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.

Mass Effect 3 – Better than Choice

ME3_Conrad_Verner

Another victory against the Reapers… of being a single guy in space.

Warning: Spoilers, etc.

Much has been made over the years of Bioware’s talent for weaving meaningful relationships into their games; not only relationships in the romantic sense, but a broader sense of the connection between the protagonist and his/femhis friends and foes.

Before Bioware was Bioware, the main plotlines of their games depended on the discovery (or rediscovery) of the relationships between the leads. The Baldur’s Gate series is, at its heart, a family feud; Planescape’s Nameless One progesses by teasing out the strands of his past relationships.

But these are all very protagonist-centric, aren’t they? The player sits at the heart of the web, the fulcrum on which the plots and subplots hinge. They make choices. Set events in motion.

Is Mass Effect 3 different?

As with many of Bioware’s progeny, the romances of Mass Effect are well-told, and in most cases, believable. The brothers-in-arms banter and badassery likewise have that nourishing sense of hyperreal movie-truth that draws the player in. But is any of this really difficult to achieve, when a developer pays any attention whatsoever to story and character development?

In my view, no. Mass Effect is hardly the first series to attempt such lofty goals as ‘lines a real person might say’ or ‘characters with more than a one-word backstory’.

Where Mass Effect 3 is able to take plot/characterisation/world-building to the next level, however, lies in how the content of the save file is leveraged; the player’s decisions in ME1, ME2 and those daft iOS fripperies.

Note that I’m not suggesting there’s anything clever about measuring so many plot and character-related variables. That is interesting, and forethoughtful, but not revolutionary in of itself. It’s just a tool to tell a better story.

This is particularly evident when you wake from your fractal fever-dream and recall that choice isn’t the point of choice. Choices tailor the plot to better match your preferences, and hence your ideal plot. Assuming you don’t obsessively replay every conversation in search of some illusionary optimal path, you will experience one full ‘story’ per Shepard, seeing the branches, but not where they lead.

But for all that, isn’t ME3 still Shepard’s story, told from Shepard’s viewpoint?

I thought so, until ME3 revealed threads only peripherally tied to those of my Shepard’s web.

Yes, Conrad Verner’s progression is bound to Shepard’s choices in ME1, but his fate in ME3 is determined by an entirely different plot thread; in my Shepard’s universe, Jenna and Conrad wander off into the sunset to make hero-worshipping moon babies. What is potent about this resolution is the degree to which Shepard has become merely a spectator by this point.

Conrad is a bit-part in Shepard: The Musical, but at that moment, I felt that my Shepard was also just a supporting character in Conrad: A play in three acts. Conrad’s life (or death) unfolds not in the explosive, check-out-this-cool-guy-doing-cool-things manner that many of the true supporting characters’ plot lines do, such as Grunt or Jack. He’s just a guy, livin’ his space life.

Does this lack of control herald a backward step, away from choice and toward a more auteur-like experience? No. This is a significant evolutionary leap, one beyond even the popular ‘unintended consequences’ shtick oft employed in choice-centric games (of which gamers live in increasing and justified fear). This isn’t a bait-and-switch choice design to frustrate/shock/show off the designers’ ingenuity. This also does not represent any species of emergent gameplay, such as dangling unconscious bodies off roofs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and growling “Swear to me” – it’s not gameplay, for one.

In my view, this represents an approach to conversation trees, save files, choices etc, that is not driven by the need to tailor the plot to a schizophrenic player, nor deliver a platter of infinite delicacies to a choice-fetishist. Mass Effect 3 employs these tools to grow something like mimesis*.

It’s a subtle shift; from a plot which develops based on your decisions, to a world which develops, seemingly, with your decisions, among a context of those made by many other NPCs. Shepard is one actor, one protagonist, among many.

This philosophy lies at the heart of ME3. Those seeking to emulate Bioware would do well to focus not on how this has been accomplished technically, but why. Watching Conrad sidle off with Jenna was satisfying not because Shepard’s choices caused it to happen directly, but because his choices wove some of the context in which the event took place.

*For clarity, pedants, I use the term loosely, after Auerbach.

Niceguy Feminism – The Scourge of Games Journalism

Now, I’m normally of the opinion that click-baiting titles like “The Scourge of Games Journalism” are the scourge of games journalism, but this has to stop.

This isn’t an attempt to coin the phrase “Niceguy feminism”, God willing that’s already been done – but it does adequately describe the problem at hand.

Male geeks, even when they have regular contact with the fairer sex, are often incapable of treating women with anything approaching equality. The common sketch is of a spotty teen spluttering deviant abuse down his headset at anyone with a female-ish handle. This may be rife, but, wearing its misogyny on its sleeve, is hardly an issue for anyone with sense.

It’s why God gave us a mute button.

No, the sexism this article seeks to unmask is more subversive, and is truly rife within games and geek journalism.

These writers think that by writing sensitive pieces about how ridiculous it is that FemShep’s breasts have (possibly) gone up a cup, they are being “nice guys” – you know, the kind she marries in the end. They aren’t.

It isn’t sensitive of you to affirm that “games have matured beyond women characters burdened with heaving Croftian orbs”, praising the nobility of “a game that presents its female characters as regularly proportioned”.

That’s all just a different, 19th Century social reformer-form of objectification.

What’s more, why were you looking in the first place?

Let’s just stop and think before we write another post referencing anything to do with feminism (or worse, women in games), shall we?

Ask yourself, from whence comes the inspiration for your post: A crusade for equality? A manifesto against misogynist character design? Praise for strong female roles?

Then remember: You’re a f*cking games journalist.

Write intelligently about games. Don’t write to feed the ghost-appendix of your need to impress some chick by showing what a gentleman you are.