Toast On Jam: Gaming Needs A Little Less Uncharted And A Little More Whatever The Hell We Want
Hi? I was told there’d be cookies here. Oh well, just another one of life’s disappointments. Speaking of which, I was told to have an opinion so here’s one. You can expect another in exactly four weeks if the sheer effort doesn’t kill me. About the name of this column; astute readers might have noticed it’s a little backwards. The rest of you are
idiots. It represents my love of jam.
What makes a game a game? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Sure, there’s a dictionary definition but it’s a narrow one because gaming has expanded itself to be a multitude of things to all sorts of people. As with any creative medium, there is no set way to go about creating something. This is why games fall on such a broad spectrum of tone, genre, quality, visual style, narrative and pre-order DLC. Can you imagine if there were a template upon which all games had to be created?
*And then our unsuspecting writer noticed Ubisoft lurking in the corner.*
The problem is that the end result is the same 97% of the time. Regardless of all the uniquely twisted, gnarled and knotted threads representing the development cycles of games we arrive at a singular point.
The player is led by the hand in a world the developer has erected through a narrative they’ve written with little to no effect on the world and even less effect on the outcome of the game. Sure, you’re the protagonist. The guy with the most guns and the most lead absorbent body in history but are you the one making the decisions or is there an invisible thread pulling you at every junction? You might as well be Edward Norton in Fight Club (minus the final act). At no point are you really in control.
This opinion is one that first started to form from a conversation that we had in the EGMR office (a dodgy WhatsApp group chat which frequently indulges in cat pictures) and stems in part from No Man’s Sky.
The vast majority of games, in both narrative and gameplay, are either very linear or only give the perceived illusion of autonomy and freedom. We’re still confined to do what the developers have allowed us to do and sometimes that could amount to a lot of things to do but how much influence do you as the player have on the game world or narrative outside of what the developers have scripted?
If you look at some of the best games from the last console generation: Uncharted, BioShock, Halo 4 and even the likes of Portal 2; these games are pretty restrictive. They pride themselves on it and really because it allows some of them to be very cinematic. What is one of the selling points of the Uncharted series? It feels like you’re reliving an Indiana Jones movie. Portal 2 is perhaps the most extreme example of a game where you have to do exactly as the developers have planned. As much as I love BioShock, it’s a strictly linear and restrictive experience.
These are all superb games. Visually they’re aces and you’ll certainly be entertained by each one; some of them have even been innovative in their own way but they lie at an extreme. To reiterate, gaming lies on a spectrum and on this end we have the tightly scripted, rather linear types. There is no freedom to do whatever the hell you want and you certainly don’t have any agency over what happens.
Somewhere in the middle you might find sandbox games. Yes, there is a quite possibly rather linear narrative waiting for you behind those mission markers but all around it is a world to explore. A world with very strict rules and limitations. For example, you can’t dig a grave with remote C4 charges nor can you melee a puppy or burn down the primary antagonist’s house. These things are all very crucial to the user experience.
These games have a perceived, Matrix-like freedom. Push too hard against the barriers and you’ll have a thousand Hugo Weavings all over you. Or a death screen but really, isn’t Hugo Weaving the ultimate death screen?
Think about Skyrim or GTA V. Hell, even Black Flag. Did you give much of a damn about the “main missions”, the ones marked out with a giant icon? Probably not all that much because you’d rather dress your character up or scale a mountain on horseback or sail the breathtakingly gorgeous ocean or endlessly take selfies while mowing down a street gang.
The game is happy as long as you’re dicking about and having no influence on the world but as soon as you try to completely annihilate a whole neighbourhood/village or destroy the boat that you know the antagonist is probably going to use to escape later the game pipes up with a, “sorry mate, that ain’t me,” and proceeds to politely ignore the fact that you just took a flamethrower to your best friend who is probably going to betray you later in the story.
All of these games try to give the player a sense of autonomy and agency – that they are in a world where they can do whatever they want. The perception is that you’re in sandbox with all the tools the developer has given you to play around. However, there are strict limitations on what players can and cannot do. Most of the time you’re either doing what the developers are telling you to do or what they’ve allowed you to do. It sounds a hell of a lot like something Daenerys needs to take a look at but this is a practical consideration. Developers can’t account for every condition or eventuality in order to give players a truly organic experience which they craft themselves.
That doesn’t mean they don’t try to manufacture a more organic and immersive experience. We’ve seen it for years now where developers will manufacture multiple endings to give players the false sense of having carved their own path. More recently developers have begun adding “little touches” and signs of a more believable world where a light goes out if you shoot it, characters run their hands along a wall if you walk along it and other touches which give the impression of a world that you can interact with rather than simply observe as you walk through corridor after corridor.
