Friday, February 03, 2012

Saint’s Row: The Third and The Open World Problem

Why does everyone seem to be talking about Saint’s Row: The Third lately? The series has labored for years in the shadow of similar Grand Theft Auto releases, and the latest incarnation hasn’t done much to change up the formula: an open world city, taking criminal quests from various characters, driving wildly and creating mayhem at will. But somehow the new edition has caught fire like none of its predecessors, leaving many critics with the sense that the franchise can now stand on its own two feet.

Saint’s Row: The Third has plenty of merits, for sure: the shooting mechanics feel as good as any open world game, the voice acting is solid and appropriately cast, the range of vehicle, clothing, and character design options are broad; in short, it’s a well-crafted title. But those features only let this game keep pace with Rockstar’s standards, they don’t set it apart. So why is everyone raving about “The Third” when it’s mechanically the same song and dance as always?

The answer lies in what I call “the open world problem”: the inherent conflict that arises from trying to place a defined narrative inside an undefined experience. When I piloted Niko Bellic (GTA4) and CJ (GTA3: San Andreas) through their respective stories, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. Those games allowed their main characters to act in, not just criminal, but monstrous ways if the player so desired. Intentionally crashing a car into oncoming traffic or tossing a grenade into a crowd of pedestrians are not only possible in GTA, they’re activities that most players engage in casually. I’m not complaining about that level of freedom, mind you—it is, after all, what makes open world environments so compelling—but a problem arises when the player is done with his grisly playground and walks the same avatar into a pre-made cut scene.

Suddenly, the dangerous sociopath is gone. The time our character spent treating his world with reckless abandon melts away in an instant, and we’re expected to view Niko, CJ, and the rest as not only rational, but downright sympathetic. The game asks us to completely compartmentalize its two worlds, treating the character on the street as a separate entity from the one who tells us his story.

Think of it this way: Imagine an open world Superman game where you get to fly around Metropolis taking on side quests and progressing through a main storyline (a likely scenario, as the genre has proven a natural fit for superhero characters). Now, if players of that game were given the same freedom that they’re offered in the GTA series, they’d be able to fry police cars with Superman’s heat vision, crash through buildings at will, and drop pedestrians from 10,000 feet in the air. In short, players would have the power to make Superman behave in un-Superman ways, and thus break the internal logic of both the character and his story.

Even for those who don’t get especially invested in their virtual worlds, that’s a tall order. The disconnect between a defined character and player-defined actions is so great, it’s no wonder that many open world games focus on criminals: only when we accept the protagonist as a “bad guy” can we ever hope to swallow the things he’s capable of. And that attempt to contextualize player freedom is exactly why I think “The Third” has garnered such praise: where GTA attempts to solve the open world problem with a realistic crime motif, Saint’s Row succeeds with a cartoonish one.

“The Third” dismisses realism entirely in favor of over-the-top action sequences and ridiculous characters, and chooses humor over emotional at every chance. Rather than fight the playground spirit of the open world, in other words, THQ embraced it, and in doing so created a more consistent overall experience. But that’s only one solution to the open world problem. The narrative troubles caused by GTA’s setup don’t hit me in roll-playing games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim. Bethesda balances the equation by building their stories around a singular main goal, like finding your father or slaying some dragons—tasks that could be accomplished just as easily by a good person or a bad one, a madman or a hero. But no matter the solution, any game that tries to manage both freedom and narrative has to reconcile them somehow.

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