Halo2 footage, thoughts on "scripted gameplay"

First check out the recent E3 Halo2 demo footage if ya haven’t already. I’m curious to hear any opinions people might have regarding it. Secondly, I’d like to throw some ideas onto the pile concerning recent games, of which Halo2 is just a good case study.

The footage begins and ends with some realtime cinematic bits, which are of course nicely done and carry the story along, but I’m more concerned with the gameplay footage. As you (the player) make your way through the map, there’s a remarkable density of little scripted bits (two marines chatting, the medic trying to revive a wounded soldier, guys running to and fro). The guy controlling the demo makes sure the viewer gets an eyeful of it while he passes it by, knows exactly where to go and heads for the objective. Throughout, events like the big alien cannon getting bombed happen, and the demo-er catches it, doesn’t miss a beat.

When developers are putting together screenshots for public / internal release there’s a term, “stacking”, for the common practice of cramming a lot more content and action into a screenshot than the player is likely to see during a normal play sessions, or otherwise arranging the content for maximum impact (some good examples here and here). Stacked screenshots aren’t doctored after the fact, they’re in-game non-cinematic shots, nevertheless they’re very carefully fabricated. The ethics of stacking are a good debate in and of themselves, but for now let’s just accept that it’s widespread and it’s here to stay.

Back in the day Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid and a few other influential games set a standard for how storytelling was handled in games. Half-Life especially was progressive in its use of scripted sequences that happened in the game world, right in front of the player, rather than taking control out of his hands briefly for a cinematic. 5 years later, and game developers have seized onto this idea in every genre where it’s applicable. Solo play design has become very much about creating big impressive “set pieces” that involve the player taking part in larger events, and more commonly witnessing crazy crap happen. “Oh my God, an enemy just burst out of the wall / dragged that corpse into a crawlspace / died and tumbled off a ledge!” - everyone’s familiar with those. Halo2 and Half-Life 2 are just the latest examples, and they seem to serve up the “memorable moments” as well as you’d expect them to… to the point that demo footage of the games has begun to resemble a realtime, heavily scripted equivalent of “stacked” screenshots. But the catch is, that’s how you’re “supposed” to play the game. The game structure is set up so that you experience all of the content the designers have laid out for you.

I’m wondering about the effects this is having on how people design and in turn appreciate games. It seems like there was this very strong sentiment before Half-Life et al that games should have “stronger storylines”, and developers scrambled to fulfill that need. To me (and just so you know I am very biased / opinionated on this matter) this has resulted in gameplay that’s very, VERY tightly scripted, very much built around these semi-interactive “moments”… and to me, the Halo2 footage - a perfect playthrough that catches all the right things at the right times - was a very clear window into the developers’ mindset: “Stay on the path. Look here, witness the explosion. Now, run up to the mounted gun and start shooting the aliens. We are telling you a story. Play along.”

This has become the way things are for a vast majority of AAA games. Here’s my first Debatable Point: almost all of the enjoyment one can derive from the solo play of a game like Half-Life, Halo et al is directly related to how much designer-created content is in the box. If the game is about moving from moment to moment, then once you’ve seen all those moments you don’t have any reason to go back, and perhaps more importantly, the amount of freedom you have within the game system is very, very small (especially compared to many of the more “primitive” narrative-impoverished games of earlier times like DOOM). Your only choice - sit still or keep moving ahead - is a non-choice.

Perpetual prophet of game industry doom n’ gloom Greg Costikyan identifies the designer-content-heavy method of game design as instantial asset heavy - as opposed to gameplay that results from the interaction of rules (algorithmic), which isn’t necessarily exhausted when you’ve seen all the content, or even exhaustible at all.

