221 The Problem (And Beauty) Of Open Exploration Games

Playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter this weekend got me thinking more about the emerging interactive exploration/story-telling genre recently. This game type has numerous redeeming qualities, and the capstone of the genre so far is Fullbright’s Gone Home, from 2013. In my opinion, it’s one of the video game genre’s greatest story-telling achievements of all time. And it’s what opened me up to trying more games that are similar, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. And so far, a few hours in, I’m having an awesome time with it. That said, I have a bone to pick.

The game opens up with the warning that “This game does not hold your hand.” I found that to be peculiar phrasing. A colloquial way of saying that the game doesn’t teach you how to play it. But I guess it’s in the nature of a game that isn’t “holding your hand” to tell you so in a cryptic way. This wasn’t a problem for me personally, since I’ve played hundreds of video games in my life, and have a good grasp on their tropes. But for others less trained, I’m not convinced this is a great way to introduce a game.

And so, the problem with the genre lay just there; they can be much too open ended. This is particularly true of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Let’s say that I’m walking through the woods on a path, and I come to a crossroads with 4 different directions I could go in (further in the woods, toward the rocky beach, up a grassy mountain, or over to an abandoned train car). If I’m playing a game with almost no story or guidance, what provokes me to go one way versus another? What sort of choice can I make, other than a completely arbitrary one?

So I choose to go through the woods more, end up finding something of interest, but can’t ever really shake the constant nagging in the back of my head that I’ve missed out on something. Or I’m going the wrong way. Or that I’m going the right way but I wanted to be going the wrong way. Or…

It’s hard sometimes to compare mediums, particularly with video games because of the nature of their interactivity. However, at the beginning of playing this game, it feels like… being handed 300 ripped out book pages in an unordered stack, and then told there are only a few right ways to read through them. Good luck.

This kind of open-endedness can create a lot of really exciting emergent stories, though, so I totally get the appeal of designing a game this way. It may be the sheer size of the location in the game that makes this a struggle. In Gone Home, you were restricted to a single house. Even if I got to a spot in the house where I could go to either the kitchen, living room, or the library, I knew for a fact that whichever I picked, I would eventually get to the other two.

It’s tied to the narrative of the story, too. There would never be a character in a story that makes decisions arbitrarily. Even a mystery game like this one, with supernatural elements and a detective whose job it is to explore everything… even that person would have context for the decisions they make. They would arrive in a location with an agenda. They would see a barn in the distance, and likely have an idea of whether it’s something that would make sense to explore. In an open-ended narrative game, everything is assumed to be interesting enough to be explored.

Anyway, the critique is all in defense of the genre. I want to see it grow further, and I like playing different games that try different things. As long as we keep trying new ideas, it’ll be worth playing them.

[ Today I Was Playing: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and The Order:1886 ]

August 9, 2015