Thursday, November 20, 2008

Free As In Dresses?

I have played very few 360 games lately, for want of time, money and choices, but in the last month have played three in quick succession. I may have mentioned before that I prefer games that allow me a certain amount of freedom - Oblivion over Lost Odyssey, Mass Effect over Lost Planet - but have never truly examined why.

The three I've engaged with of late are Saints Row 2, Fable 2 and Fallout 3. Yes, yes, all sequels but I've only played one of the originals with any enthusiasm (Fable 1), finding the original Saints Row rather underdone and having only flirted briefly with Fallout in the eighties, and in any case sequels in the games industry are not the same prospect as they might be in cinema or books. A film sequel is essentially the next chapter, carrying forward the story and characters, but with games it can mean anything from a narrative continuation (Halo 3) to a next-gen remake (GTA4) to a money-printing annual update (FIFA/Madden/half of EA's output). You don't have to like an earlier version to get the new one: similarly, getting an early instalment doesn't make a later one a necessary purchase. They are, more rightly than in movies, called franchises rather than series and with good reason.

Anyway, three Freedom Games(TM) at once in a month is a less rare confluence than it used to be, perhaps because freedom is considered a major selling point nowadays and is often the mark of a triple-A title, but three good ones at once rather more so. Perhaps this is why I've never really examined the notion of freedom in games more closely before, but the three above, played more-or-less concurrently, provided an interesting comparison.

(Interesting to people who enjoy videogames, that is. If you do not, or believe that Gears Of War is the very zenith of the art form, you may want to skip a few paragraphs.)

Fable (for the sake of brevity I am omitting numbers now) is probably the one that leans most heavily on the freedom thing, offering not only an open world (you can run around pretty much everywhere now, not like the strictly-proscribed areas of the Xbox original) but also that lens-flare of the Noughties, moral choices. Morality has been done before, with varying degrees of success (KOTOR boasted a simplistic yet broadly successful system, but had the advantage of boiling it down to your Jedi-Sith alignment rather than any measure of personal goodness, whereas Mass Effect offered little more than dialogue choices that made almost no real difference in the absence of the Lucas Imperative) but all of those moral-choice adventures shared a common flaw: the effects of your choices were only significant or even noticeable if you went to one extreme or the other. Wombling around in the slightly-idealistic-slightly-selfish middle ground that most of us inhabit in real life provided neither punishment nor reward, thus castrating the whole experience somewhat: these 'free choices' in fact forced you to play either as a devil or a paragon to have any real impact.

Now, depending on what kind of role-player you are this might not bother you. The point of role-playing is, after all, to play a role - behaving differently to how you yourself might in a given situation is par for the D&D course. But this is precisely what stops games from being a truly immersive experience. I want to submerge myself in the game world, to be free to be as near to or far from my true self as I wish: that for me is the whole point. I don't want to play somebody else's role. I want to play my own role, define my own role.

Fable goes some way to addressing this, partly by giving you more than one defining scale - you can be Good yet Corrupt, Pure yet Evil - and partly by making the choices a little more granular. You can do a single terrible thing and bards will harp on about it for ages, while the populace still accept that you're a broadly nice guy; you can make mistakes of judgement that do not make you reach for the reload button but instead allow you to accept them and move on; you can do a bad thing without everyone knowing about it. You can, in fact, maintain a pretence of respectability in one town while being the very scourge of another. It could still be made more sophisticated, I think, but probably not without an Xbox 720.

Fallout addresses this murky-middle-ground thing in a somewhat more direct manner: instead of dividing the world into degrees of Bad and Good you can also be Neutral. In fact, some characters will only come to your aid if you are Neutral in morality: it's a simple measure but it rebalances the moral choices far more sensibly, and makes playing the middle ground a viable option. In comparison, Saints Row is entirely lacking in moral scale, but then this suits the narrative: your role is already established, that of a murdering criminal sonofabitch, so to impose a morality scale would be bizarre.

Ah yes, Saints Row. The poor man's GTA... It's true that Saints Row has less graphical fidelity, less sophistication, less character interaction, fewer of the sly in-jokes and Easter Eggs for which Rockstar are renowned. But... it's more fun. It really is. Nothing is locked - no stupid bridge barriers, no forcing you to play the story missions just to unlock clothing options - and better than that, you can design your character.

I love character design. I could happily spend hours just tweaking the appearance of my avatar, whether trying to imitate as closely as possible my own potato-like fizzog or creating a whole new person from scratch, creating (as writers are wont to do) whole backstories for them. Kirina Indring, a giant blonde Nord woman with a massive electric Dwemer sword and a very expensive 100% Chameleon outfit that would be indecent if it didn't make her completely invisible, was my favoured avatar in Oblivion and will appear in a novel one day (minus the trappings of Cyrodiil, of course), she means that much to me. The Saints Row designer is brilliant, ludicrously detailed, lacking only in wardrobe options - the basics are there, and colours can be changed to make some unique outfits, but there should be more variety. Mind you, I work for a clothing retailer and constant exposure to buyers has probably tainted my outlook in this regard.

I usually play as myself when I get the chance, both morally and physically, but occasionally a game comes along that gives me the chance to wing it as a different person. In Saints Row I was a chubby bottle-blonde trailer trash biker chick called Barbara, who never wore a bra and whose arse wobbled like Santa's belly when she ran (ha!) - she made me realise that you rarely see big women in videogames, yet the overweight, anorexic and weird-looking are prevalent throughout Stilwater, since the NPCs are generated via the same character designer. GTA4 never had such variation. Fallout has some limited character design but the results always look broadly the same; the New Xbox Experience I downloaded tonight gave me a vague avatar that looks like me in a Gap sort of way; but Fable gives no quarter, allowing you to play as male or female and that's it. Your actions change your appearance, of course, and you can get tattoos and clothing, but since the latter confer variable bonuses it tends to be these you choose rather than a specific look.

GTA4 is an astonishing achievement. I cannot stress enough how important a piece of art it is. But the very freedom that the GTA franchise is known for is actually better served by other games these days. In GTA4 you are Niko Bellic, a specific character with specific motives: you have really only one story to play through (even the side missions are far fewer than they used to be, a fact that Saints Row actively takes the piss out of). You can't be who you want to be, and you can't have the kind of stupid, brainless, hilarious fun that Saints Row doles out in spades.

So, freedom then. Saints Row gives freedom of physical appearance, but still funnels you through the same narrative. Fable gives freedom of choice, but no real control over how you look. Fallout gives you a little of both but is still a game with a specific narrative outlook - rightly too, or it would lose its effect. Freedom comes in many flavours.

How to reconcile this? Hmm. In my novel Living Things I envisaged a Grand Theft Auto Persistent, an online world where you are what you wish to be and do whatever you like. I'd like to see that. Frustratingly, it's completely possible, even with the technology we already have: GTAP could run on Xbox Live quite happily with the GTA4 engine and the character design from Saints Row. But such a thing might just kill ever other game stone dead, an act only EA would stoop to, and they've totally failed to buy Take Two.

Perhaps GTAP is the logical conclusion to gaming, or at least the MMO. The casual gamers would love it, being dumped in an online world where they don't need to learn the rules and history like they do with WOW. In the meantime, I'll just have to get my freedom piecemeal, one game at a time.

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