It’s not my intent to denounce this newer sort of game design and praise another… fortunately the spectrum of taste in gamers worldwide is wide and getting wider, with stuff like Wario Ware, Age of Empires, Halo and Animal Crossing all existing in the same (very general) market. What I’m more concerned with is how studios will be able to cope with the ever-increasing amounts of one-off content necessary to make a big ooh-ahh “game” in the footsteps of Half-Life. I honestly think this curve, a composite of gamer expectation, technological might and developer ambition, will take considerably longer to taper off than technology alone (which doesn’t show any clear signs of slowing down as it is), and it’s going to swallow up every game development house that doesn’t have 200 people and tens of millions of dollars to throw at the problem. I’d like to say algorithm-and-mechanics-driven gameplay offers a way out, but isn’t that the ghetto of mindless, weak-storylined games that people were so eager to get out of?

Game academic Jesper Juul has some great difficulty even reconciling the basic notions of game and narrative, and he’s definitely on to something:

“The accepted games are clearly those carrying the most luggage from traditional media and aesthetics. But they’re usually the worst games.”

Thoughts?

Character has always been and always will be more important than narrative. Character is shaped by gameplay.

Alternatively:
Man goes into game. Characters are in game. We’re going to need a bigger narrative.

I basically agree. I use the term “ride gamer” to describe that guy that’s just there for the ride. He’s basically lined up at Disney World and expects to walk through the game from beginning to end and see it all. He’s not really playing, he’s just hopping aboard the car and riding it out. It kind of disgusts me in a way because it clearly bumps up against what the word game describes. It’s not a game if there’s no challenge, no strategy, no real skill involved. You’re not playing, you’re just along for a ride.

Some games that have stories do a good job of getting around this feeling. Final Fantasy games in particular, while strong with story, provide an often huge amount of character building and choice making within the framework of the story. They provide their strategy and challenge while telling a tale. It’d be nice to see them provide more branching paths but within the scope of what’s on screen, that’s tough to do for a reasonable amount of money.

I’d much rather have games that focus on inventing gameplay that can allow ME to tell the stories after I’ve finished the game. Things like real-time strategy games or even Grand Theft Auto III…that’s more in line with what a real game should be to me. It’s a box of rules that provide the player or players a place to make their story within. The story-heavy games are definitely finding a mass market appeal though because most of the casuals seem more interested in games as movies rather than games as just … games. When they’re just games, they’re either gay (Nintendo games) or nerdy (RTS, Turn-based strategy), etc. Few break through…and like everything there are exceptions. RollerCoaster Tycoon and The Sims come to mind…

Ok…that’s enough Brian Koontzian posting for me. :)

–Dave

I just don’t see scripted events as being equal to linear gameplay. Now, I grant you that scripting happens a lot in FPS and FPSs are often linear. The first Halo has a lot of scripted events in it. I find them exciting, especially the first time through. You are right that it isn’t as enjoyable the second time. But it adds a lot to the gameplay. The linear aspects of a FPS are often necessary because of the way the genre is done. People even seem to get annoyed if they can’t figure out where to go next (which means if it isn’t linear).

But there are other genres that use scripted events. RTS does it in solo missions a lot, and a lot of those missions end up being fairly linear (puzzle-like even) in order to accomodate the scripts. They are definitely trying to tell a story, and thus they want you to see the scripts.

But RPGs do scripts as well, and not always in a linear way. BG2, for instance, has scripted events, where characters come out and talk to you when you pass certain places, etc. These events are NOT part of a strictly linear game. Granted, the game gets more linear as you go on, but in chapter 2 in particular, you could roam a good bit.

So my question is this: Isn’t it possible to have great scripting in non-linear games, whatever the genre? A script of the sort we are discussing is activated by a trigger of some sort. All you have to do is make the triggers more open-ended to go along with the gameplay. Imagine adding a ton of scripted events to a game like Morrowind, where you are allowed to roam wherever you want. I don’t just mean having set triggers in set places within an open-ended world either. Games do that already. I mean having the triggers vary a bit too. Lets say you have 300 possible scripted events, and you give each one certain parameters (e.g. happens in a town, in a dungeon, in a crypt, etc.). Then the scripts are randomly checked for each time you enter one of those parameter areas. Once a script is used, it is set aside (to keep from repeating them). The area is then “marked” for a certain period of gameplay time, to keep the player from just walking back and forth across barriers to activate scripts. Once the random chance for or against a script event has been checked, it won’t be checked again in that area for a while. But you need it to be ABLE to create another script in places the character has already visited. This would create more realism in the game (more suspension of disbelief).

