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  • Interaction Density In Contemporary Games

    - Arne Neumann
  • A good while ago I wrote about interaction density in video games.

    The creation of that piece happened more or less in one session, with previous research on the subject completed on my part over the duration of several months, with the concept having been mentally formed prior to that.

    Since then I've deepened my understanding of the topic and hereby will add my findings and further thoughts.

    First of all, interaction density is a multi faceted issue that could, if visualized on a graph, which I won't do, go into several dimensions, simply based on momentary player input as well as the systemic depth of interactions the player is theoretically able to engage with. 

    In addition, there's a differentiation to be made between forced and choice interactions, which would artificially modify that graph to fit on a predefined scale, for a rail like experience, but more on that later.

    To exemplify this, the typical MMO hub can be utilized. Here, the player will have a relatively large potential for all sorts of layered and deep interactions, both when engaging with game mechanics as well as other players. 

    In the latter situation, the possibilities become almost endless, in terms of communication at least, since any topic could be brought up and, if engaged with by the receiving player, a very deep and layered conversation may occur as opposed to the predefined layers of NPC interactions and conversations, even though perusing a weapon shop has a lot of potential to cost the player a lot of her time, under the right circumstances and matching preferences.

    Diving deeper into the categorization between directions of interaction density and to shine a brighter light on the definition, a comparison between two rather popular games will be made. 

    The Hitman franchise has been a staple in the industry for almost two decades and is considered one of the consistently excellent hallmarks of quality and artistic expression mixed with finesse and hilarity of the stealth action game genre. 

    The developers themselves describe the Hitman series as "puzzle" games, hidden in the chicken costume disguise of a contract killer. 

    While the player is given a proper toolset and considered to be skilled at his job, the game strictly predefines the possibility space for the player. When faced with the task to complete a contract on a specific target the player will be able to approach the situation in several ways and some sort of situational improvisation is possible, but a lot of the interactions are scripted and acted out, both by behavioral loops and voice actors, who prerecorded their bits, which are triggered upon reaching certain spots on the map during certain times in the NPC's loop. 

    Newer titles in the franchise have expanded quite drastically in scale and added a lot more visual fidelity and story details, but the essence of the game remains intact. Cooked down to a simple win conditions it would be something like; kill x, use tool y and/or z. Deviation from this formula is impossible. So, while the player is clever enough to lure a tattoo artist with an appointment to work on a drug boss, who also happens to be a target, into a situation where she can poison his drink and dispose of him to assume their role and then dispatch the drug lord with the tattoo artists tool, it would not be possible to break the pipe of the toilet in the bar the tattoo artist is taken care of, to smuggle it into the mansion and then use it to deal with the target, even though this may seem a feasible option, at least based on general logic.

    So while the world the player moves through will be beautifully visualized, akin to walking through an oil painting, with lots of scripted story elements to experience and chuckle at, the available methods to deal with any given situation are by definition rather limited, resulting in an confined degree of interaction density, both in combinatorial, as well as moment to moment interaction, even though the potential for creating chaos is a given at any time, but contradictive to the player mandate. Even that would be easily discerned, though, with a general "all alert" trigger situation, resulting in the players demise within a short time due to heaps of unwanted attention, unless equipped with heavy artillery and then, still, this approach is unfavorable towards completing the missions as intended by the developer.


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