The Far Cry Condition: Exploring Open-Worlds, Developer Hand-Holding and Dynamism
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:32am 21/01/13 | Comments
We explore what it means to play within an open-world game today, player conditioning, developer hand-holding and the need for true dynamism
My time off over the Festivus break gave me a chance to do something I’ve had little success doing lately -- play some bloody games.
It might sound strange given I’m a games journalist, and certainly I dabble throughout the year with code, but beyond the odd review here and there I wrote in 2012, I was largely left with a big pile of games screaming at me to play them. And so I picked one and ran with it.
In simply walking, driving, boating, gliding or wing-suiting through the game-world, I felt Ubisoft had nailed one of the most important parts of the game -- ever-rewarding exploration and discovery. I never felt like one particular area of jungle was the same as another, and the way the team split up the island’s zones, wildlife, humans et al, was a thing of beauty. Its equally rich and diverse caves, temples and hidden innards (a component I really don’t want to spoil for those of you who haven’t played the game yet) ticked all the right eye-candy, jaw-dropping vista moments an open-world game like this needs. Despite its abundance of green, I’d argue there hasn’t been so visually a rich environment crafted for a game in recent times than this, even over the likes of Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim and beyond.
But it’s in this visual richness the first pitfall of the game becomes frustratingly apparent. Where Skyrim’s inviting nooks and crannies lead players to more game-world lore, interesting, relevant loot or, most importantly, new quests, Far Cry 3’s diverse world is largely non-interactive. At least on a dynamic level.
In fact it’s in the game’s exterior systems that an antithesis to its organic-looking world rears its head, and in binary fashion no less. Loot being one of the biggest let-downs, is nothing more than an arbitrary bridge to making arbitrary money, while weapons are far too easy to come by, or simply organise for free. There’s a mild progression system in place to getting better gear, but I largely found it just as redundant as cash or loot. The skill-tree and abilities system, coupled with the emergent opportunities when taking on an Outpost, Wanted Dead or Path of the Hunter quest, however, re-balanced the game in favour of player-choice leaving my overall experience with Far Cry 3 a mixed one. The fact I couldn’t really put the game down in my down time though, should speak volumes about what its more solid components offer.
But I’m not here to pick the game apart, rather playing through it gave me an idea about where this type of game needs to head in the future, and also had me questioning the motives of designers when it comes to assuming we, as gamers, don’t know what we’re doing.
Conditioning is a powerful tool of growth. In videogames, especially, it’s our reactionary motor skill, in that we rely on game conditioning to be able to function in a game-world. First-person shooters, for example, rely very heavily on a basic understanding of controlling the player-character (or camera) with either a mouse and keyboard or a controller, and that understanding translates to an ability to interact with the world. There are tricks developers use though, such as glowing objects against a more realistic backdrop to peak one’s attention, or invisible walls to guide you through their maze of level-design, but by and large, it’d be a safe bet that anyone who has played games in a more enthusiastic fashion over the past five to 10 years, can not only confidently navigate most game-worlds, but do so without too much in-game prompting.
Far Cry 3 annoyed me in this respect. I played the game through on the hardest difficulty setting, and yet every time I completed a new mission and went off to explore the world at large, I was constantly reminded about my next mission or told I could explore the island. It never realised I was already doing the latter, and the persistent phone calls from Dennis every time I finished a side-mission just made the constant badgering more of a grind. The more the game told me what to do, the less I wanted to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, I realise there are people out there who would likely defy all sense of logical understanding and still need in-game tutorials to tell them how to run, crouch, jump, aim, shoot and interact, but that should just be an option. By default, I’d like to see a studio take a massive gamble in gamer conditioning and actually give us nothing. Like George and Jerry’s pitch to NBC, I want to see a game about nothing.
Obviously Seinfeld was anything but a show about nothing, yet it was in the day-to-day ramblings and interpersonal interactions of its larger-than-life-yet-relatable characters that its myriad stories of dovetail-layered genius could manifest. By the end of each episode, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer had gone through incredible adventures, yet each 20-odd minute tale began with as little as a conversation over a cup of coffee.
While playing Ubisoft Montreal’s leafy opus, I began to imagine the sort of game I actually wanted to experience, and it all stemmed from nothing. Not “nothing” in the absolute, but rather not knowing what was going on. Conjure in your brain, if you will, an island paradise not at all unlike that of Far Cry 3, except instead of playing as some rich white boy whose only recourse for exploration and progression is to exact revenge for his brother’s death, you’re playing as an empty vessel; a blank slate of an avatar with no sense of purpose other than “where the fuck am I, and what am I doing here?” (which is more a projection from the player, too).
