What Makes a Good Sandbox?

The two of us recently finished Saint’s Row the Third, and beating it raised some questions. It definitely succeeds in what it set out to do– in terms of over-the-top thrills, explosions, crude humor, and general zaniness it’s basically unmatched among any release of the past year, and the gameplay is tight and fun. But there was a sense of disappointment. Compared to its predecessor the game world felt smaller and less varied, and the game’s emphasis on climactic set pieces and giving the player shiny toys to play with led to a lack of focus (zombie fighting? laser guns? flying aircraft carriers? Wasn’t this series supposed to be about gangbangers?). It’s as fun as Saint’s Row 2, but said fun comes mostly from the missions this time around instead of the sandbox elements.

That’s the genesis of what we want to try and pick at this week.  What makes a good sandbox, and how can games built around sandbox mechanics use this?

[When we say “sandbox” in this context we mostly mean the kind of games that used to be called “GTA Clones”– ones that put the player in a (usually urban) environment and focus on freeform play– rather than open-world RPGS (like Skyrim) or Metroidvanias]

Freedom

This should be what makes a sandbox what it is. We say “should” because even the best sandbox games can fall apart on this front. It’s easy to give the players a world to play in, but it’s harder to leave them with that freedom once they’re supposed to be engaging in the story and pre-designed missions.

The bank robbery mission is as awesome as a game version of Michael Mann’s Heat, but also about as linear and carefully orchestrated.

Grand Theft Auto IV, despite its stellar quality, has serious issues in this regard. Liberty City is an amazing, living environment and you have incredible freedom in wandering around, breathing in the life of the city, getting hot-water hotdogs off the street, and shooting pigeons in their face. But this isn’t present in the missions: you drive to the mission point and go through a fairly-linear shooting mission. Some of them are great (GTAIV is one of this blog’s absolute favorite games), but it is a frustration that one of the most organic and immersive worlds in gaming becomes a shooter when the player decides to engage with the game’s central story.

The worst offenders are several of the car/motorcycle chase missions, in which the target vehicle can’t be destroyed or stopped until it reaches a pre-determined point on the map– moments when a game that makes the player feel an incredible sense of agency and freedom suddenly feels artificial.

A sandbox that really, really gets this right, however, is Just Cause 2. It’s an almost polar opposite of GTA IV— colorful, frenetic, with shallow characters and a world that rarely feels like more than a big set of sandcastles for you to knock over. But it also does an absolutely amazing job of making the player feel like a complete uncontrollable wildcard. This is in part due to the player’s  incredible mobility– with a Zelda-style hookshot, the ability to surf on top of moving vehicles, and an infinite supply of parachutes, the player can rocket around the game’s wide-open spaces and becomes impossible to pin down. It’s also due to fairly smart mission design. Even

You can seriously go from booting the game up to riding a passenger plane in 30 seconds and four button presses.

the game’s more linear missions end up feeling fairly chaotic and keeping the player on their toes (such as one where you grapple from the bumpers of a convoy of vehicles, shooting off police pursuers and defusing the bombs strapped to the cars), whereas the game’s main objectives boil down to “destabilizing” the local dictatorship by running around causing chaos.

Just Cause 2 is, in all fairness, not nearly as good of a game as Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s pure, cheesy fun, not a powerfully-written crime drama about the evil of the American dream. But as a sandbox it absolutely excels– a sandbox game will, by its very form, be about chaos, and the game’s decision to resist corralling the player and give them truly extreme levels of mobility and frenetic, loosely-structured missions make it the rare sandbox where you feel as free in the missions as you do when exploring the world.

Things to Do

A sandbox isn’t a sandbox without the sand— not just an open world, but things to do in it. There are  two cases of sandbox games from recent years that both failed in this regard: Mafia II and L.A. Noire. We’re almost certainly going to talk about L.A. Noire in a later column devoted solely to its inspired and muddled attempts to do bold new things, so instead, Mafia II.

Get used to this view. You will see a lot of it.

