Tag Archives: narrative

Justifying the Means

[This post contains spoilers as to the entirety of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's plot. I loved Modern Warfare 2 and will write about the brilliant core gameplay, mechanics, and level design in a later piece, but this is not that piece.]

“Two men took down an entire base. I ask much more from you now.” General Shepard says as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 loads the upcoming mission. Shepard goes on to tell the player about the danger of a Russian named Makarov who has “no rules. [And] No Boundaries.” Shepard says “You don’t want to know what it’s cost already to put you next to him,” insinuating the lengths which this special fictional task force has gone to in order to get the player in deep cover alongside a Russian terrorist. Shepard then says “It will cost you a piece of yourself,” and “It will cost nothing compared to everything you’ll save.”

The screen fades to black and the game pops up a “Disturbing Content Notice” window detailing that “disturbing or offensive” content is forthcoming. You hit “Continue.” Modern Warfare 2 asks “Are you sure?” You hit yes. The sounds of an elevator descending or ascending are heard alongside the unzipping of backpacks and the loading of magazines into weaponry. The details of the new mission slowly appear on the screen. The name of the mission: “No Russian.” Makarov’s face comes into view, alongside three other people dressed in body armor wielding large machine guns and M4 assault rifles. Makarov says “Remember – no Russian.” The five of you walk into what is revealed to be a bustling airport terminal as the objective is displayed on screen: “Follow Makarov’s lead.” Civilian men and women are standing idly in lines while security guards watch on; the audio scene is that of typical airport noises, conversations, and general foot steps all around. And then you have access to your weapon and Makarov and his henchmen open fire on the crowd. Dozens of people are mowed down, you hear screaming in the background, see some people fleeing the area.

Checkpoint reached.

You walk slowly, forced into a slow speed by the game, making you wonder if the name of the mission, “No Russian,” is some sort of bad pun. You set off a metal detector as you progress while your “teammates” continue to fire on any civilians or security guards in sight. Someone is crawling on the ground in pain in front of you and one of Makarov’s men shoots him down. Someone is stumbling and breaks into a run near you, he too is gunned down. And the mission continues like this, with the very detailed gore and civilians crawling on the ground (trailing blood), for about three or four more minutes. Dozens upon dozens of dead civilian bodies later, the typical Call of Duty gameplay kicks in against the very well-armed and bullet-resistant Russian equivalent of a SWAT team comes in with riot shields.

This is a mission that is given to players under the conceit of “the ends justify the means,” a popular theme amongst antiheroes like Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey throughout the decade. The problem with this is that Infinity-Ward tasks players with having faith that both the ends, the means, and the entire premise of the game will all come into focus at some point. “No Russian” is the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2; preceded by a training mission, a generic trek through a village in Afghanistan in a jeep with a minigun, and a trip into a heavily guarded Russian base to get an ACS module (which is…?). By the time players get to the airport scene, they know all of nothing about Modern Warfare 2’s overarching plot other than that it involves Russians and a secret task force that may or may not be part of the CIA. Yet, the game tasks them with this mission under that ever-tenuous veil of the greater good. The mission is intended to be shocking, confusing, dark, and controversial. And this mission exists in the same video game that has an entire mission which is essentially a recreation of Michael Bay’s The Rock.

As I went through the mission, without killing a single civilian until I got the point where I would die if I didn’t fight against the SWAT-like “enemies,” I thought only of one thing: why do I have to do this? Why can’t I make the rational choice to kill Makarov then and there? Maybe the greater good will suffer, but I want to make that simple, very obvious choice. Games as an interactive medium can’t get (and shouldn’t) away by providing purely shocking or horrifying content even if it’s handled expertly; there has to be a ludic reason for a mission. I applaud Infinity-Ward for keeping “No Russian” an interactive mission where I have the kind of agency the game has accustomed me to, but by not making every target on the screen someone that the fiction supports me wanting to shoot, it opens up door that it needs to have keys to.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t have the kind of interactions necessary for the interactions I naturally desire in “No Russian.” At no point did I want to shoot a civilian in this mission. And I actively wanted to stop the ones who were shooting them. “No Russian” is not like Grand Theft Auto IV, also a very graphically realistic game, where I’m goofing around and accidentally run into a civilian and laugh while the impressive physics send the civilian flying. In GTA4 when I kill a civilian, it’s purely an accident or just random messing around with game systems, but it’s never something the game has its fiction enforce and reinforce. There is never a mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 where I’m tasked with killing a completely innocent civilian and I cannot progress unless I do so. And, if anything, I should be more okay with that game asking me to kill a civilian as my character has a very defined personality and role in that world. Infinity-Ward asks me to act as the character I’m playing (though they do try to dissuade that feeling by having Private Allen, the character you play in “No Russian,” talk in a preceding cut scene). For “No Russian” to work, I have to buy into the premise fully. I have to know that what I’m doing is vile but necessary. I have to have Vic Mackey‘s conviction that what I’m doing is the right thing to do, as hard as it is.

Being only the fourth mission in Modern Warfare 2, though, “No Russian” does not have the luxury of my trust or belief in its world. The mission comes out of nowhere with only the setup I gave at the beginning of this piece as reason to kill innocent civilians. I don’t even see a single shred of logic in what the game did offer me for reasoning. How does killing hundreds of people in cold blood somehow prevent a later atrocity? I don’t believe that doing any of this brings me closer to Makarov’s trust, but I do believe it makes me just as awful a human being as the game is telling me my enemy is.

