Thursday, February 25, 2010

When The World Changes

By Kirk Hamilton

Exploration is one of my favorite things about gaming. It's one of the main reasons I love open-world games (that is to say, nonlinear games, not just sandboxes) as much as I do. That sense of walking, driving, and flying around another world, seeing the nooks and crannies and hidden corners, enjoying the vistas, checking out the easily-overlooked details while doing sidequests and collecting collectables... very cool.

Any open-world game worth its salt is bookended by two crucial moments - the first time you are set loose to explore it, and the moment when you enter "endgame." I love that first moment more than almost anything else in a game, but that second one, the beginning of the end, is always bittersweet. And more to the point, I really don't like it when I feel it is sprung on me uninvited.

Different developers handle those two moments in fairly different ways. Bethesda certainly has the initial "welcome to the world" down to a science - emerging from the sewer in Oblivion to see Cyrodiil stretching before you or climbing out of the vault in Fallout 3 as your blinded eyes adjust to take in the sweeping wreckage of downtown Washington DC.... both are practically perfect portrayals of overwhelming possibility.

Bioware puts their own spin on it, too, usually hemming the player in for the first couple of hours to build up some dramatic urgency before placing the map in players' hands. You're the last of the Grey Wardens, you're an intergalactic secret agent who's got to recruit a team to save humanity, you're an amnesiac jedi and must track and stop Darth Malak, your a martial-arts student with a mysterious destiny whose village has been burned and whose master has been abducted... in any of those games, by the time the map opens up, you've got some core party members, a plan, and are raring to go.

But back to that second moment, the one when the game begins its conclusion... that one's a bit stickier. While I acknowledge its necessity, sometimes the developers will, with minimal warning, spring a shift in tone or atmosphere that says "Okay, time to wrap it up." It makes me view every subsequent action I take through a different lens, causes me to feel hurried when I once felt relaxed. Basically, it sucks.

I think of it as "When the world changes" - some plot-related event occurs, and before I know it, everything's different and I'm hurtling towards the finish line whether I wanted to or not.

In Fallout 3, one minute you're off rescuing your father from a crazed computer simulation, and the next, you've joined up with the Brotherhood of Steel and are preparing for an all-out assault on the Enclave. In Shadow Complex, one minute you're grabbing foam canisters and executing sick wall-grapples, and the next you step outside and notice that the sun has begun to set... and the relaxed exploration you were doing is placed, irreversibly, under an autumnal melancholy.

In Brütal Legend, the change comes out of nowhere - one minute you're off adventuring in the swamps, then you head back to the main continent to earn some more fire tributes and find that the sky has turned blood-red and there are huge enemies everywhere.

Dragon Age's Landsmeet concludes and suddenly the Darkspawn begin their attack; the first Mass Effect throws you the coordinates for Virmire after you beat just two of the story quests. Assassin's Creed 2 is perhaps the worst offender of all - finish a mission and the game abruptly skips forward like ten years, puts all of the main characters in a room, and has them wait for you to hurry the hell up and find the remaining codex pieces so the story can be finished already.

Though I know that all games must end, I'll never like it when the world changes. I want to be free to explore until the very last minute, and I'd rather the game refrained from pushing me along.  As a defense mechanism, I've developed a sort of sixth-sense, the ability to sniff out when I'm going to hit the button that'll set the end in motion. When I sense it coming, I do everything I can to avoid it until I decide it's time. So when the world changes without warning, it can really screw up my enjoyment of a game - I felt particularly burned by Brutal Legend and Assassin's Creed 2 in that respect.

My desire to make the narrative wait can be pretty immersion-breaking, too. In Fallout 3, I took off to do some exploration right before the final mission - as, I'm sure, did many others. The ensuing fifteen hours of sidequesting were great, but were also tainted by the knowledge that while I was screwing around in the Nuka-Cola plant, Commander Lyons was standing stock-still at the feet of Liberty Prime, waiting for me to give her the go-ahead to launch our final assault.

Similarly, I spent a looong time exploring a nearly-empty Arkham Asylum to the sound of Joker's fireworks show, solving the Riddler's puzzles while ignoring Mark Hamil's constant demands for me to come meet him in the visitor's center.

