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Mechanically-Grounded Storytelling: Why ‘The Last of Us’ Made Games Better

 In the eyes of Empire, Naughty Dog’s swan song for the PlayStation 3 represents ‘gaming’s Citizen Kane moment.’ For Games Radar, it more accurately embodies ‘the culmination of what games have been attempting to achieve’ since the polygonal cinematic gameplay of Metal Gear Solid inflamed imaginations almost twenty years ago. Having completed The Last of Us well over a dozen times, Naughty Dog’s inaugural entry in its newest franchise stands in my mind as one of the finest gaming achievements in recent memory. Its synthesis of strategic gameplay mechanics and nuanced in-game storytelling within wide, varied and detailed environments – a trifecta which naturally reinforces the game’s slow-burning tonal umbrella of oppression and violence – has resulted in an adventure which, even now, four years after its release, has yet to be matched in terms of quality and impact on the industry. Or so it is said.

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As time goes on, The Last of Us continues to be mythologised by fans and critics alike for raising our expectations regarding what can be achieved through world building, storytelling and characterisation in the interactive medium. The rapturous reaction to the three-minute PSX reveal of The Last of Us: Part II, with nary a hint of unique locations or new gameplay features, is a testament to this. Yet it is because the original game is so good – and so valued for displaying artistic qualities which somewhat mirror novels and movies – that its significance must be thoroughly critiqued and studied.

Quite simply, what many remember to have made the game special (that is, its story and characters) is not what should go down in history as having pioneered a bold new direction for this medium to explore as it matures. While Naughty Dog’s excellent, nuanced post-apocalyptic narrative has undoubtedly inspired developers to experiment with how game narratives are created, the game’s story should be analysed entirely within the context of game design. The Last of Us is unique not because it brought a novelistic quality to its storytelling, but because its mechanics allowed players to interact with its more cinematic qualities on a moment-to-moment basis.

I believe there is a danger that the presumed lessons of The Last of Us’ character-driven story, following years of accolades and awards, could do more harm than good – especially for developers looking to emulate the game’s successes when producing their own ‘grounded’ narratives and interactive ‘experiences’. Even Naughty Dog, who pride themselves on subtly marrying story with gameplay into an interwoven experience, is displaying a tendency to prioritise characterisation when evolving their games. It appears that they are choosing to polish their now-standard action adventures by concentrating on more human set pieces which only give context to the moment-to-moment gameplay. My fear with this approach is that it will become increasingly shallow and lifeless as the industry broadens its toolkit to produce interactive stories without losing sight of what it means to be a game. Given that certain reviewers celebrated the story in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End yet criticised its poor pacing, not seeing the two as interlinked, it is likely such a trend will continue well into the next generation of games. Although there is plenty of room for every type of game, and Naughty Dog have earned the right to do as they please, this new character-concerned direction caters to what was broadly championed by fans and critics following The Last of Us without fully recognising why the combined impact of tone, gameplay, characters and exploration gave Joel and Ellie’s post-pandemic narrative life.

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Ultimately, this essay will argue that Naughty Dog’s survival-action epic made games better by demonstrating how developers of any genre can inject a sophisticated narrative into every aspect of gameplay, rather than having game mechanics be bolted on to emotional character moments and story beats for the sole purpose of drama. I fear the latter may become commonplace as games are unveiled in the coming years which have been in development since The Last of Us attained its meteoric critical acclaim – but have failed to understand why the game’s small set pieces were so successful in their execution.

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 The most notable reason why The Last of Us made games better is that, in approaching the fascinating and daunting theoretical challenge of game design, it successfully balanced violent gameplay with heart-wrenching drama, whilst even throwing in sporadic dashes of comedy when appropriate. By setting the game at the end of the world, where random (and rare) human interaction means the difference between life and death, Naughty Dog successfully created a universe where standard action-adventure mechanics were ingrained in the very culture of the game world that players were tasked to explore and interact with. If the player behaved violently, the game would not force the player to restart. Such action was a natural product of the world players were exploring. By accepting violence as the primary means of interactivity – especially in the exorbitant triple-A space – and embracing it as the game’s central motif, The Last of Us produced a singular, coherent and unrivalled experience.

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The same can be said of the captivating cordyceps premise. Rather than the fungal crisis being a cerebral affliction merely spoken of by in-game characters, players evade and assault the conditions which wrought civilised society’s end through encounters with Runners, Clickers and Bloaters. Much like Red Dead Redemption, whether the player is hunting, exploring or fighting, violence is not just a mechanic used as a crutch to inject excitement and combat in The Last of Us – it forms the structure of its storytelling. Every input available to the player reinforces the adversarial qualities of the post-pandemic United States – regardless of whether we are ripping off black-market smugglers, evading authorities who operate under martial law, surviving with strangers in a wintered wilderness, or scavenging across open country. Gone is the disconnect which plagued story-focused games like Bioshock Infinite, whose opening and ending felt like they belonged in an entirely separate game. In its place, Naughty Dog’s measured design decisions entrenched the player’s connection to the overarching story by constantly applying natural tension to the gameplay. Having Ellie assist Joel in ways which benefit the player – both in dynamic gameplay moments, as well as structured story sequences – cemented the player’s bond with a character in ways only games are capable of capturing.

Moreover, it is often forgotten that the game itself is exceptionally fun on a mechanical level. Despite certain reviewers levelling unfair criticisms that the ally AI sometimes acts in an immersion-breaking manner, or that the game was outrageously bleak, The Last of Us managed to elevate the improvised stealth mechanics and weapon scarcity found in Rockstar Games’ Manhunt and apply it to a more narrative-focused context by offering exploratory areas of respite. For instance, the cut scene with Bill in the basement – and the following in-game journey to his church – is a genuine release in pressure, finally giving the player a chance to catch their breath whilst learning more about their goal and the predicament in Lincoln. Furthermore, hearing Ellie often talk behind Joel has the simple effect of not feeling alone in the beautiful desolation the player is journeying through. You are always mindful of the fact she’s with you, growing more confident and capable as the narrative unfolds. When she isn’t present, you sense the loneliness and danger as a player – but also through Joel verbalising his apprehension when exploring an environment, hoping Ellie is handling herself whilst he is absent.

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In turn, by reducing the number of enemy combatants in a single encounter, and having them often be oblivious to the player’s presence, the gameplay of The Last of Us also allows players to learn about the world through their enemies’ actions and discussions – not just the myriad notes or overused spray painting which adorn most walls in linear single-player titles. Otherwise straightforward decisions, such as having to decide whether you want to use your fleeting materials to craft a Molotov cocktail for offensive manoeuvres, or a medical kit for a more cautious line of defence, convincingly added perceived depth to each combat encounter – even if, in practice, shooting enemies to death rewards players with ammunition. The game even has an unconventional boss fight which uses the player’s own skills against them to great effect, rather than introducing clunky rules at the end of the game to create a false sense of spectacle and drama. Once more, it was by having a persistent and versatile mechanical foundation to the experience which resulted in The Last of Us being so relentless and engrossing, delivering on Naughty Dog’s ambition for players to never put their controller down as they play through the game.

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Everything which preceded The Last of Us’ release focused on this rich gameplay; something we just hadn’t played in such a potent format before. From its cryptic announcement in 2011 through two teasers which depicted human society on the brink of collapse and an ant brutally succumbing to a unique strand of cordyceps fungus in Attenborough’s Planet Earth, The Last of Us established itself at the VGAs as a confident new direction for Naughty Dog as a developer – the logical evolution from the days of Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Uncharted. In the year-and-a-half up to its release, the game’s promotion saw its co-directors – an excited, assertive Bruce Straley and comparatively reserved Druckmann – shy away from details surrounding character and story in exchange for promising cinematic, immersive and dynamic one-on-one combat which had not been achieved effectively in the medium before. My excitement – along with the industry at large – was palpable. Inspired by the minimalist nature of No Country For Old Men, The Road, Blood Meridian and Children of Men, as well as the non-verbal Tenzin sequence from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, players worldwide awaited a truly next-generation survival-action game. The lessons it could teach the industry, it seemed, were obvious – assuming the game delivered on its many mechanically-geared promises.

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But importantly, beneath the surface, having worked with Amy Hennig on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2, creative director Neil Druckmann had additional intentions: that is, deploying a narrative he had tried to get off the ground since his days at college. Druckmann has gone on record with Edge as wanting to personally elevate storytelling in gaming, having found it ‘disheartening’ to hear how games ‘that are fun and exciting and get visceral things right’ are deemed by games reviewers to have ‘an amazing story’. At Naughty Dog, he felt, we ‘try so hard … to push things.’ Through The Last of Us, therefore, Druckmann sought to use Ellie – a heroine who undergoes her own action-hero origin story of sorts – as a way of setting the standard for narrative in gaming. This would be his most significant contribution to the medium.

And this he did – along with his team, let’s not forget. In popular memory, it is the game’s narrative which has been lauded over every other strength – as evidenced by the bizarre stage presentation of The Last of Us: One Night Live, which featured the game’s actors only performing cut scenes, and every post-game interview with Druckmann almost entirely focusing on ‘story’ and ‘character’. The currently-stagnant Raimi-directed and Druckmann-penned film adaption of The Last of Us solidifies an impression that the lessons learned from the game’s success surround dialogue and how it was directed – with gameplay serving only to surround this more cinematic heart, rather than define it.

I would argue that Druckmann’s ‘simple story’ with ‘complex characters’ truly comes to life outside of cut scenes and core narrative, with verbal and non-verbal responses to the player’s actions giving the perception that allies and enemies are human beings pushed to the absolute limit. In-game moments like Ellie raising her hand for a high five, which the player can either indulge or monstrously deny, and her being lost in thought as Joel routinely positions a ladder, are infinitely more masterful than a sombre exposition dump or an explicitly violent scene featuring children which easily elicits an emotional response from players. These smaller, intimate moments are peppered throughout gameplay – whether they follow combat, occur during exploration or after the solving of puzzles – rather than taking centre stage. They wash over you and are more effective because of it.

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But it is because these strengths are all so seamlessly imbued into game design – with the game even going so far as to develop Joel’s character when he and Ellie disagree over the outcome of a letter the player has picked up – that they are in danger of being taken at face value by fans, critics and fellow developers. And herein lies the problem.

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The Last of Us’ twenty-hour journey has wrongly become synonymous with story in games. Players walk away from the experience thinking how they have never played a game before that was that well-paced, that consistent, and that watchable. For a time, I too thought “that’s how you do it; everyone should be looking and taking note.” Its impact is especially apparent amongst the Writer’s Guild Foundation, of which Druckmann is the only videogame writer to be given a seat. After the opening twenty minutes with Sarah were shown to support Druckmann’s presentation on writing in videogames, the entire board of representatives was reportedly in tears – clearly not having realised that games could be used as a medium for such powerful, emotional and necessary storytelling. The board’s consensus, thanks to Druckmann’s fielding of questions, was that games rightly have the potential to ‘connect with characters … more strongly and more powerfully than even in passive mediums like film or TV.’

But two things must be drawn from this prologue. Most notably, there is no gameplay – at least not gameplay which is indicative of the core mechanics used when building a genuine bond with Ellie over time. The player is expertly whisked from location to location, be it through the guiding hand of Joel into the backseat of Tommy’s car, or behind Joel’s back so he can protect you (thereby not giving the player an opportunity to screw up the first combat encounter of the game). Secondly, though suspense and intrigue is genuinely built by unexpectedly controlling Joel’s daughter in the most impactful opening to a game I’ve played, the true emotion comes from seeing a teenage girl get shot and scream in her father’s arms. This pivotal turning point in Joel’s character is captured through a cut scene which directly apes techniques captured in film. Hana Hayes’ harrowing performance breaks players’ hearts in an instant. However, the question is this: would similar emotions be stirred in a film adaptation? If the answer is yes, then does this scene reveal the real benefits of games as a writer’s medium? No. But this is the direction most appealing for developers to pursue moving forward, as evidenced by the killing of the deer in God of War’s first showing at Sony’s 2016 E3 press conference and the five-minute ‘swim’ in A Thief’s End.

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A friend of Druckmann’s, former Senior Editor of PlayStation at IGN and co-founder of Kinda Funny, Colin Moriarty, stressed his frustration that no other studio in the industry can create fleshed-out narratives and gameplay experiences to the same degree of sophistication as Naughty Dog. And he’s right. Other than Rockstar Games, who push game mechanics as a way of exploring story in an open-world environment, it is difficult to picture another studio producing something like The Last of Us. Aside from the obvious questions of ‘should they be expected to?’ and ‘do they even want or need to?’, the more pressing issue comes from whether it is possible to reproduce this type of storytelling when it is so firmly rooted in the mechanics of combat and violence.

Other than perhaps a puzzle game like Portal 2, it is difficult to conceive of a storied triple-A game which does not use violence and combat as its core mechanic. As has been said, the reason why The Last of Us works is because violence is the story of the game. In the recent Tomb Raider reboot, the young graduate who is thrust into a world of violence does not undergo a slow transition into someone capable of defending themselves. We only ever control Lara as a survivor, so the shift to controlling a killer isn’t difficult for the player to make once a gun is put in their hands. Ellie’s arc is similar to Lara’s, but it is achieved from afar whilst the player controls Joel. For Lara, as soon as one enemy is dispatched, the ‘game’ kicks in and players are shooting enemies for XP. The same goes for Booker Dewitt, Nathan Drake and even Niko Bellic – though at least the latter’s motivations are rooted in money and a connection to the character’s ethnic-religious atrocities in Bosnia following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Unless the mechanics reflect the world, as seen in John Marston’s violent but historically-commonplace attempts at redemption, sophisticated stories often fall apart for betraying their gameplay.

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Following the success of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has experimented with other ways in which ‘character’ can be communicated through gameplay without using violence. The experiments which worked, such as those found in Left Behind, were successful because they fed into the game’s mechanics but ultimately subverted players’ expectations. Using the stealth combat for a water fight, earning optional conversations through a brick-throwing contest to ask a poignant question of your own choosing, scavenging from a Halloween store, and imagining what a videogame would look like by using the inputs on the cabinet in front of you – every instance shines as a great example of adding to players’ expectations of what it would be like to live in the quarantine zone of Boston as a teenager. Yet, even though these moments were using core mechanics, such activities were contrasted with dynamic combat encounters which pitted Runners and Clickers against David’s men as they searched for a ‘crazy man’ travelling with a ‘little girl’. Tension is never truly relinquished – not because of the game’s genre, but because it is a game first and foremost.

Conversely, in exchange for less combat, whether you are swimming through the ocean, being slowly escorted through a prison, collecting food and sitting with your wife at dinner, walking around a boat during your day job, or simply sitting at your computer looking over some files, the non-violent gameplay moments in Uncharted 4 exist to establish Drake as a human being. For reviewers, this in-game characterisation was the logical extension of The Last of Us, producing a more ‘grounded’ experience – pursuing themes of marital troubles, the monotony of everyday life, and ambition devolving into obsession and eventually addiction. Of course, given that all these ideas are rarely – if ever – explored in this medium, Naughty Dog’s approach is very respectable and highly ambitious.

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But these ‘scenes’ were all for the sake of backstory; minimally interactive cutscenes which sought to capture an emotion or story beat, and not something which added depth to the gameplay experience. Throw away the Crash Bandicoot nostalgia and the entire dinner scene with Nate and Elena is one large cutscene which adds to another half hour of footage players had already watched. This early chunk of Uncharted 4 is completely isolated from the actual gameplay of Nathan Drake. It exists for story’s sake. The scene with Elena in Madagascar, where it looks like she is going to divorce Nate, might have made you think, and might even have made you cry, but such moments happened with a character in a cutscene that – at the game’s midpoint – the player had hardly interacted with in-game.

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Sadly even moments of gameplay succumbed to deliberate, author-led set pieces which simply played themselves, including the jail-yard brawl in Panama and the two fights with ‘badass’ Nadine. Sully tells the player she’s a badass but the game never gives us the challenge for her to prove it and for us to fail. It’s a far cry from the risks Naughty Dog took with Ellie’s exhilarating encounter with David. In these moments, the gameplay is not even a means to reach a cut scene… it has become the cut scene; a glorified quick-time event which the games media claims to hate. The director doesn’t want you to fail these sections and miss out on the comedy or drama. And after that, what’s the reward? Well, back to climbing, of course. Why? Because the pacing needs to be slowed down after having engaged in all the excitement you, the player, have just experienced (that is, watched).

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Ultimately, by straying away from The Last of Us’ fundamental strength – that is, using violence as the story’s central motif to tie everything back to the player’s interaction with its hostile world – Uncharted 4 is guilty of writing scenes which flesh out the characters but do not support the game. This hurts the overall impact of the story players are playing (not passively viewing). If anything, A Thief’s End proves how story for story’s sake is obtuse. Perhaps because Naughty Dog is unrivalled graphically and in its attention to characterisation, the industry does not challenge them to do better. Awarding the game constantly for distinguished categories of ‘animation’, ‘visuals’ and ‘narrative’ doesn’t particularly help learn lessons which will make the developer improve over time, either.

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I’m perhaps of an unpopular opinion that Uncharted 4 was a side step for Naughty Dog. I do not think it will be a game that is remembered as one of the great PlayStation 4 exclusives. It’s a fun ride whilst it lasts, and as long as you don’t break its story sequences by doing something it isn’t expecting, but despite its gorgeous graphics, superb performance capture, and interesting epilogue (which similarly reinforces everything I have argued about bolting story onto gameplay rather than having gameplay provide the means for an engaging interactive narrative), it’s a game which tells us to like and appreciate it, rather than convinces us to do so. Moreover, I think it is safe to assume that a lot of its more unique features are merely tests for Part II – whether it be driving a car through ‘wide-linear’ environments as Ellie and her allies scavenge for resources in ruined locales, rather than Madagascar’s out-of-place temples; being intimate with a loved one in a goofy but truly loving manner; or simply sitting with an old friend – not a complete stranger – and contemplating your shared regrets over the years.

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More broadly, if this emphasis on narrative, which has been rewarded by the industry without being truly understood, continues, then what can we expect for Part II?  Other than the bark on the tree, a quivering, almost spasming hand affecting Ellie’s movement, and an elaborate tattoo masking Ellie’s infected wound from those she lives with, viewers are presented with very little gameplay hints. The first thing which struck me was the setting. A wilderness very reminiscent of that found in Tommy’s Dam. Sure, it’s just a teaser trailer, but one of my reservations for a sequel to the original game was that the core narrative covered so many different locations. We visited a functioning quarantine zone, abandoned quarantine zones, a camp of cannibals, a community of more righteous individuals. We visited schools, and towns, and cities. We visited the beach, Ish’s sewers, a hospital. And we even traversed these locals in sunshine, rain and snow. When we saw Uncharted 2’s reveal trailer, we were teased with a brand-new setting, environment and mode of transportation. Here, we just see more of the same. Yes, Left Behind added a mall, but I’m willing to wager that most players remember the Halloween shop and the arcade above all else, forgetting the mall itself and even the highly-scripted end chase. And even then, gameplay lasted about an hour with the other half of the DLC focusing on an environment we’d more-or-less traversed. Will we see Los Angeles? Will we explore abandoned carnivals, or other locales to see more quirky character-developing gameplay ‘scenes’? Will these locales be enough to excite after such a complete entry first time round?

