Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Open world issues Part 1: the Rockstar model

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Many designers and players consider the open world design a kind of ultimate, one that trumps more traditional forms.
I would argue that this simply isn't true; if only on the grounds that no one genre or design style can trump all others. (Chess is likely not improved by changing the board from 64 squares to 128.)
Yet it remains a kind of holy grail. The success of Rockstar's GTA series seems to prove there to be a valid, stable model for open world game design. But how successful is it? Certainly it makes money, but I question the coherence of the structure. Not only do open world designs open up new and typically unresolved design problems, they inherit longer-standing design issues with linear games.

The main criticism of GTA was so well formulated by Internet Rockstar Dr.Pwn that I will quote the relevant post directly:

The actions of the player character in GTA4 can best be described as the actions of two separate characters, one who reflects the player's decisions during normal gameplay (run over a sidewalk full of people, kill a bunch of cops), and one that is unilaterally imposed through scripted sequences. (Look at Niko as he shows that he loves Kate. Look at Niko as he feels bad about crime.).The game privileges the "choices" of the second over the first, even when they're in direct contradiction. The game's insistence that the player character, say, loves Kate even when the player has indicated the opposite, makes Niko defined by player choice the "fake" one and the one defined by scripted interaction the "real" one.

And therein lies the problem. Few open world games truly commit themselves to the operative paradigm. What at first appears to be a coherent world in which the player has surprising free agency turns out to be rigidly separated spheres of "fake" and "real" play. Our player Niko, "fake" Niko, drives around, dresses, and acts as psychotically as he pleases, even on dates or outings with friends, where he might endanger their lives any number of times. He may only express himself in terms of infantile rage or excess, but here he is wholly under player control.
But none of this makes the permanent record. Cops shake their heads and say "aw, shucks" to the preeminent mass murderer of the city, who goes by the hospital to pick up his cousin Roman who forgives him for the tenth or so exploding or sunken car he was abandoned to.
 When we want to advance the story, we trigger a mission cutscene and re-inhabit "real" Niko, who despite being our player character we exercise little to no control over; it is as if the three hours or thirty hours we have spent running amok in Liberty City have not happened at all.

It says to the player, look: go ahead and have fun, but nothing you do will impact the true story of the game, which resides in the hermetically sealed parallel world of the story missions. Once the player acquiesces and begins a story mission, to their chagrin they are now in a linear, scripted mission with fixed consequences as one would find in any other game. And this is a "sandbox" game?
Despite the story missions taking place in technically the same world as the player's free-form antics, they are governed by the old rules. We watch cutscenes where Niko emotes in a manner often inconsistent with how we have played him. He wears the same clothes as our player-Niko, but otherwise might as well be an entirely different character. We are handed down the real story of the game in film-like format, though designers may stoop to allow the player ruling on a paltry MORAL CHOICE (please read Clint Hocking's revelant comments on this if you haven't already).

It is an elaborate charade stemming from the desire to emulate the entirely dissimilar medium of film and its emotional hallmarks. Except games are not film, and so the farther games move toward emulating film production, the farther player agency will necessarily close down.
It is exponentially prohibitive to create motion-captured, voice-acted movie-like content for all the many possible actions that player-Niko might choose. So instead of devising and building story content that might suitably conform to player agency, the designers choose instead to cripple meaningful player volition to conform roughly to that of film.

