Thursday, April 29, 2010

Open world issues Part 3: trust and the player-driven narrative

Thursday, April 29, 2010 24

I confess that every previous attempt to write this third installment has been met with some manner of derailment. Anyone unfortunate enough to have contact with me in casual conversation or on message boards on the subject of games will find me increasingly the ideologue. Any discussion about games seems to lead back inexorably to a few pet topics: the scourge of "cinematic" gaming chief among these, player agency and narrative.

As with the other two articles I hope that in identifying shortcomings in game design principles, in asking the right questions, I will have answers worth considering.

The player-driven narrative

The player in an open world wants to be in the driver's seat, literally and figuratively. I personally would like an open world to be just that: not an otherwise linear game whose mission order can be scrambled, but at the cost of endless shuttling to and from mission locations (AKA the pizza boy syndrome). As with GTA this is where the conversation always seems to turn back to cutscenes and movie-style story content because it is necessarily cost prohibitive and static. Either the movie conforms to the game (enormously expensive even to offer small choices in the main narrative), or the game conforms to the movie, which is how most games end up. Aspirations to "cinematic" games are a dangerous trap because in order to get those movie-like experiences we undercut what make games worthwhile on their own terms.
This suggests that cinematic-style high cost content--cutscenes and their related animation and voice work--have a higher impact on the quality and actual player choice than most people assume. If players and designers free themselves from the increasing fixation on the trappings of the disparate medium of film, likely it will be far simpler to allow the player farther-reaching choice and consequence in the game world.

Armed with ability

If we are to commit ourselves to greater player agency outside the bounds of movie-styled static content delivery, then we may find ourselves looking around for something to do. I do not criticize GTA's increasing emphasis on mimetic/lifestyle fantasy elements because there are fascinating, unique experiences allowable within that context.
An example I give that is similar to other stories I have heard about playing GTA4: once I had just fixed myself a sandwich but also wanted to play the game. I started GTA IV and then hired a cab to a mission destination across town, and simply did not skip the ride. It was an oddly inspired, unique experience to sit within the POV of the passenger, looking out on this well-realized virtual city traveling in real time, and eat a sandwich. While passive it was an experience I chose, one that made me reflect on various cab rides in cities in memory--unlike much of GTA4 it was not a movie-inspired element.
This is not to suggest that I want to play a slow boat to China simulator replete with various 1920s socialite passengers as the boat travels in real time (scratch that: now I do). But there are very strong elements in GTA, as with the other open world games, that are somewhat overlooked but do more than their share to immerse the player in the world.
Replacing the cinematic with the experiential would seem a critical step in vitalizing open worlds. Far Cry 2 is a game I otherwise enjoyed tremendously, but for the general shallowness of what I needed or could do within the visually lush environment. Tie my character further into the socio-economic fabric of the world he inhabits--not in order to simulate, but to create play economies, interactions with an otherwise static world.
In FC2 I am a mercenary who outside of the inspired malaria mechanic sought only weapons, ammunition, and morphine. What other needs or mechanics would serve to deepen both my immersion but also the playability of unique environs of the game?

Player input required

I would like to close with a contemplation of skill and performance. Not as an appeal for so-called "hard fun," or a return to outrageous difficulty ramps/endless trial-and-error gauntlets, but as an appeal for games to recover a capacity for the player to use their wit and intelligence. Both in rewards and in penalties.
Perhaps this marks me as too old-school of a PC gamer (or an inveterate hoarder) but I feel this is deeply intertwined with above concepts of agency, of choice. In order to let players be extraordinarily clever, I suppose it means you might have to let some players lose.
A story to illustrate: I remember playing Gears of War and first encountering the Hammer of Dawn weapon. It was enormously powerful, but clearly restricted by the vagaries of a weapon that called down an attack from a satellite. In the game Marcus can only carry two weapons, so it seemed a very clear moment of choice to me: do I drop the Hammer in favor of a less powerful gun that I can use frequently, or do I give up that second slot on the chance that later on I will be able to use the Hammer's enormous damage? I chose the latter--I was carrying two weapons of a similar performance profile so I decided it might come in handy.
Sure enough, it did come in handy later--but when I needed it there was of course another Hammer, lying conveniently on the ground just before an encounter with an enemy who could only be defeated using the Hammer.
I felt cheated. As a designer, I understood what had happened: if the player was to experience an interesting special encounter (we've got to get this enemy out in the open and then use the Hammer), they couldn't risk the player not having the weapon handy. But in making sure anybody playing the game had access to the Hammer when they needed it, the game also removed any sense of reward for my own initiative to keep the weapon.
Certainly I don't suggest that players just be screwed over with an unwinnable encounter without the Hammer--but couldn't the encounter (or similar encounter) be structured to reward cleverness or foresight, while still allowing other players an alternate, possibly more difficult solution to the problem? Say if you didn't keep the Hammer, you might still be able to whittle the Berserker's health down conventionally, or there might be another entertainingly "hardcore" method of dispatching it, like crushing it with a boulder.

 Choice needs to come with its own realm of variable performance. In order that there be real benefit to cleverness, to foresight, not all players can reap the rewards.
A positive example is in RE4, with the multi-part treasures: if Leon held off on selling what looked to be components of a larger whole, he'd make considerably more money later, once he had assembled all the pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this element has been "streamlined" out of RE5. Sooner or later we'll get to "streamlining" most anything resembling a conscious decision or choice out of mainstream games, but it doesn't have to be this way.

***


To restate the above points: the essence of a game apart from traditional media is the player's interaction. The more a game allows the player to choose, to drive the story, the more it is a game and not a counterfeit of filmic experience.
If the player is to drive the narrative, he will likely require a greater range of possible interactions with the world--something to do that replaces the "cinematic" straitjacket of before--and these interactions will comprise much of the meat of the game, moment to moment.
If then the player is in the driver's seat and has an array of skills and interactions available, the final step in adding depth to the play experience is to take the training wheels off, allowing variable performance beyond rote or mechanical. Hope springs eternal.
 
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