14 January, 2015

Midweek Musings 14/01/15 - 'See That Mountain Over There...' Part 1

The open world is swiftly becoming an essential feature of big budget video games. Previously an arena only truly contested in by the titans Bethesda and Rockstar, we now see developers of all walks rushing to fill their games with a torrent of optional content, which can so often be little more than fodder. This week I explore some of my thoughts on the weaknesses of the open world format, how some games overcome them and how others fail to even acknowledge them.

Over recent years as players and critics alike have been decrying the prevalence of the first person shooter genre, I’ve been striking a different drum, taking a rather pessimistic stance on the seemingly mandatory inclusion of open worlds. All too often, core element of games, like pacing, setting and narrative are eschewed in favour of the ‘living world’ of an open world game. Concessions are made elsewhere to explain away badly designed open worlds. That said I don’t hate open world games or anything crazy, when they're done well they are amazing, but I would personally take a well-directed linear experience that leaves an impression, over a map littered with middling-to-poor side quests any day.

Now, Ubisoft have release some tremendous games in the last few years, but as I am sure many of you who have played multiple Ubisoft games of the last few years can attest, they all feel cut from the same cloth, a little too Assassin’s Creed-y. I’m talking about the towers, the chests, a map full of two-to-five minute long side missions; whether fetch quests, or chases, or tracking a target in a crowd. Now it’s not that I take issue with the volume of content per se, more the lack of substance and to a lesser degree, variety of the content. The third or fifth time you complete a ‘chase a thief’ mission in an Assassin’s Creed game is no more interesting or rewarding than the first time, you’ll receive the same gaudy, out-of-world popup window telling you what paltry amount of experience points you gained. Grand Theft Auto (GTA) V had the exact same type of missions in its open world, but in GTA they were spontaneous, natural, and they gave you a choice whether to return the money or steal it for yourself. Aside from allowing the player to role play whichever character they are playing as (and the protagonists were very different and well defined), it helped to bring randomness and life to the world in a way that a defined quest-giver just doesn't. GTA doesn't pop a window on screen, you just do the action and move on, it is integrated far more seamlessly. 

In the GTA series, V in particular, the world feels alive; no the crowds aren’t more detailed nor intelligent, but when you are driving around, listening to whatever radio station takes your fancy, the world has a palpable mood. The soundtrack is a big contributor to the setting the game, it evokes tone and period, I don’t necessarily mean the original compositions, more the licensed tracks. Rockstar didn’t fill the game with the hottest hits at the time of release, or obscure and easy to license indie bands. The in-game radio plays a range of genres, some songs are classics, some modern , but most are recognizable. The GTA radios also have the DJs to add flavour, usually in the form of some pointed commentary on the state of America. Watch Dogs’ MP3 player – which could inexplicably receive updates about the vigilante, Aiden Pearce’s most recent doings – had none of that tone, or careful curation, but instead an attention-sapping deficit of personality. Chicago could have been anywhere, the same could be said for Infamous Second Son’s Seattle, but at least that game features the Space Needle prominently enough to remind you where you are meant to be. Not that I could point to any defining characteristics of Chicago, but I also didn't know anything about Florence in Assassin’s Creed II, yet there are buildings and sites that I still recall quite vividly. Watch Dogs’ world became memorable for me because of the two dudes rapping on every other street corner than anything else, which while hilarious is not necessarily a positive thing.

That helps too I guess.

An Assassin’s Creed game clearly cannot leverage a radio or even evoke a mood that we in the modern day have experienced ourselves and can truly relate to. Assassins’s Creed IV: Black Flag found its own way around the limitations of the setting by implementing the critically-lauded Sea Shanties that your crew would sing. Aside from being one of the few genuinely rewarding collectables, they made your pirate ship sound like a damn pirate ship, and the open seas feel a whole lot less solemn. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, tackled similar period setting conundrums in a totally different way. Red Dead doubled down on spontaneous events like the kind we discussed earlier. They constructed a world that was an open, barren desert, which never had you too far away from a western-themed crime, or a side mission with actual substance and writing. The side missions of the Assassin’s Creed games – also every other aforementioned Ubisoft game – have no such attention to detail, they are meaningless; a throwaway line of dialog from an non-playable character at the beginning and end of the short activity. Look no further than Assassin’s Creed Unity; the map is barely useable it is packed with so many tiny icons; chests of multiple colours (you can’t open most by just playing the game) and side missions with no purpose other than to grind out money and experience. I had similar feelings about some
Grisha is no mere orc captain.
of Shadow of Mordor’s activities initially, specifically the challenges and trials. However, most Shadow of Mordor's content is side missions when you factor in the Nemesis system, which transforms the previously shallow kill orders and ambushes that litter the map into something with purpose. That is an open world done ‘right’, or at least what I consider ‘right’; it makes being in the world itself compelling to be in. If the only reason you are in the open world is to move from story mission to story mission then something has probably gone wrong (or I concede, the story is just that good), but at that point why bother having an open world at all?

All of the (modern) Rockstar games –  I can’t personally attest to many of older titles –  have fantastic writing and cinematic direction, which as mentioned earlier, is often overlooked by open world games, that revel the scale of their world first, and attention to detail second. Unlike the Rockstar storytelling, the Assassin’s Creed story is – and I am increasingly convinced forever will be – an almost incoherent series of barely connected assassinations, punctuated by a flurry of white user interface. And let’s not forget of course, the requisite mouthy woman who serves to remind you it is actually set in the modern day and that the story you are playing counts for nothing.

What does Assassin’s Creed (and Co.) get from including an open world? The memorable parts of each game are usually the scripted story sequences. In my mind the spirit of Assassin’s Creed has never been captured better than in the Venice Carnevale scene in Assassin’s Creed II; the bespoke activities, the jostling crowd, the lighting, all served to set the scene. I have often felt that Assassin’s Creed would be better presented in a denser, richer form, not unlike the structure of Hitman Absolution. I cannot speak to the rest of the Hitman series, but Absolution presents well-crafted and very different scenarios, with a pretty broad range of options to approach them. Unity, this year implemented something similar but far less elegantly, it displayed the occasional optional route as side objectives in story missions, but it was
either, 'take that route' or 'go in through the front'. I’m not going to pretend to have a salve for Ubisoft’s debilitating design template, or know what is best for their series’. I would just love nothing more than to see them do again what they did with Assassin’s Creed II and build something new. Take their talent in a direction we’ve never seen before, rather than doubling, nay tripling down on what they are comfortable with, or chasing the successes of games that have already done it better. That is by no means a feeling I harbour of just Ubisoft, it just so happens they have released a lot of games recently that share identical flaws.

In the next piece, which should go up in a weeks’ time, I plan to continue this open world line of thought, specifically on how Skyrim has changed role playing games in the same manner that Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed online multiplayer. In addition to peaking at some of the heavy-hitters who have turned open world that are due to release later this year. Do you feel like Ubisoft’s open world mould is stifling the creativity and potential of their games? Is a large sandbox more important to you than a well told story with set piece moments? Let us know below!

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