Maybe that’s the point. I got it wrong: the ends don’t justify the means but, rather, I must become as evil as the worst men in the world in order to save the innocent. It’s a flawed concept, but I can almost see what the mission is constructing if that’s the case. I’m supposed to be revolted, I’m supposed to hate the game for giving me this task, I’m supposed to have no way out, and I’m supposed to feel that my only purpose is to have faith that the task I’m given will work out in the end. Okay. I can almost see that. It’s a flawed idea, a flawed execution, and a contrived situation which takes the fears of the modern world and preys on them… But, okay. I’ll try and buy into this. And so I do. I finish the mission. And when I get to the end of the mission and get into a van with Makarov and his men, one of Makarov’s men says “That will send a message!” Makarov says “No, this will send a message” and he shoots my character. And I’m dead.

So now I feel dirty for everything I have done and for attempting to reason my way out of the terrible position the game illogically and undeservedly put me in… And it ends with the game twirling its metaphorical mustache by pulling a plot twist lower than even 24 would ever go by having my American character get framed for the killing of all of these Russian civilians and igniting World War III. To make matters worse, the game never ends up actually justifying the actions of my character at the Russian airport. The airport terminal massacre sets the game’s overarching events in motion but no more. The game simply raises the stakes from mission to mission until I am to the logical extreme of battling in a war-torn Washington DC, popping green flares (The Rock, again) from above the West Wing. And, what’s worse, Makarov is never heard from again other than two lines of dialogue at the other end of radio chatter in a mission in the game’s final act.

The issue being raised by journalists and gamers is whether or not this kind of content has a place in games given the incredibly varied audience of a game like Modern Warfare 2. And, definitely, more games should attempt to portray controversial and mature content in interesting, relevant ways. To boil the issue down to as clear a point as possible: the problem with “No Russian” is that Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t earn the fictional right to present the content that it does. Whether this specific mission is well-executed or not, and I don’t think it is, if the reason for its existence is not contextually supported then its presence is gratuitous and its intent lost.

In “No Russian,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 compromised the integrity of its gameplay, its narrative, and my implicit trust solely for the sake of a macguffin.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is one of those games that does pretty much everything right. It doesn’t take a lot of chances as far as its subject matter or game design go, but developer Naughty Dog nailed all of its elements so well that it’s nigh-impossible not to enjoy it as a whole. It’s one of the few video games in existence that absolutely nails its tone, writing, voice-acting, character interplay, and cut scenes. The core gameplay — the shooty-shooty and the general character movement — feel fantastic. Uncharted is also, as is necessary to say when talking about it, an incredibly impressive looking game that actually employs the full color spectrum (bright colors!) to display the gorgeous vistas the characters visit as they travel from venue to venue.

And, you know, sometimes it’s great to play a game where everything came together beautifully. That’s not to say it’s without faults, of course, as there is the dirty little secret the game harbors. There’s also the poorly-integrated final sequence leading up to a giant quick-time event against a final boss that was treated as an entirely secondary character for the game’s duration. Unfortunately, both of these blemishes occur near the end of Uncharted. And like any bad ending, it’s easy for these flaws to taint one’s thoughts on the game as a whole as they did with me after my first play-through of the game.

One of the design tenets I hold near and dear in all of my work is that every action a player engages in throughout the course of the game has to feel good and every risk needs to be coupled with a reward. The primary reason that I’ve come back to Uncharted again (hard mode play-through) and again (crushing mode play-through, currently underway) is, in large part, a result of how consistently enjoyable and rewarding the game’s core gameplay remains regardless of what context it’s experienced in.

The first component of Uncharted that’s immediately apparent is the quality of the writing, voice acting, and general character interplay. In the initial scene, the character personalities on display are energetic, charismatic, and constantly bantering back and forth both in the initial cut scene as well as the gameplay that follows. The chemistry shared between Uncharted’s two leads, Nathan Drake (voiced by game industry’s plucky voice actor of choice Nolan North) and Elena Fisher (voiced by the gorgeous Emily Rose), is a rarity in video games. The two carry the game’s script on their shoulders and make the cut scenes that fill the game actual rewards instead of an exercise in pain tolerance. Nolan North’s performance of Nathan Drake is especially notable, as Uncharted is constantly feeding one-liners throughout typical gameplay which provide feedback for head shots, the presence of an absurd amounts of enemies, general contextual flavor, and appropriate dismay and disbelief at the acknowledgment of the insane acrobats required of the player/character. None of the cut scenes or dialogue have any tangible effect on the actual gameplay, but their presence and execution enhance the experience and atmosphere and, therefore, enhance the player’s perception of what he/she is doing in-game.

Uncharted’s ability to capitalize on The Indiana Jones Factor is the next pillar of its success. Given that the Playstation 3’s primary demographic is an average of twenty-eight years old, the presence of Indiana Jones in Generation Y’s collective childhood should not be understated. There isn’t a single guy around my age that I’ve met that wasn’t able to wax lyrical about the role Indiana Jones had on male childhood development. Uncharted takes the criminally underused power fantasy of tomb exploration/archaeology and puts it front and center as it casts players as a plucky, energetic protagonist following his hereditary history through tombs, jungles, traps, and the ruins of forgotten civilizations. The game captures this entire setting and tone with ease in ways that Tomb Raider was never able to do by setting up the exploratory and puzzle-solving gameplay in a way that was fun to play through while rarely being a source of frustration. Much like Infamous (released a couple of years after Uncharted), Nathan Drake jumps from ledge to ledge and platform to platform using a contextually smart control scheme that “highlights” actions for the player and displays safe jumps/transitions naturally by utilizing Nathan Drake’s own body as a sign to the player that the character feels the action is safe. When Nathan Drake feels he can jump from a ledge he’s hanging on to a nearby cliff, he will put out his hand in that direction, and the player simply has to hit jump (while holding the stick in the appropriate direction). It’s a control technique that rarely fails and, as such, allows players to execute slick maneuvers through complicated levels easily and maintain the illusion that they are, basically, as badass like Indiana.

