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


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.

The Invisible Hand with Elbow Knives: Choice in ‘Human Revolution’

Human Revolution

In Yahtzee’s (now kind of old) Extra Punctuation article on Deus Ex Human Revolution, he stumbles across an interesting point about the game’s upgrade system whilst trying to prove how much better the original is;

“Watch me blow your mind as I accurately describe the character most of you played in Human Revolution: a bloke who started out with the intention of doing a stealthy run but had to start carrying proper guns after a few hairy moments, who by the end of the game was also an expert hacker with very good arm strength and the ability to jump over buses.”

That’s certainly what happened to my Adam “Mush Mouth” Jensen. But I feel like the quote above, rather than being a damning criticism of Human Revolution, is one of its biggest achievements.

One of Human Revolution’s main thematic concerns is the pressure on people to augment themselves. A stock trader is trapped by her debt because she needed augs to keep up with her peers. Sex workers are pressured to get augments to better serve customers who’ve acquired a taste for cyborg lovin’. Augs have altered everything from sports to sex and not necessarily for the better.

So in the midst of all this talk of conflict over augmentations, class, pressure and dependency on anti rejection drugs; what sense would it make to allow the player to run wild with augmentations – becoming a night-visioned frogman with corrosive breath and a specialization in pastry cheffery? Not much if you ask me. (Which you didn’t.)

Complete freedom would be at odds with the story that Deus Ex Human Revolution is trying to tell. Instead, the game gives us the illusion of choice – all the while gently prodding us in its desired direction.

Jensen wearily protests against the bevy of clearly awesome ways that he can ‘improve himself’ – but the pull of augmentations proves irresistible both to him and the player. “If you want to jump down that hole, you’re going to need the Icarus Parachute” says Human Revolution. “If you want to see what’s on the other side of that door, you’re going to need these hacking augs” … “Can’t get up there without this”  “Can’t walk over that without these” etc etc etc. I’ll avoid using the critical term that dare not speak its name but there’s a clear conflict between what Adam wants and what the game… or the game world wants to happen to Adam.

Human Revolution asks you to pick a play style but occasionally challenges your ‘code’. My (practically vegan) Jensen didn’t stand much of a chance in a straight on firefight because his skills included Familiarity with Outlook Express  and Letting off a Smell that Made People Like Him. So When Belltower mercs brought snipers, heavy machine guns and angry stomping robots to what I thought was an elbow-knife fight; I had no choice but to splash out on the Typhoon system… I system that both Jensen and I had been against from the start of the game (admittedly for different reasons.)

Similarly, for a different Jensen – a beefed up rocket-launching, wall punching badass Jensen – the prospect of sneaking through a gang hideout would gently push him towards sticking a metallic claw into his pocket for the cloaking system.

The game that claimed to be all about choice turned out to have Hobson’s fingerprints all over it. But in a time when games are nickel and dime-ing players with new control schemes, peripherals and ‘optional’ content, it’s a rather fitting idea to be playing with. This magnificent Rock Paper Shotgun Article explains it rather well.

And outside of the games industry, one could argue that Human Revolution has even more relevance. In the UK, David Cameron stands accused of “privatizing the NHS by stealth” under the guise of offering patients ‘more choice’ – it’s not hard to imagine Cameron’s face mooning at me from a talking kiosk as I dither over whether or not I should fix that ‘lung’ I’ve been having trouble with for a month or two.

Human Revolution may not offer the intoxicating freedom of the original game, but it does offer a more thematically consistent brand of player choice that’s just as rewarding.

LA Noire and the Aftermath of Violence

LA Noire blog on the effects of violence in videogames

One  of the reasons that L.A. Noire feels so uncharacteristicaly ‘small’ and intimate for a video games is that it deals with violence in a different way than many other games.  Shooters and action games have become (and arguably have always been) predominantly concerned with the visceral immediacy of violence as a way to generate thrills for a player – it’s what games do most consistently after all. The clashing of bone and sinew, the splatter of a headshot and the snap of a neck are all iterated upon to ensure no gamer ever gets bored with pulling the trigger.

