The strength of videogames is their primary point of difference: their interactivity. So I was struck curious recently by a couple of small flash games which utilised a pseudo-interactive gimmick which demonstrated a flaw in videogame open-worlds in general. Each had its own strengths, but both relied upon repetition of the same ‘level’ (for want of a better term), each time adding subtle changes to make the player feel as though they were progressing. Far from making the games themselves feel cheap (a redundant notion anyway considering they’re both free flash-based games which can be played online), they invoked a feeling of urgency, of a malleable world, and of a sense of importance for the player which can be missing from larger game-worlds.
Paolo Pedercini created Every Day The Same Dream in 2009. In it, players assume the role of an unnamed man created out of simple 2D polygons. He is faceless, lacks any definition, and exists in a world just as bleak and despondent as he is. The player only has a few simple buttons to control him – the arrow keys move him (left and right only) and space bar interacts. You awaken in your bedroom and must make your way out of the apartment, down the escalator, into your car, to work, to your desk, and must press space bar to begin your working day.
The game is structured towards the most logical movement always leading you towards the expected and traditional goal: a day’s work. Players have been accustomed to having to progress by moving to the right of the screen in two dimensional games since the 70s, and a typical player wouldn’t think twice about setting about this goal with gusto. Additionally, when they finally reach their cubicle, they’ve been walking monotonously for up to 3-4 minutes with very little happening, so they’re just aching to reach their goal and won’t think to walk past their desk and see what else is available.
Until, that is, they find that sitting at their desk and commencing work cuts straight back to the bedroom, alarm clock blaring and the routine beginning anew.
At this point, players must think logically about what else they can do. They have to test the boundaries of the game world to see what else is available. They *know* there must be something more to this game than simply travelling to work repeatedly; why else would someone make it? Thus begins the comment Pedercini is trying to make about life itself. You must do the unexpected things, search the corners which are entirely searchable yet in which most don’t think to look, in order to find out what more there is to life than routine work.
The game employs a world which is stark, black and white, and so static it makes the single brown leaf on a tree outside your office, slowly flapping in the breeze the greatest friend your player has. The game specifically uses familiarity to cause anxiety.
The second game, arguably somewhat derivative of Every Day The Same Dream, is another flash game from 2010 called One Chance, by Awkward Silence Games. It attempts to use the exact opposite strategy of having its game-world change on each of the five passes. Much like Every Day The Same Dream, the player operates a simple left and right 2D game mechanic and is only able to interact using the space bar, and the player must also navigate the same rather plain game-world with no sense of challenge five full times before the game ends.
On each pass, the world in One Chance is one day closer to its end. The protagonist is a scientist (straight white male scientist) who has created a cancer cure which has been unleashed onto the public and unexpectedly eradicates all living cells, rather than just cancerous ones. As such, this incredible wonder drug is killing the entire planet slowly.
Using this typical technophobic plotline, the game can change its landscape each day to represent a slowly more decaying world. Fruit falls off trees, grass turns brown, the wife and child of our hero seem less and less caring about life, and the journey to work is progressively more riddled with evidence of rioting. Where the game differs is in its explicit ability to choose. Rather than the cunning use of railroading the player in a certain direction as with Every Day The Same Dream, One Chance instead makes the player choices obvious, and asks them to exercise their own judgment. Do they go to work, knowing that they only have a few days left with their family, or do they go to work anyhow on the off chance that maybe their co-workers are wrong and there is indeed a cure? Do they indulge in the pleasures of the crush at work or remain faithful to their wife? These decisions each result in the end of the ‘day’ being played, and the game resets and the bed, ready for the player to see what the world looks like today and be given another choice.
In spite of the achievements of One Chance being slightly less artistically masterful than Every Day The Same Dream (although both have spectacular music), we can learn more from it about a problem with modern game design which seems to be plaguing most open-worlds in particular: change.
The space race of size, graphical prowess and weapon-counts in videogames has not come to an end. We still see 2009’s Borderlands from Gearbox Software boasting it’s 16 million weapons (no I’m not kidding), 2010’s Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar San Diego creating a dumbfoundingly large play environment with every nook and cranny hand-crafted, and of course these large worlds are getting more and more beautiful with each new blockbuster to hit the market.
What these massive games could learn from One Chance and its ilk is the power of change. It takes little more than a simple alteration of the location of a family member, an apple having dropped from a tree, a co-worker in a different place or even a slightly longer beard on a character to imbue One Chance’s world with the sense that it is changing, growing and evolving, and little more than a few yes-or-no decisions to make the player feel like that chance is at their behest. As such, there is an excitement to it which larger open-worlds do not match.
It’s a matter of scale. Red Dead Redemption’s game world was the most interactive yet in an action open-world game. Boxes could be smashed, dynamite exploded, citizens would run and scream in panic, the time of day changes with the weather beautifully, and posses would take the law into their own hands well after a player commits a crime, giving the illusion of a self-interacting and changing world the player cannot see. It is, however, merely illusion.
Rockstar Vancouver’s 2006 title Bully (named Canis Canem Edit in Australia) created change on a larger scale. The game took place over the course of one year, and the seasons changed to match in between chapters. During these seasonal changes, characters the player had come to know would be seen wearing different clothing, and would all have unique things to say about the weather, their attitudes towards the protagonist Jimmy Hopkins would alter, and Jimmy would be spoken to in increasingly familiar tones as the year went on. These minute changes made the player feel that their existence in a predominantly static world was active, vibrant and changing, even within the realm of a fixed narrative.
Red Dead Redemption was a Western game, and as such it fit squarely into a genre which was specifically about an era of rapid change. The characters in the game, the themes it tackled and the ending in particular, all spoke very plainly about the trajectory of American modernity; about the death of the frontier and the birth of bureaucracy. Such a period of change warrants a game capable of clearly demonstrating it.
A medium which has interactivity as its greatest strength should not be satisfied with a static world, especially when attempting to represent a period of change.
As such, open-world games have something in common with the two above flash games. In both cases, the player has to traverse the same environment often and repeatedly. But, what good is it to familiarise a player with a section of an open-world only to have them move on to the next section and render the original area redundant? If a player doesn’t return (or worse, returns and sees nothing new or different) to a certain area every again, the game is wasting valuable familiarity. When you have familiarity and acquaintance, you have an emotional attachment. A player seeing struggling towns they’d fallen in love with several years (in the game’s narrative timeline) later existing exactly as it was destroys suspension of disbelief and reminds people that true change in an open-world is such a monumental task that it still hasn’t been attempted, even by the largest and most competent of open-world designers.
This is by no means a fault in the game design, simply a limitation of the number of hours of labour which would be required to create the subtle changes I yearn for to make an open world feel alive.
So the constructive part of this article is this: larger open-world game developers should consider the power of a temporal world, one which changes with the player and around them. The change could come from the player’s doing (eg. the demolition of one of the downtown cranes in 2009’s The Ballad of Gay Tony from Rockstar North), or could happen without their involvement to reduce their perceived power and create a feeling of tension.
A world which changes around a player is a daunting experience, and one which hasn’t had its potential even remotely tapped yet.