Sunday, November 9

A Melding of Concepts

The battle of level-based versus open-world games has raged since the early days of video games. Mario and Sonic were level-based, but Metroid and Zelda featured worlds open for exploration. Indeed, the two game design models are engaged in a never-ending tug-of-war. A few years ago, the commercial and critical success of Grand Theft Auto 3 KO'd the long popular level-based design, decrying level-based games as "linear." In this generation, for a game to be called "linear" stands out as the worst form of sacrilege.

Meanwhile, open-world games were a fascinating new breed, unbound by the constraints of a level-based structure, allowing players to stretch their virtual arms and relish in the beauty of freedom, exploration, and choice. Games that relished in open-world design include Crackdown, The Incredible Hulk, and the Mercenaries series. But as the past-generation fades and the present hits its limelight, critics and game designers alike have bored gaping holes into the formally lauded open-world structure, revealing many pitfalls of its own. The tug-of-war continues, with both level-based and open-world games planting their feet firm before the mud-pit.
Ubisoft's Far Cry 2 was released only a couple of weeks ago, and the reception has been fairly split. Just look at Gamespy and Gamespot's catch-lines for their respective reviews of the game.
Gamespot's Shaun McInnis writes, "...Far Cry 2's first-person action squeezes every last drop of potential out of the unique African setting." Whereas Gamespy's Fargo writes, "Visually breathtaking and ambitious in scope, Far Cry 2 falls shy of it's amazing potential."
McInnis goes on to write, ". . .Far Cry 2's free-roaming terrain brilliantly harmonizes with the first-person combat." Fargo, meanwhile, writes, "The pacing of the game is way off. The majority of your time is spent driving to or from missions or safe houses or bus stops." And continues, "Far Cry 2 could've easily been a four-star game or higher if the focus would've been on the missions and not the travel."

Similarly, Chris Remo wrote an opinion piece about Far Cry 2 on Gamasutra, about authored narrative versus emergent narrative. Remo writes:
The game's persistent component parts feel designed to convey a convincingly (but not flashily) coherent world, but even more importantly to increase the chances of memorable things happening. [...] In fact, the game tries to define a set of rules and an environment in which memorable experiences are likely to happen, and simply lets the player loose in its world -- a fascinating prospect.
Clearly, people are of split opinion on open-world structure and of Far Cry 2 specifically. But each of these three commentators above make valid points. McInnis believes that Far Cry 2's open-world meshes well with its first-person-shooter gameplay. Fargo feels the open-world structure (of Far Cry 2, at least) creates a cohesive world, but is hindered by hideously repetitive sequences. Remo, on the other hand, is excited by the "prospect" of memorable, emergent gameplay scenes only made possible by the game's open-world. Who is right? They all are, really. But lets look at some more examples.
A game which eschews the open-world structure, soon to be released, is Blue Omega's Damnation. Damnation is a level-based third-person shooter which emphasizes verticality. In fact, the game is often marketed as "Taking the Shooter Vertical." Jacob Minkoff was interviewed a few months ago in Play Magazine. In the interview, he defends Blue Omega's decision to keep Damnation level-based in a time when both publishers and gamers seemingly refuse to invest in anything but open-world. And I think Minkoff makes something very clear: level-based is not synonymous with linear. Level-based games have accrued this stigma of linearity, which even itself isn't bad but has been painted black by critics and forum-goers. Even so, Minkoff explains why level-based games can be fun without being linear:
I sort of equate it to the idea of a three-year-old getting their own soda from the soda machine. I love coke, and I love orange, and I love lemonade, and I'm going to put them all together--but then, oh my god, I don't want to drink this! I think that's the feeling that occasionally happens, it's like, you want choice, well here you go. Here's every choice you could ever want. Well, now there are so many choices I don't know quite what to do. What we're trying to do [with Damnation] is find that balance. You've got choice. You won't feel trapped or claustrophobic or held down in the game, but you're not set adrift.
To achieve this, every level in Damnation has a clear objective in the distance. The player's goal is to reach that objective by any means necessary. In the same Play interview, Minkoff likens the concept to a famous trilogy: "Lord of the Rings is all about that. Tower, get to it."

Taking the shooter vertical is more than just a marketing line, its a design foundation. Blue Omega didn't want for Damnation to fall prey to the pitfalls of the open-world genre, but also wanted to avoid the negative perception of the dullness of linear progression, and so they designed with a mantra of interesting, tall level design. The levels in Damnation offer multiple routes for tackling situations; players have to be both observant and skilled to make the most of the environment. Additionally, players have access to a "spirit vision" or a self described "wall hack" which allows them to see the glowing auras of nearby enemies. Everything works hand-in-hand.

