The streets of gaming history are littered with buzzwords.
The 8-bit days, at least on the Speccy that I played, were all about simulators. No, not like those new fangled sports games you play now or the ultra realistic flight sims you might have seen your dad playing on his pc. I mean proper hardcore simulators. Grand Prix Simulator! BMX Simulator! Fruit Machine Simulator! Advanced Lawn Mower Simulator! If you could think of it, you could simulate it. And even if you couldn’t, someone else could and they had simulated it.
The 16-bits took this theme and ran with it, the added graphical grunt giving them a whole new playground to kick about in. Simulators were no longer in vogue, now it was all about ‘arcade quality’ graphics, ‘realism’ and on my beloved humble Amiga, that all important ‘console-esque’ platformer.
And as much as gaming evolves it loves to hang onto its past. Whilst as the PS1 (and subsequently PS2) would sweep all before it, the CD age of gaming brought with it new buzzwords. Games that offered a ‘movie-like experience’ or ‘brought the arcade home.’ Titles that featured ‘immersive 3D worlds’ or ‘play like the real thing.’
And add to that list ‘open world.’ With our games consoles becoming ever more powerful, we begin to demand ever more from games developers and one of the offshoots of this has been the move to open world gaming. It is in many ways a natural development. With the shackles of technology becoming ever looser, developers are free to see their dreams become realised in digital form. Whereas in the 16-bit days, acting out the escapades of, say, a pirate would involve a bit of puzzle solving, sword fighting and grog drinking, now you can immerse yourself in the life. Sail the seven seas, picking your own crew, choosing your own adventures, managing your ship’s inventory and scrubbing your own deck. In the 8 and 16 bit days, tomb raiding or exploring meant single screen patience-athons as you meticulously learned the layout of each cretinously designed puzzle before being killed by that one stupid dart that you couldn’t possibly hope to see come out of that hidden-from-view rock (yes, I still hate Rick Dangerous). But not anymore! Now Lara can craft her own weapons, Aloy must forage her environment to survive whilst any trip into the wasteland from one of Fallout’s shelters is an invitation to a myriad possibilities.
It’s a wonderful evolution of the medium a recognition of its development and an expression of its maturity. And yet…I hate it.
Reading through the latest game previews, my heart sinks with each new title. ‘Choose your own path!’ cry the developers. ‘We’re giving the players choice!’ they exclaim. Wonderful. But count me out.
Look, I’ve got 3 kids, a wife, a mortgage and a full time job. They only choice I get to make is whether I want to sit through another episode of Blaze and the Monster Machines or My Little Pony (Blaze. Every time. Hey, Nolan North, right?). I don’t have time for choice. I don’t have to expect half way through the crappy horror film I’m watching to have to decide whether the moron goes upstairs to investigate the creepy sound or runs the hell out of the front door and never looks back. I don’t watch Game of Thrones and expect to choose whether my favourite character gets his head lopped off or sleeps with his sister. I don’t tune in to 24 and expect to decide if Jack should hunt down another mole or actually find a toilet for once in the day.
I don’t read a book and expect to choose whether to face the demon or…hang on, scratch that. Back in the day I used to love the Fighting Fantasy books and they were all about choice. Clearly then something has happened in my own gaming journey to make me averse to the open world. Undoubtedly some of this is simply time. I know Uncharted will take me 10-15 hours to complete. There is a beginning, a middle and a very definite end, after which I can either replay or walk away. I don’t have to think, I simply have to do. An open world, choose your own adventure type game on the other hand may offer me 40+ hours of gaming and whilst it is an undeniably value for money proposition, I simply don’t have the time to make such a commitment.
Partly though it’s also an anxiety. Presented with a choice, I fear I shall make the wrong one. I have cited the example before but I became frozen on the character selection screen of World of Warcraft, unable to name my avatar, let alone select a class. I spent hours with Lara in the first Tomb Raider, too afraid to use the shotgun in case I wasted the bullets before the ‘right’ moment came, relying instead on only the pistols. It perhaps explains my difficulties with Football Manager where choice is abundant. Which team to choose, which formation to play, which signing to make – they are all a symptom of the same anxiety. The freedom of choice is no freedom at all.
So you can keep your open worlds, your choice and your freedom. Give me character and story. Give me narrative and linearity. Tell me what to do and let me go do it.