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.


  1. Hooray for ludo-narrative dissonance!

  2. I haven't played it yet, but i'm curious to see what you think of how Tactics Ogre handles storytelling. I know you haven't played it either but we are in luck when the psp version comes out in February. I think that we will be surprised at how fresh a 15 year old game feels.

  3. @Nickson - As a fan of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem, I'm really really looking forward to that game. I love it when games go to great lengths to build up these huge serious casts of characters, and I love a good strategy RPG so that game looks like it was made for me.

    @Olninyo - Yeah basically. I don't usually have that experience in games but open-world games trigger it in me in a bad way.

  4. For Red Dead specifically, I felt I was able to play through completely in-character as John Marston without breaking the character that appeared in the narrative. I think the fact that I was actively making decisions not to kill someone for their money or rob trains allowed me to feel like I *was* John. Choice being there made my decisions more meaningful in free roam. It all seems to hinge on whether the player will co-operate with your telling of the story or not. I know people who pick up a game and immediately try to break it.

    Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, on the other hand (which I absolutely loved) had so many context sensitive buttons that got in the way of my participation in the fiction that I could barely go 15 minutes at a time before Ezio randomly deciding to stab a civilian or pull someone off a horse. It separated me from the character and I found myself shouting "Ezio, WHY DID YOU JUST DO THAT??" frequently.

  5. I agree with what you say, but find this statement curious in the context of the rest of your essay:

    "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."

    That sounds exactly like what you *could* do in games like RDR, but again decide not to. What's the difference here that I'm missing?

  6. @Clint - The difference is Ultima VII (like Fallout) did not prescribe a highly specific character to me like Red Dead Redemption did. The protagonist of Ultima VII is "you", and you're free to decide which types of actions are appropriate to that character. It's not a carefully authored character with a rich backstory, it's a blank slate.

    @Aaron H, sounds like you had a great experience with RDR and I can see how it could all work out that way. I still need to play AC:B. I really liked AC2, and in that game I did end up doing more of the side content than I usually care for because it seemed like stuff Ezio would care about.

  7. So do you think there's a magic sweet spot between the precision used in defining the player's character and scope of moral choice the player has, or is it better to pick one thing to emphasize in the game design and run with it? Am I right in gathering that you prefer the "blank slate" approach?

  8. @ Aaron H, I don't necessarily think there's one magic sweet spot or formula, I just put a lot of value in a game's internal consistency. I would rather "give up" some freedom or openness in a gameworld if it means having a more cohesive set of actions and outcomes in the world. It often boils down to scope vs. quality of execution. I don't want breadth of player choice if a lot of those choices will be poorly supported.

    Mass Effect 2 is an example of a game that I thought struck a fine balance. It threw out a lot of the first game's flawed RPG trappings, and doesn't let you just randomly kill people or goof around. But there's still a good amount of choice and openness there, and all of it feels like stuff that Shepard (the player character) would jusfiably do in his or her situation.

    Chronicles of Riddick is another example. For a first-person action game it gave you a lot of options, and all of them were aligned with Riddick's violent persona. When you did errands for people in that game, the game made perfectly clear that you were only doing it for your own gain. Compare that to World of Warcraft, where the player intent behind questing is totally selfish (loot / XP), yet there's this disconnected narrative about saving the furbolg or whatever it is the text says you're doing.

    I like games that make me feel like I'm the character. I prefer games with a sense of authorial control, like a BioShock or a Metal Gear Solid. Even in open-ended games like Oblivion, my favorite parts are the crafted parts (like the Dark Brotherhood questline if you've played that game).

    For me game stories are usually richer if they don't have blank-slate characters in them, because by definition you will always know everything about a blank-slate character. I like when games subvert the blank-slate archetype, like in Torment, BioShock, Chrono Trigger, and even Saints Row.

  9. @Greg Kasavin Thanks for the reply, those are all really great examples and games I enjoyed thoroughly.

    You're right, the more a game empowers me to feel and act like the character, the more meaningful it is. The interrogation scenes in SC: Conviction weren't fun just because they were violent, they were fun because I felt as mad as Sam and was doing something about it. In the end, the merging of player and character is the advantage video games have over other story telling media, isn't it?

    Personally, I prefer more authorial control too (Thief: The Dark Project is my favorite game of all time) and I think the way it is used in the future is what will push video games further in the arts category and less in the crafts category.

    The Dark Brotherhood questline is actually one of the few quests I can remember from Oblivion and I much preferred it over the main story line.

  10. I hope you do some type of write up of MMOs, like what's great about the genre, what isn't so great, and maybe what you would do if you were put at the head of making one.

  11. Interesting read as always, Greg. I was wondering if you've tried inFAMOUS ? It seems like an open world game you might enjoy.

    The game tracks your morality (on a karma scale) even outside story missions. So the ultimate story outcome is a combination of your open-world activity and what choices you make during key moments in the game. The world you inhabit (Empire City) changes drastically based on everything you do outside the main missions. It's quite close to BioWare RGPs like KOTOR/ Mass Effect 2 in that regard.

    Of course, like all games...there is a breaking point and there is not much of a gray area. But it makes a better effort at attaining symmetry with its central storyline than say, Red Dead.

  12. Greg,

    It's a pleasure to read your writing again. I lost my favorite game journalist when you left Gamespot (although I'm certain that what you're doing now is more fun).

    It seems to me that the next "great leap forward" that gaming will most likely make in terms of the best possible combination of freedom and telling a great story will be an alternate reality game of some kind. After all, how could players possibly have more freedom to decide their actions and influence a game's story than if they _were_ the characters? Something like the iPhone would probably be the ideal device to interface with this kind of game. Ahh, the possibilities. If only I could program!

  13. To me this is the evolution point of open world games, what I'd like to see in future is a split in the genre, one which in someway restricts the world to only allow actions that match the character allowing developers to tell their story in exactly the way they want. The other side would be providing a template upon which the player builds their character through their in game actions allowing the player to make the story exactly the way they want.

    Both of these are entirely valid and will probably diversify to such an extent that they're not considered the same genre. Right now it seems that the Rockstar games in particular are too heavily tied into the past to fully realise their vision of the future leaving it up to the player to decide between playing the story without breaking immersion or fully exploit all the potential of the sandbox in which that story is set.

  14. I think one could argue that character death is actually absent in many of these games you list. Death is just a term that has been reapplied to something that isn't at all like the death in the real world. Players don't care about 'death' or have the serious kinds of feelings we expect toward 'death' because it isn't real-death, it's this strange mechanic that got termed death.

    I'm not sure re-skinning it with the term "knock-out" or whatever else is doing anything different than anyone else. Prince of Persia 2's "it didn't happen that way" is a clever narrative ploy, but there's nothing different happening there, and after dying 30 times, that clever narrative ploy is something you skip to "continue" faster. Everquest's treatment of death is only lauded by those who either are niche-players or those who are nostalgic for an era when there was no knowledge of an easier restart mechanic. Going through every example would be almost as long a read as the original post, but except for a couple small Indie games I've seen, no game looks at death as anything but a mechanic for failure.

    Just like "health", death is just a metaphor that has been poorly appropriated to a mechanic that doesn't actually imitate the real phenomenon except perhaps in an extremely simple sense. Pretending that renaming the mechanic does anything useful is ignoring the actual interesting thing happening here - that a word like "death" can be overwritten, redefined, and re-evaluated through a (quite simple) game mechanic.