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The Glass Ceiling

A collection of lessons from my time spent with video games.

Lesson 1 - Non-Interactive Elements

Posted 12 October 2022

Let's state the obvious: games are interactive experiences. It follows that when you're designing one, you ought to put the gameplay first, which means that every element of any game should be evaluated primarily through the lens of how it impacts gameplay. From the entirety of an RTS campaign's plot down to a single dialogue line, everything ought to serve the gameplay experience first before it serves anything else. This particular axiom can be a hard pill for developers to swallow, especially if they initially had aspirations to write stories rather than to develop games, but I don't think you can create high-quality core gameplay without taking this mantra to heart.

Enacting this principle doesn't make it necessary to eschew things like dialogue or cutscenes - it simply argues that you should be consistent with such non-interactive elements, and that they should consistently augment, enhance, or otherwise serve the gameplay. Wresting control away from the player for the purpose of a narrative event, no matter how fleeting, is bad practice, as it isn't consistent with the more common stretches of uninterrupted gameplay.

The same can be said for moving the player's camera, as this hampers their ability to remain focused on their current task, and assumes that the player couldn't possibly be doing anything worthwhile in the moment. In this way, such faux paus are not only inefficient at communicating information, but also quite disrespectful to the players they are meant to enlighten, as the underlying assumption is that the player will tolerate such lack of concern for their actions and game flow.

Anything that fractures player inputs or delays interaction has the nasty second-order consequence of shredding expectations. If you can't know when another interruption is coming, you start to wonder if more are just around the corner. This is mostly a subconscious effect, but especially for players who have little attachment to a narrative or world, every hiccup in gameplay serves as anti-dopamine - effectively punishing them for progressing through the level.

Put simply, driving a wedge between the player and the game creates a mixed signal that you simply never want to be sending as a developer. It also fails to communicate your ideas in satisfying ways - up until the controls are yanked away, the player is busy thinking about the game, and hasn't had any time to adjust to another medium of information entirely. There are other, better methods to invoke worldbuilding and characterization, so why hitch your wagon to the least effective one?

Half the battle, they said...

But I'm not naïve. I know a lot of developers came into the space with ideas aplenty. I count myself among them, in fact, giving me a vested interest in finding solutions to the problems I've outlined thus far. Let's talk about how you can present information in satisfying and effective manners, and avoid a host of common pitfalls along the way.

Compared to breaking up the core gameplay, it's clearly better to have longer stretches of dialogue during a mission briefing or debriefing - the player has either not yet begun playing, or is no longer expected to be playing. Designers also benefit from established convention, as players tend to expect cutscenes or other non-interactive events as a way to kick off or wrap up a mission. By leveraging dialogue sequences while not in-game, you aren't reinventing the wheel by any means, and you hold the opportunity to provide engaging and insightful moments that will let the player better appreciate your characters, factions, and broader setting.

Even so, such devices are not the panacea many RTS campaign designers would have liked them to be. I posit that the problem with these non-interactive narrative elements lies not in concept, but in execution - after all, when was the last time you felt engaged by a cutscene in an RTS, or in any game for that matter? These tools are rarely used well.

Cutscenes and briefings often invalidate or disregard the player's experience and perceived impact, by killing characters or destroying assets that the player fought to engage with moments ago. In essence, conflict resolution occurs not by the player's hand, but by the developer's, in a constructed and often disingenuous artifice that attempts to make a Hollywood moment out of something the player by all accounts already accomplished. This is disrespectful to the player, and uses dialogue and cutscenes for something they are ill-equipped to achieve.

These non-interactive events often fail to maintain basic consistency with previous points in the plot, such as the briefing for Brood War's penultimate macro mission, Reckoning, and its blatant retconning of what the player saw only moments prior. When a debriefing shows one thing, and the next mission's briefing tells another, you know you've got some serious chaos in the writer's room. Not only does this betray a lack of care on behalf of the developers, it also undoes the work of previous cutscenes, which may very well have already nullified the accomplishments of the player. These issues stack up, and can easily convince the player that nothing that occurs in the narrative, or that happens by the player's hand, even matters.