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My thinking is that, by contextualising the Firefly tease within the last game’s ending and Ellie’s prequel comic, American Dreams, the sequel will focus on communities and groups in the fallout of there being no cure for the pandemic. This could help differentiate otherwise standard settings players have visited before by imagining them in a more sophisticated, cultural light – and provide unique gameplay opportunities by having Ellie actively hunt groups down, or work alongside multiple people who each are looking to achieve their individual goals. At the very least, it is only logical to expect something great due to the world of Joel and Ellie being rooted in the mechanics of survival first and foremost. The teaser reaffirms as much. Much like Druckmann said at the recent PSX panel for Part II, moderated by Game Informer‘s editor-in-chief, Andy McNamara, when reassuring fans that the original game’s story would not be underserved in the sequel: have faith in us, for ‘we will do right by you’ when tackling the themes of what is right and wrong in the duality of a world in ruin and the embers of something new.

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III

 In Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed the WorldThe Guardian’s games editor Keith Stuart rightfully noted how game developers are getting older and therefore what interests and inspires them to create has grown more mature and more nuanced – especially given that technological capabilities are now available to realise their visions. The same is true of players and critics. As we continue to witness developers capitalise on hardware to create open-world collectathons, which omit the painstaking approach employed by Rockstar Games to make environments feel real and fun to lose yourself in (as Danny O’ Dwyer confronted to great effect in an episode of The Point), we are now on the verge of a new era of linear games which focus on echoing long-form human storytelling found in HBO boxsets. Exciting times lie ahead as developers experiment with issues which matter to them.

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Resident Evil VII struck me recently for being a fantastic game in which every interaction the player had with the Bakers’ Louisiana plantation reinforced the need for survival. Having admittedly bought the game with low expectations, VII has genuinely surprised me in a way few games have in recent years. Yet it did not open with Ethan and Mia living their normal lives before her three-year disappearance. Could it have? Sure. Although the basic setup given was more in keeping with the survival-horror genre, background knowledge on the pair’s relationship would have made me care more about finding Mia during those early hours. But how would such a sequence have been played? How would the game’s director have made me care about the characters, whilst keeping the core mechanics at the heart of the experience?

Above all else, when reflecting on The Last of Us’ impact on myself and the industry more broadly, I walk away from this experience believing that mechanically-focused storytelling is critical to the AAA action-adventure space. Contrary to what we might believe, story and gameplay cannot truly merge; story must be embedded in gameplay mechanics for narrative to be at the heart of this industry. For some, this is so-called emergent gameplay. For others, it’s making up your own world. But linear games must abide by this principle also. Although there is no one way to tell a story – especially not in an industry as divergent as this – experiments and misfires are healthy, for they are how we learn and improve, as with all walks of life. Seeing the transition from The Last of Us to Uncharted 4, lessons must be learned as Naughty Dog begin to develop entirely new franchises.

In conclusion to this excessively-long first attempt at writing about this medium, is The Last of Us successful because its story is about game violence? Yes, I believe it is. If the game wanted to tell the story of two people who are strangers that become allies over time, perhaps in a more modern setting as a police officer and a runaway, without the mechanic of violence syncing every player interaction to the world they occupied, the game would not have worked. They would simply have been playing out a bunch of different scenes. What, then, does this mean for stories in so-called triple-A games? Must violence always be at its core, seeing as that is the main form of interactivity games use? Given that The Last of Us: Part II is described as ‘a story about hate’, with no mention of gameplay at the time of its announcement, it certainly looks that way.

Still, I want to be proven wrong. And I know this industry will prove me wrong. Too many seriously intellectual minds work in it and are drawn to it. A better Naughty Dog is better for everyone, as 2013 demonstrated beautifully.

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After years of working towards my own career, with aspirations in the back of my mind being to one day work in the games industry in some capacity, I’ve finally been stirred this year into starting somewhere small by reflecting on why certain games have such an impact on my thinking. The Last of Us is one of those games. It’s an interesting task to understand how a game’s core mechanics sync with one another, all whilst pushing a singular narrative, and it illustrates the extreme amount of thought and creativity on behalf of those that tirelessly work towards putting such experiences together for years at a time.

With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog proved that it was not ‘grounded’ storytelling which connected with audiences, but mechanically-grounded storytelling which connected with gamers. Although the benefits of this approach have not entirely made themselves apparent in the games industry quite yet, due to the sheer difficulty of having every component of a game be in sync with one another, it certainly has the potential to. What comes next, once the difficulty of this challenge is deconstructed and embraced, really will produce experiences of the future. I for one cannot wait to reap the rewards.

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A WORLD WITHOUT END: The Spiritual Successor to ‘The Warriors’ by Rockstar Games

Although it could be argued that this gaming generation’s greatest success stories have simply polished familiar experiences from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rather than innovate through new control systems and mechanics, the future of interactive entertainment continues to shine exponentially. While it may be common for developers to follow conventions when building their take on the story-driven action-adventure or futuristic first-person shooter, every title which has been revered as a ‘classic’ or ‘hit’, regardless of its genre, has pushed creators forward to further refine and redefine what the interactive play space can produce.

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Much like how television, a once critically-derided medium, began to attract talented writers, directors and actors away from film due to the opportunities made available by long-form episodic storytelling, so too have video games evolved in maturity, scope and ambition when exploring their strengths in establishing a sense of place. The beauty of this medium is that there are no fixed models which all genres must abide by. Its diversity is what makes games so enjoyable for so many, and why the medium remains in its infancy as it discovers new methods to express concepts of interactivity we have not yet conceived.

Yet this universal sense of place found in almost all genres, with developers creating a world or environment which could be lived in and which exists with or without the player’s presence, is a distinct phenomenon which can only be fully realised through the interactive medium. From exploring Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid, the depths of Rapture in Bioshock and the failed utopia of Ish’s sewers in The Last of Us, to revisiting a vibrant Grove Street after two straight days of territorial takeovers in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it is a developer’s appreciation for small details which gives their environments a sense of life and texture that is unparalleled in other mediums. Revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4, fixating on sights and sounds which had decayed over a decade, remains a truly spellbinding moment for this medium. Indeed, it is this evolution and deterioration of an interactive space over time which I wish to concentrate on when pitching my vision for the next generation of open-world adventure: a world which devolves in (seemingly) real time; one which the player must adapt their strategy to, both consciously and subconsciously, given that they can never feel safe in one environment for too long.

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I. The Basic Premise of Migration as a Mechanic: Vulnerability Comes First

The common issue that mission-based open-world titles face nowadays is that their design is built around the notion of flexibility, never wanting to deny the player opportunities to have fun. What this means is that ‘story’ and ‘fun’ are often kept separate, with players indulging in busywork before engaging in the main questline of their narrative. Driving to a mission in Grand Theft Auto V is all well and good, but if an altercation breaks out as you travel through Los Santos there is no threat which will force the player to improvise and adapt to the situation. Sure, the police may pursue you, but the Pac-Man-style evasions are relatively simple to keep track of when paying attention to your mini map. Likewise, in Red Dead Redemption, when stumbling across a new area, players might be threatened by bandits – but these enemies can be dispatched by freezing time and tagging their heads with a six-shooter in Dead-Eye Mode, before instinctively looting their corpses. What settles in is ultimately this sense of safety; that the player is never truly vulnerable, except when involved in a story mission. These cinematic set pieces usually last twenty-minutes long at most. After this, players return comfortably to a world they feel is theirs to own and dominate. This explains why a lot of Rockstar Games’ competitors fill their worlds with side quests and collectables, to utilise the wide-ranging space of their ‘sandboxes’ without necessarily imbuing them with meaningful content.

What I propose is a title where players do not become familiar or comfortable with their environment, as its nature is always shifting and evolving. Although I do have the unique mechanics, setting, characters and narrative fleshed out for such a game, this pitch will refer to the title as A World Without End. For the sake of clarity, the interesting background and world building for such an environment will be kept secret as I reduce the concept down to its essence: setting the world amidst a national revolution, rooted in socio-political protest toward the inadequacies of government. Simply put, the government is accused of isolationist behaviour, which it believes is necessary for the good of the state, whereas the revolutionaries are deemed terrorists for endangering the lives of the public and state officials when trying to overthrow the powers that be for the good of the country. There’s no ‘apocalypse’; the world just slowly warps and distorts along a historical timeline. Also, it’s worth saying that this is an idea I’ve been developing for many years now; it is not a response to recent events or certain personalities in positions of power.

Although such a set-up is generic on the surface, please consider that its nuances have been reduced to their essence when conveying the idea for this pitch. The humanising qualities of both ‘factions’ would be present in the finished experience. By taking away easily vilifiable qualities from both the state and the revolutionaries (that is, one side being racist, sexist and so forth), players are provided with a more philosophically-fulfilling narrative which forces them to question how they view and interact with the world around them, blurring the line between ‘on’ and ‘off-mission’ content. Ultimately, each player is thrust into a moral quandary with no easy answers, where everyone is right and yet everyone is wrong – and the world keeps going with or without their consent.They aren’t heroes, or anti-heroes, like most games – they are just residents of a community tearing itself apart, forcing them to participate (often in unglorified ways) to preserve their own daily lives and achieve some semblance of normality in a world without end.

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Many games have flirted with such a concept before, albeit in a distinctly novelistic and ultimately static format. Bioshock is set in the ruins of a failed utopia, with no physical experience of how such a promising society slowly (or indeed swiftly) collapsed, delivering a sense of mystery and intrigue as a compromise of lacking the technological ability to take an established community and destroy it midgame. Its spiritual successor actively tackled this misstep by having the player disrupt a sky-high vision of harmony when ‘wiping away’ Booker DeWitt’s debt. Still, in both games, the subtle transition from widespread protest to acts of violence, and then police to an authoritarian ruling, is neglected. Surely, against all other mediums, this transition is perfectly suited to the interactive space? The beautiful yet hideous world of Columbia ignites in minutes, with all its pedestrians fleeing as the city descends into a warzone. Can’t a living environment exist amongst such violence? This is the case in human reality. If so, such a fluctuating environment would make the open world a danger and joy to traverse – unlike anything players have played before, without relying on tropes such as zombies to lean heavily on one-note combat.

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Seeing a once-busy train station be shut down by the police early in A World Without End, only to revisit it an in-game week or two later and see migrants littering the railway track, until, in just over a month or two, the entire station has become a hotspot for migrants to trade food and supplies, would be a remarkable metanarrative that shows how the world responds to a crisis with and without the player’s input. Many players might only have known the station as being a migrant settlement, whilst others may have only visited it when using trains to traverse the open world during the game’s opening hours. Apply such shifts in environment and control to the whole game world, and suddenly players are funnelled towards areas of interest (by the police heavily sectioning off certain areas), without taking away the fact that the world is constantly evolving in ways the player might not expect. Former areas of danger might have been reclaimed by protestors, as was the case in 1989 when failed attempts by New York City’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policing could not banish the homeless persons sleeping in Central Park from what they considered public, not private, space. But when the riot police come back in force, will players hold their nerve or will they sneak out the back door? If the road is dangerous, players might not risk journeying at night. Such decisions are a product not of the game’s story; they result from overarching systems which dictate AI behaviour.

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If you look to The Last of Us, which, in pursuit of its stellar, in media res narrative, concentrates on the contrasting perceptions of life twenty years after its end through the eyes of a forty-something and fourteen-year-old girl, the truly interactive and morally obscure elements of the post-pandemic United States are skipped over in a two-minute credits sequence. We hear how Los Angeles has turned to martial law in the wake of the ever-spreading cordyceps fungus, whilst Americans protest the federal government for becoming too authoritarian in their precautionary measures. Likewise, a revolutionary group called the Fireflies has emerged by way of galvanising public opinion against the state. What would this have meant for the player?

Joel has been fighting to survive for twenty years, slowly sacrificing the remnants of his humanity bit by bit, before the player controls him fully; he’s accustomed to the hardship players experience from one in-game encounter to the next.With this in mind, Joel’s journey with Ellie across the post-pandemic United States sounds relatively peaceful when compared to Joel and Tommy’s past, which has left Tommy with ‘nothing but nightmares.’ Although Tommy survived because of his brother, he claims – despite living with Maria, his wife, in a pleasant, prosperous and seemingly honest community – that ‘it wasn’t worth it.’ For a film with a runtime of, at most, three hours, concessions like these are nuanced ways of hinting at character and, as such, are understandable techniques for adding depth to the world. But games are capable of exploring change unlike any other medium. Being an everyday person robbing, if not killing, other innocent survivors when invading homes for supplies – knowing that the police and military are distracted by maintaining general order elsewhere – is infinitely more harrowing than the early action in The Last of Us. How would players reconcile with such actions later in their adventure? The closest we get to this is a brief conversation between Ellie and Joel in Pittsburgh, where Joel comments on how he knew about the ambush due to him having ‘been on both sides.’ Again, a great way of adding depth to the character without flashbacks – but can’t games actually have such sombre reflections stem from the player’s own actions?

Having to justify such atrocities, and then to see the innocents of the game’s early hours harden around you into grizzled survivors over the weeks and months the game takes place in, would be a dynamic evolution of difficulty which is rooted in gameplay first. Moreover, conversations between Joel and Tommy, for instance, would carry much more weight given that players remember the incidents being discussed. Moments like learning about characters far removed from Joel in The Last of Us are fantastic. An excellent example is that of Bill, whose relationship with Frank is fleshed out only when Ellie is perusing through Bill’s items. His homosexuality is not a defining trait. Just like Joel hides his relationship with Tess, or lack thereof now that she has passed, so too does Bill about his ‘partner’. However, applying the same rules to characters we know robs the interactive medium of its ability to create much stronger connections to characters than passive mediums. The chapter with Tommy has no meaningful conversations with the brother when chasing after Ellie. These moments are reserved to cut scenes, reducing Tommy to a loyal gunman than a brother whose relationship you’ve ravaged simply by thriving in a world so far removed from the one you were raised in.

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By making real-time migration a mechanic in an open-world title, subtle changes to the established mission-based structure of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption can be made. Primarily, if the player has no place to call ‘home’, somewhere they can retreat to and push the everyday chaos to the back of their minds, the open world would become much more dynamic. Hiding inside some dilapidated buildings and making a campfire runs the risk of you and your group being spotted by stragglers in nearby surroundings – if not the police, who are persecuting runaways outside cordoned-off urban sites. Simply sleeping and gaining some rest runs the risk of waking up to a confrontation. Having impositions like these placed on the player, such as restricting their activities through curfews and checkpoints, would mean that real-world events necessitate a shift in strategy. Players couldn’t risk walking around pedestrianised areas with weaponry on their person for fear that the state would arrest them, if not shoot them dead. In the early days of the revolution, players might have temporarily given up their morals by way of raiding supplies. Sixty days later, corner shops are empty and the wholesale goods merchants are largely relegated to state-controlled supermarkets. With no income and the police actively arresting – if not murdering – dissident forces amongst the community to curb the slowly-growing national uprising, suddenly what was a simple trip to the supermarket when waving a gun around in the early hours of the game becomes its own objective rather than an afterthought. You might need allies, you might need a getaway car. None of this is a mission; this is just how you keep alive. How your allies react to such gameplay, in many ways, is the story – or, at the very least, something which keeps the story alive outside of the bigger, more structured set pieces. The open world is constantly given a purpose which challenges the gamer but also complicates the story and the player’s relationship with the world around them and the various parties which inhabit it.

The issue with existing linear games with these themes is that they take place in worlds removed from society, or fast-forward past the complications I wish to engage with by eroding society to a state of relative stability. Two games which are slightly guilty of this, but remain braver than most, are two underappreciated PlayStation 2 titles developed by Rockstar Games: 2003’s Manhunt and 2005’s The Warriors. These two games, whilst not technically the most polished games of their time, were highly innovative to the extent that their legacy has come to define many the most critically-acclaimed titles in recent years. Manhunt locks the player in private land filled to the brim with bloodthirsty gang members, whereas The Warriors is set amidst the economic and social unrest of 1970s’ America, where the city was perceived as a crime-infested cesspit that no one would feel safe walking through at night. The context is there to make the urban jungle desolate.

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Aside from both titles imbuing their worlds with a sense of atmosphere and dread, heightening the tension and danger which permeated every facet of gameplay, Manhunt and The Warriors evoked a genuine sense of strategy in how players approached threats in semi open-world environments. Regardless of whether you were relentlessly pursued as James Earl Cash across the streets of Carcer City, following a failed attempt to dispatch a series of enemies undetected, or outran baseball-waving mutes as an entire crew, players were challenged to compromise their safety by taking risks which turned the tide of battle. But more importantly, these games transformed city blocks from being areas that players confidently perused and controlled into prisons with few hiding spaces to escape your enemies. The Warriors took its open-ended environments one step further during police raids and the 1977-inspired NYC blackout by having other AI gang members hide in the shadows, further emphasising how the player was just one small cog in a much larger ecosystem. While Manhunt made you feel truly alone, where every bullet counts, The Warriors makes you feel genuinely attached to your allies. These are the people who have your back in a sticky situation, so long as you’ve got theirs. And these are exactly the type of mechanics which need to be applied to an open-world title of this type, giving the player simple A-to-B objectives whilst posing dynamic challenges in their way which complicate matters and force you to rely on your brothers-and-sisters-in-arms.

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Of course, such drama ultimately points to both games’ shared sense of vulnerability. By using numbers against the player, flight was just as much of an option as fight when deciding how to reach your objectives in the various boroughs of New York City. Players familiar with Manhunt will immediately identify similarities to the gameplay of The Last of Us, whether it be using bricks and bottles to distract enemies, or viewing enemies as genuinely lethal when they have a bat or 2×4 in their possession (as opposed to the player, who has nothing but their fists). Nowadays, games just have you duck behind a wall and wait for the AI to cautiously scan an environment. Here, these games had you literally bomb it back through an entire level just to catch your breath, find a hiding spot, or turn with your back against the wall and fend off your pursuers with one last assault.

Yet the real strength of The Warriors came from the evolution of its sense of space through the narrative of the nine lieutenants of Coney Island’s newest gang: The Warriors. Set at night, when pedestrians were mostly safely tucked inside their homes, each mission in the game starts from the gang’s hideout, where members of the gang work out, chat, drink, or play pinball. From here, the player speaks to their War Chief, Cleon, who then sends one of the eight lieutenants out to represent the gang in 1979 New York City. Heading out to the train yard as Rembrandt to lay down burners on the brand-new trains circulating NYC’s subways, or gaining favour with the Saracens by sabotaging the Jones Street Boys’ relationship with two crooked cops, had a sense of risk about them. In Coney, players felt like they owned the neighbourhood given that they had fought, and even died, for its streets. When thrust into other areas, wearing gang colours, you’re being watched by pedestrians, police, and, naturally, other gang members. The spotlight is on you, and, should you choose not to flee, players must stand their ground. The game brilliantly makes you feel safe and exposed without needing to mark such areas on a map or the HUD. When focusing on the theme of identity within a post-modern society, police officers and revolutionaries similarly carry these ‘colours’ and are looked upon differently by varying groups of people.

And yet, it is the final third of The Warriors which has influenced my design sensibilities most. Following Cyrus’ failed pitch to amass NYC’s 60,000 soldiers into an army of the night, the eight remaining lieutenants of The Warriors – falsely blamed for the murder of a high-ranking gang member – are forced to march across the turf of every gang in New York to make it safely back to Coney Island. Gone are the openings to missions set inside the base. The men must run from station to station as every gang in the city calls for their blood. Cleon, Fox and Ajax lose their lives and freedoms over the course of their journey, emphasising the danger that the player is in – not as an individual, but in terms of the makeup of their crew. Those that make it back to the beachfront of Coney Island are radically different from the excitable young punks that headed out to hear Cyrus’ dream to rule the streets earlier that evening. Although such a trajectory was linear, this sense of migration and never feeling safe is an untapped mechanic in games – especially open-world games. And this is what I envision would change the way we play open-world adventures in the future, as well as how they are fundamentally designed.

