So, I missed Wreck-It Ralph. The trailers never caught me, and I rarely see movies in theaters anyway. But I did see this:
Sure, it's an insanely charming bit about seeing someone and knowing; not knowing what you know, but knowing. But that's not what was running through my head while watching it.
Paperman has a protagonist. The whole time we watch it we're cheering for the guy. At least, that's what we're supposed to do. But we're always watching the protagonist. As a medium, film is about being a silent observer. We are shown what the director wants us to see, from exactly the angle he wants us to see it. Scenes start when he (I'm using "he" in the "member of humankind" sense) wants us to see something, and end when he has shown us everything he considers relevant. The director is in control and we are along for the ride.
Naturally, video games--you know what, let's drop that: interactive videos--are a different beast. Design leads have ideals and paths, corridors and hints. Bright lights shine on your first weapon, wide open spaces have unexplainable dirt paths that lead to the objective, and compass arrows point us the way. But, hey, it's interactive. I can choose to turn and walk into the dark corners. That area that's clearly not going to lead me to the next story beat? Still open to explore if I want to. Now, maybe we're just rebellious and we want to do things our way just for the sake of doing them our way. I think it's more a case of level designers putting all of the interesting, ancillary, but ultimately unnecessary stuff in the out-of-the-way dead ends. There has to be an enticing audio log in that side track, and I'm going to use my freedom of movement and progression to check for it.
And our freedom rarely costs us anything. Sure, dragons are destroying the world. I'm busy making iron daggers, and I can keep doing this for years; the world will still be waiting for me to save it when I'm ready. This is the usual way of directing unpredictable people. We'll just pause the story until you're ready to move along. Games like BioShock use the excuse (excuses aren't necessarily bad things) that you're the one moving the story along, so if you stop moving, stop observing, stop engaging, the whole presentation pauses anyway. Other games "fix" this problem of forced observation by adding time limits or other restrictions. You must observe, and the believability is enforced by the player. You are prompted and prodded by the looming clock to press onward. You are usually still guided through the observations, the "scenes" if you will, but your progress in the observance is enforced by your own attendance to the countdown.
Dead Rising, a game I love dearly, handled this beautifully, I think. You could run about the Willamette Mall, doing nothing but finding and drinking every carton of milk. You were given three days in which to either observe the story or leave it untouched. You are still the protagonist regardless, but you can play as though you are nothing more than another desperate survivor. Do you want to meet Adam? No? Don't meet him, then. While you are directly controlling the hero, the hero is allowed to completely abandon his mission. We are still the hero, but we can choose failure. That failure isn't a game over screen but the knowledge that we left fifty people to die.
Watch Paperman, but imagine we controlled the camera.
Imagine playing Skyrim and spending forty hours collecting every Nirnroot, only to return to the main questline to discover a hero had arisen in your place. You're left with nothing but observation. You're powerless to control them, only in how you observe them.
I'm not asking for this depth, because frankly it's impossible. Worlds are meant to be engaged in certain ways, discs can hold only so much recorded dialog, and map geometry has to end for the skybox to begin.
I've a cold, I'm extraordinarily tired for nine PM, and despite not drinking this evening I feel as though I downed several shots of rum, so this thing is probably a mess. But I'm tripping (the drug kind) over this idea of forced observation and controlled performance, so I figure I'll get it down so you can read it before my brain comes back.