This situation would have scripted events that seemed like part of the world. The game would feel “alive” in the way that scripts can make a game feel, but it wouldn’t seem so…well…scripted. It would feel like a chance encounter, a “wandering monster” type event. Some of the events could be repeatable, if that is appropriate (such as an orc raiding party or something like that), while others would be permanently set aside because they are “unique” events in the game.

THAT kind of scripting could really add to a game, even a FPS or RTS. Even a RACING game could do that (ack, a kid ran out on the track! damnit!).

I don’t think choosing the order you can do a bunch of set piece battles in is what people mean when they say “that game isn’t linear.” It’s not linearity as much as…err…free-form?

Wow. I completely disagree here. In no other game did I feel like I was more ‘along for the ride’ than Final Fantasies 7 and 8. Not to say that it was a BAD ride, but those games felt totally linear and I was just there to tell my guys to attack. I havent played 9 or 10. I don’t remember it being an issue in 6, but I don’t know if that’s because you could get a lot of different characters depending on your actions, or if my tastes weren’t as developed at that point.

[quote=“Lokust”]

Wow. I completely disagree here. In no other game did I feel like I was more ‘along for the ride’ than Final Fantasies 7 and 8. Not to say that it was a BAD ride, but those games felt totally linear and I was just there to tell my guys to attack. I havent played 9 or 10. I don’t remember it being an issue in 6, but I don’t know if that’s because you could get a lot of different characters depending on your actions, or if my tastes weren’t as developed at that point.[/quote]

Agreed 100%. FPS games fall victim to the scripted event trap fairly often, but FF7 began the trend of RPGs that are really nothing more than a narrative-driven cattle chute. Many modern RPGs, the FFs in particular, channel you down the plotline with little to no regard for how you want to play the story out. They’re really interactive novels, not RPGs in the strict sense of the term.

The worst offender of the FFs is probably FFX. That game barely even lets you backtrack along the exceptionally linear path you take through the “world map” (such as it is) until right before the end of the game.

The aforementioned “ride gamers” are very prevalent in the market these days. In the rush to cater to them and their wallets, some of my favorite genres are really beginning to deteriorate, IMO.

~MJK

I don’t see much of a problem. As you stated there are lots of successful and critically acclaimed games that provide the gamer with free-form non-scripted action.

Personally I enjoy riding Disneyworld style rides from time to time. I don’t think enough games have the kind of experiences Half Life and Halo 2 have.

When I want freedom, I’ll play GTA or BF1942. When I want a story, I’ll play Half Life 2, or MGS.

Character has always been and always will be more important than narrative. Character is shaped by gameplay.

Alternatively:
Man goes into game. Characters are in game. We’re going to need a bigger narrative.[/quote]

But, but… doing characters well is haaaard! Can’t we just throw more money / content at the problem?

Now that you mention it, that’s one thing that got to me about that Halo2 footage (and Halo 1 in its entirety really) - there’s shit happening and I don’t care about anyone involved save for myself - and not the Master Chief, the guy I’m supposed to be roleplaying - my avatar. The only thing that gave the interaction meaning was fighting, slogging through the combat, using the vehicles, etc. I’d say it was a complete flop in the story and character department.

Well, yeah - scripted events and canned plots aren’t substitutes for gameplay. I’ve never been impressed as much as others with games like Half-Life or, even, Deus Ex. I like room for my imagination to play and scripted scenarios generally don’t do that for me. It’s not just replay value but the sense of potential, unpredictability and a generally better suspension of disbelief factor.

