Friday, February 26, 2010

Rated M for Real Maturity

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Last year, I wrote about my largest disappointment with the Nintendo Wii: that while it has made great strides toward bringing video gaming into the mainstream, the resulting games have placed narrative complexity and thematic maturity as low priorities. This year, Sony took a gamble on Heavy Rain, a mature, complex thriller that considers story, character development, and adult themes more important than action and titillation. It is mature in that it deals with adult issues and situations without gratuitous vulgarity and sexuality. It is the first M-rated game that I have played which is mature both for the fact that it is inappropriate for children and for the way that it honestly wrestles with difficult, adult problems.

Heavy Rain is a thriller. The story follows the lives of four individuals who each have an interest in tracking down the Origami Killer, a serial murderer. A father, an FBI agent, a private investigator, and a journalist are all working against the clock to rescue the latest kidnapping victim before they die. The story is interesting, if somewhat cliché, and some of the motivations and story hooks are less compelling than others. All told, the plot is serviceable, but not the most impressive thing about the game.

What really blows me away about Heavy Rain is its ability to explore complex emotions and difficult decisions. Over the course of the game, I felt a number of emotions a game has never made me feel before: guilt, gratefulness, hopelessness, and hope regained. I felt concerned about a stranger’s baby. I have no children in reality, but in the game I felt prepared to do anything to save my son. And there was no sign of a simple, black and white moral choice anywhere in the game. Every moral conflict was a complicated one. Every difficult choice felt desperate.

The other major success of the game is its accessibility. Typically, games with mature content and thematic elements are designed with a hardcore video game audience in mind. But the controls for Heavy Rain are easy to learn, and the difficulty settings are based around how familiar the player is with the PlayStation 3 controller.

Heavy Rain has the most impressive quicktime events I have ever played in a game. The action can be chaotic, but it is usually clear what button the player is supposed to push. Best of all, an error in button pushing or joystick moving doesn’t result in an instant failure and the need to restart. Each missed cue results in some small error on the part of the character on the screen; just like in reality, a person can make a few mistakes and still succeed overall. It lends each action sequence an air of legitimacy, and the characters remain human.

One of the other major features that sets Heavy Rain apart is the fact that there is no such thing as a game over screen: every failure remains. Character death is possible, but the story continues without them. Every in-game possibility leads to its own ending. This is a bold move for video games, which typically rely on a lot of replaying and frustration around difficult sections. Unless the player goes out of their way to replay a section of Heavy Rain, they will never need to do so.

Heavy Rain has its fair share of flaws. Sometimes the on-screen options are frustrating in their limitations, leaving very little room for player freedom of choice. The characters are a little too stuck in their ways of thinking, which can be frustrating to the player who thinks of a better solution. And, strangely for a game so focused on story and character interaction, the writing and acting can be weak at times. Oddly, the weaknesses in the acting come mostly from the voice work; the digital characters created for Heavy Rain are the most convincingly real human beings ever seen in a video game. But none of the game's flaws counteract the fact that Heavy Rain is a leap forward for maturity in video games.

It is my sincere hope that Heavy Rain will show consumers and game designers how much more potential there is in the video game medium than they saw before. Heavy Rain is an eye-opening experience; it shows that dramatic, compelling gameplay can be found in everyday experiences and emotions, and that we don’t need to play superhuman characters to triumph in the face of adversity. Heavy Rain is a triumph, in that it opens up to a wider audience without sacrificing its ambitions or the complexity of its themes. I can’t wait to see what comes next. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Game Can Wait

by C.T. Hutt

My apologies to all for my recent absence; these last two weeks I’ve been snowbound in the District of Columbia, bedridden by a freakish bout of garbanzo dip food poisoning, and, most recently, wandering through the natural splendor of the Rocky Mountains. It is that most recent adventure that I write about today, but first a little back story.

