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On Interactive Art and Game Loops

Interactive art and narrative games can, should coexist with more traditional game loops.

I’ve played several narrative games like Gone Home, The Witness, and now Sunset. You can probably throw The Beginner’s Guide, The Stanley Parable, and Kairo in the mix for good measure. There’s also Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero, Tacoma and The Station and Ether One and Event[0].

Some call them walking simulations. Others lean toward narrative games or (my preference:) interactive art. What are they? They are basically exploration games with limited interactivity, focusing more about unfurling a narrative based on the environment over time.

There’s obviously a division between games like Gone Home and Sunset on one hand, versus The Witness which feature a bit more activity. The more active ones do have have puzzles, yes, but they are very much still about the environment and the world and the story behind the world more than the puzzles.

They are also stronger games. The puzzle elements add rather than distract. But there’s an open question about what direction these types of games can take. Unlike more developed genres, which have learned what works, the narrative game still needs some work (as do some other genres, including horror) to become more broadly accessible.

There’s always the question: does that space really exists beyond the known? Maybe it’s not really there. Maybe there are limits to gameplay that constrain interactive art. Adding more gameplay might limit narration, or at least make a game too much for both audiences. Is it a dead end or is there a path between the trees?

The Witness takes one approach, which is to fill the narrative with puzzles, in its case mazes. It’s definitely a game, it has a narrative, it turns the gameworld inside out by making the world part of its puzzles in new ways. But at the end of the day, the puzzle elements and the world are still divorced in a real sense that puzzles in other game-games like Half-Life 2 aren’t, because they are abstract puzzles presented as attachments to a world that could exist without them, where Half-Life-series puzzles are meant to fit the logic and depend on the world being a certain way.

Most games in the genre go the other way, which is to have minimal puzzles, focus on the storytelling, perhaps in a unique way like in Sunset. There you are confined to a luxury apartment for an hour of cleaning every week or so, during which the world outside reveals itself: a political revolution.

Does it have to be that way? Tacked-on puzzles or none at all? Are the game designers missing possible gameplay loops? It seems so. But the other question is whether it’s out of lack of imagination, worry that it will taint the narrative, or simply the fact that the types of developers who will undertake interactive art aren’t interested in including a traditional grind or gameplay loop.

There’s the question of where to draw the line. Kona shared some elements with the others, but I considered it more like a first-person adventure game, more like point-and-click games than a walking simulator. On the other hand, traditional adventure games also lack the kind of gameplay loop that gives simpler games replayability and staying power beyond their stories.

Running around and killing enemies is fun. Farming and fishing in a game like Stardew Valley is fun. You can do it over and over and over, and it feels rewarding long after the story has fallen away. That doesn’t mean every narrative game or piece of interactive art must have them, but it does mean the developers need to strongly consider it, if only for the commercial success of their games.

Some of them probably did, and they either chose the art path or couldn’t find a good loop to work into the game. But it should be a choice for interactive art, and not a default that never considered the alternative. The lesson of games is pretty clear on this point: players really like the loop. People can deride it as a Skinner box, but it’s compelling, it’s activating part of our brains in a way that most activities don’t. The day that school is as compelling to students as some games are to some players, it will be a rocket-jump for mankind.

So the natural question is what kinds of loops would work? And that’s part of the problem with lots of interactive art: they haven’t explored it. They haven’t put loops in their games to see how they do. The Witness is an exception and it’s exceptional, even as the mazes mostly feel artificial in an organic world. The post-end-game challenge really adds to the effect of making a narrative game feel like it has a game-loop backbone to it. It’s a cool game and it pulls it off.

Sunset is a nice piece of interactive art that apparently didn’t sell well, even though it’s a good game. But it doesn’t have the same kind of game currency as something like The Witness for its lack of a loop and, perhaps, for staring too long at a fictionalized version of history.

If Sunset had included the actual tasks, swinging a broom and a Surgeon Simulator floating Thing-from-The-Addams-Family hand stacking books, it probably would have done better. People like to feel they’re more active in the world, even if it’s fairly limited. A game should not be an art museum, where the player is not allowed to touch. If the player wants to dirty up your pretty world, that’s on them; you should afford them that chance.

Foyer bathroom of the house in Gone Home, with a littering of game items filling the floor.
Foyer bathroom of the house in Gone Home, with a littering of game items filling the floor.

Back when I played Gone Home, I actually spent an hour or so carting almost every object into the front bathroom, and I had fun doing it! While that game had the ability to move objects, at least having the ability to pick up reasonably-sized objects and move them around, which many games now feature, should be a basic part of any environmentally beautiful game. But I think Gone Home‘s ability to move them too, deserves the default spot.

One way to go is art itself as a loop. Passpartout: The Starving Artist made art their entire gameplay loop. It was fun, but to some extent the judgmental buyers dampened my creativity. I often had to think about what would sell and focus on that over trying to make a thing I’d like. Terraria provides a counterpoint, in which the creative aspects are built into a more traditional gameplay system of fighting. But in any case, creation is a decent loop that could be added in with most narrative and interactive art games.

For Sunset that might have meant letting the player rearrange the art and furniture in the apartment, or even create some art to hang up themselves. Even limited creative input helped some, when you could choose whether to put up wallpaper or a paint a plain color, offered some slight feeling of agency. But it lacked any kind of complexity, remained a binary choice. Worse for that game was the fact you did get to influence the apartment’s look and feel, but each choice played into the relationship with the employer, which meant a kind of built-in judgment with every choice.

In general, adding choice to games makes them better. Some choices can have consequences, but some should be just for fun. And other choices are about making your game more accessible. A game that was too hard for my taste like Airscape: The Fall of Gravity would have been 100× better for me if they had included a lower difficulty. Some developers do this. Amnesia: Rebirth includes a softer version for people who want to enjoy the story without the horror, for example. The Long Dark has a ton of customization for its survival mode, and it serves the game very well to do so.

The more variation your game can exhibit, the more potential it has with the widest audience. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it opens up possibility. When you add concerns like accessibility and customers who have limited time to play, you have every reason to let the game conform to the player rather than expecting the player to conform. (On the other hand, various data show that lots of people don’t play all the games they buy, at least on Steam. That’s a harder fact to deal with; should game developers actively court people who will buy and not play their game?!)

At a time when many games try to offer all sorts of customizations—clothing, hairstyles, base building, all sorts—interactive art game developers should grab some of those tools and add them in. Let players feel the fun of a gameplay loop while they explore, simulate walking, follow the linear narrative path. Let them plant a small garden, rake a rock garden, or stack books. Let them do more!

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