A typical scenario for GTA4 mission:
Introductory cutscene (1), which gives plausible set-up for what will invariably end as a chase sequence since Niko must kill NPC X. Player then drives to designated point, and is treated to/mocked with another short cutscene (2) where we meet colorful NPC X, who usually outwits Niko before we regain input control. At which point NPC X hops into a car or onto a motorcycle and is generally invulnerable to damage until chased successfully to another location, where he might taunt the player again (3). There we fight a number of armed goons, conjured ex nihilo, until finally we meet NPC X in yet another cutscene (4), possibly with the explicit prompt of a MORAL CHOICE to kill him or not, which means a short final cutscene to render this verdict (5a and 5b).
At several points during this mission a clever player might think of various ways to kill NPC X well before the end of the mission, but this is generally not allowed because how will the player A) watch the great cutscenes toward the end of the mission or B) know that he has a MORAL CHOICE in whether or not to kill him? (Nevermind the 20 or so dispatchable goons who stay alive as a result of NPC X and the player not arriving at the second location.)
I profess admiration for the incredible army that create several minutes worth of cutscenes that show up with every mission. But these nougats of film-like content are what hobble the player from making any serious choices for Niko; they are ultimately a trap.
Because once all that time and money is spent, those that are involved become increasingly unwilling to relegate the content to optional, possible outcomes of player choice. What if like many players I am singularly uncharmed by Kate and my version of Niko never voluntarily hangs out with her? Then we lose the entire ham-fistedly tragic arc she is involved in.
"No," says our hypothetical producer, "if we're paying for the voice-acting and the motion capture for all these sequences, they're going to be seen." Or if there points in the story where the player can make significant choices, they must be limited to key points, in order to keep costs down. Cutscenes, a technique that might have been initially deployed as an aid to player investment or immersion, ultimately end up crippling player agency.

Dr.Pwn (a real, accredited medical doctor and professor) continues:

I then looked at the "world" of GTA4 in a similar manner. Parallels can be found if one views GTA4 as an overworld, collection of mission-worlds, and number of scripted sequences (a scripted-world, if you will). The overworld is a flat, uninteractive, and basically empty place in which the mission activation beacons can be driven to by the player. It is neither host to nor reflective of any meaningful player action. The actual action (as well as all of the unique NPCs and conversations and objectives and such) are found in the missions. Unfortunately, these bear little relevance to the story, which is defined almost solely through uninteractive, scripted events. This isn't good and they should stop doing this.

I agree wholeheartedly. I'm not completely against games that rely heavily on cutscenes, but I want to make sure that they are not understood as the only and certainly far from the best way to make games.
 It is as if I am reading a book and am asked to queue up a DVD or youtube clip, at the end of which I return to the book. A novel that employs such a technique might be well regarded, maybe as an entertaining novelty, but likely not considered a superior example of the form by very nature of its reliance on another medium. This is how I feel about games with cutscenes: invariably most of their energy is going toward aping a
dissimilar form. The games I have fondest memories of employed cutscenes infrequently, if at all.

But what are the solutions? What might an open world game look like when we eschew cutscenes as both an emotional/story crutch? How far propagated might player agency become, and is there such a thing as giving the player too much influence? How do we activate the play space of an open world in a way that does not rely predominantly on canned, linear-style missions?

Tomorrow we'll look at the solutions we might plausibly consider to resolve these design issues. In other words "stay tuned," cutscene fans.


Draco Houston said...

I wonder if the success of games like Bioware's Mass Effect will show other developers that it is ok when the player doesn't see everything. Although, games like that are linear plot-wise so it is much easier to cover all the things your players will do, every player will pass through common plot points and locations. Strangely enough that kind of structure seems to be giving more real player choice than sandboxes so far.

Ron said...

Great read!
How do you feel about Morrowind's open world, where you can send the whole main quest to hell and just do whatever you want, in a world that is full of possible interaction, from buying a house to reside in to joining factions which might be more akin to your way of thought?

shinymans said...

I've always sort of wondered how with such a crazy budget and unlimited dev time that gta4 had they never really tried to give the player a slightly nonlinier experience aside from the two points in the game where the player choice affects literally a couple of rooms and some dialog.

James said...

I think the issue with GTA appears to be consistency but it's story is absolutely linear and in the series they always have been. This comes off as a strange juxtaposition between their free world design and the narrative. It's odd how Rockstar put their focus on cinematic stories when it was, and still is (for most) the open gameplay that draws people to the series.

As Ron suggests, I'd like to see the same criticisms applied to hub games like Morrowind, Oblivion and Fallout. When it comes to creating open game play I hold Bethesda in much higher regard.

Johnnyburn said...

Nice post Jack.

The Morrowind comments above make me think about how occasional "bugs" in the interconnected missions could screw up a quest arc permanently. The possibility of encountering one of these bugs gave me real anxiety about my choices. Decisions that can have lasting and irreversible consequences are exciting things.

Also, this cutscene immerses the player/plumber. *Punches Toad in the face*

Joshua said...

Re: Bethesda's open world games, I think it's notable that they don't employ cutscenes in a traditional sense. The closest you get are talking head dialogue sequences. So those games pretty much cover the scenario of open-world games that "eschew cutscenes as both an emotional/story crutch".

