Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Too Much to Do, So Little Focus

Posted on November 9, 2011 at 1:50 AM

Too Much to Do, So Little Focus

I had the chance to, finally, spend a weekend playing Batman: Arkham City. First things first, it's a great game. A fantastic sense of atmosphere, solid writing, top-notch voice acting and, let's face it, no other game gives you such a cathartic experience of beating up a dozen men in an alley like this one does. However, it also managed to remind me of how overwhelming a video game can be.

Let me paint a picture. In the role playing game Oblivion, you find yourself pushing "start" and then escaping from a prison. After a timid tutorial of teaching techniques, you eventually escape and…then what? Well, that's up to you. From this point on you are boundless on what you can do, where you can go, who you can talk to and what quests to take on. It's odd, but one of the best strengths of these types of games is also a bit of a weakness.

It's a weakness both on a personal level, but a design level as well. First, the personal: if you're given everything at once, where do you begin? In Arkham City you have a massive area to venture through and a half-dozen side quests to embark on in a matter of minutes. In a role playing game like Oblivion or Fallout 3, two recent examples of this generation though the legacy of "open-endedness" goes back decades, the amount of quests and "things to do" is ten times that found in Arkham City. In both cases, I get an incredible sense of overexposure to everything and actually feel hindered in the process of being lost in the game's world. Being lost and immersed is the central point of just about any video game. They're there to give you a great sense of time and place. However, they don't always give you a good sense of what to do with all that once you're inside. I find myself far too worried about missing something or doing something I shouldn't because there's no indication of what I should be doing…only what I could be doing if I wanted to.

That doesn't mean I can't tell something is incredibly well-made, though. Oblivion is rich in depth of its fantasy realm with a history that goes back hundreds of years all outlined in random books you can find in buildings or homes or speaking to the peoples in the various cities and townships. You can sense the history of this place. The same goes for a more action-focused game like Arkham City where there's also a lot to do and see, though not as vast, but it still overwhelms me with all that I could do…and that's what ends up distracting me more than actually going out and doing what I should be doing.

"Alright, I'm free! I better go do what that really important guy told me to do right away so the evil doesn't....ooooh, what's that!?"

Now Arkham City still has a bit more focus than your Bioware or Bethesda-made role playing game. It's structured with very clear points and goals whereas a Fallout 3 will just throw you out on the wasteland and make you fin for yourself. That doesn't mean it doesn't give you a massive ton of points and goals to do to begin with, and that's when I start worrying I might miss a point and goal or bypass something important or risk losing out on an incredible aspect of the experience at some point.

Some might say that's just part of this game design. It's not just a sandbox world, but it's a sandbox world with a dozen of brand-new toys to play with and sometimes I just don't know where to start.

The other aspect, the design, is a give-take of gaming philosophy. Fact: a more open-ended game loses dramatic weight and storytelling structure in lieu of allowing you to do what you what when you want to do it. These are focused on immersing you in a go-anywhere and do-anything style of endless dialogue trees and hundreds of people to interact with that, quite honestly, deliver their lines with the charisma of a houseplant. Meanwhile, a more linear-driven game is able to force a structure upon you, allow certain things to develop at specific paces and for the story to remain focus which allows for more drama and character development. Voicework is able to be more geared towards the melodramatic, allowing for more integral emotion, and twists and climaxes are allowed to feel more pertinent and timely than "it'll happen when I go and do this" of a non-linear game. There are some that are able to really give a good balance between them, but those are often rare.

Arkham City incorporates 'smaller scale' story sequences within the larger world which allows for balance, but that larger world is still mightily overwhelming at times.

For me, I enjoy the dramatic punch of a good twist and then having to figure it out in the game. More importantly is like the sense of timeliness. One of the problems with games like Fallout 3 or Oblivion and, I'm certain, the upcoming Skyrim is that they have the "i'll get to tit when I get to it" aspect of their design due to the non-linearity and open-world. The sense of urgency is gone and, therefore, the sense of risk and possible failure. I won't lie, in Arkham City I far prefer the "interior" locations that are focused with puzzles and a few characters and objectives that give the sense of urgency of the here and now than the go-anywhere city "exterior" where I'm overwhelmed and constantly distracted by little green question marks and waypoints and an ever-increasing list of goal objectives. Then again, most, just as it was in games like Grand Theft Auto, are just diversions and distractions, but the point is still relevant: you get so lost doing those little things you stop caring about the big things. The big things are just tossed into the same pot.

Don't get me wrong, though. There's a such thing as "too restrictive" as well. Especially if you don't have the story and characters to make up for making such a design choice.

I feel being too open lets you not notice the finer details. While both design choices, and they are certainly choices by the developer, have their pros and cons, for me personally I just like focus on tasks at hand, not a dozen tasks that I need to get to eventually. A structured game allows for the emphasis on story and pace and simultaneously restricts the openness to allow us to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. I'm currently playing Uncharted 3 at the same time as Arkham City. Uncharted 3 is a straight-shot, single-path type of game, but the storytelling and spectacular moments are plotted out for your enjoyment with precision and the character personalities leap out of the game to the point where you forget they're just made of pixels and polygons.

Perhaps it's my lack of roots. You see, I grew up a movie fan. I enjoy that linear structure and aspect of story. Others grew up videogaming on a PC in the 90s and emarked on open-ended world explorations and adventures, something I didn't get into until much later and, perhaps, still not quite in to today. That being said, I still love those games. Oblivion is a great adventure and the sense of place created by Fallout 3 is astounding. Games like Red Dead Redemption and even Arkham City, though less than its predecessor Arkham Asylum, are able to strike a remarkable balance between freedom and urgency. But if it came right down to it, and I only had one to choose, I'd choose the focused title over the 110+ hour free-for-all any day, even if the focused one lasts ten hours at most because that's ten hours of thorough and taught entertainment I prefer over hours of minutia.



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