Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Video Games and the Freedom to Choose

Open World! There seems to be a definite trend towards open worlds in many modern video games. A primary motivator for this trend has to be the success of games like Skyrim, which are based on a large, detailed, "open world". Minecraft is another great example, as it features an infinite open world. Obviously, since these games have sold so well, there must be a reason that gamers gravitate towards these titles. I believe that the reason these games are so popular is their emphasis on player choice.

There isn't anything inherently wrong with a linear storyline and conventional level structure. However, the ability to make meaningful choices is an important way of increasing the immersion of a player within a game. The importance of the ability to choose is clearly evident in the critically acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy. Although the games do not take place in an open world, the player is given a large amount of control over the direction of the storyline and the game play strategy. These choices (and their consequences) led to my emotional attachment to the characters and my complete immersion in that universe.

This concept of player choice was very evident when I played the games Assassin's Creed III and Hitman: Absolution. Both games follow a fairly linear story line. The world of Assassin's Creed is large and open, while Hitman is significantly more restrictive. But even though Assassin's Creed had the open world as a centerpiece, it actually allowed less room for player choice. Many of the missions in Assassin's Creed require the player to chase a certain target or run from a group of enemies. As I played through the game, I became frustrated by the way I was prevented from choosing creative methods to chase some characters and run from others. Any attempt to climb a building or engage in combat with a bystander would inevitably be followed by mission failure. And then after running along in a straight line to complete the checkpoint, I would be rewarded by an hour-long cutscene. Both Assassin's Creed I and II allowed much more flexibility in the completion of each mission and avoided the drudgery of continuous cutscenes.

A quick note on cutscenes - I have no problem with them in general, and any game with a story will have to make use of some cinematics in order to develop the story arc. But there are methods of implementing cutscenes that keep the player involved and interested such as the Paragon/Renegade options in the Mass Effect games, and the ability to maintain control of your character during cutscenes like Assassin's Creed I. Assassins' Creed III drives home its finer points with a sledgehammer, bombastically repeating the same ideas over and over through hours of cutscenes. That is certainly not the way to create an engaging gameplay experience.

Hitman takes place in fairly restrictive environments and follows a linear storyline. Notwithstanding, I felt my personal choices were very important when playing through the levels. I could go in guns blazing and clean out a building, creep around silently, killing only my target, or a mix of the two. My personal choices were integral to the game's progression, the mechanics of each level, and the ultimate rating. One level stands out in particular to me, in which the player is given complete control over the fate of a certain central character, and whether he lived or died, you are still allowed to continue the storyline. Those type of choices are a staple of the Mass Effect trilogy, and put the responsibility for the direction of the plot in the player's hands. Personally, I was much more engaged and immersed in the Hitman storyline because of the ability to choose within the game.

It's important to be able to make meaningful choices within a video game. The market confirms this and it is important to my own gameplay experience. Largely because of this, I rated Hitman: Absolution 9/10 and I still haven't finished Assassin's Creed III.

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