Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making Exploration and Storytelling Compatible

Playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum, I realized that while I loved hunting down all the hidden collectibles and solving the wealth of Riddler challenges, it didn’t make sense for Batman to be taking time out of his busy schedule to do any of that. True, this has been the case with the majority of games, but I never really noticed it until Arkham Asylum. Maybe that’s because it’s so well-presented, or that it all conceivably occurs in real-time, given how it takes place over the course of one night and a playthrough lasts an appropriate nine to twelve hours.

Either way, it became apparent that most games suffer from this flaw. When there’s an urgent quest or mission at hand, the player is often urged to use their limitless supply of time to hunt down doodads. Even games that don’t have collectibles or side-quests still give way to exploration simply by virtue of housing a game world that can be explored. After playing through Arkham Asylum, I felt compelled to reflect on games that have sidestepped this convention, and to consider how to integrate storytelling with the player’s urge to explore, which is encouraged by any virtual world.

The Legend of Zelda’s world is expansive, exciting, and often very confusing.

The original The Legend of Zelda gets right to the heart of the matter. You didn’t explore it simply to find stuff, but rather because you were on a quest to save the princess, but had been given no instruction or direction on how to do this. Thus, there was no choice but to explore. There was almost no way of knowing if you’re going down the main path or not, outside of getting hold of the Nintendo Power map, so it never felt like you were taking time out from saving the world to collect goodies. Instead, every cave you explored was a possible further lead towards the main quest – and if it wasn’t, you probably found a nifty reward instead. Zelda was incredibly confusing at times, but at its core that lack of distinction between its main path and its side-quests was to its credit.

Appropriate exploration resurfaced in the second N64 Zelda title, Majora’s Mask, the platform provided in that game’s case by how it handled time. Unlike in most games, you couldn’t take your time in Majora’s Mask’s world, safe in the knowledge that you’d always arrive at the last minute to save the day. Instead, you had three in-game days to save the world, which constituted somewhere between fifty minutes and five hours in real-time depending on how much you slowed down time in-game. Fail, and you’d lose all progress made in that time. Rather than being a horribly frustrating, repetitious experience, you were able to revert back to the first day’s dawn at any time, keeping all the important objects you’d acquired in that time with you. This made it easy to make your way back to where you left off, and more significantly, provided the sense for Link to want to take his time to search for treasures to aid him on his quest. Simply put, Link literally had all the time in the world of Majora’s Mask.

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