Ab­so­lute free­dom is not ab­so­lute fun

PlayStation Official Magazine (UK) - - OPINION - Ed Smith

When­ever I sit down in front of Net­flix or Ama­zon Prime I find my­self adrift. The amount of choice there is paralysing. It’s as if the sta­tion bosses have be­come so fed up try­ing to hold my at­ten­tion they’ve sar­cas­ti­cally handed over all con­trol. As I sit there, scrolling past one award-win­ning film af­ter an­other, I wish some­one would come back and tell me what to watch.

I feel the same about open-world games. There is so much to do – so many gad­gets, side-mis­sions and cus­tomi­sa­tion op­tions – that I feel, rather than en­thused or like I’m hav­ing fun, just lost. It might not seem it, but ab­so­lute free­dom in videogames is a curse. Af­ter you’ve det­o­nated, ef­fort­lessly, your 15th petrol sta­tion in Just Cause 3, how can you not feel a bit list­less? When faced with the enor­mous world map of Fall­out 4, and all its blink­ing, de­mand­ing icons, who wouldn’t be over­whelmed?

Story mis­sions are sup­posed to guide us through all this “con­tent.” By ex­plain­ing and let­ting us try out new me­chan­ics and modes, they act as a sort of cu­ra­tor, putting all the open world’s dis­parate el­e­ments into con­text. But in games like Ghost Re­con Wild­lands and Nier: Au­tomata, where you can ei­ther com­plete the main mis­sions in any or­der you want or your ob­jec­tive is vague, some­times out­right hid­den, it seems as though we play­ers are be­ing in­creas­ingly left to con­strue open worlds for our­selves, and that to me is acutely dis­tress­ing. Any spec­ta­cle, re­peated when­ever I want and with­out at least some nar­ra­tive ba­sis, be­comes bor­ing, and it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s bloody mur­der, ex­plo­sions, or a gun that fires dub­step. And although they claim oth­er­wise, by giv­ing me dozens of op­tions, av­enues and pos­si­bil­i­ties, these games don’t ac­tu­ally care what I’m do­ing. When they in­sist “play how­ever you want,” it’s as if the au­thor, or game’s cre­ator, or who­ever, is walk­ing away and aban­don­ing me, and doesn’t have any in­ter­est in whether or not I’m en­ter­tained. Even in a big open world, I want the sense of some­body be­ing there, or­ches­trat­ing my ac­tions to­wards a con­clu­sion.


Mafia 3 is ex­cel­lent at lead­ing the player. It’s a huge, dy­namic sand­box, wherein you kill, and kill, and kill, but the cutscenes, di­a­logue, and even your char­ac­ter’s fa­cial ex­pres­sions re­mind you why you’re do­ing it – you never lose sight of the over­ar­ch­ing re­venge mis­sion nor the big, bad an­tag­o­nist wait­ing at the end. The same goes for Dark Souls. You can go on side-quests and cus­tomise your­self for hours, but there’s al­ways a sense of progress and draw­ing in­ex­orably to a cli­max. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween kick­ing a ball around and play­ing a game of five-aside: ab­so­lute free­dom can be fun, but play­ing is much more en­joy­able when it’s com­bined with some me­chan­i­cal bound­aries and nar­ra­tive bor­ders.

I don’t think we, as videogame play­ers in 2017, are only or even best ful­filled by sheer es­capism. I think we like sto­ries. We’ve ma­tured enough that we can still feel like we’re get­ting our money’s worth out of games, even if they aren’t al­ways giv­ing us ex­actly our own way. And I be­lieve open worlds, done well, can meet these con­tem­po­rary tastes; I think faced to­day by a more dis­cern­ing au­di­ence, telling us to do what­ever we want is prob­a­bly just a cop out.

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