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Archive for January, 2010

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer writes about early exclusive reviews of Mass Effect 2, and questions the integrity of early exclusive reviews in general, since they tend to skew higher than average, and may have (and in this case do have) significant restrictions placed on the content of the review. Spurred by these questions, I pulled up Metacritic and recorded the scores each reviewer so far has given Mass Effect 2, then those reviewers’ corresponding scores for the original Mass Effect, and how those compare to the average reviews among all reviewers, including those who have not yet had the opportunity to review Mass Effect 2.

ME2 Score (ME1 Score) – Reviewer
100 (90) – games(TM)
100 (100) – X360 Magazine UK
96 (94) – IGN
95 (100) – Official Xbox Magazine
93 (n/a) – IGN AU
90 (90) – Xbox World 360 Magazine UK

Metacritic average among critics given an exclusive early review of Mass Effect 2:

ME2: 96
ME1: 95

Metacritic average among ALL critics:

ME2: ??
ME1: 91

Evidence here does not contradict the theory that the reviewers granted early reviews have been filtered to ensure and reward good reviews. On the other hand, those same reviewers gave Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare’s most recent release, an average of 85 for the same console, which is actually one point lower than the final average.

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Batman and Joker
“You are truly incorruptible, aren’t you? Huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”

Batman doesn’t kill people. It’s too easy: Once he does, he wouldn’t be able to go back to never killing. He’d do it again, and again, because it’s easier to solve problems that way. And where does it stop? He kills a killer, a rapist, then a drug dealer, a robber. A corrupt cop or politician. Bruce Wayne is a dangerous man, and Batman is just a vigilante. He can only justify his own existence by not killing people.

In most games, the player doesn’t have that freedom. They trivialize life: That businessman was funding terrorists, therefore, he deserved to die. This criminal was mugging someone, therefore, you can cut him down in a fight. If it’s just pixels on the screen to him or her, mass murder is meaningless, leading to the mindless and endless body count of most games. The player sits on their computer and kills dozens, hundreds, even thousands of simulated people, without a second thought. Even games with alignment systems and complex moral choices rarely give the player the simple choice to not murder by the truckload. It’s just not exciting otherwise!

In my plays of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I’ve been torn in many situations. You get a higher stealth score for avoiding a body count, but aside from that, there is no penalty on most missions for killing the bad guys. Several even have no penalty beyond score and severe chastisement from your superiors for killing civilians or allied soldiers. There are various less than lethal tools at your disposal for dealing with enemies, but often the easiest and most efficient solution to a problem is a bullet to the head. If you choose to ignore your score (and it doesn’t matter much to me), then the choice to kill or not to kill becomes one for you to decide for yourself. I like that choice — a lot.

The freedom to embrace a Batman morality to your heroism, declining to kill those you run across simply because they’re your enemy, is a freedom I crave in many games. I wanted it in Far Cry 2, and railed against the simulation boundary when it deprived me of the opportunity to play a character I could believe in. I want the freedom to play the fantasy of a badass hero who has the sense of mind not to become a heartless butcher of men — and the freedom to fall short of that ideal, to fail in its pursuit. In many games where I can’t do this, I’m shaken from the game, and lose some of my sense of immersion. Not everybody wants to enter a fantasy where the only answer to evil is to kill everyone. Sure, it’s easy to solve the problem by killing them. Batman would say it’s too easy.

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Batman watching over Gotham City
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you’d become that which you fight against. You walk near that abyss every night but haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Batman is an amazing character. He appeals to our craving for justice and order, and our desire for a hero. His strength is his brilliance, his athleticism, his wealth — and he inherited the wealth. He is exceptional, but not superhuman. And he makes his own rules, then lives by them. Part of the compelling darkness of Batman’s mythology is that he forms his own moral judgments, without regard for the views of others. He is sometimes hated by society, sometimes loved, but he does what he believes in, and we are fascinated by it. Games rarely touch on anything like this. Alignment systems discourage players from making their own moral judgments, substituting the game’s. At worst, players choose once what sort of character they are from a selection of two alignment extremes, and every junction, the player reiterates that, without regard for the intricacies of the situation. This undercuts the power of moral choices in games. Are we better off dropping alignment completely?

