Friday, July 24, 2009

Authoral Gaming, Part 1

So, I beat Fallout 3 the other day:

But then saying that I "beat" Fallout 3 is a bit like saying that, upon winning the World Series, I "beat" the game of baseball. While I certainly conqured the "main event" of Fallout 3, it is by no means over.

Fallout 3 is an "open world" game, a "go anywhere, do anything" approach to the medium. And as with other games of this type (the Grand Theft Auto series and Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, for example), the main quest of the game is just one of dozens that can be found and completed. Finding all this content across Fallout 3's vast nuclear wasteland is left entirely to the player.

You can get one side quest by talking to a shop owner. Another can be found by exploring an old jail and finding two kidnapped humans who need an escort home. Still another can be picked up by wandering through a certain section of the map, where a snall boy runs up and asks for help.

And all of these were things I didn't HAVE to do in "finishing" the game. They were optional goals that I could take or turn down.

Now what's interesting about this structure is that a number of people I know, even serious gamers, are completely befuddled by it. They experience a paralysis of options. When given the freedom to do anything, they don't know what to do, where to start.*

With open-world games, I think this phenomenon is an issue of character. More linear games do all sorts of subtle things to tell you who you're taking the role of:

Solid Snake is highly disciplined, but detached, and I know that because of the no-nonsense fighting style he employs. I do not have the option to dual-weild uzi's while playing as Snake because that's not who he is.

Chrono's father is not present, and he's not even referenced. Combined with Chrono's almost constant silence, I have to think that he's been deeply affected by whatever led to his family situation.

But in a game where full authorship of the character is turned over to the player, from personality characteristics to moral choices and right down to facial features, there's no place to start from. The paralysis comes not from having too many things to choose, but no way to know who this character is and, thus, what he would do.

It's a lot like picking a career.

*We have this in dancing too, it's called "West Coast Swing."

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