As additional testament to the thoroughness of Uncharted’s personality: Nathan never executes these maneuvers with complete confidence; there is always a “whoa!” or “you have got to be kidding me” or an animation that indicates that he’s struggling to hang on to something. This is both an endearing quality to players as well as further emulation of the Indiana Jones method of progression.

More than anything else, Uncharted is an action game. It utilizes exploration and cut scenes as a way of pacing progression through the game, but more often than not the player is tasked with eliminating bad guys. The heart of Uncharted’s combat is heavily inspired by by the Gears of War cover-heavy gameplay. Nathan can take a few hits, but unlike Batman, he can’t run up to a group of enemies and take them all on in simultaneous free-flowing melee combat. Engaging more than one enemy at a time in melee combat is suicide. Even engaging a single enemy in melee combat is a risky encounter unless Nathan has a tactical upper-hand on him.

As such, cover is the lifeblood of the Uncharted encounter system; gameplay spaces are composed of a mix of cover: crouching, standing, standing/crouching partial cover, and standing/crouching destructible cover. Players are, by design of the space alone, encouraged to be continuously moving through an encounter space as they work on taking out enemies. The game recognized that the typical player will find a single good cover spot and methodically take out enemies rather than utilize the entirety of a battlefield, so the game takes two approaches to managing this. The first is that Uncharted’s AI will aggressively roam the encounter space to attempt to gain the upper hand on the player (including the use of elevation for a height advantage on crouching cover). The second is that the maximum amount of ammunition that the player can keep is kept relatively low compared to the amount of possible damage that enemies can take. These factors work in tandem to make an encounter as dynamic as possible despite the presence of any truly battlefield-altering gameplay features aside from the destructible cover, but the majority of an encounter’s cover is static (though the destructible cover is generally the “ideal” cover).

Players generally don’t have a choice as to how they approach encounters; only about a dozen scenarios have active, unaware enemies as the player approaches. That’s okay, though, because the game’s weapon arsenal is surprisingly deep and balanced. Each weapon is powerful and generally allows players to use whatever weapons best suit their play style; however, players are limited to holding one primary weapon (assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc.), one secondary weapon (pistols and sub-machine guns), and grenades. Something that continually impresses me about Uncharted is how each weapon feels enjoyable to use. They are powerful, have the right amount of controller vibration, and have hefty sound effects — once again going back to Uncharted’s all-around solid execution of all of its elements. The player also has three melee attacks to use: a five-hit combo that is fatal but requires a fair amount of time to fully execute, a three-hit “brutal combo” that is risky and timing-dependent, and a single-hit stealth kill (relies on enemies being in an unaware state). Melee combat is often a dangerous endeavor, though, so these attacks are used sparingly.

One of my favorite design flourishes in the game is that the proper execution of the “brutal combo” rewards the player with twice the normal amount of ammunition dropped by the deceased enemy. This is a completely great way of presenting additional situational risk with an appropriate reward.

Unlike the awkward juxtaposition between the narrative character and the gameplay character’s approach to violence in Grand Theft Auto, the violence in Uncharted is always a recognized factor in the story and in the gameplay, but that creates its own sets of problems. There are a few moments when the story takes a dark turn or Nathan Drake gets angry and serious about protecting Elena (this happens relatively early in the story), but for the most part the main three characters in Uncharted are a playfully snarky, energetic, and cheerful bunch. These are the same characters that are, quite literally, slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds of enemies and then joking about it in cut scenes. This is nothing new for video games, but there are occasions where it has struck me as odd.

Uncharted is just one of those rare games that is exceedingly well-executed across the board. Naughty Dog’s thoroughness in carrying the personality and character of Nathan Drake through every aspect of the game while always focusing on the player’s experience is evident throughout the game. It’s a game where every segment feels like it belongs (even my typically-loathed vehicle segments), every weapon feels like a weapon should, and the game as a whole comes across as a cohesive experience.

Wild Card

That Orson Scott Card did it again with his involvement with Chair Entertainment’s newest game, Shadow Complex. It looks quite astounding, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to play it. That activity is somewhere on my top fifty list of things to do when I move to Austin next week. Anyway, Orson Scott Card is probably best-known for a science fiction work titled Ender’s Game. It was an alright enough book. I liked it. This was well before I knew about Orson Scott Card’s deepest, darkest secrets. Oh. What’s that? Huh, they’re not secrets apparently.

See, Orson Scott Card is a bit of a homophobe. Bits of Card’s homophobic hatred along with the whole Shadow Complex issue were expertly chronicled by GayGamer last week. Shortly thereafter, Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt wrote a superb piece about Shadow Complex, Orson Scott Card, and how gamers should treat a game that involved a bigot like Card. Nutt’s piece will probably go on to become one of the game industry’s seminal works of the year. It’s good work, it attracted a lot of attention and discussion, and it also attracted the attention of Shadow Complex’s writer: Peter David (Wikipedia’d). Mr. David joined the discussion to Nutt’s piece first by waving his bruised ego around in the room. Once that was finished and he said some more things, he then attempted to provide the girls and boys of the internet a lesson in morality and brotherhood (emphasis mine):

What’s the end game here? To try and send a message to as many sources as possible that if they hire Orson Scott Card to work for them, they’re going to take a financial hit? To put Card out of business? To make sure that someone is going to face financial ruin because he has opinions that differ from yours?

