When it comes to games we're often led to believe that more is always better making an FPS? Well if you want people to really enjoy it you'd better have five locales to visit instead of four, or thirty levels to play instead of twenty; but is it true that the larger the game's scope the better it is?
Setting aside the question of quality, and imagining for the moment that any games we hypothetically talk about will have a similar level of assured quality to one another, do we think that a game having more locations, more backdrops to fight across, more environments to wander through, necessarily leads to an overall better game?
I hesitate to put a real figure on the average number of locales or sections or chapter areas or regions or whatever the game wants to call them, since it really does depend a lot on the game and the genre.
If you take side-scrolling 2D shooters like Metal Slug or Contra for example, each new level has it's own richly designed and intricate backdrop (speaking at least of their 16-bit iterations), but we don't tend to think of the individual levels as 'sections', so much as we group all the levels with a similar visual theme together.
Bioshock Infinite on the other hand, has only one location really, (not including the Light House), which is Columbia, but within Columbia we can group sections of gameplay together because of their theme and the story elements. It's like Rapture in that regard, there's really only one locale or 'site of the action', but we can divide levels within that locale into sections.
Then there's big FPS shooters like Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 which often have very generic individual levels but a certain number of 'locations' you visit, around the world, and the levels can be grouped by these different themed area Modern Warfare 3 had a bit in Africa, a bit in Eastern Europe, and obviously there was the New York bit, aswell as a few others. I don't know all the locales in Battlefield 3, the singleplayer was so bad I almost poked myself in the eye with a fork - pretty sure it followed a similar model though!
What links them all though, despite the genre differences, is that rooms and locations are often disposable in most games especially more modern games, we move through them once, do what we have to, then move onto the next, usually with the last area being cut off somehow. The scope of most (at least AAA) games is usually very large, there's usually not much focus on a specific location, just a journey across locations.
But is that necessarily a good thing?
Can we imagine a game that is (subjectively speaking) near perfect with only say three locales to play through?
What about a game with only ten rooms to move around in?
Or one room?
Isn't it possible that AAA games have overlooked the obvious, something that was understood for years and done simply out of necessity and the limitations of the hardware at the time, but seems forgotten now: That it's just as possible to tell a story in a confined location as across a sprawling series of locations.
The thought struck me while playing through the GameCube remake of Resident Evil - the original Resident Evil was heavily limited in scope by both the limitations of the hardware of the day but also the financial and human resource limitations of Capcom as a company at the time they didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend or the talent to work on a game of immense scale, nor did they have the potential market to recoup those costs if they had spent it.
What resulted from this was a model that would form the foundation of Survival Horror games for at least a decade or so, where a game would have principally one location (a mansion, a colony in a jungle, a secret base, a police station, a small town) and then repeatedly explore sections of that location as the plot develops and the locations change.
But the remake was made without those same technological limitations limitations that even held back PS2 games in terms of what was possible; as was shown only a few years later with Resident Evil 4 the GameCube could handle a fast-paced action game, yet the Resident Evil remake still kept much of the limited scope that characterised the original Resident Evil's level and gameplay design.
Well in deciding to remake an older game the developer had bought into a model of game design that had generally been considered outdated (and still is) in AAA games. One that as I've already said favoured a much tighter scope, and largely a single location to explore the mansion. Yet even though we've generally been led to believe that games must be bigger and better to succeed and qualify as good games the REmake was good despite having largely that one location, and that smaller, more intimate scope.
A game is an experience afterall, and as potentially pretentious as that sounds it's true, and being stuck in one location, having to repeatedly travel back and forth in it, is a very different experience to moving quickly from one type of area to another and never looking back. As indie games have shown in recent years we don't necessarily want a game to be everything at once or to do twelve different things at a time, sometimes we like the focus a game has of only doing one thing.
Though the REmake is quite old now (about eleven years old) it still shows that a game being limited in scope doesn't necessarily make it bad.
Now don't get wrong I'm not arguing that this applies to every game, limited scope makes sense in some genres, in others not so much: In a Survival Horror game, where the emphasis is on frustrating, confusing and challenging the player, having them retread the same area repeatedly can really wind the player up (in a good way) and add to that sense of tension, that sense of 'omg, when can I get out of here?!'; on the other hand with a side-scrolling shooter or even a modern FPS having only one backdrop or level to run around repeatedly would likely kill the game, because the point of the game is fast, non-stop action, and a single backdrop would frustrate the player in a way those types of games aren't supposed to.
It makes sense in some types of games to have potentially limited scope, not so much in others.
And note that I'm not saying that developers should be lazier or try less or be less ambition, but rather that there's obsession with length and width in games, and it sometimes seems like we've forgotten that depth can also be really good in games. Rather than a game having a hundred levels why not have ten, then use the person-hours you would've used to make those 90 other levels to build up the ten you do have add random elements perhaps, make them feel more detailed, more cluttered.
There was a time when reusing areas and game assets was mandatory for shipping a game within cost and creating a playable experience that lasted long enough, and a lot of games, especially Survival Horror ones, took advantage of this limitation to make a unique sort of experience for the player. We don't really have that problem so much now, budgets have skyrocketed whilst the cost of making games has gone down and it's easier than ever for people to make games there are free engines and tools coming out of the wazoo that can let you create a game, not a AAA quality one, but a decent-enough one. Yet somehow we've forgotten that a game feeling small doesn't necessarily mean there isn't depth to it, and that a larger scope doesn't necessarily equal a better game, just a different type of experience.