Before playing Dragon Age: Origins, I perceived many of the arguments in favor of stripping alignment systems from games to be reactionary: Alignment systems as currently implemented are broken, therefore, we should remove alignment from games and allow players to explore morality without them. This didn’t strike me as necessary. The core problems with alignment are in two domains: Mechanical, and psychological.

The mechanical problem comes when a game gives incentives to the player to adhere to a specific alignment. The worst offender that I’ve seen for this was inFAMOUS, which punished the player for inconsistent alignment choices by stripping the player of access to abilities they’ve already paid to unlock. Other games, like Knights of the Old Republic, take a less severe stance, but still give a mechanical effect to your alignment choices that dissuades inconsistent decision making. Why is supporting inconsistency important? Because most of life — and most moral choices — are not black and white. If all moral choices in a game are whether to mug beggars or save children, you’ve not put real moral choices in at all. You’ve put a class selection into the game, and allowed the player to decide whether he or she wants to be good or evil. Good writing will allow believable characters to make choices have inconsistent alignment effects, and if the mechanics discourage that, you’re just punishing the player for exploring the moral space the game creates, which sabotages many of the ideas behind having an alignment system in the first place. I won’t talk too much more about this, since I already have.

The second problem is psychological. Alignment systems typically are linked to immediate and high-profile feedback on alignment changes resulting from your choices. It’s as if you have an angel hovering behind your shoulders and taking notes at all times, butting in to inform you of its judgment. It follows the principle of giving vivid and immediate feedback for player actions, but strips much of the meaning for those actions away. Your own views about an issue tend to become replaced by the game’s, and most players act in accordance with the game’s perspective on morality. Moral choices lose their punch for players. Batman judged his actions by his own moral structure — is it even possible for players to do the same when the game is micromanaging your moral choices like this?

Alignment systems can be done well. Even the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, with a good-evil axis and a law-chaos axis, has been used effectively in Planescape: Torment, where the world was so alien that your choices were boiled down to things like choosing to side with psychic rats, the walking dead, or killing both. Due to the deep writing in the game, and the lack of emphasis on alignment, this worked. But in the ten years since its release, Planescape: Torment remains unique.

Now BioWare has started to explore de-emphasizing alignment. Mass Effect split its “good” and “evil” analogues into separate scales that accumulate points, stepped down their terminology to “paragon” and “renegade” to avoid loading the system with good and evil, brought in more ambiguous choices, and detached alignment from skill development for combat, reserving the effects for determining your persuasion specialization. Mass Effect 2 takes it a step further by merging the two forms of persuasion into a single skill, and simply spinning the character’s dialog based on alignment, and further emphasizing difficult choices. But the most bold and simple implementation they’ve tried so far has been Dragon Age: Origins, which drops the concept of alignment entirely, without removing the moral choices.

The game does give feedback for your actions, but it’s not an angel with a clipboard, it’s not the game itself passing judgment — it’s your party members. Their feelings toward you, and their loyalty, change based on your actions. Many of the party members have strong personality clashes with other party members, giving multiple points of reference. But these are not simply one or two dimensional points on an alignment grid. For example, Zevran, the elf assassin of the game, has a severe deficiency in his respect for life, and may at first point appear to be a classically selfish and evil character in many ways — perhaps a neutral evil or chaotic evil on the D&D alignment grid. He will disapprove of most self-sacrificing choices or unnecessary heroics. But when you encounter people that are enslaving elves, he will be furious if you decline to bring them to justice.

After I played Dragon Age: Origins, I reflected on its lack of alignment system. As promised, I felt liberated. I chose to do what my character thought was right, what fit him. I felt torn between my characters, but not between mechanics. I liked it. Perhaps this was better.

Some people were more ambivalent about it. When these choices were not enforced, they felt less meaningful. These are games, after all: Nobody really dies in games, nobody is robbed, nobody is victimized, at least not in single player experiences. They’re all pixel colors and bit flips. If the game doesn’t tell you something was immoral, is it really immoral? If the player doesn’t feel a sense of reality in the world, then the weight of choices can easily become insignificant. To some extent, it’s a matter of immersion.

There are challenges developing a game that gives the player freedom and customization, and still brings a compelling experience. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. As a player, I want the freedom to decide what the rules are for myself. I want the freedom to be a dark knight. As a designer, I want to give players that freedom.

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Fahrenheit
Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy as it’s known in the US, is a spectacular example of storytelling in games and a triumph for the nearly-dead adventure game genre.