Through the aforementioned conditioning, players would have an immediate understanding of how to move in this mysterious island paradise, yet this game would feature no glowing loot boxes and no magical GPS-capable maps. Every component of player exploration would lead to discovery and further conditioning. Trial and error would be your only guide through this experience, and the deeper you look into your surroundings, the sooner a player-driven narrative would appear.
It might sound utopian in design, but it concerns me nothing like this has even been attempted yet. In my imagined experience, the game would feature layered stories ready to be uncovered, how these rise to the interactive surface would depend wholly on the player’s interaction with the game-world. Let’s assume this island has a handful of interest points for perusal: ancient temples, markets and villages, seedy sea ports and an ominous, modern structure as starting points. Now, depending on what type of player you are and the way you interact with NPCs, puzzles, environments etc, would lead you down your own rabbit hole.
Perhaps you like discovery and puzzles which could lead you to the temples to eventually uncover some ancient power through an archaeological narrative. Or maybe you’re a trader, which could see you hunting and skinning animals to sell in the markets which could lead to an action-packed tale about poachers and rare beasts. You might want to explore islands off in the distance which would lead you to the port and potentially open up a dark and jarring tale of modern pirates or, maybe, just maybe, you’re not sure about that strange, out-of-place structure where your curiosity sees you infiltrating its tight security to uncover a government-run facility performing all kinds of sci-fi type experiments. It could even have aliens.
Again, none of this would be clear to the player, and the only driving force would be conditioning. One of my favourite moments from Far Cry 3 came when I was stalking an Outpost to clear it for the Rakyat. This particular enemy stronghold was positioned alongside a crystal clear river that was coated in beautiful green lilies and flowers closer to the bank. At one point I was noticed by one of the pirates in the encampment and so dove into the water to swim to the other side and break his line-of-sight, only when I’d done so and jumped back into the water to begin my stealthy approach again a crocodile attacked me and started to deathroll. I didn’t know there were crocs in the game, so this was a particularly jarring moment for me. Suffice to say, I survived the ordeal because I expected a “mash this button” prompt and sure enough it came, but I walked away from the experience with two enthusiastic points: I fricking love the unpredictable nature of a game-world with fully fleshed systems like ecology and, I love that I knew how to handle the situation because, as a gamer, I’d been in many like it.
As game-worlds become more and more sophisticated and open, designers should be relying less and less on hand-holding. By all means, allow for the tutorial or hint option, but take gamers seriously for a change and drop us in the proverbial deep-end. Games are about discovery and empowering the player and I couldn’t imagine a more empowering tool than the self-discovery of a narrative and sub-world on an already interactive and inviting hub (maintaining my whole imaginary videogame on an island concept). But even beyond my own exampled pitch, this could become the norm for games not even of the open-world variety (Super Meat Boy is a game that told you very little about how to utilise its control system and was all the better for it).
I realise there are players out there who only want to follow a single, main quest line (to which I scream “Why!?”), but I’d argue there are millions who played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout 3 (or New Vegas), Red Dead Redemption, any Grand Theft Auto or a myriad other open-world games, who like to dabble in the richness of what “open-world” means. It would be an absolute risk for a studio to take any such plunge as I’m suggesting, to be sure, but in my mind the dividends would be worth it. At the end of the day, there’s no point in crafting such a dynamic playground if all you’re doing is locking down the play equipment to be toyed with in a binary way. Systems need to be exploited and experimented with in these environments, players need to feel responsible for their own interactive discovery, and the environments and their multiple parts need to be meaningful in a dynamic way.
We bitch and moan about the games industry being all “grown-up” and “mature”, but when you look at the blueprint by which we play, and interact, with games, it’s a design for amateurs. I’m not belittling design intent or gaming content, I’m vilifying the way in which we’re told to handle it, and you’d think after 20-odd years as a sophisticated medium this component would have matured by now.
It saddened me that Far Cry 3 didn’t capitalise on what made the game so worth my time, but I’d suggest we’re on the precipice of something big based on my experience with it anyway. All we need is a big developer willing to take a big risk with big rewards. My idea is just one that sprung to mind while playing Far Cry 3, but the possibilities are, ultimately, endless. If it’s multiplayer the publisher is screaming for, then use that as a tool for the base of this feature and come up with something even more dynamic (if Minecraft and DayZ have taught us anything, it’s that the above is possible beyond a single-player experience), if it’s co-op, well that’s doable too. Tacking on these features is not conducive to anyone’s vision or productivity, but they can be worked with in meaningful ways, as long as players are treated like adults with more than half a brain and developers are willing to take risks.
If you haven’t played Far Cry 3 yet, do so. It’s one of the most enjoyable games of 2012 and its game-world is one of the most compelling to trounce through I’ve come across in a while. It definitely fails to realise its true potential, but as a stepping stone in the right direction, provided we head that way, it will be long-remembered. Buck up devs and take some risks -- we both deserve it.