Meaningful Content

In the last generation, we saw games getting bigger and bigger and budgets ballooning out of control. As publishers were looking to get as much return as possible, games became bloated with side-quests that had little to no relevance to the main story mode.

Just this year, we have been given three games that do away with such fluff. Bloodborne, The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V. In each game, every bit of content feels just. You never waste your time in areas that plaster up invisible walls or grant absolutely no benefit; if you undertake a side-quest, the reward is readily apparent.

Take MGS V for example. At the very beginning of the game, you are unable to understand the soldiers in Afghanistan. This pretty much makes getting information a pointless endeavor. After finishing the first mission, you are informed of translators in the area that can be rescued. Doing so grants you the ability to understand the language in that area.

It’s an immediate payoff that gives the player a sense of accomplishment. Instead of including an activity because it’s cool, the developers thought to award some palpable sense of achievement within the game itself.

The Witcher basically has stronger plot points in the side missions then the main quest itself. One very early side quest has you tackling the mystery of a man’s wife who has gone disappearing. You get to be a detective and figure out what occurred and the impact this has had on the man’s life.

Did you take her?

It is supremely rewarding to dig into such a rich story. Most side quests can be boiled down to a few simple points; the game needs to be longer and the player can skip these. Since developers don’t want the player to “miss” any important content, one can reasonably skip the side stuff and still get the entire story.

Even before Wild Hunt, The Witcher 2 had an entirely different second act based on some decisions you made at the end of the first. It was a radical departure from what mainstream, triple A gaming was doing. That is getting a bit side tracked from my point, though.

With Bloodborne, while the world may not be entirely open as in Witcher and MGS, you can tackle most of the boss creatures in an order of your choosing. There are even a great few that you can entirely skip. A lot of the work in getting to them is shrouded in obscurity and requires one to think outside the box.

This leads to optional areas that are just as thrilling, frightening and meticulously detailed as the main game. More so, with the narrative being ambiguous and vague, the game encourages you to seek out as much information as possible. Without being told to, you are actively pushed to see the full picture.

This subtlety to approaching story in a game makes Bloodborne utterly captivating. Coupled with the brutal combat mechanics and steep difficulty and Bloodborne becomes a game that can consume your life for a good month or two.

Ah, yes, a good month or two….where is my cranberry juice?

I do remember games being like this in my heyday. Games on the NES, SNES and even PS1 were more about creating experiences that rewarded player skill and investment. Not every game was supremely long, but every bit of content was worthwhile.

I can’t think of a Mario game where I would want to skip levels (other then 8-3 in the original being a bitch). Shooters like Quake were so morbid, dark and terrifying that I was compelled to press on to see the corridors that lie ahead.

Then you look back at the last few years of gaming and you see pointless padding. Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider; newer entries in these series had so much pointless content that gamers gave up caring. Why do I want to climb towers in every city just to spot “important” locations? What benefit does collecting feathers or journals or hidden packages have for me?

I was amazed when playing Sleeping Dogs and found out that a lot of the side quests have a tangible benefit to the player. Finding the hidden shrines would increase your maximum health. Getting all of the statues in the story missions unlocked extra finishing moves for your combos. It was wild to think that side content could actually mean something in the modern era.

Then you look at inFamous: Second Son and all of the side stuff does basically nothing. Sure, you can level up your skills, but the game is so easy that nothing else over your starting arsenal is really required.

It seems that for as big as we can make game worlds, there is some nagging need to include as much stuff as possible. It’s as if the game isn’t engaging enough, so developers have a desire to distract you from how mediocre it is.

“You’re right! I don’t even care!”

There are some complaints that MGS V is devoid of life (something lobbied at Ocarina of Time as well), but that doesn’t even hold water. When I actively want to explore the game world, I don’t care if hundreds of things are crawling around. I like exploring landscapes and seeing nature in a natural state.

Taking a hike through a forest doesn’t bring you to a lost tribe or hidden tomb (unless you happen to be lucky); one takes a walk through nature to escape the fast paced nature of their lives. It’s a form of escapism that brings you back to reality and the purity of nature.

It’s also not a waste of time. Even though you aren’t technically accomplishing anything, you are freeing your mind of the bullshit from your daily life. Your problems disappear for a few hours in a safe, fun and refreshing manner.

Where are all the damn side quests?

When a video game so perfectly encapsulates that (such as MGS V), why am I going to complain about a lack of visible life? I don’t want more stuff in my games, I want my games to feel more complete.

