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Weekly Musings #2 - Why Do Movie-License Games Usually Suck?
Author: Michael Ahlf
Date: June 19th 2004
Page: 4
The third trap that movie-license games fall into - especially when they're made to come out on the same day as the movie - is that, rather than being their own entity, they are built to be slightly-interactive versions of the movie. Ultimately, they fail - and the reason is relatively obvious.

Interactive movies impose too many constraints.

In the late 1980s to early 1990s, one of the big things in video games were interactive movies; games that were nothing more than click-through conglomerations of short full-motion video clips. At the time, they were hailed as being revolutionary, beautiful, and wonderful. Games like Dragon's Lair from Don Bluth, games like the 7th Guest, gave gamers rudimentary puzzle-solving tasks, or mysteries to unravel with small numbers of clues.

What happened? Mostly, people realized the flaw in these games. Namely, they did one thing, and only one thing, well - delivering graphics. The play control in the games, be it Dragon's Lair style or Myst-style, centered on clicking around the screen trying to identify things. While fun, it couldn't be pushed forth to other genres, nor (with the exception of certain games like Scourge of Worlds, a DVD Choose-Your-Own-Adventure setup) could they do anything more than drag the player from plot point to plot point.

While those games have mostly vanished, replaced by puzzle games in which the player wanders around a 3D world in realtime, the basic premise of them remains in many games, even in games that are arguably well-written and hard to put down like the Legacy of Kain series. It's not surprising, because the same is very true even of many modules for pencil-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons; the goal of the narrator/gamemaster/game designer is to take the player through the story that the narrator wants to tell.

In pencil-and-paper circles, this is sometimes known as the "plot wagon", because often for the beginning of an adventure the game master will come up with a relatively hackneyed excuse for the players all being in one area, such as all being thrown into a paddy wagon and carted off to jail after a drunken barroom brawl (that's just an example; actual plot wagons, like actual GMs, come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and temperaments).

For a long time in gaming history, most video games were the same way. Players played through a linear set of levels, with one sure path through each level, and then on to the next - perhaps, if they were lucky, with a cutscene in between. Levels ended with a boss fight. Why? Because boss fights were cool.

Then games got bigger. And suddenly, even before three-dimensional movement was available, the thought occurred; why give the gamers just one path? Why not give them multiple paths, and let them pick where they go? Ultimately, of course, the goal is still to get the player to the next plot point; but the illusion that they can throw off that yoke, and write their own story, and explore side quests, is a part of what makes some games so very addictive. A good example of this would be the Elder Scrolls series; games like Morrowind let the player navigate a broad storyline in pretty much any way they see fit, balance factions or side with one completely, be as evil or good as they choose.

And once gamers experience that, it's hard to go back, just like it's somewhat disconcerting to finish playing Super Mario Bros. 3, and pick up the original Super Mario Bros., and realize that the screen only scrolls in one direction.

The other problem is that, when it comes to the "plot wagon", the designers have a number of tools at their disposal, but always, ALWAYS wind up having to disallow certain things. For example, if you've got a sidekick, you'll never be able to just shoot him in the head and go it alone the rest of the game. Why? Because somewhere along the way, he's going to be part of some FMV cutscene or some conversation where he delivers vital information that you absolutely, simply must have.

Likewise, certain boss fights will either be un-winnable, or leave the gamer feeling cheated. If they're un-winnable, and you're supposed to lose, it produces hours of frustration for gamers who will (just because they like a challenge) try to work out every possible way to defeat the boss, just to see if it can be done. The secondary fall-back is far worse, however; it's the boss that is defeated, only to come back in cutscene and win the fight while the player has no control over his/her character. Done well - with the cutscene showing the villain trying some underhanded trick to escape - it can be plausible. More often than not, however, the cutscene has little to do with the previous fight, wherein the gamer had just kicked the villain's butt.

The most damning thing of all of these situations, however, is that they break the most important illusion for a gamer - the illusion that it is the gamer that, in some small way, is in control of how the game is going to go. Without this illusion, the gamers rightly feel that they might as well just be watching the movie.

The last problem isn't quite as severe, and certainly isn't just limited to movie games, but it's definitely present and more prevalentin the genre: Overhyping.

Weekly Musings 2: Why Do Movie-License Games Usually Suck?

Added:  Sunday, June 20, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

Page: 4/5

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