When I was about six years old, my parents brought me to Denver for a business trip. After the meeting in the city, which I do not recall at all, we traveled up the steady climb of route 70 though the rough foothills and into the soaring heights of the Rocky Mountains. The drive through the twisting switchback roads into the Fraser Valley made an indelible imprint on my young mind. Being quite young at the time, and having read Tolkien’s The Hobbit through and through, I was enchanted. The mountains stretched from the valley floor and reached all the way to the clouds above, like the mountain pass of Caradhras. I had my original Game Boy and a few books with me, as I usually did while traveling, but during the whole ride I was unable to shift my gaze from the car window. To my young mind, the trip was a grand adventure. Surely, hidden among the tall pines and stony crags of these impossible megaliths lived all manner of goblins and dwarves. I will never forget the journey for two reasons: one being the fantastic views and otherworldly beauty of the mountains, the other being a crusty hot dog I ate at a road side diner along the way which caused me to vomit profusely for the rest of the trip.

You will be glad to know that my most recent trip went much more smoothly. While food poisoning was once again part of my adventure, thankfully I got it out of the way before I left. I will spare you the horrific details of my regurgitation escapade; suffice it to say I may never look at hummus the same way again. Thankfully, I overcame my illness in time and last week, more than two decades after my initial foray, I returned to Colorado. I was greeted at Denver international airport by my mother and our charter van which would take us and eight other souls up the very same route I had traversed in my youth to the Winter Park Ski resort nestled in the heart of Arapahoe National Park. As it happens I was seated next to a young man named Jerald, a child of six years who was visiting the mountains for the first time.

Jerald, I learned, came all the way from Louisiana and had never been skiing in his life, nor had he ever seen a snow storm. As I am sure you can imagine, I was very eager to see his reaction to the sights that had so impressed themselves on me. As our van began its steady climb through the foothills, I enthralled the other captive passengers with a discussion on my knowledge of topographic lift and federal policies relating to the preservation of national parks. Jerald had lots of questions, and I had lots of answers and was delighted to be making a new friend. I paused in my discourse, much to the relief of some, only to sneer as we passed by a certain diner and began to roll up the switchback roads to our final destination.

Without warning, a flurry of snow descended into the pass. I gazed about with awe as the images I had cherished since childhood were recalled in full force and made even more glorious with the addition of this natural wonder. An accident on the narrow roads ahead gave me the opportunity to exit the vehicle and take in the breathtaking spectacle in full panoramic. I now have new memories to augment the old and that alone made the trip worthwhile. However, when I returned to the van I was dismayed to find that Jerald was not even peering out the window. Instead he had turned his attention to Spongebob Squarepants: Atlantis Squarepantis developed by THQ for the Nintendo DS.

To my credit, I did not vocalize my displeasure to either Jerald or his oblivious parents. While I will remember my trip fondly, this one aspect of it struck me as being rather sad. Here a young person was afforded a chance to experience one of earth’s great wonders, but instead spent the time playing a game. It feels like something very important was missed, an opportunity which may never present itself again, and despite my enduring affection for the video gaming medium I feel that it played a part in this unfortunate event.

The great journeys of our lives, events which take us far outside our normal routines, are sacred things. They deserve no less than the full measure of our curiosity and attention because stepping into the great wide world expands our understanding of it and of ourselves; this is especially true for children. That being said, there are moments during the course of modern travel which are, again especially for children, dull and restless times. During the long waits at terminals, the endless stuffy confinement of flights, or the lengthy imprisonment of car rides, the human mind begs for some form of escape. Mobile game systems like the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable are convenient vehicles for such release, but to use them to the exclusion of an entire journey is a terrible shame.

The answer, as it is with so many problems, is a balance: a balance which adults must manage for themselves and for their children. I would no more deny a child a game system than I would a good book, but that doesn’t mean they should read all the time either. This is a world filled with wonderful sights and experiences both in the natural and digital worlds, and there is no reason a child of this modern age should grow up without experiencing both.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Insurmountable Foe

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Minor spoilers for BioShock 2, Dead Space, and Half-Life 2 follow.

The Big Sister in BioShock 2 was terrifying, at first. I saw only glimpses of her as she exited rooms or passed by windows. I knew we would be brought to a confrontation eventually, and I had no idea what to expect. She was as sturdy as a Big Daddy, but faster and more agile. She seemed more intelligent, and had unknown powers. The first time I was alone with her, she flooded the room and escaped unharmed. Now this was a worthy foe.

It was a little longer before I faced her directly, and when I did the fight was a hectic one. I used every attack in my arsenal to fend her off, emptying my weapons and hurling explosives her way, trying to shock her to keep her in one place. By the time she fled, the edges of my vision were darkened and I was bleeding profusely. I barely made it to a healing station.

