Friday, December 18, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: Charting the Open World, GTA and its Brethren

Last week, Rob asserted that if you played a game this decade it was probably a first-person shooter most likely an entry in the Halo, Call of Duty, or Half-Life franchises.  He’s got a point.  Two of those three titles are now household names, thanks to elaborate advertising campaigns and mammoth launch events. 

But there’s another genre that can plant its flag in Aught soil: the open-world game.

To better understand the nebulous term “open world,” remember that the game responsible for the industry as we now know it, Nintendo’s original Super Mario Bros., was the linear progression of a plumber from the left side of the screen to the right.  A player cannot revisit cleared stages in SMB.  He can only guide Mario ever forward in search of his beloved Princess Toadstool.  There’s purity to this type of design, sure, but it is not all games have to offer. 

Should you choose, you could trace the lineage of the modern open world title all the way back to the original Legend of Zelda.  From the game’s beginning, Link could explore almost all of the map.  He, of course, was impeded by obstacles that demanded he acquire a special item to circumvent them, and that progression of collection has become a hallmark of the series.

This go-anywhere, do-anything school of design flourished in the 2000s, due mainly to technical achievements that allowed for competent-looking games with vast environments.  And it all started with Grand Theft Auto.

Stealing Cars and Gunning Hos

There’s a reason the Grand Theft Auto series has garnered cultural infamy.  Each game takes tons of crime- and action-movie tropes, tosses them in a huge vat, adds a heavy dose of depravity and a dash of inspiration, and stirs like crazy.  The result is a world of perpetual activity, and all that activity is awful.  No one gives hugs in GTA (unless they’re also serving coffee).  They sell smack.  They crash cars.  They shoot uppity pissants.  And the freakish popularity of the series has made it a favorite scapegoat of a mainstream media constantly wringing its hands about the death of American values.

There’s also a reason why it’s so damn popular.  Grand Theft Auto III was released in October 2001 to  universal acclaim.  It wowed people with the sheer amount of shit going on.  Because of the relative fidelity of the game world, hours could be spent simply driving through Liberty City’s streets, smashing cars, running over prostitutes, and daring the police to summon helicopter and tanks in order to stop you.  Oh, there was a story.  But no one noticed.  They were too busy raping and pillaging.

Rockstar has gone on to push the technical limits of this genre with each iteration in the series.  GTA: San Andreas introduced multiple cities.  GTA IV attempted to recreate New York City in startling detail.  Unfortunately, the success of the franchise has limited Rockstar’s ability to explore a variety of subject matter.  GTA IV’s much-ballyhooed narrative is undercut by the series’ signature gameplay, namely stealing cars and gunning hos.  A warmer reception seems to have been given to the stories in GTA IV’s episodic content: The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.  Though still quintessentially GTA, each of the episodes is decidedly shorter than a full-scale release, allowing the designers to focus on story over nuts-and-bolts world building. 

The Rush To Join The Sandbox

 I couldn’t possibly name every game that has pretended to GTA’s throne, but rest assured that there are many.  Indeed, as consoles have gotten more powerful, the ability to simply plop a player into a huge environment and say “Now have fun!” has gotten easier and easier. 

Do you want to assassinate people in the past while a Matrix-like story of Templar intrigue plays out in the periphery?  Try Assassin’s Creed or it’s younger, better brother.  Do you want everything GTA has to offer without all of the new highfalutin story stuff?  Jump into Saints Row.  How about participating in a workers revolution on Mars?  Sample the excellent Red Faction: Guerrilla.  Got a thing for superhero antics?  Pick from Prototype, InFamous, or Crackdown.  Want better driving than GTA?  You can choose from Driv3r, Midnight Club, or Burnout Paradise.  Oh, and if you’re in the market for a bad GTA knock-off, good news!  True Crime is coming back.

Some of these games offer things GTA simply cannot because of its emphasis on modern-day crime.  Polished free-running, geo-modification, responsive driving controls.  You won’t get those from GTA.  But each of those titles is a little more specialized than Rockstar’s behemoth.  GTA is the jack of all trades, content to abstract everything in the world to a mini-game and challenging its competitors to match it in terms of scope.

The Fallout

Open world games in the GTA mold are praised for their emergent, sandbox gameplay.  I’ll concede that there’s something emergent about the adrenaline rush of trying to outrun cops on a Liberty City freeway.  But I’m not sure it’s any more groundbreaking than making your Sims piss themselves or griefing your teammates in Starcraft.

What’s more interesting to me is GTA’s influence on game design as a whole.  With the open world groundwork now laid, companies can go back to developing interesting mechanics and give us games like Assassin’s Creed or Red Faction: Guerrilla.  While some studios cling to the guided experience, others are desperate to deliver as nonlinear a story as possible.

Wandering the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, I can’t help but notice the influence of the open world genre.  Fallout 3 has its roots in an isometric open world on the PC, but there’s something about traipsing through it in full 3D that makes me think of GTA.  I can go anywhere I want.  I can shoot or help whoever I want.  And only very specific events have to unfold in a certain order.

GTA may always be held back from perfection by its insistence on doing everything.  But it’s continually upping the ante for expansive game environments, and other developers are responding.  It’s win-win for all of us – gamers, developers, and the entire open world.