The original Half-life released in 1998 was a genuine game changer for the FPS genre in more ways than one, there’s no question about it. The opening tram sequence alone made it very clear that this wasn’t your everyday shooter, but a novel and ambitious take on the genre.
What HL did so well back then, among other things, was to depict scripted events (i.e. predefined and animated subsets of game) without employing any cut-scenes whatsoever. The tram sequence was the most prominent of such that included a fair amount of choreographed events with characters and robots minding their own business. And the player could wander around the tram freely and focus his/her sight on whatever seemed most eye-catching at the moment. It was limited freedom, but freedom nevertheless, unlike cut-scenes that usually take away any latitude the player otherwise may have within a game. And you know how I feel about cut-scenes. Machinimas, instead, are cool.
Scripted events have since HL developed to integral part of practically any AAA game, the most illustrious of which being the Call of Duty –series whose incarnations are filled with scripted events similar to those of action movies. Interestingly, scripted experiences are popularly described more often than not with pejorative terms and prefixes, such as “on-rail” or “lowest-common-denominator”, and I’m guilty for my part to that as well.
But, even though I think video games should always be first and foremost about simulating dynamic systems and natural phenomena in real-time, I still can’t help but find some scripted events in certain games extremely fascinating. For instance, the said tram sequence found in HL was and still is one of the most memorable moments in my personal gaming history, and it was indeed all thanks to the scripting. It was like being in the middle of a movie, which isn’t either a positive or negative stance, but more of an interesting observation.
Another fascinating totally scripted scene very similar to the one in HL was the credit sequence in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which, in contrary to HL, the player couldn’t in fact move at all, but only look around the scenery through the windows of a moving car. Since the player’s position was fixed, the sequence lost some of its charm, as, in theory, it would have been feasible to pull off using solely pre-rendered animation in a Google Street View style.
However, where I find scripted events most fascinating is when the player maintains his/her spatial freedom in total. The thing is, usually scripted events happen behind a window or some other see-through obstacle, but there are instances in which the player is relatively free to circle around one. The feeling is like watching live theatre happening right before you, and even though I’m generally against non-dynamic set pieces in games, well done scripted events, and especially those using sophisticated motion capture, fascinate me nevertheless when pulled off outside the cut-scenes.
For instance, the first level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is an apt example of such, in which the player can freely wander around the military base and watch soldiers playing basketball and do other informal stuff for their leisure. I, for one, remember marveling especially the basketball players like I’d never seen motion captured characters in a game before, which speaks volumes of the power of natural human movement, even if predefined. But still, make no mistake: I, like said, always prefer fully simulated motion, i.e. systems like Euphoria, over motion captured such, as the ones who have checked out my thesis would have already guessed.
The biggest problem with scripting is, of course, the disposable nature of them when comparing to dynamic systems of which outcome is each and every time unique. A scripted event can indeed be really amazing once or twice, but in the end it’s dynamic systems, simulations, what video games are all about and should be made of.