Personally, I’ve always liked games that give me the ability to create my own stories, but I enjoy a good movie as much as I enjoy a good game. So when I installed Indigo Prophecy this last weekend after picking it up in the holiday Steam sale last month (known outside the US as Fahrenheit), I was a little skeptical, but willing to give it a chance — and it paid off. Somehow, a game in which the number of mechanical systems number in the single digits managed to draw me off of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory for ten hours of game time in a single twenty-four hour period, and that’s more than one and a half playthroughs.

Indigo Prophesy is a 2005 adventure game that is so far on the narrative end of game design that even its developer, Quantic Dream, hesitates to call it a game, instead calling it an interactive film. Despite that, everyone I’ve spoken to about it says it’s an amazing game — and I agree. It it a testament to the power of giving small amounts of freedom and interaction in an otherwise extremely linear game.

The story covers a man who is possessed and forced to commit murder, then is on the run as he tries to discover what happened to him, even as he grapples with his emerging supernatural abilities. At the same time as you control him as he tries to avoid the police and discover the truth, you also play as two police detectives as they draw ever closer to hunting him down.

Through this story, you pick a character and play out a scene in the movie. You can change only a few things; the order of some scenes, which objects a character interacts with, the course of some conversations, what clues someone examines or tries to hide, the success of some efforts. Some of the choices are fairly meaningful, but they’re never earth-shaking in their significance to the plot. It’s still enough, because it gives the player agency — they form a goal as to how they want a scene to play out, they pursue it, the game supports them and allows the scene to happen that way.

Tyler Miles
Tyler Miles, police sergeant, detective, and owner of one of the funkiest apartments and coolest sweaters in New York. The characters are one of Indigo Prophecy’s several extremely strong points.

One of the things that struck me about Indigo Prophecy was that it was the second game that I’ve played in which it allowed you to control the actions of people in direct opposition to one another, and in both games it worked. (The first was Orange Revolution, which is playable through the link.) This is an idea that on the face of it strikes me as unlikely to work, but in practice, it’s a lot of fun. The key is to ensure the player doesn’t compromise one side’s integrity to enable the other side to win. Indigo Prophecy accomplishes this in two ways: one, it’s impossible to make either side act out of character, and two, both sides are extremely sympathetic and well-developed.

Indigo Prophecy isn’t all good through, as toward the end the plot veered in a direction that broke my suspension of disbelief, before shattering what was left with a random romance that had no reason to occur and no justification from the characters’ points of view, and left me vocally disgusted at the game. Additionally, the game’s short length and low replayability (I squeezed ten hours out of it before getting tired of replaying) means that — by my standards — it wouldn’t be worth the game’s original price. Indigo Prophecy is a triumph for extremely linear narrative game design, but it still lacks the staying power to pull me away from more non-linear game designs for an extended period of time.

Despite this, Indigo Prophecy is a fantastic game, and an excellent update to the adventure game genre. Its example reinforces a lesson I learned a long time ago about video games: It’s a big tent. There are many types of games, and many types of players. In thousands of years, we haven’t been able to develop a working grand unified theory of physics, and physics is unchanging. Video games work differently on different people, and we’ve only been making them for thirty years. Chances are, if you think you have a grand unified theory of what works in games, it’s already wrong. Indigo Prophecy is just another demonstration of that.

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Team Fortress 2
Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Team Fortress 2. “Talent” itself is no different.

Can Valve make bad games? In an interview with Game Informer a couple of years back, Robin Walker said of Team Fortress 2’s extremely long development cycle:

We were building things that were known as TF2 internally. We ended up building probably three to four different games. We didn’t like many of them. The real changes, for example, we were doing the commander mode stuff that we did in the first version, and it just wasn’t fun. It was one of those great things where in theory it sounds fantastic but when it comes down to individual experiences of players like–the guy being told what to do by the commander, or the commander himself, we just never found something we felt was that fun.

That’s pretty pat. Yes, they can. They just don’t release their bad games.

In her post on Cred vs. Influence, Brenda Brathwaite wrote this about the credibility of brilliant people who make mistakes and become dismissed for them:

I want to see our masters explore new mediums. I want to encourage their creativity and support their efforts even when they don’t succeed – especially when they don’t succeed. I want to acknowledge that there is something in their brain that doesn’t work like the something in my brain or your brain, and give that brain the creativity, the room, the respect, the love and the support it needs to make genius, make mediocre and make garbage. We must encourage the free exploration of ideas, of patterns, of play, and not beat our masters into the ground with their own legends. Otherwise, they stop. They just stop and go away, and we don’t learn from them anymore. We blunt them, and that is a tragedy.

