Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception's Usability Problem


After seeing Christopher Nolan's new film Inception, I found myself thinking about videogame tutorials.

In-game tutorials are both hugely important and difficult to pull off, and today's game-designers have gotten pretty clever about putting them together. Usually placed at the game's start, a tutorial must not only communicate the game's unique control scheme ("Hold the left trigger to take cover, press the right thumbstick to aim your weapon"), it must also impart the rules that govern the game's particular universe ("If the guards spot you, they will be on alert for thirty seconds unless you can knock them out or hack the alarm. Also, they get sleepy after the sun goes down"). On top of all that functional stuff, most tutorials also integrate themselves into the fiction of the gameworld ("Okay, soldier, let's get that new suit of yours optimized. First, walk forward. Okay, now look at the four corners of your screen. Would you like your camera control to be inverted?").

In theory, a good tutorial gets out of the way as quickly as possible, but the more elaborate a game's systems, the longer its tutorials can drag on. Games that take place within massive, fully-realized worlds like those of Assassin's Creed II, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption will often wind up imparting new information many hours into the "proper" game.

It can be distracting, but it's a shortcoming for which I cut game designers a lot of slack, mostly because it's accepted as a handicap of the form. After all, a player must understand a game's mechanics in order to properly experience it, and no two games play exactly alike. What if, I often ask, the first track of each of my albums was required to musically explain its instrumentation, key signatures and tempos before listeners could properly hear the music? What if every film had to begin with its characters demonstrating how to sit and watch it before viewers could appreciate the story it's trying to tell?

Actually, now that I've seen Inception, I have a pretty good idea of how much of a drag that would be. For me, Nolan's dreamjacking caper was the film-going equivalent of sitting through a videogame that is all tutorial and no play.

For those of us in the gaming set, one of the coolest things about Inception is its narrative set-up. Here is a videogame movie that isn't based on a game, it's simply... a videogame movie. In other words, rather than adapting an existing game's story a la Prince of Persia or Hitman, Inception presents an original story built on the fundamental tenets of videogames. It's a tale of people transporting their consciousness into a construct where notions of life, death, time and identity become quite different than in the waking world. So I suppose it's appropriate that the film's biggest shortcoming feels so fundamentally game-y in nature.

I found Inception's script to be an overwhelming stream of unfettered information the likes of which would be inexcusable in a modern-day videogame. For the entire run of the film, characters do nothing but deliberately, forcefully explain and expound upon the ever-more-complex rules and systems that Nolan has designed, leaving the audience no room to actually internalize any of it. Forget about fleshing out characters, establishing the plot and making the audience care about what's happening onscreen - Nolan seems far more interested in giving us a harried, unending crash-course in metaphysical dream navigation, usually delivered on-the-fly and always accompanied by Hans Zimmer's relentlessly driving musical score.

It's both exhausting and oddly adolescent. I'd be willing to bet that mining the script for data would reveal around 95% of the film's dialogue to be exposition. It's no wonder that even though it runs for nearly two and a half hours, we never get to know any of the supporting characters - no one has time for that! There's far too much to explain!

Right from the outset, protagonist Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets about grimly detailing the laws governing dreams and dreams-within-dreams; we are shown how the drug-box works, we see that dream-death results in waking up, we see someone get dropped into water in order to force his awakening. We meet Cobb's wife Mal, learn that she's dead, and are given an inkling that she lives on within his subconscious. And through all of this, we're of course bracing for what movie-logic suggests will be the eventual twist... even this is a dream!

But as setups go, I thought the opening sequence worked. It was exciting if exposition-heavy, and just like in a dream, it dropped us into the action with no memory of how we got there. So when Ellen Page's character turned up and Cobb started teaching her the basics of level-design, it seemed like a natural place for Nolan to slow down and explore the impressive amount of ground he had already covered. (And hey, maybe actually let us get to know Page's character a bit or something. I mean, I like Ellen Page.) Unfortunately, Nolan chose instead to breathlessly plunge into new territory, most of it even denser and more jargon-addled than what had come before.