That is intolerant. It’s inelegant. It’s cheap and vicious and small-minded.

Intolerant is a funny word. Technically, someone is being intolerant if they are ever disrespectful of another person’s differing opinion, view, or belief. By calling Orson Scott Card a bigot earlier in this piece, I was displaying intolerance. Technically.

When I was reading up on Orson Scott Card last week (ie, scanning Wikipedia like a good internaught) I found an interesting piece that he wrote for Sunstone Magazine. Sunstone Magazine’s little summary in Google is: “Sunstone is an independent forum for open, thoughtful, and constructive discussion of all things Mormon.” Orson Scott Card wrote a piece for this magazine back in 1990 entitled “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.” In this piece, Card says the following (emphasis is, once again, mine):

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those whoflagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

The thing about intolerance is that it’s not a never-ending feedback loop. Showing tolerance to the intolerance that Orson Scott Card is suggesting in the previous quote is not good citizenship, it’s promoting an ideology of persecution. Boycotting Card’s involvement with Shadow Complex on the grounds that he’s a bigot, Peter David goes on to say (not in those words, of course), requires that one “[a]cknowledge that [he/she is] basically stooping to the same level of intolerance as those you would despise.”

So Peter David considers the boycott of a video game in which Orson Scott Card was involved to be on the same level as the denial of basic civil rights to homosexuals. Instead, Peter David suggests the following:

How refreshing would it be for a massive call that said, “Instead of having a boycott, let’s support this person financially because we want to show that we’re bigger and better and more tolerant and more accepting than he is, and our business is with the type of material he produces rather than his opinions. Let’s demonstrate by our actions what it’s like to understand and accept that different people have different ways of life and shouldn’t be attacked for it.”

Let’s demonstrate our maturity and tolerance of bigotry by giving the bigot more money. That’ll show him.

Passive-aggressive is the new civil action for political change.

Peter David then says something somewhat [more] unbelievable:

The issue of whether someone should buy “Shadow Complex” should boil down to one thing and one thing only: Is it an exciting game that will give you your money’s worth? If the answer is yes, then buy it. If the answer is no, then don’t. A gamer’s issues should be with whether he’s getting bang for his buck; not whether one of the people associated with the manufacture of the game is voicing ridiculous opinions.

In the end, a gamer shouldn’t care about things like civil rights, gay marriage, bigotry, or any thing like that. Peter David is here to say that there is only one thing that gamers should care about: is this game fun and exciting? After all, nothing matters more in a video game than fun.

All of the work put into the effort of discussing the charged meaning of Orson Scott Card’s involvement from GayGamer’s Dawdle and Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt appears to be lost in less than a paragraph. When even one of the game’s creative developer’s reflexively boils down the simplicity of Shadow Complex into mere “excitement” and “fun factor,” does the potential thematic meaning and political overtones of Shadow Complex even matter? Given David’s attitude, are any gamers even left wondering if this person could have consciously infused his world with the meaning that the game’s audience have been discussing intelligently (and the game’s universe, which was created by Orson Scott Card)?

I have yet to actually play Shadow Complex, but from what I’ve been told by friends, all of this discussion of Card’s involvement with the game (and what that involvement means) actually results in very little of substance. The game seems to dwell on nothing more than an average shmuck who falls in love with a girl, follows a girl into a cave, and high adventure follows from there. So… Is that it then?

Of course it’s not. Regardless of the game’s content, the larger point was always how gamers should treat the contributions of someone as hateful as Orson Scott Card. Maybe his views made it into the game, maybe they didn’t. What matters is that gamers took up the torch and all sat around pondering the implications of Card’s involvement, what the game became (or could have become), and what our reaction as gamers to the whole event would be.

Regardless of how it all played out, what matters is that Shadow Complex didn’t slip onto Xbox 360s everywhere without so much a whisper. Regardless of what the Peter Davids of the world say, it’s not just a game. It’s what you take from it.

Lie to Them

Everything I say is a lie.

When we read books, we tend to think that the perspective we’re reading is telling us the truth. It’s not something we ever doubt; we make a subconscious social contract with the work’s narrator: we’re reading through your story because you’re our window into this world. We have no way of knowing whether the narrator is willfully or ignorantly lying to us, we just have to take their knowledge and sincerity on faith alone.

Albert Camus’ The Fall is the story of Jean-Baptiste Clamence as told by Jean-Baptiste Clamence through a series of interactions with a bartender at a bar in Amsterdam. To this man, Clamence tells stories of his life, his sins, his hypocrisy, his lies, and his general philosophy on life. There’s never any reason to really trust what Clamence says, but the readers, through the assumption of the role of the character to whom Clamence is talking, do. Why would he be lying about some of his most mundane observations and his deepest insecurities and darkest acts? The answer: why not? Clamence applies his own philosophy of universal guilt upon the bartender by, essentially, making him accomplice to a crime. Not for a particularly malicious reason, just to illustrate the absurdity of life.

The Fall is my favorite literary example of the unreliable narrator. A term which is much like it sounds: the point of entry into some fictional world is solely through a person who is willfully (or not) deceiving readers. A more well-known example of this device is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but The Fall resonated with me like few other books I’ve read. The concept of the unreliable narrator is superb; much like the arrow present in the FedEx’s logo, once you’re introduced to the concept, the reading and interpretation of every book to follow is tainted by the knowledge.