If I’m sitting back saying gee-whiz neat script I’m not being given the option to game the situation that’s causing the script to occur. It’s the difference between proactive and reactive gaming. I’m a proactive gamer - I like learning systems, getting into the ‘roleplaying’ mood of the game, and striking out to explore and see how things work, how I can make things happen. While I like events entering my experience that are out of my control as challenges (without opposition or conflict what kind of dramatic stuff do you have to work with?) I don’t like being at the mercy of a designer’s idea of what a good time or a good story is. Make the environment, set up the parameters, and get out of my way dude. :)

There are times I don’t mind scripts, given some flexibility, and wargame scenarios come to mind. You’re talking about historical events with given orders of battle and it’s only possible to get the flavor of the event right if you detail out how AI elements are going to react to some exent. That said, I like the Combat Mission approach here better than the Steel Panthers if only for the replay value of the scripted scenarios (given random placement options and infinitely more capable AI). Still, these are going to be one or two shot deals at best because once you know a strictly scripted scenario you’re no longer ‘in the moment’ playing on intuition but playing on experience and against known quantities.

It’s the difference between immersing yourself in an environment and playing against a game.

There’s plenty of room in the market for both styles of game. I’d probably be just as bored if all games were open-ended like GTA3. Several linear-style FPS games are on my favorites list, like MoHAA, NOLF, and Vietcong. They usually are just a sequence of battles, so I’m fine with a simple goal like “Kill all the Nazis/HARM/VC at this barn/guardpost/bunker.”

The only “problem” I’m having with FPS games is that even good AI sucks compared to humans. For example, after getting pretty good at DoD, I played through Spearhead the other day. Using the Enfield in the British sequence I had nearly 80% accuracy. After learning to deal with the jumping and dodging humans online, fighting the AI was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Well, that’s not exactly what I meant either. BG2 was just an example of the TYPE of thing I mean. You are right that in a lot of ways, you just decided the order of events. But I am not sure how you could tell a story at all without SOME order. Is that really what is at issue then? Whether or not the designers should tell a story? If so, this talk of scripting is a bit confusing. The real issue is whether the player should be given ANY guidance. In that case, GTA is not really open-ended either, but “free-form” because all you really do is decide which mission to go on next. Or which unique jump to accomplish, or whatever. GTA does still tell a story in the end, and it has scripted events in the midst of that story.

I didn’t see that as a weakness in the Halo 2 video. I thought they were believable characters for the most part. I didn’t think much of Sarge (the guy who made the decision to land in the hot zone), he was completely stereotypical and the stereotype chosen isn’t authentic. Everyone on the ground was good though. They did a good job of portraying a hot zone. The way they brought him to the forward position was believable for a guy of the Master Chief’s rank. The voice in his ear came off as overly flippant, but given that he’s the unstoppable super guy, I can buy it as long as it doesn’t constitute the bulk of their interaction in the rest of the game.

I actually haven’t played or even seen anything but a few second of Halo 1 deathmatch, so this is the only stuff I’ve seen as far as character and story goes. It didn’t turn me off.

Ah yes, smoke and mirrors.

About heavily scripted games, sure, scripting is great. It definitely enhances the narrative, with a few caveats. First off, I suspect it requires a goodly amount of developer work, unless the dev is lazy, in which case you end up with a busy demo and a boring game.

At some point, there is a diminishing return on scripting, where in the time you spent scripting everything, you could have implemented an emergent system that gives comparable results.

Also, scripts can break horribly. I mean really, really horribly (although this can provide alternate entertainment value as demonstrated by these walkthroughs)*. Scripting is not a replacement for gameplay. If all of the enemies stand around until triggered by scripts, there’s the potential for a really big loophole.

  • Alan

[size=2]* the link seems to be down[/size]

But the guy you’re supposed to be roleplaying IS the Master Chief. And he’s badass. ;)

Anyway, Halo 1 handles scripting in a very interesting way. Yes, there are plenty of “triggers,” but those triggers cause events to happent that then utilize the regular physics, AI, and other non-scripting systems of the game. For instance, you’ll turn the corner and the script will trigger the fight on the first level between these Covenant boarders and marines, with the blast doors slowly closing. That part is scripted. But the game lets the AI just duke it out - what the Marines shout, who gets hit, who dies (or not), when they duck for cover, it can all play out differently every time you do it. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that the guy who then says “this way, the Captain wants to see you on the bridge” after the doors close is gonna duck for cover and survive. So that he can deliver his line. They do that all the time. The guy in the control room who gets shot in the first area after the opening cinema, they just que the Covenant entering the room, and then let the AI take over. If you watch it several times, you can see that he fires a different number of shots and his aim is off in different ways each time.

