Comments from yesterday's article prompted me to write a second update to discuss Bethesda's approach to open world games, since they're the other major player and take a markedly different approach worth discussing. We'll save the final discussion for where exactly we might like to pitch our own vision of an "open world" style game for a third installment.
The most obvious difference between Rockstar and Bethesda's approach to open world games is that the former makes action games and the latter makes RPG games. Where GTA has flirted memorably with light character mechanics with GTA:San Andreas, it's easy to see how far different the worlds are because of the RPG traditions of character creation and role assumption.
Not only am I naming and controlling the appearance of my character, the game assumes I am choosing a moral stance as well as preference for archetypal playstyles: warrior, rogue, or wizard, in the broad strokes, and all the flavors and subclasses in between.
As players we can assume much of the game/world content has been built to accommodate this spectrum of different player abilities and approaches. Tommy, CJ, or Niko we pick dress up clothes for but their stories are not ours; the traditional RPG focus of Bethesda's games assume a far greater stake in both role-creation and role-playing. We're expected to make decisions.
I explain the painfully obvious aspects of an action game character vs. an RPG character because I think it's important here in how their respective worlds are designed relative to player input. An action character has a set, narrow verb set but with generally greater resolution in those verbs, whereas RPGs take a broader approach, with a loss of fine resolution typically in action-style combat mechanics (though it's interesting here to note the hybrid forms in Mass Effect 1/2).
One key concern here is that Niko has no method to of interaction with other characters in the world, one to one, other than violence. He may play games, pay vendors for food or clothing, go on dates or hire a prostitute but these are only available contextually. Walking on the street with his girlfriend, his cousin, or past a police officer we are allowed either passivity or violence. This is why the otherwise incredibly well realized world of Liberty City seems so flat by comparison to much smaller-scoped, but more richly detailed games. We may not encounter nearly as many citizens of whatever fantasy realm as pedestrians in Liberty City, but we can be assured we have at least some shallow, non-violent interactions with most of them.
I am less an admirer of most fantasy settings; lesser still impressed when games lack an emphasis on finely tuned movement and combat mechanics, which I think has arguably been a weak point in Bethesda's games. So as with Part 1 I will use a post quote to enable discussion, this time from Internet scholar Liesmith:
I think if you talk about the Bethesda model you should talk about the Daggerfall -> Morrowind -> Oblivion spectrum. Daggerfall is really innovative and provides a ton of stuff for the player to do, but it's overwhelming and specific towns + dungeons are bland because of the random generation. Still stuff like the item rules, where you trap souls and each soul has specific properties which it adds to your items, that's awesome and really ambitious.
Morrowind is a varied experience with really cool shit to do, and the best stuff is exploring a sweet ruin or tomb that no quest pointed you to, and finding a great sword or a book in dwarvish that needs translating. At the same time the quests are a lot of fun, especially since you have to seek them out rather than having them thrust upon you. It's a little scary at first though because gamers aren't used to so much freedom. Also fast travel is resolved in-game, with silt striders, teleport spells or boats.
Then Oblivion is a game that fails in exactly the opposite way as Daggerfall. In order to ease the new gamer's fear of the unknown and lack of direction, they made everything bland and introduced an insulting quest arrow. Fast traveling is similarly dumbed down, and at every turn it feels like they made the safe choices.
Daggerfall is almost punishingly vast in scope, perhaps crippled by overarching ambition for its period; Morrowind is a balancing act of reduced scope but greater specificity in how locations are realized; Oblivion narrows scope further for better graphical fidelity as well as ease of play considerations. Popularly speaking, it seems that Goldilocks picked Morrowind, though Oblivion was by no means unpopular.
Generally speaking I find that Bethesda's approach to open world design is a lot more winning than Rockstar's, in terms of response to a player's desire to play the game by their own rules. Least of all because of this sort of thing, again from Liesmith:
Also in Morrowind, you can kill everybody. This is a pretty crude measure of freedom but it's important. Some people will break the plot if they die, and it will tell you that you have done so after you kill the god Vivec or whoever. But it lets you keep playing because the main quest isn't a big deal.
I think this is an important element because of what it means about the overall character of the world and the designer's esteem of the player.
One of my greatest issues with the GTA experience is that the free play/story mission bifurcation makes me feel as though I am a child allowed to play in a consequence free environment until I decide to "behave" and do the story missions, and over time I'm rewarded with progress in the game world: more of the city becomes available, safehouses, money, etc.
A game like Morrowind, by placing even important story characters "in the world" and at the mercy of the vengeful player suggests greater trust in the player's intelligence and desire to shape his own experience. If I begin my game and I decide I would like nothing better to do than to exterminate every character I come across, I could go a very long way toward this goal. This is a lauded feature of other classic RPG franchises, such as Fallout. Is this simply revealing how much we value mass-murdering in a game? Or is it an act of good faith by the designer?
To me it says the designers realize the player understands that if they kill the guy handing out all the quests, they're probably not going to be able to get to the golden castle high on the ridge that's at the end of all of this. Or maybe they will, but not the way they would have if they'd done the quest. But instead of considering this a gamebreaker and flatly disallowing it, it assumes that it's meaningful to the player that even quest NPCs are mortal; that there might be clever alternate solutions, ways to game the system.
In the end the game's respect for me as a player ends usually spells how much respect I have for the game in return. How much leeway as a player to do I get toward making my own fun?
How important is that to you as a player? Watch for part three for further discussion.