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Archive for the ‘Player Choice’ Category

Final Fantasy IV
One game, many playstyles. I want to give players the power to express themselves in pursuit of their goals, to do what they want, when they want, and to empower them to create beautiful and original experiences in the process.

I’m a nut for beauty in myriad forms. My entire life is devoted to creating it, whether it’s beautiful music, beautiful emotions, beautiful pictures, even a beautiful life. It’s not just visuals, but the aesthetics of absolutely everything.

Most games are showcases of the efforts of people making beautiful things. Designers teach each other about how to make rewarding feedback loops and plan difficulty curves, level layouts, cutscenes. They make games that give you tasks and challenge you to learn skills that will let you accomplish them, or provide puzzles and challenge you to tease out a solution. These games create beautiful experiences, and give you chance to immerse yourself in them. They take your ticket, hold your hand, and take you on a guided tour of the museum of amazing gameplay.

It would be easy for me to get carried away by the current, and design games like that. I tell myself (tut tut, I say) that not everyone loves making things as much as I do, and games that lead people along by the nose are the most mass-market games, the way games have to be. Secretly, when I find the need to tell myself these things, I know it’s because I’m suppressing my passion with false pragmatism. Then someone makes The Sims, Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, Little Big Planet. BAM. It’s not about difficulty curves anymore. It’s not about cutscenes. It’s not about story, or building a flow channel. It’s about you, the player, doing whatever you want to do, when you want to do it. The world salivates over freedom, and I keep living as a dreamer in denial.

Everyone loves making, customizing, living on their own terms. We play with legos, dolls, action figures. We draw cartoons, write rap lyrics, photograph architecture. We raise children, record videos, tell jokes, plant gardens, dance, sing, pick out clothing, cook food, cheer others up, laugh at jokes, fall in love, build sand castles, play Will Wright games, and in endless other ways, love to make wonderful things, wonderful moments, wonderful relationships, wonderful life. Even when we watch television, we’re appreciating the output of thousands of other creative people, and then we get up and do something amazing of our own.

I’ve devoted my life to creating beauty, and I don’t want to stop with what I can create with my own pen. I don’t just want to make levels, I want to make algorithms that can generate thousands of beautiful levels in the space of a single breath. I don’t just want to create games, I want to create games that empower you to do beautiful things and create beautiful experiences for yourself. I want to empower you to do things I never imagined and have a wonderful time doing it. I don’t want to show off what I did. I want to let you play.

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Dragon Age 2
There are a severe shortage of good dialog system screenshots on the web that aren’t photoshopped mockeries by angry fans.

BioWare has been trying to add interesting player choices into their RPGs for a long time, and each game they release has a new refinement on their systems. They’ve increasingly streamlined alignment in the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age games have abandoned it entirely in favor of your companions developing personal opinions about your hero. Dragon Age II breaks from its predecessor by implementing a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel and full voice acting for the main character. This doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics of how its dialog work — but even so, it has angered a lot of players.

Dragon Age II’s New Dialog System

Dragon Age II stars a main character named Hawke, fully voice acted, and it keeps track of your dialog choices on Hawke’s behalf in two ways. The most visible way is that your companions gain friendship or rivalry points depending on how they approve. Different party members react differently to the same situation, so you may have difficulty pleasing both the magic-hating Fenris and the radical mage Anders at the same time. Maximizing either scale gains you bonuses to that party member’s abilities, and developing rivalry with them won’t, in and of itself, make them leave. There are gameplay and plot ramifications of your party members’ feelings.

The second way Dragon Age II tracks your dialog choices is by an invisible metric that assesses your main character’s personality over time. There are three personality types: Diplomatic, Aggressive, and Humorous. The personality type currently considered dominant in the game colors various involuntary dialog reactions the main character makes, and determines the kinds of comments your character makes in combat. A humorous character may initiate a sensitive conversation in a cut-scene with a joke to lighten the mood, while a diplomatic character will avoid implying any hostile assumptions, and an aggressive character gets right to the point. The combat voice overs work similarly, with different clips available based on the personality the player established for Hawke. The second effect this personality type has is that it unlocks different responses in some conversations. Sometimes a diplomatic solution to a particularly difficult situation isn’t available to habitually aggressive characters. This is rare, barely communicated, and the fact that all personality types get these bonuses at different times helps to avoid any incentive to power-game.

