Disclaimer: There’s way more to this topic than I anticipated at first glance. If I get in the mood again in a few days I might expand on the topics touched here but I don’t want to promise anything.
There’s something about Hotel Dusk that I couldn’t put my finger on, until just recently. I’ve been playing the thing for quite some time now and to be perfectly frank, the gameplay in itself is uninteresting to say the least, yet, I keep playing the thing like there was no tomorrow. I’ve been devouring dialogue after dialogue, item after item, detail after detail. It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like I’m enjoying a game that has no compelling gameplay in itself, which, if you know me, seems more than a little bit odd.
For the past few years I kind of fell into the trap of saying that if you strip a game of it’s context, of it’s graphics, of it’s story and of it’s characters, and still seems “fun”, only then can you say that’s a good game.
I don’t know about you, but to me right now, that’s a terrible way to analyze games. In retrospect, it was only a reaction to how mainstream games in general rely on storytelling techniques that we learned from other media such as film and literature. “No!” – we said – “Thou shall not imitate other media! Thou shall be original! Our medium is different and we can’t take any lessons from anything or we risk going stale!”. Well, like I said, it’s only a natural reaction, but to me now, that’s a very extreme way of opposing a lack of innovation and overreliance on puppeteering of the player through cutscenes and/or forced interactions. If anything, it’s not because we as designers don’t know what we are doing, but it’s almost always a problem of budget and a risk averse attitude.
Sure, our medium is very different from all previous media, we can’t take all the lessons and techniques from these other forms of expression and just copy-paste them onto our games, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn anything from them does it?
Alright, now that I got that out of my system, let’s continue with the specific case of Hotel Dusk.
At first glance one might just point out that the story is very entertaining and interesting once the player gets to know the characters in the first chapter. I think I haven’t met anyone that didn’t end up being fleshed out, each with it’s own quirky personality and mannerisms. The relationships every single one of them has with everyone else is also a part that interests me… but as you can imagine, none of these things have anything to do with interactivity per se. Every single positive thing I’ve described of Hotel Dusk so far could be achieved in other media, albeit with some extensive changes to the format. What gives? Why am I loving this game? The gameplay’s freaking boring, the interface is not even competent and the “puzzles” are either insultingly easy or … yeah, they’re just insultingly easy.
I think I have the answer to those questions, and it’s a defense for linear games that I haven’t seen used before if I recall correctly:
So, when we talk about linear games and how similar to plain old books they are… I just can’t help but feel there’s more to it than that. You see, this is kind of difficult to put in plain words, so forgive me if I’m running in circles. Here, let’s try saying something directly: Reading about or seeing a character is not the same as playing as that said character, and the difference is not of pure agency, since in linear games you don’t have much agency to speak of, at least not in the story: You have to do this thing and you can’t do anything apart from that or else you lose the game/get trapped in a feedback loop until you give the right answer.
But there’s a little bit of agency there, even if the game is not even trying to pretend that the player has power over the story or even if the gameplay only consists of mundane tasks that taken out of context might seem incredibly bland and boring. It’s precisely that context that gives the actions done by the player such a fantastic taste. You are not just tapping over some icon on the screen, you are looking at Rosa’s photo that was taken the day of her wedding. There’s a very clear difference between that and searching for a gun inside the room you just broke into. The mechanic is the same in both cases, but the context is not the same and makes those two examples feel very, very different.
Now, in the particular example of Hotel Dusk, there’s one more thing going for it, and that’s a very simple concept that permeates every single moment in that game. I’m not too sure many games follow this philosophy of design, which is a shame since I quite like it. What am I talking about? Simple: Even if the protagonist has a very well-defined personality, even if all the dialogue is rigidly scripted and doesn’t give room for straying from the path laid down by the designer, in spite of all that, the player will always be in control of the character at all the established moments. It’s predictable. The designer dictated early on which tasks will fall under the player’s umbrella and which ones will fall under his/hers. It’s never up for debate, nothing is unexpectedly happening automatically.
Alright, I know it’s difficult to imagine but bear with me. In this game the player manages two things in total: walking and item management. That’s it. Every single other thing the player does is, in sometimes needlessly elaborate ways, to forward the story given by the designer (press “play” to continue with the story, press “play” then “rec” then “stop” then “play” again to continue). Yes, that’s a shame, but you’ll never, ever, see the game moving you automatically or even outright giving you items without your permission. That’s right, the game won’t even give you an item automatically even if it’s the only thing you can do. Every single time someone gives you an item, they extend their hand with said item resting there, waiting for you to pick it up.
Same thing happens when you are supposed to give someone something: you have to talk to them, go to the inventory and then select which item you wanna give them. The game will never assume that we wanted to give an item away at any point in time, that’s our job, because the game established early on that all item management must be done by us. Otherwise just the act of giving something feels done by the character, it feels impersonal, distant even. It’s futile to resist, yes, there’s nothing else we can do, yes, the game won’t let us continue until we give the photo to Rosa, but still, we want to decide when that happens, at least give us that, it’s our decision even if we know that we have no other choice.
I gave the photo to Rosa, not my character.