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Suddenly, driving from A to B (a routinely-criticised feature of Grand Theft Auto) becomes its own challenge. Without imposing obtrusive, heavy-handed puzzles on the player – in the form of moving ladders or pallets – the simple act of making it to an objective in the open world could take minutes, hours, perhaps even days. By having allies accompany you through the open world, and having areas or groups in place which distract the player or catch their attention, as well as the more general side activities, suddenly the ‘side-content activities’ are ways of breaking up your journey and giving you time to catch your breath and relax. These moments aren’t relegated to cutscenes when you’re not currently shooting strangers, as is the norm in most third-person action games; they’re a way for the developer to properly pace an otherwise sprawling open-world experience without relying on cinematic set pieces and cut scenes.

Interestingly, even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas experimented with this type of thinking – that is, having the open world affect how players traverse environments – when inspired by the L.A. Rodney King riots in 1992. In the final hours of the game, the city of Los Santos devolves into chaos, with citizens running around with stolen TVs and fighting the police in protest of Officer Tenpenny and Pulaski being deemed innocent following accusations of C.R.A.S.H.’s corruption. When driving to missions, such chaos forces the player to drive fast and take alternative routes. Moreover, when completing a mission for Cesar, or locating Big Smoke’s crack palace outside of the core narrative, players were often swept up in fights they would have otherwise avoided. Although such interactions were frenetic and chaotic, such changes don’t have to necessarily be triggered by story sequences and can be fun in their own right if there design has greater depth.

More importantly, can this idea of a world in socio-political disarray be achieved subtly, as opposed to turning the ‘revolution’ on or off, so to speak? How can historical events better inform the measures and pace of a revolution within an open world, whilst still conveying how the environment decays and deforms – whilst also breathing life into new ways of thinking and governing? If the conflict feels real, it is easier to convey the notion that the game’s various characters lead lives amidst all the fractured chaos dealt againt our society.

Back in the day, aspirations for a sequel to The Warriors ranged from a modern-day equivalent set in Los Angeles to the iconic conflict of mods versus rockers. At the time, I secretly wished for a British version of football hooliganism, something reminiscent of the early ’00s film Green Street Hooligans. The parallels were there, I thought, with their shared emphasis on group-based, hand-to-hand combat in an urban jungle where territory was divided, and the train stations which interconnected these warring factions. Thankfully Rockstar Games knew better than to replace the style but mimic the gameplay with any form of sequel, and so now I look instead to exploring its unique gameplay strengths and applying them to an open-world environment where violence is a part of life rather than an anomaly experienced only by our characters.

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Therefore, A World Without End‘s emphasis must be on living with the violence and having a society be portrayed as understanding and almost reconciling with the world they live in. The following sections details how I think such an environment could be achieved.

II. Historical Influences and an Emphasis on Law and
Disorder Through A World Without End‘s Protagonists

Although the open-ended structure of A World Without End provides unique opportunities for gameplay, especially for an open-world environment, it also allows for an engrossing narrative to emerge from the various applied to characters within that world. Again, for the simplified purpose of this pitch, I am going to reduce the characterisation of the game’s main protagonist(s) by resorting to archetypes which best illustrate my point. These archetypes are of the ‘revolutionary’ and the ‘police officer’. Despite being straightforward, such roles are made ever more complicated as the game’s events inevitably unfold and the game’s mechanics affect the player’s morality.

Imagine if the player, much like The Episodes from Liberty City, was given a choice to select one of two possible protagonists at the start of A World Without End: a person who is drawn to the revolutionaries, like Shaun in the outstanding Shane Meadows’ film, 2006’s This is England, who sees the good and bad in their rebellious actions; or, controlling a police officer whose role changes from chasing bad guys to keeping civilians in line. Seeing the same world from opposing perspectives, but having both narratives subtly (or perhaps overtly) cross paths as the two possible windows into this world meet in the middle, would really be a testament to the mosaic approach to storytelling that games are capable of emulating. Such an approach really allows designers to squeeze the potential of their open-world settings by doing away with the one-person oddyssey we usually experience.

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Through the eyes of the revolutionary, journeying with your fellow rebels and squatting across desolate environments – all whilst avoiding the watchful eye of the state police – would inject elements of traversal and stealth into the open-world formula just as a way of finding a place to hunker down for an evening. Whether the player journeys in a car or on foot, having these Warriors-esque allies by your side would give the game a genuine sense of brotherhood which is similarly lacking in open-world games, given that they adamantly refuse doing anything which temporarily sacrifices the player’s freedom.

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Something as simple as attending a football match or governmental assembly and stashing nail bombs (reminiscent of despicable tactics employed by the IRA in 1982) would have to be discussed by the player and their allies beforehand as a way of justifying such a violent act. Players would likely argue that, even if such a move alarmed the public and forced the government to concede to demands, such an act is evil. However, if the world building is strong enough players could actually be manipulated into seeing such an attack as a positive force for change against a tyrannical state. It would also emphasise how games don’t have to be post-apocalyptic wastelands when confronting dystopias, and that the most interesting qualities of such environments are the communities which linger within them. Think about the Berlin Wall or South African Apartheid – some of the most terrifying and evil events in modern history were condoned, or at least accepted, internationally. Because of this, everyday (albeit tormented) lives simply carried on within such hostile landscapes. As such, it is vital to build an open world in a similarly hostile community in order to witness its successes and injustices on a daily basis, even if the player is simply travelling to another portion of the map.

The possibilities for nuanced storytelling, whilst also pushing the player away from certain areas, are endless. Players might enter a house on a street corner, only for one of their allies to comment on the shouting heard at the end of the street. As players leave the house, five or ten minutes later, two police patrol cars could have been called – with the police now sectioning off the street. Needing to avoid detection, given their affiliation with the revolutionaries, players would eagerly look to flee the area without attracting attention. A dynamic event like this pushes the player whilst also alluding to resistance within the community (and how quickly and severely it is suppressed, even under lawful procedures).

Furthermore, imagine the implications for social stealth. Would you and your revolutionaries don police body armour and be seen as a state officer when entering certain areas under privileged access? In the early hours of the game, such a guise might evoke authority and instil fear in the pedestrians who would otherwise stand in your way. However, later in the game, it might instil anger and attract unwanted attention if the player drives into a certain estate with an armoured police patrol car. This way, the identity you present to the world would change as society evolves and regresses. The same would be true of openly brandishing iconography which associates you with the revolutionary cause. Initially, you’d be vilified and hunted down – but later on, you might be treated with cheers and cries of thanks when entering a new environment.

Moreover, by doing away with the linear level-based structure associated with games which tackle dystopias, and therefore drown their games with gun-based combat, a more social emphasis on the world itself would mean that players live with the revolutionaries rather than just see them as the iconic ally or enemy. This way, much like The Warriors, you would learn their intricacies – warts and all – in a way that the other protagonist, the police officer, would not appreciate. By not dooming the civilised world to the blackened landscapes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or their equivalent, players could even engage in activities with these groups outside of violence, making their individual members more than one-note characters who only represent the cause they’re willing to die for. I can easily see a tutorial of sorts involving the various fresh-faced ‘revolutionaries’ scaling a warehouse or factory to find a site to squat for the evening, evading patrolling security guards, and giving the player a sense of the world they live in without opening with blood and explosions galore. Players good have a game of football outside in the day, before heading to the arcade or a rave at night. The protagonist’s general transition into a full-blown revolutionary would be a natural part of the story, with your various allies manipulating you into taking drastic action over time in ways the player might not even be aware of – again, pushing the interactive qualities of videogame writing and AI-driven gameplay.

Conversely, controlling the police officer would pose an altogether different style of gameplay and quandary for the player within this rapidly regressing world. Early in the game, following the outbreak of a revolutionary act in defiance of a certain law or government policy, the police officer’s duty would slowly (or perhaps even swiftly) shift away from having to scour environments to detain genuine criminals. Instead, he or she would have to ‘keep the peace’ by actively targeting and expelling the revolutionaries in front of the public eye. A simple ‘bounty hunter’ mission now has you locating and extracting everyday people pushed to the brink, rather than killers or wrongdoers. Questioning whether what you’re doing is right, and having your allies in the police department and civilians around you decrying the revolutionaries as being cold-blooded terrorists, would really allow for open-world gameplay to be framed around historical perspective. What is my role in this world? How will this all end? What will happen to me once it does end?

Indeed, seeing a police-officer-turned-soldier entering the lion’s den, so to speak, given that your role in society is to remove revolutionaries, would be very similar to the crisis facing British soldiers sent into Northern Ireland during The Troubles (as recently depicted in the film ’71). The potential for slow-boiling tension – such as having kids heckle the soldiers by throwing water balloons filled with piss at the player, and residents of a terraced street slamming bin lids on the floor to signal to surrounding dissidents that the police have arrived – would be unnerving. Knowing that this estate used to be such a peaceful place fifty days earlier, where the player enjoyed a trip to the pub with a friend, would make the transformation even more difficult to stomach. The player knows that, even if they do their job, things will only get worse. That’s the kind of tension games can create and should be capitalising on with this new generation of hardware. Above all, such context would be essential for world building. Not everything has to be a full-on oppressive dystopia to be interesting and meaningful. The more chances there are at subtly, the greater opportunities there are for reflection, guilt and hesitation on the part of the player. No matter who the player controls, their actions are part of a grander narrative and history of revolution. That’s a game the world wants to play. And the medium needs to create it.

The story would surround not only how the two differing individuals develop over the course of the revolution, but ultimately how they come to terms with their actions over time. In many of these types of games, the ends justify the means and the player is rarely challenged to think about what they’ve done. The highest degree of moral choice in Bioshock surrounds the Little Sisters – not the denizens of Rapture that you have killed – whereas The Last of Us lets you think about all the killing only in the final stage when the game forces you to act a certain way in order to mirror the mentality of Joel. In this style of game, an event in the open world (such as seeing the military be summoned to a city centre and be instructed to fire on civilians who breach their perimeter) would be a radically different event from the perspective of the revolutionary, the police officer and those who each protagonist calls an ally. The same event could radically motivate each character in dramatically different ways. It would be exceptionally profound.

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Above all, the game has the opportunity to change how enemies are perecieved in an open world. The most fearful force is civilised humanity when pushed on the brink. Not an evil doer twirling their moustache, and not menacing crooks with nothing to lose. A man, woman, and even child, who have everything to lose will fight that much harder to keep their reality alive. If you stand in opposition of what someone believes, you’re in a very trepidacious position indeed. These are the kind of ‘enemies’ players would have to think twice about engaging in A World Without End – especially when thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions in a temporarily unruly dystopia. Just look at riots in England against the Poll Tax in 1990. Anti-government demonstrations quickly get out of hand once the emotions of the people don’t die down and the police are forced to intervene. There’s no need to rely on nukes to achieve images of a dystopia in the modern world.

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Still, the opportunities for dynamic storytelling in an open world of this sort are endless. If one thinks to the story of The Handmaid’s Tale (an excellent speculative future of modern-day America) or Children of Men, which sees Theo escort Kee – a woman capable of bearing children in a world which is now infertile – the unique opportunities for gameplay are very interesting indeed. Unlike The Last of Us, which sees players essentially control Theo (except the world is driven entirely by violence), what if players controlled Kee?

Early encounters in the game would be straightforward to deal with, mainly because players could fight or flee as they saw fit. However, at this early stage of the game, the world wouldn’t have been locked down by the authorities. Therefore, as the world becomes more authoritarian, with martial law in place for any and all who break curfew, players would have a harder time to fight or flee on account of their pregnancy. Throw in additional features, such as the need to eat more and having contractions at inopportune moments which give your position away to enemies or temporarily inhibit movement, and suddenly the game becomes dynamically more difficult in a very natural way. Given Neil Druckmann’s influence by Children of Men when creating the plot of The Last of Us, I would expect Ellie’s quiverring hand in the Part II trailer to signal a similar mechanic to the pregnany-focused one I have just described. Ellie temporarily losing control in the middle of a firefight as a new strain of virus (or an evolving version of her original bite) would be agonising. Joel knowing he has subjected Ellie to this fate, depriving her of a chance to do some good, just for five more years spent with her will be an interesting story to see explored, at the very least.

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Moreover, unlike bonds with an AI character which the game is hoping you won’t find to be a chore (even having the AI be undetected from enemies, or, in the case of Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, forever handing you equipment), players would develop their own views on their unborn child. Following the plot of Children of Men, assume the child is proof of mankind’s revived fertility. You might argue that the player would grow frustrated at their responsibility, but surely having a relationship with an invisible soul, essentially a game mechanic, is exactly what developers would want? Resenting your responsibilities, and how the baby makes your life more difficult as a player, but knowing that carrying this bundle for nine months – maybe more, maybe less – will ultimately reap major rewards for the preservation of humanity would always be in the back of the player’s mind. Their impression of the child is based on how they have felt about the mechanics of the game itself – not what the author wants you to think and feel. Surely that’s what makes games such a powerful storytelling medium? We have choices in gameplay (go left, go right) but not so much in story – because we’re always aspiring to tell stories in ways akin to novels and film. But we’re a different medium and developers should be braver in celebrating such difference, even if it risks failure. The experiment paves the way for greater success.

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III. In Review

Apologies for the stream-of-conscious nature of this pitch. By avoiding any specific details of the game and world I have envisioned, I’ve relied on stereotypes and basic mechanics in order to prove why an open-world game such as A World Without End is so necessary for the genre and the medium.

Of course, there are certain complications with an idea like this. However, unlike other pitches I have made recently – that is, a prison-based game and a detective-themed game – many open-world titles confront issues of violence and inequality without sacrificing their tone. Typically, there’s a nice balance between humour and drama, with certain characters in the modern metropolis serving as an antagonist or comic relief respectively. Admittedly, A World Without End focuses more on social, economic and political oppression than some menacing threat or far-away and fantastical enemy, but I’m certain that such a game can still be made enjoyable across its lengthy runtime.

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Likewise, although I haven’t mentioned it here (please read my earlier essays on Grand Theft Auto IV and The Last of Us), such a setting naturally blurs ‘on-’ and ‘off-mission’ content quite nicely without having to litter the player’s map with mission markers. I also feel the dynamic gameplay allows for a lot of player choice without having to arm players with a million weapons, thereby distinguishing this title from other open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and the Red Dead Redemption franchise.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty I can see this game raising is that its enemies aren’t ‘bad’, per se. Despite some reviewers flinching at the brutality of combat in The Last of Us, an excellent game which went to great lengths in humanising its enemies, the combatants were still very different from today’s civilians. A string of compelling notes in Pittsburgh gave you the impression that the ‘hunters’ players were fighting and being relentlessly pursued by had been forced to become killers, but other characters in the game like Henry and Sam, and even Maria, wait before they shoot at Joel and Ellie. No ‘enemies’ in the game do this. It’s understandable that the Fireflies be cautious around Joel, given his history in Boston (which Marlene was reluctantly accepting of, assuming Ellie would just be escorted a short distance – not the entire breadth of the U.S.), but everyone else shoots on sight. The same goes for Bioshock Infinite, albeit for the sake of story purposes and the theological autocracy of Comstock. That wouldn’t be the case with A World Without End, which could prove very problematic in motivating players to engage in combat (or, at the very least, hostile actions).

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Still, there are many positive features to take away from this thought experiment for the next generation of open-world adventure:

  • Most notably, migration functions as a mechanic. Players no longer feel safe in the open world. Therefore, they treat its denizens and police officers with respect, if not fear, when traversing through environments as the story unfolds.
  • The visual details are perfectly suited to an open world. Seeing an entire street be sectioned off by the police months into the revolution, and having to sleep on the floor of your former house with no electricity or heating, would really emphasise how player’s memory of locales (and people, lest we forget) can be manipulated through interactive entertainment. Getting nostalgic in a videogame is extremely powerful.
  • In turn, the hostility typically present in game mechanics (such as killing the enemies in your way) would become a much more difficult and ethical dilemma; more so than it is in other open-world games, differentiating itself from existing titles developed by Rockstar Games.
  • The characterisation made available by such mechanics is dynamic, too. Forming a bond with the kinds of people that some deem terrorists but you deem friends, whilst still challenging their actions from time to time, adds such depth to the standard archetypes found in games. Questioning why you’re completing objectives and making your way through a world which is unrecognisable would prove profound.
  • Importantly, both the police force and the revolutionaries would lead everyday lives outside of the activities for their respective causes. Life goes on, even amidst such confusion, anger, and perhaps even suffering. To be a plausible experience, not everything the player needs to be what a hero or antihero would do in a movie or biography of their lives. They need to have fun and relax in this kind of world. Seeing what opportunities are available for that kind of experience, especially as the world decays around them, would be incredible. Under such conditions, how would people have fun? Back in the interwar period, dancing occupied the country’s youth – as much as it did terrify them. Surely, if cities were under such strict control, people would have to revel outside urban areas and take advantage of the countryside. This could even tie into ‘missions’ or story beats and set pieces.
  • Historically, such a world draws from moments found in the recent past. As such, researching how a society like this could come to be would mean that the in-game revolution wouldn’t be unfathomable for the player to believe and buy into.
  • Perhaps most interestingly, in the sense that it reshapes what we understand an open-world game to be, is that there’s more consequence to the world. Each time a new day starts, or players boot up the game, a graphic would read ‘Day X in a world without end’. Players have no idea what dangers are ahead, and they have no idea if former allies in the game’s major city (or cities) are still alive.
  • Mimicking the story arcs of film and television is fine, but games provide better than any other medium a sense of place and memory. I remember Grove Street; I know which houses belonged to Ryder, Sweet and OG Loc. I know how I felt when returning with Sweet near the end of the game, after having spent months away from the Grove, the need to clean the streets and reclaim what was ours. This is a real strength of the medium that goes underutilised in existing open-world games, because they are made to allow the player to do anything at any time. A World Without End confidently confronts this feeling and imbues it into the actual gameplay without overreliance on cut scenes.
  • Such an approach builds on much-heralded moments in existing games and gears them even more towards the interactive medium. To alter an example I’ve discussed before, think about the fantastic storytelling in Ish’s sewers. Thought went into how the place operated for Ish and his surrogate family to survive, and it’s a shame the place wasn’t active when you got here. It reminded me of the hatch, or Station 3: The Swan, in Lost, and how Desmond lived before abandoning the site. In an open-world game, perhaps if you had found the sewers in the midpoint of the game you would interact with Ish and see how the community lived. If you arrived later, you see how it collapsed. It feeds back to the idea of using open-world games as a mosaic for narrative. Again, A World Without End wouldn’t depend on such moments – every single feature of the game world would passively communicate such a story. This level of thought would be ingrained into the entire world.

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Ultimately, by emphasising an everyday people and everyday institutions which are affected by change on a daily basis, this would be a game which details a world in revolution, capturing the sense of ‘bottling real life’ that recent Rockstar titles like Grand Theft Auto V have been attempting to achieve. It is for this reason that A World Without End would not only set the benchmark for what open-world games can become, but what the interactive medium as a whole is capable of producing with gameplay, story, characterisation, world building and atmosphere. It is a game I want to be involved in making, and, more than anything, it is a game I want to play.

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For a detailed synopsis of my actual pitch for this type of game, along with character profiles, a thorough description of mechanics, the game’s setting, and history of the landscape players would explore and struggle to thrive in, as well as script samples, please e-mail J_Ford2017@hotmail.com

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This game is the culmination of what I have been thinking about in other articles on this blog, so please read them to best understand what qualities I believe open-world titles should explore to push the potential of this medium forward in terms of both gameplay and storytelling.

