A Matter of Some Urgency

Oh open-world-games-with-narratives you wily sons of guns. So, I’ve been playing Oblivion on and off for the last week or so, more off than on lately, but I got back into it last night. The game kicks off with an exciting sequence in which you accompany the emperor in a desperate escape from the palace and end up, thanks to destiny and The One-ness and all that, responsible for the fate of the world. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.

Crucially, Oblivion and a million other narrative-based games place you at the centre of some serious shit, and time is running out. Well, you’d think it was from the urgency level people have got about everything. “Get the locket to the priory!” “Get the dude from over there to here! Quick!” “Now take the dude to over there!” Oblivion has had me shuttling around, all worried about the state of the world. Clearly, if I don’t get shit done, shit ain’t gonna get done. So I do it.

That raises an issue in an open world game. A big part of the pleasure of a game like Oblivion is the possibility of exploring, doing your own thing, becoming a roaming shepherd or a dastardly thief. Just existing, you know? Interactively speaking, play speaking, there’s more to the world than its impending doom. But how am I meant to get time off from saving the world to do all that stuff? It’s like Superman. Sure, he’d like to chill and watch TV or read the newspaper, but where’s the time?

Of course I jest, you can do whatever the hell you want in Oblivion because impending doom runs on your personal schedule. From a literal, technical perspective, the imminent destruction of the magical realm of Cyrodiil hangs around kicking cans until you actually take action to stop it. Then it springs alive… and gets stopped. By you. So there’s a technical sense in which you can go and drink beer until the cows come home and experiment with every little facet of life in that world without worrying.

But I do worry. Even though the gameworld is set up for me to play as I wish, I can’t help but be sensitive to the narrative, and particularly to the people who shovel it on top of me.  If everyone you meet is going on about what a disaster it all is and how they really need you to get stuff done that will prevent everyone from dying horrible deaths and the world being taken over by demons… well, it seems like it would be a little rude to say, “No, thanks… I mean, I’ll get to it soonish, but right now I’m really more interested in gathering secret herbs and spices… is that okay? Great! See you later!”

It’s not true of all these games, of course. Fallout 3 had a kind of “out”, I thought, in that it wasn’t clear to me that I even wanted to find my stupid father who ran out on me without an explanation. Jerk. Still, as that game escalates it does develop a similar urgency – better get the GECK ASAP unless you’re just being a dick about everyone getting clean water. Grand Theft Auto, maybe? That has more of a “man in the city” thing happening which perhaps suggests you don’t need to be so uptight about rushing through the key missions, though they, too, can tend to be emergencies that it would be improper to ignore. I hung up on Roman a few times when he was calling about getting the shit beaten out of him by thugs. Was that wrong? What it wrong that I spent a long time tooling around the galaxy when I should have been dealing with the Collector/Reaper threat in Mass Effect 2? Oops.

The whole thing leaves me in a vaguely unpleasant state of tension about what to do. I want to go exploring, sow my wild oats and so on, but I feel bad about being the jerk who can’t be assed saving the world promptly and without fuss. This is simply a feature of the admirable twin design goals of freedom for the player (be who you want, do what you want) and an exciting, riveting narrative for them to star in (save the world, and make it snappy).

As for me? Guess I’m doomed to be the asshole picking flowers while the demons spew out of a hellish portal in the background. La la la.

4 December 2010
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