Saturday, 22 December 2012

Feature: This Generation - Part V

For the purposes of these features, "This Generation" refers to software found on the following hardware: Wii, DS/3DS, PSP, Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. Trends found on the PC platform will be addressed but because the demarcations between PC hardware iterations can be foggy, establishing what is of this generation is much more difficult to finalize.
"This Generation" includes major trends or evolutionary notes that will, in this writer's opinion, be identified strongly with this generation of games and hardware for years to come.

The fifth (and last) item to hallmark this period of gaming: Open World Games.
While there's no denying the game industry has moved light-years ahead of the primative graphics or Pong and Spacewar!, this generation of games and hardware, especially handhelds, seemed to be a tipping point.

It seems that very few games were lumbered with restrictions on scope and style this time around. Of course, they still operated within the restrictions of the hardware but there seemed to be far fewer sacrifices, which may be exemplified most strongly with the growth in open-world games.

Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Faction: Guerilla (2009), Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third (2011), Far Cry (1-3), Crysis, Batman: Arkham City (2011), Burnout: Paradise, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Skyrim, LA Noire, Just Cause 1 (2006) and 2 (2010), Dead Island, Mercenaries 2, Fallout 3, Far Cry (1-3), Stalker: Clear Sky, Crackdown (2007), Red Dead Redemption, Prototype 1 and 2, inFamous 1 (2009) and 2 (2011), The Godfather Part I (2007) and II, and the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V. It seems that this particular era has been a boon to developers wanting to break free of the limitations of previous hardware iterations.

And it wasn't just that game worlds became larger, horizontally and vertically, they became increasingly detailed.

No longer are worlds a featureless expanse dotted by trees here, a few boulders over here, with specific landmarks like "cities" with a clutch of similar looking houses (unless it made sense in the game).

Saints Row: The Third. Just one example of the detail levels that
open world games achieve on a regular basis.

While it didn't seem like developers had any issues filling up the wide-open spaces with things to look at, almost without exception, they faced the monumental task of filling those spaces with meaningful story elements. Mostly they descended to courier missions and getting from one place to the next within a set time limit. Developers have honed weather systems, day/night cycles, and ambient crowd behaviour, but layering story into these "side missions" has escaped most developers.

Most games approach the problem with a simple solution: the story that matters is the one the player is involved with, everything else is window dressing.

Far Cry 2
Imagine how different Grand Theft Auto IV might have been if Nico's neighbours took an intense dislike to his coming and going at crazy hours and complained to building management? Or physically confronted Nico about the issue?

Maybe a couple having difficulties in their relationship are constantly bickering and fighting above Nico and he takes it upon himself to intervene? Or the wife strikes up a friendship, which quickly escalates to something sexual. It turns out the husband is a violent drunk. When he finds out about his wife cheating on him, he slashes Nico's tires. So when Nico runs out of his apartment -- maybe he sees a flyer that there's a deal on toilet paper and has to leave immediately because it's "Limit 5 Per Customer!" -- he can't actually drive anywhere.

Or what about simply putting a team of detectives on Nico's tail? It's not as if he commits his crimes without leaving a truckload of evidence. In reality, losing the cops isn't as easy as repainting your vehicle. Hell, it may not even be enough to never sleep in the same place twice!

Or how about Spider-Man having to deal with a militia group holding a church full of people hostage rather than dropping off that 100th person off at the hospital? Or catching balloons?

Red Faction: Guerilla
What's more meaningful? Catch a balloon or saving someone from a tense stand-off so they can show up at some critical juncture later on?

Details like that would make the game world come alive, but I imagine, it's probably a technical nightmare to deal with. A myriad, spaghetti-mess of story lines of a truly "living" city might stretch a writer's brain to snapping point. Unfortunately for that writer, that's where the genre needs to expand. Graphics, sound, physics, navigation, those issues are being handled perfectly well. The next frontier is Story, which necessarily means a jump in complexity and sophistication of the behaviour of non-player characters.

Whether or not the next generation grabs the problem of story telling in open-world environments by the lapels and shoves it against the wall, followed by a swift right hook, this generation has cemented the foundation for some truly epic open world games.

- Aaron Simmer