IT ALWAYS ENDS WITH BLOOD: The Spiritual Successor to ‘L.A. Noire’ by Rockstar Games and Team Bondi

Developed by the now-extinct Team Bondi, the 1940s’ detective thriller L.A. Noire is unlike anything I have played in modern gaming. Defined by its trademark MotionScan technology, through which the furrowed brows, exasperated glares, and wandering eyes of recognisable actors were torn straight from reality and pressed onto digital cadavers, players must either believe, doubt or accuse suspects across twenty-one cases during the most violent year in L.A.’s faithfully-recreated history. The game’s protagonist, the incorruptible beat-cop-turned-detective Cole Phelps, whose concern with results over politics instilled the player with a single-minded drive to restore order in the City of Angels, contextualised the city’s numerous crimes. Building on tropes of the genre, Phelps, much like the rest of the ailing metropolis’ denizens, buried himself into his work as a means of readjusting to everyday life after having presumably claimed many lives of his own when serving his country overseas during the Second World War.

Regardless of whether the player solves crimes associated with the homicide, vice or arson desk, L.A. Noire‘s core gameplay involves scouring exquisitely detailed interiors and exteriors to inspect clues alongside an assortment of scrupulous associates to bring justice to the post-war world. Questioning witnesses like a true sleuth and focusing on their tells, the slow, methodical pace of police investigations forced players to pay attention to every minute detail within an atmospheric and immersive Hollywoodland, and everything caught beneath its incendiary glow. Indeed, by dwelling on the worst of humanity and everything we are capable of, including an unflinching gaze towards attitudes of racism, bigotry and sexual assault, L.A. Noire was critically acclaimed for allowing players to confront the dishonesty in others in a sometimes nuanced and evidence-driven context.

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Yet, of all the games that Rockstar have been involved with, L.A. Noire stands as the only title which failed to connect with me. By distilling the point-and-click adventures of the ’90s into a more contemporary framework and aesthetic, L.A. Noire had the potential to be the defining detective drama of today’s generation – using interactivity as its distinguishing characteristic. But rather than produce a franchise which served as an almost novelistic crime thriller, going beyond the influences of the noir published by James Elroy, L.A. Noire ultimately fell victim to spreading itself too thin. Its disparate mechanics of exploring, shooting, driving and questioning were mashed together into a repetitive, hollow, predictable, and sadly uninspired experience – one I have struggled to revisit in recent years. The world was gigantic but my access to it and my interest in it was mainlined towards barebones objectives day after day.

The nature of bouncing from case to case prevented the game from pursuing a singular identity which was fun to play from beginning to end. On one side of the spectrum, if the player disastrously interpreted clues cases would still resolve themselves to push the stagnant plot forward, whereas moments of cinematic flair – from arresting the wrong man or having a suspect run from the police – were forced onto the narrative. By having no agency over these set pieces, the game’s inconsistent ruleset proved frustrating. Moreover, the game’s overarching narrative was all but non-existent until its eventual momentum during the final section of the game is snubbed by an unsatisfying conclusion. There was no sense of consequence to my actions, and therefore I felt no responsibility in solving case after case because my own investigative process did not matter, aside from being given a better rank and fresh choice of outfit.

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So, why do I want to see Rockstar Games develop a spiritual successor, if not a sequel of sorts, to this property? The answer is straightforward: the core mechanics simply need polishing before being moulded into a game which carries its own identity and can be described as an experience which is consistently exciting, engaging and surprising. Much like how Red Dead Redemption took the best bits of Red Dead Revolver before reapplying them to an open-world format which more accurately reflected the activities drawn from its Western source material, the successor to L.A. Noire must similarly undergo a transformative process in order to become the genre-defining game it deserves to be.

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As such, I have two proposals in mind which would elevate the rather formulaic open-world detective game into something truly unique for the gaming landscape. The difference between these ideas is that one honours what made the original so beloved, and makes the noir genre so culturally significant, whereas the other betrays it in favour of more stylishly exploring what it means to be responsible for dispensing justice in an unjust world.

‘It Always Ends With Blood’

At its best, L.A. Noire presents the qualities of a mystery novel through the thoughts and flaws of its protagonist(s). For the series to evolve, future instalments must test our hero’s energy, morality and relationships to produce a more cohesive and enthralling experience. Otherwise, Phelps is left to climb the career ladder, solving crimes for the sake of it; there’s no meaningful impact for solving one case perfectly and another abysmally. In turn, everyday citizens, competing agencies, local media, and the outside world, must all be transfixed by the crime(s) being investigated for players to similarly be invested in the methods, actions and discoveries of their protagonist(s). When pressures like these are applied to our hero from all sides, the story can more compellingly explore how practitioners of law and order work towards finding a ‘plausible narrative’ of events when evaluating evidence whilst concurrently operating under such inflammatory scrutiny.

Therefore, any sequel or spiritual successor must position the mystery players are solving, and the partner they are solving it with, at the heart of every gameplay mechanic and story beat. Rather than focusing on multiple desks and a bewildering number of static inquiries, the spiritual successor (entitled, for the purpose of this piece, It Always Ends With Blood) would benefit from concentrating on just one overarching and nuanced crime which can be approached from multiple angles.

i) The World, its Crime, their Relevance and Real-World Inspirations

Ostensibly, It Always Ends With Blood focuses on the inter-agency search of fourteen missing foreign nationals who were presumably kidnapped from their hotel in the fictional Mexican state of El Cruce. When the hotel’s tour bus is found abandoned in the state’s outer fringe, international attention flocks to El Cruce and the U.S. dispatches it CIA investigators to locate the missing American, German, Italian and British tourists.

Plenty of existing criminal organisations – from drug cartels, business-driven institutions, and fraudulent operations engineered by the missing tourists themselves – are available from the outset as possible perpetrators of this crime, revealing the positive and negative aspects of El Cruce’s culture. Still, the region is heavily afflicted by various criminal enterprises and the blood money circulating throughout the state’s many private institutions. By setting the overarching mystery within a violent, dangerous and mysterious open-world setting, players will be naturally inclined to investigate their surroundings, interrogate suspects and engage in more action-orientated sequences. The biggest crime in L.A. Noire was that the late 1940s setting was noninteractive window dressing. By staging the crime in a world replete with novelty, the culture shock will allow for every intricate detail in Rockstar’s open world to be appreciated by the player – something which often goes undervalued by fans of their existing work.

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The game would open like every other case in L.A. Noire, with a brief glimpse into the crime being enacted. Opening with a bus in the middle of nowhere being driven in the dead of night, players control one of eight men who share the vehicle with six women, riding as passengers in the vehicle. A range of emotions can be witnessed in this wordless sequence, including the muffled sobbing and panicked breaths of those around the player. Once the vehicle comes to a standstill, each of the fourteen individuals begins to undress before folding their clothes neatly onto their seat. In pairs, the nude passengers help each other wrap plastic bags around their hands and feet before zip-tying each other’s wrists and ankles to hold the bags in place. Then, one by one, the passengers march off the bus and pace out of frame, stricken with fear. Who they were, why they undressed, why they vacated the bus willingly, and where they went next, is up for the player to figure out.

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‘There’s a reason people in this cesspit celebrate death.
Whole country’s a graveyard of MIAs.’ – Alicia Roberts

Inspired by the spree of unsolved kidnappings and disappearances which have taken place in Latin America over several decades, presumably under the extensive criminal influence of the cartels, It Always Ends With Blood would present players with modern-day equivalents to the organised crime syndicates alluded to in the original L.A. Noire. In turn, by having the threat be so wickedly evil and violent, with the Mexican army routinely conducting its own drug war in everyday locales, it’s more natural that players brandish body armour and wield firearms when entering poppy plantations or inner-city warehouses. Although the game doesn’t need to become a chaotic third-person shooter to compensate, drawing on the excellent mechanics honed by Max Payne 3, it does need to impress upon the player the reality that they are a stranger in a strange land and everyday rules of law and order that they are accustomed to are not necessarily recognised as a reality by the residents of El Cruce. The same goes for investigating criminal organisations that are not used to being threatened or exposed by the authorities. America’s ongoing engagement in the War on Drugs overseas, and the rampant accusations of CIA injustices in prolonging the influence of cartels, could also illuminate certain areas of the material.

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Most notably, because the individuals are missing rather than dead, players know that the longer they take to solve the crime the more likely it is that the fourteen missing tourists in danger could be moved somewhere unthinkably evil (or lose their lives in the process). The plot is given a sense of urgency as media pressure and public scrutiny factor into your leading of the investigation. Even with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, or poor Madeline McCann, I’m interested in seeing a game explore how such disasters can flood the rolling news for several weeks before being dropped as soon as a ‘better’ story emerges. Police cases take not days, but weeks and years. How would the memory of the ‘Forsaken Fourteen’ transform into the ‘Forgotten Fourteen’ as the player’s investigation goes on, and how would gameplay capitalise upon memory as a mechanic? What does it do to the protagonist? These are interesting questions the source material raises and games are distinctly capable of exploring, especially within the interactive detective genre.

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ii) The Protagonist and their Partner

Focused on the sixteen-month partnership of a recently-recruited U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst Alicia Roberts, and Federal Police Officer Isaac Santo, the game would star newly-formed partners who have opposing world views that stem from their radically different surroundings and life experiences.

The true subject of the story would surround what it means to uphold the law in an environment which operates under very different social expectations and values, following decades of violence and crime being a daily occurrence for everyday citizens. Must law adapt to the lawless? The protagonist is the vehicle through which players physically, emotionally and intellectually interact with this premise, as every obstacle in their investigation would reflect this conundrum.

Alicia Roberts, 27:

Alicia, a young and obsessive personality, has devoted her entire life to pursuing a career path in national security. She is a person who initially finds relationships suffocating, preferring to work alone. Her narrative, as the case develops, would grapple with the culture clash in El Cruce, where the balance between law and disorder is so disorientating and seemingly illogical that residents of the Mexican state do not flinch at the sounds of gunshots in the far distance, whilst newspapers graphically showcase the violent deaths of its citizens on the front page.

Having no life beyond work, in contrast to her partner (someone she initially thinks little of, because of how he behaves and who he associates with), would be an engaging starting point for her character arc given that the player needs somewhat of a blank slate in order to identify with Alicia. Like John Marston and Niko Bellic, hints at a backstory which are unearthed over time are much more engaging than a full account of the protagonist’s past. Developers must let the player fill in the gaps based on a character’s choice of words and how they think. Ultimately the arc would conclude that there is more to life than work, that Alicia does need downtime, but that her job demands she avoid distractions of everyday life. Perhaps sorrowfully, her experiences in the game entrench the belief that her duty comes first – even if the outcomes of such sacrifice are not easy to understand or reconcile.

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I think it would be interesting to have a protagonist more interested in the lives of fourteen foreign nationals than the countless native lives ruined by the same endemic problems within El Cruce’s society. Colliding with her partner, Isaac, on these issues would be a good use of in-car conversations when driving to a crime scene or the next lead in the investigation. Rather than just spout exposition to solve the case, even the smallest of details which reveal more about the criminal’s motivation (and perhaps the victims’ consent, should the game venture down a more conspiratorial route) would reveal something about the difficulty Alicia and Isaac have in accepting their reality for what it is – and that they’re powerless to alter its course.

Moreover, Alicia’s experience and training, as well as the player’s free will, would be more antagonistic towards the cartels. Believing she will only be in El Cruce for the duration of the investigation, and that they must suffer for their crimes, Alicia would impulsively act on a more short-term basis, not showing much hesitation when confronting suspects or pulling out her firearm when threatened by members of the cartel.

Isaac Santo, 43:

Conversely, Isaac – a man who is fiercely proud of his wife and child, as well as the life he leads in the community of El Cruce – represents the logical conclusion of the family man in this partially-hostile landscape. A compromised Federal Police Officer, one who is both underpaid and undertrained, Isaac represents the systemic corruption amongst Mexico’s police force without necessarily being an evil-doer himself. He’s accustomed to turning a blind eye to the cartel’s activities, having been threatened on multiple occasions given that criminals know who he is and where his family reside. Certain sections of gameplay could even see Isaac complete errands for local crooks or those with an affiliation with certain criminal syndicates, which Alicia could accompany him on (outside of the main investigation). Although preventive and judicial policing are usually kept separate, it is important that Isaac’s role becomes much more militarised by working alongside soldiers and prosecutors through joint patrols. The game has the opportunity, therefore, for Alicia to consult with Isaac when pursuing certain leads and employing a more militaristic strategy without undoing the authenticity of the world around them or the environs of El Cruce.

When assigned to assist in Alicia’s international operation to find the missing fourteen, serving as a guide and translator when following leads which will solve the crime, a great deal of friction would be evident between Isaac and Alicia. Disagreeing with her belief that the ends justify the means, Isaac should cause the player to doubt themselves as they behave as the leading authority in El Cruce. Likewise, Alicia will pull up Isaac on his contradictions as a man when taking bribes and letting small-scale criminals get away with crimes for fear of kicking the hornet’s nest and doing the job he’s paid for.

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‘Doing this job, you gotta dig through the bodies buried beneath your
feet just to reach for the fresh ones. At least we hope.’ –
 Isaac Santo

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These conflicting approaches to law and order allow for more versatile, and less by-the-book, opportunities to seek answers and pressure criminal organisations into giving up information without having to repeatedly interview and arrest individuals. The game’s mechanics would open up to reflect the more dangerous threat posed by the world, and change Alicia’s own understanding of justice. Seeing the methods Isaac employs, and then justifying them, would even cause the player to second guess what the best plan of action is when searching for the missing fourteen. Having to complete an operation off-book and lie to your superiors about how you acquired information leading to certain arrests would be excellent. L.A. Noire always saw players put the pressure on others, but when the tables are turned and you are forced to think up an alibi off the top of your head then suddenly the mechanic becomes that more versatile and unexpected. There could even be a criminal hierarchy which is available to see back at headquarters, with players being encouraged by agencies both at home and abroad to pursue certain lieutenants and bring down criminal structures. This technique would be more suited to a game in which international agencies are responsible for bringing down crime in a certain area through any means necessary, which is certainly interesting, but there’s a danger it would become repetitive and miss the nuance of the slow-boiled detective piece briefly detailed in this pitch.

Having to trust in your partner, knowing that he’s voluntarily compromised himself whilst working in service of the cartels to protect his family, would add for a relatable contrast between the two upholders of the law without simply relegating Isaac’s character to an easily-tempted, greedy crook. Being able to justify police corruption as a matter of degrees, focusing on assessment by outcome, and have such thoughts pollute the player’s own mindset when approaching the major case could be very interesting as the plot thickens and the lengths needed to be taken in order to find the kidnapped families alive become more and more apparent.

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‘You see a man, see the life he’s built, and judge him. I see a man who
kept it all standing. You shame him for staying strong.’ – Isaac Santo

Building on this notion of memory and how a criminal investigation is perceived by the outside world, perhaps It Always Ends With Blood could explore themes concerning the distribution of truth – both privately and publicly. Having our detectives warp evidence at its source and produce an altered narrative to their respective superiors, and therefore the broader public, in the interests of both protecting and hindering other parties provides the means to better portray human nuance and sophisticated suspense in a compelling, naturalistic manner.

Once again, this would boil the plot down to the ultimate question: should law and order be fixed and rigorously enforced, or must it adapt to changes in circumstances when applied to a failed state? Can police officers turn up to the leader of a cartel, throw the book at him, arrest him, and expect the organisation he heads to collapse upon his removal? If the answer is no, then should the player actively target such a person and hold them responsible for the city’s various crimes at all, nevermind the missing fourteen? Adding moral dilemmas to the main narrative was something both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption explored, so I see this as a more interactive evolution of those games whilst taking advantage of the detective genre’s main mechanics. Speaking of which…

iii) The Overarching Gameplay Mechanics

The core mechanics of L.A. Noire would be unchanged. You’d still drive to crime scenes, speak with the police officers and witnesses at the scene of the crime, and engage in car chases should suspects run away – perhaps culminating in shootouts where the task is to injure your key suspect and keep them alive for questioning (as was the case with bounties in Red Dead Redemption). However, the game itself would be much more non-linear. And it would all stem from the in-game map of El Cruce.

For example, after inspecting the tour bus left stranded at El Cruce’s outer perimeter, players are immediately given three leads to pursue as they adjust to life south of the border and work alongside their shady, temperamental partner who sometimes leaves work early because of his ‘familial responsibilities’ elsewhere.

Using the open-world map as a way of solving the crime, players would have to decide which leads to follow. If they follow Lead A, neglecting to pursue Lead B and C, but it proves to be a red herring, then Leads B and C lose their potency. What were once three equally colourful circles that overlayed the map, would now be replaced with two circles that are far more faded in colour. When players visit these remaining locales, the danger is that crime scenes could have been tampered with or the most pertinent clues are now lost. Suddenly, there is a strategy players must factor into their investigation – not dissimilar from the choices in Telltale’s excellent The Wolf Among Us (perhaps the best game of that ilk, largely due to the fact that the player coexists with a number of suspects in a sheltered community). Where do you go and why? Can you risk leaving a site temporarily unattended?

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The result is a trail of clues which reflect the evidence you’ve already collected, with the mission structure serving as more of a mosaic than a linear investigation. The goal is not to find ‘the truth’ as such, but more appropriately construct a ‘plausible narrative’ of events when following the various trails which lead you to the kidnapped (or enslaved, if not deceased) tourists. Simply put, if Alicia is after the cartels because a number of young men from that organisation have been linked to driving the bus out into the middle of nowhere through security cameras along the main motorways, then the failed business interests of certain kidnapees will be buried – making it difficult for players to conceive of the grand narrative before them because they don’t have all the evidence. Is every one of the fourteen a victim? Is this a revenge attack to frame certain cartels and relinquish their control over certain portions of the city? Did the police help conceive this scheme?

The nature of this approach means that certain players will have key suspects based on the evidence they have found which other players don’t even know exist. Is it possible to discover the whole truth in one playthrough? Perhaps. But if more than one organisation is involved, and a larger crime is at play behind the scenes of this alleged kidnapping, then unravelling the crime in layers at least allows for a greater deal of player agency in how you approach the situations you are presented with. The experience is still carefully driven and paced by the developers, you just unearth it at your own pace and with your own prejudices – much like any investigator. If players receive flak for adamantly pursuing criminals that simply cannot be tied to the case, either because they have a good lawyer or Alicia lacks the necessary evidence, players might even try and subvert the law to implicate individuals and serve ‘justice’ through more illegal means (as proposed by Isaac, if not other members of the local police force or criminal bodies).

The game also allows for broader, almost militaristic, operations to be enacted by the police – in keeping with the approach taken by Mexican authorities. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto V-style heist mechanic in which players decide how they’re going to surround a potential witness and arrest them. Are the police officers working alongside you trustworthy, or will they tip off the suspects and alert them to the investigation? This means that the game doesn’t need a hundred missions but instead must focus on a smaller number of multi-faceted moments which carry the depth necessary to be engaging and challenging. Less is more, on the action front, I feel. It makes violence more impactful.

Do you keep Isaac close, making sure he doesn’t subvert your will, or do you trust him to pursue individuals on the other side of the city at the same time? If he returns after you’ve completed your side of the operation, only to throw his hands up and report how ‘they got away’, the player would doubt whether Isaac is telling the truth. Alternatively, is the evidence he collected deliberately misleading the player, or was Isaac fed it from another source? Players could even let Isaac drive to a crime scene in the future, questioning him as he does so – much like you would interviewing a suspect. At the very least, by positioning the player as an alien in El Cruce’s society, someone who is unaccustomed to the cultural norms, they must rely on the intel they are given by the CIA but also the advice and views of Isaac. Setting up a situation in which the player is untrusting of their partner is important, as it adds greater complexity and interactivity to the partnership and is in keeping with the noirish spirit of the title.

iv) Side Activities, World Building and Broader Characterisation

Balancing the drama and action of working this case and completing your police work is all well and good, but players need opportunities to deviate from the main path and relax every now and then. The original L.A. Noire offered this through one-note, single-scene sequences where players would snoop a perp or foil a bank robbery, but they were uninspired and tiresome distractions for the most part. Hunting down newspapers which added to the overarching narrative were interesting, but finding the 95 hidden cars and 40-plus tourist sites served as grinding for the sake of exploration.