By casting the player in the role of a ‘detective doing detective work’ (or at least a game-ey approximation of it) L.A. Noire deals with the aftermath of violence… of course it does. Cole Phelps turns up on the scene only once wrenches have been swung, clothes torn, shots fired and fires started. He then interviews witnesses, friends, family, loved ones – he sifts through their lives, rifles through drawers and turns their salad tongs over in his hand for about 20 minutes. He sees what happens when a life ends in a way that games generally don’t investigate.

We’re used to seeing ‘how‘ a life ends; sometimes with a spurt of blood or a pained gargle. Othertimes its retching and dragging itself along the floor… whilst on fire. There’s very little thought given to the dead once they’ve ‘bought the farm’ – because there’s so many other people to sell farms to.

One of the reasons I love stealth games so much is that they deal with rather Noir-ish quandaries like “what the fuck do I do with this dead body?” in a way that shooters can’t, or don’t. They are the ‘Telltale Heart’ of videogames (Or a ‘Insert Pulp Novel where the Protagonist has to hide a body’ of videogames… none are springing to mind.) In much the same way, I believe there’s more potential and ingenuity in the first 10 masterful minutes of Farenheit/Indigo Prophesy than every Call of Duty that has been or will be released until the end of time (and also more than the rest of Farenheit and Heavy Rain combined, but that’s for another post.)

LA Noire scratches an itch that even the Stealth genre can’t quite reach for me, by giving the player a chance to really sift through the wreckage of a murder. I never get to find out what effect the murder of unnamed PMC soldier had on his family. I just stuffed him in a locker and went about my business.  L.A. Noire, on the other hand, is almost like following around Generic Murderous Open World Player Avatar and cleaning up his mess.

Even more impressive in this respect is that  both story and gameplay are singing from the same hymn-sheet; L.A. Noire isn’t just a game about people dealing with murders and acts of violence – it is a tale of men struggling with the aftermath of the most violent event of the 20th Century.

But with all the focus on the after effects of violence – anything that doesn’t speak to that theme stands out all the more. The shootouts are a particular sore-thumb, not because they control so badly (the same bumblicious controls feature in Red Dead Redemption and I care not a jot) but because a shootout in L.A. Noire ignores the consequences of violence. Cole should have to go through a stack of paperwork, police counseling and all manner of tribunals and hearings every time he shoots someone –  he should even clip a bystander with a stray shot and have his gun taken off him for the next case – not merely pull his patented ‘shit-eating case-closed grin’ as an ambulance pulls away laden with the corpses of fallen wise-guys.

A few wobbly shoot-outs aren’t enought to take away from everything that L.A. Noire does to make violence seem genuinely destructive, not destructive in the way that fully-deformable environments are destructive, more in the ruined lives kind of way. Anything that does this in a world of snap-lock military rollercoater rides must be pretty special right?

L.A. Noire: Keeping it Low Key

Rockstar Games' LA Noire

L.A. Noire was probably my favourite game of last year – it’s not universally loved; it seems to turn up on as many ‘Best of 2011’ lists as it does ‘Biggest Disappointments of 2011’ lists. The shonky combat controls from GTAIV and Read Dead Redemption make their customary appearance in a Rockstar Game and add a bit of stink to the proceedings, for sure. The driving is an acquired taste (a taste which I thankfully acquired) and outside of the (quite frankly astonishing) facial animation – characters movements are pretty goofy. But as the last post on HP GEEC shows, I’m pretty forgiving when there’s genuine ambition buried under all the glitches and faults.

However lets not mistake “ambition” for that perennial box-blurb-bullet point “epic scale”, especially when it comes to narrative. What impressed most in Brendan McNamara’s studio bankrupting, life destroying, Australian Games Industry killing magnum opus was how small it seemed sometimes.

Naturally there was the vast sprawling 1940s LA to ‘explore’ and more than one conspiracy plot that goes all the way to the top I tells ya! But the moments from L.A. Noire that still bounce around in the memory a few months later are characterised by their intimate nature. Peppered throughout the larger narrative are sad little vignettes about soldiers struggling to readjust to life after the war, Hollywood wannabes taken for a ride, marital disputes, business deals gone sour and more; all of which are standard fare for The Continental Op. or Philip Marlowe – but not so much for video games.