It was Goodfellas done as a competent third-person shooter, with over-long driving missions in between the shooting sessions. Your options outside of the main story were limited to: stealing cars and driving them to a dock or junkyard, buying clothes, and robbing stores. You could pick fights with cops or shoot civilians, but the ability to rampage and cause trouble felt almost perfunctory (the fact that the civilians walking the streets rarely did anything but walk along the sidewalk didn’t make the world feel particularly deep, either). It was a sandbox game about the Mafia that punished you for speeding. To stretch the sandbox metaphor: Mafia II didn’t have any sand. It didn’t have any toys. It wasn’t a box. It was the parking lot outside an arcade where you pushed shopping carts around to earn the money to go inside and play the fun shooter games.

A game that makes the decision to include an open world– and that asks the player to drive across this world –needs to justify it either by providing diversions or enriching the atmosphere, and Mafia II didn’t. Exploring its pseudo-New-York doesn’t flesh out the game’s themes or story (unlike Liberty City, it’s not a satiric take or particularly different from the real New York, and the game could have easily put up a “New York, 1943” title card at the beginning and achieved the same effect). Instead, the inclusion of the sandbox simply paired every mission with an equal– or longer –period of driving.

On the other hand, an open world made almost entirely of “stuff to do” can be found in the hyper-stylized WWII sandbox The Saboteur. The game’s premise basically promised nothing but a parade of chaos diversions: “you play an angry and often-drunk ex-IRA racecar driver. You are in occupied Paris. Here’s a sack of bombs– every time you blow up Nazis, you get more money to buy more bombs.” The game’s world is absolutely riddled with watchtowers, zeppelins, SS officers, and anti-aircraft turrets, all of which can be permanently destroyed. It also gives the player multiple approaches, letting you steal Nazi uniforms to infiltrate ares, clamber across rooftops, or just throw C4 and rockets around wildly. There’s a real, tangible, reward to this too– you can scout out the area of an upcoming mission, destroy the sniper perches and watchtowers ahead of time, and clear out roadblocks along your escape route.

The only problem with the art design is that it makes Nazi occupation look absolutely beautiful.

It’s also a world that responds to you doing diversions– “liberated” zones (freed by doing major side missions) have less Nazis and more hiding places, whereas areas that haven’t been inspired to start le Resistance are crawling with potential enemies. Most impressively– and in a great choice that made The Saboteur a cult classic despite its serious issues,” the areas under tight Nazi control are bathed in a bleak high-contrast black-and-white, with only blood, fire, mission objectives, and the red of the swastika still in color, whereas freeing them bathes the areas in vibrant, hypersaturated colors (think a game that alternates between the visual styles of Sin City and a spaghetti Western). It fills the game world with things to do (more than any sane player will ever finish), and makes the world  visually  stunning to boot (the prettiest parts being the blood and explosions caused by indulging in the side activities). If nothing else, it contains an optional side mission in which you assassinate an SS officer during his wedding, which is officiated by Steve Blum. Every game should have side missions where Steve Blum asks you to “in the name of all that is holy, blow his fucking head off.”

A Living World

The best sandboxes– see GTAIV above– aren’t just big, open, and varied. They also feel like a world that the player inhabits, instead of just playing in. Whereas most games solely react to the player’s actions, a sandbox requires a world that believably lives and breathes. The player can’t simply interact with the world– the world itself has to interact with the player and  seem to operate autonomously.

Want to start a giant, bloody fight with an army of mascots? Only when the game wants you to.

This may summarize our biggest frustration with Saint’s Row The Third. The second game was full of weird interactions and bizarre patterns: you could start a war with the pimps by punching one in the face, hijack an ambulance and respond to emergency calls, or just listen to passers-by talk about what was going on in the quests (a brilliant one: “I think the story of the Saints would make a great anime!”).  In SR3, though, everyone on the sidewalk is walking from one place to the other. They’ll occasionally comment on something crazy you do. You can’t tear  fire hydrants out of the ground, the enemy gangs won’t fight each other. You’ll see plenty of crazy things, but even the men in hot dog suits riding scooters are just silently riding them in predetermined paths.

