Instead, Rocksteady realized Batman is what his gadgets do, and crafted a metroidvania with complexity at the heart of the adventure. By expanding on the options with which players can ‘interact’ with the game-world, Arkham Asylum was a game that was not only avant-garde but eventually became a benchmark.
Such complexity as exhibited by the interlocking elements and their non-obvious synergy is what keeps games exciting and memorable. More so in these times where the marketing push and the trend of trailer-izing every game tends to enter the spoilery territory maybe to pique the interest of the wider audience. Moreover with the numerous advances being made in the tech behind video games, we have become excessively demanding. Therefore we need our FPSes to be more RPG than action (Wolfenstein), we need skill trees in our blockbusters (Tomb Raider) and multiple classes in our space adventures (Destiny or Mass Effect 3).
And why not, we could do with more things to tinker with, more variable than constants, more things to create chaos. We have come to expect endless possibilities of interactions: a shelf with a book for a switch, a embossed emblem for a pressure plate, a locked door with a definite possibility for a hidden key. We are excited by the possibilities of mini games, bonus stages and new game plus modes. We no longer accept our games to be played out before us, we crave for our input. That is the primary difference between the art of films and video games, i.e. the singular component of ‘interaction’ which while absent in the former, is the entire basis of the latter.
To illustrate this divide I have created here a continuum to portray the different flavors of video games with differing fundamental and their appeal to the concerned gaming audiences.
It is not necessarily to say that complexity of gameplay elements needs to be preferred over action. But its absence can seriously cripple a game’s longevity and appeal. There have been several games that fall along the Action-Interaction continuum, wherein some tend to exist on the extremes (even take pride in that fact) while most fall in the middle.
The purest example of Interaction over action is the Souls series, where you are the playwright. After experiencing a brief over-arching monologue-heavy cut-scene, you are expected to fend for yourself against the cruelty and cunning of either Boletaria, Lordran or Drangleic. The only constant is the cruelty and cunning, all of the rest: your undoing. You can talk to the NPCs if you so wish and learn their stories and that of the world or you can kill them instead for petty gains and massive sins; its your inclination. You can cheese the bosses out of trepidation or brave them with no armor and Soul Level 1; its your dedication. You could rightfully enter the Undead Burg or wrongly take to the Catacombs if you so wish; its your mistake and yours alone. By opening several avenues of interaction, FROM Software have created games that are different things for different people: a passion for speed runners, a haven for RPG fans and a daunting proposition for the reluctant, non-committed player.
Surely such open game design can be home to real complexity but also be restricted to certain hardcore niches. But such is the power of niches: whenever one becomes ‘apparent’ or known, it ceases to be a niche and becomes almost desirable. The fact that Dark Souls 2 sold 1.2 million units in its first three weeks says more to justify the desire for niche associations.
The most mainstream among the Action-Interaction continuum are the games that fall around the median of the two extremes. The balanced, middle-of-the-road games like the Telltale productions: The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, which effortlessly marry action and interaction to satisfy both narrative and gameplay itches. They are never too difficult so as to demand dedication but have the enough gameplay variety, to the point that no two things that you do are the same, thus keeping the gameplay moderately surprising and the adventure exciting.
Many of such games are not as exquisitely balanced however. These news hybrid classes of games like your Open-World sandboxes, FPSes, Third-person Action Adventures often are lopsided wherein either the gameplay mechanics are at odds with the narrative drive (Medal of Honor) or else the story is just a filler for the demonstration of the game mechanics (Infamous).
To avoid upsetting the narrative pundits some of the games take the more cinematic approach, limiting the player interaction while trying to cater to the cinema audience more keen on dormant participation. Their singular focus on delivering a story with gameplay being an add-on, helps them expand their reach by assimilating the best of both worlds. A popular example is Asura’s Wrath. Often dubbed as an interactive anime, Asura features QTEs to complement the plot, minimizing the player input.
One would assume such a ‘game’ would bomb on the market and would be accurate (in case of Asura’s Wrath). But with the towering momentum of backseat gaming thanks to Twitch, millions are enjoying watching streamers play rather than actually playing. So again this, once-a-niche is, niche no more.
To surmise, we can rightfully assume that the three forms of games (Action > Interaction, Action + Interaction, Action < Interaction) are feasible in their own right, but videogaming – at its heart and essence – has never been about watching or observing or witnessing, it lies in experimenting, failing and succeeding. It is the challenge and the insurmountably that has made people hardcore gamers since the NES era in the first place. It has only recently transpired that games are becoming more streamlined and thus mainstream. As much as we wish video games to get more social acceptance and appeal, we indeed jeopardize their identity with the infusion of ideas of simplicity and approachability. So I hope there is always complexity when approaching video games, may they thrive on interaction (Welcome VR) and hopefully they remain niche: A niche sure, but one that is desirable on its own terms.