Look, I'm not a slow guy when it comes to these sorts of films. I'm pretty fast, actually - show me something twisty and complex and I'll usually come out of the theater with a firmer grasp on it than most. But even though I "got" Inception, it still felt like too much, too fast, and most problematically, too sloppily delivered.

I'd barely gotten my head around the fundamental framework of the host/architect/subject relationship before I was being told about "totems" that anchor dreamers to the real world and "kicks" that wake them up, that going deeper into a mind's subconscious multiplies the passage of time and that the only way out of those sublevels is to synchronize multiple bumps, which is tricky since time moves slower the deeper you go. Got that? Good, because also something about a safe, or at least the suggestion of a safe, and here's a guy with some special drugs that can put you under in unique ways and also here are some people who live in a dream-world. Now some warnings about the hazards of going into one's own memories and oh yeah a "forger" can learn someone else's mannerisms and look like him or her and hey, as it turns out inception isn't impossible but the only way to plant an idea in someone else's mind is to have him think of it himself which will require that aaaaaaa

All that happens in the first hour or so. Too much, too fast, too sloppily delivered.

Compare that to the opening scenes of one of Inception's clearest spiritual ancestors, 1999's The Matrix. During that film's first 45 minutes, the Wachowski brothers showed us their universe with no exposition at all. It worked, and the reason it worked was that it was executed in such a clear and elegant fashion that once we did know what was going on, those earlier scenes were reborn in a new light and greatly informed the scenes we were currently watching. The importance of the red-pill moment cannot be overstated - beyond the exhilaration I felt when I finally learned what The Matrix was, I was also able to retrospectively construct my own understanding of how it worked. I understood how Trinity was able to take out those cops, why she ran for the phone, why she was so afraid of Agent Smith and how she escaped the dump truck. I understood where Morpheus' voice was coming from and how he was able to guide Neo through the cubicles. The mythology of The Matrix was no less complex or heady than that of Inception, but its core mechanics were demonstrated and then explained with far greater economy and clarity.

That kind of "reverse ah-ha" is also what good heist films are made of. In Ocean's Eleven (another of Inception's clear influences), part of the fun of the movie was that we the audience weren't quite sure about the particulars of Danny Ocean's plan. We knew the basics as we watched the crew go about their various tasks around the casino, but it wasn't until the film's final fifteen minutes that we finally saw how it all came together. A good heist film should do just that - strike a balance between letting its audience in on the plan and playfully misleading them so that the eventual reveal (the "prestige," if you will) is both unexpected and retrospectively comprehensible.

But after two and a half hours of Nolan-penned exposition, my friends and I walked out of the theater still fuzzy on some of the most basic tenets of Inception's mythology. It could be argued that that's on us, but I say it's on Nolan. By accident or by design, his film gave us no chance to breathe, not even a minute to process the rules we had just learned, to observe them in action.

Any game designer (or teacher) will tell you that an effective tutorial must strike a balance between imparting new information and allowing players to practice what they've already learned. What's more, there is a reason that every game's tutorial section must end in order for the proper game to begin - at some point we need to stop learning and start experiencing.

Of course, films and games don't adhere to the same rules, and a film can be utterly confusing and still "work." But all the same, I felt that Inception's biggest problem was one of usability. It wasn't so much that the fiction was unclear or impenetrable, it was that the constant stream of new information made it it all but impossible for me to get invested in what was happening on screen. For all the film's blaring pomp, its constantly shifting foundation left no room for tension.

Nolan is no stranger to the fine line between artful obfuscation and mere confusion - from Memento's slow-burn musings about truth and memory to The Prestige's sick take on identity, his dark stories have long been steeped in a compelling blend of the known and the mysterious.

But I believe that with Inception, he has bitten off more than he can chew. Like a game designer who crams too many rules and mechanics into his creation, Nolan expects his viewers to digest and master a bevvy of complex, foreign concepts without giving them the time or the space to do so. As abstractly fascinating as those big ideas are, Inception is the first film I've seen that feels like it would have benefited from more playtesting.
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