The game delivers spectacle aplenty, and the main story and its side missions have plenty of wild, crazy moments. But the real joy of the sandbox as a genre is that it allows the player to create their own spectacle by playing around with the world’s own rhythms and life, and SR3 doesn’t offer too much in that regard. The reason that rampaging wildly in GTAIV and other crime games is so fun is because it makes the player feel like a madman wreaking havoc in a real, deep world, but SR3’s relative lifelessness turns the world from a plaything to a set.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an absolute triumph at creating this kind of world. It’s surprising that there haven’t been more Western sanboxes– the only one that comes to mind is Gun, which was decent if nowhere near the same quality as RDR –given that the genres are both so strongly dependent on setting and that the Old West is as sprawling, morally gray, and beautiful a setting as you could hope for. This is a fact Red Dead realizes: one of the game’s biggest draws (besides the usual high quality of writing and characters we’ve come to expect from Rockstar) is the way that it really does make the player feel like a  Western  hero. And it does this, in large part, by making the world feel real and alive.

Part of the success in this department is the incorporation of random encounters and events– things that were too small to be side

It’s also the best cougar-knife-fighting game on the market.

missions, but that the player can run into and either ignore or intervene in. The way these encounters are designed fleshes out the world and gives a real sense of freedom: the game doesn’t simply give you the mission to stop an execution, but when you’re riding through Mexico and see a group of soldiers by the side of the road about to shoot someone it’s hard to resist intervening. Some of them repeat too often– one would think the shopkeep in Armadillo might invest in a gun after the fifth time he’s robbed –but on your travels through the (intensely beautiful, wonderfully varied) world, there are plenty of moments where it’s easy to sit back and watch the world run without your interference.

There’s also many, many even smaller and more detailed ways that the game drives you to interact with the world. There’s the option to hunt– in which you make that world a little less alive –a train that runs throughout the world and which the player can ride alongside for its entire route, wild horses to be lassoed and broken, bandit dens to eliminate, and a whole host of big and small adventures to have. Whereas Saint’s Row feels like an over-the-top gangster story, Red Dead Redemption feels like the entire genre of the Western in a big and vibrant way, folding elements and scenes from  Sergio Leone, The Great Silence, Dead Man, The Searchers, Blood Meridian, the myth f Jesse James, and other landmarks of the genre. Making the game feel so alive and rich  transforms it from the tragic story of John Marston to the tragic story of the West itself.

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Great Video Game Protagonists. Yes, They Exist.

For the first real entry of Cardinal Virtual, we wanted to discuss what qualities make a good video game protagonist. I’m sure most of you can name at least a few game characters who you’ve felt some kind of a connection with (don’t lie, you know you have). For some of you, these favorite characters might simply have been a player avatar you enjoy taking on the role of (characters like The Dovahkiin in Skyrim or even Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series). Others might pick a character who already has a set personality that they enjoyed, and this is the type of character we’re here to talk about today.

Keep in mind, neither of us have a problem with player avatar characters– they often help make a game more immersive and can also serve as an outlet for players to express themselves creatively. But successfully creating a game protagonist with a well-defined personality is a delicate balancing act that we feel deserves some attention. The characters who follow are all  protagonists who’s personalities made their games significantly more fun for us to play.

Exhibit A: Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV

“I was in a war. This means nothing to me!”

Creating a complex protagonist in a Grand Theft Auto game is certainly a daunting task, since players have such a wide array of different actions at their disposal, but Niko Bellic is perfectly crafted for this role. His life before the game as a teenage soldier in Serbia and later as a hired goon for a white slave trader explains his combat skills and proficiency with firearms, as well as showing why he has no problem operating outside the law when the game begins. He also (naturally) witnessed enough horrors during these former careers to damage even the strongest of psyches, which makes the player’s inevitable rampage through the streets of Liberty City seem like Niko finally just snapped. No matter what you end up doing in the game, from killing cops to bowling, it makes sense that Niko would do it. He’s not just a good protagonist– he’s the perfect protagonist for his game, and is designed in such a way that you never feel like you’ve broken character or are stepping away from his story to play cops-and-robbers instead (to see how hard this can be, look at Prototype, which tries to tell a story of a morally troubled antihero clinging to his humanity while simultaneously rewarding the player for eating innocent bystanders).

