From Space Ace to Doom
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
For any type of game, there’s a point where it goes from feeling non-interactive to feeling interactive. Since we don’t have much in the way of scientific inquiry here, it’s hard to say much beyond that, but we know such a point must exist.
Why? Well, we know there are things that feel interactive, and things that don’t. So if we keep changing one of them until it becomes like the other, at some point in between, the change must occur.
Picture, for example, a continuum of games that feature a guy with a gun who is going around shooting bad guys in an effort to get through all the levels in the game. You can use Space Ace and Doom as your two extreme points.
Err, well, maybe you’re too young to do that, so… well… if you never played those games, maybe go watch them on YouTube and then try to picture it? Here’s Space Ace:
All you did in this game  —  and I mean literally all  —  is when something on the screen flashed white, you had to guess which direction on the joystick to push in order to not die. That’s it. You didn’t get to control anything or do anything.
Now on the other end of the spectrum there’s Doom:
Unlike Space Ace, in Doom you can move the location of the guy freely, change what direction he’s looking (on only one axis), and shoot your gun in that direction. All of these things happen reliably when you do them  —  you don’t have to wait for any specific time.
Doom’s basic design can still be seen everywhere in the market today. Space Ace’s is nowhere to be found.
Doom (and it’s predecessor, Wolfenstein 3D) were the ancestors of many of today’s best-selling titles, like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Space Ace (and it’s predecessor, Dragon's Lair) were the ancestors of  —  well, nothing we still play today, really.
“Playing” Space Ace never felt interactive at all. It felt like watching a movie that required you to do something periodically in order for it to keep playing. Doom, on the other hand, felt like really being in a weird moon base, where you were deciding what to do and honing your attack skills for fighting the monsters that were repeatedly thrown at you.
In short, Space Ace is clearly on the “non-interactive” side, and Doom is clearly on the “interactive” side.
So what makes the difference?
If we added the ability to control the direction of the camera to Space Ace, would it suddenly feel interactive? How about if we gave you the ability to control the camera and the ability to shoot in the direction you were looking?
Amusingly, although it sounds purely hypothetical, we sort of know the answer here. It’s “no”.
I said Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace weren’t ancestors to anything we play today, and that’s pretty much true. But they were ancestors to one more series of games that also failed to have a long lineage.
Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair were arcade games, and they worked by having a laser disc in the cabinet so they could play back full-motion video. This was in the very early days of gaming, so their graphics looked amazing compared to everything else. When CD-ROM drives came to home computers, the same situation repeated itself, and a new wave of Dragon’s Lair-esque games came down the pipe. But this time, since it was a decade later and there was more computing power to draw upon, game developers tried a few other things to see if they could cross the interaction boundary.
They never succeeded.
They tried everything, including spherical projection of the movie to make it appear as if you could control the view direction, and real-time compositing of the enemies so you could “shoot” them directly:
But apparently, it was never enough. They even tried to make “interactive fiction” games this way, going so far as to cast Sir Robert Schneider in the leading role for the cinematic masterpiece, A Fork in the Tale:
Yes, that’s a real “game” right there.
But I digress. The point is, as far as the history is concerned, we don’t really have much evidence that there’s anything you can take away from Doom without the game starting to feel noticeably less interactive.
All of this is highly subjective.
Thankfully, exactly what does and doesn’t have to be in Doom to make it feel interactive isn’t too important to our project. We don’t need to know the specifics for that genre.
All that actually matters for our purposes is that we see there is some point, somewhere between Space Ace and Doom, where games go from feeling non-interactive to feeling interactive. Even if the point differed for every player, there’s always some threshold there. If the game can cross it, it feels interactive to that player, whereas anything less wouldn’t.
Space Ace doesn’t feel like a game to me, it feels like watching a movie. Doom feels like a game. Somewhere in between, the game design crosses from one to the other.
It’s this point that concerns us if we want to make fiction feel interactive. Again, it’s all subjective, but speaking for myself, nothing you can buy today crosses that point for me in terms of the fiction. Lots of things cross that point in terms of other aspects of their game design, but just not the fiction.
Fiction-wise, games are still Space Ace. We need our Doom.
This is why, in the previous post, I said you needn’t despair: we don’t have to produce any kind of magic reality simulator in order to get fiction that feels interactive. We just have to make a game that crosses the threshold  —  that gets us far enough along to feel like the fiction equivalent of Doom instead of Space Ace. After all, Doom barely simulates anything about reality, but it completely succeeds at delivering a great interactive experience.
But how do we know where that point is for interactive fiction? Is it impossible to even know what it looks like if we’ve never crossed it?
Thankfully, if we go back about twenty years, there may be an answer waiting for us. And that, of course, will be the topic of next week’s blog post.
Until then, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the Information Superhighway!