Monday, December 15, 2008

The Year of Being There

Slowly but surely, the conventional wisdom is coalescing around the view that '08 was an off-year for video games. In Slate's year-end gaming roundtable, Chris Suellentrop cited the lack of critical consensus on the game-of-the-year as evidence that this was “a year of just-misses.” Despite plentiful capital, recession-defying sales, and a raft of rapturously received titles, critical opinion has begun to converge on the view that something is missing from this year's releases.

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.


Mitch Krpata said...

I've always considered this a personal failing, but when I play a game that lets me do whatever I want, I have the overwhelming feeling that I've played it wrong, somehow, or that I've missed something better by choosing the path I did. I spent the entire weekend playing Fallout, and I kept doing things I regretted, or didn't realize I could have done differently. (Mild spoilers: Killing the Overseer in Vault 101, accidentally letting the Sheriff of Megaton die because I didn't realize I could have taken out Burke first.) Only video games can even give you this kind of choice over the way the narrative unfolds -- even more so than a Choose Your Own Adventure book! -- but something in me resists this style of play.

I've said it before, especially in reference to Valve, but I like being tricked into playing a game a certain way. I like when the game fools me into thinking that I choose to play it in the optimal way, when in fact there was no other way to do it!

(Also, since I've been putting a lot of time into compiling my year-end list, I think Far Cry is the best of all the games you mention here because it's the only one that marries an incredible setting with great gameplay. Combat is perfectly functional in GTA and Fallout, but Far Cry just nailed it.)

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely going to second Mitch on Far Cry 2. But I think it also stands out here because it takes some interesting narrative turns that its mechanics may not reveal, but they certainly emphasise. It does some fascinating stuff around the guilt of the player, and it's much more interesting (to my mind) on the notion of Choice than Bioshock was - and Bioshock wasn't bad on that plot point.

I'm inches from finishing it, and really want to write about it this year because there's masses to say. In the mean time - a vague nod of agreement, and some hints at topics to come.

Nels Anderson said...

Huh, I've felt 2008 about on par with 2007. 2007 had the Orange Box, Rock Band, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy, Bioshock, etc. This year: Braid, World of Goo, Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, Fable 2, FarCry 2, GTA 4, etc. A lot of sequels, but most of them were dramatically different than their predecessors and some sequels are just better (e.g. RE4). Maybe I just like the "choiceful" design more than other folks, but I thought this year was absolutely fantastic.

It might be a playstyle thing too. I just put up a post about this, but how I personally play some games (in small bursts) might inure me against feelings of sameness and fatigue that others have noted.

That being said, I do feel 2007 had a few more harmonious games that 2008, but as you noted, I don't think any is more harmonious than Braid.

@Mitch For what it's worth, I have the same problem and it takes conscious effort on turn off that part of my brain. I was only able to do it in Fallout 3 by imaging how the character I was trying to play would act and accepting that I've have to play the entire game at least one more time to see more things. It's been this way since I was a kid too. When reading those CYOA books, I had a complicated system of paper scraps and finger bookmarks to ensure I could see how each decision panned out.

FarCry 2 made it easier because the decisions one makes (aside from a few major plot point ones) all seem equally valid. Save your buddy or let them die; I know I'm in for something good either way and don't have to worry about getting it "right."

Julian said...

I have the same natural inclination as you, Mitch. For a long time I'd save before I did anything in open-ended games and check all of the outcomes and then select the one I preferred. But this time, with Fallout 3, I've realized that I just plain have more fun if I live with my mistakes, indeed it's part of the way the game wants you to play it.

For instance, (mild spoiler) I killed the Overseer when I saw him going for a gun and calling the guards, but I realized afterward that I probably could have forced him into the jail cell. Amata's reaction successfully made me feel bad too, but I felt I'd be destroying some of the fabric of the intro sequence if I reloaded my save. He was a prick anyway (hooray for rationalizing!) (end spoilers)

Designers are getting smarter and giving you different consequences down the road so it's more difficult to go back and see different outcomes, too. Fighting a losing battle that only makes the game less fun? I'll have to reign in my OCD tendencies, because that would ruin the experience for me.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@mitch: I am somewhat liable to this same choice-paralysis syndrome myself.

