There is a certain type of game that I gravitate towards and that always seems to end up being the ones I keep coming back to, spending far and away the most time with. These games delight me with tiny pockets of ‘emergent narrative’ – parts of the game that for whatever reason ‘just happen’ as a result of the fact that the world around me is alive with people and things. The stories that most stand out in my memory are the ones that pop up without explicit authorial intent, the ones that just happen to coalesce into some strange and surprising mini story.
When I play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion my regular habit is to walk everywhere to get around. I like to avoid the use of ‘quick travel’ because it doesn’t make logical sense to me that I should be able to instantly teleport around the world. The ‘quick travel’ method that is present in both Oblivion and Fallout 3 pulls me out of the game because literally nothing happens to the player while travelling. I want things to happen to me; after all, it’s why I’m playing a game.
So I use foot power like the lowly commoner I am and install a mod that introduces ‘stage coaches’ that fits with the fiction of the game as well as providing an alternative method of quick travelling between major cities. When I walk, I actually quite enjoy the experience because I find the countryside calming, idyllic – enjoyable for its own sake. Interestingly, the games I’ve most recently spent the most time with all involve traversing the world – I mentioned on the special holiday edition of the Brainy Gamer podcast last year that a lot of the joy I get from playing Far Cry 2 is in learning to skilfully snake my way through a hostile environment. Similarly, the way I like to play Oblivion is just as grounded in inhabiting the world.
This week I was playing Oblivion, and as I walked my Orc north and then west from the Imperial City sewer exit all the way to Chorrol (practically via Bruma) I was quite deliberately taking the scenic route. The direct route would have cut the trip time in half, but I especially like the view from the Orange Road, you get some beautiful views of the Imperial Spire through gaps in the trees and much of the forest is made up of what looks like Silver Birch trees, my favourite (an aside: We had a beautiful silver birch outside our front door but it sadly died from a fungus a year or two ago and blew down in the wind. It was one of my favourite trees.)
On this occasion, I got about half way and spied an imp that looked like good target practice for my marksman skill. I started stalking him, readying my bow and arrow. Unaware of my presence, my first attack gained the benefit of extra damage. Success, a hit! But he is not going to be defeated by a single arrow as I’m still a lowly level 1 Orc, and so the creature flees. This happens because I have a mod installed that makes all sorts of back-end faction changes and the end result is that this Imp now behaves somewhat like a normal wounded animal. I finish him off and continue my journey west and shortly come across an intriguing scene. The bodies of multiple bandits are strewn across the road and the survivors of a pack of wolves haunt the road ahead. They were clearly weakened from their fight with the bandits with one of their number already dead, so I had no trouble finishing them off from a distance. But I was so shocked when I came across such a strange scene that for a moment I almost forgot I was playing a game.
I realised quickly that I was more surprised by the fact that this interaction was entirely natural and actually made complete sense. I could tell at a glance that the bandits, who had been hiding off to the side of the road waiting to pick off unwary travellers, had fallen prey themselves to a pack of hungry wolves. I didn’t see it happen, but the knowledge that this was off happening somewhere else in the world as I wandered around was thrilling. After all, why should my player character be the center of attention in the world? My character is just a nobody at this point, so why should everything in the game be planned and scripted in advance just for me? The real world doesn’t work in that way, so why should a videogame?
I guess this is the difference between games as entertainment – the highly scripted Hollywood film approach to games – and games as experiences. The difference has been described by many, but perhaps most effectively by Steve Gaynor in his post ‘Being There’. The games I love are not the ones that try to usher me along and give me a tightly controlled narrative experience, even though I still enjoy those occasionally. Instead, the games I love are about ‘Being There’.
But what makes one game better at ‘being there’ than another? And for that matter, what makes the ‘Being There’ itself enjoyable? For Oblivion I find that it’s the little details that build the world and make me love the game – stumbling upon unscripted events that could easily be happening without your presence tickle all the right places for me. Conversely I think a large part of why I struggled to engage with Fallout 3 (after all it’s just Oblivion with guns, right?) is that it seemed to lose much of these unexpected events, instead leaning heavily on discovering ‘places of interest’ that sit dormant waiting for you to find them. To me, Fallout 3 distinctly lacks the feeling that the world is ‘lived in’ by anyone at all, heightened by the fact that there are so few people ever doing anything in the world outside of major quest hubs.
I’ve also been playing STALKER this week, and while it’s been lauded as a ‘living world’ game similar to Oblivion, I haven’t actually found it as engaging. I think, in this case, it comes down to the geographic design of the world. Areas in STALKER feel like wide corridors connected only by entry and exit points. It would be much more attractive to me if it did away with it’s ‘levels’ and opened up The Zone a bit more. I also wonder if the enjoyment of ‘Being There’ in Oblivion and Far Cry 2 is not present in STALKER because of its distinctly dark and brooding aesthetic. While there are undoubtedly moments of beauty, they seem much fewer and further between.
Lastly, in a strange and maybe unnatural comparison, I think I’m looking forward to (eventually) playing the new Empire: Total War game for somewhat similar reasons. Judging by this after action report by Tim Stone over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun the battles look like they encourage the feeling of ‘Being There’ with their rich level of detail and potential for player-created narratives. I look forward to seeing whether that impression is accurate.
In the meantime, does anyone else have any suggestions for games that encourage that feeling of ‘Being There’ - of watching the world flow around you? Hit up the comments and let me know and I’d also be interested to hear what particular aspects of those games make you feel like you’re 'really there'.