Open World Problems
As a teenager, I fell in love with role-playing games. To this day, I can remember strolling off the boat in Morrowind, spending a good hour customising my character to look just like I wanted and walking out into the tiny, swamp-surrounded village of SeydaNeen. My mind boggled as I wondered at the possibilities; no walls forced me onwards; there was no set path; I was free to do as I willed. But with such freedom comes great peril…
This is because the entire concept of freedom suffers from limitations, and this is where my problem with the RPG genre lies. It may be a tragic mark of increased maturity, but these days I find myself far fussier about the games that I play, and the worlds that I choose to immerse myself in. Part of the problem stems from what I believe is one of the central aims of any good RPG: to immerse the player in an exciting and different world. It’s when this immersion falters, that the experience is ruined and the limits of the RPG are painfully felt.
I’ll give you a recent example: there I was, a level 21 DokkalfarDuelist, happily strolling through the Faelands, killing bogarts and suchlike. Heading into a nearby village to sell my loot, I suddenly stopped moving forwards. Looking downwards, I discovered the obstacle that had so abruptly impeded my progress: it’s a two-inch-high slab of rock, lying across the path. In that moment, the entire world of Kingdoms of Amalur fell apart in my mind; I realised that I was simply playing a game, and that my experience in it was horribly limited. The fact that my all-powerful, fate-changing rogue – who had previously leapt from mountain tops and slain enormous trolls – was utterly incapable of stepping over a two inch high rock, perfectly embodied the destruction of my immersion.
Other examples are common; how many times in Dragon Age has a beautiful view presented itself, only for an ankle high obstacle to block the way (although with cut-and-paste dungeons, this should be the least of your issues)? Swim far enough North in Skyrim and you will hit the invisible wall and be told to turn back. Certainly, these are subtle intrusions and demonstrate the limitations of technology and time as much as they reveal the boundaries of creativity, but they still ruin, albeit for only a moment, the illusion that the world you inhabit is real and unique. While not game-breaking, such experiences do dull the joy a little.
But it’s not just the low, yet unpassable walls and invisible barriers that do this; it’s the way that the worlds work (or don’t) around the player. Voice-acting is one thing that can make or break a game. We all know about that guard who took an arrow to the knee. While it’s hilarious to think that pretty much every guard in Skyrim has shoddy knees, the repetition of such catchphrases yet again undermines the illusion that the world is a living, breathing place, where every person you encounter is different, and possessed of their own traits and back-story. Of course, it is somewhat unreasonable to demand that developers records thousands of unique lines, all for minor characters such as town guards and beige-faced ensigns, but a little more variety (along with some foresight about the consequences of arrow-to-the-knee-esque lines), could make a huge difference in terms of immersion.
I want to feel as if the world is reacting to what I do, and in more than just a superficial way. While the immediate consequence of killing or helping defenseless merchant/maiden/random NPC is the nature of the reward (often monetary or in the form of items, which rapidly become redundant), it would be so much more satisfying if there were far-reaching consequences too – what if shops in a nearby town offered less stock, or had to close altogether due to a lack of supply, all because you killed the merchant, their main supplier? What if the maiden’s family came to your aid in a later quest, saving you from a potentially impossible situation, and all because you chose to take her home rather than sacrifice her to an evil demon? Touches such as these would add an additional layer to the immersion, rather than making every action seem dislocated from the next; a series of unrelated decisions that require little thought for anything beyond immediate incentive.
Of course, these are all minor gripes, and all of the games that I have mentioned are both excellent and enjoyable. The main point that I want to put forward is that these things – the invisible walls, the repetitive dialogue, etc. – make the difference between an experience that is good, and an experience that is immersive, and great because of it. Hopefully, with videogames boasting bigger budgets, supported by better technology, the levels of immersion will continue to deepen.
Last five articles by Alex
- RollerCoaster Tycoon: A Retrospective
- Beware The Hoarder
- History is our Playground
- Open World Problems
- Marginalised, Mistreated and Misunderstood: Video Games and the Fight for Recognition