A similar concept is employed in film to the same effect. Jacob’s Ladder is the story of a Vietnam veteran coping with life in the real world after he gets back from Vietnam. Except it’s not. It’s the slow realization of the central character and the movie’s viewers that what we accept to be a shared conception of reality may be nothing of the sort. And when what we accept to be real and tangible is disproved, what’s left?

The manipulation of truth, reality, and sanity is one of those thematic elements that I’ve always loved exploring and consuming. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to represent the sensation of distorted reality or the unreliable narrator through gameplay mechanics — the emphasis being on mechanics. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty attempted to manipulate its players’ concept of reality, but it was solely through narrative devices. It made no attempt, to my memory, to actually alter any portion of the core gameplay which the player relied on up to that point in the game. And that, to me, seems to be such a critical portion in the implementation of this concept.

One of the inherent side-effects of manipulating a player’s concept of reality within a video game seems to be the inherent frustration attached to most of the ideas I’ve had thus far. Sure, a game could consider tangible objects to be completely different entities than the ones which are rendered to the screen. The problem comes when a player walks over a floor of spikes in a game that he thought was a field of lilies — that isn’t an intelligent manipulation of his concept of what is real, it’s a test of his tolerance for frustration. And maybe some level of frustration is inherent to the concept to begin with; when Tim Robbin’s character in Jacob’s Ladder is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because everything he believes is falling apart, anger and frustration is a natural response. It’s a logical response to the realization that what we see and hear may be radically different from what everyone else sees and hears.

That’s not an idea that is readily transferable to any game I’ve played or any design I have thought up. Tom Clancey’s H.A.W.X. (yes, I would not have expected to ever write anything critically relevant about this game either) attempts to make players rethink their understanding of the game by causing a major interface element to go haywire in the last half/third of the game. Instead of relying on technological elements to aid players in their execution of the game’s missions, players are called-upon to rely more on what they see and observe rather than what their on-plane computer tells them. Unfortunately, instead of playing more with this concept, the game just reduces the window in which a missile lock will persist, but it’s still a relevant design choice: make the player rethink the way they interpret the commonly unchanging interface that he/she typically relies on.

I provide no answers in this piece, only musings on a set of devices that I’ve always found fascinating. The benefits of successfully employing a design which calls into challenge everything a player takes for granted seems, to me, well worth the time spent exploring the idea.

Game Design Round Table 3: Observing Open Worlds

Round Table Topic
When I was coming up with a topic for this round table, I realized that I quickly went back to thinking about all of the games I have been playing over the last few weeks: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Red Faction: Guerrilla, Infamous, Prototype, and Skate 2. All of these games have a unique approach to how they tell a story, introducing gameplay elements, and the handling of progression through the game. It’s strange to see so many similarities between some general mechanics between these games, but to see each one handle certain components so completely differently.

Infamous starts players off in a well-sized chunk of city with, primarily, standard methods of movement and a few primary missions to undertake as it slowly introduces players to the world. Prototype and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows both start players off at a point in the game much later than the actual “starting point” and give their players a taste of what kind of super-powers they’ll have towards the end of the game before they properly start and wipe the slate clean. Both Prototype and Spider-Man both have one singular thread of missions that players can embark on to actually advance the story (along with narrative-independent optional side-missions). Red Faction: Guerrilla leaves the entire world open (and destructible, but that’s irrelevant here), but progression through anything other than the primary cities is generally difficult. Skate 2 leaves the entire world open, provides players with a few “key activities” for progression, but also allows players to discover new activities and challenges purely through exploration.

The one game I have played in memory that had a truly open-world approach to both narrative and gameplay was Realtime Worlds’ Crackdown. This is a game where the player is given the task of eliminating three major crime organizations, with each organization calling a major section of the game’s city their territory. The player, then, has completely freedom to decide how this problem is tackled.

Crackdown’s structure is completely different from the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4 where, essentially, the structure is that of a linear game taking place in a large sandbox. It seems that this is the standard approach taken to open-world games: very directed narrative with traditional mission beginnings and endings where the gameplay is executed in specific locations of a large world. This allows designers to craft a traditional story while attempting to keep the gameplay open, varied, and unique by virtue of everything unfolding in a large sandbox.

Befitting of its topic, this discussion will be a bit more wide-open with room for people to discuss the narrative and gameplay benefits of the open world game structure. This means that contributions could be purely design observations on different approaches to sandbox gameplay, gameplay stories that illustrate a particular point, comparisons of different formats, or whatever else. This may be a hard topic for me to make a summary article out of, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. I realize the subject this time around is huge, non-specific, and has a ton of room for a variety of topics, but I’m sure you guys and gals will make something out of it. That said, here are some particular questions to start things off:

Relevant questions that may be good to tackle in this discussion:

  • What are the benefits of a fully free-form open world progression in open world games?
  • Conversely, what are the benefits of methodical, directed progression in an open world game structure? Is the structure of a line of primary missions (missions which advance the game’s core storyline) along with a host of side-missions/objectives an ideal case for open world games?
  • How does the wide-open nature of gameplay in an open world game impact gameplay and a designer’s approach to creating missions?
  • “Should” open world games strive to present the same types of stories as traditional games do or should the focus be on providing a toolset for player-born narratives? (This is the heart of emergent game design)

Observing Open Worlds

The most prominent issue in this round table was related to the design and consumption of open-world games and how fine a line is drawn between too open and overwhelming players and being too linear and not allowing for much free progression. This is really the heart of the problems inherent with designs which hinge on open worlds. How do we, as designers, create a gameplay experience which allows players to essentially design their own experiences through gameplay without allowing them to unintentionally create poor experiences for themselves? Aaron Miller’s superb post covers this problem:

[...] With sufficient complexity sandbox games also have the advantage that the experiences they present are, by their modular nature, are often unique (or at least highly individual) when taken as a whole. This can make a player feel that the adventure he or she has had is truly their own, rather than something carefully scripted by the designer.