One of the things I've realised as we moved out of the era of which Survival Horror was largely king arguably the PS2 era, and into one where the archetype of what is a 'game' has shifted more towards multiple locations and moving quickly from one area to the next and never returning, is that that early model of game design offered a completely different kind of experience to what we have now: that limited scope helped create the atmosphere and gameplay style that made those games have such an impact - the cramp corridors, the limited number of on-screen enemies at any one time, the frustrating control mechanics.
It's funny when you think about it really, because in a sense what helped shape those games and make them classics one of the fundamental elements that ended up guiding their design model, were the limitations of the hardware of the time; the very same thing that no doubt stifled the ambitions of the developers to a great degree.
Speaking more generally that contrast in game models is most evident in the difference between the feel of Survival Horror games and more recent Action Horror games. Survival Horror being the more old school type games Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Rule of Rose, Silent Hill 2; Action Horror being mostly games that came after Resident Evil 4 showed horror could be action-packed, games like Resident Evil 5 and 6 and also the Dead Space series being good examples.
Whereas Survival Horror was very much rooted in the limitations of the technology of the day, and therefore typically involved very cramp, repeatedly re-used locations sometimes pre-rendered backdrops that were very cluttered and had a lot of time spent on them, which aided that sense of frustration at not being able to escape; Action Horror focuses on much larger, more open areas, you're not meant to get frustrated or confused, and the locations, the areas, are meant to be pretty much sped through, most just being slightly dressed up long corridors.
If you've ever stopped at any point in Resident Evil 4 after clearing out all the enemies in an area you'll know what I mean the locations are literally mostly corridors and spaces with (the videogame equivalent of) painted backdrops to give you the sense you're in a certain kind of location. And this is true of almost every location in RE4, in-part because of the limitations of the hardware but also for cost reasons and there was also no real need to. If you do the same in Resident Evil Remake though you find that though the areas are cramped and the enemies limited in number the backdrops are very detailed, and you have to pass through these areas repeatedly, which gives the game a very different feel.
Now arguably neither of these games is a good example of how scope works in modern games (they're both quite old now) but they serve as good exemplars of how the bare mechanics at the heart of each model work for different aims: In the case of the REmake, we see the limited scope of a PS1 game remade with the technology of a console that could do a lot more than it evidently had to with the game, and the end result is a more detailed, deeper gameplay experience; with Resident Evil 4 what we see is a game trying to do the best it can with the hardware at it's disposal to create a fast-moving action experience, but because of the limitations of the hardware though we see the wizard behind the curtain (so to speak) a lot easier.
Neither is really 'good' or 'bad' in the overall sense, but rather they exemplify different game design models, models that offer completely different gameplay experiences, which is something the mainstream industry hasn't really adapted to properly yet (though arguably it's flourishing in the indie market). Games like Modern Warfare, Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, benefit from that quick move from one area to another model of design, it's work intensive but the end result is an experience a lot of people enjoy.
Survival Horror games on the other hand, I would argue largely benefit from limited scope, it sounds counter-intuitive when you think about it, that any game would benefit from having less, but depth to what you have is the point. Survival Horror is principally about doing a lot of the opposite of what games usually do making the player feel weak, frustrating them, making them uncomfortable or distressed, and limiting the scope of a game - forcing the player to retread the same areas over and over again can reinforce that sense of alienation that Survival Horror so strives for, if done right.
I do think though that potentially that limited scope approach to a game can have other potential uses outside of just Survival Horror, it's not just about reducing the workload or making games more cheaply but also about giving the player different gameplay experiences we don't want everything to be saving the world, shit blowing up everywhere experiences. Games aren't one homogeneous block of experience, we like variety, we like difference, and hopefully in time the mainstream industry will come to realise there are lots of different types of gameplay experiences they can give us.
Like with film or books or even theatre we don't want one single scale of story you can see plays, watch films or read books that are about vast wars that span continents, or ones that focus on the life of a city, or a town, or even just two people. Epic conflicts can be enacted between vast fantasy armies; couples can fall in love; a group of survivors can attempt to survive in an underground bomb shelter after an apocalypse; penguins can talk.
And while I'm not trying to argue any of those types of stories necessarily fit within a game, the potential range of scope as to what videogames can cover is much the same as any other creative medium, from the little the interpersonal, right upto the big the galactic wars, the fantasy conflicts, the political intrigue.
Personally for a long time now I've been interested in seeing games play around with limited scope more sure I'd love to see more games with the old Survival Horror model get made, but I'm also interested in seeing maybe a game where you're stuck in a house and you literally only have ten rooms to move around in, and somehow the developer does enough with only ten rooms (perhaps having them change everytime you visit or every so often) that it keeps the player engaged and entertained; or even a game where it's maybe you and another character stuck in a single room and the developer makes that entertaining.
I doubt either of those last two ideas will come to shake the very foundation of AAA gaming anytime soon indeed I'd expect if they did get made they'd be done by an indie developer, but the point is they'd be an interesting challenge to the idea that a bigger scope always equals a better game.
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