Dialog options in Dragon Age II are provided using a dialog wheel, adapted from Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you select a thought, and the character says something along those lines, but never exactly what you chose. Unlike Mass Effect, the dialog options aren’t just implicitly ordered based on their position in the wheel, they’re also given an associated icon. The icons communicate to the player what the tone of the chosen thought is. For example, a laurel represents a diplomatic response, and a gemstone represents a charming reply. These icons are color-coded according to what personality type they align with. A few icons are special, like crossed swords to represent cutting the conversation off to kill the person you’re talking to or initiate combat, and diverging arrows to represent a substantive choice with more serious ramifications than just picking how the character delivers the line. Overall, the system is pretty intuitive.

…And Those That Hate It

Early reviews tend to like the direction BioWare has taken the dialog, but some players deplore it. I’ve seen many frustrated players complain that the dialog in the game is dumbed down, simplified, bad. Most concerning to me from a design perspective is that a huge proportion of players see the dialog options as “good/evil/funny”. They get that the middle option is meant to be humorous, but they don’t get that the top and bottom aren’t good and evil. Part of this stems from the fact that we like nice people more than aggressive people, and good people are traditionally shown as nice and trying to find a peaceful solution to everything. However, the “evil” choices aren’t evil, they’re mostly just angry, which is a time-honored response to slavery and blood magic. Then, in Dragon Age 2, when you get to substantive moral choices, they pull out the diplomatic/aggressive/humorous choices entirely and assign everything the same diverging arrows icon. Your choices about what to do, who to side with, who to kill and who to let live, these have no impact on your personality and don’t use the personality icons.

Despite all this, some players think that their dialog choices are boiled down to essentially choosing a character class, picking from a trinary good/evil/doofus choice, and executing on that strategy through the whole game. This is how games with bad alignment systems do it, like Knights of the Old Republic and InFAMOUS, but BioWare has been trying to avoid that since they made Mass Effect, and Dragon Age abandoned it entirely by lacking an alignment system. BioWare has gotten extremely sophisticated in trying to build compelling choices into their games, and Dragon Age II is loaded with situations where the humorous and aggressive choices are situationally better responses than the diplomatic option.

When alignment systems were relatively uncommon in electronic RPGs, they were great, because they showed the game was responsive to your choices. As player tastes matured, alignment systems became too simple, too obvious, for discerning role-players. With Dragon Age, BioWare abandoned alignment entirely, trying to give meaningful outcomes of your actions without relying on a global judgment. Dragon Age II continues that tradition, while trying to merge the best of Mass Effect’s dialog into it. Personally, I love it. But for some players, these almost cosmetic changes are enough to bring the delicate role-playing immersion tumbling down. It’s amazing to see how easy it is to make the game look like the dialog has been simplified, and crush any sense of freedom.

There’s a way to fix this, and make everyone happy without moving backward. As Dragon Age II shows, we haven’t found it yet. Of course, once the problem is solved, then they’ll complain about something else instead of dialog choices. But that’s a good thing — game designers would get bored if we were always solving the same problems!

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The guy on the right has a daughter too, Sam. Did you ever think about that?

For me, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about being Sam Fisher, Modern American Ninja, and fighting the battle for his soul as he walked the line between hero and monster. The game kept careful records of how you dealt with guards; you could sneak by, incapacitate them, or kill them, but violence reduced your score. Most enemies could be interrogated for more information by grabbing them from behind and making vague threats. You had separate buttons for lethal and non-lethal melee attacks, extremely limited ammo (you could have up to three clips for your assault rifle on each mission), and a wide variety of less-lethal projectiles to experiment with.

I felt like a real hero. I could work hard to avoid killing people as I achieved my objectives, and the game not only enabled that, it supported it. You’re the kind of person who prevents wars, stops trouble, and does so with the lightest touch possible. You could be an unstoppable assassin, but you aren’t. You’re better than that. You know you’re a hero because you go out of your way to do no evil. I would kill in self-defense, and then feel regret afterwards, wondering if Sam’s surrender would have been more ethical than killing innocent soldiers and grunts. I was given the luxury of thinking like that, whether I was up against naive South American revolutionaries, conscripted North Korean soldiers, or US veterans turned civilian contractors.