Of course this strength is also a great weakness and is one of the hardest challenges I’m dealing with at the moment in my own design. If the world is open and you’re free to assemble experiences as you will, what’s to stop you (by your actions) from assembling mediocre or bad experiences and thus having a mediocre or bad game? I’m talking about closure and what makes the sum of your activities meaningful.

Linear games excel in this area, and although it’s annoying to me as a sandbox fan it’s also no surprise to me that many recent sandbox games have been trying to incorporate linear gameplay. Linear gameplay allows a designer to craft a series of singular, significant experiences that culminate in an emotionally resonant whole precisely because they happen one and only one way. Unlike in a game like Morrowind, where you can stumble on the end of a good storyline (and ruin it) just by wandering into the wrong place, a linear series of missions can surprise the player and mold their perceptions in a way that makes the end result satisfying.

That said, I hate linear content in a sandbox world unless it’s completely optional. But I’m also not a big fan of player created stories (for reasons mentioned previously). I guess I prefer the linear storytelling straight-jacket all the way on (as in FPS games where I tend to check my brain at the door) or all the way off, and half-linear measures leave me feeling that the designer is somehow taunting me or assuming I’m too stupid to take care of myself in their world. My gold standard for sandbox games is the venerable Binary Systems classic Starflight from the 80s. Their approach to storytelling was to scatter the narrative about an immense universe and challenge the player with putting it together. There were no missions per se, but the player was driven to overcome the sandbox world’s limits in order to learn more; if they failed, the universe was eventually destroyed (and although they could keep playing, without closure the experience was ultimately meaningless). Starflight, to me, embodies the core element of what makes a sandbox game with a story good: You have immense freedom, but it comes with responsibility. The designer doesn’t coddle you through the world, constantly remind you of what needs doing or provide waypoints that lead you by the nose. Nor does he gate content, assuming you can’t take a few knocks. Instead, he relies on you to use your brain and put the narrative elements together.

Maybe it’s an ethic that’s out of fashion in our current quick-fix culture, but I think the meaning you get from such an experience is far more rewarding than meaning that’s handed to you through linear missions.

Aaron raises a number of great points in this; my favorite of which is the notion of players essentially “earning” their experience and it being more worthwhile for the effort that they put into it. There is never a single situation where we, as designers, ever want our players to have a bad gameplay experience. This is not something that I personally consider to even be a possible debate; there is simply no reason for a given game design to even allow for players to come away with a negative gameplay experience because a certain format enforced certain inputs. I’m actually kind of disappointed that more of the contributions that followed in this Round Table didn’t seem to pick up on or build upon aspects of Aaron’s post. The open-world format seems to be an ideal situation for a design focused on emergent gameplay, but given the combination of these two factors the possibility of allowing for negative gameplay experience is almost inevitable.

The first of John Judnich two posts raises two great points:

A completely open world would have no pre-written plot at all; the plot would emerge from the simulation. Obviously, linear plots are implemented typically because the kind of dynamics (social, political, etc.) for the story style desired would be far too complex to implement in a fully dynamic simulation in most cases.

[...]

Note that while human-written “plots” (linear events that must happen) are counter to a sandbox game design, a fully open world can still have human-written “stories” in that the game simulation and AI strategies / characters themselves can be carefully crafted in such a way that the situation encourages a certain type of plot to emerge. Obviously, even if a game has a 100% realistic simulation, it would be no different from real life and therefore there would not be much motivation to play it. This is where the emergent game design comes in; rather than writing exciting linear plots, you write exciting environments, situations, and AI dynamics.

A subsequent post Clinton Myers makes pretty much the exact opposite claim [Note: I am re-ordering his post a bit]:

[...] I believe that the best form of an open-ended game is one that offers the player a wealth of optional non-critical missions – missions not pertaining to the main story arch – where each of these missions are involved and linear in nature. Furthermore, I believe that the core story arch should be as equally optional as these supplementary missions.

[...]

Consider Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Nearly everything in the aforementioned game is optional, including the main quest. The player can spend well over a hundred hours simply reaping enjoyment from entirely optional sub quests, some of which are large enough to be fit into a separate game in and of themselves. Though the quests are linear, the player is still empowered with the ability to choose which quests to complete (or not to complete) which creates a strikingly powerful illusion of choice. This feeling of choice instills in the player a deeper attachment to the world and character at hand, and thus keeps them immersed and actively involved in the game. Reinforcement of progression of the main story arch (nagging the player to follow the main quest) is not necessary due to the large wealth of supplementary material that can keep the player interested. Notice how the availability of many sub-missions is the sole factor that makes Oblivion open-ended. Remove this extra material and we still have the game (the main storyline) but now we have a totally linear story that the player is thus forced to play (as there would be nothing else to pique the player’s interest.)

What we have here are the two completely different opinions that get to the heart of the primary issue with open-world game design: keeping the game open while making the story as befitting the format as possible while still motivating players to actually experience and progress through the game. John Judnich’s reply, while idealistic and largely hypothetical, makes a very compelling point:

A true open world is a world where, like I said in my other post, the rules of the simulation determine the story and the plot. Once you realize how a simulation and AI can be designed to make an infinite number of interesting dynamic plots happen under your (the designer) rules, you’ll see I think that a game’s story “backbone” doesn’t have to be derived from good predefined linear plots – it can be derived from good characters, good environments, and good interactions. And the immersion factor increases exponentially because the virtual world actually does become much more “real” this way.