“Hamburgers, hamburgers, hamburgers!”

If you haven’t actually played GTA IV, you’re probably thinking by this point that Niko’s a complete monster (and you’d be partially right) but his relationships with other characters (especially his cousin Roman) make him sympathetic and something of a tragic figure too. He genuinely feels protective of Roman and tries to stop his cousin from begin stepped on by the dregs of the Liberty City underworld, though this often just gets Roman in further trouble. Still, you always feel that Niko has nothing but good intentions when trying to help his cousin, so he never strays into unlikable territory. Conversely, Roman endears himself to Niko (and the player) by introducing them to Liberty City at the beginning of the game and by offering a free taxi service (provided you hang out with him enough). You, the player, share Niko’s friendships and alliances. In a medium where its all to common for the writers to simply tell you that you care about character x, it’s always nice to see a well developed friendship where actions can have surprising consequences, you know, like with real people.

Exhibit B: Travis Touchdown from the No More Heroes series

If you get this, then the joke’s really on you.

There’s no denying that the first No More Heroes had some serious flaws. Combat with regular enemies could quickly become dull and driving across the the lifeless “open world sandbox” city between assassination targets and the menial labor mini games broke any sense of flow. It was the game’s colorful cast of characters (in addition to the boss fights where you dismember that colorful cast) that kept us playing through the first installment of the two game series, namely player controlled Travis Touchdown. I think we can say right off the bat that having a geeky, anime-obsessed assassin star in a game about killing people in an over the top anime fashion is an incredibly funny premise, and that’s initially what makes Travis great– he’s funny as hell. Not because he tries to be of course, Travis thinks he’s a badass smooth talking ladies man when in reality he’s a nerdy loser who routinely picks up trash and pumps gas to make ends meet and who progresses through the fights in the game simply for a shot at getting laid. Also, if you’re a gamer, you can probably see some of yourself in Travis too, which makes him relatable and the whole setup even funnier. He’s the nerd-escapist fantasy made flesh: the lightsaber-wielding collector of schoolgirl anime who learned how to be a deadly killer from his local video store (except he’s still a loser).

Travis delivers a speech about humanity that includes the word “manga.”

But it’s No More Heroes’ far superior sequel where Travis really shines. After witnessing the murder of an assassin he had previously fought and admired, Travis begins to actually develop convictions and becomes his own man, instead of being used like in the first game.  You feel as though he genuinely becomes a better person during the course of his quest for revenge (which is rare for a revenge storyline). To put it bluntly, he matures, and you feel almost proud of him for it.  That alone can endear you to a character. And, as much as Travis is a parody of the player, his self-recognition and growth forces the player to consider themselves–when he stares down his would-be girlfriend and yells that even in video games we shouldn’t casually murder people, it uses the player’s investment in him and the game to raise questions about the medium.

Also, he’s a badass assassin who will willingly spend thousands of dollars to dress up in hot pink clothes promoting his favorite disgusting cartoon.  That’s amazing.

Exhibit C: Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire

That about sums it up.

While No More Heroes 1 may have been far from perfect, it has nothing on L.A. Noire in the flaws department. Never before has an awful ending so utterly ruined an otherwise good game, but that’s a rant for another time. Like fellow Rockstar protagonist Niko Bellic, detective Cole Phelps never preforms an action that feels out of character. For the game mechanics to work, players need to be obsessive when solving a case and Cole’s perfectionist tendencies help to make the long crime scene investigations player conducts feel in character. His perfectionism coupled with his cold and distant manner explains the wild accusations the player is bound to make during the interrogation sections of the game in the hopes of gaining a clue to the real culprit. And the fact that the player has to always be the main character and solve the crime themselves is justified by Cole being constantly convinced he’s smarter than everyone else.