I agree. Her post is about smothering criticism and lack of faith directed at successful people who produce inconsistent and experimental work. My post is about smothering fear and lack of courage coming from amateurs and hopefuls who produce poor and formative work. The lesson is the same, but even more so. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to produce garbage. When you’re charting new territory and exploring new ways of working, it’s inevitable. When you’re learning a skill for the first time, it’s universal.

It is much easier to criticize than praise, to the point that constructive criticism is a difficult and trained skill. And though pursuit of praise is shown to be the more driving motivation in humans, the avoidance of this abundant criticism is itself very powerful; we want to make the grade, live up to expectations, and save face. As a result, many people fear trying their hand at an art that interests them because they are afraid of failure. Others will pursue the art, but are afraid to show it to anyone, so that they can avoid criticism. This fear of failure is one of the greatest mistakes a creative person can make.

When I took a writer’s workshop class in high school, the teacher had an agenda for our writing quality: we were to write the worst garbage ever written, every day, at the start of class, for five minutes straight. This would go in our journals. We turned these in, sure — but by folding a page in half, we could signal to him that we wanted him to skip that page when reviewing what we’d written. Thus, we could write anything. Anything at all. No spelling, no grammar, the same word fifty times in a row, personal, inappropriate, whatever we wanted. And then, once we wrote several pages of stream of consciousness garbage, we would write some more. If this was garbage too, that was fine. If it wasn’t garbage, that was great. But it could still be garbage.

We would give feedback to one another’s work — but it would be three things we liked, and one thing we thought could be improved. The first number could increase. The second number could not. Writing at all mattered more than anything when it came to writing well. You didn’t have to try to write well to learn to write well. Nor did someone have to tell you what was wrong with your writing for you to learn to write well. You just had to write a lot of garbage. Soon enough you wouldn’t be able to help but write better, because you were always learning to write, always refining your voice and clarity with every cluster of letters that you rudely shoved onto the paper. It was crazy. But it worked.

When I took a class on level design, and we started to work on real time strategy maps and first person shooter levels, we took a similar approach. The instructor talked of a study in which pottery students were split into two groups. The first was graded entirely on how many pieces they put out, regardless of quality. The second was graded entirely on the quality of their final project. It should come as no surprise that the first group produced far worse work at the beginning — and far better work by the end. They didn’t even have to be told to produce better work. They just could, and they wanted to. Nobody had to push them to do better work. They just had to produce lots of garbage and they couldn’t help but improve. We approached level design from the same angle.

But it was when I took DigiPen’s introductory drawing class from B. J. Becker that this philosophy was taken to a whole new level. Two hundred sketches a week, every week. That was homework. Quite a few more in class. Emphasis on speed and emotion. And then, when we showed our work in class, we threw it on the ground, where everyone could see everything. He walked around the room, criticizing and praising at will, and calling most of it crap. He would walk or draw on drawings, getting his hands dirty, leaving footprints and corrective scribbles all over student work. Then we would start again. For those who entered with their egos held high, he quickly destroyed them. Like the army, he would demolish your old preconceptions, and rebuild you into a machine that serves his purpose — to become an artist. I entered as a mostly straight A student, and exited with a failing grade. Then I came back to take it as a summer class with my full focus, and was proud to walk away with a B-.

Because in fact Professor Becker succeeded. He changed the way I looked at not just drawing, but learning in general. You’d make crap. Lots of crap. And you would try to make it good. But you wouldn’t worry too much about it if it wasn’t good. You’d just make some more. And if people criticized your work, and called it crap, and ridiculed it, and literally stepped on and scribbled on your best work, you would just look at it differently and realize if they’re right. In so doing, you would improve. It’s still great when people love your work, but your passion comes from in you.

They say you learn by making mistakes. But when you learn an art, try to train a creative skill, to develop “talent”, you don’t just make mistakes. You make foul, horrific, disgusting trash. Things nobody wants to see because they’re just that bad. The professional isn’t good because they’re blessed and don’t make garbage. They’re good because they keep making garbage, they keep learning. Eventually they have so much experience doing poor work that they develop professional consistency — and then you pay them lots of money to do their art, because you can’t tell when they’re screwing up, since even their mistakes look good to you.