The ideal open world is one which takes a player’s unique approach to a given game and responds to it in ways that both make sense and are equally unique for that player. Despite the number of games which seem to do this, the idea behind an open-world design should not be the molding of a traditional game into a design that’s more current with a “hot trend” in gaming. If we, as designers, consider a gameplay progression format a neat way to present old ideas, then we’re not taking advantage of the format. In the initial post for this round table, I mentioned Spider-Man: Web of Shadows as a game I had been playing recently and while the open-world the game employed fit its source material well, its actual implementation failed to present any compelling reason for an open-world aside from swinging around. The story was a linear trek through a series of missions with “optional side-missions” being MMO fare (kill x number of y dudes for z experience). The exploration was handled through a scattering of collectable power-ups which tasks a player with the obsessive compulsive urge to collect things rather than truly motivating a player to explore.

And along these lines, Christian Arca presents a particularly noteworthy open-world game experience in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars:

I think that Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is a beautiful example of an open world environment. In fact, I think I have never had the pleasure of playing an open-world environment that was as much fun as that one. While I was doing the main story-line missions, every single time I was driving by I would see something which I had the option to explore, and not only that, but I wanted to! There was this secondary design to the world which enticed me and rewarded me to explore the city. Maybe it was because without selling drugs I would be flat out broke and without money, but the side missions / exploration I was doing was so good that I was afraid of finishing the game.

This approach to the open world design is not new or original, but it seems to be one of the most effective ways of approaching the format while still adhering to traditional progression and story-telling methods. I call this approach the Saints Row 2 method — which is by no means an intelligent moniker (nor is the source game the first to take this approach), but it’s a game which approaches this type of open world game design with such intelligence that it deserves to have a term coined from it.

Saints Row 2 is a game which blatantly riffs off of the earlier Grand Theft Auto games. It is un-apologetically about gangs, cars, violence, drugs, and mass mayhem. Saints Row 2 is, however, very well aware of the absurdity of all of these factors thrown into a single game and, as such, chooses to make the most of the cocktail and throw in so many mini-games, side-quests, and parallel main storyline missions that it essentially assaults the player with such a variety of things to do that the open-world sandbox becomes a sandbox filled with every toy a child could ever want. Saints Row 2 takes the approach that an open-world is an area to be explored and that every action a player wants to engage in should yield an enjoyable result. This does not create a coherent, immersive gaming experience necessarily, but it provides players with an incredibly fun series of gameplay events within an open-world setting.

Open-world focused games are currently being explored in a huge number of retail games. There is no real “proper” approach to the handling of such a gameplay structure, but it is a worthwhile endeavor to attempt to decipher what certain games bring to the format that others like and vice versa. The Grand Theft Auto series is still the most popular — both critically and commercially — open-world game to be released and there’s certainly a reason for that success. But what does Grand Theft Auto’s handling of the format mean for the future of games in this vein? Due to the wide exposure of GTA, do players expect open-world games that follow to retain a similarly rigid structure?

I’ll leave that question open (!).

Epic Scale

Narrative is an essential part of any game; I don’t think anyone ever denies that point. Even the most emergent game design has the goal of presenting some sort of narrative to its players. Story sets the stage for meaning (of gameplay). It frames the player’s context for the actions he engages in within a game world. When I rail against cut scene heavy games or completely non-interactive, heavy-handed delivery of a writer’s script to players, it’s not the story that’s the problem, it’s the presentation. In an ideal world, we, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing — the actions that players engage in and the feats they undergo.

When games give players the epic scope of saving the galaxy, destroying some reawakened ancient evil, or whatever other classical portrayal of good versus evil on a grand scale, they’re fulfilling gamers’ power fantasies. It’s hard to infuse any real intimacy into these scenarios. They’re inherently “cool” and maybe some of the characters were memorable for some specific reason, but the emotional bonds with the people met and the events that occurred are so far removed from anything resembling our every day reality. When gamers recall the events of Halo, the destruction of Halo and the invasion of the Flood. When we think about most Final Fantasy games, it’s hard not to think about the generic world-ending event that was the central story conflict. Even Mass Effect, a game which put such an emphasis on the people around the player for the beginning of the game, has its most memorable moments when some ancient alien race enters the picture to destroy the galaxy. If it weren’t for the sex scene, would we, as gamers remember any of the personal events in the game?

To look at the majority of games, one might think that gamers care only about saving the world. What happened to saving the guy/girl? Having an arch-nemesis that was bad because he was a believable form of corrupt human being that didn’t have a final form that takes up numerous screens?

When I think of The Darkness, I think of Jenny.

I recently finished playing through this game and while the premise of the game and the game mechanics is the existence of The Darkness — a thoroughly corrupt, evil, other-worldly force bent on death and destruction — the story was about love and vengeance. There is an absolutely brilliant scene in the beginning of the game where the game’s protagonist, Jackie Estacado, sits on the couch with his girlfriend Jenny. She makes some comment about it being her apartment so she gets to control the television remote control and she puts “To Kill a Mockingbird” on. At this point, Jackie and Jenny simply relax and watch the old movie. Jenny gets cold and cuddles up with Jackie, the two hold hands, and eventually she falls asleep. The player, at this point, can choose to just sit with Jenny as long as he wants and watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird. At some point, though, the player has to progress with the game and the story, and the mere choice of getting up and leaving Jenny on the couch while she sleeps is actually kind of a hard decision to make. Any player who allows himself to get immersed in the game should feel a sense of security and love during this scene while understanding the complete violence that lay ahead for the player and Jackie once the choice to leave the apartment is made.