Thankfully, some recent games have become much more explicit about letting you know when you're starting the finale. Mass Effect 2 presents players with the Omega Relay from the very outset, making it quite clear that once you enter it, you'll be entering the endgame. And really, Dragon Age was also pretty clear about the Landsmeet being a huge turning point in the story.

Perhaps my favorite handling of open-world pacing was in Far Cry 2, my favorite game of 2008 and perhaps my favorite open-world game of all time. FC2 did a great job of saying at the very beginning, "You must kill the Jackal.  The world is open to you. Catch ya on the other side." There was a midpoint and an endgame-trigger (entering the "Heart of darkness"), but the gameworld itself never hurried me along, and the plot (such as it was) unfolded at such a leisurely pace that I never felt compelled towards the finale until the very, very end.

It's a tricky thing to juggle open-ended exploration with the pacing of a good narrative. It's been nice to watch designers get better and better at it as the years progress, but I do hope that they continue the trend towards clearly-marked endgame triggers and away from suddenly springing a world-changer on players in an attempt to hurry the plot along.

When it comes down to it, I guess it's pretty simple: I love it when a great game begins, and I hate it when it ends. So, I want to feel like I'm in the middle for as long as possible.


Brian Longtin said...

Good post overall, but man, that is a terrific last sentence.

Totally aside from that, I'm curious how you played ACII to have the ending feel sudden. Maybe because the codex pages and glyphs were always the first thing I did (I was a huge fan of the conspiracy/puzzle element), by the time it was time to strike the final blow, I felt totally okay with it ending how it did.

Okay, maybe I wasn't totally on board with the whole magical mystery scene (AC3 might change my mind), but as far as pacing it seemed to end when it was supposed to.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I guess my issue with AC2 (bearing in mind that I really liked the game - hell, I really liked every game I mentioned in this post, hence that closing sentence) - was that the pacing felt too wonky, like I never knew quite when I was going to do a mission that would advance the timeline a decade and change everything around. So it was hard to get comfortable?

It's true that the ending didn't feel abrupt (perhaps the twist did, but that's another post), but the end-chapter time jumps always sort of came out of nowhere and they messed with my flow.

johnnytruant said...

I often spend so much time exploring open worlds that I often forget what it is that I'm supposed to be doing/questing for/finding/killing on the main storyline. Developers must have nightmares trying to balance games so this isn't too bad a problem. I like how it seems to be going recently with things like Fallout3 and ME2 offering open-ended DLC adventures or the opportunity to go back to roaming the map doing sidequests after the main plot has finished.

Chris said...

You make a good point about sudden endgames, but what about the opposite, ie, you have to compete a mission before some calamity, but in reality you can spend all day meandering along with no remifications at all. All too often I'm told that I have to complete a task in time to save everyone (HL2, Halo 3) only to find out that a friend took his sweet time when I was running as fast as I could, missing all sorts of nice artwork, etc.
I respect a game that gives you a set timeframe and makes you stick to it. If memory serves, Quake 2 ended with a mad dash to an escape pod. If you made ANY mistakes, BOOM!! The end of the original Halo also really upped the adrenaline because if you paused to play with the baddies, BOOM! you didn't make it (not to mention the awesome music running as you drive like a bat out of hell).
I started (rented) Far Cry2 and loved it. I'm looking forward to finding a nice, marked down copy to buy.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Chris - ha, that actually happens to me all the time. Usually there's some alarm going off, and an NPC is saying "We have to get to the loading dock before she ship blows!" and I'm disoriented and can't figure out where to go to trigger the next scene, so I hear the alarm for like five minutes, and the NPC tells me about the docking station eleven more times, and finally I pause and go to the internet to figure out what to do.

I turned off the quest arrow in Bioshock 2, and that happened to me several times. It was worth it (I hate that bossy arrow), but it kinda deflates the sense of urgency...

I actually liked how in Mass Effect 2 (and this is a slight spoiler, if you've yet to play it) - once your crew was kidnapped by the collectors, if you dallied around and did side quests before going after them, they all died. You didn't have to go after them until you chose to, but there were consequences if you let them languish.

Cool that you're checking out Far Cry 2. It has a unique pace, but once I synced up with its rhythm, I found the rewards to be damn near endless.