The next time we met, the ensuing battle was similarly difficult, but at the end something unexpected happened: I killed her. I stood above the corpse of my worthiest of enemies and paused to think. Was this disappointment I felt? I knew that this meant there would be other Big Sisters, but the sense of fear was gone. No longer did I wonder whether I was the equal of the Big Sister in combat. I knew I could prevail, and would prevail again in the future. In that moment, staring down at my conquered foe, I felt confident that I could face anything that came my way.

Unfortunately, this all happened in the first quarter of BioShock 2: I defeated the enemy I previously believed undefeatable, relegating the Big Sister to the status of just another enemy. Even worse, shortly after that battle it became clear that the Big Sister would only confront me directly at specifically designated times in each level, and I learned to anticipate those confrontations and prepare for them. For that first, glorious hour, the Big Sister was something special. Then she became almost mundane, a difficult foe, but one that I knew how to kill.

The insurmountable foe, when done correctly, can be a spectacular change of pace in a video game. In most action-based games, we have learned to operate under the assumption that if it is placed before us, we can defeat it. The sections in games that reject this notion are almost always a dramatic shift; instead of standing to fight, the player must run or hide from a foe they cannot hope to overcome. Perhaps later in the game a weakness will be shown, or a new weapon will allow for new possibilities, but the pacing and tension that results from a shift in power is incredible. Usually, the player has the power to kill and overcome. When faced with an unstoppable force, the player becomes powerless.

Dead Space includes one enemy who regenerates any damage done to it. When first encountered, it seems to be nothing more than a particularly large and tough necromorph and the player can, with some skill, render the thing unable to attack by removing its limbs. When it gets up again, regenerating its lost limbs, the player has no option but to run. The subsequent section of gameplay is terrifying in a very different way from the rest of Dead Space; instead of shock scares and steadily building tension, the player is put in the position of the hunted fleeing for his or her life. In a game built to inspire fear, the variety is welcome. Unfortunately, Dead Space makes a similar error to that made by BioShock 2: the moment when the tables are turned and the player finds a way to defeat the enemy comes too soon. As a result, the player can relax. Other monsters may be around the next corner, but that one is conquered.

Dead Space also telegraphs the fact that the player cannot defeat the regenerating monster; there is always someone yelling in the main character’s ear when he should run and when he should stand and fight. The tension and fear in the opening section of BioShock 2 comes from the fact that I did not know whether I could defeat this foe. This made it both more frightening leading up the confrontation and more disappointing when the first Big Sister fell before my onslaught. But BioShock 2 also didn’t really provide an opportunity to flee. Sure, I could run for a little while, but she would always catch up. It was clear that the developers meant for me to fight until one of us died or she fled. I had no other option.

Older games are not always so kind about telegraphing their intentions. Final Fantasy IV, for example, includes a button that allows the player to flee from combat, but our experiences with most modern role-playing games teach us that most random encounters and monsters can be defeated with some good strategy. There are several enemies, even early on in Final Fantasy IV, for which this is not the case. The only way to learn is to be killed by these foes which are clearly well above the power level of the heroes. The game quickly teaches the player, through direct punishment, that when these monsters are seen, running is the only option. It’s a harsh learning curve, but effective.

There is a more elegant way of doing things, however. When looking for examples of spectacular game design, we often turn to Half-Life 2. Every time the player encounters a strider, those massive, spindly, and impossible tall tanks, the game changes into a game of cat and mouse, with the player’s shots pinging off the metallic hull until a weapon capable of taking the strider down is found. Running and gunning changes immediately into hiding, skulking and scrounging for ammunition. In Half-Life 2: Episode 2, one section in the antlion caves provides another desperate struggle. Faced with an enormous, deadly foe, Gordon Freeman’s only option is to flee from one small hiding place to the next, and hope that the enemy can’t fit in to chase him. These sections provide incredible examples of how to ratchet up the tension using enemies that can’t be stopped, even if the effect is only temporary.