I'm actually wondering if there are two separate kinds of freedom in these games-- one kind of freedom that comes from being set loose in a world and given the choice how to tackle the various quests and missions, and another kind of freedom that comes from being able to make to make morally and narratively significant decisions. It seems to me like you can have one without the other, and I kind of skirted the second kind here in order to hone in on the pacing and variety problems with open-world games, but it's an equally important element of the vision Gaynor articulates and the main source of my decision-paralysis.

@tom: I feel the same way about Far Cry, which I'm just getting to in the last few days. The moral queasiness you describe was one of the most impressive elements of the game, I've been thinking about how the mechanics work to create this feeling.

@nels: you're right that this is something of a matter of taste.

I was also thinking about the play-style post you made, because I took a long break from GTA4 in the middle and I think it really mitigated against the dilution of the whole experience. Like, I came back to it after a month or so and it just bowled me over alloveragain. I think these games benefit from short playsessions and breaks.

Anonymous said...

"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."

I think you've nailed exactly why I'm only liking, not loving Fallout. I get an occasional great hour interspersed with a lot of walking and exterminating vermin.

Also, I'm with the rest here; too much choice is less fun rather than more fun for me, as like Mitch, all I can think about is what I'm going to be missing.

I like the choices of a Mirror's Edge or Assassin's Creed or Bioshock, where you choose the HOW, but when you're choosing the WHAT, and it determines the rest of the game, it begs the question for me of 'Would the game makers have been better off crafting one great story rather than a dozen possible branching ones?'

Anonymous said...

For me, I play an open world game by first establishing what I'm unable to do. In GTA, this meant exploring the city and see what areas I did not have access to (rooftops, islands, etc). I fall into some sort of psychological gamer profile that absolutely requires clear rules and boundaries. If they are not presented to me in a game, I will seek them out.

I think the reason Crackdown succeeded is because these boundaries are not presented as limitations of the game, but rather challenges to the player. If you can't reach a rooftop, boost your agility until you can. If an area is over run with enemies, improve your stamina until you stand to confront them.

This is interesting to me because Crackdown is almost the antithesis of GTA... one contains no narrative whatsoever, while the other focuses almost entirely on it. Adapting the philosophies of Crackdown and applying them to a storytelling methodology seems troublesome. Fallout 3 is still nothing more than a branching path. What it needs to be is something flexible and modular to avoid the "choice paralysis"... but how can that lead to a narrative that seems linear and cohesive when pieced together? If you don't feel you've made the right choice, there should be a way to deal with that other than reloading an old save file. If you can nail that, then the player will think "well, it doesn't matter what choice I make" and thus be willing to invest more into the game.

Clearly, the answer here is for every game to have a time machine. I eagerly await the Primer video game adaptation.

Also: Burnout Paradise was this year's best open world game. Again, no story to speak of... but replacing combat with racing made the environment much more inviting.

Anonymous said...

In general, I have found this year's crop of games to be weaker than last years as well. For me, Bioshock, CoD 4: Modern Warfare, and Portal were amazing bits of narrative and game that were some of the most compelling stuff that I've seen in games...frankly... ever.

This year's crop is disappointing. I had no patience for Far Cry 2. I liked GTA 4 a lot but felt that it was a step backwards for the series in many ways.

Rockstar has found a unique way to offer more compelling characterization through immersion (I wrote a review a few years back on San Andreas discussing the evolution of immersive characterization in the series) by moving from the purely open ended voiceless protagonist of GTA to the more fully rounded CJ Johnson. GTA III's protagonist suffered from "too much freedom" as a character that seemed intended to allow a player to pour whatever identity that he or she wanted to into him (thus, his namelessness and voicelessness). As a result, the character was flat and uninteresting. By adding more relevant background, names, and voices to their characters (Tommy Vercetti, CJ, and Niko), Rockstar has succeeded in making much richer characters of a more traditional sort while allowing player development through clothing and styling options, body modification, and rpg-type skill development (Niko is much more lacking in the ability to modify, which is one of my irritations with GTA 4). That in game NPCs responded to these changes in the earlier games (calling CJ a "lard ass" when he got too fat, etc.) made the freedom to choose certain character qualities reflected by appearance actually feel narratively relevant or at least consistent with the setting and atmosphere of the story. This especially worked well in Rockstar's other sand box game, Bully, where such choices directly reflect the experience of the type of character that Jimmy Hopkins is--a junior high school student. Personal style amounts to everything in such an environent and evokes consequential results from peeers. Such wedding of personal choice on the part of the player in developing "their" Jimmy was immersive while Jimmy's own background story and scripted story arc was more linear and suceeded in gelling immersive storytelling with traditional ways of representing characters. I frankly would like to see more of this kind of balancing of immersiveness and linearity in story telling elements.

