Tuesday, September 15, 2015

[BoRT Sep. 2015] The Bear's Dilema: Exploration and Abstraction

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
And what do you think he saw? 

Fallout 4 threatens down upon us like the face of an unsmiling god, menacing gamers with hours upon hours of the free-form exploration Bethseda Game Studios has perfected. Bethseda, of course, is the war criminal responsible for Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls series, which have destroyed more hours of human productivity than Solitaire and Power Point combined. 

Bethseda is extremely skillful at creating Open Worlds, wherein the player can merrily skip over any mountain on the horizon like the bear of the song. Don't like any of the quests you currently have? Not interested in the main storyline? Endless adventures are no further than the next mountain over. 
While this sort of open-ended exploration can be very enjoyable, it is not without its issues. The open world is usually navigated by floating arrows which turn questing across fantasy worlds and post-apocalypses alike into navigating a modern city via GPS. 

This. Take this, mighty adventurer. We'll wait.
These arrows are the Siris of Tamriel, the immersion-breaking Navis of the nuclear wasteland. "Turn right at the moldering remains of a dead civilization. Turn right. REROUTING. REROUTING. U-TURN AT MONUMENT TO MANKIND'S HUBRIS IN 1 MILE." 

Our pointy overlords, IRL.
 Worse, perhaps, than the mood-killing navigation arrows is the Dilemma of the Bear. After all, once the bear went over the mountain, what do you think he saw? 
He saw another mountain, 
He saw another mountain, 
He saw another mountain, 
So what do you think he did? 
The bear goes over the mountain, only to see another mountain on the horizon. Another cave of spiders. Another town overrun by bandits. If the bear is in a Bethseda game, it will be an excellent mountain full of interesting side-paths and challenges, but alas, another mountain all the same. 
As we all know, the bear will proceed to the next mountain and do it again. And again. And again, until the children tire of the song. And while I look forward to Bethseda's upcoming romp through the wilderness, I realize that the mountains I scale will ultimately lead to nothing but more mountains. Completeing the main quest will not heal the world; it will leave its mountains unchanged for all my scrambling over. 
If Fallout and Skyrim and their like are GPS games, what does a Map game look like? 
While GPS faithfully reproduces every detail of the landscape to a fraction of Longitude and Latitude, a Map must abstract. A map cannot show every tree in the forest or every bend in the river, just the general contours and where the cities and towns lie. 
I am currently playing Grandia,which is perhaps as far from an Open World game as you can get without taking place in a single location. The world map is a literal map. The player does not wander around an overworld, as in Final Fantasy games, but rather select locations with a cursor:
Grandia's world map is a literal map.
Grandia's story is also very much linear. You progress from location to location, from event to event, without any say in the main character's decisions or morality. Justin is not a cipher, a voiceless protagonist for the player to project into, but a boy with a very distinct personality. You do not choose what he does or where he goes; you just help him get there. 
Angst-ridden protagonists need not apply.
I have found this extreme linearity very refreshing. It is an old game, but so different from most of what I have seen recently that it feels strangely new. I am reminded of Jim Sterling's video on Spencer Mansion and the importance of Small Spaces. Small spaces and a linear plots may not allow for as much organic gameplay, but sometimes that's okay. I will remember Justin's liner, abstracted journey across the continents much longer than I will remember Silent Protagonist #4,328 cresting over Mountain #98,657. 
Skyrim/Fallout let me piece together whatever story I can. Grandia tells me a story. Neither thing is inherently better, but both things are better at delivering different experiences. 
As I said, I am looking forward to Fallout 4 and plan on sandboxing it up for endless hours of mountain after city after factory after mountain after so on. But I'm also going to forget all of the inconsequential poking about. I'm going to be as un-involved in the central plot as I was in every other Open World GPS-fest I've ever played. 
Grandia, I'm going to remember. Its story is linear, a map. It does not bog me down in meaningless details and endless side-paths, but rather presents me with an abstraction of a world that I can enjoy. Sometimes it's better to leave the edges of the map to the player's imagination. 
Has the gaming world tired of mountains? I doubt it. The central mechanic of free roaming will always be attractive. But in a world filled with samey sandboxes, a developer who wants to stand out would do well to consider the value of linearity and abstraction. 
The bear went over the mountain, 
The bear went over the mountain, 
The bear went over the mountain, 
And what do you think he saw? 

1 comment:

  1. The map + gps system in far cry 2 was the least immersion breaking system I've played. I would like a similar interface with map and compass instead of map and GPS, but far cry 2 got to be literally exhausting to play after a while.