It hasn’t stayed that way. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, some people have talked about the inability to move bodies as indicative of the series’ turn toward action over stealth; personally, I’m more disturbed by the inability to complete the game without a huge body count. You can sneak through some areas, but others are unabashed action sequences in which you must systematically kill everyone in the room. Or a whole series of rooms. Or basically kill everyone in a multistory office building. They don’t count your kills and deduct them from your score anymore; quite on the contrary, they give you special tools so you can kill more people faster.

In Splinter Cell: Conviction, I wade through the corpses of my fallen enemies, and interrogate people by smashing their faces into concrete. I don’t feel like a good person. I’m not Batman, Dark Knight, doing what has to be done to protect the people from evil. I’m John Rambo, the empty male power fantasy. It’s kind of sad; like Rambo before him, Sam Fisher has been transformed over time into an empty, unstoppable killing machine.

The battle over Sam’s soul used to be mine to fight. But this time, the writers decided the outcome for me. He lost. He slid down the slippery slope and became a butcher.

So much for conviction.

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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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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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Adam, my best friend growing up, was always really into video games. He enters and wins tournaments, masters games, studies strategies and cheat codes to maximize his play, and reflects philosophically on how gaming affected him growing up. It was a truly rare thing when I beat him in a video game. He and I always thought he’d be a game designer, or a game programmer, and I thought I’d be a writer or a lawyer or something. Turns out it’s the other way around: He went into accountancy, and I went into game development.

Only in hindsight does it make sense. Adam loves playing games, and enjoys working with stories, but some of the more hands-on work isn’t as interesting to him. Looking back, it was usually me who was crafting new games. I made board games, I had Klick & Play on the computer and would explore many half-formed ideas. Even when we’d have long walks in the park away from our TVs, and we would play imagination games, we were telling stories and he would say what his character does, while I would tell him what happens next. Yes, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that Adam became a well-adjusted hardcore gamer in his twenties who comes home from his well-paying white collar job with a paycheck big enough to provide for those he loves, then goes to load up the latest MMORPG and relax, while I became the overworked game designer who spends most of his time trying to help other people to play games.

So that’s Adam. Adam’s a smart guy, as you can probably guess from the fact that he’s an accountant. Like most gamers, he has a pretty good idea of what he likes or doesn’t like in a game, and what’s cool and not cool in games. We tend to play a bit differently though, Adam and I — I’m almost always siding with the good guys, whoever I perceive those to be, while he’ll just as often play evil characters. We both like games that let us make those choices, though.

Chaotic Stupid in Knights of the Old Republic

Of course, sometimes those choices are pretty weak. I was talking to Adam about BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, and he complained that his dialogue for a dark side character was just stupid. It’s all well and good to play an evil character who is into random killing, but corny lines no self-respecting evil warlord would ever utter seemed far too common. He had some particularly incisive examples that I can’t do justice to, but from my personal experience with the game, I seem to remember such absurdities as chasing off some loan shark thugs only to extort the poor old man yourself, or shooting a prisoner for no apparent reason, after a lame off-hand remark.

Adam and I aren’t the only ones who think this kind of “evil” path in games is ridiculous. It’s a pretty common sentiment. Chaotic stupid — for when your main character has no apparent motivation except to do dumb antisocial things that make other people’s lives miserable, while hamming it up for the camera. And only when the level designers scripted in situations that let you do so.

I take the complaints a bit further, though. Bad writing for evil characters is bad enough, but these “moral choices” are presented throughout the game, and yet almost nobody actually chooses when they come up. Instead, they start the game, conceive of their character as a light side Jedi, and then proceed to make good choices throughout the game. While such black and white good and evil might seem to be in the theme of Star Wars, making the choice so simple and easy to carry out isn’t. Star Wars has characters’ internal struggles with light and dark — you can choose to always be good, but the dark side is easier, faster, and the light is harder to walk. Not really so in the KOTOR games.