That can be someone else who goes through all that work. Or it can be you. Some of the most brilliant and skilled people have produced more garbage and made more severe mistakes than most amateurs ever will. You just have to accept that and stop expecting yourself to be perfect, instead pursuing the craft because you love the craft, and you can train that brilliance in yourself.

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KGB
No comrade, I’m Captain Maksim Rukov, Moscow KGB. Golitsin was a former KGB agent and his death is naturally of some interest to us.

KGB is a memorable adventure game from the DOS era that has never managed to escape my hard drive. It’s a focused and non-formulaic adventure game that is plot and dialogue driven, to its benefit. In a game about spies and conspiracy, it’s good to have a certain amount of complexity and intrigue in the plot line, plus some action, and not too many goofy item puzzles. KGB follows through on all counts.

The flip side to the complex plot is that it’s very confusing. The game ends abruptly without answering all of the questions you might have about who was doing what in the game. Little is explained to you, and you’re expected to figure out the situation for yourself.

It’s an example of an older style of game design that expects the player to take notes: if the player does it, it’s more immersive, but the cost is strongly limiting the audience. There are better ways to handle the complexity.

The complexity isn’t limited just to the story. Despite its low emphasis on silly item puzzles, I still can’t play through the game without dying, and I’ve beaten it multiple times. This game is so tough that it may actually be more fun to play with a walkthrough handy than trying to blunder through it, and for an adventure game, that’s really saying something.

You can get all the way to the end of a chapter and lose the game because you did something wrong earlier on. You can get to areas where you don’t have the right item and have no way to retrieve it. You can waste all of a consumable item. You can overwrite your save with an unwinnable state. This is not just once or twice, but frequently.

KGB2
In one of the more gratuitous excesses in the history of adventure games killing off the player, you can actually get shot for missing plot points.

On the plus side, most of the puzzles are very intelligent, and with some exceptions my standard response to losing in KGB is “Wow, I really did mess up. I never realized they’d think of that!” That’s very impressive and rare for me in an adventure game. They usually do a good job of telling you exactly what you did wrong as well. The screenshot above is an exception.

The sense of intelligence extends beyond just the use item puzzles, which are probably a minority of the actual puzzles in the game. A lot of the game is negotiating conversations, and what you say matters. You don’t just go through a dialogue tree clicking all the options to see all the content in this game: Many people remember what you say, and it has ramifications into the future; saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can even get you killed. Even if the consequences aren’t so severe, having the game enforce consequences for the dialogue effectively gives a sense of importance to the player’s choices about what to say for the entire game — even when it doesn’t actually matter behind the scenes.

Given how intelligent the puzzles in the game are, it would lighten the difficulty significantly if players could reason freely about the situation and come up with several alternate solutions to the problem.

Although the solutions are fairly linear, the game does tolerate varying degrees of success. I usually don’t care about score in games, but in KGB, some things are unnecessary to win but are still cool, like handling an interview particularly well, or spotting someone that’s spying on you. I feel that these actions that don’t contribute to victory but are still in character should be rewarded with extra points to reinforce good play and encourage completionists. The game Blue Force, which is a light police procedural, is an example of this in action, rewarding you with points for non-crucial procedural elements.

KGB stands out because its flaws are common in its genre and time, while its strengths are unique. Their focus on dialogue-driven adventure stands out most, and it serves the game well, and acts as another testament to the principle that people are fundamentally interesting.

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I like open world games. Some of the recent games to include open worlds include Grand Theft Auto 4, inFAMOUS, Far Cry 2, Prototype, Fallout 3, and Red Faction: Guerilla. Open world isn’t trivial on the technical end, and I remember when Sucker Punch came to DigiPen for a company day and discussed the technology they were using to load and unload pieces of the world in real time in order to keep a handle on memory usage and avoid loading screens. It takes a certain commitment to the idea of using an open world to go for it, and it carries challenges and design limitations of its own. All of the above games use local heavily designed “level” areas for quests or missions to take place in; only about half of them completely eschew the dungeon mentality by placing all of these levels in the open world landscape itself instead of in separate areas behind loading screens. These level areas exist in all of these games as buildings, sewers, villages, army bases, or other places where designers have planned certain experiences to texture and grant variety to the basic experience of running around the game world blowing stuff up.

