I’m what you would call a videogame creationist. I believe that videogames, like many other forms of media, are best when they are under the direction of a creator. Not always a single creator, mind you (though I do believe too many cooks spoil the broth). But at the very least, a firm guiding hand with an overarching artistic vision that provides a framework for what a game will be.
In that sense, roguelikes rarely appeal to me. I like the added challenge of not being able to memorize a track or floorplan, relying on spontaneity and quick response skills alone. But in general, I think environmental design suffers when an element of randomness is added, as even a single placed item can tell a story. In a roguelike, the player already knows that much of the environment will bear no direct influence on the story itself, and thus, they know that they can ignore it. This cheapens the game itself, reducing it to mere set dressing for its mechanics. Efficient game design has given way to impersonal game design, depriving it of meaning. Games are so much more than their mechanics.
A timely example of this is ARK: Survival Evolved, the Early Access game which is expected to release officially this year. Set on a mysterious island filled with dinosaurs and ancient beasts, players begin the game naked and defenseless, spawning at a random point somewhere in the wilderness. As they level up, they gain the tools and tech needed to craft items of increasing sophistication, risking their lives to dangerously trek across the land in pursuit of obscure resources. Players can team up with others, build bases, tame animals, and indulge in other survival based elements for the good of their tribe, culminating in a combined cooperative strength that takes them through the game’s many bosses, and its end-game reveal.
Throughout the game’s long development cycle, it has been subject to monthly content updates, adding new tools and animals and dinosaurs on a regular basis and giving the players a look at the refinement process by making them an active part of it. And for its premise, I like ARK.
But the game is only built for mischief. Studio Wildcard have done a lot to give players freedom in gameplay, but stop short of providing the proper tools to ensure a conflict-free experience. The developers have stated a commitment to cooperation and collaboration between their players: “Regarding overall philosophy, we do intend to try to foster more cooperation than some other survival genre titles, both from a design and a community interaction standpoints,” they’ve said.
But the problem is, they haven’t designed for it. They cite the game’s “RPG elements” (statistical loot drops, raids, and bosses), local play support and player hosted servers as features that facilitate a more cooperation-oriented community. But with the addition of certain items like human restraints, cages and cannibalism, they seem to be encouraging the opposite. The official FAQ even gives directions on how to enslave other players. It feels a bit like a parent tossing a pair of handcuffs and a set of hog ties to their eldest child and saying, here, go play nice with your siblings. The greater community has a set of rules that cover various forms of griefing but never directly address the hostility facilitated by the game’s permissive mechanics. The pervasive lack of technological boundaries has created a lawless environment on top of a drifting, unfocused and sometimes nebulous experience.
In turn, the game, with few consequences for anti-social player behavior, is reduced to a prehistoric playground. Currently there is no story mode, and thus single-player is a boring, frustrating affair. In multiplayer, there are few ways to survive without banding into tribes, most of whom inevitably war with one another over land and resources. While there are bosses scattered throughout the ARK and players can take them down to earn special artifacts for special crafting purposes, there are few, if any, guiding design features that inform or lead them to it, forcing the player to rely on word of mouth or put laborious hours into the game before figuring it out themselves.
It doesn’t surprise me, then, that the developers embrace so-called “emergent gameplay” (a “make it up as you go” approach to development that in this case relies heavily on player feedback and content suggestions) and profess to lack a master design document, because the game itself lacks purpose. And in the absence of that purpose or any motivating factors that bring the players together in a cohesive goal, they come up with ways to amuse themselves. ARK is a game which asks the players to find their own objectives and meaning in a virtual environment not designed to facilitate meaning. It was inevitable that the community would bend towards chaos.
Videogames are often a self-insert power fantasy, so it makes sense that, in their rejection of social norms and even reality itself, “sandbox” titles would hold enormous appeal. Indeed, mischievousness is generally the draw of open world games: they allow the player a sense of freedom that defies the restraints of the past. But now that the technological novelty of open world games has worn off, what are we left with? A showcase of the medium’s evolution devoid of any greater purpose. It’s not so much a game as it is “a pretty place to fuck around in for awhile.” It is said that narrative is the enemy of game mechanics, and yet mechanics combined with atmosphere alone are not enough to imbue purpose. As in real life, the boredom sets in very quickly.
Which isn’t to say that an open world game necessarily demands a narrative in order to be effective or enjoyable. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, for example, excels without a story mode. But its premise is not only strong enough to provide enough tension and motivation for the player: it also has a time limit. The ticking clock factor of its Battle Royale, last-man-standing structure is effective in completely eliminating the game’s need for story-based objectives.
ARK: Survival Evolved is nearing the end of Early Access, but content updates are planned post-release, so much of this could change. But their stated plans for the future, including procedural generation of ARK maps, do not bode well in terms of substance. At its heart, ARK seems to be a game almost deliberately designed to make the player do most of the work for the developers, from suggesting, creating, and testing the content (a privilege the audience is asked to pay for), to forming goals and objectives.
It’s not enough anymore for open world games to merely celebrate the freedom afforded by procedural generation and cloud computing, to offer a “sandbox” for us to play in. We have the tools now to give our expansive, fictional worlds a purpose. Let’s use them.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.