Video game plots tend to spiral out of control for a number of reasons. One of them is the need to last over 10 – 20 hours (or else they’re not ‘value for money’ don’t you know) and when adhering to the principles of all those screenwriting books you bought when you were 22, a story needs rising action, escalating to a dramatic climax followed by a resolution. And when you start your tale with afuckingwarinspace – escalation can be a bitch.

Another factor is the assertion made by many a great games writer, that “Interactivity Kills Storytelling” and that traditional storytelling can never work in a videogame – which, on the whole I agree with… but I still find it funny to imagine this conversation taking place in a videogame writers room…

Writer 1: I just can’t seem to nail this third act reveal, you know;  that there is a pit beneath the city that resurrects only those with the blood of the dragon-father in their ancestry and that the main character and his party were all brainwashed as children to enhance their psychic abilities which lead to a kind of collective amnesia which makes them forget that the hero is in fact the villain but from an alternate time-line that may or may not be the past… and that the cops are corrupt.

Writer 2: Yeah, but don’t worry. It’s probably not working because Interactivity Kills Storytelling.

Writer 1: I suppose you’re right – God damn those players. This would work brilliantly as a novel.

It’s true that LA Noire eventually succumbs to the same bloated storytelling pitfalls that all games seem unable to avoid  – the low point for me being an utterly baffling sequence in which secondary protagonist Jack Kelso leads a gang of formerly dope peddling ex-servicemen in an assault on the home of a real estate magnateto clean up the streets or something?  – but that’s not before spoiling the player with some delightfully low-key (by videogame standards) old-school storytelling.

It’s also true that interactivity hobbles the moment-to-moment narrative; Cole Phelps’ mood swings are now the stuff of legend among video game critics; I often felt guilty for pointing Cole Phelps’ face-melting invective hairdryer at some poor grocery store clerk – but I suspect that Cole’s wildly erratic interrogation technique was at least partly down to the team grappling with some genuinely new and exciting ideas. (And partly down to him being an honest-to-goodness asshole)

And at least the storytelling that was being hobbled was something a little more down to earth than the usual goblins and telepathic aliens bumf we’re used to –  hell, perhaps if Cole Phelps had been interrogating a man whose body has been possessed by the demon fore-arm of a cloned soldier, I wouldn’t have minded so much if he went off the handle. But the very fact that I was invested in the story of a jilted lover or a morphine-addled musician, made Cole’s incongruous outbursts all the harder to stomach.

Mood Ring Protocol: Alpha Protocol as a Personality Test

Role Playing Game Alpha Protocol

I have this nervous laugh that I can’t seem to shake. I crack it out around new people mostly, or when I’m trying to impress someone. It’s not an endearing noise, it sounds like I’m not only stupid, but I find the stupid things I say very funny. Funny enough to make a honking flat, lifeless guffaw to break the silence. It normally comes after a particularly dull pun or observation that was meant to be an ice breaker but backfires. Once it’s backfired a few times I normally do something distance myself from whoever I was talking to. Clearly I’m not talking about Mike Thornton here, Alpha Protocol’s hero holds himself a little better than I do in a conversation no matter what button is pressed. But he’s not much better when I’m the one pressing the buttons. 

The character creation suites that greet you in most games exist to give the player an opportunity to tell the game who he or she is. “I have magnificent bone structure” says the player, “But of course you do” replies Fallout 3 (or a similar title) “I am extremely intelligent” they continue “Well you bought this game now didn’t you?” coos Fallout and gives the player a speech bonus and the ability to hack turrets. (As a side note, “I have magnificent bone structure” is one of my real life jokes that misfired and was faithfully followed by a nervous laugh.)

The critically ‘meh’-ed Alpha Protocol gives you no option to impress your idealised image of yourself on to Mike Thornton from the opening. You can choose a selection of unsatisfying beards and hairstyles then slink into a range of plastic looking sneaking suits that would make Solid Snake and Sam Fisher snigger. This is not a character you create by manipulating sliders and allocating stats – sure, there’s some of that, but a lot of it’s merely cosmetic. The real character creation comes during the missions. This is the messy, ugly birth of a secret agent and everything he does is not only a reflection on the player, but also a part of his character. 