For my money, Prince of Persia is one of the stronger games of this year, though, and I think it fits more of the mold of last year's games than the current. Again, as you were describing last year's games, Iriquois, a greater emphasis is placed on linear narrative and tight plotting in this one.

Thus, the game's ending is one of the more powerful of this year. I find especially interesting the lack of moral choice in its ending. Because multilinear endings have become the norm, I expected to have to decide Elika's fate, and I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of choice because it generated a much stronger ending. Elika's simple "Why?" in response to the Prince's final "choice" (ironically, as you perform the actions leading up this event, Ahriman is chiding the Prince that he "has no choice" and as a player you really don't) was devestating. Oddly, the "choice" of actions was the one that I would have made had there been a dual ending. I was glad, though, that I didn't have to play through the closing chapter again to see such an alternate ending as the closure for the game seemed consistent with the narrative, and I think that its power would have been diluted by knowing another choice existed.

It makes me reconsider my dislike for MGS 2's conclusion. I have always hated that I was "forced" to kill Solidus as I felt some sympathy for he and his cohorts' ideology. Nevertheless, it is this very lack of choice as a player and a gamer that actually strengthens that game's theme, so maybe I should appreciate it for what it is. Sometimes what I think is right just isn't consistent with the vision of the story being told.

In a nutshell, I guess I want to say that I agree with you. Linear plotting generally took a beating this year in games. Freedom may have been all the rage but narrative suffered for it in some cases (Fable II was still awfully good, though--still no Portal or Bioshock, however).

One game that I don't hear many critics discussing this year was Spider-Man Web of Shadows, which featured a fairly interesting branching approach to plot. While the game took some time to grow on me, I ended up getting really into the black vs. red duality and found that I was really enjoying myself a lot with that one afte I got a little deeper into it. Maybe the fact that Spider-Man exists as a known quantity narratively allowed for the multilinearity to pay off in interesting ways for me.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that our past as players of linear games, with little to no choice, has made us weary of real open world gaming, where you live with consequences and do not save before each choice? Are we like animals born in captivity which do not know how to enjoy freedom once they are in the wild? I believe that 2008 shows us the answer is "yes"...

Kirk Battle said...

I have to admit, like Abbott pointed out about playing Persona 4, going back to a linear game after trying these new experiences out is a bit rough. I wonder if there's any going back after this for video games. Perhaps Croal is right and this is simply a matter of few games offering a compelling marriage between gameplay and narrative.

But in either form, I agree that length is becoming these game's enemy. The thing I wish they'd copied from 2007 was Portal's length more than anything else.

Kylie said...

Let's not forget that there is one highly successful and addictive genre of open-world game out there - the MMO. Further, MMOs by their very nature do not have save and reload functions, though you could successfully argue that instances and daily quests (WoW terminology) are nothing but infinitely repeatable save states. Still, the thing that separates the open world of MMOs from the crop of open world games under discussion for this year is the multi-player aspect which leads me to wonder if a productive way to approach open world games as both player and designer is thinking in terms of the multi-player experience.

For instance, one of the big draws of open world games is exploration and exploration is always more fun with others. There's something about the immediacy of finding something cool that doesn't translate as well to a later conversation as, say, a really cool plot twist that anyone who plays the game is going to experience. It's that feeling of finding something you weren't necessarily "supposed" to find, and how you stumbled upon it is as much a part of the experience as what you found. But the how can only be meaningfully understood by those who were there with you. In single-player open world games that's just you, unless you happen to have a co-pilot watching the game with you.

