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A sense of exploration: Are our hands being held?

Earlier this year, I decided to give The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion a whirl, when I found the game of The Year edition for cheap on a local store.

The very first thing I did after buying it, as always, was to open up the manual and give it a read. Now, I have very strong opinions on how game manuals should or shouldn’t be, and I’m glad to say that Oblivion‘s instruction booklet was one of the best I’ve seen this generation.

It opens up with a letter from the development team speaking about how many possibilities the game gives you in the sense of exploration and role-playing, directed to appeal to everyone who is playing the game.

The part that catches my eye is at the beginning, though, with this fragment:

“So, if you like wandering and exploring, that’s what you should do. […] And fortunately, there’s a lot of wandering and exploring involved in finishing the main quest.”

Open world sandbox RPG’s are becoming more and more famous thanks to Bethesda’s Fallout and The Elder Scrolls franchises, which are often praised as superb role playing experiences.

I’m not here to argue that point. I’m here to discuss an issue with modern Open World games that’s been buggering me for a while.

Let’s give you two examples from relatively similar games, Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, both running on the same engine, so they’re fairly similar.

One quest in New Vegas involves going into various different underground Vaults in order to find old salvage components for the air purification system of an underground bunker.

In the context of the game, Vaults are the places that people hid in after the nuclear war, and as such they’re big,  labyrinthine structures that are made to  house great amounts of people. But that’s not it.

Each Vault was meant as a social experiment under different circumstances. With the exception of a couple Control Vaults (13, 101 and 3), all of them had a fatal flaw or intricate system to control the people on it. For example, one of them was populated by one man and 49 women, one had its residents enclosed in suspended animation inside virtual reality pods, one was populated by one man with a cloning device, and so forth.

In this quest, you’re tasked with searching inside three of these. One is a control vault that was overrun by wasteland raiders once it was opened, one has a device that requires one person to periodically die in order for the vault not to malfunction and kill everyone in it (thus creating a reverse-democracy where candidates ask for you not voting for them), and the last one had an overstocked armory.

These designs and concepts make for interesting, chilling quests in closed, claustrophobic environments populated by irradiated mutants and insects. For the most part, it does its job at being athmospherically immersive, but it’s all killed by one aspect.

In order to find your way around the world, the game’s map sets a cursor in the place of your destination, and the cursor guides you in that direction, in the form of an arrow in your map and compass. If you’re inside a building or the objective is in another area, the arrow points towards the nearest exit and so forth. The problem is that in this quest (and every other), the arrow points directly over the spot the objects you’re looking for are. As a result, all you’re doing is going in and taking the object, the process of “finding” it is rendered completely invalid and almost nonexistant.

Let’s go back to Oblivion for a minute. One quest has your character accept the task of finding an ancient magical pendant in an uncharted temple from the times of a great war, almost a century ago.

You’re given the diary of a soldier stationed at that fort and a translation of it which tells of the entrance to the mountain pass where the temple is located, which the arrow points you to. Once you’ve reached the other side of the cave it marks, the arrow dissapears, and you’re left on your own to find it based on the clues you’re given in the diary.

I found myself very much immersed in this quest. You’re asked to find this temple and retrieve the amulet, and you’re not given directions, it’s your own sense of scouting that will get you there. And that’s what made it fun, for me, since on the way you’ll fight trolls and ice monsters, and eventually you’ll reach the underground fort. Granted that the way there is pretty streamlined and straightforward, but the fact that you’re expected to find this place is what makes it worth it, and gives you a better sense of accomplishment once you’ve done so. It’s a good moment in the game.

I bring up both of those factors to make this point, role playing games shouldn’t have those markers to guide you by the hand to your objectives.

A role playing game is mostly based on the immersion factor, and that depends on how much the game can draw you in while you’re playing it. A good, immersive role playing game will make you feel as though if you weren’t playing the game in the first place, it’s immersive enough to have you worrying about the characters, it’s immersive enough to give you the chills once you’ve accomplished a very hard dungeon crawl.

Part of this effect is accomplished by seeing the events unfold through the eyes of the character, not as an expectator. Which is why, for example, Dead Space had no in-game Heads Up Display within the screen. The more “real” the game looks, the more we see it as such.

Going back to Oblivion, one of the main storyline quests revolves around trying to decipher a secret code in a series’ of books to find a message and joined the secret cult that assassinated the emperor. After gathering the books, you give them to a researcher at the arcane university, where she tells you she’s found that the first word of every parragraph seems to make up a message, and she’ll tell you later what else she finds.

The first time I played it, my first thought was to quickly get a pen and paper and start writing down and trying to crack the code, which I did, the idea was that you had to wait for midnight so a courier for the cult would welcome you and begin your initiation. But, the game wouldn’t move on until I had waited three in-game days so that the researcher got the same result, only then I could go there.

I won’t put the blame on this on the development team, because it was supposed to be a plot point, and if you solved the riddle yourself, it’d make the introduction of that character completely meaningless, but at the same time, I feel like the game could’ve used this as a great puzzle, decoding the code and every day that passed you received a new clue, with a limit on how much you can wait around without messing the quest up. That way, the character would remain relevant (giving you the clues in case you can’t figure it out) and the game would have you thinking a little bit more.

Let me put this in perspective. Remember Ultima IV: Quest of The Avatar? The game opened up with next to no indications of where you were supposed to go or what you were supposed to do, while at the same time,  there were many puzzles that required you to actually think in order to get them done. Quest of The Avatar is renowned as one of the greatest RPGs in history, due to its great philosophical background and rewarding gameplay in general. The game was great, and it didn’t need to grab your hand in order to be played, and because of this, your eventual success was all the more rewarding. Games had a more profound emotional effect with success and reward.

To give just one more example, I recently traded in for Yakuza 3, a japanese game where you play as an ex-Yakuza stuck in a conspiracy that puts his newly formed orphanage in jeopardy. The game is an open world Beat Em Up where you alternate between the areas of Downtown Ryukyu, Okinawa and Kamurocho, Tokio.

The thing is, though, it has absolutely no pointers or markers, you’re given a GPS map and instructions to finish all your objectives in the game and its side missions (to give you an idea on how big this game is, it has 11 chapters of plot, and they amount to 14.83% of the game)

Again, after completing a mission or progressing in them by finding your objective, the sense of reward is rooted deeper still, since some objectives require you to take hints, follow people, and look in every spot of the game to find what you’re looking for. It’s good, it’s fun and it feels like you’ve actually accomplished something by doing all of these. You feel more comfortable walking the streets, and you begin recognizing and remembering locations for further reference. Again, immersing.

With this, I reach my thesis: games shouldn’t guide you by the hand towards where you have to go. True freedom of gameplay includes being able to decide how you reach objectives without being shown the way, true immersion means to be able to find your own way through the game world. A good designer knows how to make the clues guiding your way subtle. Good design doesn’t shoehorn instructions into gameplay, and good games reward your intelligence and clever solutions to situations within itself.

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