What’s so refreshing about Alpha Protocol isn’t its story, its characters or its world, but rather what it is telling me about me and more importantly, unlike most games Alpha Potocol is not telling me how much of a bad ass I am. Many videogames succumb to a variant on what the AV Club have lovingly termed the Poochie Rule – “whenever [The Character] isn’t onscreen, the other characters talk about him like he’s a cross between Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Rambo, Zohan, and God.” – In video games, that translates as being constantly reminded what an earth shattering bad-ass he/she is. What Alpha Protocol repeatedly tells me is that not only am I overly cautious, too eager to please and socially inept but I also make some pretty bad decisions under pressure. .. sometimes not even under pressure. 

My first meeting with Journalist Scarlett was emblematic of the way I play Alpha Protocol and, sadly the way I am in real life. She introduced herself, I opted for a joke, didn’t work, I got defensive and answered her questions aggressively then spent the rest of the game sending her intel in order to win back her favour. Sound familiar? First paragraph kind of familiar? Urgh. There was a sickening knot of recognition in my stomach that I’ve never had in a game before. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I was simply swooning with admiration. 

To me, Alpha Protocol is one long, rapid fire personality test that isn’t afraid to subtly tell me that I am most assuredly not Daniel Craig or Batman. I am just a man fumbling his way in the dark, always ever so slightly out of his depth trying to make decisions with a smidge less information than I’d prefer. Let me rephrase that. I am a man with a highly customised fork in a world full of intelligence soup. What’s exciting is that the game not only allows for this, it’s pretty understanding about it (if not comforting.) 

I can see why people were put off not only by the shocking animations, the bugs that leave enemy bodies twitching, impaled on a door, the PS2 standard Graphics and the often subnormal AI –  but also the lack of feedback and info on how you’re doing in the big scheme of things. Gameplay-wise I felt like I was doing everything right mission by mission – I was a ghost, mostly non lethal and rarely spotted, acquiring contacts left right and centre (or circle triangle and square) and with a wealth of support and handlers jostling to help me in my missions. Why then, was I always scrabbling for money? Why is the EU moments away from declaring marshal law and China about to go to war with Taipei?  Why am I a desperate, bearded, failed secret agent scrabbling towards the end game with a sense that this is not going to end well for me no matter what I do? These are pretty exciting questions to be asking oneself after a couple of hours with a supposedly 6/10 game. 

Maybe I’m a bit stupid? Maybe I’m indecisive? Maybe I’m overly cautious? Too eager to please? Whatever’s wrong with me, it’s been thrilling to have it pointed out by the same black box that usually tells me how great I am. These are my mistakes, this is my story. It’s not a march to victory, it’s a tense, seat of your pants thriller about a rookie agent up to his neck in international arms dealers and terrorists. Alpha Protocol  succeeds by making me take my failures personally – it’s a bitter tonic to swallow, but what other game can I say that about?

The Edge of the World

Helicopter in GTA IV

When you’re younger – it seems like there’s more time for pushing the boundaries in game-worlds. I remember playing some god-awful motor-bike game on the PC where every now and again, I would veer off the poorly carved dirt track where I was meant to be pulling off gnarly stunts, and I’d drive that little bike off towards the horizon where I would eventually hit some weird sort of Grand Canyon Wall Thing that I couldn’t vault over with even the gnarliest of jumps off the sweetest of ramps. And it’d take a while to get there too. I could have been reading or studying physics or learning to pass a Rugby ball off my left hand (something that eludes me to this day.) But I chose to drive to the end of this poorly realised stretch of desert in a bargain bin PC bike game, just to see what was there.

These days, I rarely go to the Edge of the World. The last time I went looking for it was probably on the PSP’s ‘Vice City Stories’ in which our hero would eschew the usual crime rampages and turf wars of the game’s missions, and fly his sputtering helicopter out to sea to see how much sea he could see. I might have tried it in GTAIV too, but the memory isn’t quite as strong.

There’s a soft pang of loneliness when you hit the edge of a game-world and see the artificial way in which you’re hemmed in. I stumbled upon it most recently in Deus Ex Human Revolution when, in Detroit – Adam Jensen reached a motorway tunnel in which a truck had jack-knifed, blocking the path for a bunch of motorists who act dissapointed, even though I’ve never seen anyone drive a car in Deus Ex. (In truth, they sprayed the same ‘anti aug’ insults my way, as if my robot arms were worse than a traffic accident.)

