As one of them highfalutin "narrative should matter in games" folks, I think it's important to look at things games do well or not so well, and how that affects the narrative as a whole. Similar to how most FPS shooters can give you the haunting feeling that you're some sort of floating, disembodied head or entity, a poorly constructed game world can easily provide that same level of disconnect between the player and the world they're playing in.
If we look towards some of the game worlds that we are most fond of, in the description of said worlds we're likely to stumble over the same word: "atmosphere." When we use the word, we most readily think of a distinct style, aesthetic, or some sort of creative vision of the world that is able to evoke emotion. However, that's only part of the equation when it comes to world building. Otherwise, you get a game like Borderlands which looks prettier than it did sans cel shading, thereby making the game more palatable and easy on the eyes, but ultimately gives you a barren, barely populated world that merely serves as a backdrop and excuse for frenetic gunplay and a ton of looting. Fun (exceptionally fun; I platinum'd it), but incomplete.
Often, an integral part to making these worlds "come alive" is making sure elements of the world mesh with each other. If you toss someone into a generic sandbox and load them up with abilities, it might prove a fun distraction for a few hours, but it won't be memorable. Conversely, take a game like the divisively received Prince of Persia reboot. The game oozed style and was praised for its aesthetic, but the game world's life came from more than beauty and elegance. When an area wasn't purified, it was covered in a nicely contrasting, awful tar from which enemies spawned (choice, one-on-one encounters, as opposed to waves and waves of cannon fodder). The purification of the land (at the "end" of "stages"), logically, brightened and altered the world, thus giving it a feeling of its own life, in contrast to what a nonsensical, jarring boss fight at the end might have done.
What Prince of Persia (2008) does right, aside from looking pretty, is having a singular, well-defined vision, instead of coming off as an amalgam of disparate elements (I'm a firm believer that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth in video game development as a whole). Even the video game staple "scattered items that need to be collected" have a validation for their existence (opposed to, say, those stupid flags in Assassin's Creed). Another favorite example of mine is the HUD and inventory system of Dead Space and how smartly it's integrated into the fabric of the game world.
Another thing these games do right is giving consequence and meaning to your choices. In Grand Theft Auto IV, I can run rampant on the most insane, brutal killing spree Liberty City has ever seen, leaving only death and destruction in my wake. And then what? I get caught for a negligible penalty or I don't get caught and everything reverts back to normal? That's hogwash. Games, especially recently, seem to all revolve around convincing you that you - and often only you - and what you do matters. If the narrative is espousing that notion, it should be reflected in the game world. The "sandbox" needs to feel like a designed, thought out city with rules and mechanics all its own.
It's a tall order, but persistent game worlds where the players' choices legitimately matter is going to become a necessity as developers try to develop narrative and craft interesting worlds. There are plenty of baby steps to be taken. If an area was destroyed by the player, have a construction crew around for a while in the future. In the GTAIV example, for instance, there could at least be a rise in police detail in these high crime areas (or the whole city, if the player's rampage was expansive enough). Not only would this make these worlds seem more believable and more alive, but it would, at least in the last example, directly challenge the player (You run rampant, contrary to what you're "supposed to" be doing, the game gets harder). Game developers should be, in essence, fighting back. Unless, of course, the game is only meant to serve as a power fantasy, designed to let the player be as domineering and apathetic as they desire, in which case you're not going to have a compelling narrative regardless of how hard you try.
Great topic, Zoidberg. It's nice to see a new thread for a change seeing as the board as of late has been extremely quiet.
The first game I immediately thought of as I was reading your post was Infamous 2. Sure, I haven't played it, but from what I've read and from my experience with the first game, it's another title that creates a believable world, one that has consequences for every action you take. As IGN stated, nothing is there "just because." For example, collecting every Blast Shard may seem like a trivial aspect to the experience, but Cole can gain more power cores and consequently be able to attack more often as more of these Shards are discovered.
A better example, however, is how you decide to treat the city and those who populate it. Everything you do has a consequence, whether it's positive or not. Attack random citizens? Receive negative Karma. Arc Restraint (a sort of handcuff-like imprisonment) enemies? Receive positive Karma. While these example have a small affect on the game world, others have a much more prominent and lasting presence. For example, for every side mission you complete, a portion of the map is then free of enemies. In other words, you're rewarded for your hard work and it makes the game that much more engaging. As you said, with the Assassin's Creed flags, I had no incentive to collect them. With Infamous 1 and 2, this, thankfully, isn't the case.
