circles around his enemies and fill them with bullets from a variety of weapons. The game’s levels were gigantic but your character was fast enough to navigate them with blinding speed if you had the skill. Compare this to the modern first/third person shooter protagonist, who can only hold two weapons and moves about as quickly as Obama can recover the economy.
And it’s not always just the player character that you control. People say of (For example) the 3D Ninja Gaiden games that they’re tough but fair, that all in-game deaths are always the result of the lack of your own skill. This is true if you don’t count their hilariously bad cameras. Yes, bad moveable cameras equals bad control; I shouldn’t forced to gaze upon Ryu Hayabusa’s thick manly biceps when I’m more interested in the slobbering monster just out of view that’s about to bite into him. Again, aesthetics should be sacrificed for gameplay. Let me rotate the camera through buildings, who cares if the polygons clip through each other and look like a Playstation 1 game? God Hand handled this properly. Every game on the planet should be as practical.