Soon after, the game makes a stark, wide-reaching tonal change and becomes a story of revenge against a pair of, admittedly, very two-dimensional villains (though the villains remain very human, defeat-able foes). Despite how crazy The Darkness gets, the theme of the real-world portions of the game remain not only grounded in reality (aside from the player’s Darkness abilities) but focused on traditional mafia movie values of family, tradition, and respect. The game utilizes the fantastical nature of The Darkness to externalize the protagonist’s inner struggle with violence amidst a profound love he feels for Jenny. The Darkness (the entity) also happens to serve as the player’s entry-way to some fascinating and enjoyable gameplay mechanics.

The Darkness works so well as a game due to its focus and cohesion. Despite actually sending the player to an unbelievably insane vision of “hell” (it’s not hell, but it’s a good descriptor for people who haven’t played the game or read the source material), somehow it never feels like the player is blowing up the Death Star. It remains grounded in the conflict of its four central characters: Jackie, Jenny, and the two villains. It’s an intimate story that expertly informs the entirety of the player’s gameplay experience.

And as a result of that intimate focus, The Darkness is one of those games that will stick with me.

Embrace

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.” [...] We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game.

– Jeff Kaplan (Former Director of World of Warcraft) Speaking at the 2009 Game Developers Conference

Shortly after I started my first play session of BattleForge last week, I discovered that a majority of the real-time strategy game’s back-story and narrative was delivered to the player in an unfortunately common way:

The in-game book, in that screen shot, is displaying a mere two pages of that selected chapter’s storyline. There are five more chapters in that “Plot” book, and then even more like it in the “World” and “Legend” books. This is a game released to the world’s foremost interactive medium and it is relaying its significant narrative through a tiny, digital book. Mass Effect, too, chose to have an in-game encyclopedia/compendium feature in its game menu which served as a means for players to read an enormous amount of back-story and flavor text about the world in which the game took place. The Elder Scrolls games have an abundance short stories that could be found in logical spots within the game worlds and then read by players at their leisure.

Why? Why do we, game designers and developers, feel the need to expound on our games to the point where we task players, as optional a task as that may be, to sit and stare at their monitors reading digital books? When a player is given a large body of text in a video game, the general assumption is that this text is of some import to the game being played. The result is that we allow, and even promote, our players reading these bodies of text that very rarely have any gameplay relevance whatsoever. And, even worse, these works of writing are generally of poor quality and bland style the likes of which would never end up within the covers of any proper published book. The net result of throwing page after page of in-game text at players is that we abort any semblance of game pace while simultaneously conditioning players to consider any text within the game world as irrelevant or mundane. This doesn’t enhance the believability or character of the game world, it makes players stop playing the game and, instead, has them reading the writing of either game developers who have a thin grasp on the basic concepts of creative writing or the work of a contracted novelist who has a thin grasp on video games.

We are the experts on our medium, yet for some reason we still take countless cues from movies and books for our influences and presentation. If a game is a fantasy game, then its developers seem to take it upon themselves to attempt to create Lord of the Rings inside their game with The Silmarillion occupying in-game books and menus. If it’s a science-fantasy game, then Star Wars and every Star Wars book ever written must ship within the game.

There’s a widely-understood phenomenon regarding the book-to-movie translation: it doesn’t work. Books have the written power to convey thoughts, images, emotion to their readers while also providing an author with the flexibility to include as much information as he or she feels is necessary to make the book a complete work. Exceptionally books can be hard for readers to slog through, but the medium is not meant for consumption within the confines of a single sitting. Books are typically where readers will find most of our cultural and historical epics, incredibly detailed biographies, recounts of events and so on.

Film is a medium where concision, however, is paramount. The primary success of a film depends entirely on the success of the film’s director and screenwriters to convey every single one of their goals and intentions within a one-and-a-half to three hour period. In order to do this properly, the scriptwriters must make every word count while also depending on the movie’s actors’ ability to not only deliver the line but also to bodily express more than what is in explicitly in the script. The result, ideally, is a cinematic experience that has been very carefully directed and edited to produce the most succinct and powerful delivery possible.

The idea that the video game industry can just mash the breadth of detail and information of a book and the visuals and presentation of a movie with the inherent dynamism and unpredictability of an interactive medium is pretty absurd. That the game industry has gotten by this long by attempting to take so many cues from such well-established creative media is a testament to the craftsmanship and creativity of the game developers throughout the ages, but the days of text-heavy role-playing games are gone. Even gamer tolerance of cinematic-heavy games like Metal Gear Solid seems to have started to dwindle. At this point in the life of the video game, anything that takes the player out of the game actively works against the interest and integrity of the game design. And games that take the player out of the flow of gameplay in an effort to expound on the game world or universe through awkwardly-presented narrative is strange dichotomy to think beneficial to any game.

Embrace the benefits of video games. The medium has a unique ability to empower a player’s actions with meaning and the medium is getting to a time where technology and the collected knowledge of game design allows us to “know better” than to just throw a cut scene or a novel at players. If a back-story about this one character who did this one thing a millennium ago doesn’t directly impact the player’s gameplay experience, don’t toss it in with the other unrelated works of text — toss it out. Allow the player to interact with that character in a meaningful way and, maybe, convey that same information in a more concise and dynamic way. When a player shares in another character’s experience in a fashion that is unique to a given type of gameplay, that empowers that interaction and the information that the player receives more than just reading some arbitrary back-story in a book.

And please, please find a new pool of inspiration outside of fantasy and science-fantasy.