You might have noticed I’ve picked out two rather different methods of creating immersion and an organic experience. You get a cookie. If I had any cookies to give!
Essentially the key to tricking players into feeling like they’re having an organic experience in a world that they can affect is twofold. You need to give them perceived freedom and you need to make the world react to them.
The Stanley Parable is an excellent parody of this. The game starts out giving Stanley a great deal of freedom to roam about the office but as you progressively ignore the narrator more and more the world reacts and changes to become increasingly more linear. Forcing players to go where they’re told.
It might sound as if I’m complaining about this style of making games but in fact I love it.
“Wait, I just read 1200 words to hear this dick contradict himself?”
There is no right way to make a game although Gearbox Software has shown us the wrong way to make a game. That said, the spectrum on which all games fall allows for all sorts. The strictly linear games are excellent for those moments when you want to be guided through a great experience and the sandbox games are good for having a lot of fun. There is a place for everyone but the problem is that there is no game with truly emergent and organic gameplay or narrative. In fact, that end of the spectrum is rather light.
You’ve got titles such as Minecraft where players can mine and create pretty much whatever they want using, literally, the tools the game gives them. Then there’s DayZ where players can interact with other players however they wish. Barring random hook ups, players are free to form gangs or venture out alone or destroy a group from within. It’s up to you and each experience will be a part of the survival narrative you’re crafting.
Games such as Heavy Rain or Mass Effect are examples of more “classic” games where players do actually have some agency. You can kill characters off, doom entire races and cut your own finger off. As far as I know the awkward sex scenes are mandatory. That applies to Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. However, the gameplay is then very restrictive and linear and for all the branches the narrative can take there are still moments you are obligated to experience and in the end the hero dies anyway.
Those lame “choose-your-own-adventure” books at least allow the story to end at various points depending on what choices you make. This is because both those games have a very specific story to tell but want to give players the opportunity to still make important decisions and have some agency over crucial moments. We could call this the best of both worlds.
What of No Man’s Sky? What makes this little indie game so special? Well, it’s a PS4 exclusive so Xbox One fans should really be up in arms about it but secondly, it promises a truly unique and organic experience for players. You have a spaceship and a whole lot of worlds to explore. That’s the basic premise.
The real hook, something that no other game has really gotten right yet, is that each world is procedurally generated so as you and other players discover these worlds they get added to the known universe. Players can also drastically affect a planet’s ecosystem but driving a species of plant to extinction and other such things that would make Greenpeace gasp.
That’s something that, if executed correctly, would be highly refreshing to all of us who are too used to having our hands held through a 4 hour tutorial followed by a 12 hour linear experience. It’s also exactly what I described above.
With interconnected experiences and social gaming being all the rage right now I think gaming is finally heading towards offering up a world for players to muck about in and forge their own stories with their own unique experiences. Titles such as Destiny, The Division and even The Crew or Driveclub seem to hinge very much on who you’re playing with and what you do with them. There is just a world and the experience is entirely what you make of it.
It’s just a pity you have to do it with other people.
I do think the fundamental problem here is that the way most games are made is simply more conducive to scripted experiences with some tolerance for random and semi-organic experiences. The way games seem to be made is that for everything you do there is a subroutine or function which knows how to handle it. Push past a civilian and they’ll shout at you every time. They won’t get fed up and eventually push back. This is because the game handles each push as the first of its kind. It doesn’t record and learn from your actions except in special circumstances where the developers have allowed it to.
Creating organic experiences in this manner is impossible and maybe just a little tedious.
A different approach, a better approach is to learn from Developmental Robotics. Rather than coding a robot how to respond to every single eventuality or possible task expected of it, it is smarter to give the robot the architecture and mechanisms to respond to any situation. It will be pretty awful initially at things like throwing or catching a ball but the robot will learn and adapt. This is open-ended design at its best.
Apply the same to game development. Rather than building tight structures, constricting narratives and “look but don’t touch” worlds; developers can rather create a framework within which the player is free to do whatever they want and it will have an impact on the world around them.
Style and form will likely have to be sacrificed to some degree in this approach but it could very possibly result in a very different and very new experience for gamers. Perhaps games like this were not possible with the previous technology but if No Man’s Sky can exist then certainly similar such games can be made. Beta testing would certainly have greater importance as this will be where the game does a lot of learning and this data can be used in the final build of the game.
Imagine a game where everything adapts and changes based on your actions.
I love the tightly linear BioShock, Uncharted and Portal 2. I adore the false freedom of Far Cry 3 and GTA V. However, the current generation of gaming can offer so much more than just share buttons and 1080p.