Last week (http://www.leedsstudent.org/2013/09/29/blogs-playing-your-own-story/), I delivered a spiel about the extent to which games can enable people to play their very own story. The thing about such narratives is that the player is of course, the focal point where anything that matters converges. Often, this would entail some combination of choices made during the playthrough, or being given the means to which one can mould and develop their character. Now, naturally we’re all thinking of ourselves and our personal experiences much of the time but let us lift these restraints, brush aside the idea that the world revolves around our in-game avatar. Changing or even creating the world around us should affect everything in the world, and not just aspects related to us – so let’s examine how, and the extent to which, games have tried to help us achieve this.
Throughout the ‘00s, gamers were teased with the promise of their actions affecting the direction of the world around them. Particularly, Peter Molyneux’s magical, refreshingly-British “Fable” claimed, ‘For every choice, a consequence’. It was intended as such, and it was also the inception of Molyneux’s notoriety as a man who promises more than he delivers. Sure, NPCs (non-playable characters) would react to players positively or negatively depending on their in-game deeds, however there was not all that much to lose, and that was only part of the problem. At the core, players were still able to do as they pleased unhindered by their past, which retained no permanent reflection in the world. Fable’s world was static, and never quite belonged to the gamer. The same end result held true for the numerous others that followed this trend of choice-consequence driven gameplay.
A (somewhat scathing) look back at Fable:
Before Fable, Molyneux was known for creating “Populous”, the first of what soon became referred to as the ‘God-game’ genre. Here, the player essentially acted as deity, raising a people. Surely this would be the most obvious case where one builds their own world. There’s a similarity here, with games like “Theme Park World”, “Civilization” and other strategy games, aside from the perspective as omnipresent creator and commander: Players were bound to achieving objectives. There were ways to ‘win’, and when there were not, the objective was simply to survive, fighting off competition that shared the world. Fundamentally, players’ freedom was compromised. Even in titles such as “SimCity”, where gamers built cities, they’d essentially be building systems for another’s world.
Plenty of games exist where the concept of creating is the focus, or a peripheral, of the experience. “Animal Crossing”, “Viva Pinata” and “Spore” were all highly successful titles where gamers could build communities and even the beings that inhabited them. In the case of the first two games, that feeling of creation was nullified by the rinse-and-repeat nature of activities within them, conveying a sense of curation more than anything else. Spore, like the other God-games, was ultimately objective-driven. Still, developers across the board of all genre-types were aware of the importance of the issue, and how building and editing play-scapes could add quality and life to their games. “TimeSplitters”, a first-person shooter series lauded for its entertaining sense of humour, included a ‘MapMaker’ in its games with which people were able to customise and develop their own levels to play in. As with the likes of “Worms”, this was limited to the game’s own set-pieces and modes.
Some (mis)creations on Spore:
The ‘Forge’ feature in “Halo” took things to the next level; Bigger, more vast, more powerful, more toys to play with, more everything. The key asset to its success was the innovation it inspired regarding gameplay modes. Players were given an entire engine that was easy to pick up and do what they wished with – the first-person shooter could suddenly turn into a racer, or even a sports game as the community-created variant ‘Grifball’ mode was eventually adopted as canon by the game’s developers. (Grifball was created by a member of Rooster Teeth, a collective known for their ‘machinima’ productions using Halo – essentially using a game to create a cinematic production. More on that another time!)
The Rooster Teeth team try out some custom maps and game modes:
Halo’s Forge still hadn’t quite given the player the means to build their own world, and at the core of things, wasn’t really made to. “Minecraft”, on the other hand, was a game built from the ground up with this target in mind. Taking things back to basics, the game took an atomic approach giving gamers the tools to build with absolute control. Ignoring any goal-based ideals, it celebrated creation, and hopefully innovation, at players’ whim. Mission successful? By giving no objectives, no drive other than the ability to create, leaving gamers to make their own missions or simply exist, are players’ initiative laid to waste? People would always build, often constructing well-known or cult-appreciated environments – recently, an intern at Ordnance Survey spent their time modelling Great Britain (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24177844). Sure, there may be some wonderful works of art and physics-defying architecture, but as with the most famous game modification “Garry’s Mod”, could Minecraft be considered a ‘virtual playground’ more so than a ‘game’?
Things built in Minecraft:
It’s interesting (and possibly pointless) to consider the point at which games stop being games. More interesting still, is to contemplate how the role of the game designer has changed. Usually, there are specific level designers who perhaps play an underestimated part in the quality of the game (“The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” was criticised for its lack of variety in the dungeons it all but forced players to traverse for large portions of the game; Incredulously, there was only one person designing the dungeon layouts for dozens of hours’ gameplay!) Regardless, the dynamic may have changed, and designers may have handed the torch to the players instead of guiding them down paths, further abstracting themselves from their own developments. With this in mind, one must speculate how much of the game and the game experience belongs to developers and how much to players – if developers don’t consider and define this with regards to their productions, they may potentially be in for surprise shocks (or occasionally, miraculously underestimate their own success as their work takes a life of its own). Certainly, ‘gamer’ and ‘developer’ are not exclusive terms, and one may be both simultaneously, if the player’s intentions permit. There’s another discussion here too – is innovation best borne from freedom to be creative, or is it inspired by constraints and problem-solving scenarios? I guess it’s hard to say, though there’s time to pick up the controller and find out for yourself.