“Sorry for accusing you of strangling your wife out of shame for your latent homosexuality. Just doing my job. You understand.”

So as you can probably tell from above, unlike Niko and Travis, Cole is not a likable character, which is ironic considering the professions of the other two characters discussed here. He’s a self-righteous dick who feels superior to everyone around him, and while these qualities initially make him a good cop, they also help lead to his downfall. He’s a hero whose main downfall is his hero complex. Cole doesn’t seem to care about anyone like Niko does and he’d never be caught dead working menial jobs like Travis; he’s too good for that. But all of this is really makes Cole a great character. You don’t necessarily need to like someone to enjoy playing as him and controlling someone who is an ass to everyone else can be strangely cathartic (especially when other characters call out his delusions of heroism and self-centeredness). Most game studios bend over backwards to get you to love their characters, so Team Bondi unabashedly showing their protagonist to be an unlikeable prick makes Cole Phelps a breath of fresh air.  Too bad they made the ending as unpleasant as Cole.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Games

We thought it would be a good idea to open this blog discussing exactly what the title suggests: the cardinal virtues of game design. And, specifically, the elements that make games such an exciting, vibrant art form to us.

One of the most frustrating things about games-as-art discussions is the way that so many critics try and use the standards of other mediums– “why is there no game with a story as good as Citizen Kane?” is a story that comes up depressingly frequently. Citizen Kane is brought up, of course, because it’s a masterpiece of cinema. The cruel irony here being that Kane isn’t a masterpiece for its narrative, but for its mastery of the medium of film: the cinematography, the gorgeous visuals, the use of techniques impossible to replicate outside of film to tell the story. Asking about gaming’s Citizen Kane is as futile a proposition as asking why no film can tell a story like Beckett’s The Unnamable or why Jay-Z can’t make a song as beautiful as the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Instead, we want to look at elements of games that are unique to their medium, and at some specific games that embody these virtues. There’s art here, not just in the artistic elements of design, but in the core game. The great moments of a game– the thrill of pulling off a well-executed stunt, the joy of actively piecing together a story through the environment, the power of having a direct hand in shaping the narrative of a game –are triumphs of their medium as much as the beautiful language of a great poem or the evocative visuals of a great film.

It is not always a magic that translates between mediums.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction is where the core mechanics of the game come into play. It’s not the satisfaction of a narrative payoff, it’s the satisfaction of a job well-done. In a satisfying game, every action the player does– from the most basic attacks to the biggest events– feels simultaneously challenging, skillful, and rewarding. The player feels constantly challenged but never overwhelmed, and should always feel empowered by their skills and rewarded by the game. This can be very small-scale– the hard-kicking, enemy-destroying, controlled explosion of a shotgun in Doom makes every shot beautiful and rewarding –or become the core principle of the game, in the way that World of Warcraft and other MMOs put the player in a Skinner Box of continual challenge, stimulus, and reward. At its core, satisfaction is the “game” of a game– it’s no accident that games like Pong or Space Invaders, despite their lack of plots, art, or freedom, are what define the medium. (It also says something that, to represent this element, both of us chose games by Capcom– a company that has always placed a huge emphasis on challenging and over-the-top fun).

Jasper’s Pick: Resident Evil 4 (2005)

I’ve literally done this about ten thousand times and it’s still fun.

I will always hold up Resident Evil 4 as one of the best video games ever made. It’s a high-water mark for the medium as a whole. I don’t mean in terms of the story (which is Roger Corman-level silly and campy), or even in terms of the visuals (creative environments, some of the best graphics of its generation, enemy design ranging from simply good to the absolute beautiful horror that is the Regenerators). It’s perfect because it never stops being satisfying.