The Mass Effect series presents a potentially more interesting case, since they've managed to incorporate both player choice and cinematic cutscenes into the game design. (Although they don't have the same type of "open world" or "sandbox" design as GTA/Elder Scrolls/Fallout.) One way Bioware has attempted to solve the budget issue in animating cutscenes the player will never see seems to have been developing a library of stock animations that can be re-used in different situations. I'm thinking here of the gestures Shepard (and other characters) uses in various dialogue scenes, such as the stock "shrug" or the stock "head scratch" or the stock "air quotes" animations. These can be strung together to create a lively performance for each branching dialogue cutscene without having to animate each one individually. And it does seem like many of them get reused for the more "cinematic" cutscenes, as well, just with different programming of the virtual camera. A pretty clever compromise, if you ask me.

Nels Anderson said...

I can't help but feel like Just Cause 2 is actually a reasonable response to this problem. It obviously doesn't have any kind of narrative substance, but there is harmony between what the protagonist wants/does and what the player wants/does.

What do most players of sandbox games seek out? To cause mayhem and setup insane stunt moments (e.g. this video series). Just Cause 2 has that baked into its fundamental mechanics and feedback systems. That it doesn't take itself seriously at all actually seems to be quite beneficial.

Creating that harmony with aesthetics that aren't just action moments is the challenge. Curious about your take on it.

Robert Yang said...

Unless you have an army of artists churning out an (infinite) amount of content to conform to every possible combination of choices, you'll always have this dissonance.

I think there's another solution -- change how we "read" games.

Right now it's assumed that your player choices should completely override Niko's moral universe, but they don't. He's his own character.

I mean, players are already hugely limited in their interaction: you can't pick up a soda can and put it in the trash, you can't buy a chair and put it in your apartment, you can't suddenly decide Niko is gay.

So why are we freaking out over these limitations? Why can't I have hot steamy gay sex in every single open world game? "ARGH BAD GAME DESIGN"

He's his own character. You just choose the stuff that happens to him, but he'll still react his own way. You're a puppetmaster, yes, but this puppet has his own world view and there's nothing you can do to change that.

Ben said...

It's intriguing what you say about linearity, because, thinking about it, how "open" is GTAIV, really? Invariably in most missions of the game, you really are restricted to certain roads and routes either behind the wheel or on foot (I challenged someone to find something more linear than a goddamn highway) and deviating from those either fails the mission entirely, or certainly drags out what could be done simply (say, for instance, getting stuck behind a surprisingly sturdy tree sapling for the zillionth time as you chase down the next person on the hitlist through a park or what have you). One would think that having a sandbox world would thus allow you multiple choices in tackling a particular situation. Thinking about it - given how nuts and fun GTAIV can be, why, when I need to infiltrate a warehouse or some such to oust some rival mobster, can't I just find the nearest bulldozer and level the entire place to the ground? It would save me all that time spent with lame Gears of War-esque cover mechanics bollocks, and is perfectly in keeping with what people really play Grand Theft Auto for: to fuck shit up.

I look forward to your solutions, Jack.

Anonymous said...

@Mr. Yang, I agree with your comment about the army of artists-- even the largest studios only have so much time and money with which to produce a game. However, one could consider the whole choice/player agency set as inversely proportional to the complexity of those interactions. If you want all the player decisions to be marked by skillfully rendered and motion captured cinematics, then the number of decisions that you can allow the player to make will be dramatically limited. Yet if you remove that stipulation, then one can use all the time and effort no longer sunk into creating elaborate cutscenes to instead create a much broader (albeit more simply resolved) range of possible player input.

The problem that I have with your main argument Robert is that there's severe dissonance with GTA's gameplay and the player as 'puppeteer'. GTA's game world (not the specific mission structure/cutscenes) provides complete freedom; you as the player are in no way bound by the "game Niko" and his moral compunctions. Playing in the open-world area tells the player that *they* are Niko, and that it is the player's sense of morality or lack thereof that defines how the game is played. But once the player engages on a mission, there is a whiplash effect where the player is suddenly reined in to conform to the model of "game Niko". The problem isn't in either the 'puppeteer' or freeform playable styles themselves, but in having both within a single game. Having complete agency while playing in the open-world mode, I chafe at its loss when forwarding the story.