The title of this post refers to a belief I hold fairly strongly about open world games. I believe they’re all about freedom. They’re about being able to go where you want and do what you want within the game world. Thus, if the open world game heavily restricts this freedom, it becomes a closed open world game — one where the world is out there, but you can’t truly enjoy it. In this post, I’m going to look at all six of the games I mentioned earlier, and discuss how I see the open world working, or not working, in each of them, especially as it comes to their support for player freedom.

Grand Theft Auto 4

GTA4

Starting with the latest Grand Theft Auto is appropriate for me because in my mind, GTA is the baseline for an open world game by which all these games are compared. Fundamentally, open worlds are all about freedom, and Rockstar truly understands that. Every car in the game can be stolen, every weapon can be picked up and fired. If there’s a television helicopter overhead, you can find the TV station’s helipad and steal the helicopter, then fly up to the top of a skyscraper and BASE jump off the top of it. If you want a shootout or car chase, you can spark one anywhere, anytime, and at any intensity, from a fistfight with an angry driver to firing RPGs off of buildings onto tanks in the streets below. It’s all in your control, through dynamic responses in the game world based on your actions. Death and arrest are very lightly punished because boldness and life-threatening situations are encouraged. This is a game that is truly about freedom, and it is the ultimate embodiment of this ideal in a game.

Unique among the games I’ll be looking at here, Grand Theft Auto is known for having multiple minigames. From taxi driving to playing arcade machines to going clothes shopping with your main character, they all fit into the game world as things your anti-hero might actually do. From a theoretical standpoint, I have trouble justifying minigames. Why put a playable arcade machine inside your game? If the player wanted to play something else, they’d just turn the game off and do that — right? But in practice, I love this about GTA, and that just means my theoretical instincts aren’t strong enough to represent what’s really going on here.

I think that it comes down to two things: Immersion and pacing. For immersion, a game in which I can dress my character up in a suit, pick up his girlfriend in a nice car I just stole, and then drop by the comedy club to watch a skit is a lot richer than one in which the only part of that with any bearing on the game is the point where I steal the nice car. For pacing, it gives you a break from the primary gameplay, which is all about rebellion and criminal enterprise. Like outfitting your characters in Rock Band, these little things in the game let you take a rest from the core gameplay, which can be exhausting when done exclusively. These minigames are all a part of Rockstar’s approach to giving the player the freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want. The results speak for themselves.

inFAMOUS

inFAMOUS

It’s a cool concept, and one I had high hopes for, but I didn’t really like inFAMOUS that much. The game falls victim to some tragic problems, and playing this during the last summer was the seed for the idea to make this post. The idea behind inFAMOUS is that you’re a superhero, able to do whatever you want — for better or for worse. It’s got a cool story (or at least a cool twist ending), but the gameplay is inconsistent.

When it comes to delivering on the idea of freedom, inFAMOUS is half there, half elsewhere. The game grants you parkour abilities to scramble up and across buildings, which is nice and liberating, but then shuts down some of your movement abilities and has you getting constantly attacked by enemies when you venture into the wrong area, which is much more limiting. Progressing the story lets you restore powers and open up new areas for you to freely move in, but to get those enemies to stop pestering you, you have to engage in seemingly endless side quests, which feels more like work at times. Doing this clears out the enemies, but that then prevents you from having real battles in the areas you’ve cleared, since they’re now devoid of enemies. This all works in terms of the game’s internal logic, but it’s just not as fun. The world starts out as a closed open world, and only through great effort can it be opened up, and then you lose the ability to engage in some of the core gameplay in those areas.

Matters get worse in the last third of the game, where the continuously attacking enemies in uncleared areas become too tough to ignore (thus limiting your ability to run around), and in a particularly ill-advised game mechanic, high pitched beeping land mines of irritation litter the rooftops, forcing you to stop on every second building to find and manually destroy them, lest you stumble into one and lose health and momentum. Even if they didn’t hurt you, the sound alone is enough to drive you crazy. These mechanics aren’t about giving you freedom — they’re just trying to give you challenges, even at the expense of your freedom to move around and do what you want. But if they needed to close the world down to make it challenging, they shouldn’t have made an open world game in the first place.

The trouble is that inFAMOUS’s concept is perfect for an open world game emphasizing personal freedom. You’re a superhero in a city descending into anarchy and gang control. You can go where you want and do what you want. You can be good, you can be evil, it doesn’t matter, because nobody can stop you. And yet for every step the game takes in the direction of fulfilling this promise, it trips over mechanics that seem to betray it.