One of the ways that Half-Life 2 creates this tension is by limiting the usefulness of certain weapons. Most of the guns in Half-Life 2 are entirely useless against the striders, so the player feels helpless until a rocket launcher or similarly powerful device is secured. BioShock 2 has a similar system, in which some ammunition does considerably more damage to Big Sisters than others, but a well-prepared player can make sure they are never caught at a disadvantage. Maybe this is just a sign that resources are too plentiful in the game; I only died once in the entire game, due to a distracting real-life cat. I’m not trying to brag, and I don’t consider myself an expert at first person shooters. Shooting expertise is unnecessary; you just need to manage resources well and have a sense of strategy. On the standard difficulty, resources seem abundant. Big Sisters don’t seem insurmountable; they just require a few more bullets and health kits than most enemies.

The basic benefit in including foes that cannot be stopped is the same that can be accomplished through creative level design, changes in pacing, and other tricks of design: it adds variety to the game. Sometimes the player must feel powerless so that they can feel empowered at a later time. Most video games opt for near-constant empowerment; the game may get difficult, but since the purpose of video games, for many, is escapism, the scenario is always winnable. Video game designers are so focused on making the player feel like a powerful, unstoppable winner that they forget that sometimes a great sense of triumph requires a series of failures, if only temporary ones. And everyone wants to feel, from time to time, like they achieved the impossible.

Monday, February 15, 2010

HD Violence

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Violence permeates our culture and entertainment in the United States. The film industry shows just how deeply our fascination with violence runs: the highest-grossing films of all time are mostly violent ones, like The Dark Knight and Avatar, and many of the most critically acclaimed films are steeped in violence as well, like City of God and The Wrestler. Some movies and television shows take a critical eye to the effect of violence on our culture – The Wire springs to mind – but not to the point of removing the violence from the finished work.

It goes beyond fictional entertainment as well. Football, our most popular sport in terms of television viewers, is about human beings hurling themselves into each other at high speeds, and serious injuries often result. Nascar is popular for the racing and the cars, but also for the possibility of a crash. Ultimate Fighting Championship and local fight clubs have become increasingly popular in recent years. And don’t get me started on the Saw and Hostel movies.

But nowhere is a culture of violence more clearly shown than in the world of video games. It is difficult to find non-violent video games aimed at an adult audience. In movies and television, there are comedies, histories, biographies, dramas and even musicals, none of which require violence to be compelling. But in video games, most funny or dramatic games still have violence; in fact, violence makes up the majority of gameplay. Think about the games that have come out this year. How quickly does the game teach you which button is the “attack” or “shoot” button? Even Mario leaps on his enemies’ heads and kills them. For points.

I don’t object to the idea of having violence be a major part of video games. In fact, I think many of the most impressive video games ever made have used violence as an effective part of the narrative. Half-Life 2 is a compelling story of one person’s struggle against an authoritarian government’s military might. More recently, I’ve been playing BioShock 2, which shows a world gone mad with violence as the result of political philosophies taken to their dark extremes. The violence in these games does not feel gratuitous because it serves the concept of the game. The mature content is present to fulfill the narrative and thematic goals, and not the other way around.

It is a shame, however, that the number of intelligent games that do not involve violence of any kind is so few. Non-violent, mature games are also almost entirely limited to the independent video game makers: Jason Rohrer’s Passage and thatgamecompany’s Flower are stellar examples. Portal was practically non-violent; the threat of player death was present, but for the most part there was no direct confrontation or harm caused by the player. But even less action-oriented games have become more violent in recent years: racing games have come to pride themselves on their realistic car crashes and vehicle damage. Some hockey games have whole mechanics added so that the player can get into fights in the middle of the game.

I bemoan the lack of variety in video games today, and the fact that video game makers do not believe that they could make compelling gameplay without violence, but most of all I am disturbed by the obsession with making violence more brutal, more detailed, and more gruesome. Violence is disturbing enough in reality; why would we want to make our leisure activities as horrifying as a real war or an actual car crash? Upgraded graphical possibilities lead us closer and closer to violence which looks and functions like violence does in the real world. In God of War, when Kratos pulls a polygonal enemy in half, it looks cartoonish and exaggerated. In God of War 3, when he splits open a centaur, its intestines spill out onto the ground. Suddenly this exaggerated series about the world of Greek myth is becoming gruesome and difficult to stomach.

