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Evolution of Approaching Open-World

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I no longer play open world games like I used to…

Well I no longer play games like I used to, but specifically I’ve noticed my changing gaming habits with the open-world games being the through-line. It’s kind of like how I used to really not like sushi, then started to eat sushi more, and now love sushi that looking back I can’t help but think “younger me, you were an idiot, how could you ever not like the spider-roll, your go-too sushi of choice?”

But open-world games, that’s what I look at if I want to trace how my approach to games has changed over the past few decades.  It’s drastic, but only in hindsight. I didn’t even notice it until recently.

Is it because I’m older? Has the gameplay design changed? Or is it because there’s more incentive to not play like I used to? Either way, as I played through the likes of a Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed, Sleeping Dogs and even the latest Grand Theft Auto, I realized I played them differently than how I once played open-world action and adventure games.

I saw that I no longer found joy in being violent for violence’s sake, or seeing how much mayhem I couple enact on an otherwise civilized populace. Now I played them differently. I enjoyed walking more. Running more. Not punching people for no reason or blowing up their cars. I enjoyed acting as an actual person than as the conqueror of worlds.

I still don't obey traffic laws, though. Because "YOLO" or whatever the kids are saying these days.

Above: I’m still not the best at obeying traffic laws, though. Because “YOLO” or whatever the kids are saying these days.

In the earliest days of Grand Theft Auto, and other games cut from the same cloth, the madness and mayhem of gameplay was emphasized. The original games were about arcade-style violence, and they were a hell of a lot of fun. When Grand Theft Auto 3 came, it changed a lot visually, but I still played it as though the entire point was to be as violent as possible, probably because that was still kind of the point. More importantly is that I enjoyed it. It was fun. It was straightforward and not complicated. Things like “story” and “characters” were afterthoughts, usually the thought between choosing a gun or my fists to kill somone just walking down the street.

In otherwords, all the crime and violence and “mature” stuff was the ends as well as the means back then. Not just in the games, but in me as a gamer.

As those games went on with Vice City and San Andreas, the feeling didn’t change much. Nor did it change much when I played games like Mafia or Scarface or even the True Crime games which weren’t all that good to begin with. When I sat to play Shenmue on the Dreamcast a decade or so ago, you can probably guess my reaction: it didn’t play like some of those other games, certainly not like GTA3. What the Hell was it?

Turns out, that little bit of Shenmue and me not “getting it” was a reflection of a lot of things. 1) I needed to grow up to appreciate Shenmue to begin with and 2) Once I grew up, all I wanted to do was play those open-world games like Shenmue. Call it a new appreciation or a new understanding that I didn’t really care about all the violence any more. I changed as a gamer because I changed as a person.

Was it the games telling me what was good and right and putting a kind-of punishment in place, such as Assasin's Creed making any death of an NPC a crime and against the "creed?" Or was it that I was simply didn't want to do that any more?

Above: Was it the games telling me what was good and right and putting a kind-of punishment in place, such as Assasin’s Creed making any death of an NPC a crime and against the “creed?” Or was it that I was simply didn’t want to do that any more?

The past few years, as I started to get a little more in to open world games this generation of Playstation 3s and 360s, I realized I started to approach them in a completely different manner than I used to. It wasn’t because of the game design, those were more refined but essentially the same mechanics. Instead, I found myself not really wanting to do anything violent. Well, unless it was necessary as the story dictates. But in terms of having joy in deciding what weapon to kill people with or stealing cars or running over pedestrians…that sense of “giddiness” was gone.

I started to appreciate this different approach mostly with Red Dead Redemption, which I can look back and see as the first kind of “alternate” way I started to approach an open-world game like that. I would say it’s because I’m playing a pseudo-lawman and I don’t want to do bad things, but that’s not it. I think I started to take cues from role playing games: I wanted to become lost in the world and invested in the character now. I wanted to pay attention and be a good person, because that’s what I needed to do to immerse myself. I wasn’t playing as a thug avatar with dozens of weapons at his disposal, looking to kill anyone and everyone to make a “name” for myself and get more money to buy more stuff.

No, I was John Marsden, a family man looking for redemption. Why on earth would I find any joy in killing more people than I had to? John, or me, was already haunted by past deeds. No need to kill innocents. John left that behind. It was the first time I learned an element of gameplay that I had yet to really see in an open world game, or even try, since Shenmue: a little thing called “restraint.”

Not restraint by design, mind you, but restraint on part of me. The option to kill is still there, but I just don’t want to anymore. Hell, I event felt bad, if not infuriated, when I accidently killed someone in the game. Probably because I know John would, or should, feel bad too.

I want to be immersed in the world and play the role, therefore I think and act like the character and feel horrible when I do something outside of that character's personality and traits.

