There's nothing like a game which really sucks you into its world. This can be done in many ways. It might be through the quality of the story, or by creating a sense of 'being there', or simply by being so maddeningly addictive that hours pass, unnoticed, until you 'surface' well after midnight.
WANT #2 - IMMERSION
2 (a) - Storytelling
Famous example - Planescape: Torment (PC, 1999)
I've previously remarked on the blog that games don't generally go in for complex plots. Some don't bother with them at all. This makes it all the more satisfying when you come across one which bucks the trend.
With Torment, Black Isle chose to place the story at the very centre of the experience - and rightly so, for what a story it was. Your character (referred to as Nameless One for obvious reasons) wakes up on a mortuary slab. He has no memory of how he came to be there, and soon realises he cannot die - if he falls in combat, he simply wakes up back on the slab.
As you speak with other characters, you realise that they remember you from previous lives - of which you have no memory - and you gradually piece your story together. It's both dark and adult in tone, and related mostly by dialogue - almost uniquely for an RPG, combat takes a back seat, and talking to people is more likely to get results than fighting them.
Torment, of course, is set to make a comeback, with its spiritual sequel, Tides of Numenera. We can only hope that as much care will be lavished on the story in the new game as was on its predecessor.
|The graphics aren't up to much nowadays, but stick with it - it's worth it.|
2 (b) - Exploration
Famous example : Morrowind (PC, 2000)
As was mentioned in Part 1, it's very rewarding when a game allows you to deviate from the main story and to play exactly as you see fit. Occasionally, though, a game will not just permit this, but actively reward players who just can't resist poking around in odd corners.
The earliest examples of this were found in platform games, such as the Mario series, where making the effort to get to the most inaccessible parts of a level would often be rewarded. Many RPGs also make it worth the player's while to look everywhere and inspect everything - doing this in a Final Fantasy game (or at least in the older ones where you could wander the world map) was often the only way to discover the game's best items, and even additional characters. Even FPS games have got in on the act from time to time - Doom 2 placed a chainsaw directly behind the player at the very start of the game, as a free gift for those who just have to explore every nook and cranny.
Morrowind's more celebrated sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim, also catered to those afflicted by wanderlust, and raised the graphical bar enormously, but neither could match the sheer scale of their predecessor. As I said in part 1, there was a whole lot of Morrowind in which to get lost, and always something else to discover - a mage who falls out of the sky at the very start of the game, a tomb containing a Viking burial ship, even the corpse of Indiana Jones...
|Morrowind also featured more unusual geography than its successors.|
2 (c) - Meaningful Choices
Famous example - Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)
The concept of a player's decisions making a real difference to the plot of the game is something of a Holy Grail in game design - highly prized, much sought after... and possibly mythical. Obviously it's not possible for designers to write a game with hundreds of different plots to reflect every last parallel possibility, but sometimes it's all too obvious that a game is giving you an illusion of choice, and that the story will pan out exactly the same way no matter what you do.
Many games have got around this by offering multiple endings - the main plot is unaffected, but the choices you make affect the way the story finishes. Some games (notably the Silent Hill series) can end in several different ways, but this device has more commonly resulted in 'good' endings for players who have been upstanding citizens, and 'bad' endings for those whose conduct has been less exemplary. It also means that, if you want to know whether the in-game decisions matter or not, you have to play through the entire game at least twice (or go hunting for spoilers on the Web).
Making a game's story develop differently as you play it is a lot harder to accomplish, but it can be done. Fallout 3, for example, offers the player the early choice of either saving or destroying the settlement of Megaton. Although the effect on the overall story isn't enormous, the player's 'base' from then on can be one of two distinctly different locations, substantially altering the game experience.
I choose Mass Effect here simply because the series attempted something I haven't seen in any other gaming franchise. In the first game, you're offered a stark choice of how to handle an alien threat - and the choice you make then affects events in the later games in the series. A gimmick? Perhaps, but still commendable, purely for trying something different.
2 (d) - A sense of 'being there'
Famous example - Deus Ex (PC, 2000)
During the early stages of Deus Ex, whilst prowling the back alleys of New York, you come across a deserted basketball court. There's a ball there too, lying abandoned on the tarmac. You pick it up, naturally - it's clearly there as an invitation. It's at this point you realise that the game's physics engine will allow you to shoot some hoop. I spent at least ten minutes trying to perfect my throw so that it dropped through perfectly, no rim. I'm sure I wasn't the only one.
Did this have anything to do with the game? No. Was there a purpose to it? Of course not. It was just put there as a bit of fun, a light-hearted moment in a game whose subject matter tended towards the dark and weighty, but it's one of my best and strongest memories of the game. It made the game world feel more like a real place. It placed you inside your character's head in a way that pure gameplay cannot. That sort of detail can make the difference between a game that is remembered fondly and one that is remembered as a classic of the genre.
When DE: Human Revolution appeared, 11 years later, it also featured a basketball court. Clearly someone at Eidos pays attention to customer feedback.
2 (e) - To be part of an epic story
Famous example - Final Fantasy VII (Playstation, 1997)
Game designers may not always do coherent plots, but they do like to have it large, and I could have picked any number of titles to illustrate this. What better example, though, than the first JRPG to crack the Western market?
As I've mentioned previously on the blog, my Damascene moment with this series involved FF VI - but I've gone with VII here. To explain why, I offer the intro sequence. It begins with a tight shot of Aeris walking down an alley. As she steps out, the camera pulls back to show first a busy street, then a whole district, and finally the whole city of Midgar. The game's title appears. Then the camera spirals back down into a different part of the city, ending at a station with a train just pulling in. Out of this jump several people, including Cloud, your main character. It's huge, it's cinematic, and it drops you straight into the story. Damn, now I really want to play it again. It works on the PS3, I just need a spare week or two...
(Should the video bug surface again, click here)
Immersion can be accomplished in many ways - sometimes by enormity of scale, and other times by the tiniest of details. The bottom line, though, is that when we play games, one of the things we wish for most is to feel like a part of their world. As a medium, videogames can provide a purer sort of escapism than almost any other form of entertainment. Long may they continue to do so.