Not every game needs to follow the Grand Theft Auto formula, but if players are to live the life of a detective then they must balance their choices at work with their freedom at home. Counterbalancing the heft of the plot with more light-hearted, character-building moments would result in a much more enjoyable experience which is balanced throughout its entire playtime. Grand Theft Auto V succeeded in doing this, at the cost of the main storyline and due to it being a more comedic adventure than L.A. Noire.

Something as simple as engaging in side activities, such as going bowling or eating out, could be spent not just with Isaac but also his family to give better dimensions to his character and your relationship with the man you think you know. But the more I consider how we can utilise the open-world dynamic beyond which leads you follow and how players coordinate the extraction of certain VIP targets, several problems are exposed.

v) Problems with It Always Ends With Blood as a Successor to L.A. Noire

The fundamental issue with this setting and premise is the language barrier. A lot of my suggestions to make the game more engaging have been to manipulate systems of power and give a context for more slow-paced, methodical operations (rather than sprawling shootouts), but it was all under the assumption that the existing tenets of investigation remain. The language barrier would prevent this. Max Payne 3 did an excellent job by acknowledging the language barrier and having it confuse Max, but that is not what’s needed here – unless Alicia is simply going to observe rather than act.

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The rarely acknowledged genius of Rockstar’s open worlds is that they are written for multiple perspectives. The hilarious radio chat shows hosted by Lazlow and the parodies of organisations and rampant consumerism through in-game adverts offer more than the main quest as a perspective on the world. L.A. Noire was about the work and nothing else. Its static world reflected this. Perhaps if there were multiple characters then the world of It Always Ends With Blood could have more opportunities for variety, but the plot would become too convoluted when accounting for varying impressions of the same crime and world.

As much as I profess wanting to blur the lines between mission and off-mission content, the reality is that it would be very difficult to take your foot off the gas in a game like this. Any side activities would still have to be structured events, often spent with Isaac and his family, meaning the game would be constantly fixed on these two individuals. What, then, is the point of being an open-world experience? You can’t understand the locals, and the activities require other characters to constitute as character building. It’s a tricky conundrum to solve, but it is not insurmountable.

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Perhaps more pressing is the action-orientated nature of the world and the various additions I have cited. By having a society whose criminals are stereotypically renowned for evil acts of mindless violence, the more measured approach of L.A. Noire – which bound suspects to the law and ensured they came in for questioning – is sacrificed in the process. Once you allow for a more volatile style of gameplay, where reporters or criminals can be visited off-duty and roughed up, the game design sets the precedent for the player to abruptly overreact. The story could reflect this, of course, but is it appropriate to pull off a Team America-like stunt only for the game to argue ‘one must fight fire with fire’?

Another question is whether It Always Ends With Blood is a true representation of American noir fiction. The most recent noir drama I experienced was 2015’s second season of True Detective, which set its eyes to the remote industrial fringe of Vinci, California and Los Angeles more fully. As much as I enjoyed certain moments, each of the four protagonists’ shared demons stripped any investment I had for their plight because they lacked any emotional depth. A vengeful, self-centered and self-destructive detective, whose wrath and violence lacked any real direction, is not an interesting character after a couple of hours’ playtime. It was by forgetting the hallmarks of the genre, concentrating instead on moody lighting, Lynchian abstraction, and a relentless fetishisation of criminality, that resulted in True Detective defining its plot and characters on the superficial.

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It is for this reason that staging a more modern spiritual successor against modern crises in Latin America – perhaps by way of injecting an excess of action to hold otherwise disparate investigatory gameplay mechanics together – that It Always Ends With Blood is also looking for the easy way of making the moments in between interrogations and piecing together strands of evidence on your map more exciting.

Certain writers champion themselves for producing non-sexualised female characters in film, television and games, yet arm their characters with firearms and make them fight men in conditions which do not reflect real life. Restrained by game mechanics, they mimic male characters who – especially in Rockstar Games’ titles, with the likes of Michael, Franklin and Trevor – are antiheroes. Rockstar doesn’t glorify its antiheroes.

While the cast of Bioshock was rightly written in response to the era it was set (with Andrew Ryan being a rich white man capable of building Rapture), whereas the rebel leader in Bioshock Infinite was understandably a black woman (representing the most repressed group in the city of Columbia), The Last of Us had to a) eliminate 80 per cent of humanity in order to create a more egalitarian society (one built on violence, not law) and b) had to fastforward time to create an environment where class, gender and race did not factor into who was a survivor and who was not. What this means is that you can’t just throw a certain type of character into any given situation and state that it represents diversity. As such, if It Always Ends With Blood is going to have a law-abiding protagonist (one who happens to be female in a department run by men) we need to appreciate what this means for story and gameplay.

Using True Detective as an example once more, Detective Bezzerides’ damaged and damaging exterior mistook the ‘hard woman’ cliche for a strong, meaningful female character. Her general lack of levity produced an unending morose tone which further complicated a labyrinthine and ultimately uninteresting murder mystery which no one wanted, nor perhaps even needed, to solve. There is a danger, especially given the long-form storytelling of games, that the hostile environment of El Cruce would become a parody of itself and lack the sincerity needed to give the pulpy, hard-boiled noir atmosphere a reason to exist.

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As such, perhaps being more in kin with the period aesthetic of the original L.A. Noire, a more direct sequel should transport itself to another U.S. city and historic era, whilst also concentrating on characters and mechanics which break away from the wallowing, atrophied modern noir. Which leads me onto a more plausible successor to the 1940s’ detective drama.

‘A More Far-Reaching, Rust-Belt Noire?’

If noir was a genre born in the early 1940s in response to the changing racial and gender landscape of post-war America, repeatedly impaling the American Dream by exposing the weaknesses and contradictions in the American psyche, then arguably the spiritual successor to L.A. Noire must honour these origins by representing a game which removes the garish masks of the modern world to confront the horrors beneath when challenging notions of gender, race and identity.

Although the original game dealt with fear of the ‘other’ through Phelps’ love interest, which stemmed from the Red Scare and Hollywood’s eventual blacklisting by Senator McCarthy, such themes are most prevalent in the much-maligned historical era where noir is said to have died: the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the political landscape allegedly being more cut-and-dry following the fight for civil rights and second-wave feminism, such decades are rife for noir-inspired material when illuminated by revisionist history of the post-civil rights decades. This is my current area of historical interest, and would serve to be a more nuanced exploration of the original game’s mechanics and themes whilst entrenching them in a stronger, often neglected, period of modern American history.

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Going beyond a backdrop of climbing Cold War fears and the failure of détente, as well as the recognition that social features of the civil rights act have failed due to rising economic inequality, is essential. The reverberating minority revolution of not just African Americans following the riots of the sixties, but also Chicanos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, white ethnics, women and the disabled provides an excellent backdrop to breathe life into the streets of New York, Washington, Boston and so forth. Following in the wake of Black Power to demand the government provide every ethnicity with their civil rights (Yellow Power, Brown Power, Red Power) would be a fantastic backdrop for the chaos and disruption occurring during this period. Driving down the street and seeing hundreds of people marching would be a sight in itself, but chasing a perp through such a scene would be even more exciting. The crime would not necessarily surround these groups, but using the game as a semi-historical document would be thrilling.

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By capturing the worst decades of a rustbelt city’s history, amidst economic degradation, deindustrialisation, white flight to the suburbs and the reconfiguration of the American city as a crime-ridden cesspit, encapsulates the hallmarks of the noir genre. Seeing how Native Americans are poorly policed, and how those isolated communities have been persecuted against by the authorities and neglected by the public (beyond the crippling alcoholism and drug addiction), would be seriously influential in capturing the rightward shift on the 1980s and their origins in the 1970s (a decade where, allegedly, ‘it seemed like nothing happened’).

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In terms of crimes, the legitimisation of porn as it became a genuine industry, alongside housing crises following the failed assimilation of ethnic minorities into white society, combined with the price of oil resulting in gas workers being robbed and petty crime skyrocketing – the social, political, cultural and economic drama is all here. Even if this game followed the model of the original L.A. Noire, with multiple cases being juggled at once, the variety is there to produce a truly compelling historically-inspired experience. It would also be easier to add some of the grimy themes mentioned in my pitch for It Always Ends With Blood, given the more critical attitudes towards the government and rising local protest at this time.

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Stylistically, setting the game over years, rather than compressing such cases into a short-lived career, would also allow the degradation of the urban landscape to come to the fore. My current area of research focuses on the contentions between national and local authority with regard to ‘right to shelter’ laws across Washington, D.C. in the ’80s and ’90s. Seeing a game which features the capital city and confronts its contradictions would be especially unique for the industry without sacrificing its strengths as being an engaging piece of entertainment. Ultimately, the game can be modern without being set in the present day – distinguishing itself from the likes of Grand Theft Auto, much like Red Dead Redemption succeeded in achieving back in 2010.

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In Review

Although I’m leaning more towards the 1970s and 1980s detective drama, both evolutions of L.A. Noire that I have envisioned rid the complications which plagued the original game. Gone are players being left bewildered, if not bored, when repeatedly asking:

  • What are the stakes? Why should I feel motivated to complete my duty?
  • Who are the goons I’m chasing down or shooting? If it comes down to this, having failed to talk them out of their actions, how does this altercation help flesh out the broader investigation?
  • Why does my protagonist’s past matter, without it having to be forcibly tied to the overarching mystery I am investigating? Why do the protagonist’s various relationships matter?
  • Why is the game set in an open world, besides the lengthy drive to crime scenes or homes in which suspects could be interviewed?

Overall, I do feel that players should be challenged when juggling various leads and hen constructing their own interpretation of events. Regardless of whether the sequel took a radically different approach, through examination of cartels and the impossibility of expelling justice in certain ways to certain people, or a more historically-informed analysis of the disintegration of the post-industrial world, there are plenty of opportunities for fun in these worlds.

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The complications are bound to exist, given the genre’s imposition of restraint and order on a character who players could easily turn bad when running into pedestrians and so forth. But if the player is rooted in the reality of the world, and immersed in the task at hand, this genre can be a truly engaging and gripping experience – and an asset to the interactive medium. Whatever happens, I hope we see more once Rockstar Games have more authority over the direction of the project from beginning to end.

INMATE: A Spiritual Successor to ‘Bully’ by Rockstar Games

2006’s Bully is one of my favourite Rockstar Games titles because of the ways in which it innovated upon what an open-world environment could be. Although it ostensibly follows the standard Grand Theft Auto formula of roaming around a detailed environment at your leisure and triggering missions by speaking with key individuals around campus, Bully truly blurred the lines between what constitutes as ‘work’ and ‘play’ in an open-world setting. It pioneered the attitude pursued by Rockstar Games when making games today: to create lives for players to lose themselves in, combining story and gameplay into a cohesive, satisfying and engrossing whole.

For me, Bullworth Academy was truly home for fifteen-year-old Jimmy Hopkins. The private boarding school’s denizens were genuine friends and enemies whose relationships I had built organically over time. By doing away with the lethality of open-world games, no longer being allowed to eliminate characters from the world and therefore your thoughts, squabbles the player had with Trent, the blonde-haired bully, or Biff, the Preppy’s leading boxer, caused me to fear these individuals when skateboarding to an after-school mission. Such instances encouraged me to seek revenge by slapping a ‘Kick Me!’ sign on their back, or attacking them afar with stink bombs and itching powder, rather than engaging them in a one-on-one fight which I could very well have lost. And, of course, memorable individuals like Algernon and Sheldon would either be characters players would go out of their way to protect or victimise, should their comically whining behaviour have prompted them to do so. Individuals mattered in this world more so than anything else.

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More than any other setting designed by Rockstar Games, Bullworth Academy felt alive. Its denizens felt real, and players were constantly forging their own narratives by messing with the AI outside of structured missions. Joining the Greaser egging the girls’ dorm, or incurring the wrath of the Jocks after you wedgie Ted, the star quarterback, are memories that stick with me just as much as defending ‘Pee Stain’ as he rode a girl’s bike away from pissed-off Greasers, or being trapped in the pit with Russell when searching for radio parts to trade with the deranged homeless veteran who secretly lives on campus.

Bully is rightfully remembered for its charm, which is why I don’t necessarily wish to see a sequel with new cliques or a college-based setting. However, its core mechanics can certainly be improved and innovated upon by transferring them to a similar, yet tonally-different, setting. In my mind, the most logical setting for a spiritual successor for Bully to be staged – especially given Rockstar’s exploration of more mature protagonists like Niko Bellic and John Marston – is a federal penitentiary.

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I. The Strengths of Bully and Their Parallels to Inmate

The most notable strengths of Bully (or Canis Canem Edit, as I first experienced the title) involve the genuine relationships players develop with individual characters who, seemingly, have their own routines, friends and affiliations. Such a system would perfectly translate to a prison setting, where loyalties and allegiances are much more meaningful when ensuring one’s short-term adjustment (if not survival) to life inside. First impressions are hard to erase, and, in a confined environment like prison, Inmate could capitalise upon this fact.

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Much like Bully, where Jimmy is dropped off outside his new school, and swiftly taken to reception where he is registered and greeted by the Principal, Inmate would see the player strip-searched upon arrival at the fictional penitentiary before being escorted to their cell in General Population by a prison guard. Once away from the supposedly ‘mindful’ eye of the authorities, players are immediately free rein to interact with – or be approached by – other inmates on their wing. Given that the opening environment would be a finite play space during the game’s early hours, as was the case with Bullworth Academy, players are naturally restricted to certain areas and curfews as they struggle to coexist with much more rooted and respected members of the homegrown, and possibly violent, community.

While the jovial tone and nature of Bully pulled on the player’s nostalgic experiences of their school days, focusing on ‘cliques’ which ranged from the ‘Nerds’ in the library to the ‘Jocks’ in the football field, the next-generation complexity of a prison setting would instead focus on developing a relationship not simply with ‘gangs’ or, more sinisterly, ethnic groups, but rather select individuals who each have their own wants, desires, talents and histories.

Inmates would differ in terms of their characteristics, dependent upon criminal histories, age, ethnicity, the length of their sentence, time inside, and desire to rehabilitate. Roaming around your small but multifunctional wing would reveal how different characters hold different positions within the in-game hierarchy. In Bully, there were teachers, prefects and then the tougher pupils. Here, the psychology of the prison hierarchy would be something players would have to figure out themselves, whether it be through talking with certain inmates or falling foul of wronging more intimidating and dangerous people. Indeed, the patrolling officers would perhaps be the least of the player’s worries should they – knowingly or unknowingly – offend the wrong person. Still, the watchful eye of prison officers would provide a natural restraint for the player, should they become too explosive in their physicality – again, building on the wanted system of Bully, if not the reputation system of Red Dead Redemption.

Building on institutions with established timetables, curfews and classes were a way of restricting Jimmy’s movement as well as rewarding the player by developing their skills (whether it be through crafting items or sweet-talking figures of authority into letting you off the hook). Jobs and punishments similarly kept players in line, incentivising them to genuinely fear authority and the risk of being caught misbehaving (as opposed to simply taking away some ammo and money before letting chaos resume). These systems would easily translate to a prison environment in the sense that jobs, routines and activities are available for prisoners to be involved with. Perhaps certain jobs would only become available if the player has a good enough reputation amongst the officers and prison staff, with added bonuses being that the ‘jobs’ (minigames which are fun in their own right) ultimately give you access to certain areas of the prison – such as the kitchen, laundry room, workshop, classrooms, and the nurse’s office. Still, drawing on my interests in seeing open-world games better blur the lines between structured narrative and in-game frivolities, such activities could serve as the means of gaining intel, learning more about other inmates, and forging allegiances and relationships.

Even something as simple playing chess, liar’s dice, or cards with a cell mate has the potential to become its own narrative experience. For instance, being asked to throw down some cash to make the match more interesting is all well and good, but would the player seriously consider:

A) owing money to certain types of individuals; or

B) have certain types of individuals owing them money?

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Complex dynamics like this would add much more strategy into what otherwise amounts to a five-minute distraction in an open-world game, or simply as the means of farming cash to buy a better firearm or new outfit. Side activities would be given a more necessary function when used as a means to survive inside. Likewise, playing checkers with a character could be broken up with dialogue options (L.A. Noire style, if not reminiscent of The Wolf Among Us), allowing the player to manipulate their opponent or weasel out some information about a certain inmate or even, again in a more sinister turn, a member of staff. Hell, you could even find some way to smuggle contraband inside the facility, which is stashed inside your cell, or blackmail the warden, as morally questionable as such acts may be.

One of the limitations of Bully was that, when completing missions, players inadvertently helped one group whilst injuring their relations with others. The weakness with this system was that you didn’t know who you were going to hurt when engaging in any given mission. Naturally, this was a limitation of the PlayStation 2 era; but Bully was nonetheless a bold new step that the industry (and perhaps even Rockstar) has found difficult to build upon. At the end of the day, the original game used its setting as its strength to truly transport players to a setting perfectly suited for the interactive medium. Its spiritual successor would be duty bound to polish this ‘popularity’ system much more significantly.

Being forced to choose between one individual and another who are engaged in a dispute of some kind in prison is an altercation players simply cannot walk away from or avoid due to their close proximity to any heated exchange, meaning that choices like this could emerge constantly. Players might want to keep their head down for a day or two, after landing in hot water with another inmate or officer, but the ecosystem inside General Population constantly forces them to make choices and decisions which are remembered by others (perhaps even in a Shadow of Mordor-esque manner). Can you afford to let your only ally down, even if the risk is being sent away to solitary confinement for a week – thereby missing your weekly visitation? Such decisions would carry serious weight.

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Importantly, the manipulation of AI could work in two ways. Louis Theroux’s two-part documentary on the so-called Miami Mega Jail inspired me to envision a mechanic where players may well be bullied into negotiating with their family members during visitation and having them send money to one of the stronger inmate’s accounts. Conversely, players could deal with this problem by taking care of business themselves, in the form of a verbal – and perhaps even physical – confrontation, but what consequences might such an impulse bring to your life inside? The art of the game’s AI interactions would stem from the player’s manipulation of key figures in the prison hierarchy, but also – perhaps unknowingly – having themselves be manipulated by specific inmates as well. You could even trade contraband, or simple materials like cigarettes, with other inmates in order to gain access to certain goods or people, resulting in a physical economy also bleeding into a social economy.

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Perhaps the most obvious parallel of this setting to the schoolyard is that violence would be a likely recourse for all inmates, meaning that the visceral mechanics of punches, kicks, grapples and takedowns are all available to the player and their opponents. Moreover, like the breaking-into-lockers mechanic of Bully, players could thieve from one cell and plant its contents amongst another inmate’s belongings (if not keep the materials for themselves), angering individuals and leading to all sorts of distractions and chaos – assuming the player isn’t caught in the act or ratted out by an untrustworthy accomplice they recruited to serve as lookout. When the stakes are this high, players need to know who they can put their faith in to watch their back – and how to punish those who betray said trust.

Mini-games and side activities, like working out, boxing, playing football in the yard (or basketball, if it’s an American setting), are all viable translations to this setting. Even these could be means of learning more about the protagonist’s own past and crimes, such as when having a tattoo done. The more you play and engage with other inmates, the more you learn about your own history. Flashbacks could provide the means to distinguish the isolating setting against a more open, rural environment – serving as both a relief in terms of freedom but also the player’s activities and the game’s general tone.

