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On The Level: Open World VS Experience

Posted on May 31, 2012 AT 11:30am

Growing up as a gamer, I had to take my sides in the console wars. For years you were able to start a fight with friends and family by just taking sides. We did so graciously, for as nerds, we are programmed to protect our passions. But something is happening in the world of gaming and I don’t think that people notice it: The war has transformed from being an active one to more of a passive one. I don’t deny that it is still a heated argument, I just think that the current zeitgeist is a battle of experiences rather than the vehicle for it. In this day and age, there are so many ways of playing games that being a non-gamer is actually unheard of.  Consider what the original console wars were about, which at home consoles were the best way to play? But now there are consoles, tablets, phones, PCs, Hell, even macs! MACS HAVE FUCKING STEAM NOW PEOPLE! And the experiences with each of these are so unique that arguing which is the best seems quaint and trivial. (PlayStation for life!) So the argument has changed: What is the best way to experience gameplay open world versus the experience?

Now what do I mean? Consider Skyrim versus Deus Ex: Human Revolution; both boast choice to be their main selling point and for the most part do their jobs very well. Skyrim gives the idea of complete open world choices where the world is your play thing and story revolves around your willingness to embrace it or not. I have a friend now who has logged in more than 40 hours of gameplay and has yet to even get their second word for the dragon shout. What this means you can play Skyrim for 5,000 years and not even touch most of the content. For some people this is a good thing; you can play the game at your own pace. But for some people the sense of urgency isn’t there. You can literally get out of the cave and never make it to Whiterun, which is good in then idea that the adventure never really ends, the job of the Dhovakiin is never really done. But an epic is told when your character is being placed through an emotional roller coaster, but classically you aren’t in control of destiny. Some of the greatest stories ever told were about how everyday people stumbled into their fate, or even forced into it. Books like Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Treasure Island to name a few. It is only when the hero accepts their fate do they get the sense of urgency, and you are invested emotionally in their cause. The Dhovakiin experiences none of this because he has no personality; he is only a vehicle for the players. In my play through, I was a Nord who didn’t know basic lore of his culture? Now I’m sure that there was some way of me finding out before I got there, but the narrative ultimately suffered for their approach to an open world game resulting in their ability to keep a coherent/believable storyline.

The world of Skyrim has such a powerful and amazingly built culture that we are meant to explore and discover, but we are ultimately crippled from appreciating it because our character isn’t grounded in the world at all. We can argue that the player becomes grounded in this but what do we have to go off of? Only fans of the series really have a basis to work off of and the rest of us? We have to search for basic information because the designer has to assume that the player may or may not have searched for it. The main problem with an open world is choice, or to be more accurate, how designers and players perceive the idea of choice. Traditionally players see choice as being able to assert free will into their character, and so the character turns into the vehicle of their whims regardless of the situation. While designers know that true free will is impossible in a game, they instead present options and place them in a way that allows the theme and the tone of the game to deliver an altogether interesting cinematic game. This can work as a story telling mechanic, and with so many awards, they are doing right by a lot of people. Consider though that video games have unique storytelling ability where we aren’t just relating to the character, we can be the character. Furthermore, we can even assume the lives of a character and their unique position in their lives. It’s not just relating to the character we are them. This is the power that can happen when a designer exercises volition and gives the player a sense of urgency they can provide them an experience. An experience, in gaming terms, is when a player assumes a role and gains a unique perspective on a situation or perhaps some insight into themselves. As an example consider Deus Ex: Human Revolution, an experience that gives enough options to serve the theme and the player.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you play Adam Jensen, an ex-swat turned corporate security agent removed from an easy life style and thrown into a world of political intrigue and shadow organizations. All of this takes place in the middle of a renaissance of transhumanism where human beings can challenge the definition of not only themselves but of their fate. While he is picking up the pieces of his life, he is forced to ignore all of his internal pain for the sake of others. What does his life mean? Who is Adam Jensen, or even more intriguing what is Adam Jensen anymore? The themes, storyline, and the game mechanics unify the idea that this is a world of options where your choices not only mold the definition of who you are but the fate of the world. While these choices are a major selling point like Skyrim, there is a clear and present series of events that have a beginning, middle, and end. While it does have a story, it never truly wrestles the choices from the player, instead, it makes your choices that much more significant. As Adam Jensen, you experience these events; you were torn apart and rebuilt as an augment against your will and so they carry weight, because your choices are made by a person who has stakes in the crisis at hand. Even the level design speaks volume, as it’s built to similar format to a city. Strange buildings, roads, and alleys become familiar places as you begin to create short cuts and hidden places everywhere. Admittedly for all the good it does, it does have its flaws. The bosses don’t test the player or make significant statements within the narrative, but is an experience you wouldn’t want to miss.

The difference relies partly on who the main character is. As I said before, the Dhovakiin is merely a vehicle for the player’s whim and has no will of his own. He is meant to be a blank slate so that the player can take on the role. But by being a blank slate, he is incapable of laying down the ground work and foundation for the story. Meanwhile Adam Jensen is a person who has aspirations, goals and vices. The player taking on the role of the character facilitates the story and exposition isn’t forced but can come organically. There is a moment in game where you talk to an old friend from your days on SWAT. She begins to talk about how local gangs called the MCB are going to war with the DRB. While this is something that the player doesn’t know, Adam knows and elaborates that they stand for Motor City Bangers and the Derelict Row Ballars, as if he is remembering who they are. This is more of a natural way of delivering exposition, while maintaining theme, story and the fourth wall.

In conclusion, having choices in a game is not inherently a good or bad thing. Simply, it’s how a designer approaches using choices in gameplay to affect the story and how you could use story to support gameplay. We make choices in our daily lives, some of them we are proud of and others not so much. Games are such a unique tool to make us appreciate and feel the weight of choice, their consequences, and how they make us better people. In the end, it’s not about what hardships we face but how we overcome and survive them.

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