Information design in Casablanca and videogames

In his column in the new edition of Edge magazine, Randy Smith discusses similarities between movies and videogames. He comments that he tends to dislike old movies because of poor information design and offers the opening sequence of Casablanca as an example, where he argues that the importance of the transit papers is not made clear to the viewer. He suggests that modern movies often achieve a higher level of information design, such as the Keyser Soze reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects, which, while surprising to many viewers, is telegraphed so that few viewers will misunderstand the new information they are receiving. Smith argues that The Usual Suspects may provide a better template for good videogame narrative, simply because it ensures that all viewers come away from the experience with the same level of information.

I’ve been chewing over these comments all morning. To be fair, a large part of my disgruntlement is the suggestion that The Usual Suspects is ‘better’ than Casablanca, although I’ll try to suppress my film snobbery here. But I think this information design approach to both movies and games might be rewarding, and Randy Smith’s conclusions bother me.  (Click to read more)

Firstly, I assume that Smith’s comments about narrative are mainly concerned with guiding the player/viewer towards a ‘correct’ interpretation. In movies, that interpretation may involve understanding key plot details; in games the deduction may involve following the required path through a gameworld. I can sympathise with Smith’s wish that all game players should have the same level of practical information about where they should go next – if they don’t have this information it can be frustrating and this is often a symptom of poor level design. However, surely both movies and games contain a whole other level of information?

Movies that are primarily concerned with plot at the expense of emotion or characterization often feel shallow, and I’d argue that a videogame that is primarily concerned with getting the player from A to B is similarly shallow. A good example of a movie containing far more information than just plot is the opening sequence of Coppola’s The Conversation. Jim Emerson’s dissection of the sequence breaks down the information that the viewer is given, including themes of surveillance and paranoia, with Harry Caul gradually picked out from the crowd via the slowly zooming camera representing the long-range microphones pivotal to later plot development. Like the opening to Casablanca, viewers missing this information can easily glean the vital plot details later on – but importantly, the sequence sets up the theme and tones of the movie in its opening moments.

It’s less easy to name examples of videogames where non-essential but rewarding information is imparted to the player – and I’m deliberating ignoring games where plot information is delivered via cutscenes (Metal Gear Solid 4 may be rich with subtext, but if you skip most of the endless cutscenes as I did you’ll find a far more straightforward game underneath). Bioshock’s opening contains a wealth of information, with Andrew Ryan’s explanation of the underwater city Rapture, and glimpses of a Big Daddy at work – however, much of Bioshock’s later non-essential narrative is delivered as audio logs, which can become one-note. The Milkman Conspiracy level in Psychonauts is a rich example, littered with references to factors contributing to the milkman’s lunacy – references that aren’t specifically required to progress within the level. However, I’d argue that the majority of narrative-driven videogames only impart as much information as the player needs to progress.

So, I think my main gripe with Randy Smith’s comments is that I don’t want all videogames to allow all players to come away with exactly the same experience. I feel that player interpretation and emotion should be part of the information design of games, not just essential practical information. If developments in videogame narrative will mirror the increasing complexity of movies over the last 100 years, I look forward to videogames containing Hitchcockian shades of grey far more than the straightforward thrills of Transformers.

If you can think of good examples of videogames with rich non-essential information, please do add your comments.

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