Skyrimland! – Open worlds vs theme parks

800px-SR-map-SkyrimIt was this article on Kotaku’s Talk Amongst Yourselves that finally forced my hand. Forced it to pull at the imaginary hem of Emperor Skyrim’s new clothes.

Now, I like Skyrim an awful lot, but not because of its open-worldy-ness. I like the dialogue (mostly) and the art design. And jumping backwards up mountains.

But Skyrim’s world is not a chaotic, living open world, like Fallout: New Vegas. And Skyrim is not a rich, epic fantasy novel, like Baldur’s Gate II. It is a nice game with shouting and dragons. Mountains, named NPCs and an all-male voice choir do not make a game an open-world epic.

That said, this post isn’t about how epic Skyrim is. It’s about how open-world Skyrim isn’t. The thesis is as follows; some games offer an emergent, personalised “open world”, and some games are theme parks, populated with discrete, anonymous, ride-like experiences. (Disclaimer – This post was also partly inspired by a recent Idle Thumbs comparing Disneyland to a video game.)

Fallout: New Vegas is an open world. A wide open, dusty sandbox. It is open, in that you can wander from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else. And it is a world, full of stuff, and the unexplained residue of past events, and things that happen regardless of your input. As a player, you frequently happen upon the dying embers of a something; a gunfight between Legion and NRC goons. Or a robot fighting a Deathclaw. There are scripted events, but you are constantly faced with evidence that the world of New Vegas exists irrespective of your actions. It doesn’t care whether you are there or not. And that is liberating.

The scripted events and plots mingle with the emergent experiences to create what feels like a unique life experience. Exploring the open world of New Vegas, and weaving this narrative, feels authentic in a way that “exploring” the theme park of Skyrim rarely does. In New Vegas, you can play an active part in events, or observe, or start something. And while you are doing these things, you are aware that there are other events that you didn’t watch, or take part in, over there, because you were over here.

In Skyrim, everything feels like it is for you. Yes, it is wonderfully, majestically, open. But it isn’t a world, in the sense that it feels like it exists as a separate, uncaring entity, populated by entities going about their business. The world feels like a theme park. A big playground of experiences designed for you, the visitor, and untouched. Yes, there are random events, and unexpected outcomes, which in many ways resemble those of New Vegas. But there are random encounters in a theme park. The world of Skyrim not only cares that you are there, it needs you to be there. Everything of significance, from conversations to dungeons, waits for the player’s, the Dragonborn’s, interaction.

Furthermore, your whole Skyrim experience, from beginning to end, feels like it has already been written. Which of course it has.

Obviously games are designed to be interacted with by the player. My point is that New Vegas does a better job of obfuscating this than Skyrim. And I don’t understand why more reviews and retrospectives of the latter don’t address this.

A Skyrim apologist might be tempted to pass this determinist feeling off as intentional, the experience should feel a touch preordained, the coming of the Dragonborn is written in the stars. But that’s lazy. The topic of open world (or sandbox) vs theme park MMOs has been discussed at length. The grinding, bite-size nature of MMOs makes theme park design an obvious choice, but for single-player experiences continuity, character, plot, etc are all more expected, and more noticed when they are absent.

P.S. For a thrilling analysis of open world game design, check this Gamastura article out.

Splinter Cell: Why is Conviction on the Blacklist?

Splinter Cell ConvictionIf it were up to some stealth purists, all stealth games would be hi-res expansions for the original Thief. The situational awareness afforded by a 3rd person camera is a cop out, Snake’s regenerating health is a betrayal, Agent 47’s ‘instinct mode’ a travesty and Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell Conviction? Don’t get me started on Splinter Cell: Conviction they’d say.

I played through Splinter Cell: Blacklist recently, liked it a fair bit but it got me thinking about its angsty, divisive predecessor. Me? I like Conviction. The 2010 sequel stripped back the famously pernickety series’ sneaking mechanics and turned it into something faster, leaner and more in tune with what modern players expected from a game with a man holding a gun and scowling on the cover. Turns out they do not expect the scowling man to do the splits to avoid a terrorist – they expect him to mash someone’s head in a sink or use the gun or whatever.

Like all Splinter Cell games (and most stealth games), it continues to live in the shadow of 2005’s Chaos Theory but what Conviction lacked in slow burning tension; it made up for in crisp, streamlined mechanics and men that said “Fisher” every 3-4 seconds. (Please take this opportunity to remind yourself why Kirk Hamilton is the best.)

Conviction took a look at the Splinter Cell formula after Double Agent and  decided that things needed mixing up on both a gameplay and story fronts. For a start, the game attempts a more ‘personal’ story. It’s still a video game story – a bad one – but at least one that dispenses with a lot of the usual Clancyverse trappings. Shades of bureaucratic grey, a fetish for jargon, acronyms and a whole lot of inter-agency squabbling are all out. Instead Fisher takes a leaf from Jack Bauer’s book and ‘goes rogue’; his daughter is dead, his muzzle is off and he has swapped the butt-hugging rubber suit for something altogether more combat pants. 

The scowling revenger man angle seeps in to the game mechanics in a few pretty interesting ways. Freed from the confines of a ‘Shadowy Government Agency’, veins coursing with righteous dead-daughter-agony, Fisher has no need for any of that non-lethal pussy footing. He will straight up murderate anyone who so much as looks at him sideways – enter ‘Mark and Execute’ a mechanic that I like so much it makes me want to both mark and execute people despite my longstanding preference for being The Long, Dark Shadow of Nap-Time.

Even more interesting though, is the light/dark hiding mechanic which strips away the literal shades of grey from previous game’s on screen light meter and replaces it with a simple, binary ‘hidden/not hidden‘ system. When you’re hidden, the environment is drained of colour leaving enemies standing out like sore, punchable thumbs – conversely when you’re out of the shadows you feel uncomfortably exposed. For the new angry angry Fisher, things are literally Black and White.

The cover system snaps with a similar binary precision and paired with Mark and Execute, turns Splinter Cell in to a game about timing rather than merely waiting. This all gives Conviction a rhythm that’s unlike any other game. Think of ‘beats’ in the same way you would a film – units of ‘action’, decisions, discoveries that flow at a sustained pace; dash between cover, takedown, mark and execute. Fisher’s need to take down targets by hand to set up the mark and execute move means you’re constantly pushing, bullying through levels, wary of being spotted from a distance. By forcing the player to keep chaining together kills in the Mark and Execute feedback loop, Conviction ensures the next ‘beat’ is never far away.

Gone too is the rhythm-killing trial and error nature of previous titles – when things go wrong and Fisher gets spotted, it’s almost as much fun as when he’s being sneaky. (Even more fitting is to think of actual music, but that’s been done far more eloquently that I could manage.)

Elsewhere gadgets are scaled back, objectives are literally plastered on walls and the player is stripped of any gameplay verbs that aren’t ‘kill’ giving Conviction a relentless, driving sense of pace that stealth games rarely experiment with. Is it revolutionary to put such a focus on killing in a video game? Good Lord, no. But it is curious to watch a video game series plunge so wholeheartedly into its very own version of the Dalton era.

So while you or I might prefer Chaos Theory’s freedom and emphasis on choice; it’s branching pathways, bevvy of gadgets and clusterfuck of options for opening doors at different speeds – you have to admire the thematic consistency in Conviction. And I haven’t even mentioned co-op.