Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Empty World Syndrome

Recently I just played through Brutal Legend again, and it was a ton of fun, just like I remember it being when I originally played it in 2009. It's a really interesting game because the world is truly awesome. There are tons of cool monsters and locations strewn throughout the world, and the game has specific constructions that allow you to take advantage of these aesthetic pleasures. Ordinarily I hate that kind of emphasis creating a look, creating setpieces that neither serve the gameplay nor really further the story, but Brutal Legend is an epic world that really benefits from a variety of huge, cool setpieces.

Anyway, I beat the game I spent some time just kind of driving around the world, looking at all the cool stuff and visiting some of the areas I had liked while I was playing the game. I rode through some settlements, camps, and places where I'd stopped the bus during the campaign, and I began to notice something: this world was pretty empty. Whenever I'd beat a side mission, the units offering it would vanish, leaving an abandoned campfire behind. The settlements I'd worked hard to rescue from the clutches of vile monsters were empty of people. In spite of its beauty, this world felt sort of abandoned.

I am, of course, comparing it to the RPGs of my youth. In those games, cities were heavily populated, with dozens of locals discussing local landmarks, moving the story along, or offering gameplay advice disguised as banter. Perhaps this is somewhat unjustly offered. Brutal Legend does make some efforts to make the world feel occupied: the whole world is full of units constantly marching around "kicking ass", as they proudly proclaim, there are a few areas where you can interact with campaign characters after the fact, and a few units can be seen doing odd jobs.

But the automated units running around fighting creeps never feel quite like characters: they fight, often they die, and they're replaced by new units as though nothing happened, often while you're sitting there, watching. Seeing people live and struggle in their world is pretty cool, as is seeing aspects of gameplay happen without you--it makes the world feel more immersive.

But then again, it was strange to think that at the beginning of the game, when the humans are living as slaves under Doviculus, they can be seen having a party on the beach--a party that vanishes after you beat the associated secondary missions and never returns, even after the campaign is over. It seems incongruous and makes you question whether you actually improved anything.

However, the absence of civilians from the gameplay is something I've noticed in a couple games. The whole human population of Rapture seems totally absent--you meet a few people that are implied to be non-splicers, but they're always story focused, and their rarity is underscored by the fact that more than half of them show up as corpses and the fact that you have to murder a dozen people just to go to the bathroom. The idea that this place is still a functioning city in the throes of a civil war--and not a long-dead, mouldering ruin--is completely damaged by the overwhelming presence of enemies.

Borderlands basically didn't have anybody. The first town features one NPC and three corpses, but the doctor behaves like he's in a bustling small town. There's a jobs board that often features jobs written as though they're from people who live in the local community, but you almost never see them, or any indication that they might exist beyond a note and the promise of a handful of cash. This is another game where you're exterminating small civilizations the way most people might clean the garage. So any given hut could be a clown car full of axe-wielding bandits, but entire cities often consist of the one guy who coincidentally runs a planetwide chain of vending machines. Again, incongruous.

Bioshock Infinite, however, breaks the mold by featuring civilians. Actual, real civilians that you're not supposed to murder and who flee as soon as the gunfire starts. It really took big steps towards making BSI feel alive, although you can review elsewhere for its storytelling deficiencies outside of the recognition that videogame setpieces don't have to be abandoned sets.

So don't leave an empty world. To me, games feel more interesting and the world more engaging when they they're populated. If you want to build a static dollhouse, we had the tools to do that lying around our mud huts 4000 years ago. We didn't need to tame lightning and teach it to count. If you have an open world, it needs people to feel alive. All those wonderful things setpieces you create should serve a population that has a need for them, or at least an appreciation for them.

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