Saturday, October 20, 2012

Articles of Interest #1

As if to reaffirm my point, this article came up on CVG mere days after I started the blog. It illustrates perfectly how narratives and the very nature of gaming are misperceived by critics, and demonstrates the counter-productive attitude they have towards different gaming styles. I think Articles of Interest could be a recurring section of the blog – in it I will discuss links or articles I find online and respond to them. So yes, that’s what I’ll do. Now on to the aforementioned discussing of the article:

Admittedly, this article appears to be more concerned with game world design (open versus linear), but that is still very relevant to the issues I’m concerned with. Open world games, by their very nature, defy a coherent, well-paced narrative. Therefore, to imply that open world games are just plain ‘better’ – as this article does – is to dismiss all other games which put narrative and pacing first.

The main error on display here is the notion that a single-path game doesn’t have the same pull as an open world game. That is a gross misrepresentation of how games work. It means that the only real enjoyment to be had in a video game is in exploration and unscripted encounters. That is, that video games’ strength is solely in the way they can produce random content in a non-linear fashion.

But can anyone who is at all interested in fiction say there has never been a special book or film that they have seen more than once? I doubt it. The reason is simple enough: because an interesting narrative is something you want to experience more than once and can be interpreted differently each time it’s experienced. Meaning, there is value and enjoyment to be had in a single-path game.

The writer of this article has a problem comprehending that. According to him, the best reason to play games is, in his words, to take a virtual vacation. Funnily enough, the way he describes the so-called advantage of games over movies can be said of any type of game: “they can transport you to a fantasy world that throws up a steady stream of surprises, even if you're just in the mood for bimbling along with no particular plan”. I would go as far as to say he misunderstands why people are interested in fiction to begin with. 

One aspect of games that indeed differs from films is they are capable of creating random content seamlessly. But I wouldn’t call that a “clear advantage” over films.  Games are fundamentally different from films in that the player takes an active part in them, and that the game cannot move forward without him. This is the most important difference, and it holds true even for the most linear of games.

Fact is, though, we don’t play games to have virtual freedom. Sure, escapism is a draw of most popular literature and film (and yes, video games), but that doesn’t mean an open world is the best way to achieve that. We play games for a variety of reasons, from social to mental exercises to a sense of camaraderie and competition to feelings of personal achievement. Clearly, people are drawn to open worlds and the ability to create their own adventure within that world, but to say that this is the better way to experience the wide world of games is narrow-minded and foolish.

For those of us who prefer a narrative-focused game, open world games are without a doubt the poorer choice. To my knowledge, there is no open world game which manages to maintain proper pacing or characterization throughout its story (the writer of the article seems to be sure that Far Cry 3 is an example of an open world game that does manage it, despite the fact that the game won’t be out until December). It is a testament that narratives prefer linearity that even in open world games the missions – the meat of the game - are linear. The dungeons in Skyrim are an obvious example, but take a more consistently open world game like GTA or Crysis and it's no different. Sure, there are multiple routes to the end but it nevertheless is a single point which is approachable from another single point. Even with a gimmick like alternate endings, the result is unavoidable. It is linear, no matter how much the game’s designers work to mask that fact. Therefore, to imply that open world games are better than movies because they are not linear, and to say that it is wrong to like any other type of game because of this, is an inaccurate and simply unnecessary statement.

And that’s the main issue I have with the article. It's not that the writer prefers open world games. He’s entitled to that and many people share the sentiment. What bothers me is that he has a narrow-minded notion of what a good game is. What bothers me is the dismissal of anything else; that the writer seems completely oblivious to the fact that there are people who like other types of games (or mediums, for that matter) for different reasons and that they are legitimate too. This is why I started this blog – because of this type of writing. I realize the article’s an opinion piece, but even opinions can be snide and misleading. My aim isn’t to convince people that narrative-led, linear games are better (the notion of what's universally 'better' doesn’t enter the discussion). I want to show that a game having a strong narrative and even being, dare I say it, linear isn't necessarily a bad thing. More importantly, I want to make it clear that the more types of games we have, the richer the gaming world gets in general. Hopefully, this is the right first step in that direction.