It strikes me that few games have used the feeling created by ‘hitting the limits of the world’ as an actual part of the game. It could be argued that Assassin’s Creed’s ‘Animus’ method (of blocking off areas that “Aren’t in this memory”) does just that. But I’m talking about something a bit more specific. Something that’s a bit more like The Prisoner, where Number 6 repeatedly tried to escape the confines of his ‘world’ and is repeatedly dumped back where he started by the end of each episode (sometimes, a few times within the episode.) The closest thing that comes to mind in the gaming is The Chronicles of Riddick, Escape from Butcher Bay which sees Riddick’s escape plans constantly thwarted by X-ibit or whatever.

Far from being a surreal, metaphysical mind-fuck device, this idea seems much more real to me than the concept of being able to ‘go anywhere, do anything’ that games are so obsessed with these days. I do have the freedom, and the right to go almost anywhere and do almost anything at any time – but come 9-oclock on Monday morning, I’m sat at my desk doing my job – not clinging to the top of a car bonnet with my shirt off and a scimitar tucked into the waist of my jeans.

This seems perfect for some kind of list feature as a future post. I might come back to it.

Down the Garden Path of Least Resistance: Shrub Cloaking in Crysis

Crysis blog on sneaking through the jungle

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

Don’t you just love attention grabbing, gimmicky openings to blog posts?

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

But sometimes, it’s just easier to start writing when you’ve got a gimmick to kick things off.

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

And this pretty accurately represents my time with the recently console-ified Crysis

Far from being the robo-suit wearing Predator I’m creeping along, checking my environment from bushes and, when I’m absolutely sure that it’s not going to get me killed, picking off the odd straggler with a scoped, silenced headshot. Which is fine, but not exactly what I’ve been promised.

This is one of the troubles with leaving players with the choice of approaches to open environments. One tactic always, eventually wins out and it’s hard to look beyond it. In Crysis’ case, the old shrub-cloak has proven to be the best way to get through any situation – even if it’s a little slow. In Metal Gear Solid 3, crawling slowly around the outside of the area was always the path of least resistance. And in Far Cry 2 (sequel to Crysis’ spiritual predecessor) discovering an optimal murder technique and becoming a monotonously efficient killer was kind of the point.

When a player hits on one of these tactics, it’s hard to resist the urge to utilise it whenever possible. Even though I know that I could sprint into the centre of this shanty-town, leap onto a roof and fire a missile at that tank to take out 3 guys before jumping down, punching the building I was standing on to crush the guys inside – I also know that I wont. For I am a Shrub-Cloaker. I’ve actually gotten out of a tank because I know it won’t be as effective as Shrub Cloaking.

This is, perhaps the price you pay for genuine ‘openness‘ in games. Seeing a search party of 4 or 5 guys stalking through the forest in Crysis doesn’t quite have the same effect as watching a single guard approach down a corridor with a flashlight in Splinter Cell. To be fair, it’s probably more of a flaw with me than it is with Crysis or any of the games mentioned above (in spite of MGS3’s ‘circle the area’ tactic, it’s still my favourite game of all time.)

That being said, some of  this is down to the games themselves. With recharging health, recharging energy and all of… oooh, 6 weapons? there’s not much incentive to chance it and get right into the middle of things in Crysis, especially when it’s so easy to operate on the peripheries of most areas. There’s a reason why I’ll stick my face into a rad-scorpion pit in Fallout and it’s not because I find the hissing sound soothing.

It’s an idea that Steve Gaynor puts across brilliantly in his post “Basics of effective FPS encounter design (via F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2)” which echoes around my head every time I play pretty much anything where I’m holding a gun.

In the same way that a writer needs to put his/her characters through the wringer, I think a sneaking game (which I consider Crysis to be) needs to force the player go right into the middle of the map at some point and do the absolute worst thing they can imagine having to do there. That could be for in-game rewards or as part of the story.