Every weapon in the game, be it the ratatat submachine gun to absolute battering ram of the Ruger Broomhandle pistol, looks, feels, and sounds unique and interesting. The game’s combat system is built around not just encouraging, but forcing the player to pull off neat and rewarding tricks– the enemies are slow-moving and ammo is rationed, pushing the player towards head- and knee-shots, which in turn lead to visceral hand-to-hand attacks. Just moving in this game is satisfying, as the controls allow you to sprint forward, hop a fence, stop on a dime, quickly spin 180 degrees around, ready a headshot, and immediately put a pursuing enemy down, all using simple and intuitive controls.

Special mention has to be given to the game’s use of quick-time events, which RE4 helped to pioneer (along with God of War).  Whereas in many games these feel like a crutch for cutscenes, RE4 uses them both in and out of regular gameplay, and they’re frequent and easy enough to give the player a sense of power– struggling out of enemy attacks, quickly dodging a projectile, stabbing a spider-shaped abomination in his mouth-eye. There’s not a moment in the game where you’re not about to do something cool, and the game (and, credit where credit’s due, Shinji Mikami) always makes you feel like you’ve earned it.

Joe’s Pick: Mega Man 2 (1988)

You, too, will want to be The Guy.

Despite what you’d expect from someone who grew up playing Nintendo, I have no real feelings of nostalgia for Mega Man 2. I first played the game over a decade after its initial release, but I’ve only grown to appreciate it more as a game designer over the years. It has a few missteps (like that turret boss), but the mechanics, overall, are rock-solid.

Since this is a Mega Man game, I’d better address the music first. The soundtrack is the best music the NES ever had. Each theme perfectly compliments its stage– Bubble Man’s peaceful, lethargic theme goes well with slower speed of Mega Man’s actions while underwater while the driving, forceful tune of Quick Man’s stage makes running the infamous laser gauntlet all the more frantic. The pairing of great music with complimentary gameplay will always be a rewarding experience for me. It makes the music not just a soundtrack, but an aspect of the level design.

In Mega Man tradition, Mega Man 2 lets you tackle the first 8 levels of the game in any order you want, but you’ll have to figure out which path through them gets you the right weapons to use against the upcoming bosses. Letting the player constantly build up their arsenal for the first portion of the game this way is a great incentive to keep playing–it offers major, and constant, rewards for progress– and figuring out which weapon a boss is weak against and completely destroying him with it is always incredibly satisfying–it gives the player a sense of mastering the game’s strategy and learning how to beat it, not simply accumulating power.

While the above mentioned mechanics are present in all Mega Man games, Mega Man 2 nails this formula the best, and I could talk about why for the rest of this blog. In the end, it all boils down to exquisite level design, which is really why Mega Man 2 is so satisfying to play. It’s just such a well crafted experience (aside from the previously mentioned turret boss), with a perfect and diverse selection of weapons, enemies and obstacles to give the game just the right level of challenge.

Immersion

This is the one that a lot of the more intellectual game critics like to talk about, and for good reason: if you’re crafting a narrative in games, the fact that the player is your protagonist is a fairly important feature. A player’s immersion is the sense of being in the world, the sense in which the game world feels like an interesting and rich environment. It’s the aspect of games which benefits the most from great art design, great sound, and great writing. Games which are truly immersive are the ones in which the player’s happy to poke around in corners, scrounge for expository text, look for secrets, or just admire the scenery. It can be used to huge effect to create an emotional response in the player; think of the infamous reveal at the beginning of Bioshock’s third act, and how much scarier and more sickening it was to find that you had been manipulated and that your life was a lie than it would be for a non-player protagonist– and how much little impact this would have had if the game hadn’t drawn the player in and made us believe in its world through a lush, detailed, and emotionally-charged setting. An immersive game is a game we lose ourselves in.

Jasper’s Pick: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)

The City of Vivec, which you will never ever see every inch of.

When I first played Morrowind, at the age of 13, I was blown away. It was the first experience I’d had with anything like a sandbox or open-world game, but what amazed me wasn’t just the size of the world or the fact that every person in it could be spoken to, made an enemy or friend, or killed (or that legendary theme song, which even today makes me tense up with anticipation). It was things like the buildings made from the hollowed carapaces of giant crabs, the bookshelves full of books I could read, the incredibly complex politics and religions of the island of Vvardenfell, and the feeling of really being in a strange and fully realized land.