Players may also see a complete lack of equivalency between a character's perceived strength during gameplay, and that same character's accepted strength in the narrative - a "show, don't tell" problem that plagues every high-profile game I've personally played. Just like in every mediocre film, the player has to be told to fear, respect, or adore a certain character, with clunky dialogue that often amounts to "Bad Guy X is a worthy opponent". Meanwhile, this would-be nemesis fails to engage you at all, and only poses a threat insofar as the act of grinding through their inflated health bar (or preplaced armada) threatens to put you to sleep.

The optimal usage of a mission briefing would be to lay out integral gameplay information, provide some understanding of the stakes as it pertains to the narrative, and set an expectation for how difficult of an undertaking the mission is going to be, before gameplay begins. You could imagine how a commander might seek intelligence reports from an advisor, parlay with hostile leadership, and issue combat orders to a junior officer, all in one sitting. This kind of content would remain faithful to the subject matter of your average RTS game, while establishing character dynamics between members of the home team, and avoiding being overly long or uninteresting.

Such an introductory period could even be extended into an opening cutscene to further underscore game-affecting elements, such as the environment itself and the factions that lie within, but tread carefully... and more on that in the next section.

Quiet, please!

Stop me if you've heard this one before: you're finding your groove with a game, bouncing from task to task, defending from hostile action and pushing into enemy territory all at once - only to be rudely interrupted by characters flapping their gums. Dialogue, now? I'm trying to play here!

That thought has certainly crossed my mind on more than one occasion while playing through RTS content, from fan-made campaigns to first-party offerings, but it's interesting to note some of the nuances of mid-game dialogue. While it often can be overly long and attention-seeking, I believe the raison d'être of scripted events has morphed over the years.

In earlier games like Command & Conquer and Starcraft, dialogue often served as glorified window dressing. The experience you had playing the game rarely reflected the narrative anyway, so the only time the game's script held relevance to the game's world was if a state change occurred mid-level and thus demanded some form of communication. Failing that, players were subjected to the tried-and-true briefing, intro, and outro formula, with a few extra lines scattered throughout for "flavor". This approach isn't particularly elegant, and you could often levy criticism at the written content of these sequences, but dialogue in these nascent titles mostly stayed in its lane - while also being a far cry from what modern RTS dialogue has become.

Flash forward to games like Starcraft 2 and Red Alert 3, and you'll experience missions with incredibly-bloated scripts that achieve virtually nothing with the resources they consumed. State changes and other supposedly-notable events are now the remit of the cutscene-driven interruptions discussed earlier, cementing all other mid-game dialogue as a mere distraction from monotony - an incredibly telling fact, considering the sheer quantity of lines you'll be bludgeoned with at every opportunity.

It's not just the content of videogame dialogue that has suffered as of late - and it has suffered. Gems that amount to "don't attack the enemy in an RTS game" and "remember to count to 3, friend Raynor" are dime a dozen in such productions, and for big-budget games, I don't expect it to get any better in the future. Low-grade writing is a separate issue to the very justification for this dialogue to exist at all - to fill a painfully-obvious void where gameplay, challenge, and stakes should be. Modern games are a façade, and the most safe and sanitized way to push the player down the only path that doesn't expose the charade for what it is is through nagging dialogue that reminds you not to engage with the world you presume to inhabit.

One lesson to take from the creative failures that are "modern" RTS games is that dialogue is a very poor substitute for actual substance. If you provide your players with a fair challenge in the form of competent enemies that actively seek victory, you will establish an unscripted dialogue between each commander's actions. Then, when the silence is broken, it can be with terse, yet meaningful lines that further characterize the speaker and the world without clogging up the proverbial airwaves with empty gestures and insulting instructions. So long as we're attempting a pretense of a warzone, spoken lines should be short and pointed.

Make me a promise, and keep it.

The disconnect between a game's narrative and a player's experience is often more than palpable. This is sometimes called ludonarrative dissonance, and it plagues every high-profile release I've ever experienced - especially real-time strategy games.

That enemy you defeated with ease? He's a worthy opponent! That dead weight ally you carried last battle? This next mission will be almost impossible without him!