It’s not just that the writing isn’t built to support real moral choices, but that the game mechanics penalize any sort of roleplaying beyond the simplest good or evil choice. I don’t want to choose a fallen Jedi, because all those skill points I’ve put into light side force skills are squandered due to the increasing cost of those skills as I fall from the light. Good grief! It’s like they’re actively sabotaging their own good and evil system.

inFAMOUS karmic moments

I figured this was just an early attempt at simulating morality and choice in games, and the wisdom of game developers had advanced since then, but inFAMOUS proved me wrong. Mechanically, the game penalizes grayscale even stronger than KOTOR does, locking out whole skills if you don’t have enough (or later lose) bias in your alignment. A neutral character will not only have the weakest abilities of all, but will have their lightnight powers flitter back and forth between Evil Red and Heroic Blue as their alignment dances across the midline between good and evil. Fable already demonstrated gradient appearance changes — why didn’t Sucker Punch even bother with gradient color changes for your abilities?

Changing alignments mid-game in inFAMOUS, while not absolutely prohibited, will lock out a huge proportion of the abilities you’ve spent experience on, thereby making it a nearly untenable character development option. It’s the same problem experienced in KOTOR, only worse, because it’s literally impossible to do that move anymore.

To make matters worse, alignment shifts in inFAMOUS come primarily from contrived Karma Moments, that actually letterbox the screen and display an icon to advertise “You now have an alignment choice! Choose good or evil!” It’s like if every time a moral situation came up, a little devil and a little angel popped up on your shoulders, and reminded you that your soul is riding on this next choice. Except that would be slightly cooler than inFAMOUS’s Karma Moments. Sometimes these choices aren’t even representative — one choice has a guy offering a relative pittance of a reward for a side quest, and you can either murder him and take his stuff, or accept it with humility. How about the non-murderous and quite pragmatic approach of just saying “I just saved your lame ass, you’re standing in front of a bunch of goodies, I’m a superhero who can actually use them, how about offering me some?” Well, that doesn’t fit — their Karma Moments are always binary. There’s nothing but saints and monsters in this world.

With that said, that was, to my knowledge, Sucker Punch’s first alignment system. I’m disappointed they didn’t improve on previous designs, but it’s understandable. What about BioWare, though? Shouldn’t they be doing better now, taking Mass Effect, for example?

Mass Effect’s renegade approach

Apparently not, according to most I’ve talked to. As with previous games, they pick one alignment — Paragon or Renegade — and play accordingly, always picking choices that support that alignment, always knowing the “right” choice at any juncture. It’s made super easy, because Mass Effect organizes paragon choices at the top of the dialogue wheel, and renegade choices at the bottom! How lame was that! Mass Effect becomes just another example of bad alignment systems. And it ends there, possibly with some additional comments about how the moral choices don’t matter because no in-game effects are felt for some of them.

I disagree.

I think Mass Effect is a paragon of an alignment system, at least as far as alignment systems have gone so far in games. There’s just a disconnect between what the game enables, and what players think the game enables.

Mass Effect’s Paragon is someone who follows the rules, watches out for friends, solves situations diplomatically, and sees things from the perspective of other galactic species. Mass Effect’s Renegade is someone who bucks regulations, gets the job done, solves situations by force, and sees things from the perspective of humanity first. Paragon is Princess Leia and Renegade is Han Solo. Both are heroes. They kiss in the movies. They get married and have kids in the extended universe. But they and the princess and the smuggler, and they take opposite approaches to life, to conversations, to concepts of loyalty and justice, and to conflict resolution. Many people don’t see this, and are quick to assume these represent “good” and “bad”, and that they’re mutually exclusive to the point that a character can’t be both. Not so. One is virtuous, one is viceful, and most people are a mixture of both.

In Mass Effect, alignment points to each of these go to separate pools, which only increase, never decrease. To reduce the temptation to compare their bars and see which is higher, they’re aligned in different directions and with significant space between them on the character sheet. They are orthogonal alignments in their effects on game mechanics — Paragon unlocks higher levels of charm, while Renegade unlocks higher levels of intimidate. Higher levels of Charm and Intimidate then unlock new dialogue options for getting through tough situations, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, and both are useful in different situations. These points are given out like candy, and need not be scavenged for in a metagame fashion: nearly every dialogue in the game, in addition to the usual scripted plot events, gives you the opportunity to choose Paragon and Renegade options, and it’s very easy to “keep up” with the amount of Paragon and Renegade points needed to unlock high levels of Charm and Intimidate without even trying.