What Morrowind had going for it, which Skyrim and, to a nearly-catastrophic degree, Oblivion don’t is a world that feels incredibly alien. There are a handful of the typical Eurofantasy brick-and-stone

Sadrith Mora, the inhabitants of which you will never like (because they’re Objectivist wizards).

villages, but most of your time will be spent in adobe buildings, houses carved from giant mushrooms, the aforementioned shell-buildings, or just staring in wonder at the colossal fleas or weird T-Rex/cow hybrids that populate the landscape. It’s a world with a huge amount of creativity on display, and it throws the player in headfirst to explore and acclimate themselves with the world.

There are few games, especially nowadays, that completely dispense with hand-holding and say “here’s your world, here’s the name of someone who might help you, here’s twenty bucks– go have fun.” And I can’t think of another one that combines that sense of vast potential with Morrowind’s almost obsessively-intricate backstory, creative art design, and seemingly-infinite amount of details, hidden treasures, secrets, in-jokes, and sidequests. I’ve probably clocked more hours in it than any game before or since, and a huge amount of that time was just wandering the cities, studying up on history, and going for nature walks. Playing Morrowind, it’s hard not to feel like you’re stepping into another world.

Joe’s Pick: Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

The distinction between Colossus and landscape can be pretty blurry.

From the moment I started playing Shadow of the Colossus, I was impressed with the presentation of its world. I loved the high-contrast lighting, the washed-out colors, and the subdued (or nonexistent) music when riding from place to place, all further heightening the sense that you are all alone in this vast landscape. All of this caught my attention and drew me in before I ever reached the core gameplay.

The sixteen colossi themselves are fascinating to look at, as nearly all of them have their own distinct, bizarre, and sometimes off-putting appearance. They may slightly resemble mythical creatures, but never to the extent that they look familiar at first glance (you’ll never say “that’s a minotaur” or “that’s a dragon”). And yet, as strange and alien as the colossi look, there are certain common features many of them share (like a stone faceplate, piercing orange eyes, the white markings indicating their weak points) that serve to make them all the more intriguing, since it makes you wonder what these creatures actually are and where they came from. It hints at a story you’ll never find out, again making the player feel so much smaller and younger than the world they’re invading.

The architecture– what little of it remains in this now uninhabited land — has a very primitive look to it. While many fantasy games have distinctly medieval buildings, the structures in Shadow of the Colossus have a truly ancient feel to them and and evoke the same kind of strangeness that we feel when looking at the ruins of a Mesopotamian or Aztec city. Once again, the world feels unfamiliar and you’re left without a point of reference.

Basically, the point I’m driving at here is that Shadow of the Colossus is immersive because the world it creates is unique and interesting. You could have a perfectly executed game about slaying sixteen dragons in Tolkeinland #35 but I wouldn’t find it as immersive because I’ve played many games in nearly identical worlds and would find it much harder to become interested, and the game would have been forgettable because it wouldn’t have had the beauty, strangeness, and emotional power that impressed so many people.

Agency

Agency is the player’s choice and freedom– it’s what makes them a player, rather than a viewer. A player’s agency is why, if you tape the same person playing the same game on two different days, the recordings will still look different. While, at its most basic level, agency can boil down to the choice of whether to look to the right or left, a game that handles it well will give the player free and meaningful choices. This doesn’t have to translate to a moral choice system, open-world gameplay, or WRPG-style character creation (although these are all expressions of player agency). At its core, agency means the player has a multitude of ways to approach most situations. Shooters approach this by giving the player an arsenal of varied weapons and letting them decide which fits their playstyle, survival horror games by forcing the player to ration their supplies and decide when to fight and when to run. Most importantly, these choices should feel meaningfulhaving twenty guns to choose from isn’t satisfying if all of them are equally effective, and being able to make extreme moral choices is empty if no one ever reacts to it and the world never changes.