I’m of two minds with the development of high-definition, realistic violence: in one sense, I don’t think violence should be easy to stomach. Violence is a terrible thing, and making it look less real for the sake of the audience is essentially whitewashing a real issue and creating unrealistic ideas of the consequences of terrible, violent actions. On the other hand, filling our entertainment with brutal, realistic violence desensitizes human beings to the realistic nature of violence. My stomach still turns when I see a drill in BioShock puncture a human being, no matter how spliced they are, but I am sure that there are some people who do not have that reaction. There are people across the United States, and elsewhere, who get excited about the blood and gore in the new Aliens vs. Predator game or the next in an unending series of torture porn movies. This disturbs me deeply.

Obviously, it is up to the parents of children to teach them a moral compass, explain the horrors of violence, teach them to be peaceful and kind, and keep them from consuming extremely violent media at a young, impressionable age. But as it becomes easier and easier for video games to portray realistic violence, game designers should examine how much they are willing to contribute to our society’s obsession with blood, guts and violence. While a great movie like Pan’s Labyrinth may have a few moments of brutal, realistic violence, games like BioShock 2 and God of War 3 make it the central gameplay mechanic of their entire games. Instead of one shocking and horrifying scene, gamers are playing through bloodbath after bloodbath, sometimes for hours at a time. A person with a solid moral foundation and a clear ability to distinguish fantasy from reality should be able to separate this from the real world, but that does not describe all people from all families.

Game designers should ask themselves how much responsibility they are willing to foist off onto the violence in other media and the failure of parents. Video games are not solely responsible for violence in our culture, but they are contributors, just like movies, television, and news outlets are contributors. As graphics become more realistic and the world’s fascination with violence grows, it begs several questions: How much violence do we want to add to an already violent world? Should we be striving for more realism in video game violence, or keep it so unrealistic that it is clearly separated from reality? At the very least, aren’t there a lot of other options for how to make an incredible game?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

War Game Theory

by C.T. Hutt

Recently, I’ve been playing an open world game where the main character is a member of a secret organization outlawed by the puppet government which is propped up by an occupying foreign power. As a member of this organization, you are dispatched on a variety of missions to destroy this occupying power using any means necessary, with an almost total disregard for civilian casualties and property damage. Your methods include car bombs, assassinations, and hiding amidst the general populace to avoid detection. Interestingly, this game is not the latest recruiting effort from the Al-Qaeda R&D department, but rather an open world shoot ‘em up based on the French resistance to the Nazi occupation of Paris. The game is called The Saboteur and it was produced by the now defunct Pandemic Studios.

Before I’m hauled out of my house and beaten to death for the comparisons I just made, let me say that the French resistance was a heroic endeavor undertaken during impossible times by some of the truest patriots in France’s history, I have nothing but respect for the men and women of the United States armed forces, and Al Qaeda are a collection of fanatics who have chosen violence of the most depraved and indifferent sort. The Saboteur is played from the perspective of a character who utilizes terrorism to achieve his goals, and as such I believe that it is a highly relevant piece of work given the contemporary “war on terror.”

Your character in The Saboteur is named Sean Devlin, a stereotypical Irish rogue based on an actual WWII English operative, William Grover-Williams. Whatever else this game may be, I have to give the developers credit for publishing a historical piece loosely based on a real person; we don’t see nearly enough of that. Visually, the game is quite striking: sections of Paris which have yet to be liberated are black and white, with the exception of the burning red surrounding every swastika and propaganda poster. The game play is adequate, the controls are intuitive, and the game flows from combat to sneaking to driving with few seams. There are a few impressive action set pieces in The Saboteur, and more than enough free-running mayhem to keep any open world fan busy for hours. With the exception of a few glitches, The Saboteur is a solid, if unremarkable, gaming experience.

What struck me about The Saboteur was not the game itself, but the perspective from which it is played. Sean Devlin is a video game cliché, his motivation is revenge, and he’s tough but rather charming, in a mass murdering kind of way. It’s not who he is, but what he is that sparked my interest. Sean Devlin is an insurgent, a man who uses violence and naked aggression to harass his enemies and win over the general populace. What’s more, despite the horrors of everyday life in occupied France, Sean has a grand old time doing what he does best: blowing up Nazis. Every time a player bombs one of the hundreds of viable targets in the game, Sean chuckles and mutters some ridiculous catch phrase in an over-the-top Irish accent. The Resistance is really just an excuse for Sean, a chance to let his inner demons loose. The fact that he is fighting for a good cause is purely incidental. Terrorism is an inherently immoral and unethical activity, and just because Sean Devlin is on the right side of a conflict doesn’t make him a hero. On the contrary, if he were a real person we would label him a megalomaniacal butcher, not a hero.

