Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Open world issues Part 2: the Bethesda model

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 33

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.

There's a lot to unpack here, but I appreciate him introducing a basic spectrum to talk about complexity of the world and correspondingly the emphasis each game places on the player's own will to conquer or explore. This seems consistent with what I have experienced of each title.
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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Open world issues Part 1: the Rockstar model

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 19

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.
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