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Making games more accessible
Posted on Saturday, January 9 2010 @ 10:00:42 Eastern

You just got Metal Gear Solid 4. After hurrying home, you open the game and put it in the Playstation 3. At the start menu you select 'Chapter Selection' as if the game were a DVD movie (as if it didn't already act like one in other respects). From the chapter selection you choose to start your game after just disposing of the second boss. After all, you had already watched a friend get that far at his house and you can't waste time continuing the story with any reruns. Farfetched? Maybe not for long.
 
Every story consists of two important components: the storyteller and the narrative.
 
In various media (e.g., text, audio, film) these differ—from author to director to musician; from the arrangement of chapters, scenes, or songs. In addition, the storyteller, or perhaps it's an editor, makes available the content of his narrative through different means—from a table of content, to chapter selection, to song selection. The availability of this content also differs by media. Ancient scribes didn't make use of a table of content or an index the way books do today. Early filmmakers thought nothing of chapter selection as is today available on a DVD. And the accessibility of an album is far easier today on a CD or iTunes than on cassettes.
 
What's common in each of these media is their ability to be skimmed, or how accessibly a user can move through a piece of work (novel, album, movie). You can skim text by speedreading books, sifting chapter-to-chapter, or, say, on a forum reading only the end of a long post to get the gist. Similarly, in film or audio you can skim using various media (CD, Blu-Ray, etc.) and the options they offer, e.g., fast forwarding, chapter selection, skipping scenes, song ripping and CD burning, etc.
 
For each medium listed there are no hoops to jump through; i.e., you don't have to complete a certain task to see something; you don't have to unlock one part to access another; and the ending is not kept from you (literally speaking; whether you understand a certain movie or book, or part of what you're skimming, is another thing). Put simply, the content in each medium is fully open, fully accessible at any point. I can read what happens at the end of the last Harry Potter novel and know what happens before I know how it happens.
 
Because of this, these media allow for dynamic hyperlinking. You can jump from place to place in each media and immediately begin an experience. You can jump to page 45 and begin your story of a book from there; or minute 1 second 33 of a song; or scene 11 of a  DVD; or the left-middle section of a painting. Think of them like a web site, where you click from link to link and go from page to page. They're still static hyperlinks in the sense that one section (e.g., Chapter 1) links to, clarifies, and makes sense of the next (e.g., Chapter 2). Or maybe it's a dynamic-static combination, such as a Tarantino movie where the plot jumps around until it's put together at the end.
 
Yet there is one medium that largely prevents such dynamism, where the narrative is always static because one part of the narrative must be completed before accessing the content of another part. This is the medium of video games. Sure, you can skip credits, opening advertisements, or cut-scenes, for example. But unless you've completed part of the game, only then can you jump from established section of the game to established section, and it's always in reverse. There is no skipping to the end, fast forwarding, or "speedgaming" (unless you're that guy who can complete Mario 3 in 10 minutes, but even then he has to unlock certain requirements and he can't immediately jump to the end and see how it all turns out).
 
Every medium has gone through an evolutionary process where the author has lost more control over his narrative. Today an author might write a 250-page, 15-chapter book with a tightly woven sequential story, but his reader can jump about as he wishes and turn the narrative into one of his own. Think of the music listener who buys an album today that yesterday it was only available on cassette in an unmodifiable form, and today, thanks to technology, he can rip the songs, rearrange the track list, add new tracks, and create an entirely different album than before. In essence, he has created his own narrative even though he started with the same Led Zeppelin I album his father did. (It'd be interesting to know, how, if at all, this loss of narrative control has affected authors, directors, and artists and if they design individual chapters/scenes/songs to be absorbed more readily by themselves than in the context of others.)
 
So as game development evolves and players gain more control over their games will we see more freedom for gamers to "skim games" and access more of the content right out of the box? Should this even be a game design model worth pursuing? Remember the games when you had to reach a certain spot to save the game, or even acquire special codes to even return to some place in the game you've reached before? Today, many games do away with this narrative, offering instant saving, or the ability to use someone else's save file.
 