Above: I want to be immersed in the world and play the role, therefore I think and act like the character and feel horrible when I do something outside of that character’s personality and traits.

This really came to pass when I played the Saints Row games. Sure, those are fun, but I can’t say I could sit and enjoy them. Not like I used to. If they had come out a decade ago, and I was “that” guy, then yeah, I’d love them. But I’m not that guy anymore. I’m John Marsden.

I’m the player who loves open world games, but more specifically loves to play the “role” of the characters. I’m the actor, not just the person pressing the buttons, and what I want to do in the game is what I feel that person would do in real life. As a result of this, I need a character with some heft or a personality or a reason for me to want to play as them. I want to play as them and do things that they would do. In Red Dead Redemption, John wouldn’t go around killing random people. He has a purpose to his violence.

And that’s when it hit me as I found myself bored in one of the Saint’s Row games: I didn’t need missions, no matter how fun they can be, but I needed a purpose.  A purpose to explain why and a purpose to progress the character, me in the role, further. Sure, I can still find fun in senselessness and “freedom,” such as those Saint’s Row games or Just Cause 2, but that wasn’t my priority anymore. More specifically, games where violence and action is the central crutch it stands on, usually those involving criminals and criminal activity, are where I noticed the most drastic changes.

Case #1: Grand Theft Auto IV. Why I suddenly felt bad for killing a random pedestrian or running people over I can’t answer. I know you shouldn’t, but I know that Nico wouldn’t be the kind of person to do it. His acts of violence were always those that were directly against him, not random people.

Case #2: There was no way I wasn’t going to be the good guy in Infamous. Nu-uh. No way. Am I missing something by doing that? Probably, but I didn’t care, I wanted to be the good guy.

Case #3: Sleeping Dogs, still probably my favorite open-world game. When Wei Shen, your playable character, was kept up at night by his demons and that sense of regret when doing violent things, haunted and waking in cold sweats, I really, really, really started to second-guess my in-game actions. I started to feel bad for him, and therefore did my best to limit everything from collateral vehicle damage to pushing people over. I remember I pushed over some woman and she dropped her bag. I felt really bad and I picked it up to give it back to her.

What the Hell was happening?

Case #4: Grand Theft Auto V. I hate myself every time I’m Trevor. As interesting or entertaining as he is sometimes, and I can still throw out the “I’m playing the role, deal with” line, and even as humorous as it can be at times, I have to constantly remind myself that I’m playing the role. Sure, I don’t like it, but then I remember ten years ago I probably would have loved it.

And the same thing here: when people drop something, even when I’m playing as Trevor who I know would never do it but I play it off as “he has a heart of gold” or something, I feel the moral obligation to give it back to them. I know it doesn’t matter in the game, or doesn’t improve a stat, but it’s…it’s just something I gotta do. Another example is when I hit another car and the person dies and is slumped over the steering wheel. Well I just feel like shit when that happens, as Trevor or not. Not because of the violence, even, but more that the immersion is broken because I’m taken out of that world. The “experience” was no longer about the violence, it was about retaining a sense of reality and losing myself in the game.

I started to wonder if it was me just "growing up," and not finding fun in random acts of violence, or if the games simply started give me more incentive to not want to do those things. Perhaps I simply don't want to break the immersion.

Above: I started to wonder if it was me just “growing up,” and not finding fun in random acts of violence, or if the games simply started give me more incentive to not want to do those things. Perhaps I simply don’t want to break the immersion.

The “experience” of playing a game trumps any sense of enjoyment I have by simply “doing things.” They’re mutually exclusive. The “experience” of playing Grand Theft Auto and staying in-line with character traits and plot points is more important to me than buying all the guns and shooting everything in site. At one time, all these games were, were sandboxes to play around in. Now we want to get lost in it, well I do anyway, and stay completely in line in the game’s world and creation of its own reality to make sure that happens.

Whatever it might be, it seems I now have a conscious of sorts. I’m not 20 with my life ahead of me, angry at whatever I can be angry at and find joy in taking out my frustration on non playable characters in a violent video game.  Now I think “those characters might have had families to go home to.” Now I second guess my choices in a blend of not wanting to do bad things but not wanting to break “character.” And yes, Trevor in GTAV certainly is a test.

But it’s more than just playing villain or hero. I’m fine with either. It’s how I’ve come to approach open-world games as a whole. I no longer put the fact it’s a “sandbox and I can do anything” ahead of it. Now I want a story, a world that I feel like I belong in rather than just use to my amusement, characters I can be compelled or entertained with or just an experience beyond the means of destruction and violence also being the end.  Perhaps that was the growing pains of open-world games in the first place, and I grew up right with them.


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