Small details, yes, and perhaps ultimately useless. But it’s a neat way of making the same thing at least superficially different each time.

I personally felt that the game actually had a lot of character for something with really so little actual story. Cortana is a personality that, even though you only see her for about ten seconds in two scenes of the whole game, I felt like I “knew.” The Master Chief is the strong silent type, but perhaps TOO silent, I’ll give you that. I loved that even the nameless Marine types were distinct. There’s the Aussie guy, the Sarge guy, and so on.

But Halo’s best feature is how reactive the AI is. Play the same fight five times and you’ll hear the marines shout out different things each time. Approach a new group of Marines and they might, randomly, comment on seeing a Mark V for the first time (“wow, he’s taller than I thought!”). Even driving around a Warthog with a gunner in the seat gets a lot more personality than you would expect from most shooters because that marine raises his arm and shouts “woo-hoo!” when you catch air, he ducks and swivels the gun to aim at the banshee and says “nice and smooth now…”, he basically says all kinds of random stuff in reaction to what’s going on around you. All the battles are that way, down to marines sometimes shooting dead Covenant and saying “he’s not gonna get up!”

Isn’t that exactly like barneys/scientists in Half-Life. Glad to see we’ve Evolved™.

Not complaining, I’m just surprised more games haven’t done this right given the clear precedent. Vietcong does an excellent job of this, but it’s about the only title in recent memory that does.

I think we should clarify what scriptings is. Some people are laboring under the misconception that scripting refers to a predetermined set of game play events. That would be “scripted” and not scripting. For instance, the behaviour of enemies and allies in all of our games are done through scripting languages. In the case of the BG series it was LUA and NWN and KotOR are in-house developed scripting languages. That doesn’t mean they always do the same thing, but what they end up choosing to do is all determined by what the player does (and a bit of randomness to add spice). This means that a battle can change each time you play it. In fact I remember QA setting up a 4 faction modules with archer, grunts and spellcasters on each side of a square in NWN. It was amazing to watch the differences each time the battle was run. I’m sure over time it would average out, but it was still interesting to see how the tactics changed from round to round.

What we’re seeing here are the opening sequences of the game, which were also heavily scripted in Halo1 as I remember.

The over analysis of the Hardcore™ aside this kind of frontloading of assets does sell games.

Also, these sequences set up the “game within a game” design that is fairly common in modern titles. So we go from “grab the gun” to “shoot the ship” etc. etc.

I’d bet for all that that 80% of the game is still going to be “run around the big environment and shoot stuff” that has been around since Doom first hit the 'net.

Your Power Pill

Sorry, to clarify, I was referring to scripted events (as referred to in the original post), i.e. one-time occurrences that would normally not be dictated by normal gameplay behavior. I lump behavioral scripting into the AI category since it’s essentially just an implementation of a finite-state machine.

  • Alan

What made Half-Life so successful, and so influential, is that the scripting it used rarely ever broke the “fourth wall” (so to speak) of your monitor. Half-life told its story very tightly and even though it never gave you a chance to break out of the linear path, it avoided consciously telling the player “HEY, YOU’RE PLAYING A GAME HERE!” It was elegantly done and easily made up for the linearity of it.

Many modern shooters pull from half-life without understanding how or why it worked as well as it did. Raven shooters seem to be glaring examples of this. You’ll hit a scripted event and will have absolutely no control of anything and its easy to hit the edges of the event (by trying to do things a different way), and it knocks you straight out of the game. I remember Return to Castle wolfenstein died for me in the first mission when some guards inexplicably heard you above them and shot through the floor. My only response? “Wow, that was scripted!”

Strangely enough I have little doubt that half-life 2 will do the same damn thing all over again, since they’re laboring to avoid making HL2 a long string of in-engine cutscenes.