Friday, June 14, 2013

E3 Special II - "I Got Your Open World For You Right Here!!"

A bit of a follow up to this week’s earlier E3 post (“I got your backwards compatibility right here!”), I’ve been following the big announcements from E3 to see if there was anything that remotely made me excited for video games again. On the whole, it’s just been shooty-shooty-shooty.

There was the surprising announcement that Microsoft were launching a new Xbox360 and were dedicated to supporting the console for the next twelve months. Lots of new games coming out for it, but it’s really just putting off the inevitable – when the 360 has become a thing of the past and all my old games are redundant. Microsoft were not doing themselves any favours with their comments about the 360 being their product for people who don’t want to be connected to the internet all of the time, and Sony’s potential library of back catalogue being available may give us some hope that older games are going to be available to keep in some form or another (though probably not).

But on the whole, besides a couple of interesting exceptions to the rule, the whole of E3 was about carrying a gun, and shooting someone. Or carrying a sword and stabbing them. Or maybe just punching them in the face.

I’m not the only one bored by it all. 

Variety reported an interesting panel at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where the biggest names in cinema – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – discussed the future of movies and video games. Lucas said, “the games industry can and will create empathic characters, but it hasn’t so far because it’s been driven by hard-core gamers who enjoy onscreen violence.”

I’ll come back to that panel in a future blog post to discuss Lucas’ theory of entertainment taking to controlling your dreams.

However, in amongst all of the bloodshed, shooting, fast cars and the inevitable zombie plagues, there was one phrase that kept being repeated over and over again.

Open World Environment.

They’re taking it to mean that you can go anywhere, and do anything you like. 

The first one I really remember being like this was Grand Theft Auto, though (in my opinion) this was truly perfected in Red Dead Redemption. But let’s stick to GTA shall we? 

GTA IV - Gorgeous looking isn't it?
Before I start, let’s just get this clear – I LOVE GTA. GTA IV, and Red Dead Redemption are possibly my favourite video games ever. Sure, you could say they’re the usual men-shooting-each-other games, but certainly in Red Dead’s case, the shooting was done reluctantly, and there was an emotional plot that would but many blockbuster movies to shame. 

Grand Theft Auto IV is another work of genius. The “open world environment” is huge, the whole of Liberty City (though this is tiny compared to the open plains of Red Dead). Once the plot had opened up all of the islands of Liberty City, you could drive around everywhere. Get in a boat and go out in the sea, or take a helicopter around the city. Fantastic. You could do lots of cool and crazy stuff, like jump out of helicopters, drive cars off of rooftops or through the subway system, or just take in the sights. Go to the bar, have a few drinks. Go to the golf driving range, play darts, or just cause mayhem and wait for the police to take you down.

Seems pretty open world doesn’t it?

Let's look at this...

It’s an image of the game, looking at a borough of Liberty City. Fantastic isn’t it? The detail, the size of it all. 

However, can you go in the buildings? Well, you can, but only a select few. You can go into the shops, the bars, the houses that you own, and ones that are either locations of prearranged action scenes and missions, or the houses of the filthy crims you’re working for. But that's it. The rest are just blocks that have graphic images of fake windows and doors.

Suddenly, your open world isn’t quite so open.

You can drive into the airport, but you can’t book a flight on a plane. You can steal a helicopter, but you can’t leave Liberty City. You can hijack a boat, but you can’t sail off into the sunset. 

Your open world is a snowglobe, filled with fake plastic buildings with fake doors that don’t open.

This is not a criticism against Rockstar Games. As I’ve said, I love GTA, I love them all with a passion, and I still play GTA IV now, many years after it came out. I can’t wait for GTAV, though I get the feeling that I’m going to be rubbish at it (because, as I discuss elsewhere on this blog, I’m bad at video games). No, this is the limitation of the console, of the computing power, and what it can do.

My wife is brilliant. I’m not just saying it because she’s my wife, but she has this knack – this ability to think outside of the box. She loves video games too – she plays a lot more than I do. She’s actually finished Assassin’s Creed (all of them), the new Tomb Raider, and all of the Halo games (I still haven't finished 4 yet). But while she’s playing video games, you can see the frustration there. She doesn’t want to run into the next area to start shooting at the next wave of pre-destined goons. She wants to have a look around, see the scenery, look for any little areas she may have missed, look for secret passageways, and find the cool stuff.

This may come from the first couple of Tomb Raider games where you could take your time, find new ways around, find secret areas and investigate. But this seems to be lost with modern games and their “run in blasting and don’t look at the surroundings” mentality.

If she was playing GTA, she’d be off wondering why she couldn’t go into the neighbour’s building, go into that shop, climb to that roof… all of the things you can’t do. 

In order to be able to go into every house, to leave the city, to talk to random people, to go off on new adventures that are spontaneous you'd need a computer the size of a college dorm, or to get into MMORPGs.

But you know what does have a truly open world environment?

Tabletop roleplaying games.

Yes, we’re back to that argument again. Want to go into the neighbour’s house? No problem. Talk to the neighbours and ask if there have been any strange happenings recently? Maybe the neighbours have been having a problem being hassled by a cruel and manipulative landlord in an unexpected plot that the gamemaster is making up on the spot. A plot that’ll lead to a whole new adventure going off on a tangent that’ll last weeks. Who knows?

That’s one of the wonders of tabletop gaming. No limitations. Sure, the GM may have put a lot of work into an adventure or setting, but the option is certainly there for the player characters to do something different, leave the area, and find something new to discover.

Not only is wifey brilliant at questioning the logic of games (not only video games, but also roleplaying games – certainly keeps me on my toes when game designing) but she’s great at doing the unexpected. I remember we’d been playing Kult quite intensely, and I’d just purchased the epic and gorgeously designed Judas Grail adventure for it. I set the game up, tweak a couple of the characters so it fits with our current storyline, and start the game… only to have her lead the entire group to a completely different location, and end up in a nightclub full of vampires. 

But it didn't matter. The game was still awesome, and everything that came out of it was just as unexpected and cool for me as the GM as it was for the players. And that's something video games cannot do. At least not yet. Not for a long while.

Speaking of game designing though, I should get back to that. WILD isn’t going to write itself.

Until next time, stay multi-classy.

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