Prototype

Prototype

In Prototype, you play as a virally infected anti-hero infused with the power to transform your body into different shapes, and set loose in a quarantined Manhattan during a biological attack. Prototype was released about the same time as inFAMOUS and got a lot of comparisons with it because both are open world third person action games about playing a character with super powers, but fundamentally, Prototype shares much more in common with GTA than inFAMOUS — and since you’ve probably just read what I think of both games now, you’ll know that’s a good thing in my book. Where GTA emphasizes the freedom to do whatever you want, Prototype is all about power, and the resulting formula is quite similar. Like GTA, Prototype bends the rules of its game world to maximize your freedom: in GTA cops ignore speeding, running lights, and all sorts of reckless driving, while in Prototype soldiers don’t notice you even if you’re traveling at super speed and soaring between buildings. In Prototype this is done to the point of weakness, as it compromises the believability of their stealth game, but it ensures that one thing Prototype doesn’t have a problem with is keeping their open world open.

Movement across the game world in Prototype is a joy. You can simply sprint up walls, leap between buildings, and soar for great distances. It may not use parkour moves of the sort inFAMOUS and Assassin’s Creed have to suspend disbelief in their freedom to move about the world, but the greater velocity reinforces the feeling of power the game focuses on, and it works wonders. All of your character’s abilities are like that; you’re an unstoppable monster that smashes tanks with your fists and can kill a dozen people in a single sweep of your whip-like arms.

Prototype is about power, and the freedom to use that power, and unlike Sucker Punch’s work with inFAMOUS, Radical Entertainment clearly worked to ensure nothing interfered with the maximal expression of that theme. As a result, though Prototype is not as rich of a game in concept, I enjoyed it far more than its press-appointed rival. Instead of leaning back in occasional disgust, my lean back moments with Prototype were to reflect on how much of a blast it was. From top to bottom, Radical Entertainment made a game with focus, and they delivered on their concept.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2 is a tragic game in my book, because it has some fantastic core gameplay that is marred by only a few serious errors. Far Cry 2 is a first person shooter that casts you as a mercenary in a country in Sub-Saharan Africa being torn apart by civil war. You are stricken with malaria, diamonds are the only currency, and both sides in the war are corrupt and dangerous. The world is broken into two open maps, and the only loading screens exist at a few key plot points. The game is all about immersion and player agency. On any mission, you choose your weapons, plan your approach, and execute the attack using improvisational tactics.

I suspect the most criticized aspect of Far Cry 2 is its most direct affront on the open world: The use of respawning checkpoints full of hostile enemies everywhere you go. Traveling to missions becomes a pain in the game because you have to avoid or fight through several checkpoints to get there. That’s fine in small doses, but it becomes very repetitive in longer sittings. They’re hard to ignore if you don’t want to deal with them, there are no easy ways to stop a fight if you don’t want to engage in it (like the pay and sprays of GTA), and they magically respawn almost as soon you make it over the next hill.

The reason Far Cry 2 makes this very poor design choice is to address the problem inFAMOUS blundered into when allowing you to drive out the bad guys from the world: it keeps the map populated with challenges and enemies. The problem is that this solution is so heavy-handed that it closes down the open world, depriving the player of the freedom to move and explore. As with many of the other games here, Far Cry 2 gives incentives for exploration by scattering small rewards around the game world, but with the degree to which movement through the world is unintentionally blocked and punished in this game, it’s just not worth it.

Fallout 3

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 is the latest of Bethesda’s RPGs, set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland around Washington DC, and reviving an old and much beloved IP. Like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion before it, it blends action and RPG elements in an open world, and also like Oblivion, it dynamically scales enemies to your level. Unlike Oblivion however, it doesn’t level up enemies in areas that you’ve already explored, so it always feels like a statically scaled game where your explorations are never into places that are over your head. It works well, and for the most part, the open world is truly open. Leveling up gives you new, tougher challenges in the unexplored wastes, while making familiar territory easier to cross.

Although Fallout 3 isn’t about freedom the way that GTA is, Bethesda’s choice to go with an open world in their RPGs is. They want to give you a world to play with, and ways you can change it. They’re also about exploration. Thus, you move slowly through the world, and have a fast travel ability to jump between places you have already explored. With the tremendous amount of side content in the vast areas of the game world, only the most committed players will actually discover and consume it all, leaving you most players with a perpetual horizon filled with new and interesting hand-crafted content to discover.

