There’s a song that goes “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” For the sake of being on topic, let’s say a videogame character is the modern-day Shakespeare behind those heart-rending, tear-jerking lyrics. As a videogame character, he can do quite a lot. Grapple up mountains, drive cars off said mountains, steal planes and then leap out of them to steal better planes, etc. “Anything,” one might say. However, he still won’t – or really, can’t – do “that.” What is “that,” you ask? Well, anything that actually matters, to be honest.
Sure, when playing games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause 2, or Red Faction: Guerrilla, I can mow down crowds of people like they’re an unruly, weed-ridden lawn, but – like actual plants and unlike actual people – they grow back. And if I die, I grow back too. I can cause traffic pile-ups so large they’d fill three nights-worth of evening news programs or send entire buildings crashing to the ground, but when I turn around, everyone’s come back to life and moved on with said lives. The only time I can ever do anything that “matters” is during scripted, generally linear missions. But those run so contrary to the message of “freedom” open-world games proudly trumpet that they may as well be from separate games entirely.
The end result? The game world feels false – less like an actual living, breathing place and more like a theme park where half the rides are out of order. It’s not convincing and – in some cases where story and non-story gameplay clash, ala Grand Theft Auto IV – serves to yank the player right out of the experience.
That’s not, however, to say that the idea of some wanton, consequence-free havoc doesn’t put a wry grin on my face. Rather, I’m just wondering when the definition of “sandbox gaming” became so constricted. Why not allow players to affect – or, if they so choose, wreak havoc on – a game’s story in the same way they can currently, well, blow sh** up? Why not allow them to experiment with characters and scenarios the way they can currently experiment with tank jousting contests?
Better still, the framework’s already in place for a hypothetical something-other-than-explosions-centric sandbox game. Two games in particular, I think, pave the way for a truly interactive style of open-world game, and both of them preach a message that might leave the choir scratching its collective noggin – at least, at first. That message? Constrict. Downsize. Make the world smaller. In other words, do away with a few unnecessary variables for the sake of feasibility.
So first up, there’s Heavy Rain. Flawed though it may be, one of its many high-minded ideas managed to stick the landing after making the big leap from concept to execution. See, no matter what you do or how horribly your clumsy, sweat-soaked fingers manage to fumble through one of the game’s heart-rending life-or-death scenarios, there’s never a single Game Over screen. Quantic Dream programmed its game with so many plan Bs, Cs, Ds, etc that it probably exhausted our alphabet and had to dig a fair way into Japan’s 20,000-character variation on the theme. Main characters can kick the bucket, and the game doesn’t miss a beat. This, of course, handily deals with the problem of player death, but it also shows just how much interactivity and variability you can squeeze out of a few relatively small scenarios.
And then there’s Way of the Samurai, which GameSetWatch columnist Quintin Smith recently did an excellent job of explaining. Here’s the gist of it, though: you’re a lone samurai in a village. Really though, you – as in, the player – are a dumb, curious kid with a long stick standing over a hornets’ nest. You poke, prod, and pretty much inevitably piss off one samurai faction or another, which usually leads to hilariously violent results. And the kicker? You can accomplish your ill-defined goals however you please. Key NPCs, shopkeepers, random folks on the street – you name it – are no different when reflected in the gleaming steel of your sword. The game, however, gleefully shoves a middle finger in good ol’ Uncle Ben’s face. With great power comes very little responsibility, as it turns out; if you off an important character, the game takes it into account and keeps on going. And so, once again we see that true freedom – a real sandbox – functions best in a smaller environment. Consequently, is Way of the Samurai a long game? Definitely not. But it’s incredibly replayable, and – in many ways – better off.
And these two games are both incredibly rough around the edges – the first trickles in a wellspring of potential. It’s a shame, then, that they’re anomalies, exceptions to the rule. I’m sick and tired of watching the open-world genre languish, content to more or less tread water ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 put it on the map. The first Way of the Samurai came out in 2002, for Pete’s sake! Why has no one taken this ball and run with it yet? There’s clearly so much more to be done here, yet no one’s doing it. I think it’s time to change that, don’t you?