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Stop Teasing Me With Fake Freedom

All this, my son...

And in the game! Ahaha! Ah. My little joke about Determinism there. What this is really about is how I feel after playing Rage, which is a feeling not uncommon to gaming throughout the ages: the feeling that the options a game presents are actually an illusion. Read on for ramblings...

Having finished Rage, and having rather enjoyed it for the most part (just not most of the final part), I found myself thinking a bit about where I think it went wrong. It wasn't in the technology. It wasn't in the extraordinary design decisions where you have to pour entire clips of ammo into enemies to kill them (although that was ridiculous). It wasn't even in the fact that despite amazing giant mutants appearing at the start of the game, the end involves little more than pushing some buttons and waiting in a shiny platform. No, the problem with Rage was the suggestions it made about what kind of game it wanted to be. It is, I think, another example of game designers failing to understand what giving a bit of freedom to a player actually means.

I'm not the only person who thinks such things about Rage. Take Brandon Sheffield's follow up to his "hostile" Rage interview and resulting hoo-ha:

At the beginning of the game, you wake up in an "Ark," and stumble outside. You're almost killed by mutants, but are saved by someone in a nearby car.

The next thing you're meant to do is get in the car with him. But as game players, we tend to like to test the limits of systems. So I looked around to see what else I could do. There was another path leading the other direction, so I figured I'd see what was up there.

"Oh!" I heard behind me. It was Andy Chang. "What's wrong?" I asked. "Nothing,” he chuckled. “You'll see.” I walked up the path, and was killed instantly by a bullet from an invisible enemy. I got game over, and had to start anew, calibrating my controller all over again. This time I got in the car.

This sort of forced channelling away from apparent openness happens a bunch of times in Rage, and each time it seems forced and clunky. I can see exactly why that decision had been made, because it has appeared time and again in other games, but it was just the wrong way to do it. Offering players a glimpse of freedom and then arbitrarily closing the door is a kind of betrayal.

I've covered similar ground to this before, largely when talking about Far Cry 2 and GTA 4. There I argued that Far Cry 2 messed up because it didn't understand what being an open-world game suggested to players. People were baffled by the road-blocks, pissed off by respawns, agitated by the unrelenting hostility of the world, and annoyed that there was no neutrality in NPCs outside the city. Worse, there was little in the way of persistence in the world to mark you actions. All these are RPGy traits, I know, but when other elements of RPGs have begun to show up in shooters, why not some of that freedom to explore, and persistence and change, too?

Rage's real problem was in creating the idea of a world where back and forth and travelling about seemed like not just a possibility, but an imperative. Great big areas between encampments both hostile and friendly. An inventory where things could be collected to make other things, and locations where gathered items could be sold. All of this, combined with the capacity to travel about freely in the wastelands, and the stop 'n' shop nature of the hub towns, suggested that this was going to be a game with some freedom. A game where I could spend a bit of time pootling about doing my own thing, exploring and living in the post-apocalypse.

Of course I totally understand that this is a shooter, with long on-rails shooty bits. That's fine. Great, even. I love shooting dudes in the face. I didn't mind that each and every bandit camp was a linear loop that, ultimately, dumped you back near the entrance. I liked the combat, and I loved being sent off to do missions of megadeath in the wilderness. But I did mind that the bandits themselves existed solely within the railroaded plot that plunged through the middle of the game, always suggesting that you might stop a while and do you own thing, while never actually letting that happen. Sure, I could roam about in the wilderness, but there was no reason, ever, to go to anywhere that I hadn't been told to go. No reason that I could come up with for myself, at least.

Rage's sidequests, rather than being pleasant diversions, were intimations of a freedom from control that simply didn't exist. The vehicular sections, rather than being exploratory, were simply about heading from A to B, with no mind for tinkering about the wastes. Sure, there were a few secrets, but it wasn't enough.

I think what all this feeds back to is exactly the same kinds of frustrations that were expressed in recent Skyrim threads, over and over. These frustrations were generally along the lines of "yes, but it's not actually going to be a living world, because nothing is real in these sorts of games", or "it's not really an RPG of any substance, because you actions aren't felt in the world." No real consequences, no real freedom. Just some wandering about and the script. I think Bethesda's RPGs hold a good deal more freedom than a lot of people will allow, but I also understand what they are agitating at.

What I think is happening here is twofold. Firstly it's about how we perceive space and action in games. The strength of linear games is based almost entirely on inertia. As long as you keep that forward momentum, and always perceive the way you are heading as the "right" way, then you never notice (or care) that you are actually in a corridor, or that your position in the world is simply triggering the things that happen. However, when things open up a bit, and we could go over there *or* over there, we will always choose to explore both directions. If one of those directions is always a dead end, and the space a "fake" one, then the trick that linear games had on their side vanishes. And we do not like being fooled, or denied.

The second thing that makes me and others dissatisfied with games like Rage (and other open but unfree worlds) is that we understand that games can actually be simulations. Games could, if game designers so chose, do more than create the illusion of our presence in a world, they could actually create systems in which our actions caused ripples, rather than triggering responses. We know complicated NPC responses are possible because we've seen games like Ultima and the Gothic games on one hand, and we know entities in the world can get on with their own shit because we've seen games like Arma 2 and Stalker on the other. We're aware that the systems can be more complex than a series of pop-up targets draped across a linear story. Because we can see this, games that don't even attempt to offer the "life" of simulation, never quite meet with our understanding of their potential.

This is a gigantic problem for game design, because actually creating games around simulations is difficult, demanding on hardware (and wetware), and ultimately liable to shamble away from the "cinematic" experiences that have been proven to sell. Because simulation, genuine simulation, is hard, it is rare. Because the content required to portray actions performed by entities in a world is expensive, it is almost impossible in games with the kind of fidelity that studios like iD end up making.

Rage's mistake, then, was to suggest any semblance of freedom at all, because when it did that we immediately connected it with the games that have tried to offer freedom. And against them it is found lacking.

I'm sort of reminded of Eskil Steenberg's open letter to John Carmack, where he said that the game was held hostage by artists. I don't share quite the same diagnosis as Steenberg, but I do have similar feelings about what studios need to be doing if they want to secure both their future and the future of gaming. What iD did with Rage is not it.

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Jim Rossignol