Yeah, I'm not buying it. If you as a developer want players to become invested in your world and characters, your world and characters need to operate believably, and that means your dialogue needs to match observed reality. We'll also set aside the fact that variable difficulty and other inconsistencies create an even deeper divide between gameplay and story. Let's talk about promises - those pesky things developers make and break, often in the same breath.

Promises in games are implicit, often subconscious as far as most players are concerned. When you play a game long enough to start forming rules for how the mechanics, or enemies, or environment functions, you will always desire consistency - for without it, how are you to improve at the game? If a monster absorbs a different number of attacks from the same weapon before finally succumbing, how can you predict future encounters?

Examining any game through this lens immediately dissolves excuses for random chance that plagues most RPGs and shooters in the modern era, but strategy games break promises just as often. Simply building up your economy, infrastructure, and military forms the idea that your allies and enemies are doing the exact same thing - but this is so exceedingly rare in reality, that after almost 25 years of playing strategy games, I can count the number of titles that maintain parity between you and your nemeses on one hand.

Real-time strategy AI are playing a different game, with different rules. Money? Often infinite. Vision? Often omniscient. Training units? Just spawn them in! Why provide any consistency when you can create a cinematic experience instead? This is the ultimate broken promise in any RTS title, and it has disastrous implications for your narrative and world.

It is more than true that gameplay and story are inexorably linked. Even though standards have hit an all-time low, players will take notice when the game's dialogue frames the experience as a mostly-fair battleground, despite the asymmetric rules signaling the exact opposite. This is all to say, of you want players to respect your characters, they need to earn that respect, and they need to earn it fairly. This doesn't mean one-to-one parity with a human player's behavior or skill - just that they play by as similar a ruleset as possible. Some differences, such as their tireless multitasking and their tactical inflexibility, can be carefully approached by the ambitious, but are otherwise best left unmolested.

So what's fairness, challenge, and AI got to do with non-interactive elements? Given that this is what your players will be contending with for the vast majority of their time spent within your content, your mission scripts had best reflect the overall experience. Rather than prescribing what the player should think about your characters, make those characters act true to their intended forms, and players will draw far richer and more organic conclusions than what is possible by cliché dialogue and tired tropes.

Subject matters.

Let's wrap this lesson up by painting in even broader brushstrokes. We've covered the pacing of information, the timing and content of dialogue, and the relationship between the experience the player has and the experience the writing wants them to have - but I've yet another axe to grind, and this time, it's with the themes central to so many of these mediocre titles.

Returning to the concept of ludonarrative dissonance, when you consider the sheer number of soldiers, tanks, and aircraft expended in a given RTS campaign, what do you think might justify such a conflict? Rising political tensions combined with a convenient neighbor to scapegoat? A set of factions' fundamental differences between race, religion, or objective? A force of nature or cosmic horror that leaves all survivors in a fight to exist?

If you answered interpersonal drama, apocalyptic stupidity, or a fucking love story, you'd be bang on the money for something like Starcraft 2!

Not only do players completely lose investment in a world where armies in the millions follow such oafish leaders with such laughable goals, they also lose all respect for the characters themselves. It's easy, if foolish, to disregard the justification for battalions of men to march to their deaths - it's a lot harder to disregard the same level of stupidity when it's embodied by the faces and names we are supposed to respect and relate to.

Kerrigan spends hundreds of thousands of Zerg and slaughters hundreds of thousands of Terrans, despite the impending arrival of a literal Dark God, because she's angry at Mengsk. Mengsk knows exactly where Raynor is at all times thanks to his double agent in Tychus, but fails to apprehend the outlaws even after they rampage the Dominion's crown jewel using an experimental war mech. Raynor succumbs to alcoholism, steals from nutjob Protoss, and shoots his best bud, because he's in love with Kerrigan. Drama, stupidity, and love make for such believable stories, don't you think?

Poor choice in subject matter is like poor choice in foundation, except in this case, you're building over a bottomless pit. Once the floor gives in, everything else you've put effort into is consigned to oblivion, never to be seen again. You can, of course, hide behind the excuses of those who haven't experienced a proper story before - but that'd be like if Fortnite's developers touted the reviews of their tween audience who haven't played any other games before. Praise and critique should only find purchase if they're from people whose standards you trust, and you'll have a hard time convincing me to trust a 12-year-old's opinion on anything, by the way.