Bethesda’s biggest mistake with Fallout 3 wasn’t some mechanical inconsistency in the vision, but the decision to end the game when you concluded the story. In a game with such a rich world to explore, the story was just another quest string, and its conclusion shouldn’t have been assumed to be the end of the player’s experience.

At least as of this writing, the header image on my blog is taken from a promotional screenshot of Fallout 3.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin's Creed

I would prefer to write this about the newly released sequel to Assassin’s Creed, but unfortunately I won’t have the opportunity to play it before it is ported to Windows in March, at the earliest, so I will have to make due with the game I have played. Assassin’s Creed is set in the third crusade, and you play as an assassin resisting the crusader incursions. The world is broken up into several pieces, but the gameplay is fairly non-linear, and each chunk of the world is relatively large, including three separate sections encompassing each of the game’s three cities, where most of the gameplay takes place. Movement through the cities is quite free, with parkour mechanics to allow you to scramble up the sides of buildings and across rooftops. Unlike GTA and Prototype, Assassin’s Creed penalizes this behavior by arousing the suspicion of the crusader guards, but this mechanic is balanced with sufficient evasive tactics and combat prowess as to not to feel punishing.

Assassin’s Creed’s open world is about the freedom to go where you want and do what you want, but that doesn’t extend to the point of making every part of the area easily traversable. For example, one of the cities has a large castle that is largely restricted, and while you can still access it, it takes a mixture of stealth, agility, and combat prowess to get through in one piece. This doesn’t limit the world’s openness, however; it simply gives additional activities for you to engage in. It’s not difficult to get to the point where you can access this.

The flexibility of the world in Assassin’s Creed feels like the flexibility that Far Cry 2 aimed to have, but missed at. You have an open world that frowns upon your character and is actively suspicious and hostile toward you. It transmits the sense of constant danger without actually preventing the player from navigating through the world, or discouraging them from exploring. Assassin’s Creed wasn’t a perfect game, but it was a good game, and their environment and movement trough the environment was one of its great strengths. Assassin’s Creed 2 is supposed to have brought the rest of the game to the level of these aspects. I look forward to seeing that in action.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Where inFAMOUS and Far Cry 2 are otherwise strong games that suffer from a couple of boneheaded design choices, Red Faction: Guerrilla is a potentially mediocre game uplifted by inspired design choices. Being set on Mars, the game isn’t as resonant as some of these others, and its combat isn’t more viscerally satisfying the other games of its release period, especially Prototype, which may have been the game that really dampened its sales. But Red Faction: Guerrilla had one really strong core feature going for it, and that’s the ability to blow up buildings more satisfyingly and spectacularly than in any other game out there. Volition knew this was their competitive advantage, and they exploited it.

The theme of Red Faction: Guerrilla is destruction. Your open world freedom is essentially your freedom to pick what to destroy, when to destroy it, and how exactly you’re going to level it. The game is a third person shooter, yes — but you can’t win an extended shootout. Too many enemies, too many vehicles. You have to plan an attack, strike fast, do a lot of damage, and then retreat when the enemy starts to show up in force. Each part of this is fun. Every mechanic in Red Faction seems to be designed to support, encourage, or otherwise feed back into this core gameplay loop, save for a few side missions that help with pacing and variety.

You can move freely around most of the world in Red Faction: Guerrilla without harassment from the evil EDF forces you’re fighting, with the exception of a handful of restricted areas. This is crucial, as it enables you to plan your attacks freely. The openness of Red Faction: Guerrilla isn’t a matter of finesse, but simply their decision to not screw up by acting contrary to the interests of their core gameplay. Their game was about making surprise guerrilla strikes against defended targets and blowing up buildings, and harassing the player during transit would simply have interfered with that, the way it did for Far Cry 2.

What else?

That’s a lot of games, but it’s certainly not all of the open world games that have come out recently. There are other games, including older games, that would be interesting to look at. I’m interested in hearing from you, having read this:

What other open world games do you think have suffered from restricting the player’s freedom too much, or discouraging exploration of the open world?

Which ones avoid this pitfall?

And of the games I have talked about, do you think that I’ve misjudged some of them?

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