The Root of the Question – Immersion

Dragon Age OriginsThe last two days I’ve posed a hypothetical question – if you had the power, which game worlds would be the best/worst ones to hop into and live in; as in actually be a part of. I came up with what I think is a pretty solid start to each list, although a question like this is always going to have lots of wiggle room. I’ll admit I was trying to keep most of my picks somewhat relevant to the current slate of games out there. There’s plenty of classic games that could fit into either category.

That said though, at the core of this whole discussion is one simple factor. How immersive is that game’s world? I think, regardless of which list you put the game on, if it’s in contention for either, that’s ultimately a good thing for the game. That means that the developers have crafted a world that draws you in in some way. That could be through dialogue and writing, it could be with the action of the game, or it could just be the aesthetics of the world. Regardless of whether actually living in that world would be nice and easy, or incredibly dangerous; the fact that the thought has even entered your brain is a win.

Thief

I say that like it’s a given with games these days. We seem to expect a rich, living environment for our games. As the industry has grown and matured, that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to expect. Not every game needs to be a super serious, gritty, mature title to achieve that though. And even beyond that, creating a world that feels alive and immersive is incredibly difficult. A good example is last year’s reboot of Thief. The game tried to do too much, and as a result, the world felt stiff. It was really noticeable compared with Dishonored, which managed to pull of a much more alive feeling world, while still trying to do very similar things. Both are set in very dystopian worlds, neither would exactly be fun to live in – although our rules stated we would be the main character, which would alleviate a lot of that; both are also structured around stealth mechanics, with some super natural added in. And yet, Thief fell a little short, thanks to a convoluted story, and really no impact to the world around you. Dishonored made every decision impact the whole of the world, which made the different play styles matter more, and in turn helped breathe life into the game world.

BioWare Logo

Which is why studios like BioWare and Bethesda always deserve a ton of credit for their hard work. BioWare’s two major current IPs – Mass Effect and Dragon Age – couldn’t be more different in setting. And yet both have the very same focus – story and character – to make the worlds feel alive, and thus draw the player in much more. Add in some character customization, superb writing and acting and solid action, regardless of control style; and you have not only an incredible world to play in, but a game that’s super fun to play. Bethesda does it a little differently. Story is still important, but it’s more through the little details that their worlds come to life. Giving every NPC a schedule that the keep makes going to the towns feel just like that. Having a reputation/crime system provides consequence for your actions – good or bad. It makes it very easy to get lost in the Role Playing nature of their games, regardless of whether it’s Fallout or Elder Scrolls.

Bethesda Softworks Logo

I think it’s very easy to look at the current state of gaming and say that the big determining factor for progress has been graphics. In just about 30 years we’ve come incredibly far, really quite fast. I don’t see it being a huge stretch to say that in the same period of time in the future we might get to see games that are as close to life like as any CGi movie is. But that’s not really where the growth has been, in my eyes. It helps it, sure, but really the growth is best shown in the increase in games with impact. We’ve gone from an industry where the best selling and most loved games are literally two-dimensional; to now one that craves stories with weight, characters with life and action with impact. All mass forms of entertainment have gone through this growth – movies, comics, books, TV, even music. It’s part of truly becoming mainstream, and earning our spot as part of the mass pop culture. We still have a very long way to go, just look at the last 6 months of gaming culture to see why; but I truly believe that we’ll get there eventually. And when we do, it’s going to be thanks to these games, where immersion is the key.

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Let’s Talk About Length

The Order: 1886There’s been a lot of talk this week about the length of The Order: 1886. The early reports are saying that the game is only five hours long. Now, if it really is that long, and half of that is cutscenes (which I’ve also seen) that’s an issue, mainly from a value perspective. Spending $60 on a game that’s only a few hours long, and doesn’t really seem to have a ton of replayability to it, well that’s a ripoff. Price that lower, and I don’t see a problem with a game that short. But it has gotten me thinking this week about game length. It’s always a variable that’s tossed around in reviews, but I honestly don’t see a huge reason to. Short games can be great, and long games can drag on – I’ve seen some writers recently talking about Dying Light being one of those games with just so much in it, that the story gets a little lost (although I think the lack of fast travel is what’s padding the length myself).

Dragon Age: Inquisition

There is something to length for sure – but it’s not a number set in stone. Shooters don’t all need to be 15 hours long, while RPGs don’t all need to be 60+. Instead, length should depend on the strength of the actual game – if the writing and action are strong, I’m much more likely to stay with a game for a longer time. It’s a big part of why I love the BioWare games so much. They’re loaded with content – both actual gameplay, and lore-building codex entries – that reward playing thoroughly, but don’t actually feel super long. For example, I recently started playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, even though I still am also working through the first game. I’m about 25 hours into the game already, and still haven’t picked which side, Mages or Templars, I’m going to try to gain the support of. I’ve done technically three or four main Inquisitor’s Path quests, while doing tons of the sidequest stuff. I’ve hit level 11 already, and barely scratched the surface of it. And I love that. Mass Effect was very similar, I went as slowly as I could so I could really get everything. I think that Bethesda’s RPGs are also really similar – I’ve talked a bit about my experiences with Oblivion already before.

Advanced Warfare Cover

On the other side, FPS games have trended the opposite direction in the last ten years or so. The campaign has definitely taken on a bit of a secondary role to the competitive multiplayer side. Now we get a nice 12-15 hour, on the long side, action movie ride that doesn’t really let up. It’s a really easy trope to complain about the story in Shooters these days, but I do think there’s something to it. They are all very similar – which is why new approaches like Destiny and Titanfall are great; while new settings like Battlefield: Hardline and Advanced Warfare help out too. In my experience, Shooters are just trying to make sure you get through the story – there’s plenty of hand-holding, and not a lot of room for deviation – and then they get you prepped for the multiplayer and off you go. The problem really lies with games that are built around the story – games like The Order. If there’s nothing beyond that, and your game is that short, that’s a major problem. Shooters that focus on story do still have a role-model too: the BioShock games. There’s not really anything beyond the story content, and they are closer to the 20 hour mark, but there’s plenty of both lore-building material in there, as well as action to keep you entertained the whole time. Now I know that BioShock isn’t exactly a pure FPS, but it’s primarily a Shooter more than RPG.

There are always exceptions of course – for me those are the sandbox style action games. Grand Theft Auto, for all the great writing and action, just seems to lose my attention after a certain time. Even Saints Row, a series that I really love, had a wall that I would hit. Sometimes it’s the mechanics – that’s my issue with Halo: The Master Chief Collection still – that keeps me from wanting to play. I have a feeling that game length is going to be in the news and social media a lot the next few days, especially since The Order comes out tomorrow. Just try to keep in mind that a game’s worth and value is never really dependent on one sole factor.