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II. Inmate‘s Story Outline and Character-Driven Narrative

Having been fascinated academically by public anxieties surrounding crime, and their influence in reconfiguring images of the American city, a lot of my historical research contributes to the historiography ushered by Heather Ann Thompson and her assertion that America’s increasingly punitive penal system shaped mentalities of decline from the 1970s onwards. By focusing on the shift away from a more rehabilitative approach to prisons, the increased incarceration rate amongst Americans within inner cities undergoing deindustrialisation and white flight, the story of Inmate could explore how the post-civil rights decades represented a turning point for disparaging perceptions of the American poor. Building on the national reclassification of misdemeanours associated with poverty and homeless lifestyles as ‘crimes’, such as ‘squeegee men’ and nightwalkers, coupled with the shift in 1990s’ New York City under Mayor ‘Rudy’ Giuliani towards ‘zero-tolerance policing’, the game could take a more historical approach when exploring the prison system. More so than current games have considered, at least. The Warriors was a contemporary product of the increased paranoia towards the apparent criminal (and often ethnic) element that was brewing in economically-stagnant cities before President Reagan’s election, something Rockstar Games brought to my attention when releasing a fantastic adaption of the film under the guise of a semi-open-world brawler back in 2005. Importantly, The Warriors directly inspired the hand-to-hand combat of Bully, albeit through a less violent and more simplistic fighting style.

In terms of story, I would like a game to explore what it means to be a criminal and whether acts of survival and thinking like a criminal can ever be undone upon returning to civilised society. As such, the game’s overarching narrative could explore this element of criminality in both explicit and nuanced ways. The ultimate objective for the protagonist of Inmate, and therefore the player, could be to survive – say – one-hundred-and-eighty-days in prison, preparing for your court case when not engaged in daily life inside. You work with your lawyer to relive the events that led to your incarceration and, as despicable as it might be, purposely reconceive and construct a narrative of events which ultimately proves your innocence – however untruthful the ‘plausible narrative’ might well be. Actions inside the prison could negatively impact the case (for instance, as evidenced in HBO’s excellent limited series, The Night Of, with Riz Ahmed and John Turturro, losing the ‘good-boy image’ by shaving your head and having tattoos when speaking before the jury). Nonetheless, in order to survive players might be forced to endanger themselves by balancing life inside – such as smuggling drugs or weapons during visitation – whilst standing trial and speaking in front of the judgemental eyes of your peers.

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In a more subtle manner, the fantastic film Starred Up, starring Jack O’Connell, similarly featured character development in the form of therapy – both on a one-to-one basis and group therapy sessions, where friendships were forged and rivalries ignited. Succeeding in this area might better support your case by having character witnesses speak on your behalf during the trial, signalling to the jury that you are longing to reform your view of the world as well as your actions towards those who populate it.

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Whatever the consequences are for the protagonist of Inmate, whether it be ending up with a life sentence or being proven innocent, the impact of the game’s story would be much more personal by way of making players question how law and order is more about exploiting the system (rightly and wrongly) than it is achieving true justice.

By exploring how evidence and memory is deliberately altered, drawing on historical skills and having them inform the construction of an ‘official statement’ which players are charged with remembering and recounting when speaking in front of the jury (as well as improvising against unexpected evidence they are presented with when standing before the jury by the defence attorney) would really draw on the medium’s interactive qualities. Indeed, it allows the in-game activities inside the prison to be less prescriptive and structured. The ‘story’ told inside the prison would be much more dynamic, stemming from ’emergent gameplay’, meaning that players construct their own stories from inside rather than a forced narrative imposed by the developers. The main narrative would be the court case itself, testing how well prepared you are and how smart you are to earn your freedom.

This added legal dimension builds on one of the best games I played in 2014, the grossly underrated The Wolf Among Us. When interrogating Tweedle Dee, I ultimately proved inconsistent with my ‘good cop, bad cop’ method of extracting information from the suspect. Rather than engaging in the boring ‘paragon and renegade’ dialogue options found in many games, I was poorly manipulating my suspect and got called out for it by Dee. Experimenting with memory and how believable you are is a much more effective use of an in-game dialogue system than simply saying something nice or nasty. Such mechanics challenge the player to keep stories straight in their own head, making every time they open their mouth add tension to everything the player has been working towards. One slip up could seriously compromise your efforts up until this point. That’s as much pressure as keeping one eye open when moving from one area of the prison to another.

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More broadly, perhaps you could even pick your legal team, much like when selecting a crew for heists in Grand Theft Auto V. One adviser, who’s cheaper, might suggest you just take fifteen years and not fight your case, whereas a more boisterous lawyer could ask you to take the stand and plead your case. Do you trust the evidence that’s been collected to prove your innocence, or do you answer the DA’s questions and risk undoing your entire alibi by being caught off guard by a string of unexpected questions? The ultimate challenge of such a mechanic is being consistent when bluffing the jury. Interestingly, the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire was interested in a similar mechanic – albeit with a focus towards those who stood on the allegedly more honest side of the interrogation table.

III. Limitations to this Idea and its Execution as a Fully-Interactive Game

Firstly, in no way am I suggesting that I’d want this to be a sequel to Bully. Jimmy was a delinquent, but a clever and ultimately honourable one. Nonetheless, the dominant issues I foresee with this game are twofold: first, the play space would be too small to constitute a fully-fledged triple-A release, meaning that the experience would probably have to be packaged as DLC. But would a DLC have all the intricate interactions with individuals necessary to make Inmate what it is capable of being? Perhaps if the base game had similar mechanics, but what game could capture these mechanics in a larger, more unwieldy environment? The natural choice is most likely a university campus, but I’m not convinced enough gameplay opportunities are there to build a game which surpasses the gains made by Bully. Perhaps an espionage-focused game would be better suited, perhaps with Cold War-era spies as the subject matter, which naturally affords more standard third-person gameplay in the form of shootouts, car chases and general action, alongside the more nuanced character interactions and narrative drive. Espionage in a small town might work, where what the player unearths dictate the direction of where they go and what they do. Is this the formula for the long-rumoured and surely now-abandoned PlayStation exclusive, Agent? Only Rockstar, if not Sony, knows.

The second, more important, issue facing Inmate is its tone. Unlike the jovial antics of Jimmy Hopkins and co. in Bully, Inmate focuses on individuals who are certified criminals. Even if we assume that the most despicable and evil criminals who harm others (especially the frail in any given society) are kept away from General Population through mental asylums and maximum security facilities, the allies and enemies that players associate with would still be thieves, violent offenders and so on. Although it could be argued that you only need to draw the relevant aspects of criminality from the source material when creating gameplay sequences and characters, without diluting the content too much that it becomes absurd, the fact remains that we are designing a long-form game here. This is one of the major challenges which interests me most when designing games. A two-hour documentary, an hour-forty-five film, or ten-hour television series are all potent but small-scale narratives (often with characters outside of the prison to humanise the inmates). Inmate would place players in a world for fifteen to twenty hours, if not more. The tonal difficulty would be confronting the reality of prison life without burning players out. Simply put, it would be hard to find humour due to the oppressive nature of the environment and its inhabitants. The nature of the crimes inmates have committed, and how they manipulate others, could be extremely nasty. The psychological aspect of prisons – people getting to know what other people do and how they live on the outside – mean that you can’t talk to people about your past lives because of the potential of being blackmailed (i.e. ‘we’re going to kidnap person X, Y and Z because we know when your loved ones are at work.’ That, and ‘no one’s watching them; not whilst you’re in here.’).

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Overall, it is difficult to keep everything consistently fun in terms of tone without becoming a mockery when avoiding the outright bleak and morose nature of prison. Rockstar Games are brilliant because they blend drama with comedy, capturing the essence and complexity of real life in many ways. This thought experiment is very revealing of how Rockstar gets the tone right with their games, as Grand Theft Auto V is filled to the brim with murder and violence, yet its tone is largely comic (aside from the controversial but ultimately informative torture scene on behalf of the FIB). It also explains why Bullworth Academy was such a genius location for this type of gameplay to be explored to begin with.

IV. Conclusions: A Difficult Game to Design but One Worth Making

There are certainly limitations to this idea, but Inmate allows players to blend ‘on-mission’ activities with ‘off-mission’ frivolities in an active, near seamless manner. The potential of the detailed environments and sound design, the merging of side activities with mainline narrative, and the constant sense of claustrophobic paranoia that inmates are plotting against you – or know your secrets – could prove palpable if brought to life. Coupled with the legal dimension, in which players prepare their own defence, Inmate would be a game players want to revisit. The same would be said of forging various allegiances with the range of personalities inside the facility.

Ultimately, Inmate would be a worthy spiritual successor to Bully in the sense that it elevates how players interact with AI characters and are forced not to rush their way through an environment and its enemies but instead learn to coexist with the people who you call ‘friends’ as well as ‘foes’. If anyone can find the balance of comedy and drama in an environment as potentially hostile and aggressive (and, it must be acknowledged, boring) as a prison, it’s Rockstar Games. Whether it’s a game in its own right or an extension of another property, such as Grand Theft Auto, is another matter entirely. What is most important is that a mechanically-driven game should someday be created which pushes a narrative without overt reliance on linear set pieces or cut scenes. Games can be so much more and this is one direction I can see the industry experimenting with in the future.

The next game I’ll be writing a pitch (of sorts) for will be a spiritual successor to L.A. Noire, entitled ‘It Always Ends With Blood’.

Linear Open-World Narratives: A Case Study in Entering and Exiting Pittsburgh

As developers continue to experiment with the cinematic qualities of action-focused games, the rich potential of open-world ‘sandboxes’ continues to be heralded as the Holy Grail for next-generation game design. Following the astronomical critical and commercial success of Rockstar’s reinvented open-world Western Red Dead Redemption, which succeeded in introducing mechanics that continually reinforced the tone, atmosphere and narrative of the dying days of the wild west, plenty of other franchises have sought to take advantage of the smash hit’s genre-defining gameplay. In doing so, they have ignored its beautifully considered design in exchange for providing players with what seems like an endless checklist of chores.

Games like Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4 thrust players into an expansive, empty, open world and throw every threat imaginable at them as they clear out hideouts from ravenous wildlife and meandering mercenaries. Missions exist, but their restrictions are secondary to the more ‘open-ended’ (but ultimately simplistic and repetitive) choices available when surviving the dangers of the jungle. Assassin’s Creed is even more guilty of abusing the ‘sandbox’ approach to game design, with boring combat and ‘collectathon’-style objectives ruining what is, at its core, a creative and inventive franchise. Even now, almost seven year after RDR’s release, we’re seeing ‘brand new’ IPs like Horizon: Zero Dawn and rebooted series like Mass Effect: Andromeda each dropping players into expansive rural settings to hunt a variety of enemies, each of which requires certain ammo types to effectively bring down, whilst also imposing resource-gathering mechanics on the player when traversing their environments.

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Is this really the lesson that Red Dead Redemption taught the industry, or are developers choosing to mimic what they perceive makes an ‘open-world game’ when creating their repetitive, sterile ‘sandboxes’? The art of hunting, collecting resources and trading has been reduced to a rinse-and-repeat mechanic, rather than an active and interesting activity which gives the world a sense of life and unpredictability that players can choose to involve themselves in should they wish to ingratiate themselves within society or retire from their main quest. Developers seem to have stolen the core gameplay without understanding that it existed in a landscape which contextualised the activity.

The firefights in Red Dead Redemption were loud, bloody, wild affairs. Looking at the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda gameplay video – which presents the player with hordes of unresponsive enemies whose health bars are simply there to be whittled down, before smashing into another area of bad guys and repeating the process – it seems developers believe players like gameplay loops with slivers of rewards rather than a world to explore and genuine adventure to undertake. The same can be said of Horizon: Zero Dawn’s video previews, which – after years of showcasing the game’s sleek, purposeful combat – turns out to have a cluttered HUD and busy-work objectives which require players to collect X amount of ingredients to craft ammunition. Whilst this might not be bad in itself, such additions are a testament to the climate and culture of games we’re currently living in.

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What the industry has seemingly chosen to aspire to, especially as Ghost Recon: Wildlands looks to be another indicator of this general trajectory, are games filled with busywork which emulate rather than build upon other, better, open-world games. Although judgement must be reserved until these games are released, previous sandbox titles over the last four years have all lacked the nuance and world building which made the environments of Red Dead Redemption so essential and fun to explore.

Although we only have a sixty-second teaser to go by, it does look like Red Dead Redemption 2 will actively redress these now-tired mechanics by elevating what could be a repetitive act to grind XP into a meaningful activity once again. For instance, camping will likely serve as a moment of respite to converse with your posse and other characters the protagonist(s) is travelling with, rather than being relegated to a fast-travel station and save point. More likely, as the image below suggests, hunting will evolve having to escort your kills back to a trading post. Imagine stumbling across a grizzly bear or herd of buffalo, and deciding to reap the financial rewards by dragging the carcass to town on foot. Players, if looking to earn money, would have to invest in a waggon to carry a grizzly bear back to town – making the activity enthralling and challenging every time the player risks their own safety to drift off the beaten path and make a profit. The days of shooting wildly at a wolf before mindlessly mashing Y or triangle to harvest its organs could finally be behind the ‘sandbox’ genre. Of course, this is all conjecture at this point, until the inevitable April 2017 Game Informer cover story which finally gives fans more details, but for games released seven years after the fact to not consider employing these added dimensions to an otherwise overused hunting mechanic is baffling. No wonder so many fans are suffering from open-world fatigue, especially if Watch_Dogs 2’s sales figures are anything to go by – a game which, by all accounts, actually tried to do something new with the open-world formula but still suffered from the growing stigma associated with the genre.

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That isn’t to suggest that all developers influenced by Rockstar’s trademark open-world freedom have failed. Look at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. On the surface, the title is a very repetitive game with strict gameplay loops. But the genuine awe which the game generates stems from its so-called ‘emergent gameplay’. The AI is intelligent enough to adapt to the player infiltrating bases at night by equipping themselves with torches, or wearing helmets if the player keeps using headshots to take down enemies whilst conserving ammo. Moreover, bases are often labyrinthian, encouraging the player to find intel to help refine their search of any given area. This allows the versatile measures available to players when conquering a base or town – such as sneaking in with a cardboard box, requesting a new weapon or vehicle to assist in your assault via air drop, or arranging covering fire from your helicopter – to each serve as viable strategies for the player to experiment with. The world might be a barebones battlefield, but the challenging and adaptive gameplay is geared around this environment to pose a significant and engaging challenge to the player. What’s more, there’s no need to eliminate every enemy in an outpost – stealth is a genuine strategy, not just a tactic promoted by developers to describe ‘silently executing’ every enemy.

Working to have R&D develop a silenced sniper rifle similarly takes effort. The innumerable options for weaponry are not simply in MGSV for the sake of ‘player choice’. You must earn the ability to infiltrate MGSV’s environments with ease – it isn’t a norm right from the get go, as this would defeat the challenge provided by dynamic combat encounters. Would I have liked the game to give me more moments akin to the stellar prologue, in which our hero escapes a hospital by the skin of his teeth? Sure, but that’s what Death Stranding will likely capture. What matters is that MGSV made its gameplay exemplary, which in turn gave its deliberately minimalistic open-world setting a strategic and tactical purpose. If you haven’t already, be sure to watch Danny O’Dwyer’s episode of The Point which specifically covered the ’emergent gameplay’ found in MGSV as it’s certainly going to make itself apparent in future open-world offerings. I’m sure Rockstar has taken note when designing its own skirmishes in the upcoming RDR2 and whatever comes next in the Grand Theft Auto series.

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Conversely, when looking at The Last of Us or even the original Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite (which I’ve been replaying due to the Remaster being on sale for PSN), these are linear games which immerse their players in lived-in worlds through a slow, measured manner. Their set pieces are followed by moments of respite where players are encouraged to take in the sensory symphony of their surroundings before readying themselves for the next firefight. As I wrote in a previous entry to this blog, this is the next trend which I suspect will surpass the current ‘sandbox’ extravaganza developers have been fiendishly pursuing, especially given the Destiny and The Division MMO-like bubble seems to have burst somewhat prematurely.

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Therefore, it seems like we have two styles of games nowadays. The strict, linear adventure with its highs and lows and intense characterisation, and the open-sandboxes which are focused on player invention and dominating an environment’s various settlements. But must these approaches to game design be divided? The detail and depth of Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suggests not (even if CD Project Red’s promise that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be an even larger game is terrifying). Perhaps more importantly, Rockstar Games clearly thinks not, given its focus on creating lives for its antiheroes to explore in Grand Theft Auto V when not engaged in a job or mission. If this is the case, then how could their approach be further modified to produce a more seamless narrative experience?

Ultimately, such analysis begs all manner of questions for the future of open-world games and whether they can convincingly surpass these restraints on narrative. Do open-world adventures need to be bound to a mission-based structure to present unique story and gameplay opportunities? How can an action-driven narrative be well paced and enjoyable in an open-world environment filled with distractions and yet defined by strict rules and boundaries? How can the strengths of this genre, and the medium more broadly, be capitalised on without stripping players of the very freedom games offer them? It is this fundamental question of producing an alternative to mission-driven open-world gameplay which will be explored for the remainder of this essay.

To achieve this, I will discuss how a more storied experience like The Last of Us could be applied to an open-world adventure like Red Dead Redemption – assuming rules are embedded into its world. Such a case study will focus on the chapter in the original TLoU where Ellie and Joel’s journey to Tommy’s is interrupted by hunters after Joel foolishly triggers an ambush in the city of Pittsburgh in an effort to conserve fuel.

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Can open-world adventures move beyond triggering events through mission markers and a reliance on the mini map to eliminate scores of red-dotted enemies? I believe so, by essentially creating linear ‘missions’ and tying them to areas of the game world in a much more direct yet nuanced way than has been attempted in the past.

Imagine the setup for a next-generation open-world title: the player’s role in an open-world sandbox is less about dominating an environment but rather being a prisoner within it. The goal is not to confidently eliminate any threat that the player is presented with before ticking off their chore-like quests, but rather having to migrate through an unpredictable landscape which presents unforeseen challenges to the player at every opportunity. Gone is the stability of the now-standard Rockstar open-world epic established since 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, where you’re either engaged in on-mission activities or off-mission frivolities. In this new generation of open-world adventure, players would not trigger missions at their discretion by walking into a mission marker. Instead, they would explore the world in a far more nuanced manner – especially given that any environment they’re forced to explore could throw an unexpected challenge at the player. Moreover, if the player does stumble across a ‘mission’ when exploring a town or village, the mission doesn’t formally ‘end’ by signalling to the player that it’s over through a sound effect or reward. This way, the game would provide a more structured and ever-unfolding narrative experience, where ‘missions’ are masked and woven into the moment-to-moment gameplay. The result would be a much richer, unpredictable and engrossing experience.

In TLoU, Joel’s goal is to journey across the post-pandemic United States and deliver the cure to mankind to a group of scientists working with the militia group known as the Fireflies. As the game progresses, Joel escapes the quarantine zone of Boston (which is effectively a walled-off tutorial teaching the player specific core mechanics) before acquiring the materials necessary to ready a car when exploring the seemingly abandoned town of Lincoln. Using this car, Joel (with his charge, Ellie, in tow) now has the task of finding his brother. Through clever map design, the player is funnelled towards the city of Pittsburgh when following the main road east. No objective markers or GPS ever directs Joel to his ‘mission’; the events which follow unfold naturally, ready to be triggered after the player journeys to a certain section of the U.S.