The 'puppeteer' approach simply isn't appropriate within the confines of GTA's gameplay. What you are advocating is much more at home in a game like Heavy Rain. When I play as Ethan Mars or Scott Shelby, I as the player clearly recognize that I am not them, that rather I am chaperoning these characters from one scene to the next. I do not define their character or morality; instead I define their success or failure while operating within those confines. And just as I chafe at the loss of freedom in GTA's story mode, in the same way I would find it wholly inappropriate if Heavy Rain were to suddenly shift into an open-world/sandbox mode.

Dhatz said...

That's rigt, I always hated that GTAs would never let me do things my way and always come with their own predetermined conclusion. for examle the mission where you enter through roof with packie(maybe). Only sometimes I can snipe/explode somebody instead of GoWing to him/them. I say let the player decide if he takes the role of a viewer who enjoys the original idea while keeping the choice on player side. But that is as weak as the social system of GTA SA and IV. it's just not thought through. there is no choice other than murdering everyone or escaping.

James said...

@Joshua I think you should try Fallout 3 for sure, Bethesda really made efforts to fix the issue of cut scenes as they were (taking a few influences from Valve I think). Some of the end sequences were very engaging.

I agree, though, Mass Effect 2's style was almost 'there'. They opted to try a cinematic angle, and they've probably found the best compromise between that and player choice. (I haven't played Heavy Rain yet, however, I'd like to see what that plays out like).

Jory said...

Late to this particular show.

Even though I definitely wasn't "charmed" by Kate myself, I think my experience with GTA4's player agency vectors was considerably more positive than some others mainly because I found the story (and the Housers' writing) very compelling overall. In a manner similar to what Robert Yang seems to suggest above, I decided to commit to the character of Niko Bellic presented in the game's cutscenes. In spite of the transparency and dissonance presented by the game's shallow moral choices, I had rather a fun experience with the game as I tried to narrow those dissonances; I tried, for example, to limit (even to eliminate) wanton destruction from the game's overworld sequences. As a result, after some time with the game I came to regret the harming of innocent NPC's nearly as much as Jack's "Real Niko" does.

I don't know if you have already seen it, but there is a pretty nice summary of the conversation surrounding Heavy Rain's player agency over at BrainyGamer. For my money the game does a terrible job of actually effecting player input.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion I think that GTA3 did the story and game play much better.

First the main character of GTA3 never spoke. But, unlike the Gordon Freeman model of silent protagonist. This guy was just completely insane. He was a Psychopath that could feel so little empathy for people, so he refused to even talk to them. And only a character like this can run over fifty people, hijack the ambulance that tries to rescues them, and then for no reason use it to help other injured people. Unlike Niko who is really fake during free playing.

Also I think the missions of GTA3 were also better because to me it felt like you were having fun playing the sandbox but now try it like this. Personally I think the missions were pretty much play the sandbox but have a little more fun.

I think that GTA3 didn't have as many flaws as the 4th did.

PublickOccurencez said...

Saints Row 2, the nearest game to GTA4, handles this really well.

Your character is an asshole. They're mean to their friends and sociopathic to their enemies.

In one sequence (spoiler)

your character kidnaps another gang leader's girlfriend, stuffs her in her own car, and drives her to a monster truck rally. There, your character drives the car to the end of a line of other cars.
The rival gang leader drives his monster truck over his own girlfriend's car. Your character than taunts him, throws him the car keys, and says "check in the trunk".

It's amazing when the main character in a game is a little bit crazier and edgier than you play them, even if you play as a cop killing barbarian.

Shinymans said...

after playing through the GTA4 DLC episodes I am really happy to say that rockstar seems to have gotten over that terrible talk>chase>group of thugs>moral choice formula that makes playing through gta4 daunting and boring

wilbefast said...

Good post :-)

Interesting to note that GTA 3 featured a blank slate of a character, who pretty much never spoke. This allowed the player to project their own personality on the character: the cut-scenes existed to showcase the other NPCs' personalities but not the protagonist's, so you got the best of both worlds.

Over time the character you control has been giving more and more lines and more and more of a clearly defined personality. I wonder why...

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