Many players — even some designers I’ve talked to — don’t realize this. They build a cardboard character in their mind, push one type of point or the other to meet that preconceived character, reduce their options in dialogues to one because that’s the “right” choice, learn to charm the pants off of (or intimidate the piss out of) anyone in the galaxy, and then blame the game for this simplistic approach they’re taking. They don’t even realize it’s not the game that’s doing this; they don’t notice that the designers of the system bent over backwards to ensure that’s not how people felt compelled to play the game. BioWare thought about this and made sure you have true freedom, and the game even rewards flexible characters by offering them both skills instead of just one, and therefore the ability to get through more situations using dialogue.

But even while I don’t blame the designers of Mass Effect for people playing this way, I don’t actually blame the players either. These are people who have played BioWare’s own KOTOR, and other games with black and white, zero sum alignment systems. They don’t realize that Mass Effect’s alignment system is actively designed to not shoehorn them. Even after playing, some people don’t really understand what the Paragon-Renegade alignment system really represents — I’ve seen several people argue that Wrex is a Paragon character, despite his mercenary, shoot first and intimidate attitude, simply because he’s willing to sacrifice his life for his own people (exactly as Renegade Shepherd is unblinkingly willing to sacrifice his/her life for humanity). That’s a problem, but it’s not madness. Given how poor alignment systems have been up until now, it’s up to the game to prove that it’s different — not the player.

I think BioWare realizes this. With Mass Effect 2, they’ve talked of a story involving a suicide mission, the necessity of gathering the toughest thugs and assassins to join you, and multiple endings, potentially resulting in the permanent death of the main character and the entire party (complete with the need to roll up a new Shepherd after you import your save into Mass Effect 3). I hope — and I feel pretty good about this — that they fully intend to challenge your character to be ruthless and face true moral challenges that will force players to decide what they really want to do. They want to shake people out of their default stride, to make them stop thinking the choice is Luke Skywalker or Chaotic Stupid, and start thinking about the choice between Princess Leia and Han Solo.

I played a character with a roughly 3:2 Paragon to Renegade ratio, never metagaming, going only by gut feelings and roleplaying in every dialogue; I regretted some of my Paragon choices on big moral questions (not exterminating the alien mother), and I ordered the human fleet hold back and let the council be killed in the final battle. I did this because I approached the game by giving it blind faith that it would support me playing the game by however my gut said to go at any given time — and not only were the options sensible enough to support that, but the mechanics were too, and I left feeling that my character (female Shepherd, incidentally), and my story, was deeply personal and unique to me.

The rush to brush off

One of the big challenges in game design is to remember that you are not your audience. I don’t like alignment systems that present a sort of one dimensional zero-sum problem, with heavy gameplay effects that encourage metagaming your roleplaying. Adam’s not the same way, and he isn’t so worried about those things — he’s happy to play a fully evil character most of the time, and making abilities more experience because you betrayed your existing alignment is just a tradeoff to him. But he still wants that freedom to tell his story in the game, and to have degrees of alignment. He wants the option to play a good guy for half the game and turn evil. inFAMOUS essentially prohibits that. He wants the option to play the guy who wants to conquer the world — but is quick to save it from destruction.

It’s good that alignment systems and morality in games are such a popular subject for designers, then. It’s a field with a lot of untapped potential. But in the rush to point out the many valid flaws of existing efforts, I feel that many people — most that I’ve talked to, even — are too quick to overlook Mass Effect’s tremendous advances in this area. BioWare is pushing the envelope on moral choice and alignment in games, and getting precious little recognition for it. They present an alignment system that supports the freedom to play all Paragon, all Renegade, or anything in between. I want them to communicate that better so that players realize they really have the mechanical freedom to roleplay their hearts out in every dialogue, but even if that’s clear, not all players will use the opportunity, as some want a strong good or evil character that fulfills one of these alignments to the maximum.

In the end, one of the goals of alignment systems — a major selling point — is the freedom to play how you want to play, to make the character you want to make. Mass Effect gives you the freedom to do that. In our criticisms and rush to brush off the bad approaches, I want to take this moment to respect one of the often overlooked and underrated good ones.

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