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Relaxation: Escaping to Your World of Choice

When I'm not enjoying the adrenaline-pumping action of a multiplayer shooter with friends in person or online, I am a single-player gamer. I don't play multiplayer games without friends, and I play them for entirely different reasons than single-player games. I like teamwork, competition, and adrenaline - but that's not really where my passion is. My true identity as a gamer is rooted in pumping countless hundreds of hours into classics like Pokémon, Final Fantasy 7, Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, and The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion. The experiences with these games are how I really fell in love with games, and single-player games are what I turn to when I want to relax. Why else would I put so much time into them, if I didn't find them relaxing? But why do these games help me relax, and what makes certain games more or less relaxing than others?

I think that answer lies with escapism, specifically when it comes to your level of immersion within the world, and how much freedom you have within it. I think the connection between those favorite games' stories and worlds and their ability to provide escapism are clear. I would even be willing to bet that most gamers who appreciate single-player games the most would agree that escapism is possibly the most important aspect of gaming. It's art, sure, and many of these games even tell stories that touch on philosophical questions and legitimate social issues, but as entertainment there is one thing makes video games so special: as exercises for escaping reality and feeling like you are immersed in another world, they can't be surpassed.

I think a lot of that has to do with the nature of the world, how immersed you are, and the freedom to make your own choices within the game. But is that due to immersion in the world, or due to the gameplay? Is it the sights you see, or the choices you make? What is more escapist than jumping into an alternate reality? What is more escapist than having control? Seeing a world with its own story like it is with your own eyes? Or being able to choose what you want to do, having the power to make that happen, and believing that it will have impact? Or maybe, just maybe, it's both, and the outcome is one and the same. Certainly, the examples I gave have both of these aspects in spades. But perhaps it is the combination of both that leads to a truly escapist game experience? That's why I am going to try to show you why I think that the open-world game is absolutely the best way to game and relax.

So here I am, saying that I love games because I can use them to escape, and then I am providing you with examples that aren't even open-world games? Now, I should at least defend myself: while Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid aren't exactly open world games, in that they can still force you into decisions and gameplay, and don't have open worlds, I think they are great examples of early ways to have an open world. Their open-world elements are what made me love them, especially how they are presented. For example, in Final Fantasy 7 you spend the first hours confined in one oppressive mega-city, Midgar. You eventually escape, however, and when you do, you exit into an open-world that feels vast and wonderful in comparison. You know that moment in Fallout 3 and Oblivion when you come out of the underground and exit into the dazzling sunlight of a huge open world? That wouldn't have felt so amazing if you hadn't just been confined. To me, the original version of that moment happened in Final Fantasy 7.

Still, there are so many aspects to these games that lead to escapism that it is hard to quantify why the open world elements are---

FUCK. Fuck me. Fuck me sideways. I just realized how far I've gone into wordiness and critical conjecture... What am I doing? Here I am, trying to identify what games I use to relax, and I'm not even relaxing. This isn't relaxing at all. How can I convince anyone about the relaxing benefits of open-world games if I can't even relax about it? Let's think organically here... I don't want to force myself into any rigid argument, and I want to be doing what I feel like as I do it. Why don't I just apply what I think is great about open world games to my article? How about the open world article, so we can play it as it goes? Let's just relax, pop some games in, and we can see why the open world game is the best way to chill and escape the world (well, the second best...). Sorry it took so long to get here, readers.

So here I am... I want to relax, I feel like shit, and I have nothing to do because I can't find a job (the economy is oh so fucked right now). I want to play a game to get my mind off of it. Why bother getting out of bed? Let's turn on the Xbox and see what's in it.

Ah, Enslaved. You are nice. Enslaved is the game I am playing right now while I take a break from Deus Ex (I was still in Heng Sha and had unlocked almost every augmentation already, and burnt myself out as it got too intense). Honestly, the weirdest thing I can say about this game is that it feels a lot like one of the first games I got on my first system, the PlayStation 1: Spyro the Dragon. I don't know what it is: the colorful art direction, the beautiful stages, the music and tone? The platform style gaming? All I know is that there's some element of exploration and wonder here that is also very reminiscent. Spyro the Dragon was definitely a relaxing game, and when I think about it, its hub-based structure was pretty close to an open world back in those days. It really does feel right, but at the same time I feel a little bit limited. This game is actually a bit less free than Spyro was, forcing me to go down a linear path - it's more like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It's fun taking a lot of the teamwork-based gameplay, but without quite as much of the exploration.

