Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Closed Narratives in Open Worlds

I liked open-world games a lot better back when they were just called role-playing games. Maybe I couldn't mow down pedestrians with a car in Fallout or Ultima VII, but I still could go wherever I damn well pleased and do whatever I wanted, even if it meant breaking the rather strict laws of the respective gameworlds. The thing is, I felt like those games fully supported my actions no matter what I did. Such games fed back on the entire breadth of my gameplay choices. Ultima VII was not a game about being good or evil quite like Knights of the Old Republic, but it always let you do evil just so you knew it was there as an alternative, just so the temptation and the option for it were always there. You didn't have to be good, you chose to be, and that gave weight to your actions in the game.

My problem with today's open-world games – and by this I really mean the Rockstar Games genre, because as a collective of studios, Rockstar really has single-handedly defined this genre in recent years – is that their narrative content is increasingly conflicting with their gameplay. Their gameplay says "do whatever you want when you're not playing a story mission" while their narrative says "watch this character's story unfold." From a narrative standpoint, these games have become the Western equivalent of the glory days of the Japanese RPG, the days of games like Final Fantasy VII. Except those games have long since fallen out of vogue.

In those days, your reward for overcoming a gameplay challenge of some sort was a bit of noninteractive story. This was a wonderful structure as just about anyone can attest who played one of the well-regarded Final Fantasy games back in their heyday. You became attached these ensemble casts of crisply defined, empathetic, interesting characters and through your actions as some disembodied turn-based combat specialist you were able to help them reach the end of the line of their respective stories. I'll never forget some of those characters. Their stories benefited from the linearity of the structure and the lack of player control during story scenes. If I had control over the Dragoon Kain's choices in Final Fantasy II, I wouldn't have turned traitor against Cecil in the first place, and I would have inadvertently negated one of the game's more interesting subplots. Or if I had a real choice as to whether to remain a Dark Knight or become a Paladin as Cecil, well... I had no complaints about being something called a Dark Knight at a time when RPGs almost always cast me as a pure and noble hero.

Today's open-world games such as Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV are presenting these increasingly lavish tales with huge casts of characters. I like what they're trying to do with their stories. I finished this year's Red Dead Redemption on the promise of a deeply satisfying ending, and in the end it totally delivered. However, the strength of these games' characterizations is adversely affecting the way I play. I don't like the freedom of choice that the gameplay offers me because most of the choice runs counter to what my character would actually do. Red Dead's John Marston is a good-natured man with a dark past. That the game lets me wantonly slaughter people in the streets in exchange for some petty cash and a slap on the wrist just feels all wrong, and I find only the absence of entertainment in it – not because I have a distaste for violent videogames (if I could drink videogame blood I would), but because I don't like when games give me lots of ways to break my own suspension of disbelief, especially when they do an excellent job of getting me to suspend my disbelief in the first place.

Along these lines I just couldn't bring myself to rampage through GTA IV's Liberty City like I could in Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001. It's not that the novelty was gone, because it was absolutely there. GTA IV seemed like such a great playground in which to be some horrible, horrible crook. But Niko Bellic isn't that guy. He's a guy who's trying to help his Mom and find his cousin a nice girl. He doesn't mow people down on the sidewalk.

I played and enjoyed both of these games and the lengths they took both to create vividly detailed clockwork worlds and relatively serious, relatively thoughtful stories. I'm just saying that the two halves of the games – the story part and the open-world structure – didn't mesh for me, so in both cases I found myself actively trying to ignore the peripheral content and beelining through the story missions with a feeling of "I hope I don't break anything" along the way. In effect, I made myself play these games as linearly as possible.

I'm not suggesting these games should have been strictly linear, as the reception to the recent Mafia II is a good indicator of how a not-insigificant number of players do expect open-world gameplay systems from a game with any superficial resemblance to other open-world games. (There are also exceptional cases like Batman: Arkham Asylum, which supports a broad range of actions from the player, pretty much all of which seem internally consistent to the game and its famous starring character.) But I do find it strange how the open-world genre has evolved, when older examples like GTA III didn't have the same problems. GTA III and its silent protagonist let me decide what sort of man I was, whether I was the sort to drive on the sidewalk on a busy intersection or take care to only shoot the bad guys, or somewhere in between. In that game I truly felt like I was in an open world. Today's open worlds may be bigger and more detailed but they feel a lot more restricted to me, because I can't bring myself to ignore their stories.