Tokenism. You’re familiar, right? It’s generally used to talk about the superficial inclusion of a minority or marginalized group of people, often regarding the integration as perfunctory. It is the opposite of an ancillary melding.
It’s a concept that is beginning to run rampant in open world video game design, and for some reason, it can be blamed largely on Ubisoft. They have the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the Far Cry games, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and more. And that’s just from last year. (Assassin’s Creed actually squeezed in two of ’em in 2014.)
And what’s more is that they all seemingly abide by some template for interactive structure. To some extent that can’t be avoided—”open world” is a genre after all, and genres have staples for a reason—but some of it is reaching peak levels of absurdity.
Obligatory map discovery? Yep. Point-to-point interest activation? Absolutely. It’s starting to feel like a rubber stamp of game with just different characters: assassins, rebels, cars. Of course it’s not all bad. Certainly there is virtue to each of these implements of gameplay and design. Like curiosity propels discovery and vice versa. It’s nicely symbiotic like that.
It’s why those bits and pieces have remained and been refined over the course of many years and many games. But at some point you have to wonder where has the innovation gone. Or rather, where has the impetus for such inclusion gone? Why did we go from ancillary to perfunctory? From necessity to tokenism?
Dying Light came out this week. It’s also an open world game, but this one features a bunch of zombies and parkour. It’s a pretty fun game that improves on a lot of things from Techland’s previous first person undead outing Dead Island, though it also sadly removes the analog combat from its spiritual predecessor.
The thing is that there are many portions of Dying Light that still strongly abide the steps laid out by Ubisoft, and this is a Warner Bros. publication. (This isn’t entirely unprecedented for them, though, as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor aped large portions of Assassin’s Creed design.) You can, in fact, still climb towers.
This brings about an interesting notion that Ubisoft has unearthed and fully realized the whole body of open world clichés, and now when we see them trickle down to other open world games, we are reminded of their popular genesis. And then, of course, we are forced to analyze the merit of their inclusion.
It was a praiseworthy situation in Shadow of Mordor, where it had largely improved and successfully integrated those platitudes into some bigger and more interesting. It’s even arguable that their familiarity enhanced the overall experience by contrasting the impressive Nemesis system.
But then it was a source of derision for the Fury, a film that seemed to only want to complete a checklist of war movie clichés just for the sake of seeing a bunch of boxes get ticked off at the end of production. It was a series of token scenes, moving a tank from one place to its final place.
These staple components of genres can’t be tossed into a bucket and be assumed a success. They need to be laid into the foundation and built up into something grander. The reason needs to be there. A game like Miasmata is shaped around the idea of exploration and discovery, earning its foggy map and hidden locations. What benefit is there to doing so in Assassin’s Creed?
There really isn’t one, other than finding a reason for you to climb towers, which was the biggest draw of the original game and arguably still the biggest draw of the series. The designers needed a way to force you to utilize this sizable mechanical system, and the missions rarely forced you to sneak around like that. The solution was to hide the map and show it to you as you used the system.
Dying Light would have a more interesting validation for hiding or restricting terrain knowledge. With unknown and mindless threats, it’s much more engaging to hide layout and structure from you. The surprise of navigating over and under and around things like fences, buildings, and the like forces you to dive into things confidently and boldly, persuading you to play a certain style and engage in specific experiences.
It’s a subtle difference between the two outcomes. Either way, you are being pushed into doing something. One, however, has a careless result, like a detour shoving your route onto a congested highway. The other puts a brick on the gas and hands you the wheel. You can still get somewhere how you want and even hit the brakes, but it wants to propel you forward. The other way kind of yanks you around just because.
There’s nothing wrong with clichés so long as they have a reason, some validation for being there. Otherwise it’s just perfunctory, and nobody likes that.