A recent article in PC Gamer magazine claims that scripted set pieces in gaming are vanishing to make way for open worlds. I certainly hope that’s not the case, not if we still intend to tackle deep issues with gaming.
Open-world games like Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto V give you giant worlds to roam around and explore in, and they’re definitely the hot trend in modern gaming. All you have to look at is the Batman: Arkham trilogy to see the transition gaming made over the past 6 years: in 2009, Arkham Asylum was a relatively-linear action title with limited exploration based on Arkham Island, but in 2015, Arkham Knight is an open-world fight-fest where you patrol the entirety of Gotham. Some of this comes from the player’s desire to call the shots and make their own story; there’s nothing inherently wrong with that desire, but we still need scripted gaming to direct conversation and teach lessons we might not want to learn.
The article essentially claims that players are bored with watching dramatic cutscenes, that they don’t create the feeling they used to, and that giving players open worlds to explore is for the best:
I really think we’ve entered a golden age of games. Devs—both indies and the big studios—are realising the power of creating engaging, interlinked systems, then letting players run wild with them, with interactivity replacing sitting and passively watching things happen. The heavily scripted set-pieces that dominated the noughties, typified by the bombastic Call of Duty series, are no longer impressive. I watched the Eiffel Tower explode in Modern Warfare 3 and felt nothing. – Andy Kelly
Funny, I almost feel the opposite after playing the first mission in Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
Anyone remember the waterboarding controversy that sprung up while Guantanamo Bay was still a hot issue in the news cycle? Yeah, I forgot about that, too, until I got about 5 minutes into Black Ops III (graphic violence and torture ahead):
My biggest fear as a child was drowning. I’d been held underwater at the local pool by a “friend,” and the thought of suffocating underwater terrified me. I’ve played/watched this scene multiple times now, and each time I shudder when I see that funnel rammed into the prisoner’s mouth. I didn’t plan to think about the horrors of torture when I walked in to the game, didn’t particularly want to, I certainly am now. And I’m glad I am. But in an open-world, perhaps I could have skipped past that experience entirely, instead just going to the firing range to unlock new weapons or battle robots. Maybe I could work on gathering materials to craft new guns, or maybe I would have simply never encountered the base at all. Already, Black Ops III offers basically all of the options I’ve listed; I imagine many players will never touch the single-player campaign and instead focus on the cooperative Zombies mode and player vs. player combat. Still, there’s something special about campaign-based storytelling; like stories told via other mediums, they focus on specific actions and teach us about the world.
For me, gaming doesn’t do much if I’m not learning something about myself or the world in the process. Whether I’m thinking about the horrors of war and torture in Call of Duty, contemplating the costs of heroism in Batman: Arkham City, or better understanding a quarterback’s decision-making process after a game of Madden, the more that gaming can enrich my real-world life, the better. It’s why I’m so bad at playing open-world games like Skyrim that don’t focus on story, or crafting/survival games like DayZ or Don’t Starve; without a story to process, the gaming itself just doesn’t intrigue me. It’s why The Witcher III still seems so interesting to me: because the game revolves around a specific character, Geralt of Rivia, the lore and storytelling has to be crafted to fit that character, a concrete character with deficiencies and biases to be addressed in the world. It’s not about me; it’s about learning from someone else’s life and experiences, even if it’s shaped by my decisions. (Even with this said, I’ll still probably buy Fallout 4 the day it comes out.)
This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to learn from open-world games that aren’t focused on a particular character. One of the sidequest decisions made in Fallout 3 is whether or not to detonate a nuke in a town for profit, and if that doesn’t make you think then I’m not sure what will. But without playing a set character your hand is never forced, you don’t have to go outside of your own comfort zone. I played Fallout 3 as a complete good guy, saving towns and kissing babies, and so I never learned about the potential consequences (or benefits) of being a little dark. In contrast, games like Square Enix’s Life is Strange (a recent favorite) places you in the town of Arcadia Bay, a world with plenty to explore at the onset, but that eventually must narrow in focus to highlight issues like friendship, love, and our ever-consistent desire to revise the past. Even though I selected Max’s choices for her, watching her smile at success or churn over heartbreak and pain triggered a different response for me than watching a self-made, silent character go through his experiences in the Wasteland.
I’ll never knock open-world gaming, and I’ve seen some truly beautiful things come as a result of it. I’ve seen gorgeous palaces erected in Minecraft, I’ve watched people travel the open seas in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag with the sun at their backs. Even The Sims can be thought of as an open-world game of sorts, and I can’t tell you how many hours of enjoyment my sister got out of that game. I love open-world games, and I’ll continue to play them in the future, but pretending that’s all games should be denigrates gaming’s ability to educate, inform, and inspire. Video games are one of the most comprehensive, interactive medias in human history, and I can guarantee you that people will continue to use video games to send messages, influence thoughts, and change lives via specific, set stories. Though Andy may not have felt anything when he watched the Eiffel Tower explode in Modern Warfare 3, perhaps it’s because he doesn’t live in Paris or identify with the Tower; when I returned from Washington, D.C. to the release of Modern Warfare 2 and saw the city I’d just been in engulfed in virtual flames, that did something to me. Gaming’s storytelling potential is phenomenal, and so long as we have stories to tell, we’ll have games focused on telling them.