I just wonder why it took so long for developers to finally get around to making completely worthwhile experiences. I think that, in the years coming up, we’ll see more and more games that cut out all of the trappings and stick to gameplay and extra missions that actually matter.

That, or we can just look at Super Mario Maker and make our own stuff. I wish Project Spark were as open-ended as Mario Maker, because I would love to get in on manipulating my childhood memories.

Freedom: What’s The Whole Story, Again?

Freedom is something we all strive to obtain. Whether it is freedom from our parents, freedom from paying bills or even just psychological freedom, most humans take great efforts to be on their own. The topic, alone, is ripe with opportunities for deep storytelling. Why is it, then, that most open-world games lack any kind of proper narrative?

I’ve played a huge chunk of the free roaming titles out there; Assassin’s Creed, Fallout 3, Oblivion, Dead Rising, inFamous, Prototype, Red Faction: Guerilla, Grand Theft Auto 3/4. I’ve enjoyed some more than others, but I almost never have any idea about what is going on.

Assassin’s Creed is one of the few to include a very thought-provoking story. Other than that, though, I really have no idea what the “vault” is or how the hell Alex Mercer created the demon within. Even when cutscenes are sprinkled in the mix, I still can’t figure out what’s happening.

The game that started this craze, Grand Theft Auto 3, doesn’t even really have a coherent plotline. It begins with a failed bank robbery and the main character getting gunned down. He then turns to the mob to find the girl who betrayed him and I get lost. How do you go from the mob to random drug dealers and then back?

Grand Theft Auto 4 made huge strides in the presentation of a narrative, but even that failed due to rudimentary mission structure. Niko Bellic would often talk about how he didn’t like killing people and that he needed more money to live, but the missions would make you murder upwards of 100 bad guys and give payouts of around $40,000. Why would you even continue at that point?

Red Faction: Guerilla starts off as a fairly interesting take on terrorist actions, but then it devolves into something involving native Martians and how some woman was hiding amongst the Red Faction for years. I don’t even know the characters names, but the writers were definitely pulling at threads when they through that mid-game twist into the mix.

inFamous takes the cake for the worst story, however. Not only do I have no idea whom Sasha is, but the whole duality system the game plays up with differing moralities amounts to nothing. Regardless of what action you pick, the outcome of every event is the same. If you stop the train or blow it up, everyone hates you. If you save the group of people or the single person, your girl friend dies. What is the purpose of choice, then?

Easily the best plot line I’ve seen in any of these games comes from Assassin’s Creed 2. While there are some bits that I don’t understand (mainly the entire middle segment), the way the game follows Ezio’s growth from a headstrong young adult to a combat hardened assassin is fairly breath taking. Not only is it epic in scope, but it almost acts as a character study. Hell, it even brings to light how people take advantage of their every day possessions (such as family).

I’m not sure what the problem is with writing a story for open-world games. Maybe it has to do with player freedom? The Zelda series still offers a fairly in-depth plot, but allows players to explore the world at will. Maybe it’s with character customization? If that’s the case, then how do you explain Rainbow Six: Vegas 2? (Even if that plot has little cohesion).

Where I think the problem lies is with the increasing trend of shooters becoming the dominant genre in the industry. Everyone sees that Call of Duty sells by the bucket load, so developers are trying their best to offer different gameplay experiences first before worrying about plot lines. It shows with linear games, too.

Rockstar had to restrict the freedom of players for L.A. Noire’s story to even work. That just goes to show you how far scripted events and plotting can go to make a narrative effective. You don’t often see films taking non-linear paths, but they usually don’t work (Crash is a prime example).

Do I have any solutions to the problem? I think hiring more unknown writers would do the trick. Recently, F.E.A.R. 3 came out and boasted a script helmed by John Carpenter. It stands as one of the worst examples of story in a videogame that I’ve ever played through. If you give some lesser known person the ability to weave a tale, I’m sure they would try their best to make it special.

My other solution would be to completely strip plot out of free-roam games, though that seems incredibly drastic. Not every single title in the genre is awful (especially not Assassin’s Creed), but developers just seem to start off with bangs and then fizzle out over the course of the game.

Whatever the future holds for soapbox/free roam/open-world games, I’m honestly not very eager to keep going. I like sitting down and getting my mind wrapped around the experience. It’s hard to keep me intrigued when the most introspective and in-depth thing going on is an explosion.