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A Conspiracy Unraveled At E3 2011

I was walking around today, when I had to stop and massage a pain out of my shoulder. I acquired this throbbing reminder that I really need to buy a MacBook Air soon, while gallivanting around LA during E3 with my brick of a laptop.

After the pain melted away, I was left with nothing but a pleasant smile on my face –and in turn creeping everyone out around me; I decided to peruse the pages upon pages of notes that I took from various behind-closed-doors sessions with developers. After deciphering my notes –which at this point made as much sense to me as Davinci Code-esque hints scribbled onto Egyptian tombs would, I came across a startling realization:

There was definitely an underlying theme, and subtle strategy at this year’s E3 that I noticed across all of the developers I spent time with. They uttered common catch-phrases like it were a mantra or even some sort of bizarre brain-washing technique. Whenever I stepped into the dark, cramped rooms along with 5 or 6 other journalists, we never imagined that what at first appeared to be innocent live demos may, in fact, be some twisted cult showcase, pressing upon us propaganda delivered straight from the big wigs above.

Now I may be over-dramatizing things a bit, but I do remember at the time it feeling strange, and there were moments when it didn’t really make sense what they were rambling on about.

“We’re giving the player complete control,” uttered one developer from ‘Game A.’ Next, the lead designer from ‘Game B’ would say, “The player has complete freedom –complete control, to do whatever the player chooses.” Before I could Truman Show the experience and call it before it happens like Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, designer of ‘Game C’ would spout out sentence after sentence along the lines of, “The choice is entirely up to you. You can choose whichever path you want. The game world is yours to do whatever you choose to do. The player is in control.” He would emphasize the word “player” as if it were a revelation in gaming –a twist to the formula that putting you in control was going to be the next big thing never before done in a video game.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the words, “Choose/Choice,” or “Freedom” over the course of my E3 experience, I’d be signing the deed of my newly purchased Island where it would be mandatory for everyone to own a Chimp, and to teach it to play Far Cry 2 as seen here.

Jokes aside, I have two major problems with this over-used formula:

1) Is this really a new game-changing mechanic? Should I be writing home to ma’ and pa’ about this, and building up excitement in my gut like it’s Christmas Eve? Those of you who haven’t followed any of my previous editorials should know that I have not been an avid supporter of the whole sandbox approach of, “Do anything, be anything” tidal wave of garbage that has hit our industry. In my opinion, it’s lazy and is ruining what few golden gaming memories I have left. What’s worse is that everyone seems to be jumping on this wagon, yet few know how to steer it. What we’re left with is the same open-world experience with a different setting and main character to control. Big deal.

I like being guided through someone else’s imagination. I enjoy the wonders and experiences that a developer spends meticulously creating for me to explore –even if similar to everyone else who plays the same game. It’s just like a good movie: We can all watch the exact same 90 minute film, be exposed to the same story, characters, and twist and turns along the way, yet leave the theater taking away something completely different from one another.

Sure, a little choice doesn’t hurt anyone. But you don’t need it, and you definitely don’t need to force it into every single franchise just so to appeal to the mass idiocy of a gene pool that has leaked into the gaming chromosome. Which leads me to my next point.

2) Do we need this freedom of choice in every game we play? Is there really a benefit to freedom? In my opinion this (hopefully) fad has tarnished many of my favorite franchises by introducing them to the now-cringe worthy words of “sandbox gameplay,” and “open-hub worlds.” I miss the days when “hub world” simply meant the place that gets you from level 1 to level 2. Now entire games are based in the hub world –but you’re free to explore!

The point here, however, is that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. I sat and watched one of the lead designers run a group of us through a 30 minute demo of a  game that shall remain nameless, when something pathetic occurred. A look of desperation fell upon his face as he struggled to force his assigned “buzz words” into the presentation. Even he knew what we were witnessing was neither freedom or choice, but rather a poor excuse to repeat those despicable words we had all heard 100 times that day. He was trying to sell us on this false sense of “freedom” when it was clear-not only from the nervous sweat he began to break into, but because since when is choosing to kill an enemy in an FPS a choice? It’s the rudimentary core gameplay element.

A great example of utilizing choice and freedom without sacrificing the story or player experience is in Arkham Asylum. It was a perfect mix of linear and non-linear game design. You could imagine my disappointment when hearing the changes being made to make Arkham City a more “open-world.” I have faith in those guys at Rocksteady, but I remain skeptical until I get my hands on the final build to see if any of their integrity was compromised to make the masses happier, and their piggy banks fuller.

With all of this said, I’m not entirely bitter about this concept. When done right it’s a very thrilling experience. Even the new Tomb Raider has elements of open hub-worlds in their reboot of Lara Croft which shows some real promise. I guess I’m just a poor old fashioned gamer hoping to cling onto some of the core experiences that first attracted me to the medium in the first place.

Developers that know how to implement these forms of gameplay should stick to it. As for the rest of you, don’t quit your day jobs. As for me? I’m going to let the mystery of why all the developers at this year’s E3 were obsessed with cementing that their game had the very best in player choice remain a mystery. Tom Hanks can crack that code while I try can cure my boredom and go bowling. (In GTA).

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  • Anonymous

    Its exactly what you said it is, a catch phrase. It dosent really mean
    anything and is just a marketing word. Just like at any other press
    event, the developers spice up their game with words like compelling, immersive, visceral.

    I dont know how open world games are “lazy”. Its not like they can just
    throw a player into a world of code that was premade. Instead of
    spending time making setpieces and levels that are linear they spent an
    equal amount of time creating an open set of rules and actions to let
    the player make his own game. While call of duty and other linear games
    are fun, I dont think they compare to games that utilize open world or
    dynamic systems, such as Far Cry 2 or STALKER. I find myself going back
    to those games much more than COD where I know its the same experience
    over and over.

    And linear games today are much different than linear games of old, like
    Mario for instance. Sure its a fun game but wouldnt it be nice if they
    enemies in Super Mario Bros ever reacted to what you were going to do?
    The worst part for every COD game for me (I keep using this as an
    example because of its popularity, I assume everyone can relate to this
    series) is when an enemy bursts out of a door and it aiming in the wrong
    direction or fails to notice that Im not standing where I was designed
    to stand. When the AI reacts like its really intelligent it creates so
    many more possibilities.

    Obviously not every open world game is good, but that has nothing to do
    with the concept of open world. You yourself admitted “when done right
    it’s a very thrilling experience.” In a game like GTA the open world
    aspect is amazing, in a game like Saints Row 2… not so much. But the
    same can be said for linear games. For every COD there are many Soldier
    of Fortune: Payback’s that are mind numbingly boring to play.

    While open world, or sandbox games, might not be the future. Dynamic
    systems certainly are. In the future we will never see enemies running
    from point A to point B because they were preprogrammed to, meanwhile
    passing the very player they are trying to attack. It will all be
    dynamic, based on line of sight, environmental layout, and so on.