When living out this scenario in TLoU, Joel – through a cut scene – enters Pittsburgh and is ambushed by hunters. These survivors wreck the car, forcing Joel and Ellie to sneak through the city as best they can. What follows, in terms of set pieces and character arcs, are a series of highs and lows in which Joel and Ellie get separated before Ellie rescues Joel and the duo fall out. Ellie then covers Joel which leads to her being entrusted by her ward to carry a firearm of her own. The stronger-than-ever duo then encounter another duo of survivors, Henry and Sam, which leads to the crew working together to escape the city. Being a linear experience, this sequence of events is very structured and leads to a gripping experience from beginning to end.

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Why can’t this arc be used in an open-world title? Do we really need to break up these various moments into single fifteen-minute missions triggered at the player’s leisure? Doesn’t this take away from the narrative being built in the open world? If we conceptualise the various moments described above as being part of one big mission, the result for open-world players would be something infinitely more dynamic and engaging – if only because it would be so unexpected.

Envisioning the same scenario for our next-generation open-world title, let’s say ‘Pittsburgh’ is our traditional ‘mission’. Players have but one objective when entering the city: reach the bridge to exit the town. Anything else is fair game. Mowing down enemies in the car could be minimised by cluttering the roads and restricting the access of vehicles. Likewise, weaponry could be a luxury which therefore necessitates a more cautious approach for players to take (as was the case in Manhunt and The Warriors, where enemies were less numerous but more lethal than in Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto V). As everyone in the city in TLoU is hostile, the game could place a number of ‘dynamic encounters’ or ‘moments’ in the city which players trigger whenever they reach certain areas in the game world. If you climb through some abandoned flats, you stumble into Henry and Sam. If you’re headed down the main road, the hunters’ armoured vehicle makes itself known and players must either attack or evade it. If you take another route entirely, players bump into Henry and Sam’s missing (and presumed dead) crew. The result is an experience which is tailored by the player’s exploration but ultimately directed by the developer. No matter where the protagonist travels, they will stumble across a character or story event which changes the challenge and forces a different set piece or gameplay style on the player. Importantly, everything you do pushes you towards the bridge and therefore the end of the ‘mission’, ‘chapter’ or ‘level’. At the very least, such an approach allows the spectacular environments in Rockstar’s open world to be more carefully appreciated and investigated.

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Imposing rules and limitations on the player in this next-generation open-world adventure – such as giving the car a finite amount of fuel – means that when players reach Pittsburgh they can either go around the city and run out of gas (meaning they must wander on foot) or journey through Pittsburgh, keeping the car and reducing fuel usage, at the cost of being funnelled into a trap. The latter easily provides the context for the room-to-room combat approach of TLoU or Max Payne 3, rather than the open-world war zone like in the other ‘sandbox’ games described earlier. By presenting challenges in a linear style – the checkpoint assault at night, the basement, the hotel, the bookstore – players have multiple iconic moments laid in their way without even realising it.

Alternatively, if players did choose to more cautiously drive around Pittsburgh and not be suckered into a trap, they would bump into Henry’s group either before, or as, they are split from Henry and Sam. The two brothers will die no matter how the player approaches Pittsburgh so the developer could afford to write separate characters into this gameplay section. No matter what happens, players still journey through Pittsburgh and learn to fear the hunters who have taken over the city. Importantly, every decision the player makes leads them to doubt their actions: ‘I should’ve turned the damn truck around’ vs. ‘I should’ve kept moving, saved fuel.’ The gameplay informs the character’s, and therefore player’s, emotional state. It is the specific gameplay challenges and consequences which differ from player to player, depending on whose company they share. The open world serves as a narrative ‘mosaic’, as it were, with players experiencing similar gameplay encounters through slightly different lens – thereby showing the strengths of tailoring narrative to open-world design.

Players could have travelled to the open-world Pittsburgh countless times before this mission had been activated, but when the narrative is ready to present this more storied experience suddenly there’s a sense of danger and unpredictability which makes the player much more alert. Having been caught off-guard, they don’t know when their activities and ordeal will be over, so they must take in the environment beat by beat rather than mindlessly cruising through it.

This isn’t to say that I want rid of open-world dynamic encounters, as they are what makes the combat in such games so exciting. However, there is a way in which linear set pieces can be positioned into the open world. Think about Max Payne 3, and how – upon reaching the roof of the nightclub – Max fires his rifle from Passos’ helicopter, or serves as the gunner on a boat or bus when trying to escape gang members and mercenaries. In The Warriors, players were forced to outrun the baseball furies and Turnbull ACs respectively. Although these two examples aren’t open-world titles, a lot of Rockstar Games’ most iconic missions have blended straightforward situations into full-blown cinematic set pieces. These range from attending Elizabeta’s party in Grand Theft Auto IV and being assigned to watch over a drug deal; having Vermin, Snow and Ash revel in the 1979-inspired blackout after their subway train breaks down in The Warriors; playing cards as John Marston in RDR when seeing a friend, only for the activity to break out into an altercation and eventual firefight; and even Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ Rodney King, 1992-inspired Los Santos riot become a battleground which the player actively completed missions in when fighting alongside Caesar and his boys. In every case, the outside world reflected the challenges faced in-game.

Of course, TLoU is a very action-orientated game – so this style of gameplay is only possible in desolate urban environments. Rockstar Games effectively produced similarly environs through the 1970s’ era of decline and paranoia surrounding the crime-ridden New York City in The Warriors, and the privately-purchased, post-industrial wasteland that was Manhunt. RDR2 could do something similar with ghost towns, but the magnitude of an urban environment is necessary for gameplay of this type.

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Still, Red Dead would be able to achieve this blurring of open-world exploration and more linear, meticulously crafted narrative by having the crew journey together through the open world. If, as the teaser suggests, the player is forced on the move and never feels safe in any given environment (aside from having their brothers-in-arms by their side), then defending a site from hordes of Native Americans or a barrage of bandits is given much more story context. Likewise, giving bounties a story which force the player to ask around town, tracking the guy down Witcher 3 style, and staging a method of attack or extraction, would similarly give simple activities a more storied sensibility. Being pursued by bandits in the mountains, and deciding whether to stage camp or keep pushing through the blizzard… there are numerous opportunities to have narrative inject into straightforward exploration. I can’t wait to see how Rockstar continues to push the envelope in this regard, especially if seasons are introduced which visually affect the landscape over time.

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Even more storied games like The Last of Us Part II will be able to expand on the, in my view, poorly executed ‘wide linear’ experiment of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (which essentially amounted to driving around to collect optional trinkets and triggering the next cut scene, as was the case with ‘Chapter Twelve: At Sea’) by giving Ellie a car, an objective to reach, and environments in between the player and their goal. Getting out to explore could see you bump into Clickers, Runners, Hunters or your own kind. Having Ish-esque narratives littered across a town could even colour the setting with a character reminiscent of the ‘formerly utopian’ sewers in the original title. The more players use the car to traverse the landscape for a given chapter, the more its gas dries up and players must scavenge for more from cars. Of course, they could choose to explore settlements on foot – but the extra gunmen and firearms must be left behind to protect the vehicle.

Such an approach could even affect the storytelling in subtle ways. If players stealth an area, they locate their objective one way. If they shoot the place up, they experience it in a completely different way – perhaps by having enemies be aware of your presence and actions, being much more aggressive when they approach you. Depending on your approach, your conversations with allies (and enemies) would adapt to your play style. As you explore this environment, there could be activities off the beaten path which break up the relentless action – such as playing pool, darts, or discussing features in the environment, as well as locating unique weapons, outfits and individuals. The joy of stumbling across Minefield in Fallout 3, and effectively being confronted with a dynamic impromptu boss fight, comes to mind. Even back in 2008, Bethesda took the ‘gameified’ qualities of overthrowing towers or gang hideouts away in favour of something more personal, unique, storied, challenging and memorable. Most notably, it was completely optional.

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Hunting Fireflies could be especially dynamic if, like in the recent ‘Men Against Fire’ episode of Black Mirror, the rebels are hiding from the player. Even adding interrogations with Ellie’s gifted knife from Marlene in a style reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid V could make the relationship between the player and their enemy more intimate simply by using core mechanics. The Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system would be incredibly powerful with this kind of design, especially. Having enemies remember what you did to their friends, or thanking you for letting them live, is one thing. It’s another entirely if you let them go hours earlier only for them to betray your trust later – forcing you to consider exacting revenge when stumbling across them in the open world a second time. Suddenly the game mechanics of morality are affecting how you play, not just a rewarding cut scene after fighting through five rooms of bad guys in a row. Thus, if linear games like this can be more open, then it makes sense that more open titles can inject these tighter narrative moments into their design too.

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Another example of cinematic action set-pieces merging into an open world can be seen in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and its final evolution of the convoy chase when Nate and Sully are trying to rescue Sam. Much like all Naughty Dog adventures, the player is directed to the next objective by following a visual objective. In The Last of Us, players head towards the Capital Building in Boston, the bridge leading out of Pittsburgh, the radio tower outside of the suburbs, or the second floor of the hospital. In Sam’s pursuit, the player is directed to ‘just go down’ the hill towards Sam’s chosen tower. For all intents and purposes, players have free rein to explore a few city blocks but are prevented from standing still due to an aggressive APC pursuing Nate and Sully. Minutes into the chase, when the level is becoming too formulaic, the player finds Sam and is then tasked to fend off the pursuing mercenaries trying to gun him down. Circumstance separates Nate and Sully, forcing Drake to hop from vehicle to vehicle across the countryside – before finally catching up with Sam and triggering an in-game cut scene in which Drake’s car is totalled.

Again, such a sequence could easily take place in real time across any of Grand Theft Auto’s open-world environments. Players could receive a phone call from a character saying they’ve found the perfect score, but that they’re being pursued by Merryweather security. Rather than drive to a location and save the pinned-down ally, before using his information to prepare a heist of some kind, the game would have to script a number of encounters – as Uncharted 4 did – which unravel as the player journeys towards their ally. This way, the open world is that much more unpredictable and the combat which ensues is much more involved and alive. Encouragingly, Grand Theft Auto V did experiment with this idea in one mission where – as Trevor is exploring Los Santos and Blaine County – the player is called by Franklin, who reports that the O’Neils are sending a crew to take Trevor out. As the player is controlling Trevor, a mission marker appears on the mini map which will trigger a plan to take out his competition. However, if the player swaps over to control Franklin, who confirms over the phone that he is currently tailing the O’Neils on the freeway out of Los Santos, players immediately begin the mission from Franklin’s point of view. This is perhaps the most seamless way Rockstar has ever started a mission, and is likely to prove indicative of what the next-generation open-world videogames could look like as cinematic set-pieces blur into everyday open-world exploration.

And how does the ‘mission’ end, once Sam rescues Nate from the wreckage of his wiped-out vehicle? They head to the motel and devise a strategy on securing Henry Avery’s buried booty. Surely all an open-world title would need to do is have the player congregate with their allies back at base, draft a plan of attack via the white board in the back office, and prepare the next big ‘score’ in a similar pattern. This way, players still have time to take a break from the core narrative and have fun in the open world, but when they commit to moving forward with the plan they know that they could be busy for the next few hours (rather than just a handful of minutes). Every mission would become that more dangerous as a result.

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In conclusion, ‘sandboxes’ have to be braver with their combination of story and emergent gameplay. A story and its action set pieces don’t need to be reduced to cut scenes or the elimination of hordes of enemies just because there is an open-world setting to take advantage of. Linear open-world narratives aren’t simply about burying what amounts to a linear, character-driven sequence into the confines of an open-world map – the space needs to be used effectively to communicate a narrative and introduce varied gameplay moments. What it is trying to achieve is a much more involved relationship with the player’s goal and their enemies in a less predictable manner.

It could be argued, as Adam Kovic of Funhaus commented, that the dynamic set pieces of GTA Online’s Heist missions are infinitely more cinematic and engaging than anything a developer could choreographed. But the fact remains that Rockstar programmed certain moments – such as shooting helicopters out of the sky in a jet as your friends escort an escaped prisoner to a getaway vehicle – to use the breadth of the open world whilst also taking advantage of team-based combat.

Linear open-world narratives mean that developers can naturally imbue more structured gameplay and story content in their games, sometimes foregoing the mission-based structure which has defined the genre for the entirety of the 21st century in exchange for more hand-crafted sequences. Whether it’s a good thing remains to be seen, but more storied titles will certainly experiment with this structure as they become more open over the next decade or so.

Next week, I’ll begin writing pitches for open-world titles I would like to see created. The first, entitled ‘Inmate’, it is a spiritual successor to Bully (or Canis Canem Edit as I first experienced it) set inside a federal penitentiary. After that, ‘It Always Ends With Blood’ will be my spiritual successor to L.A. Noire. By having a single mystery at the fore, the player’s interaction with the open world means they must put clues together themselves to reveal the most plausible narrative of events which solves the mystery – all without taking away the inherent fun of fighting through open-world environments (something L.A. Noire struggled with). From there, sometime next month, I will present my pitch for the future of open-world action adventures, with an emphasis on environments which evolve and decay in real time against the backdrop of a revolution. Entitled  A World Without End’, this is what I believe will come to represent the evolution of what Rockstar Games has been working to create by blurring ‘on-’ and ‘off-mission’ content into one seamless, gameplay-driven narrative.

 

Blurring Genres, Lives and Design in Open-World Mosaics: Why ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ Made Games Better

On 29 March 2007, Rockstar Games – through their flagship development studio, Rockstar North – declared its mission statement for the upcoming era of high-definition interactive entertainment: forget what you know, what you expect, and even what you love, about the Grand Theft Auto franchise. This time, ‘things will be different.’ Consciously steering away from the series’ channelling of movie culture, which the developer had successfully accomplished through the ’80s-influenced Vice City and ’90s-focused San AndreasGrand Theft Auto IV represented a moment of maturation for Rockstar Games. The developer now aspired to create something with the potential to surpass the limitations of novels, film and other linear entertainment, whilst also acknowledging the infancy of games as a medium. Promising to provide a truly realised, truly immersive, living, breathing world which pushed the limits of what could be created through realistic simulations, unparalleled atmosphere, and introspective storytelling; it was the combination of these essential elements – on top of a fun, firm foundation of gameplay variety, and the series’ trademark exploration – which gave Rockstar North the confidence to make their dreams a reality and produce experiences of the future. Because of this, GTA IV came to represent a great many things to numerous people – and continues to inform industry expectations today.

Most notably, although 2008’s contemporaneous Liberty City (an intimately reimagined New York City) continued the developer’s tradition of capturing the essence of an American metropolis in the confines of a warped British satire of Americana and American media culture, the tone and attitude which defined this urban jungle was firmly rooted in the reality of a paranoid and compromised criminal lifestyle. Defined by a tortured but affable Serbian protagonist in search of an ailing American dream, Niko Bellic’s bloodstained past in the former Yugoslavia not only offered players a meatier ‘rags-to-better-rags’ plot and sombre character arc uncommon in action games, it concurrently elevated gameplay to become more tactical, visceral and engaging due to the former soldier’s military background. His story was one of anger, empathy and loyalty in a world replete with novelty, where every mistake had suffocating consequences for any chance at a better life.

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Complimented by an iconic supporting cast of comedic allies and intimidating villains, all of whom provided the means for Niko to question the absurdity of a revered yet already-burning Western Babylon, the game catered to individual moods and play styles through an abundance of side missions. Even the title’s exploration of minigames – from pool and darts to bowling – were bolstered by competing against Niko’s mission-giving contacts, offering candid insight into personalities who were otherwise reserved for five-minute cut scenes. Their histories, motivations and regrets were for the player to consciously unearth. Moreover, GTA IV even marked the debut of the Natural Motion Euphoria physics engine – a turning point for the industry regarding procedural animation and lifelike AI characters, as well as transforming the physics of the game in such a way that felt truly ‘next generation’ at a time when other franchises making the transition from PlayStation 2, Xbox and Game Cube had failed to reinvent themselves.

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 Simply put, during the fifty-plus hours in which players lost themselves in the detailed world of 2008’s Liberty City, the dominant impression the game gave players was Rockstar’s determination to outdo the genre it defined when Grand Theft Auto III was set loose upon the gaming landscape over fifteen years ago. Whether it be the dynamic mission structuring, stellar sound design, introduction of Pac-Man-style police evasions, or even player-dictated changes to dialogue depending on what Niko does and where he goes (as opposed to relying on inputs via the controller), this raw assault on Western hypocrisy stands tall as an unrivalled synthesis of story and player invention. It is for all these reasons, and more, that GTA IV made games better. Rather than go bigger, GTA IV went deeper and invested in overhauling every fundamental mechanic which had become synonymous with the series. Such gains formed the root of the spellbinding Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V.

At a time where developers are now championed within the industry for their in-game cinematics and nuanced narratives, imitating – if not improving – the strengths of story-based entertainment outside of the medium, the challenge Rockstar set themselves with IV was – and very much remains – far more metaphysical, tying into the very philosophy behind game design itself. In this way, they have sought to move the industry forward as something entirely unique from all other mediums – something their imitators have either misunderstood or been unable to mimic over the last ten years due to the sheer ambition, skill, money and time needed to pull off such an enormous feat. They are trying to capture a form of life itself; a believability and nuance to the player’s experience which plays with the idea of what characters do when not being action anti-heroes.

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The reason why IV remains so influential in making games as a medium better is its blurring of the line between cinematic ‘on-mission’ content with the freeform chaos or complacency of side activities, providing the illusion of an experience which the player can not only direct but partly author. Through the introduction of the mobile phone, Niko had a wealth of activities at his fingertips – the most important of which was having mission-givers such as Packie and Dwayne exist outside the structure of missions and the game’s mainline narrative. Aside from having to develop the characters’ personalities so that the player could adjust to their likes and dislikes (going so far as to give them a preferential radio station), Dan Houser and his incredible team of writers had to ensure these were characters the player wanted to spend time with – not just as means to acquire discounted gear or specialised car bombs. Although it is debatable how much players were invested in this mechanic, it was an important first step which was entirely optional to engage with. Roman wanting to go bowling is not as recurring or intrusive as popular memory suggests!

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Importantly, Rockstar had already tried to humanise its characters in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, reducing the scale of its early missions by having you do odd jobs with your childhood friends and lieutenants of the Grove Street Families, even going so far as to head for a drive-through restaurant and order fried chicken. Although this might sound quite pedestrian as a mission for an action game, it gave time for the characters to be themselves and make you feel part of a world which existed outside of combat. In turn, 2005’s The Warriors saw the nine playable characters occupy the same hideout, with whom the player could speak with before missions, and it was these AI allies who would fight alongside the player. They would even show their support in combat through contextual grabs and finishers, as well as commenting on the player and their opponents.  

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Even 2006’s Bully humanised its characters by having them roam the open world in their own time and ask for favours if they saw you – sometimes even chastising you if your relationship with their clique was sour. One could even go so far as to strike up a conversation with Algernon (a.k.a. ‘Pee Stain’), show the young lad a smile or slap a ‘Kick Me!’ sign on his back, before watching the nearby AI react in suitably dynamic ways. On the surface, this is all rather formulaic and false, but it connected the player far more intimately with the world and its inhabitants in ways that a nuanced cut scene after a five-minute gunfight simply could not achieve. And it was these changes to storytelling in games which Grand Theft Auto IV capitalised on in abundance by altering the game’s inherent structure to compensate for this degree of player choice, interaction and relationship building.