Jasper’s Pick: Mass Effect 2 (2010)

I really want a Mass Effect game that’s just me and Mordin going to bars and having fun.

(I wanted to focus specifically on ME2 for this entry, both to avoid getting drawn into the endless bickering about Mass Effect 3′s ending and because I’m going to draw a specific example from it later).

Mass Effect 2 isn’t perfect in this regard, because this is an aspect of the medium games are still struggling with pretty hard. But it does some things very, very well. The player’s character customization is in-depth and important– the various classes play radically differently, and can be further customized to match the player’s style. It also gets a ton of credit from me for eschewing the traditional good/evil slider and instead giving the player bars which measure what type of badass they are; think of the Paragon/Renegade choice as being how much your Shepard is John Wayne or Lee Marvin, respectively. It also makes several of these choices have long-term consequences– minor characters from the first game will pop up in this one, characters you save in the tutorial mission will vouch for your integrity when you wind up in court later, and, for one of the first times in RPG history, blowing off a crucial mission to do sidequests will result in people dying horribly and you being rightfully chewed out for taking your sweet time saving them.

It’s easy to be evil when the devil is Martin Sheen.

That last point is what makes this game a real triumph of player agency for me– unlike so many other games with choice systems, it makes its choices hard. Even if you commit at the beginning to a pure Paragon/Renegade playthrough, there are going to be times where the Paragon’s mercy and understanding feels like a waste of breath, or where the Renegade’s expediency and refusal to compromise will seem cold, or even cruel. This is at its best in the mission “Old Blood,” probably my favorite hour or so of gaming in 2010, in which you accompany Mordin Solus (the ship’s doctor) in following up on the black-ops bioweapon work he’s still riddled with guilt over. The mission from start to finish puts you in a moral gray zone, constantly asking you how far your commitments to expediency or understanding go, and it’s one of the few moments in the game where I really couldn’t tell you what was “right.” Mass Effect can get pretty soap-operatic with its writing and morality from time to time, but “Old Blood” is about as good as any pop-sci-fi gets and most of its power comes from forcing the player to take an active role in the moral conflict, to make it impossible to leave without innocent blood on your hands. That mission, and all the other moments in the game when related moral conflicts and crises get raised, are about as free as I’ve ever felt playing an RPG, simply because it was hard to find a choice that was unjustifiable, and because every choice felt like a momentous one both for the game world for Shepard and Mordin’s souls.

Joe’s Pick: Fallout 3 (2008)

Liam Neeson will be very disappointed in your actions.

Fallout 3 is the game that completely embodies agency for me. Nearly every scenario you’re placed in can be completed in a variety of different ways, which actually make primarily investing in skills like speech and science seem like viable alternatives. The player’s choices in character creation become meaningful, because committing to a smooth-talking scientist opens up some paths and shuts off others. Even within combat, there are plenty of different types of weapons to specialize in, and which specialty you choose actually affects the way combat feels. While many games offer these kinds of choices, they often don’t radically change the way you experience the game. In Fallout 3 though, my first playthrough as a combat heavy, dumb-as-bricks cannibal berserker (who obeyed the orders of anyone wearing a fancy suit) felt totally different than my second playthrough as a pragmatic and opportunistic scumbag with a fondness for laser weapons, even though I focused on the main quest and many of the same side quests with both characters.

Many games these days feature tacked on moral choice systems that more often than not feel like a hastily added gimmick, but Fallout 3 is one of the few games I’ve played where choice really feels like a part of the core gameplay. From the moment you’re born in game, you start making a series of choices that define who your character is– whereas in New Vegas, the choices are primarily about what sides you take, in Fallout 3 they’re about who your character is as a person. There’s never a moment where you feel, “this is the choice the designers want me to make.” The story of your character’s life is formed through the choices you make, which gives the player more of an authorial role than any other game I’ve played (to the extent that major towns can be completely wiped out). That’s true agency.