on causality

A few days ago, Treyarch’s Jason Blundell revealed that the studio’s upcoming Black Ops 3 will feature a singleplayer campaign with all missions unlocked from the start. This is a considerable departure from the status quo, in that a great deal of games, particularly those with strong narrative campaigns, force the player to proceed sequentially. If you don’t finish chapter four, you won’t get to see chapter five. As usual, there has been a great deal of hubbub about the gaming community, spanning the spectrum from one end to the other. Most of it concerns consumer rights and player freedoms, which I can fully understand. Alas, that is not the rub.

The part that concerns me is this:

The unlocking level system is an archaic mentality we’ve had since we did bedroom development back in the day – you do this, then go on to the next one.

I’m curious to know why this is so “archaic”, as Blundell calls it.

Most of the counters to this involve invoking the “interactive art” codicil. I’m perfectly accepting of this view, as I consider games a valid form of art myself. But some are drawing a straight line between the two and claiming that this is a direct comparison to books, TV shows and other noninteractive media. I don’t see this as a legitmate comparison, personally, because I don’t see how the disparity gives it credibility.

To me, it’s not about the fact that a game can be played in a nonlinear or unpredictable fashion. If there is a story present, there is undoubtedly an intended way the story is meant to be experienced. Maybe there is more than one way to get from point A to point B, but there is almost always the “right” way. The same happens with extended series of books, films and TV shows.

But it’s not like the “right” way is always the obvious way. Particularly when it comes to TV shows, things get fuzzy–do you watch the series in production order or chronological order? Those two can make a big difference to the viewer’s perception of the show. I personally have always preferred production order, as prequels often contain minor spoilers or references to works that take place later, and the overall approach can change drastically depending on how the sequence is arranged. While our means of consuming media makes the concept of an enforced sequence feel archaic, that doesn’t mean that the concept of a linear narrative is archaic.

Yes, things have changed a great deal with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services. Netflix-produced shows are released as a complete season all at once, allowing viewers to binge all the episodes or watch them however they please, no more waiting to consume them piecemeal. But what’s the point? You can find out what happens at the end, but then you don’t get to experience the journey to the end. You lose context and meaning. There is a reason why books are more than just the first and last pages, and it’s not just some outdated superstition.

This is not to ignore other issues of game content that have been building over the years. There was a time when content was locked to provide incentive for players to do things in the games–sometimes just play the game, sometimes specific actions were needed. Achievements took the form of more tangible rewards like alternate costumes and new characters.  Now that extra content more often than not is sold as DLC. You don’t so much “unlock” new things as you simply buy them.

In terms of the narrative, I would definitely love to see a little more expansion made in that realm. Concept for game stories have become almost suffocatingly one-dimensional; developers concieve of one story with one path and that’s it. Older games like Hitman featured multiple methods to achieve the same ultimate ends, but these days it’s often just a matter of progressing from one cutscene to the next. The beginning, middle and end are all the same; the only difference is the rate at which a given player progresses. It makes referring to games as “interactive” somewhat ironic, when you think about it. Regardless, players will often find ways to break out of the bounds imposed upon them.

Ultimately it’s up to the player. Their experience is their own. And as much as I’d like to transform this into a soapbox rant, that’s about all I can leave this to.