Still, it also takes a lot of the forced enemy resistance and repetitious tactics crap that 3rd-person cover shooters have injected into the industry. These robots are just obstructing the fun aspect of exploration, and I find that a little bit frustrating. I'd rather be climbing up whatever buildings I would like to and experiencing the world freely than staring at a room to figure out how I can avoid waking up these obnoxious robots, when I know I can't. Enslaved is certainly a great game, but I really think it could have benefited from being even more different from the pack than it was. Now I'm riding Monkey's hovering cloud disc, and wondering why they didn't make it so I could whip this thing out all the time. Ninja Theory, please do gamers a favor and make an open-world Static Shock game. All this linear stress is reminding me that I be playing an open world game. So yeah, sometimes the game you are in the middle of playing isn't the game that'll help you relax, depending on the point you are at in it. Let's pop in a game on the back burner, but more specifically an open world one and one of my favorites.

Fallout: New Vegas is one kickass open-world game, and like Fallout 3, one of my favorite games. But I load up and... Hell, where am I? What mission am I on? I'm in a vault. I think. Oh, yeah, I'm surrounded by the Brotherhood of Steel. What am I supposed to be doing? Talking to their leader? Guess so. That's what my objective screen says, I think. But why? Why am I here? I kind of want to be exploring, or shooting something, yet I am where I am in the game and I feel obligated to stay in this grim, steel cage of a "town" and do some quest I don't care about. Not to say I wouldn't care at some point - but I'm not relaxing, I'm stressed.

Despite everything you can do in a game as big as Fallout: New Vegas, I often feel like I have no freedom at the spot where I am in the game: there's only one quest to do, a ton of NPC's I have to talk to, and I can't cause any mischief or the Brothers will blow my head off. There's nothing I feel like doing happening here. Not that I can't leave - but I need to get out of here, forget whatever plans I had in mind, and plan a course or objective. There isn't much worth seeing without making a plan first. That's because in Fallout, I don't enjoy just exploring so much as being a completionist. There's too much to do not to do it, but the world is too expansive, dark and inaccessible for me to just walk into the wasteland without an objective. Certainly I have the freedom to do so, but today, it's the opposite of relaxing. Let's choose another game.

In the interest of picking out another game that I am actually playing right now, I've gone with Red Dead Redemption. I was going to pop in Burnout Paradise, but in the interest of relaxation that would just be too much adrenaline - without an option to do much of anything that doesn't lead to white knuckles. I also might have chosen Grand Theft Auto 4 in the interest of objectivity, but the gritty tone and city sounds that I can already hear outside my window are not what I'm feeling for relaxin' time. And maybe Red Redemption can provide that same fix, without the noise. Right now, it feels so close to what I want.

The world is the essence of stark, natural beauty. I could ride my horse for quite a while before getting bored... and I do. But as I ride around, ignoring the obnoxious and repetitive encounter events that dot my path, I start noticing something. Sure, it's a desert, but it feels so... empty. It is a world of beauty, but can a world with so little to do feel immersive? Without interest in the HUD letter marking an on-rails quest, I'm the man on a horse without a cause. What's the point in that? I want the freedom to figure out what I want to do without it being spoon fed to me. Despite all of the game's strengths, the world of Red Dead Redemption demonstrates that immersion can be withheld when it is missing the depth of interaction.

Eject. So is this what it's going to be? Is my attempt to relax going to be anything but? Am I going to work myself up simply trying to find a game that truly lets me escape? It can't be! Am I just going to prove that I can't find games immersive anymore? Am I, *gasp*, growing out of games writing this dastardly article? Definitely not.

And here I am, saved by the other of Bethesda's behemoth open-world games. What's different between Fallout: New Vegas and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, you ask? Are you kidding? Certainly, you are more likely to run into something fun and interesting to do, no matter where you are in the fully realized and immersive world of an Elder Scrolls game, and you are more likely to have a choice between multiple courses of action and types of activities no matter what's close to you on the map, but it's not that. It's something else. Maybe it's not just feeling perfectly immersed in the world; it's the way it feels to be perfectly immersed in the world. Tone is everything, when you are trying to relax.

And it's feeling good. Oblivion just feels perfect... maybe, when it comes down to it, it's just a guttural emotional response, a vibe that feels so euphoric and right that you can't help but escape? After all this argument, perhaps all I have been getting down to is just as subjective as that, and any arguments I make are just as foolish as telling someone what game to like, or what game is better. But what else is any enthusiast of an art-form going to do, other than just describe how something makes them feel in the best words they can? Sure, I could go on and provide the various descriptions of the merits of a game that fits how I want to play, weighing them against the others... but then I would just be doing the same thing, but calling it a game review. And you've already read those. This is the game for me, and I think I'm going to go relax for a while.
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About blehblahone of us since 1:17 AM on 10.01.2010

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