Since the September eleventh attacks on the United States, I have struggled to understand why a group of people would be willing to dedicate themselves to terror and destruction without a tenable long term strategy or goal. And through this title and a little research into the matter, the answer became clear.

It is widely and incorrectly assumed that religious and political terrorists carry out their attacks because they are working toward some kind of broad social change. Hamas fighters who launch rockets at people’s homes from the Gaza strip claim that they are doing so for Palestinian independence. Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Murrah Federal building in 1995 claimed he did so in retaliation for the U.S. Government’s handling of the Waco Siege two years earlier. The terrorists who brought down the world trade center reportedly did so because of a disagreement over U.S. foreign policy towards Israel and a general disapproval of our way of life. Whether each particular brand of justification leaned toward religion or politics, all are equally fallacious. I will grant that terrorism has often been a bi-product of social movements, such as the French resistance or even the American Revolutionary war, but it has never been the central goal of those movements. The employment of terrorist methods to further a given goal is neither effective in the long term nor ethically sound. No matter how many rockets are fired, Israel will not be packing up and moving to Europe. No matter how many buildings are destroyed, the federal government will remain the federal government. And finally, no matter how many of our planes are destroyed, Americans will keep on eating cheeseburgers. In short, terrorism alone is not an effective means of achieving anything beyond the spread of chaos and fear.

Why then do Al-Qaeda and similar organizations carry out these terrible actions? I believe that they do so because their supposed causes are merely a means to an end; terrorism itself is their very raison d'etre. Like Sean Devlin in The Saboteur, terrorists commit terrorism because to them it is a game. Unlike Sean Devlin, they have not attached their proclivities toward violence to a feasible or genuine social movement. Because they are unbound by any drive to achieve a productive end, but rather to simply perpetuate the game, they feel justified in every action they take because within the confines of their perceptions, it’s fair play, and what’s more, it’s good sport. To them, pulling off a particularly devastating attack under the nose of our modern security is a great triumph. It doesn’t matter if no positive change occurs as a result of their actions because they have already taken everything they wanted from the event. As time goes by, the game changes, maybe it gets harder, but because there are no real long term objectives for them, it will never stop. It’s a frightening concept to consider in its entirety.

Our national response to international terror has been to try to beat terrorists at their own game. Sadly, by engaging them in an endless conflict with no specific goals, we haven’t lessened the appeal of terrorism; we’ve simply upped the difficulty and provided them with additional excuses to perpetuate the contest. We can’t kill them into seeing our side of things anymore than they can kill us out of our way of life, but we both keep trying. I think we would have greater success if we were to concentrate on removing the conditions necessary for the other side to play the game. For example, if Al-Qaeda were unable to recruit more young people to its cause, it would be incapable of perpetuating itself. If the victims of suicide bombings were to receive more media attention than the bombers themselves, public sentiment could turn against the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. If a generation of young people were to receive contemporary levels of education and access to other points of view, it could help to reduce the viability of terrorism as an option for solving their problems. It’s the digital age; our greatest weapon is our enhanced ability to communicate and disseminate information, but for some reason we have not been employing it effectively in the war on terror, and I can only guess as to why.

I believe that The Saboteur was created primarily as entertainment rather than social commentary. Furthermore, it is a work of fiction; no one gets hurt by playing it and it doesn’t teach children how to become insurgents or any other such nonsense. That being said, I think that Pandemic Studios made a bold choice in releasing this title during a period in our history during which some of the greatest military, political, and judiciary minds in our society are struggling to find the lines between terrorists, enemy combatants, and freedom fighters. All operate in very similar ways, but without truly understanding why our enemies do what they do it may be impossible to bring the “war on terror” to an end. In any case, The Saboteur provides an interesting perspective on the subject and an enjoyable gameplay experience. I think it is worthy to note that without restraint, purpose, and critical thought, war becomes an endless game where people like Sean Devlin may have a chance to shine, but where most of the population and civilization as a whole can only lose.

