Keeping the peace in an open-world game

I’ve been reading about open-world games recently, and it’s got me thinking about the failings of a certain type of open-world game. Too often, it feels like a game becomes open-world because it’s a feature to try to sell people on the title, regardless of whether it actually adds any value to the experience. Just for one example, this appears to be what happened with Mafia III. (“At first, it was envisioned as a straightforward revenge tale, but 2K boss Christoph Hartmann wanted Mafia III to compete with Rockstar . . . . He wanted districts, empire-building, and a massive open world.”)

One game type that seems particularly unsuited for the open-world concept, despite being routinely drafted in this way, is the law-enforcement game.

There are many types of stories that can be told about the police: some can portray peace officers in a positive or heroic way, some can present crooked or abusive or outright corrupt and villainous cops, and many are mixed and complicated. And there have been some pretty good crime drama stories to come to video games. Two prominent examples are L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs. But both games suffer from an open world that seems to exist mainly to just give the players the option of doing something else, even if there’s not much to do with the feature.

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L.A. Noire in particular tells a complicated and gritty noir story, with each chapter diced between increasingly gruesome and unexplainable murders. The player’s investigation of crime scenes and attempts to tease out the truth in tense interviews with witnesses and suspects make up the bulk of the main form of gameplay. Over the course of the game, I suspect that just about any player questions whether they’re making the right call–and, without giving up too much for those who haven’t played, the end of the game reveals that the whole truth was more complicated than we could imagine for many of these cases.

But in between these tense and disturbing criminal investigation scenes, and the occasional obligatory shootout mission, we have long stretches of just driving around. There’s not all that much to do, apart from hunting down useless collectibles, seeking out 1940’s Los Angeles landmarks, and participating in a series of twitchy and repetitive street enforcement missions. The little side missions in particular feel like an effort to give a greater range of ways to interact with the game, but they all boil down to distracting radio calls to drive halfway across the city just to participate in the same repetitive mixture of shoot-outs, chases, and twitchy hostage-rescue shots.

The map is big, but there’s very little to organically draw the player in. This is probably at least in part a product of shifting design decisions, but when one is on the straight-and-narrow as an upstanding law enforcement officer, the crazy high jinks that typically make open-world games so entertaining have to be reined in. In place of rampaging through the city, the distractions that are inserted feel very gamey indeed and quickly grow tedious. And the player can even choose to skip from destination to destination, having their partner drive instead. The game very much so feels like a fairly linear, structured game arbitrarily mounted onto an open-world framework.

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Similarly, Sleeping Dogs is a cool story about an undercover cop trying to bust gangs in Hong Kong. Where L.A. Noire obviously draws on the film noir genre, Sleeping Dogs pulls from martial arts films and contemporary cop dramas. While one could commit criminal acts, there was a certain incentive to continue to operate largely within the scope of the law within the overworld map. Even if one were to go on a rampage, it would detract from the story being told.

And that story is pretty well-told! But it’s a story that relies heavily on cinematic scenes and fast-paced martial arts action sequences. By adding another fairly restrained open world, with fairly limited interactivity (another round of landmarks and collectibles), the world feels less organic and more a maze of lengthy car rides between missions.

Open-world games excel when story is more in the background. The focus should be on exploring the world, and it should be packed with fun things to do. The ability to cause chaos and see how effects radiate out from that chaos is often a big source of fun. Unpredictable playing experiences in true sandbox games allow for dynamic, organic stories that can do away with scripted storytelling altogether. The highlights of an Elder Scrolls game or a Grand Theft Auto game very rarely have to deal with the main plot, after all (or at least have more to do with cleverly designed missions in that main plot that take advantage of the open-world systems in the game).

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Either the open world is bland and gets in the way of the main story, or the main story feels like a railroaded obligation amid all the other fun to be had. I think that the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrates this rather well. Grand Theft Auto IV might have had the most original story in the franchise and seemed to have a lot to say in its dark and decaying world where the American dream is an illusion always just out of reach. But that story was somewhat defeated by the wanton chaos players could get up to between missions and by the easy ability to earn more and more money, and so much of that story was wasted on driving from point to point on the map. Other games have felt a lot more derivative, but they’ve focused more on the open world and benefited from it (especially Vice City with its introduction of investment properties, San Andreas with its huge world packed full of things to discover and weird people and beautiful environments and an exponential multiplication of activities and jobs, or Grand Theft Auto V with its three characters to rotate through to keep the fun going and a bank-heist-centered plot that focused on channeling the chaotic entertainment of the main game rather than burning out in an over-long drag).

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Being able to truly do anything, story (and morals) be damned, seems key to a really fun open-world game that will keep pulling the player back. While Red Dead Redemption has a story that is arguably about law enforcement (since you’re playing an against-his-will bounty hunter), the protagonist’s antagonism toward the federal government and the setting in the Wild West allow for a lot of less-than-virtuous gunplay and no-good deeds that don’t feel too far out of character or inappropriate. Plus, there are a lot of random encounters and side jobs and weird things to get up to while moseying across the plans or into towns. And despite the above, I think that the game suffers by having an overly long and dreary linear story, much like Grand Theft Auto IV.

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As a final example, the original Crackdown, despite ostensibly being about a law enforcement super-agent meant to take down out-of-control gangs, is really about causing as much devastation as possible across the map. The absurd power fantasy is front and center, and while your interactivity with the world is mainly limited to fighting bad guys and scaling the environment for collectibles, the game succeeds (to the extent that it does) by keeping the focus on chaos and player experience rather than a soggy story. (Not a law enforcement-focused game, but Mercenaries had a pretty similar model.)

In summary, games about law enforcement typically have dramatic stories that they want to tell. To the extent that an open world is involved, it often gets in the way of that story, either by being thematically dissonant or by simply disrupting the story with a lot of padding. And even where the open world might otherwise work, the hindrance of presenting an open world that requires a more constrained hand by the player (or more invisible walls on conduct) defeats the purpose of having that open world in the first place.

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