I have a diagnosis. Back in July, I wrote a piece on the similarities between Jazz and video game design which might shed some light on the indefinable manque in question. Its comparison of improvisational music to video games was a felicitous stalking-horse for my effort to posit a defining conflict between structure and freedom in modern game design. In retrospect this conflict seems more and more important, and fortunately for me the comparison of 2008 to 2007 yields an elegant illustration of this contrast.
A look at the defining games of 2007-- Bioshock, Portal, Call of Duty 4, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two-- betrays a common theme. Each of these products delivered a expertly paced, varied and linear experience. They empowered the player by giving them the opportunity to make the correct choices, to discover their role in the epic that unfolded in concert with their actions. They compensated the player's acquiesce to a preordained path by supplying them with a well-crafted narrative arc and many-sided gameplay.
The best games of 2008-- Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, and Grand Theft Auto IV-- are the fruit of an opposing design aesthetic, a philosophy which prizes experiential immersion in an open gameworld over closely authored design. Steve Gaynor, one of the best advocates of this philosophy of game design, argues that video games best exploit their native potential when they provide a seamlessly simulated world in which the player can exercise their own agency and autonomy: games should “[provide] a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions.” The intrinsically interactive nature of video games, as a medium, ought to be brought to the fore through the creation of game-worlds which allow the player a sense of “being there”-- being transported into a dredible world in which their choices matter.
To me, the above-cited games represent some of the most powerful examples of this conception at work. From the standpoint of sheer density, we've never before seen worlds like Liberty City, The Capital Wasteland, or Far Cry 2's Africa before: chewier, more granular, lavished with yet-unseen devotion to specificity. The astonishing detail and dizzying scale of these games (especially the first impact of the environments: stepping out of vault 101, driving into Algonquin for the first time, the first African sunrise) marked a qualitative leap over the worlds of games past.
So what went wrong? Why are these games flawed masterpieces or “near-misses” rather than monuments? On one hand, I think it's a matter of diminishing returns: given the length of modern videogames, the spell cast by those environments can't help but dwindle over the course of tens of hours of play. Maybe the first dozen times you pass some jaw-dropping panorama or meticulously detailed cityscape and you are arrested by its sheer gorgeousity. But games demand a long investment of time, and by the tenth hour that lush gameword becomes another place you drive by on your way to killing some dude. It's almost like Gaynor's video-games-as-travel metaphor went over-literal: Liberty City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.
The progressive waning of the player's astonishment would be less of a problem if open-world games managed to engineer a well-paced experience with variegated gameplay. But non-linear games also have difficulty establishing taut pacing over a twentyplus hour narrative. Because they give the player discretion over the unfolding of the core narrative events (the more-scripted “missions” that make up the main quest or storyline), the situation that they find themselves in-- the world itself-- has to be “seeded” with points of interest in such a way that the player will be sufficiently engaged if they take off on their own. Because the prime mode of interaction in these games is combat (even Fallout 3 has little non-combat interaction outside of towns), the core gameplay tends to become repetitious even if the basic combat mechanics themselves are satisfying and patient of a variety of approaches. As Suellentrop wrote, “Don't I have the right to expect something more from this marvelous new medium? Something more wondrous than beautifully and impeccably crafted worlds filled with enemies for me to kill?”
The storyline that the player can create for themselves by traversing the world at their leisure has to be at least comparable in its pacing and variety to that of a more tightly-scripted game, and this is supremely difficult to achieve. This is partially a matter of execution-- GTA has an overlong third act and repetitive mission structure, Far Cry 2 has a few too many guardposts, Fallout 3's environments have this feel of procedurally-generated uniformity to them-- but these corrigible flaws point to the unresolved challenges inherent in open-world game design.
Setting all these difficulties aside, there is an element missing in all of these games that is perhaps even more important. One of the benefits of linear game design-- steering the player towards a particular set of actions and scenarios-- is that it allows the designer to freight these specific gameplay elements with a narrative signficiance. That is, the more you can shape the gameplay the more you can work towards a synthesis of gameplay and narrative.
In the Slate exchange, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal contrasted Gears of War 2 with God of War, noting that the latter better exemplified the marriage of gameplay to narrative:
Compare [a sequence in Gears] with the sequence in the first God of War, in which our hero Kratos, trapped in Hell with the wife and child he inadvertently slaughtered, must now protect them by alternately holding them to him (using the game's grab mechanic to share his health bar with them) and fighting off an army of Kratos doppelgängers. It's gameplay, not a cutscene, and nearly four years after God of War's release, it still stands as one of the best examples of how narrative and interactivity can be synthesized to create, well, art.
Gears' deficiencies in this respect are (from what I gather) a failure of creative nerve rather than a structural problem, but the felt disconnect between gameplay and narrative that Croal highlights is common problematic in the year's best games. It's nowhere more dissonant than in GTA4, where the gleeful sociopathy of the gameplay clashes with the putative moral decency of the protagonist. Fallout 3 lacks any such jarring clash, but at the same time it also fails to forge any memorable connection between the game-mechanics and the story itself. My sense is that most of the mechanics (the reward scheduling, the level progression, the quest structure, and the morality system) are well-tuned RPG conventions that could be transposed into any any other story and into any other world. They're mercilessly compelling and well-crafted in their own right but they don't reflect the kind of artistic impact that is possible through the mating of those mechanics to story.
What is missing, then, is the meaningful fusion of story and gameplay, form and content, that made games like Half-Life 2, Bioshock, and Shadow of the Colossus so memorable. The exception is Braid, a game in which deprived the player of choice in order to invest its time-scrambling gameplay with thematic and emotional resonance. It was a shining example of the potential of narrative synthesis in this year of immersion.