Adventures and Adventuring
Posted on 11th Jun 2011 at 10:06 by David Hing with 35 comments
I loved Freelancer; Microsoft's space trading open world game. It resembled an extremely stripped down Eve Online, but with gameplay replacing the spreadsheets. I'm aware that it was a
condensed version of games that did the same thing better and with more depth many years before, but I found it to be a deep and beautifully realised sandbox. In fact, I'm convinced that most players only ever scratched its surface.
I wouldn't be able to tell you the plot of the game, or name any of the systems, although I could tell you that they had flavours of America, England, Germany and Japan. I couldn't name any of the characters without a short trip to Google either. The game didn't leave that sort of impression on me. What I do very strongly remember, though, was having an adventure.
I've played a lot of games that bill themselves as adventure games. Some of them are point and click adventure games, some of them are 3D action adventure games and almost every triple A release involves an adventure of some description. However, I can only think of one time where I have actually had an adventure for myself.
An adventure is only ever an adventure in retrospect. At the time, it's just an ordeal that the adventurers would rather not be tolerating. It was an adventure climbing Mount Snowdon in the cold and the rain in my jeans, but at the time I just couldn't believe I was so stupid to think it was just a hill. It was an adventure getting a chest of drawers home sticking out of the back of my Ford Ka last week, but at the time it was a living nightmare going up hills, as I was worried that it would slide into the car behind that I couldn't see.
An adventure game is a comfortable experience, no matter how well it immerses you in its world. You're still playing an interactive story, and it's only once you start getting towards the open world games that the capacity to have an adventure starts to kick in. However, even then there's a danger that it will just feel like a great big toy box, rather than sparking any significant connection with the player.
For example, for all the sandbox fun to be had in GTA, I couldn't care less when one of the thugs got shot, arrested or squashed by his own stolen ambulance. In those cases, what I was doing felt like an exercise in karma, as opposed to anything that could provide sufficient tension to facilitate adventure.
With Freelancer, I had become invested in the game, and my main memory of it is a single encounter of being chased. Most of my ship had been destroyed, and I was limping from wormhole to wormhole, desperately trying to get back to civilisation so that I could hide and repair my craft after my ill- advised drift from the beaten track.
There probably wasn't even that much of a consequence if I failed, got killed or ditched my cargo, but still I felt as if failure would result in me being hunted down in the future by bounty hunters, and that I would maybe end up frozen in Carbonite and propped up in Jabba's palace.
I've never seen or experienced this sort of gameplay before or since. I've felt engaged by games, and I've even been threatened with high-stakes failure, but never has it felt quite the same as this single encounter in which I was trying to get away from space pirates.
That said, I nearly felt something similar quite recently while I was playing Mount and Blade: Warband. My medium sized army was chasing down a small band of looters while being chased by a much larger army from an enemy faction. I was the latter that provided the fear of failure. There was a feeling that this was of my own doing, and I felt outside of my comfort zone.
However, this thrill subsided shortly after the second day of chasing, when it became clear that all three armies were running at exactly the same speed and not gaining or pulling away from each other. After that, the only excitement was the realisation that sooner or later my army was going to run out of food and become highly irritable.
There was also a brief foray into genuine adventure during my time with Morrowind, as you can easily get lost in the game's huge world. After missing a crucial direction, I once ended up on the other side of the game world several hours later, being chased by a crocodile-like demon walking on two legs. Again, however, this was less of an adventure and more of an exercise in making me feel like an idiot.
I'm fed up with pre-baked sequences and scripted events in my first person shooters. I get tired of plodding through what amounts to an overly long film with hand-eye-co-ordination exercises to progress the plot. Although I love playing through some of these titles, and it would be difficult to argue that Half-Life 2, the absolute king of disguised linear gameplay, was anything other than a masterpiece, but I want to have adventures as opposed to sitting through those of someone else.
I can't help feeling that the medium would be greatly helped if more games were just a little bit more of an ordeal to play. That's not to say that they need to be frustrating, overly difficult or painful to
play, just that they should provide a bit more than 'press X not to die' and raise the stakes for failure a little higher.
Basically, I want to play more games that facilitate the experience of an adventure, as opposed to adventure games. If you know of any games ripe for adventure-mining, let us know in the forums.