I recently finished L.A. Noire and, again, it's a game that is a fantastic example of a developer that got it right in terms of atmosphere. In my opinion, the gameplay was a little repetitive but the awe-inspiring recreation of 1947 Los Angeles was quick to overshadow this fact. Team Bondi took/studied something like 80,000 photographs and visited L.A. on numerous occasions in order to accurately portray the era. Their website even details the fact that they had a professional fashion designer who had worked on TV shows and movies come in and dress up the actors as if they were in the '40s. They also had access to newspaper articles that detailed the crimes that occurred during the time period and based some of their cases off of those stories. As Gametrailers said, Noire is probably the closest we'll ever get to actually living during 1947. Down to the style of ties and hats and which props are sitting on kitchen tables, Team Bondi truly outdid themselves and I hope more developers take note of their hard work.
As you said, it would be nice to see more games incorporate certain actions along with their repercussions (your GTAIV example is great). However, I can definitely see the majority of people not being open to such an idea, especially with the GTA series. One of the more prominent complaints with IV is that it was "too serious," especially in comparison to San Andreas where the player could fly via jetpack, pilot planes, etc. I think having more serious consequences for mindless rampages would scare many away and make the game feel less like a game and more like a simulation. However, perhaps a different series would benefit from such an outlook. After all, it's nice to play a game and actually have it feel like it's responding to what I'm doing.
It's often been said that first-person shooters give you the impression that you're playing as a disembodied head, because you have no feet, no chest to stare at, not even a face. I've never felt the same way. While you can't always tell what your character looks like in the mirror, I've always enjoyed the gameplay without taking that extra step. The early Wolfenstein and Doom games, they'd just throw out a face with reaction shots in the screen's center. I would pay more attention to the gameplay than I would the visual fidelity at this point, but I can't say later games wouldn't fill my mind with even greater emphasis on "what ifs."
During Portal 2's play, I'd make multiple attempts to catch a glimpse of the mystery woman known as Chell, as in this case I knew that it was possible to blast one portal against another, try to look at yourself and capture her face, her chest, and her legs all in one shot. And yes, I have taken a picture of 60% Chell with my phone. The Tomb Raider series is another one I'd spend much time fiddling with. Who could resist continuing the gameplay when the camera gets a nice close up view of Lara's face and boxom body? When it's their back you're staring at half the time, it's nice to see a frontal depiction for a change whenever the opportunity arises.
The same goes for games such as Borderlands or even Call of Duty. I've played co-op in these games, not feeling that it matters much that I'm not able to identify my character on screen at all times. Although, vanity kicks in a little when you're playing with a friend in split-screen. You're hunting them and they're hunting you. When their sights are set on you, the moment to finally notice yourself is revealing. That's when they put a bullet through your head and you cry out, "Hey!"
But as for leaving behind a deconstructed environment because you've personally caused it problems, this "realism" effect can be more of a negative as I've felt this way in Grand Theft Auto before. When playing through Grand Theft Auto III specifically, one memory that always springs to mind is how much I disliked driving the vehicle through a neighboring district, as the gang members in that section would fire upon my car violently, quickly, all because of the story structure that led to their displeasure in the campaign. In turn, I would end up having to go around it any chance I could. Sometimes there was just no other choice, like during a police chase. Not only are the cops after you now but so are these vigilantes - and as you can imagine this sort of situation is rather detrimental to your character's health all because of that one thing you did that one time.
This thread was posted three months ago and we've had only two MVPs reply to it? Come on, ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to hear what others have to say about this topic (I don't care if Zoidberg started it ). This is one of the few thought-provoking threads I've seen since the transition. It'd be nice to hear from more people.
What we need to take into account is development time and cost. Games have come a long way in the past two decades. Dev teams have grown exponentially, and game development isn't far from rivaling that of Hollywood films in both cost and technology. What we are seeing now is developers prioritizing, and for this stage in the game (no pun intended) that's not such a bad thing.
On the horizon however, we can plainly see that developers want (and will) do more. Game engine development has been spiking throughout this generation. Even the legendary Hideo Kojima is developing an engine these days. Game engines are going to be key in cutting dev time and cost, and that's what we'll need in order to get closer to "true to life" gaming.
We should also keep in mind however, not everyone is interested in deep & rich games. I have friends who will play for hours daily on a couple of Call of Duty maps while all the great titles of the year pass them by. While games that attract these players remain profittable, I wouldn't expect anymore priority to go to creating cphesive worlds across more games.
In my opinion, though cohesive worlds are extremely important to me as well, I still can't say that I would be willing to tell a developer to sacrifice what is in their budget for gameplay, animation, bug fixes, and narrative. What I believe is that in time, game engines will do so much of the work for these developers, more time will be spent on textures and level building. And if that's going to be the case, the only thing that can follow is more cohesive worlds and realistic textures in our games.