Over the last few weeks or so, the games that I have been playing mostly on my PC are Rage, Skyrim and The Witcher 2. All of these are excellent games. Each one offers a different play experience from a high level perspective, with their sales pitches being clearly defined. But if you go a little deeper, they are actually quite similar, very similar in fact.
A few months ago I also started playing Borderlands. I stopped for a number of reasons: the gameplay wasn't particularly great, and the shooting mechanics are unresponsive and offer very little in the way of feedback, making it a less than satisfying experience. This was an annoyance, but I have played through far worse games from a mechanics perspective, from beginning to end. The real kicker came in the way the game delivered content to the user.
Skyrim also carries this element, obviously. But it's able to mask it somewhat with its open, dynamic world. Presenting the user with a certain element of choice as to how they play... or so it seems. Rage is a beautiful game with excellent mechanics, which helps to cover for the way that play is structured. And The Witcher 2 has some of the best writing of any video game that has ever been made, and this delivery is elevated with addition of actual decision making which impacts the way the story progresses. This can help as it can make things a little less mundane. But there is no denying the fact: all of these games are designed the same.
Of course they play differently, but what I'm talking about is the Quest, the Job, Task, Mission. Or however it is being branded in the title. This is the system that MMO's are built on, most modern RPG's too. It's even making its way into more action oriented titles like Dead Space, and this doesn't seem like it will be letting up anytime soon. These Quests are packaged often as additional content. But it's essentially padding that actually adds nothing at all.
As a player, you will follow a Quest of some kind, whether it's to kill a target, obtain an item, or speak to a person. One of those jiggled to fit the current context, but it doesn't really add to how the game is played in most cases. It's bad design. And it's design that is being accepted (look at how well Borderlands and Borderlands 2 have been received).
In one of these Quests, you are using the exact same mechanics. In Skyrim, you can wander the world aimlessly or follow a Quest, and your interactive play experience will remain very much the same. It's adding nothing but time to your play. It was the same with The Witcher 2; I am playing this at the moment, but my shoulders sank a little when I found myself with Quests being dotted here or there. I knew the play experience wouldn't change if I decided to accept these, although the story might, but they were there giving a false sense of variation more than anything else.
Regardless of what Quest is being presented, it will play the same as the next Quest or the previous one. You will be using pretty much the same play style, and unless it has a real narrative impact, it just comes across as weak content which is packaged as depth. It's disappointing, and it's no way to progress design within games. But massively successful titles like GTA or The Elder Scrolls feed off this design. But now, I just feel completely turned off at the prospect of further adventure when I come across a dialog that hints towards one of these diversions.
So what can be done?
Most of these issues appear in sandbox or open world game types, which are certainly not going to go away anytime soon. They are likely to become more numerous as we have consoles packing more RAM which allow for larger scale games to be made, or at least larger scale environments, and at the moment, there only seems to be one way to fill these environments. But does this then mean that we should focus on linearity? This certainly isn't the way it should be dealt with either. Gaming is at its greatest when choice is part of the experience, this is an interactive medium after all, and choice is one of the best ways to represent your input.
Part of the issue I suspect, comes from the teaching and monetary importance of game loops. Game loops are when an action circles to instigate the same action but at a greater cost or gain. It's why people grind in games, why MMO's have Quests that reward experience. And why a lot of free to play games rely on monotonous cycles that are more psychological than they are fun. That isn't to say that loops should be dropped, but this level of focus on them is creating a certain kind of game. And this is only really about a single type of design loop.
Due to the monetary value, the simplistic design, reception and direction that games are heading, it's completely logical to assume that we are going to be performing Quests for a very long time to come. But I'm going to be naive and consider alternatives, and still desire change. And I have to believe that it can be possible because I really do not want every game experience that I have, to have the same game design. It would become pointless playing. I may as well just play Skyrim forever...
A Potential Route
When I was growing up, I loved to read Choose Your Own Adventure books. I cheated from time to time, skipping back if I ended up finding that the path through the forest ended up with me finding an arrow in my back, but the element of progress was why I would continue to read.
If you play/read these books straight, you find that you are constantly progressing. Every move you make works you closer to some end, whether that be good or bad. The story can be deep, and intriguing, and you can find items and equipment to help you on your way. But I don't have to retread the same path or find myself in the same area doing the same thing. I will fight a foe more than once, but it won't be a battle with set in a situation that I have had before. The risk and reward would be different.
Another platform delivers on this too, with it being one of the excellent elements in some board games. You have that sense of progress, with everything being purposeful. So why can't we expect this in video games?
With the new generation of hardware here, it's now time to really push forward. There is a lot of talk about more maturity in games, or more emotional connections being made. But if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again, then I struggle to see the point of addressing these elements. I think we have bigger design issues to tackle.
We should now be looking at AI that creates constant variables, and narratives that drive the player forward but do not remove choice or consequence, and not from a perspective of quality, but of design. Games needed to be made more intelligent, but in a way where there is a complexity behind the construction and how your actions affect the environment. What you have done before cannot be completed, or that Quest to fetch a book from that guy you'll never speak to otherwise, should seem far less important in comparison to the personal adventure of your character. But this should be a natural feeling, not one where you balance the rewards, but one where you see the importance of your impact on the play.
There will of course be a place for games with Quests; people do enjoy them after all. And there are a lot of genres that do not get impacted by these elements of design, like the more linear experiences. But if it's going to be worthwhile picking up console or upgrading a PC in this coming generation, then the games that can be played must ask more of the player than simply to go and fetch something.