And this is really the core philosophy behind Damnation: The levels, platforming, shooting, spirit vision; everything was designed in unison to function cooperatively. The game wouldn't be the same in first-person; the freedom of platforming would likely be lost. Likewise, the game wouldn't be the same with an open-world structure. You're probably thinking by now, "Well of course; that's obvious." Is it? The only reason it seems obvious is because Blue Omega designed a cohesive structure. They could have just as easily tried to fit Damnation into an open-world structure, but as is, the attempt would have failed. The point is that neither level-based nor open-world is "the right way." Both offer their own opportunities and limitations. Good design is taking advantage of either form and building a game to mesh with the chosen structure.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Another platforming game soon to be released is Ubisoft Montreal's Prince of Persia. Unlike Damnation, Prince of Persia takes place in an open-world. But just like it would be incorrect to label Damnation as linear, it would be unwise to label Prince of Persia with all of the negative connotations recently associated with the open-world structure. In an interview with IncGamers, Thomas Delbugeut explains PoPs unique structure:
Granted, there are a lot of things that are different about this Prince of Persia – the prince is completely different, the atmosphere is completely different – but we wanted to keep all the core elements that make it Prince of Persia. We lost most of that trying to incorporate an open world structure. So we went back to the drawing board and created more of a network thing, which allowed us to get more of those step-by-step sequences. It was a lot more interesting and ended up giving us the game we have now.
A network. Not open-world, not level-based, a unique approach to level design. In a Developer Diary, Producer Ben Mattes describes the structure "with an analogy" of a highway system, wherein players choose different routes connecting various cities in the world. As with Damnation, the routes are specifically designed to function with the Prince's acrobatic abilities and powers. Wall-runs, slides, pole hugs, shimmy's: sounds linear, doesn't it? But Montreal has in-fact (presumably, of course) completely avoided the stigmas of both level-based and open-world structures by merging the two forms. It's worth noting that Prince of Persia is different from open-world games such as Mercenaries 2 or Far Cry 2 in that it's not focused on emergent gameplay situations. But that's actually the beauty of the design. Prince of Persia is about scripted gameplay sequences; it's a puzzle-platformer. But by opening up the world halfway with a split-path structure, Ubisoft has avoided any prospect of being undermined as linear.
There's one more game coming out this winter that forgoes open-world structure for straight-up level-based gameplay. Not to say it's linear, either. I'm talking about Mirror's Edge, the first-person parkour game developed by DICE.

Chris Remo (again) recently interviewed Mirror's Edge producer Nick Channon for Gamasutra. In the interview, Channon discusses the philosophy behind the game's structure:
I think it's just looking at what you've got, looking at where your strengths are in your game, and in your mechanics, and building the levels out around it. And the fact that we could've gone open world, we could've made a game that felt very open, but we went for a more linear story, and we went for a more level-based game -- and the reason for that was that we wanted to pack as much action in as we could.

As soon as we'd have gone open world, I think that would've watered it down. So I think that was one learning, in the fact that a lot of people think, nowadays, that open world's the way to go, and it's the next-gen thing -- I don't think I believe it is.

It's clearly right for some games, absolutely, but you can actually get a lot more in, at times, in more of a level-based [game].

Channon hits the nail on the head. Open-world structure is right for some games, but it wasn't right for Mirror's Edge, and DICE realized this. DICE had goals, priorities. And like Blue Omega has also done, Mirror's Edge has been designed for every aspect to work cooperatively. Something I didn't mention earlier, Ubisoft didn't feel the open-world structure catered to the intense, one-on-one fights that were to take place in Prince of Persia; they weren't making Dynasty Warriors, and they knew it. So Ubisoft designed the world alongside the combat structure, so the two fit together like a nice little puzzle. In a similar manner, DICE had certain things they wanted to accomplish with Mirror's Edge, among them being a strong, linear narrative. And to achieve this, they designed the game with levels, because they felt it fit their intentions and motivations. But a linear narrative does not mean linear levels. Far from it. In the same interview at Gamasutra, Channon expounds upon the above statement.
You have to give a choice; it can't be just, 'Do this, do this,' you know. And that's what we've done: We've built every level out to have lots of choice, and I think the thing that we're really pleased about is that, actually, the amount of choice in every level is just limited to your imagination. Which really plays in the movement, and the parkour elements that we talked about.

You see what Channon is saying? Level based. In part to help the narrative, but still offering freedom of movement, split-second, instinctive choice, to complement the fast-paced action. Additionally, DICE has consistently said that they want the levels to be replayable. How many times have you played the demo? Exactly. Much like time trials in racing games, the levels in Mirror's Edge are intended to be played again and again, encouraging players to find, and successfully perform "that perfect run."

Here is the point of my rabble: it's about the design. Level-based, open-world, a mix of the two, they're all correct so long as the game is designed from every perspective, every facet, ever aspect to work cooperatively as one cohesive unit. Far Cry 2 was designed open-world to keep player's immersed in the illusion and to encourage experimentation with the nigh infinite weapons and approaches available to any given situation. Damnation promotes experimentation with approach as well, but in a completely different manner with a level-based, vertically oriented structure. Prince of Persia blends the benefits of both worlds to maintain its puzzle platforming gameplay without feeling overtly linear. And Mirror's Edge focuses high-speed action within a linear narrative by offering split-path levels.

The tug-of-war between the the two sides is likely to continue, but we're also starting to realize that both approaches offer plenty of opportunity for effective gameplay scenarios if designed properly.

Update: Mirror's Edge Discussion Continued Here.

Tomorrow: Linear is Fun

Sonic and Knuckles from Neoseeker
All other images from Gamespot

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