I’ve been thinking a lot about options.
It can be confusing so I’ll be clear: please don’t mistake me for meaning choices. A choice affects the world and the story, while options have more to do with core gameplay. I’m talking about the options we’re given within games to tackle situations in whichever way we see fit. A LOT of games have claimed to allow you to approach and dispatch enemies/situations in whichever way you desire, but it’s seldom a reality. Gameplay options are a heftily underused mechanic
Take the recent (yet ancient) I Am Alive for example. Throughout its advertising campaigns it’s been trying to convince us that we’ll have many choices over how we handle hostile situations. While it’s true that some of the encounters with the less well bathed citizens of New York can be unpredictable we’re still being funnelled into a set of actions. Wait for man with gun to approach, kill man with gun, take man’s gun, shoot/threaten man’s friends. There’s very little deviation from this formula, although the game goes out of its way to convince us there is. Sometimes you have to aim a little higher before shooting a man, which is clearly a complete game changer.
It could be argued that the bow is an option, but the bow is being left out because it serves very little use unless there’s only one man for you to kill. It’s a gun that takes a little bit longer to fire, and you wouldn’t sporadically fire a gun into a crowd of I Am Alive’s enemies. No, the surprise machete thing is pretty much the only working strategy, and it gets old. Fast. They even went to the bother of giving you the ability to force enemies off cliffs and into fires but in a normal play through you may do these maybe twice each. They serve either as part of an illusion or a missed opportunity.
L.A. Noire is another example. Touted as an open-world investigation game with all the bells and whistles of Grand Theft Auto IV… only it wasn’t. L.A. Noire put you in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a beautifully well realised character, and then dug out his higher brain functions and let you wander from crime to crime with no real impact on how it went down. Sure you could pin the wrong guy but that had nothing to do with how the game played. You shot when the game told you to shoot, drove when the game told you to drive, and all of it was utterly linear, something exaggerated by it claiming to be a sandbox game.
Now we come to the good examples in this whiny tale. Crysis is a juicy prime cut of options, along with its younger brother Crysis 2. These games give you an environment full of hostiles, a suit with special abilities, and the desire to engage with both. The rest is history. You could sneak around snapping necks and stabbing faces, you could tear the cannon off a jeep and spray-and-pray your way to victory against your terrified foes, or anything in between. It is entirely your choice, and it’s a beautiful thing. Who needs set-pieces when you could simply create your own? You could be the major player in a set-piece, rather than at a fixed perspective watching that major player.
The mother of these types of games is, of course, the original Deus Ex. If you really want to you can play through Deus Ex in its entirety without killing a single person. The game takes care to make all encounters friendly to whichever skill you’re focused on so you always have a way of progressing. This approach also means that the player isn’t punished because they aren’t playing along with what the game expects of them, this is almost the entire reason that Deus Ex is held in such high regard by the elder generation of gamers.
What I’m trying to communicate is that it’s great to have options. Linearity can be good too but serves the story side of things better than the gameplay side. So why so much linear gameplay these days? Why so many set pieces? And why so little room for creativity?