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Players first notice the true potential of this inversion of on- and off-mission content in IV when driving to pick up Michelle in the early hours of the game. Roman, the protagonist’s cousin, calls in a panic and pleads for Niko to help him fend off the loan sharks that had been attacked earlier in the game. I knew Roman was in danger and I knew of the people who were attacking him, having previously broken one of the loan shark’s arms. What was so revolutionary about the moment was that, as a player, I had already decided which mission I wanted to complete in that moment, given that I was seconds away from Michelle’s house – but the game forced me to choose between picking up a date, and leaving my cousin to be injured, or putting my personal wants and desires on hold to protect the only person in this city who had my back. Progress and financial reward weren’t driving me in that moment; it was guilt and the potential consequence of my inaction. Choosing to help Roman instantly triggered a mission in which Niko intimidates the loan sharks before chasing one down and deciding whether to put an end to his life. Similar moments occur throughout the game, blurring the line between off-mission freedom and on-mission excitement, including deciding the fate of two characters – each of whom want you to put the other six-feet under – as you roam around the open world, minding your own business. The game even allowed you to coordinate your own missions, such as arranging a date through the in-game internet to isolate your target in a Broker diner, as well as gaining access to a target by arranging your own one-on-one interview with him. It was rudimentary, but such planning meant that, at the very least, it gave the impression that the player was in charge – something Grand Theft Auto V would experiment with more forcibly through its underused heist-planning mechanic.

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When approaching a mission, by rooting Liberty City in today’s reality where surveillance culture is so extreme that ‘everyone’s a rat’ and criminals are forcibly outmatched by the United States’ ‘zero-tolerance’ police culture, players were forced to invest in their equipment and approach missions with caution. By improvising with the environment and darting from parked car to parked car, even using your own vehicle as makeshift cover, players engaged in serious firefights in multiple ways. The car itself could similarly be used as its own weapon, should the player feel confident enough that the enemies wouldn’t target the driver’s window and eliminate Niko before he could execute his plan.

In turn, adding choices which weighed on the player’s emotions and rationality was a radical shift for gameplay-driven choices for the medium, as best evidenced by the ‘Deal’ or ‘Revenge’ end-game scenario which directly affected the last three missions of the game, radically shaking up Niko’s motivations and prospects respectively. Adding into the mix the opportunity to request AI backup from one of Niko’s contacts, the base gameplay of IV encouraged players to approach a goal how they saw fit. To date, the only game which has built on this formula, to excellent effect, is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, where players survey an environment and choose their method of infiltration. No matter how players approach an objective, such as saving Miller, every player will complete the mission by extracting Miller and therefore allowing the story to progress. Such creativity means missions can be accomplished by accident, or failed experiments can be reworked on the fly into spectacular scenarios which make the ability to record gameplay on the current generation of consoles a necessary feature.

What Rockstar are trying to accomplish as they continue to innovate the blending of activities and distractions with mainline missions is to create an interconnected world in which the player lives out a character’s life. The developer understands that open-world games embody time and space, and therefore characterisation and narrative, in such a way that only this medium can capture. All mediums have their strengths, as do game genres, but the structure of open-world games is one which is often mimicked but never truly understood by other developers. Countless games this generation have finally caught up with Rockstar Games and their technology to introduce open-world settings into their franchises, filling their barren worlds which a checklist of activities and collectables which are washed over the mini map. However, what distinguishes the world of Liberty City, and later Los Santos, from these other studios’ ‘sandboxes’ is where the game’s second biggest innovation came into play: multiple protagonists occupying and contending the same space.

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II

Through the two sixteen-hour-and-more Episodes of Liberty City expansions released in 2009, players were introduced to the lives of midlife biker Johnny Klebbitz and his motorcycle club, ‘The Lost’; and Luis Lopez, business partner to nightclub aficionado ‘Gay’ Tony Prince. By occupying the shoes of two radically different criminals, the experiment allowed players to experience competing motivations when exploring an identical urban landscape which was shared by the misadventures of Niko and his various associates. Through Johnny and his low-level endeavours, which were all in the interest of brotherhood, players were given access to mechanics which allowed persistent allies to have their stats and weaponry increase the more they accompanied you on missions. Due to there being a smaller number of missions, on account of The Lost and Damned being DLC, players even had their objectives affected if certain gang members were summoned by the cell phone to arrange alternative strategies to complete missions (including the staging of an ambush, luring Johnny’s pursuers to a choke point and fighting alongside you to even the playing field). Conversely, Luis Lopez’s high-life antics saw him use a wide range of vehicles and machinery to help his partner get out of debt to the Italian and Russian mobs, all whilst adding a plethora of side activities which made nightclubs feel like genuine and unique settings to experiment with new types of gameplay which expanded upon the GTA formula.

Under Niko, Johnny and Luis, Liberty City was seen through radically different lenses. The world was more glamourous, lonely or hostile depending on which protagonist you controlled. Different gameplay options and mechanics were available depending on who you controlled, and you even managed to unearth a broader narrative arc surrounding stolen diamonds when seeing the story unfold from each of the three protagonists’ perspectives. The game’s city, its mechanics and its stories became so much richer by representing partial elements of a much larger whole. This structure meant that open-world games did not represent a linear, movie-like drama but rather an interactive mosaic – very much like how we as individuals experience real life, focusing on our strengths and ignoring areas of disinterest or aspects which are beyond our current skill set. This is the point of open-world settings: to have the player be part of a living, breathing world and balance ‘work’ and ‘play’ much like adults do in real life. By having activities which reflect the protagonist – be it gang-orientated takeovers or escorting VIPs – the game’s features evolved and the experience became richer and better defined from previous incarnations in the franchise.

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Of course, Grand Theft Auto V would radically evolve this mechanic by having three protagonists exist at the same time. Ostensibly, this solved the so-called ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ of GTA games by having the player control certain characters to behave in certain ways (such as having Trevor Phillips undergo murderous rampages, whilst Franklin divulges in street races). I don’t feel this experiment entirely worked because players still behaved murderously as any of the anti-heroes – and the game didn’t differentiate the three protagonists. Johnny had a gang, Luis had a business, whereas the trio in V simply had one or two activities to distinguish their personalities. Above all, the story took a hit when exploring the three-protagonist concept in because the gameplay was more focused on fleshing out Michael, Trevor and Franklin’s separate lives than it was disrupting that sense of normality through the context of missions and their consequences (bar one example with Michael living out of town with Trevor, which was more of a hindrance than anything). More than anything, the trio had no real need to unite and were not really in need of the money they were chasing. Ultimately, I felt three distinguished protagonists who occasionally crossed paths but largely worked alone was a better accommodation for player freedom and the telling of a more nuanced narrative.

I’m glad Rockstar challenged themsleves with V , as it likely made them realise that if they are going to unite three protagonists together then they must all have the same goal – something Red Dead Redemption 2 will likely focus on by having its characters wanting to work together as part of a gang, as well as ingraining the world, characters and gameplay in a perpetual state of violence. Rather than the misadventures of Michael, Franklin and Trevor being almost otherworldly in the satirical reimagining of Southern California, RDR2 will have its outlaws (and perhaps lawmen and Native Americans) be products of the chaos around them. This way, the story and gameplay will be more cohesive.

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Still, the potential for RDR2 to build on the blueprint drawn by IV and applying it to the three protagonists of V is undeniable. Blurring on-mission story through off-mission content could be achieved whenever the seven-person crew teased in the debut trailer stroll into a town. If you’re notorious outlaws, saloons and other services might be more alert to your presence; some residents might cower away and watch from afar, whilst others might square up to you and adamantly demand you leave and don’t come back.

More directly, such mechanics would allow RDR2 to be the antithesis of its predecessor. If Redemption was about a former outlaw tearing his traitorous crew apart, with the lonely exploration and hunter-gathering reflecting Marston’s solitude, wouldn’t it be exciting to be responsible in the sequel for assembling a crew and having the gameplay reflect being outlaws to the end? Returning to the example of entering a town, Rockstar San Diego could design it so that six of the seven members each split off to a different area. While this would primarily give the player opportunities to venture on their own, it would also allow each member of your crew to signpost side content. Timmy Two-Shoes might be itching for a fight just out of town, so you go over and read the situation before engaging in a duel and making a name for your outfit. Another few members could be gambling, either playing poker or liar’s dice, posing an ethical dilemma in which the player could throw a game in order to not take money from their men. Your right-hand man Cory Carcer may have spotted a bounty which he’s saddling up for, asking if you want to come along. Here, the game isn’t just showing the player side content, it’s deliberately moulding it to better inform your bond with the gang. The bounty could see the player learn more about Carcer, witnessing his strengths through in-game mechanics (tracking and luring animals, for instance) but also hearing his grievances with other members of the group. Alternatively, members of the group might produce one-of-a-kind comedic moments such as drinking at a bar only to wake up a mile away with you and your partner tied to one another by a lasso – introducing a novel mission where you must get back to town. Suddenly, the major story moments harness the open-world off-mission activities and produce a greater bond than anything a cut scene could stir in the player’s mind. The side content adds to the experience, rather than just being something to do because it’s there or because you’re tired of the core gameplay of riding your horse and gunning down bad guys. Then, when heading out to either claim Native American land of your own or oppose the oil barons looking to steal it for themselves as part of the main story, the side activities which preceded it all feel part of the same experience. The game would feel less divided.

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Such an approach could even bleed into the main game, through hideout construction and defence, or having to flee from enemies (a novelty no open-world game has truly harnessed as of yet) and live with your posse on the open road. One could even pick their serious squad of seven outlaws by visiting outposts or following bounties to recruit volatile members, reminiscent of Mass Effect 2, adding more personality to the experience without sacrificing Rockstar’s cinematic flair for character creation and gameplay set pieces. Having a dangerous loner who doesn’t get along with your crew join the party, only for him to bicker as you ride through the land, would be a natural evolution of the entire biker crew riding to a mission in The Lost and Damned. The only difference is that they’d be your crew – a crew you’d oversee disciplining, perhaps akin to Mafia 3 by having crew members mutiny when they feel neglected.

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Although RDR2 will likely capitalise upon its open world to experiment with the idea of living out a life as a criminal more fully by toying with having to flee from enemies and defend a fixed point in the world, such gains can only be discussed once the game is released and it is contextualised through an exploration of what made the original game so exceptional. In the meantime, the remainder of this essay will focus on how IV is the template to allow the GTA series to continue evolving – especially following the unprecedented success of V, which has currently sold 75-million copies worldwide.

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III

I walked away from Grand Theft Auto V viewing the game as a culmination of everything Rockstar Games had innovated on when creating games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It had the gunplay of Max Payne 3 (a sorely underrated game and the best third-person shooter of its generation), the rural setting and distractions of Red Dead Redemption, whilst also improving on the driving and mechanics of GTA IV. It was the funniest game I’ve ever played (above South Park: The Stick of Truth) and worked excellently as a comedy. Unfortunately, its drama fell flat when trying to balance the strength of open-world storytelling (creating actual lives for the player to be lost in) and produce a narrative arc superior to the rich standard established by IV. It was a great first step in this kind of three-character storytelling, one which Rockstar must be brave enough to continue, but it missed out on what made Episodes from Liberty so strong by actively trying to make Michael, Franklin and Trevor indistinguishable so you’d want to play as all three at any time. Regardless, the game is a true representation of games as a medium and has been rewarded in kind – both critically and commercially.

The biggest question Rockstar Games now have is this: how can the series significantly move forward? Anything less than the varied locales and environs, the amount of vehicle and weapon customisation, and sheer mission variety of V will seem like a back step. Rockstar have written themselves into a corner, it would seem. The franchise can seemingly only go bigger and broader to improve. San Andreas similarly posed this challenge to Rockstar North back in 2004. With RDR2 looking to rectify the story complications which emerged from essentially allowing the player to live out the lives of Michael, Franklin and Trevor – but there being no story or overarching goal to motivate their unity – GTA VI doesn’t even have that card at its disposal to help improve the franchise. Even if the series builds on the heist mechanics of V by having players prepare for every job, or encouraging open-ended approaches like those found in MGSV, surely such necessary changes to mission structure will come across as small, and maybe even insignificant, revisions.

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Much like IV did in ’08, VI will need to reinvent its very structure for current-generation consoles. It must take the ideas and gameplay benefits of multiple protagonists and imbue it into the very DNA of what it means to be a Grand Theft Auto experience, turning the next locale (which, let’s face it, is likely to be Vice City if not Florida more broadly) into an interactive mosaic which highlights strengths in open-world design and storytelling.

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Imagine the next entry in the series starting with the absolute basic for every player; the raw embodiment of every GTA protagonist: a thief who can drive and shoot. Filling the shoes of a newcomer drawn to the city, with nothing but a car and five-hundred bucks to their name, the player is given but one goal (reminiscent of Marston’s initial task in Red Dead Redemption). Whatever the ‘goal’ is, the ‘hit’ or ‘deal’ goes south and the player must recuperate in a strange land. With just one contact, the player now has a single overarching goal which drives the narrative: get revenge on Person X, rescue Person Y, or earn the money lost in Deal Z. By exploring the city’s various corners, perhaps by having ‘leads’ making themselves available on the map via coloured circles (ala RDR’s stranger missions), contacts make themselves available and the tasks they offer reflect a certain style of gameplay.

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Rather than being given a series of missions which serve as stepping stones for narrative, like in every other GTA, the game would dynamically blur on- and off-mission content. If you cross paths with a Little Jacob-type drug dealer, suddenly he is giving you missions and introducing you to a new game mechanic. The missions here aren’t for the sake of money, or simply the experience of having missions. They actively help you gather evidence which leads you closer to your overarching goal. What this means is that some players might pursue leads which result in a playstyle geared towards the rich-and-famous lifestyle of Luis Lopez’s associates, through club management and high-life antics involving helicopters, planes and trains. The player isn’t told to experience the high life by playing as a character; they unearth these qualities in the protagonist by working alongside contacts who allow you to be involved in such exploits. Conversely, building on the fantastic core mechanic introduced in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, players might decide to pursue a more economically-focused mechanic of buying and selling through which they develop contacts within the city’s criminal underbelly through illegal trading. Having to concoct your own formulas and plant them on rival gangs, or produce an empire off the back of illegal products much like Tommy Vercetti in the original Vice City, could be a game in its own right – and is something I certainly hope Rockstar North take advantage of in their next effort. You could even spend your money modding up your car, only for certain street racers to contact you and hit you up for a drag race, seamlessly introducing on-mission content as you simply experiment with the various mechanics available to all players.

 What you end up getting with this approach to the open world is a mosaic of experiences, all of which are shades of grey. No character in the world is a fixed ‘ally’ or ‘enemy’ anymore (unlike Mr Bulgarin or Dimitri Rascalov). Depending on who you call a friend, the game will consequently produce enemies which turn the open-world playground into a prison with danger potentially lurking around every corner. At any moment a cinematic mission could crop up, forcing the player to improvise on the fly and test their abilities as they would in a more linear cinematic title. More broadly, the result is an experience in which certain players might never see certain characters. Those they call ‘the enemy’ could be another player’s strongest ally, really demonstrating the medium’s assets in both a gameplay and story sense.

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Even if this is a little too far out there, the base gameplay for future instalments of GTA will nevertheless follow the model outlined by IV and toyed with in V. Picture a game where the player is a ‘thief’, and the entire gameplay is steered around this single concept. Across the open world are a vast array of targets, from low-level scores such as cars on the street to more high-profile sites such as museums and banks. If every one of these scores has a monetary value that the player can use when selling their wares on the black market, the meticulously detailed worlds of GTA now have a gameplay value too. A stroll through the game world would always keep the gamer’s mind active. Gone are the smaller missions from previous entries, like destroying evidence in Vice City’s mall. Instead, you’re left with landmark missions like the Three-Leaf Clover heist from IV or the Paleto Bay bank job in V.

Imagine you’re informed by a contact via e-mail that there’s a three-day art gallery showcase happening in the centre of town a week from now. The gallery is being hosted by a son of a local crime syndicate in the city. You go to the whiteboard in your apartment and begin strategizing with the associates you’ve recruited about how best to go about capitalising on the event. If you get caught, the event is shut down and the syndicate now sees you as a rival – complicating your activities in the open world and incentivising the player not to get caught, much like they would in real life.

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Another event might be that a pop star or band is performing, and their one-of-a-kind vehicles are in town. If you steal and sell them, that’s how you make your money. Who you sell it to, and who you approach to help you steal it, is where the broader narrative moments are injected into gameplay. By running your own empire of sorts, you determine the experience whilst also being thrown curveballs from the game as your rivals complicate your scores and force you to choose between maintaining your crew or performing the next heist (risking the deaths of several long-time associates).

In turn, the prep for any job could become its own mission – not just busy work, like it was in V. If you steal a van for a job against Merryweather security, Rockstar could design a mission of sorts which has a unique mechanic tied to it – such as being able to leap to it, like CJ and Cesar in San Andreas. With this amount of choice, the goal is to become the criminal you want to be by using in-game mechanics and contacts. This would similarly flesh out the backstory of your own protagonist, as well as the city, much like Marston’s past was revealed after the player spent more time with Bonnie MacFarlane. Such a proposal is not a game that gives you everything – it’s a game which has a number of factions, and enough variety through its mechanics and objectives, to allow you to see the city through various tinted spectacles and have a story naturally emerge in response to your preferences and activities.

Story beats, as exemplified in IV, could even emerge from failure. If you allow a certain character to live, or another dies, you can meet them or go to their funeral. The game’s job would then be to provide narrative nuggets which give you new goals, new allies and new enemies. You can’t get this from novels, films or television – and the individual components of this type of experience can already be found in previous entries in the Grand Theft Auto series!

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Even reinventing the moment-to-moment gameplay would be a breakthrough in redefining what it means to be GTA. Introducing pedal-to-the-metal police chases which actively force you to barge pursuing vehicles off the road and pull off tricky manoeuvres; hand-to-hand combat when disarming a goon with a shotgun, before turning it on another enemy, making each combatant feel intimidating and lethal; or having allies genuinely interested in having your back on a mission and affecting the dialogue and gameplay opportunities… VI could be the game changer Rockstar wants and arguably needs it to be. Ridding themselves of mission markers and relishing the more freeform nature of the genre they rule is the next step, and IV saw it coming almost a decade ago. Whilst this might sound all pie-in-the-sky right now, I firmly believe this is the future Rockstar Games is set to deliver on having continually sought to blur the line between structured and free-form content, to the point where activities in the game world and the mainline narrative are indistinguishable. In fact, whilst the technology might not be there with AI, I’m sure GTA Online‘s Heist missions have proved that people like working together to achieve their goals.

Interestingly enough, something like this is potentially being developed by the ever-silent Ken Levine, whose third Irrational-led entry in the Bioshock franchise (because there’s a reason why Take 2 haven’t given another studio the Bioshock rights since 2013) will experiment with AI ‘stars’ or ‘leaders’ that develop bonds with the player depending on whether you are a force for good or evil with regard to their own interests and motivations. Be sure to watch his GDC talk on YouTube, entitled ‘Narrative Legos’, for a thorough insight into what Levine thinks one of many potential futures for video-game storytelling could explore. As a side note, it’s interesting to see him become disinterested with the more linear, storied approach currently being championed by games media and award shows.

There’s so much I want to say about Rockstar Games – including pitches concerning how the confined, character-driven environment of Bullworth Academy could be adapted to a prison-based environment; and how the more linear, character-driven approach of The Last of Us could be applied to an open-world formula by encouraging players to constantly be on the move as the world changes around them – but they will come in later entries to this blog. For now, the salient point is this: IV made games better. It made games more ambitious in their scope, more mature with their storytelling, more sophisticated in characterisation and world building, and more confident to take risks and subvert genre expectations. Whether it holds up is hard to say, but its impact on the industry has been immortalised – and the foundation it has laid for games in the future is still being figured out to this day.