Games, IF and high-level actions

I’m reading (via Critical Distance) some pieces about the new “Call of Duty” and its already infamous ‘funeral sequence’, in which the player is prompted to “Press X to Pay Respects” to a casket. It is considered by most people to be a catastrophic attempt to make something different, ‘deeper’ in a “Call of Duty”; mourning, they say, cannot be dealt with or simulated like that, because it is much more complicated than pushing a button.

The underlying assumption or remark, I guess, is then that pushing a button only ever performs a simple action, like jump or move right, and that you have to combine those basic, atomic blocks, in order to make more complicated ones. Which also implies you have to learn how to combine those actions, by trying it yourself or by being taught by the game (by a tutorial, or by clever level design, cf Egoraptor’s analysis of “Megaman X”). Another thing that comes to mind is, of course, “Hadean Lands”, where you combine individual actions from recipes to craft objects, and upon completion you’ve ‘learned’ it in the sense that the game won’t make you go through those steps again.

And yeah, IF is a very interesting medium for this, because you can toss away things like time and representation and make a high-level action have direct, immediate (‘one-turn’) consequences in the world - for better or for worse. Ex: in parser IF, “>forgive emma”, “>mourn cat” ; in choice-based systems, “You start a relationship. Do you: love him unconditionally, or stay cautious because of past experiences?”. I guess it also has ties to the question of ‘granularity’: what is a high-level action, is ‘high-level’ only relative to your game or your type of game, and when and how do you use it in a game.
I’m also thinking this may be a barrier to learning the “language” of parser IF; I don’t think the concept of “low granularity actions” is evoked in any tutorial for newcomers, and I don’t know if it is a very obvious one either. I think a lot of times, if you tell someone “You can do anything in parser IF!”, they may think that >lie is as well-understood as >steal (or >take), which leads to confusion. More effective would be “you have basic building blocks, ‘go’ ‘take’/‘drop’ ‘open’/‘close’ ‘ask’/‘tell’ ‘unlock’ ‘switch on’, and you may need to combine several of those in a row to solve a puzzle, unless we tell you you can just >ransack or whatever higher-level verbs”. But then, that also means you have to teach high-level verbs to all players to make it playable.
I haven’t played as much IF as some people here, but I haven’t seen many games use high-level actions as core parts of the gameplay, or even just effectively. The only example that comes to mind is the final sequence of Will Hines’ “Harold Night (2003)”, where improv theatre’s principles/techniques (stay committed, raise the stakes of the scene, stay true, justify what is going on, etc.) are reframed as verbs you have to use to create a good improv scene and win the game; I thought it was quite novel and very well-done, but it would probably be too hard to extract as core mechanic (too much work for the author).

So I guess that’s what I’d like to talk about with everyone here: if we say “atomic elements of gameplay correspond to simple actions”, several questions arise: is it always true (can you think of examples of games with higher-level actions?), is it something interesting (can we achieve more or different things with those? Or can we, on the contrary, achieve less things, because less simple/atomic actions don’t combine very well?), is it manageable (will the player understand? will it be a pain for the author?).

Apologies if that subject has already been done to death, and a good Sunday to you all :slight_smile:

Oh man. My significant other is really excited about getting Call of Duty. I’m going to tolerate the hell out of it!

Anyway, there might be some useful info in the April IF theory club transcript. It was a discussion on time simulation, but there was some decent overlap with high-level actions. You may find some good examples of games.

Ah, yes! Couldn’t remember where I had see people talking about that, thank you!!
There are some good examples discussed there for sure. I think I must have skimmed over some passages the first time around, because there was stuff I didn’t remember reading about!

Anyway, I realize that Emily’s conclusion seems to answer a lot of the questions I asked here:

However it does seem to me that this is a very interesting path to explore, and I hope more games attempt to deal with that sort of stuff, because I’m really curious about the resulting possibilities.

I don’t think this is about low-level versus high-level actions at all. Games have always subsumed complex sequences of choices into atomic options; that goes back to BASIC games standards like Oregon Trail and Hammurabi.

(Also, the Call of Duty thing isn’t even innovative. “Press X to Pay Respects” was already done – with the same anti-gravitas – in Arkham City.)

If we look just at parser IF, this is essentially the problem of teaching game-specific verbs – only done halfway through the game when the player might normally be expecting to achieve some confidence about the command set. That’s the tricky part.

I don’t know, I feel like people’s reaction to it incorporated a fair bit of “mourning is more complicated than pushing a button”, which to me showed an underlying “pushing a button to do a simple action, ok, but not a complex, far-from-straightforward, emotional action”. (Although come to think of it, it may be more about the appropriateness of making grief a game element in a war FPS?) To me, it made me realize that ‘simple’ actions from the player (a click, a button pressed, etc) are almost always translated as simple atomic actions in the game, which is why I thought it was relevant (especially in parser IF, where one could argue there aren’t really any simple actions from the player).

I have never played Oregon Trail or Hammurabi (sorry), what kind of things were you referencing to?

And re: parser IF, is teaching game-specific verbs mid-game really a bad idea? (or are you just saying it’s hard?) I don’t have any examples here, so it’s kind of a purely theoretical question; but I’m thinking it might be preferable in some cases to giving all the verbs from the beginning, which can be overwhelming. It can also provide a nice change in gameplay.

It’s not a bad idea, but it’s tricky.

That sounds more on-target. If every action in a game is some kind of performative emotional act, “pay respects” wouldn’t seem weird at all.

(Or you could make a game which shows up the difference between grieving, in its complexity, and the simple performative emotions that we’re called on to enact at funerals – “I’m so sorry”, “thank you”, tears, gestures of dress and affect. I don’t suppose COD put that much thought into the problem. Arkham City didn’t. But you know. Possible.)

On “Press X to Pay Respects,” I think part of the problem is the ham-handed overexplanation of exactly what emotions you’re supposed to be feeling. If it had been “Press X to Bow Your Head” it wouldn’t be as mockable. Which is back to the idea of clicks as atomic actions; it’s just that here you could have the character express an emotion through an atomic action.

(Though the “Press x to Jason” phenomenon maybe suggests that just allowing the player an expressive atomic action isn’t enough to avoid mockery.)

Press X to Pay Respects seems like a mirror image to vaulting your niece’s grave in Watch Dogs; one gives you a special one-time command that’s supposed to let you act in accord with the intended emotional freight of the scene, one prompts you to use a generally applicable command in a way that’s hysterically out of whack with the intended emotional freight of the scene. Both of theme seem to suffer from the game’s using the death of a not very well developed NPC to motivate the protagonist, and also from the way the game whaps you on the nose with its verb set. Which actually points to the problem parser IF has; how could we communicate verbs like this without whapping the player on the nose?

From a literary perspective, I agree that your version is less ham-handed.

From a gameplay perspective, I suspect they could have discarded the mechanic altogether. Isn’t this effectively a cutscene? I doubt the equivalent of a pause button makes it more dramatic.