A key question to ask of this type of narrative design is, "Why lock gamers out of content?" Sure, someone may say: But what incentive does a gamer have to play through a game and complete levels if it is accessible at once? To experience the game, of course!, and to reveal the full story. I could likewise ask, "What incentive do I have to read 'Crime and Punishment' all the way through?" and such a question would seem absurd (unless you detest Dostoyevsky). So why should video games be any different of a medium? After all, as Nabokov once said, it's not the "what" we are interested in but the "how." Perhaps games could come with two options: Locked and Unlocked. The locked option is a game as we know it today. The unlocked as all of the content readily available. You can experience it if you want to skim, or perhaps you're playing the game normally and you're stuck but you want to view the unlocked content for a hint.
 
What if I want to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii at a store, or let's say I rent it—why should my potential purchase or full consumption of the finished product hinge on me completing the game from the beginning, especially if I have a limited viewing time (say, 20 minutes at the store)? I want to see if the last level is really worth playing the rest of the game through and investing 10 hours! I mean, how many times have you played a game thinking it'd get better and it doesn't, and the ending especially sucks? Well, what if there were a way you could find out (beyond downloading someone else's save file, or reading a walkthrough, or forum posts)? Shouldn't there be?
 
I can hear one response already, that this design makes the game challenging, and games should be challenging. Designed like this, the game also creates a certain experience for the gamer to enjoy. Giving the player more control over where he enters in the game and what he can skim through destroys this experience. But, I ask, why shouldn't the player be able to create his own experience? You may say, "If I pay $50 for a game, then I better get an awesome experience," but I say, "If I pay $50 for a game, then I should be able to create my own awesome experience." Think of it as the ultimate sandbox game, allowing for far more control than any Grand Theft Auto game could.
 
There is also another question to ask here that perhaps is a separate discussion: Should any game be too hard and impassable that it doesn't allow its user to access its content otherwise? Perhaps it's silly to think, but what if someone wants to buy a game and experience the narrative without actually playing it? After all, games are games because we play them, but isn't there a point where gamers should be able to choose just how they play a game or experience the narrative set forth? Indeed, I would say, much of a game's narrative is in the gameplay, but that is a topic for my next blog entry.
 
What separates (or should) the medium of video games from others (books, music, films) that video game content shouldn't be fully open upon first play and available for skimming? Why should I have to complete Level 1 to play Level 2 instead of just starting at Level 2? Why do I have to start at the beginning of Level 1 everytime I play and not, say, a quarter of the way through? How many times have you thought of playing RPG X, only to resist because you know the beginning is so boring for 5 hours you don't want to waste the time (and you forgot to keep a save file at the 5:01 mark)?
 
Again I see a response: "But how will developers design a complex game such as an RPG to allow for such control?" If Boss X needs to be beaten to acquire the necessary XP, weapon, or character event before facing Boss Y, and you want to simply face Boss Y, how does the game allocate XP, weapons, or what have you to your character that didn't follow the predestined sequence? I'm not entirely sure myself. Perhaps you could start with a certain default weapon and XP. Perhaps you wouldn't be as strong, and this would encourage a player to fully play the game and not jump haphazardly. Again, I ask, "Shouldn't I have the choice?"
 
If there's one thing I've learned as an instruction writer, it's to be humble about what I create. When I write an instruction manual I, like any other author, have a certain vision and desire to have the user of my content to enjoy the specific experience I have created for him. Except we all know few people read instructions, and there is a lot of hard data that shows when people use technical content such as an instruction, they simply skim and look for what is most relevant. So I must design my instructions for this and not keep my audience locked out. It is also quite a request to ask the user to experience what I want him to. He will create the experience he wants.
 
Admittedly, there is a difference between a more technical medium (such as a manual or textbook) and an entertainment medium (such as a novel or video game). But where do you draw the line for accessibility in relation to the entertainment medium of video games when other entertainment media allow open access? In fact, the line is more vague than some think if you look at a few puzzle games. An avid fan of Tetris or Dr. Mario, for example, will know that he can create his own narrative in some of the newer iterations of these games. In their WiiWare incarnations, a player can "start" a game at various levels and various difficulties. He can start Tetris with his playing field half-full and tetrominoes already hurtling down. Likewise for Dr. Mario and his pills. Such an option does not detract any more from a player wanting to start at scratch and progress from the beginning. The game, if anything, is enriched, not diminished.
 
So will we, or should we, see such "user-generated narratives" more in the future, and how so? Perhaps we should ask the question differently: How accessible do we want our games to be?
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