In a game where you can turn invisible or bullet proof and sprint faster than a car, “throwing sticky explosives onto a stationary artillery ‘thing‘” isn’t the worst thing I can imagine doing. On the other hand, in Metal Gear Solid 2 when I’m a girly haired cart-wheeling rookie alone on a weird oil rig who hasn’t found the suppressor for his incredibly loud gun… the worst thing I can imagine doing is searching for explosives with a can of coolant spray in a heavily guarded area.

In Crysis, I imagine I’ll Shrub-Cloak my way to the end of the game unless something weird happens like giant flying squid aliens start attacking but what are the chances of that?

“There’s Still Work To Be Done Here” – Arkham City and Gaming Scavenger Hunts

James Gordon Jr.: [Batman runs off into the darkness as James Jr. joins his father by Harvey Dent’s body] Batman? Why’s he running, Dad?
Lt. James Gordon: [Staring after Batman] Because he has Riddler Trophies to collect.
James Gordon Jr.: But the game is over, why is he still playing?
Lt. James Gordon: Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so he’ll hunt them. Because he needs the XP for upgrades. Because he’s going to do a run in New Game Plus and when you do that, the enemies don’t have those flashing lights above their heads that tell you when to counter and he might need more armour and maybe the move where he disarms a gun.

I’m not normally one for collectathons. I don’t hunt pigeons or shoot kerotans, I don’t pick flowers, I don’t smash emblems or pick up cigarette boxes – I do none of these things because ultimately I don’t care about concept art galleries or trophies and I don’t care about getting that 100%.

So why, then, am I -Batman – stood in an alleyway, looking at three neon green question marks trying to time a batarang throw to coincide with a remote-controlled batsplosion in order to get my bat-hands on a smaller neon green question mark?

It’s precisely because I am Batman. But also because I’m Bruce Wayne.

Though Arkham City offers a fair number of distractions away from the critical path, the main quest is so propulsive and well paced that the collectibles don’t really tempt the player too far off track. It’s only when the story is over and Batman returns to Arkham City that the scavenger hunt begins in earnest and while you feel plenty like The Batman when you’re flinging ‘rangs and swooping down from gargoyles, you never quite get inside Bruce Wayne’s mind until you’re wandering the deserted streets looking for trophies.

And it’s not because that makes the player feel like a detective. No detective I know uses his cape to float between pressure pads to unlock a cage. And I know almost one detective. No, I feel like Bruce Wayne because he’s a videogame hero who’s as obsessive and finickity as the player. Of course, for Bruce it’s called ‘drive’ – for us at home gripping the controller it’s that old familiar desire to ‘catch-em all‘ coupled with the perpetually dangling carrot of new content – be that in the form of new Riddler challenges or snippets of story.

New content is all well and good but without tying it to the motives of the main character, a scavenger hunt feels nothing like idle time wasting. But in Arkham, it feels more like character development. Bruce Wayne seems like the exact kind of guy to stay out all night trying to nail those AR challenges over and over again or practicing his disarm move against the handful of goons left wandering Arkham City. And so am I.

Niko Bellic on the other hand, doesn’t seem the type. Neither does Rico ‘Scorpio’ Rodriquez. And though the scavenger hunts in Splinter Cell are called ‘opportunity objectives’ and are woven into the story of the game, nothing spoils the illusion of being a silent super-spy than wandering around a drab, now deserted military base looking for junction boxes after the mission is over.

Part of that is because all of the hunting and collecting and combo practicing feeds into itself like a bat eating its own tail (damnit, I knew should have been talking about Peace Walker – does a similar thing you know. ) Call it Skinnerian, ouroborosian or loop-de-loopian – but the way that Arkham doles out its secrets is cunningly concieved whichever way you put it. Riddler trophies unlock riddler challenges which allow the player to practice for more riddler trophies via the ‘navigational/combat’ challenge section of the pause menu. All the while, the player is occasionally uncovering new pockets of story via unfinished missions and Riddler hostages that are locked until enough trophies are collected. Not since MGS Peace Walker has mindless grinding seemed so gosh darn alluring. Shame I can’t do it on the train.

And so I’ve been swooping between the same map night after night, not moving on to a new game or even starting another playthrough. Because I’m the hero Arkham City deserves – not the one it needs… or something.