As I played through the first five or six hours of Prototype, a new open world action game from Activision about a man who wakes up on a table in a Manhattan morgue with a spotty memory and newfound super-human powers, I couldn't help but wonder where the thrill of three-dimensional free-to-roam game worlds has gone. Once one of the holy grails of gaming, these massive, open environments have been around in their current form for less than a decade and are already becoming trite.
It's worth noting that Prototype is nothing if not competent. The sprawling New York landscape offers breathtaking vistas, and navigating this dense urban terrain is as simple as holding down the right trigger and pointing him in the direction you want him to run (he'll automatically leap over cars, run up the sides of buildings, and bash through barriers).
But everything we do feels old. I've already climbed the Chrysler Building spire in other games ( The Hulk, Spider-Man). I've had my fill of running across rooftops and driving through narrow streets in checkpoint races ( InFAMOUS, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts). And I'm tired of trying to hunt down hundreds of cleverly concealed objects hidden by sadistic designers ( Assassin's Creed is to thank for that).
These activities didn't always feel stale. There was a time when open world games seemed to offer limitless potential. We marvelled at how we could embark on myriad side quests, choose to do good or evil, or just veg out, watching virtual TV, surfing a virtual Internet, or listening to virtual radio stations.
But there hasn't been a major innovation in open world gaming for a long time. They've been refined and improved, but not revolutionized. Have we reached the ceiling of significant progression in this once heralded genre?
If we were to go by titles like Prototype, it would seem as though we have. The only innovation this game brings to the table is more creative ways in which to kill our enemies. We can now choose whether we want to slice someone in half with our claws, impale him with spikes erupting from the ground, or throw a tank at him. Fun stuff, but not exactly game-changing leaps forward in design.
But I don't think Prototype represents the pinnacle of open world gaming. Far from it. There's plenty of room for these games to evolve, and I'm not talking about more minutiae (such as, say, forwarding calls from our real-word handset to our in-game phone-though that would be pretty awesome), or larger, more realistic environments, though grander locales are always welcome.
I'm talking about a change in concept. It seems to me that an open world game ought to be less like an epic novel and more like a collection of choose-your-own-adventure stories. These huge, beautiful worlds are wasted playing host to just a single story. They should be settings for countless tales, each with their own heroes, villains, and victims.
Grand Theft Auto IV is the closest thing yet to this paradigm, thanks to a pair of downloadable content packs (one of which has yet to be released) that feature entirely new casts of characters and narratives. But it could-and should-be done on a much grander scale, with the boxed game containing not just one giant story arc, but rather dozens of smaller ones.
What's more, events within each story could be crafted to affect certain elements of the others. I can imagine, for example, a game with multiple narratives, each of which takes place during the same time frame. Important events from each tale could be recorded and then layered into the game as players move from story to story. You could be driving down a street in one tale and see the character you played in another driving the opposite direction. You could even use a chaotic moment created in one story-perhaps a building collapsing-as a helpful distraction in another, assuming you can get the timing right (which, of course, would be part of the challenge).
There would be issues, of course. How, for example, would character development work if each character is only in the game for one brief story? And how would designers ensure that recorded events that significantly change the game world don't make other stories impossible to complete without hampering our freedom? But these issues could be solved with a little ingenuity. Characters could have their own unique abilities to master, nixing the need to level up. And part of the beauty of this sort of game might be that some stories simply end in failure; our hero becoming just one more victim of the city.
The point is, there are lots of new and exciting ways in which open world games can grow. We just need to figure out how to motivate developers to innovate and keep publishers from growing complacent. That will start with players rejecting games that uphold the status quo, like Prototype, and demanding something more.
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