Monday, February 1, 2010

If This Is an Open World, Why Are All the Doors Closed?

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I was hunting down another surveillance device on the side of a building in inFamous, struggling with the awkward platforming controls. This was the third building covered in these blinking red devices, and I had to track down each one and get right next to it to deactivate it. I was stuck, once again, jumping up to grab one ledge and accidentally clinging to another, when it occurred to me just how little open world games bring to the table. The formula for creating an open world game seems to be this: Take a normal, linear story, separate it into missions, and require the player to do a lot of travelling to get to each mission. Then throw in lots of dull, repetitive side missions, hidden objects, collectibles, etc. And don’t worry too much about sloppy, over-complicated control schemes or glitches; those have come to be expected in open worlds.

At their very best, open world games offer one of two things not present in most linear video games: the ability to do almost anything and push the boundaries of the world, and a sense of discovery and wonder. Grand Theft Auto, as a series, became famous largely for the former. There is a linear story in each Grand Theft Auto game, but the appeal for many is the ability to do as one pleases. You want to spend all your time hitting on women and eating hot dogs? Fine. Want to be involved in high speed chases with the cops? Sure. Want to see how far you can jump on a motorcycle? Go for it. Will you obey traffic laws, or drive recklessly? Do you want to travel by bicycle or jet pack? This is a valid and useful approach to the open world game, because the openness is about options over environment. Grand Theft Auto presents a playground.

The other approach to the open world relies more fully on the aspect of exploration. This school of thought is based on the appeal of discovering new and interesting places, and relies more thoroughly on visual and narrative design. An excellent example of this school of open world design is Fallout 3, which had several completely optional locations with compelling, insulated stories that outstripped the cliché overarching plot of the game. Some of the vaults that dotted the landscape, for example, oozed with tension, intrigue, and atmosphere. And if the player didn’t go out exploring, they would never be seen. Brütal Legend managed to make exploration exciting simply by virtue of its creative environmental design. Every heavy metal landscape had some bizarre new piece of architecture or natural growth worthy of an album cover. Fallout 3 and Brütal Legend show their seams elsewhere, but they each get a few things right; it’s clear, at least, why the creators wanted to set their games in open worlds.

If an open world game doesn’t provide one of these two benefits, why bother making it an open world game at all? Playing inFamous, I continue to wish that the same plot had been told in a completely linear fashion. Taking breaks in the action to replay the same mission types reduced the enjoyment I was getting from the game. Just because a mission is optional is no excuse to make it boring. Assassin’s Creed was criticized for the same problem; there just weren’t enough different things to do to keep the experience consistently entertaining. If inFamous were a more linear, plot-driven game, there wouldn’t be so much junk on the periphery, spoiling an otherwise fun and exciting premise.

Also, for some reason open world games have become synonymous with poor controls and technical difficulties. It is difficult to get Cole, the lead in inFamous, to jump and land just where you want him to or cling to the right part of the building. The cover mechanic in Grand Theft Auto IV was obtuse and the car controls were needlessly difficult to master. The first Assassin’s Creed gave the player a huge world to explore and the graceful, simple controls to explore it, and then killed the player if they accidentally took a dip in any body of water. And almost every open world game ever made has had problems with texture loading, slowdown, screen tearing, and crashing. What rule determined that having a more complicated world gave the game designers license to make a less functional one that’s harder to interact with?

I can accept technical issues; I prefer a well-polished game, but I’ll take a fun one with a few hiccups. A strange control system is less forgivable, but I’ll learn it if the game makes up for it in other ways. The real tragedy of open world games is that they are still designed just like linear experiences. There is still a main storyline that the player is meant to traverse, at the end of which something climactic happens and the credits roll. Maybe the game lets the player continue after the end credits, but the narrative is finished.

A truly open world would let the player set their own goal. Maybe they want to end crime in the city, once and for all, by working their way through the crime families and striking fear into street criminals. Maybe they want to be adventurers and thrill seekers, and run a business to finance their every whim. Maybe they just want to find the right person to love, and make sure that they are both safe from the forces allied against them. Adding every option imaginable is an impossible task, but more available storylines will result in a more open world. The credits should never roll on a real open world game. The game world should just present itself to the player and ask them how they want to change it.