With MMOs you can have a group that sets goals and working together makes it much more interesting than a single player deciding to try and find all of the flying rats in Liberty City. Does this mean single-player open world games will always fall short in some way? I'm not sure. When I think of the epitome of open world games I always think of the holodeck in Star Trek. The very attitude one must have when approaching something like that is one of infinite choice - you can't start thinking about saving and reloading because quite literally anything is possible - there are no constraints in the game design which usually give us direction (as thesimplicity pointed out). How do the people in the Star Trek universe cope with it? Well, they almost always go on holodeck adventures in groups!

Anonymous said...

@ Kyle

The MMO observation is an interesting one. Though, with its greater freedom, such games often fall afoul of less coherent (and usually static given the static quality of the game world's backstory) storytelling. Indeed, the adventuring party tends (unless you are playing with a really hardcore group of dedicated RPers) to play the game out of character. I often found that playing an MMO while enjoying what you describe--exploring a world--that I would be discussing a Pixies album right alongside strategizing how to get through the nearest spawning monsters.

I do miss the first year of a largely fortten MMO, Asheron's Call, in this regard. Turbine (AC's developer) was pretty dedicated early to the notion of a dynamic world, and its monthly updates were not just added bits of content or the tweaking of mechanics. These generally included content updates that allowed the world of Dereth and the stories that players were involved with to evolve. They even destroyed some cities based on players that were interviewed by the forces of the evil Bael'Zharon. These interviews were the result of real time abductions of players in game--interesting stuff from an immersive perspective. The end of that first year's story arc ran afoul of some problems, though, as one server dealt with a story choice in a fashion much different than every other server (I was actually personally involved in that little curve ball) and they had to find a work around in linear plotting to resolve the potential continuity problem. Nevertheless, it was an impressive feat for Turbine to create a living world and story during that period of time.

Julian said...

@ Kyle: I'm forced to disagree that exploring with a group is always more fun. Exploring with a group is fun at all if and only if everybody is fully invested and more or less agree on playstyle. Playing Fallout 3 with a group who didn't want to spend two minutes examining the DC skyline from the top of the Washington Monument, or who didn't want to scour every nook and cranny of the subways would have completely and utterly ruined the game for me. Hell, I don't even like playing the game with other people in the room.

Come to think of it, the only game I really have had fun exploring with other people in is LittleBigPlanet, and that's owed in large part to the multiplayer challenges.

About the issue of choice spoiling us, I have different tastes. I think it's refreshing to play a tightly scripted game after an open-ended game, and vice versa. Switching from MGS4 to GTA4 to Dead Space to Fallout 3 made me appreciate each one more in turn. I'm in the middle of Fallout 3 now, and looking forward to getting drawn along by a story, end experiencing exciting tightly scripted set pieces.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@thesimplicity: I think you're right about Crackdown, it avoided the narrative problems by just remaining wholly focused on the gameplay. It made it so much fun just to leap around the town and seek out agility orbs that it didn't matter that there was no narrative. In general I think one of the ways to surmount the pacing problems you get with oper-world design is by making discovery itself worthwhile, and that's what they did with those goddamn agility orbs.

On the matter of choice paralysis I think there's a really difficult problem. If you eliminate every indelible consequence from the player's choices you have this situation where their decisions don't really matter. While this is a good way to soothe our collective decision-making lockup it derives our input of weight. Maybe as you say the way to strike a balance is by giving you some kind of chance to reconsider your choices once you have a better sense of the consequences.

@g. chris williams: don't sleep on Far Cry 2, that is an excellent game. It takes a while to grow on you but it has a very unique feeling and moral tone to it, I've really been enjoying it.

I'm also really glad that you mentioned Prince of Persia, I thought the end-sequence you describe was very interesting. I think once you come to the point where you realize that healing the land means killing Elrika it really changes the emotional dynamic of the game.

I actually had an argument about the ending this game with my girlfriend-- she was watching me play most of the game. When it came time to destroy the trees she said "why are you doing that, you're just ruining all that you accomplished for the last 6 hours?" And I said, "I have no choice, there's no other option now," to which she replied "you could have turned the game off."

I just thought that games sometimes achieve their best effects by forcing you into taking actions that you're uneasy about, and the do this by depriving you of choice. (see also: Far Cry 2, again.)

@l.b. the length issue is a really interesting one. While I think that many linear short-form games like Portal et al really benefit from a short running-time I think that the scenery really tends to whiz by in these kind of games. As much as I think there are problems designing open-world games I think the way they immerse you in the world is really impressive.

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