Saturday 11 January 2014

Wish You Were Here... part 3

Following on from part 2, finally we look at arbitrary restrictions and sharing the digital space.

Simply having satisfying tools at your disposal can make an environment sparkle. Give a man a meaty shotgun and a corridor can become interesting. Any generic, crate-filled space can be made engaging if a stealth takedown 'feels' good. The player forgives the contrivance if it provides an opportunity to exploit an enjoyable mechanic. Conversely, they become frustrated if they are denied that opportunity. Grand Theft Auto IV restricts access to different districts until you have reached a certain part of the story and completed objectives. This is no doubt intended to provide a sense of progression and character development as the player gains prominence and unlocks new areas, but in practice it creates disharmony between the tools they have and opportunities to use them. Gating is at odds with the nature of the sandbox and the lawlessness depicted - in a game sold on a ‘drive anywhere, do anything’ philosophy, I'm left awkwardly trapped and impotent. This is where Skyrim soars. The mountain on the horizon is immediately available to you. It’s a dangerous world, and perhaps you don’t have the chops to cope with it, but Bethesda let the player discover their own limits rather than closing the bridges until you fulfil dreary mission requirements. Of course, gradually opening your field of play as you gain new items is a stalwart pillar of game design – Zelda is built around it – but you walk into Liberty City with access to any car that passes yet the mean streets and skyscrapers of Algonquin are illogically inaccessible. Cordoning off swathes of the city in a space designed for exploration and play feels cheap. The hackneyed plot hoops you’re forced through further expose the artifice of the world, something surely at odds with the Rockstar’s intentions.
Viewed from above, Hyrule's modular design is obvious.
Imagine blowing away that fog and discovering more
pieces of the puzzle.

Imagine a prelude act to GTA IV with Nico hiding out in a cabin on some bleak snow swept farmland in Eastern Europe. Cold. Desolate. Big beard. Maybe he has to go hunt a rabbit (cue gunplay tutorial). He’s alone and frozen, cut off from civilisation. Exploring yields no surprises, just more emptiness.

Cut to his arrival by boat to The Big Apple. The sun glints off Miss Liberty’s dome and the skyscrapers offer a teeming maze of opportunities. The bridges are open and you’re free to explore. The stage is set, the orchestra engaged. Now let’s see if you can dance…

Framing the city in this way aligns player and protagonist motivation; we are both itching to explore this new environment. Rockstar should let us do so from the off (and they now have with GTA V).

One area where they do excel is streaming a huge, perpetual space. San Andreas is still breathtaking in this regard and advancing tech has allowed huge worlds to be engineered. Team Ico created an incredible, desolate kingdom in Shadow of the Colossus on PS2. As with Wind Waker’s overworld, traversing it gave time for reflection – more poignant here as the player begins questioning their motives for killing the colossi – but unlike Nintendo’s game it was tarnished by technical issues. The land was too vast for the hardware and the frame rate damaged the player’s perception of it. Rareware’s later N64 titles suffered similarly. Perfect Dark and Banjo-Tooie pushed the console beyond its limits and returning to those games now is jarring. Framerate aside, Tooie in particular suffered from a surplus of everything – moves, collectables and space. Levels were labyrinthine and easy to get lost in. Though shot through with the team’s trademark charm (and Grant Kirkhope’s wonderful music), it’s hard to enjoy a world where your patience is tested by a chugging frame rate and overwrought design.

Thatgamecompany’s Journey provides a perfect example of a compelling environment working within very narrow parameters. The game is as linear as life and pregnant with narrative, though it's rarely explicit. There’s not one line of text or dialogue. The locations echo Team Ico’s take on desolation but the ambition is tempered to preserve the player experience. Running away from the mountain across the dunes will only get you so far before sandstorms blow you back. It’s a crude device, one of only a handful that remind players they’re playing a video game, but the desert is so enchanting you forget you’re stuck in it. The sand is a joy to trudge and surf through. When I first met a fellow traveller I tried to say hello by writing my name in it. My moveset was limited to a jump button and a restorative ping! but the space itself was the tool – location and language – and a beautiful one too.

It’s dangerous to go alone...SHARING AND CELEBRATING THE SPACE
Journey’s land is a place best shared. The first time you sight a stranger is confusing as you try to work out who or what it is. Then you discover they’re just like you – just another person trying to find their way in the world. The social dimension can be transformative. When given a companion and a shared objective, an environment’s role in creating atmosphere is aided through collaborative experiences whether they involve huddling behind a rock in a blizzard to restore energy, dodging green shells or bandying together to battle the undead horde. The farmhouse from Left4Dead is burnt in my memory not because it’s a special or memorable structure but because I spent hours dug in there with three friends, strategising and scouting the best vantage points, covering blind spots, scrambling onto the roof and blasting the infected until the rescue vehicle arrived. The house was meticulously designed, of course, but my affection comes from the actions facilitated by that design rather than the building itself.

Deeds done in a place can create an affinity with it and more than once I’ve finished a great game and felt a little empty. Not because it was deficient in any way or the ending was unsatisfying, but because for all my efforts I don’t get to enjoy the peace I’ve brought about. After hours spent liberating the world, I rarely get to kick back and enjoy it. My experience is solely the catastrophe, solely the drama. Having watched the credits I’m invariably returned to the File Select screen and the game forgets I’ve already won. Hyrule is forever in a state of impending doom that I am powerless to affect no matter how many times I thrash Ganon.

Imagine defeating him and riding into town a hero, being offered the key to the city and basking in the glory a little bit. Imagine taking Zelda for a picnic or playing with the kids in Kokiri Forest. Imagine having new ways to enjoy the places I’ve saved. Okami gave me such an opportunity when I returned triumphant to Kamiki Village for the festival. Fireworks exploded and the jubilant music heralded my victory like the end of Return of the Jedi. It was short-lived, of course, for I was only halfway through the game, but it felt so unusual and fulfilling to see the results of my questing and enjoy some kind of respite. Developers invest so much in building these worlds they should explore the possibilities in expanding your experience meaningfully beyond the endgame. I can’t be the only player to feel deflated when all my heroism results only in New Game+.

Final Zone
Most games for me are one time playthroughs, and that’s fine. Some have narratives that need to be completed but once it’s over, I’m satisfied. Though Eternal Darkness was a story worth finishing, there’s nowhere in there I want to return to. But who wouldn’t want to spend three more days in Clock Town, or a year watching the changing seasons in Oakfield or Click Clock Wood?

Well, perhaps many. Nostalgia weedles its way into all these places and, as anyone who has been met with apathy while trying to share something amazing will testify, it’s crushing to realise that we all experience things and places differently and form bonds for different reasons. For some, Spiral Mountain is just a crude collection of polys and lo-res textures with a Dixie tune on top. It’s pleasant enough but not moving, just like my childhood home is innately significant to only me. I find that sad because I want to communicate and share the feeling these places give me and, more often than not, that’s impossible.

But it’s okay. I can still go back and visit. Every Christmas I return to Freezezy Peak because, well, it’s not quite Christmas without it. Nobody wants to live in City 17. Nuke it and head for them there blue sky hills.

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