The Average Gamer

Why don’t people play games? Part II – Linearity

Lack of choice is boring. It’s obvious, but still true. You can make up for it by pumping up the adrenaline levels, but that’s a work-around, not a solution and it only appeals to a small demographic of the population. Most games out there give you very little leeway to choose your path. You’re shoehorned into fixed cinematic after fixed cinematic and the most complex option you have is which weapon you use to kill the next slathering blood-covered monster.

Okay, that’s not true at all, but even in the most progressive of RPGs you generally have one major plot arc that drives the game and forces you one way through the story.

There are really only three levels of choice available in games at the moment. At the bottom with the least choice, we have games like Dungeon Siege (walk down the valley, kill monsters, collect stuff) and Doom 3 (walk down the corridors, kill monsters, collect stuff). You can choose to specialise your weaponry, use magic, ranged or melee weapons and you can walk backwards and forwards through the world at will but ultimately, you won’t progress through the game without killing monsters.

At the top end of the choice spectrum we have games like Far Cry, Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind and The Sims. Far CryThe Xbox version of Morrowind had its problems with clunky loading screens and unintuitive interface but PC version was smooth and the range of gameplay was impressive. You are dumped in a world and left to do what you want. If you feel like it, you can wander around and trade items to make loads of money, or learn to climb the mountains and hunt the creatures that live at their peaks, or blindly follow the main plotline prompted at the beginning, or talk to the townspeople and take jobs to affiliate yourself with one of the local gangs. You still need to follow the main plot arc eventually but you can spent 40+ hours walking around before you even start that if you like. Far Cry is a different entity entirely but the choice is still there. Given the mission objective to kill the boss (or whatever) you have the freedom to sneak around hiding behind the scenery Splinter-Cell-style trying to avoid as many enemies as possible (fiendishly difficult in some levels but theoretically possible for the most part), or to find high ground and snipe, or to avoid a trap by wedging an escape route open with a chair and shooting the bad guys through the windows or to just blindly blast your way through in traditional FPS manner. The choice is entirely yours. The Sims is a huge sandbox where you can take any career path and buy a huge range of things or make lots of buddies or seduce people and then make them hate you but there are plenty of limitations. Maybe I want to steal cars and shoot people! Oh, wait. I’d just buy San Andreas for that.

Most games fall somewhere between the two – Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic allows you to be as arrogant or helpful as you like but you have no real freedom to travel or explore. There are side quests around but what you do in them doesn’t have any real effect on the game’s story – you can say no as much as you like but you’re still going to be forced from this mission objective to that mission objective before your final confrontation with Malak. Grand Theft Auto lets you choose from missions multiple sources with conflicting interests as well as just wandering around shooting stuff and jumping ramps but there’s only one way to do each mission. RTS games do give you quite a bit of freedom to place your own base, and specialise your armies and tactics but every scenario boils down to kill the other guy before he kills you. There’s not much scope for change there without fundamentally redesigning the genre, so I shall leave them out of this discussion.

We need multiple ways to achieve the same objective. Not only would it makes things more interesting, it would vastly increase replay value and at £40 a game, I like my replay value. I know it’s unlikely to happen, as it requires much higher development costs and all that malarkey but I think there’s a chance if it’s done by a developer who uses an existing game engine rather than trying to develop an entirely new one AND develop a varied game on it. It’s been tried before with some level of success – Far Cry I’ve already described above. Deus Ex did a reasonable job too, with the option to sneak around air vents or use the rocket launchers to blow your way in and then disable security systems. They took some baby steps with dialogue and actions that affected whether or not a character helped you out later on in the plot as well. I’d like to see more of that, as it really helps with the impression that your choices make a difference to the game world. Pity about the dodgy voice-acting and stuffy script. The old LucasArts adventure Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade from 1989 had a couple of great scenes where you could either bash buttons and beat up the guards, or fast-talk your way past them with the right combination of dialogue options for each one. Having these options makes a game far less frustrating when you’re sitting there going “Nooooo, I used up all my rockets on the last robo-guard and these puny pistols don’t damage it at all!” Cue reload and repeat prior battles with more conservative use of ammo. I find that sort of repetition very tiresome.

Ideally, I would love a game where every choice you make will affect the outcome – something like Anakin’s moral journey in Star Wars: Episodes II and III only you get to make the choices and in the end you don’t get forced into the film’s eventual outcome. I’d like the ability to see the same events each time I play the game but from a different point of view and be able to nudge them in a different direction. So if you feel like playing the most virtuous Jedi in the whole world you could singlehandedly take out the perpetrators of Order 66 and prevent the downfall of the Republic. Or you could study under the Jedi, learn their powers and do good all over the place all the while breaking into the forbidden texts to study on your own until you’re strong enough to usurp the Sith Lord, execute Order 66 and take Amidala as your slave wench. Or you could be a traitorous mercenary double-agent informer for both sides, take your money and set up a casino where you get to watch the losing side get executed because of the information you leaked.

Ah, freedom. It’s a beautiful thing. Can we have some more?

Coming soon, Part III – Geekery (a.k.a Unfamiliarity)